During my college days, in the late nineties in Calicut, I have come across this term multiple times in more flowery language. Vedi, charak, cheez, randee,whore, slut, pro. Mentioning this is considered the ultimate mic drop.The terminal insult beyond which none exists. The moment this is mentioned, is the moment of victory, because no woman in her right mind will dare respond to this. And all through my growing up years, I have been counselled about this. How to talk softly, how to walk slowly, how to laugh in hushed tones, how to sit with ones legs pushed close together. In short , how not to behave like a guy. Ooops! Not a guy.How not to behave like a prostitute.
When I first came to Calicut, I had come smartly dressed in a denim pinafore and white polo neck full sleeve Tshirt with oxidised earrings dangling from each ear. From where I grew up, in this get-up, nobody would give me a second glance. Here, at the principal’s office , while filling in the forms itself , there was a small crowd milling around me, pretending to be busy, but quite openly staring. Two weeks later when classes started and I actually joined college, I had wisened up. Only frumpy salwar kameezs’ were packed in my suitcase. No frocks, no skirts. I had oiled my hair well and plaited it as modestly as possible. Do in Rome as the Roman’s do, I reminded myself. The dupatta had to be folded in pleats and pinned severely on both sides firmly with a safety pin lest it give a hint of what’s underneath. “It’s our lajjavastra”, explained my roommate with a guffaw. Lajjavastra in Hindi, is translated as the article of clothing to cover your shame. After lecture classes came practicals and soon the lajjavastra had to be worn like a python wrap around one’s neck, with the white coat over it. “Simply pinning it won’t do”, she explained . “Cause’ if you bend to peer into the microscope ( the black , monocular ones which needed natural light for reflection), there is a good chance of some lajja escaping.” It was suffocating and it felt really hot to stuff it around your bosom in the summers, but there was no other go. This was the price you paid for saving your lajja.
On Fridays, we used to step out to town, some 10 of us girls , all dressed smartly , like how normal college kids would go for a movie. We were walking towards the bus stop in staggered groups of two and three. A stray man suddenly jumps in my path. This is mid-afternoon , at the busiest point in the campus. He comes close, his nose just an inch away and looks straight down at my chest. He utters some profanity which I thankfully don’t understand. I too look down alarmed, at my T-shirt wondering what was on it. Next second, my friend was dragging me away by the elbow. I remember crying in the bus afterwards.
Another thing I learnt the hard way was that T-shirts with captions on it is a bad idea.
This I realized to my discomfort, when I wore a T-shirt with Thanda thanda pani scrawled on it. (Remember that pop song by Remo Fernandes?) A man in the bus kept peering at it, pretending to try and read it aloud with gestures to go with it much to the amusement of the male co-passengers. I angrily retorted back , but that only made him more excited. The lady sitting next to me admonished me for responding to him in the first place. “These are unsavoury characters, stay clear of them”. Her spontaneous advice session ended on the note of, “Next time, dress more carefully, ok? ”
Once while going out to the public library in town, I tried out a red colour lipstick. It was
going well with my red bandhini work dupatta and it made me really happy to dab it on. Not exactly a khoon-choosi red. A dull cherry red. It was a gift from my cousin. I had barely reached the hostel lobby, when one of my batchmates, stopped me.
“Where are you going ?”
“Town. To the public library”
“Are you crazy to go with that red lipstick?”
“Why, is it that obvious? I thought it was a subtle shade.”
“Look here, in Calicut only prostitutes wear red lipstick.”
Of course, that was a bit too much to digest. I quickly washed it off and returned to the lobby.
“Now it’s gone”, she said inspecting my lips carefully. I thanked her for warning me about the social repercussions of walking around in red lipstick and returned back to my room. I somehow didn’t feel like going out anymore. The library books could wait another day. Seeing my woebegone face, my roommate asked me what happened. I told her and she agreed that our batchmate had a point. It was better to be safe than sorry.
“Moreover, do you know what lipstick is made up of?”
“No”, I said.
She leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Monkey’s blood”
“You gotta be kidding “, I said rubbing my lips.
“Of course I am”, she said, bursting into laughter.
Another occasion was when my mother was coming to visit and I was going to receive her with my friend in the town bus. I was excitedly talking about all the places I planned to take Mum over the weekend, when my hand got stuck in the jagged edge of a steel window rod. I yelled out “Ouch!”. Everyone in the bus turned around and glared at me. One of our senior batch girls sitting behind us in the bus, told me to speak softly and avoid saying words like ‘Ouch’ which sounded sexy. Apparently, again only prostitutes spoke loudly in public spaces to attract attention to themselves. It was as if someone had done a randomised controlled trial on behavioural characteristics of prostitutes.
With time, I became more Roman than the Romans themselves. I barely looked like the smartly dressed teenager I was when I first came to Calicut. The focus was to be as inconspicuous as possible, to merge and if possible dissolve into the surroundings. Like that Old World Lizard. The garden chameleon with protruding eyes that rotated independently to spot every potential voyeur and a highly developed neurosensory ability to blend into the background. I had learnt my lesson. Do nothing to trigger the ultimate insult. Do nothing to tempt the caveman hidden in every Malayali man. No sudden movements. The same logic one applies while dealing with wild animals.
For the occasional long weekend I used to catch the overnight bus and escape to my aunt’s house- a sprawling bungalow in the heart of Bangalore city. The big attraction was piping hot food , a nice western toilet with no worries about anyone waiting in queue outside and a big,soft bed I could sink into all by myself. One afternoon ,my aunt
had some visitors. A couple with a restless ten year old kid . In no time, I found myself
sitting with an uninterested kid in the verandah. I’m not too great with kids so I smile at her, and get her some paper and pencils, thinking I’ll make her draw something to occupy her so I can avoid kiddie conversation and continue reading my paperback in peace. She peers curiously at my dupatta secured carefully to both sides with safety pins.
“Are you a teacher?”
” No”, I say, ” I’m a medical student”.
She isn’t convinced. She gives me a once-over and asks again,
“Then why are you dressed like a teacher?”.
I wallow in self pity for a while to the depths I have descended. I had hit new lows in my own personal sense of fashion . I swear to never, ever use those safety pins on my
dupatta again. I restock my wardrobe with glitzy net dupattas and well-fitting salwar
kameezs.They could ogle till the cows came home. This is the way I wanted to be-beautiful and bindaas.
A shout out to all those women who feel sad about being awarded by this epithet. Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one. Except for a few fiercely protected birds in golden cages, every little bird who has tried to fly has heard this word. Don’t let a single word clip your wings, sister.