The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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There is a moment of unreal beauty as evening descends on the old city of Hyderabad. The lights of the bazar glimmer into life and the evening turns a delicate shade of violet, only for a few minutes before darkening into night. And then, all of a sudden, you notice hundreds of women in flowing black burqas in the glimmering darkness. Even a moment before, they were not there, and seem to have appeared in an instant. It is as if another invisible city has allowed itself to be noticed suddenly in the midst of the visible one. Turning a city of men into something more mysterious and pulsating, these women glide about the bazar in giggling, chattering flocks, fingering the textiles, trying out the jewellery, sampling the attar, feeling the fruits heaped on the carts. They are like the gathering swallows at the end of Keats’s “To Autumn”, or the pigeons that settle and unsettle to the muezzin’s cry all day in the great courtyard of the Jama Masjid. You can only see their eyes through the slits in their burqas. But the eyes often meet yours with a directness that is startling. For that fraction of a second that a look lasts, a shadow becomes a person. Full of curiosity, even mirth, these eyes make me shifty-eyed with a shyness that I am surprised to feel.

These are, of course, moments of unabashed exoticism for me. I am a tourist in Hyderabad: I don’t have, nor feel compelled to have, any real sense of the bodies and lives that I brush against or pass through as the evening falls. The hijab controversy and the wrongs of woman are furthest from my mind. It’s my imagination, fed by films, songs, books and stories (Rushdie, Burton, Borges, Calvino, Pasolini), that is far more compelling. I realize now that much of my interest in the burqa is quite perverse: wearing a burqa is a way of becoming a viewer while remaining unviewed. (To me, the frisson of this is incomparably more than that of cross-dressing.) Like the cloak of invisibility in the Renaissance theatre, it could turn me into someone like the “fantastical duke of dark corners” in Measure for Measure, allowing me to lurk unnoticed in the lives of others. Most of the prohibitions of the civilized world fall away with the attainment of perfect invisibility. So, becoming a sort of seeing and gliding absence is one of the world’s commonest fantasies. And the burqa, in my fancy, could become the beginnings of such a state.

Is it not a truism that invisibility is profoundly disempowering, especially for women? Perhaps it is only when invisibility is a fantasy (and a male fantasy) that it begins to have the allure of the perverse. To see and not be seen, and to be so publicly garbed in the accoutrement of one’s invisibility: why does the idea continue to fascinate me so much? Then I found this little poem by Emily Dickinson, and I’m not sure any more that some women haven’t, from time to time, turned invisibility itself into a peculiar form of advantage in a way that many of us, male or female, wouldn’t be able to fathom: “I’m Nobody? Who are you?/ Are you — Nobody — too?/ Then there’s a pair of us?/ Don’t tell! They’d advertise — you know!// How dreary — to be — Somebody!/ How public — like a Frog — To tell one’s name — the livelong June —/ To an Admiring Bog!”

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