Recently, I walked past the first, and possibly one of two clubs I have been to, and I was a little surprised by how dingy and wretched it looked. In my memory, it was a shiny place, filled with high spirits and raucous young people making the most of their night. I imagined it to be exclusive, but now I know the five dollar entry was pitiful. There is a story, as always.
When this country on the other side of the world was still new, my worldly, sophisticated, slightly older friend found out I had never been to a club. She said it was her responsibility to change that. She had lived and worked in Mumbai, she had partied and spotted celebrities. We’re going on my birthday, she declared to me. When the day came around, she remembered what she’d said. She was dressed in a sparkly bandage dress, she looked like she belonged in an advertisement for hair care, or wax strips, she walked like she knew how attractive she was. I kept looking at her. I also felt guilty, for I considered this to be an Unnecessary Expense, and perhaps I should have been working on my assignment. But I was excited too, I wore heels and lip gloss, I couldn’t believe any of it.
We went to the club and the man standing guard wouldn’t let me in. I’m twenty two, I told him, and he laughed. Okay, he shrugged. I saw my friend’s disappointment, her rehearsed pout, and I panicked. I said to her, I’ll be back before you know it, I’ll get my ID. I wasted many minutes waiting for a bus that had just then decided to be late. Eventually, a car came to a stop, and an elderly black man rolled down the window and said he could take me where I wanted to go, for ten dollars. I waited a minute too long, I had recalled another Indian woman asking me to “be careful with the African Americans.” He smiled at me and I got in the car, and he said he hoped I’d have a good time that night. I retrieved my ID and presented myself at the club. I can’t tell you if I had a good time, I think didn’t know how to have a good time. I couldn’t move in time, to the beats of unfamiliar music, the frenzy was too alien.
Sometimes I like to tell this story when I am introduced to stereotypes in a conversation, when I notice that it only takes one person, one instance to generalize, to stand in for populations. Black people are always angry, and they tell you about a colleague who doesn’t like small talk. South Indian men are all chauvinistic, and there exists an anecdote to prove this too. Another example is presented, this time of someone from another caste. There is a reason society was divided this way, they explain, it is to do with what people are good at.
When I offer stories that counter their view of the world, using their means, the tales are quickly dismissed. Is it possible they realise the futility of their arguments, constructed without logic, laced with what-abouts? They are suddenly pragmatic. But that is just one story, they exclaim. Surely you cannot be so naive?
In an episode of The Great British Baking Show, a contestant who is a stay-at-home father mentions more than once that being at home with his two children, while wonderful, often leaves him without a sense of purpose or notions of success. I found this a bit strange, and on following this thought, I learnt that my slightly off-centre reaction had to do with him being a man. It felt strange, and new, to hear a man share these sentiments, so far categorized in my mind as feelings claimed by women. Housewives: that category of women I resist being lumped with, whom I uncharitably envision as a homogeneous group, content with unimaginative television programming, often seen in nightie and dupatta. My pettiness is not lost on me. Yes, I understand housewives are not the problem, a system that romanticizes them is, and yes, stay-at-home fathers don’t have to be revolutionary.
The Tamil film Aan Devathai makes clumsy forays into this territory, by choosing to depict the problems that visit an ambitious woman who is not maternal, and her husband, a nurturing character with a job that doesn’t pay well. Of course, the movie takes the easy way out, by vilifying the woman and subjecting her to disgrace. Her list of crimes runs long. She does not want to cook nourishing food for her children, she is content ordering in at mealtimes. Her colleagues are frequently Christians with bad attitudes—they are unable to repay their debts and they chase a lifestyle without meaning or value, they influence her to make wrong choices. The man is conservative and idealistic, he dreams of the fresh air and morals of a pastoral life, he does not want to be shackled to a profit making enterprise. He revels in his role as a househusband, playing cards, enjoying aerobics, and exchanging recipe notes with other housewives in the neighbourhood.
This is all relevant, and even important, but not when portrayed without nuance, when every opportunity to depict an event seems to lead the way for an argument against working women. The man wins, and the movie leaves us with a shot of him going to work, cheerfully dropping his children off at school on his way to the office. The woman waves bye to them, in a nightie.