Despite my obvious rebuff, he continued, “We are opening a weight-loss centre in the area. Please do come.”
And proceeded to vanish into the crowd.
This was early morning on Shashti, the first official celebratory day of the most holy festival of the year for Bengalis. The 4-day period is used to observe the triumph of good over evil: a triumph orchestrated by Ma Durga, the warrior goddess. And on the morning of this day, I stood alone on a Metro platform, shaken, wondering what it was about my body or my demeanour that made the man feel that it was okay to come up to me and tell me, without invitation or intimation:
“You are a flaw. You need to be corrected. Come, let us profit off the insecurity we have imposed on you.”
This was not a new experience. Only a few months back, I had fended off similar advances, this time from a woman and in a completely different part of the city. She came up to me on one winter morning and simply pushed a card into my hand, smiling maniacally all the time. Perhaps it was my imagination, but there was something so artificial, so bestial about these smiles they had plastered on their faces that it makes me nauseous to think about them.
There is something deeply humiliating about a street-full of people refusing to stand up for you, a street that included the vendor I’d just bought a drink from or the friend who was with me. I often wondered what necessitated her suggestion. There were many people on the street who would have been worthy of that card, had I taken stock of the situation that morning or this one. Yet, both times, I was singled out. Why? Was it because I refused to be cowed in by the demands to wrap up my offending flabbiness in wreaths of material, to flatten out into a blob the curves I now know I have?
I feel those demands in every strangers’ eye following me on the train, on the road. I feel them when people stare at me while I cross the street. Both times, I had been wearing clothes that did not sheathe the rolls of fat I know they look at: sleeveless, body-hugging. And so obviously, that was me giving license to complete strangers to come up to me, to tell me how they think I look and how they think I should look, and how I can rectify all that is wrong and offending and diseased about this body I am growing to love, finally, after years of battle and hatred.
And so, for a moment, I felt naked: naked, a blob, standing in the middle of the platform with a crowd laughing at me, with sagging breasts, ungainly hair sprouting from here and there, unseemly scars crisscrossing my body.
I felt 5 years old again, alone and insignificant, touched for the first time by a man on my buttock, not knowing what had happened and only realizing years later what it was supposed to be.
It did not matter that I’m happy: I’m happy with the way I look, or at least I was on those mornings. I’m healthy; my physician will vouch for that. But I doubt the state of my health made a difference in any way: how would it have mattered to them if I had died somewhere of a cholesterol-induced heart-attack, if I had not happened to come their way tantalizingly on a Shashti morning, a customer ripe for the taking?
If I were diseased, if I were rotten from the inside as well as the out, I might be tempted to tell you that I didn’t think the weight loss centre would have worked, judging by the body of the woman who gave me that card. I already have. But I am trying not to drown into the narrative that demands I hate the woman who made me feel bad about myself, or hate those who do not understand as I do. I’m trying not to hate the people who are spokespersons for patriarchy, setting standards for women to look how they want them to look, and then pressurizing them ever so subtly, in ways they don’t even recognize, and for capitalism that creates insecurities where none existed and then profits off them. I am trying not to be angry, not to hate: aggression is not my way. What is the point of rage without result?
But I can’t help wondering: what made a happy, healthy girl with one too many rolls of fat a ripe target? And what makes other girls like me the target of jokes one is obligated to laugh at, the target of being told, however good-naturedly: “No no no, you aren’t fat!”
The implication being, that fat is a different species, dangerous and unwanted: it is something you have no right to be. It is like being told you shouldn’t exist.
The crux of the matter, of course, lies in the fact that I’m a girl. A man would have attracted much less attention, and even then would have had a lesser chance of being approached. Being a woman immediately opens your body up to scrutiny, and apparently hands over the rights to comment on your body, unbidden, to anyone who chooses to accept it. And judging by the number of people who have remarked– male relatives far and near, daughters of friends, complete strangers on the road- everyone does.
The irony of this happening during Durga Puja, a festival to celebrate the empowered, warrior woman, was not lost.
The Goddess that we worship in the pandals is fashioned by male hands. Her nipples, her breasts, her hips, every part of the body we see, is made lovingly, reverently by them: shaped with one careful, gentle curve of softness on the waist, one careful layer below the chin. One has to keep in mind while looking at this rendering of her loveliness that the Goddess herself, or at least the representations of her, is a portrayal of the “ideal” woman. This portrayal itself is shaped by patriarchal expectations of femininity, and the male gaze that creates and defines it. Every year, a new incident reveals the hypocrisies that mire this festival. We celebrate the Goddess not as a warrior but as a mother and a daughter, surrounded by her children: her weapons are inconsequential. We celebrate her for her “beauty”, not the strength with which she is supposed to have destroyed the one who claimed to be unconquerable by man. We celebrate the woman even as we kill her, rape her, destroy her in a hundred different ways. What I have felt is not the most heinous one. And yet it is strangely effective. Every time I remember the humiliation I felt, a little bit of my confidence in me is chipped away, however hard I try to hold on. And I have to wonder: was this the intended effect after all?
I love the Goddess. I believe in the Goddess. Not because of what she is supposed to be in the Hindu mythological discourse, but because of who she is in my mind: the strong, fierce, unstoppable woman, fearing no one and certainly no man that challenges her strength; a force of change and purity. I love her because in many ways, I think she represents the struggles of every woman who has had to face off against systematized discrimination and oppression in any form. I love her because in her, I find the strength to be me.
And so, right here, right now, in her name, I’m going to take back the moment that led me to write this story.
In my mind, finally, after years of struggle, I have come to accept that fat is not a synonym for ugly. It is simply another adjective. Whatever the connotations, fat does not mean laughable, it does not mean lazy, useless, clumsy, contemptuous, and the hundred other insinuations that come with it. Being fat but pretty is not a thing: being fat and pretty is, and every girl out there who knows she’s curvy, who knows she’s fat, is fat and beautiful and so, so much more. Fat is not an ugly word. It should not have any power over you. If it has become one, well then, I suppose this is me reclaiming it.
Devi Paksha, the Time of the Goddess, has just begun.
And here’s my attempt at turning it into a true celebration of the Goddess in each and every one of us, with whatever adjectives we choose to describe ourselves with.