In India, you learn where to wear what, all the written and, more often, unwritten rules with regard to clothing. Provocative or not. Sexy or not. Sanskaari or not. Sometimes our women chief ministers tell us, “Oh well, she was in a short dress out at night. She called the rape on herself.” And at other times, well meaning friends will say, “Why would you wear a short skirt and walk into a design workshop where male craftspeople work?” “Don’t wear your shorts, my in-laws are home.” If you ever go to a temple, you know never to show skin. But if you are going to meet a man you want to attract, some skin is allowed. If you drive a car, you can wear your hot pants. In a poor neighbourhood, don’t forget to cover up. Whether it is said out loud or not, what we are told as women is, “Better to be safe than sorry and you are your body.”
So when I was going to Kerala, I knew I shouldn’t pack my sleeveless clothes even though it is always hot, I should pull out all my salwar kameezes and none of my sexy blouses can be worn. I also take public transport and want to feel safe, so modest clothes is key.
From years of travelling in Kerala and around India, I have also learned not to be too chatty with strangers, not to talk to random men and to self censor even if I have a quick witty come back. Never take compliments from random men. Am friendly and curious but I don’t want to come across as flirty.
There is a whole unwritten code about who you can befriend. I find myself claming up in Kerala, one, people ask personal questions and when you open up, they usually want your phone numbers or want to be Facebook friends and I don’t know how to say no. I am over cautious and generally try to look into a book when on inter-city trains or when I am taking a cab alone.
But this time I was meeting friends and we were on a houseboat for a friend’s wedding and being a Malayalam speaking person, I did a lot of talking and the folks on the house boat were super friendly. While there, I realised I had left my bag of accessories and jewellery at my aunt’s place and decided to accessorise using flowers and had to ask the staff for help.
“Chetta, I want a flower to go with my skirt.”
“Yes, I have seen a flower just the colour of your skirt, hold on. Let me get it for you.”
In some time he was back with a flower.
“Do you by any chance have a hair clip?”
Another guy, “Gimme a minute. Let me get you one.”
“Ayyo! This is so big, it is going to stick out of my hair.”
“Variety clip-aaa. A traveller from Malaysia left it here. Try it. Try it.”
After all that egging, I clipped the rose right behind my ear. The men said, “Let’s see?”
I turned around to show them. In hindsight, I am surprised I did that. In the unwritten code, as a woman, you don’t ever sashay in front of random men.
“Look I told you the clip wouldn’t show.”
“It isn’t showing, alley?”
“Illa. Illa. It is looking nice.”
I smiled, thanked them and moved to the wedding party, happy to be a human and without the fear of being just a body.