Readers Write In #362: Women, a memoir

Posted on May 14, 2021


(by G Waugh)

“She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there, leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together”

                                                                                                                                    -J.D. Salinger

I am a male and I am 32 years old. My earliest memories of my association with women date back to the earliest phases of my boyhood- the age when I must have been four or five. Needless to say, the first woman I had to deal with in my life was none other than my mother. She was not someone whom I adored unconditionally because she was a very practical person in her ways of rearing and managing me- she rarely showered me with kisses or called me with pet names and after a point I began to get an impression that she had actually yearned for a girl child probably and since that did not happen, she had decided to remain ‘cold’ towards me. But ‘cold’ is not a word that does justice to her manner as she was in fact very far from it. Just because my father petted me like a ‘kitten’ (since I was the only child for my parents), I probably had expected the same from her and had hence considered her ‘cold’ and ‘ungracious’ for having disappointed me. But the first thing I remember about my mother was nothing but her soft skin which was completely different from that of my father and that was one factor which instinctively drew me to her. I had always made it a point to ensure that my mother always lay beside me during every single night before sleeping and as a father of a three year old kid today, I can understand the frustration my father must have harboured towards me then, even if he had succeeded in concealing it to a great extent.

And that ‘fascination’ towards female soft skin continued well into my pre-teenage. Girls in my class repelled me in that age for multiple reasons, but sometimes their mere act of ‘touching’ me would soften all my hate towards them and I would soon be ready to slave myself for them. Being a class-topper right from the beginning of my education, I was naturally preferred by my teachers to shoulder the duties of the ‘class-representative’ in every standard in my primary school. And there was always a need for a girl-representative too as a result of which the usual second-ranker in the class was appointed to assist or accompany me. The first girl with whom I had to share my class-monitoring duties was a Muslim girl named Balkees and at that age, her name which sounded so different from other Divyas and Priyas did not fail to strike me. She was in fact not so beautiful and having partnered her right from my first standard in school, I could say for sure that she was not even a cheerful talker. But we both had to stand side by side in the absence of the teacher and by the time I reached third standard or so, for reasons completely oblivious to me till now, I was actually enjoying her company and began secretly wishing for more teacher-absences. This was also the time, when Rajni’s Basha had released in the theatres and I remember very well how much I was attracted to the female lead played by Nagma. Even if Meena was the ruling female actress at that time, I was gravitating towards Nagma for one big reason- her fair skin-color, which was in complete contrast to that of mine. And in 1995, even when I was not more than seven years old, an age where I did not have the eye to appreciate female sexuality sufficiently, I am surprised today to recount that I had a “thing” for the exposed bellies of heroines, an obsession that must have been planted in my psyche by Tamil film-makers who worshipped female midriffs and navels despite their hero’s obsessions with Tamil culture and the preservation of the all-too important female ‘modesty’.

But despite all these ‘secret’ obsessions with women and their physical features, my relationship with my female classmates as time passed, was far from growing warm. I hated girls for a lot of reasons- they were far more ‘teacher-friendly’ than us boys, they appeared too squeamish on account of their delicate habits and finally, there was another deeply personal reason- my dark skin. I was the darkest person in the whole of my class and I could see no reason why beautiful girls of my age should prefer my company. But if there was one area where skin color was of no value, it was cinema and stars like Rajnikanth. Vijaykanth and Murali were ready to rescue me whenever I plunged into the depths of my inferiority complex.

When I crossed the age of ten, I could sense that my coldness towards women was thawing a bit and this was the time I was invited by my teachers to act in plays staged for the Annual Days in school. I was proficient in English right from my early schooling and this was one big factor that played a role in teachers picking me for ‘parts’ usually reserved for  my ‘fairer’ schoolmates. The first instance when I was attracted to a woman must have happened during one of the rehearsal days for an English play written by Bertolt Brecht. Her name was Neerajakshi and she must have been two ‘classes’ elder to me. She was no doubt a fair-colored Brahmin girl who wore a ‘red’ bindi and a ready smile for everyone. I liked talking to her a lot and I tried to do that as much as possible even if both of us did not have any common scenes in the play. But if you think she was my ‘crush’ whom I would have wanted to get romantically linked with, you are wrong. That was an age where the fact that I was a single, lonely child without any siblings to play with, had sunk in me and without knowing myself, I now realise that I had started hunting for friends who could double up as my siblings too. And whenever I saw Neerajakshi, I used to get reminded of that one ‘insufficiency’ in my life. But when I think about my fascination with her today, I cannot wholly divest it of what is usually called ‘physical attraction to the opposite sex’. If my attraction towards her as I assumed initially was purely ‘brotherly’ and completely non-physical, why did I have to choose a girl of such striking beauty and unmatched grace to satisfy my so-called ‘fraternal’ impulses?

kuthirai vaal

When I moved into my teens, the exact age where I was beginning to understand my ‘thawing’ with women a little more, some memorable events started happening in my life. I had moved to another school and this new class had a lot of beautiful looking girls who to my surprise and luck, were actually waiting to share their sitting benches with me. Yes, since I used to be the class topper wherever I went, regardless of my dark skin and shabby glasses, most of the girls preferred to sit beside me during class tests and exams with a view to taking a ‘leaf’ out of my answer sheet. And what great company I offered them! There was a Christian girl named Melinda (name changed) who used to laugh at whatever I told her and since our school wanted our batch to break their previous examination records for the Standard X board exams, we used to have class tests almost every week. And every Friday for reasons I don’t exactly remember, we were allowed to wear civil outfits instead of uniforms, and Melinda was growing prettier with every passing Friday in my eyes. Her liking towards my jokes, her sweet face and beautifully pimpled cheeks and obviously her fair skin- every single thing that I liked in her, somehow had blinded me to one big, obvious ‘handicap’ of her that other friends of mine kept reminding me about- her complete lack of female breasts. She was too ‘flat-chested’ in the opinion of my friends and this was one thing that kept my pursuit of her, completely free of ‘competitors’. However, her flat-chestedness did not bother me one bit and whenever I used to think about her then, all I was getting in return were feelings of warmth and innocent pleasure alone.

Only after I finished Class X and moved to another school, my feelings for women were rapidly maturing into the final phase and as boys in a co-ed school, our reputations were to an extent dependent on how well we judged the physical aspects of the opposite gender. Only from this age I began to understand that all men were naturally attracted to women with big breasts and that was precisely why item-songs in movies featured women who were ready to flaunt themselves the way they did. Needless to say, Melinda with whom I lost touch with long back was no longer a pleasurable memory.

But the school I had joined newly was different in every single way from the one I had studied before, and here, talking with girl- classmates was considered ‘heresy’ in every sense of the term by the management. But curiously, this was also the time where my relationship with my mother changed for the better where I was surprised to find that she had long ago jettisoned her ‘authoritarian’ facade that had been controlling and keeping me on a tight leash, all these years. She was actually growing more vocal with me, about herself, her difficult past and sometimes her strained relations with my father.

When I finished my schooling and joined college, all her pretensions to strictness and authority had vanished and for the first time in my life, my long-held assumption that she hated me instinctively during my childhood was starting to look completely hollow and baseless. She was talking with me on equal terms and sometimes even ready to accept my superiority, trusting the new intelligence of her now grown-up son on worldly affairs. But she was not all the time, the friendly person she suddenly had morphed into, as she retained many of her ‘dominating’ qualities when it came to dealing with neighbours and managing the affairs of our apartment complex. She had a strong sense of initiative and ownership despite being a woman with virtually no schooling and formal education and soon this kind of confidence was turning‘contagious’ to all the people with whom she dealt with.

My four years in college were a complete wash-out in terms of my dealing with women. My college had succeeded in planting inside each one of us, a complete alienation with the opposite sex by imposing and successfully implementing a complete ban on all kinds of ‘boy-girl’ conversations. For most boys who belonged to our batch, women were either mysteries or strange creatures that demanded great skill on the part of those who dealt with them and this kind of ‘conditioning’ that happened on the side of the so-called ‘stronger sex’ drove even open-minded women away from us. Whenever one or two boys from our side were trying to be friendly with those on the opposite camp, he was instantly chastised for his behavior and scorned permanently. Women on the other hand who were trying to be friendly were branded as ‘whores’ and boys who were on good terms with them ran the risk of being ostracized forever. At the end of our graduation, our college management ensured that we were all led into the Promised Land finally- the great Information Technology highway where opportunities for progress and economic advancement beckoned us and our Campus Placement Cell drew great pride for having successfully ‘settled’ every one of us.

The initial years in my first company broke every assumption I had about women- they were certainly not beasts or aliens who could not be understood at all and to my great relief, none of them gave a damn about my dark skin or my conservative upbringing. Those who were friendly to all men were not ‘whores’ or ‘easy’ types and those who dressed in Western formals had more Indian-ness in them than was actually supposed. These were all pleasant surprises to me and I still remember the first time a girl colleague of mine shared her seat with me in the office bus. All these years, being a frequenter of MTC buses I was used to incidents where women did not want to share seats with men other than their immediate relatives and I remember a lot of times when my mother had asked me to swap places with her whenever a stranger was trying to occupy the backseat beside her. In my office, it was surprising to me that you could choose to sit near your male colleague and continue your relationship with him on friendly terms as before, without attaching any additional, unnecessary significance to your gesture. And these acts of boldness and confidence were enhanced by the way women carried themselves in official meetings where their skills at articulation especially in the official language, were in my opinion always better than their male counterparts. But this was also the time when Tamil cinema started growing regressive by the day with female leads often asked to discharge the duties belonging to the ‘item-girl’ domain as well.

But my perspective on women refined and matured only in this phase, in fact for the better and for posterity too. I had managed to befriend a good number of women during this time and strangely many of them had no inhibitions when it came to sharing their personal issues with me. One reason why I soon turned into some kind of a counselor for them was because I was a good listener and another was the fact that woman-man friendships had something in them to be truer and more enduring than those involving the same gender. This was also the time I was getting to know about sexual harassment at workplace and public places as well faced by my women friends, something that I had witnessed only on the television or on the movies before.

I am reminded of a not-so-easily-forgettable incident where a friend of mine, who was a lecturer at a private college was visited by the family of a groom. According to my friend, the groom was from a very good background, had an impressive college degree and was working for the Central government in a very important department. His parents too were very respectful during their meeting and there was virtually no reason for her to refuse the proposal. But she did dare to reject it and I was very surprised at her decision. She cited only one factor for that and that sounded very outrageous to me- the groom was according to her, not able to for one good instant, even look into her eyes and speak with her and whenever she called him by his name, he kept blushing like a ‘woman’! The time had come for me to give the lecturer a good lecture on how today’s so-called modern educational institutions were actually feudal in every sense of the word and how men were being prohibited from communicating with the other sex freely and casually. These institutions with the backing of a multitude of parents promise great futures for their students only with a condition that they remain immune to the temptations of their age. With soaring career ambitions being propagated as the only way to lead a respectful life, a good number of boys are willing to ‘anaesthetize’ their primal impulses for the time being and pursue their career ambitions with a single-minded purpose. But once their mission is accomplished and the chains of discipline are removed, they are immediately expected to take a plunge into the marriage ‘market’. A creature that was forbidden to think about and deal with all these years has to be befriended suddenly and factored into the calculations for the future. In such a strange scenario, there are men who are completely clueless as to how to approach women all of a sudden as a result of which they fret and fumble like how illiterate people stand confounded in front of a rumbling ATM machine for the first time. I had to tell my lecturer-friend that a man’s inability to look into the eyes of a woman or his ignorance in what was called ‘chivalry’ in the Victorian age is no measure of his character and judgement. In fact I know a lot of men who used to blush sweetly at the mention of their loved one’s name in their days of bachelorhood and who have managed to lead enviable lives as husbands, fathers and son-in laws post their marriages.

Within a few years I got married to a beautiful woman and I couldn’t but help asking her how was she ready to marry someone as dark-skinned as me. Her answer in fact had a very ‘sound’ logic that the first groom who visited her was too fair-skinned for her and she did not want to get entangled into a color-superiority battle with him for the rest of her life. I was the second person who visited her and for obvious reasons, I was an easy choice. Whatever one may think about the equations that determined this match, it was after all, not a bad deal for the actual persons involved in it. There was of course a time when I had dreamt about finding a girl who could share my wavelength on a lot of my ideas about life, something akin to what I had seen in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. But Linklater’s film started looking too idealistic after I was introduced into the Woody Allen brand of cinema. And if you could have seen his Purple Rose of Cairo, you will understand why it is not right to dream too much about your life and relationships. Nothing may turn out as what it initially appeared to be. Last week, I stumbled across a profile on Instagram and found the name ‘Melinda Balakumar, Paris,32’ on it. I scrolled through her profile and was shocked by what I saw. An image of a woman smiling triumphantly with a girl kid sitting on her shoulders in the backdrop of the great, alluring Eiffel Tower. Her husband probably was someone who had a job in Paris or an average student like her who used to copy from my answers had herself worked her way up in her career to reach the heights of living in one of the world’s greatest holiday destinations. But these were not the factors that were actually responsible for my shock. It was something that was trivial, but not actually trivial- the T-shirt she was wearing in the photograph was in fact unable to hold what they contained- a spell-binding pair of copious breasts that were squeezing the ‘I love NDI’ portion to the front condemning the letters I and A to the invisible margins!