It was the middle-aged waiter’s sweetly apologetic tone and awkward phrasing that gave him away. Clearly, he wasn’t the one with the objection. He was only the messenger. This is what he said: You have independence. But please, laugh a little quietly?
Suthandhiram — the Tamil word for independence; he knew he was infringing on our rights, and he wanted us to know that he was sorry. We were two women who had finished a long lunch, eaten three types of dessert, and paid the bill. We were loitering, already considered a suspect activity for women. Ladies loitering while laughing loudly. Someone — patron or staff or management — had found this worthy of reprimand.
I have a big laugh. People recognise me by it in crowded auditoriums. Strangers turn to look upon hearing it (possibly to make sure they haven’t wandered into the set of a horror movie). I do not cover my mouth with a dupatta when I laugh. I do not usually wear a dupatta, in fact, because I don’t believe that anything should be covered unless in the interest of weather or aesthetics, rather than decorum.
I’ve jumped ahead a few paces because there’s something you and I, and everyone in this uncomfortable status quo, knows axiomatically. No one would have dared to go up to a chuckling man about to leave a restaurant and told him (politely or otherwise) to can it.
A woman who makes her presence felt — merely through function, existence or expression — in a public space is a public nuisance. And a woman who does not invisibilize herself makes her presence felt. Anywhere. Women who breastfeed on overnight buses. Girls who sweat through their football jerseys until their coloured sports bras show. Women who have to buy three movie tickets just so that no one sits on either side of them. Women who scream for help through thin walls while the neighbours turn up the volume of the TV.
I believe in silence in libraries and in meditation halls. I believe public walls should not be pissed against, and bhajans shouldn’t be played on loudspeakers. These are courtesies. They affect large numbers of people as they study, reflect, commute, and sleep. They are intersections at which personal liberties can infringe on others. They are not gendered. Not even the open urination thing.
In conversations about women in public spaces, the topic we discuss the most is safety. In this painfully unequal world of ours, it is a concern. But a group of four women will still be asked, “Are you out alone?” (“No, each of us is out with three other people for company”). This is because the conversation has yet to extend to the notion of rights to public space. To be there, basically.
To step into a public space should not mean giving up one’s autonomy over one’s body, voice or mobility. It should not mean adjusting (that delightful term used for everything from marriages to train bunks to bra straps) one’s very presence so that it looks, sounds and seems more like an absence.
In a world that makes one weep, we must take every chance to laugh out loud.
(The Chennai-based author writes poetry, fiction and more)