His eyes travel the canvas of my skin and I retreat into that internal space many women enter when men gaze, uninvited, at our bodies. It can look like a bitchy dismissal or a funny play along, but it’s really just us trying to hide in plain view. Where can we go?
When he asks: “What do the tattoos on your footsies say?” I take a deep breath and tell him: “Rough magic and live and let live.” He chuckles and then says, with a smirk: “When you’re with a boy, does he look at your feet to figure things out?”
Coldly, I reply: “no, it doesn’t quite work that way.” My immediate anger winds itself around the residual frustration of being ogled by men as though I were a piece of meat for the taking. A colourful girl to play with.
Why do the men who come to my house to do renovations or odd jobs involving power tools think that an invitation to enter my home is the equivalent of being granted access to my body? I feel like muzzled prey as they circle me with silly jokes, leading questions, and tipsy texts sent well past closing time.
I feign laughter and cross my arms. I ignore their messages and question their public posts that refer to women as bitches and cunts. I try someone else. I let the work sit unfinished.
The 65-year-old man who asked about my “footsies” was recommended by the manager of the design shop where I bought the finials. “It’s who we use” she said. Why would she send this person to put up my wall hanging?
Because it’s the norm in the industry. Because the manager has a kid and wears a wedding ring. Because I don’t. Because the sludge of sexualization that men smear all over me is the story of my life as a woman.
On the wall hanging dances Kali, who destroys evil to protect the innocent and is considered the master of time, death, and change. Her name means “the dark mother” or “the dark blue one”, and so it is fitting that she is outlined in black on the smoky indigo cloth.
She is the lover of Lord Shiva, and she leaps from the forehead of mother goddess Durga, a manifestation of anger. It is this volatile emotion that turns her skin dark. Blue. She licks up the hot energy of enemy blood from battlefields and ties men’s heads into a garland of revenge that hangs around her waist.
Long sexy tongue hangs from the fierce open mouth. Her three eyes see you.
In some texts, Kali is said to be an immature deity because she has no consort and has not yet been pricked by the transcendent lingam. Thus her body is a dangerous, auspicious inferno of original female power.
He asks if I’m an artist and I say “no, I’m a university prof.” Then he says his girlfriend went to India and she had to go to the bathroom in a hole. I say that sounds familiar and add that it is a hard place to be a woman, referring to how often I was often harassed, grabbed, and followed.
Although he’s never been to India and is not a woman, he tilts his head to one side like he’s not sure if he agrees with my statement. Then he says: “Yeah, they treat their women badly.
I look at Kali, gesturing boldly in black and blue and say many white men treat their women badly too.
I tell him about seeing a young white man push his girlfriend to the ground the night before. I was tempted to call the cops but didn’t because it was dark, and I couldn’t have identified them. In that part of the city violence is a common as night itself, and the cops probably wouldn’t have accomplished much.
Suddenly the valiant protector, he sneers in my direction and says: “and you’re a woman”, the implication being that he thinks I should have called the police. His ignorance slides off my unfazed brain and I take refuge in the goddess. How much longer until he’s done?
It’s 2002. I’m in India doing doctoral fieldwork, which includes a stop in Mumbai for some research and a tour of the city’s hotspots. As the subway car pulls away from Victoria Station, I catch a glimpse of the magnificent gothic structure with its high central dome, flying buttresses, and looming gargoyles.
Then I’m kicking my legs and swaying in all directions while yelling “FUCK OFF” to the slathering jumble of male hands on my breasts and my ass. They stop. I am left in the silence of my terror. No one says a thing. I clamp my sandaled feet into the floor, clutch my bag to my chest, and look straight into nothing.
Newspaper stories about low caste women being raped and thrown from trains flip through my head as we speed through the sprawling city. Some of the men get off the train but others stand just centimeters from my body for the duration of the forty- minute ride.
I am going to see where Ghandi spun khadi, the cloth of freedom symbolized by the spinning wheel on India’s flag. As we near the city centre, a voice to my left says: “There is a ladies train, miss.” When I turn to meet their gaze, I can’t see who it is because my eyes are full of tears. I would take one of those cars home.
Fifteen stops later and I arrive at Mani Bhavan ( “Jewel House”), a museum and historical building dedicated to Gandhi. One room is behind glass and that’s where his spinning wheels or charkhas are displayed, along with a poster of the diminutive nationalist below the words “we are all one.”
A tense fog envelopes the day and I move through it seemingly unencumbered by the blazing heat and swirling throngs of people, zooming motorbikes, buses and cars tooting their horns incessantly, and the odd cow. My next stop is Elephanta Island, a one-hour ferry ride away.
I pile onto the semi-modern, mainly dilapidated boat with other white tourists and middle-class Indian residents and think about what happened to me. What do I call it? It wasn’t rape, so does that mean it doesn’t count? Do I tell people?
As we cross the blue grey waters of the Mumbai harbour, I look for signs of similar experiences in the faces of the women around me. That one, she’s pretty, maybe someone has grabbed her. What about the older woman with the small purse and the confidence, the only other lone female traveler? Surely.
Thickly wooded with palm, mango, and tamarind trees, the small island provides the perfect camouflage for my confusion. I wander deep inside gigantic caves with thirty feet monolithic carvings of elephants and stand in the cool darkness. Eyes closed and swaying slightly, I collect myself.
I am a 30-year-old woman in an ancient cave who began life in a city more than 12,000 km away. I’m thankful to be here but also scared. Processing today’s events are about placing one foot in front of other. I do this. I walk slowly along the foot path under the trees that lead to the tourist trinkets.
There are brightly coloured scarves, jewelry, small wooden statues, bottles of water, knock-off Tilley hats, and blankets that reflect the peacock sky in their mirrored patches. As I unfold the Kali fabric, I am captured by its irregularity. The blue blotches are darker in some spots and it’s not a perfect rectangle.
I see myself.
I see the goddess.
She is power in action: dripping with heavy jewelry, stomping on the men beneath her with abundant strength, shaking her long hair and multiple arms in righteous anger. Kali screams freedom and protection, and I fold her neatly inside the fabric bag slung over my shoulder.
Back in the city, I share what happened with a few senior team members. I am told that it’s part of doing fieldwork and to simply carry on. I do. With the blue-black talisman that travels from a small Indian island to my body as a tattoo, and two decades later she finally rests on the wall of my home.
For a long time it was too hard to look at her, but even buried she gave me what I needed.
My house is like my body. It is a sacred space that I wash, dress, and lean into as I climb up and down the staircase of womanhood. How deliciously terrible that the men who are paid to restore my house often end up sullying it with their carelessness and misplaced desires.
I do not seek to live in a world without men. I only wish that they respect me and my spaces. I seek sovereignty, which I have tattooed across my shoulders in old English script. It is a reminder of women’s need for self-rule borrowed from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, whose tale tell us this, at the end.