I take great pride in hosting Khoty Mathur (KayEm) on Freebird. I am amazed by her passion for life, her love for values, and her hope for a brighter future. Read this story and you will realize that her pen is an observer, a participant and a catalyst- all rolled in one. KayEm, is from Auckland, New Zealand, and she blogs at Never Mind Yaar.
Seema and Nadine walked in with anticipation and curiosity. It was the new Indian shop with its array of spices, daals, canned, fresh and frozen Indian foods.
The two women went back years, having attended the same school in Auckland, losing touch, re-discovering each other at the chartered accountancy firm they both had started working for and ending up as flatmates. Seema enjoyed Nadine. Although the arrangements were fluid as they tend to be with youngsters in their twenties they shared their evening meal with each cooking every alternate day.
As Seema browsed through the items in the shop she was delighted to discover a dazzling array of new items. A lot had come from Fiji and South Africa but most was from India and Pakistan. Nadine came up to her and showed her a bag marked “paper”. For a split second Seema was confused. Perhaps they had some new kind of paper available in India that wasn’t available in New Zealand? Then she saw the ground, brown powder and the two stood there, giggling helplessly.
The shop was well lit, airy and clean and the Indian owners, eager to please. It would be heaven shopping here. The owner came by with a new basket, handing it over and letting the two women know where he’d keep the one they’d already piled up with goods. That was thoughtful. Such lovely service, thought Seema. He had discreetly kept his distance, letting them browse without crowding them but being there if they wanted help with anything. Gratefully handing over the heavy basket they were lugging around, they shopped some more before heading towards the checkout.
They complimented the owners on their new shop. The beaming wife started scanning the items as the husband and the two women continued talking. He wanted to know if there was any item they hadn’t found in his store. They reassured him he had everything they wanted and more. The conversation turned to how much was available today. The impressive array of goods that came from India and the packaging that kept it as close to the original as possible made life so much easier.
Before long, the toting up was done. As Nadine went for her purse, Seema’s eyes fell on the man’s face. Her heart sank. Nadine had on a beautiful top that showed off a bit of cleavage and even as he was pretending to talk he was ogling hard. The intent look, both hungry and intrusive was burning holes in her top. Seema’s goodwill all but deserted her and her mouth twisted in disgust. He was unaware of Seema’s change in expression but his wife noticed. She glanced swiftly from Seema to her husband. For a split second she looked embarrassed but the next moment her expression became surly. Nadine, unaware, went on chatting, smiling at the woman to make her feel included in the conversation. In return she was met with an unsmiling face. That is when Nadine realised something was amiss. A split second later she knew what it was. Eyes narrowing in anger she went silent mid sentence. The man finally guessed he’d been caught out. Thinking quickly he pointed to the inscription on Nadine’s necklace inscribed in Arabic with her name and said, “What language is this, madam?”
Nobody was fooled. Nadine, face furious, clamped down on her open purse, grabbed Seema’s hand and went out the shop leaving the goods behind. As they neared the door she said loudly, “CREEP.” The husband and wife looked completely taken aback. In India they were used to women backing off before unwanted male attention. Knowing how most people around them would react they would cringe inside, quietly pay up and get out as fast as possible. Dealing with their feelings of helpless anger would have to be put off for later.
The shop owners watched mutely as Nadine and Seema stalked out. Seema felt bad. This man had made all Indian men appear disgusting and indiscreet to her friend. How could she explain they weren’t all like him? In the car she turned to Nadine. “I apologise for that ...creep.” Nadine laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Seema,” she said lightly although the next moment she shuddered involuntarily. The incident had bothered her more than she cared to admit. After a while she added, “The only way I could think of letting him know his behaviour was unacceptable and revolting was to hurt him financially.”
“I am glad. He was a creep. A pervert. But,” Seema turned to Nadine, an unconscious appeal in her voice, “all Indian males aren’t like him.”
Nadine turned sharply, staring at Seema in surprise. “Do you think I would come to that conclusion because of one stupid male?” She laughed mirthlessly. “Every race has a few.” After a slight pause she turned to Seema again, smiling whimsically. “I’ve met the other kind too, remember? Like Rohit, from work? Even if his eyes fell on a woman’s boobs accidentally, he’d go a dull red.”
Seema laughed, partly with relief but mostly because she could picture Rohit doing just that. She couldn’t help adding, “He must know a thing or two, though. His wife is expecting.”
“What, really? The dark horse!”
As they laughed Seema appreciated the wonderful way in which Nadine had set her fears to rest. As they headed for another Indian store the two women fell silent, preoccupied with their own thoughts. Seema’s mind was on the man’s behaviour. He had become oblivious to the sentiments of everyone around him, struggling as he was to look down Nadine’s top. That look was so single minded, thought Seema, feeling bad all over again. Didn’t he realise what he was doing was offensive? He must have. Otherwise he wouldn’t have stopped and pretended to look at the inscription on Nadine’s chain when he realised we’d noticed him staring.
He might’ve gotten away with it in India, she thought. Many other men would’ve secretly given him the thumbs up. Perhaps they would’ve joined him in leering at Nadine. Many women would’ve felt offended she was showing cleavage – like his wife did - but they wouldn’t have dared tell their own men off for misbehaving. Their men being offensive would have been Nadine’s fault. She was inviting it. She deserved it.
But over here it’s different, thought Seema. Men ogle, but discreetly. The look isn’t so openly intrusive. The majority, both male and female, consider that to be uncivilised. Attraction is taken to the next level only if it is mutual. There are always exceptions but on the whole women feel freer here. In India, sadly, the ignorant and offensive dolts seem to be in the majority. Feeding off each other and the politicians and police who seem to support them their numbers are growing. Nadine is right. I will not feel sorry for the couple. Let them suffer the consequences of his behaviour and his wife’s inability to blame him. I treasure the freedom women have to enjoy clothes that make them feel good without cringing or feeling disgusted by unwanted male attention. I refuse to lose that freedom.
Image: Courtesy Ezibuy, NZ