What has become the most common image of Bombay women? It’s not the doughty Koli lady; nor that cynical but poetic whore recast as the elusively childlike bar dancer, nor that famed service-woman in starched sari and gajra, chopping dinner vegetables on the local train.
The image we see most often is that of The Girl Without A Face.
We’ve been seeing her for a while. First it was images of bar dancers after a raid, a row of bodies in diaphanous, sparkly lehengas with covered faces. Lately it’s been girls at parties or ‘raves’ which the police raid. The only image we see of these raids, their symbol almost is the row of half-clad female bodies with two hands over their faces. An image of shame; maybe of penitence.
Of course these images make us angry — at this curtailment of people’s freedom on the basis of the most prejudiced, patriarchal, moral policing. So what happened to The Most Friendly City for Women we ask indignantly?
Time was, when only impoverished working-class women who were compelled to squat by the train tracks to defecate did that. The only way to cover this humiliation brought upon them by poverty was to cover their faces as the trains went by, packed with people, many of whom might have the good fortune of at least a shared toilet, looking down at them.
But these aren’t poor women, the women from the parties.
Never before have we seen so many girls dressed for freedom, in their confidently sexy dresses and f***-me shoes. But the purdah of their covered faces makes me wonder about the freedom. And the uniform.
Once upon a time the now de rigeur strappy mini dresses and high-heels meant you belonged to one of the permissive upper-classes — or maybe you were a hippie type.
Either way, it meant you either didn’t or could afford not to, care about rules and propriety. It meant that you lived, as one girl from a slum once told me, in a ‘posh neighbourhood’, where people were not narrow- minded and did not judge a girl by her un-cover.
Today it’s a uniform thousands of Bombay girls emulate to signal their urbanity and modernity, in fact their professionalism.
You can see them swarming in spaghetti straps around Andheri-Goregaon belt hoping to make it as actresses, models, singers. Just trying to look the part, doing what the role demands.
They scrabble hard at the margins of what seems to be a possibly democratic, positively decadent media world. From small towns or precarious suburbs, they think they can navigate this shifty world with a felicity that comes from understanding what men expect women to be.
Despite the difference of their worlds, they don’t look so different from some young women I meet at a bachelorette party in Andheri West. The same near-perfect bodies, the same fluid munni badnam hui moves.
Only the fashionably sexy clothes here are more subtle, more expensive. I laughingly ask one how come there’s no male stripper in this very Sex and the City type of party. “We thought of it,” says one, “but they’re too LMC mostly.” LMC stands for lower middle class, I learn. It’s not the kind of body you want to see apparently. Or want seeing you maybe.
I ask a young colleague who works in television, do young people really have as much sex as the media leads us to believe? Yes, she says. They do. Well that’s good, right? She says, well, you have to, or people will think there’s something wrong with you. And you have to learn to move on really quick, or you’re not cool. But not being married is not an option.
So I do wonder about this freedom that doesn’t colour outside the lines. That has squeezed itself into a little back dress over the last few years, but mostly for the consumption of specific others.
It certainly makes me wonder what happened to that constantly celebrated Bombay of Manto, where liberation and libertines were easier bedfellows and conformity seemed irrelevant; in which itinerant folks, ravaged by the city, yet liberated by it from their old identities, made unpredictable, unprecedented relationships and found strange, un-definable loves.
Perhaps it’s just moved to a further suburb, where women can be barefaced after all. Maybe it just belongs to a messier era of everyone taking the local train instead of buying the bubble of a car on EMI and everyone going to a single-screen cinema instead of segregation by multiplexes for the UMCs and pirated DVDs for the LMCs.
In the new city where that potent untidiness becomes slowly more elusive, that now sections itself in a class war, we have become used to seeing the usual spoils of war — the faceless bodies of female slaves captured from the other side in a public parade.