I am yet to see an event of chief guest felicitation where, even as the honours are being done by someone of stature, the bouquet of flowers (pushpastabak) and the shawl are being proffered by men. This aesthetic activity is still reserved for women, pretty, young and dolled up, even though we are in the middle of a huge cleavage- and midriff-baring revolution in India, cutting across classes. And I am yet to see no one staring when a woman lights up a cigarette in public.
This is not an argument for covering up women’s bodies or smoking. On the contrary. But it is baffling how gender, in a middle-class Indian milieu, can complicate, even reverse, the parameters of social tolerance, particularly when it comes to smoking. Men are still less frowned upon, socially, for smoking, than women.
My mother had made it clear, about 30 years ago, when I was in my 20s. She had told me categorically to avoid the eyes of our prying neighbours who accused us of lax moral standards and that if I had been drinking, I should always be taking a taxi home. But I was never, ever to walk in through the gates of our housing complex holding a cigarette, sober, drunk or dead. The complex was a little Panopticon.
Around the same time, a friend had returned home one evening after a party. To hide the offensive smells in her mouth, she had chewed boxes of peppermints and was confident that she smelt only of innocence. Her mother opened the door. “Babu, have you been drinking?” “No, Ma. Of course not. Here.” She blew into her mother’s face with the full power of her lungs. “Babu, you have been smoking!” My friend was sighted only 20 years later as a leading biologist in the US.
What is offensive is not the cigarette so much, but the woman’s mouth. It is an unsettling thing in itself, especially when it does things for its own pleasure. True, in traditional Indian families, men always hid the cigarette from their elders, leading to a lot of smoke coming from behind. This may have had to do with two things. One, the cigarette, as opposed to the bidi or hookah, was of foreign origin and, like all Western things, was morally suspect. Two, it required one to release the smoke. Here Brahmanya principles of sanctity came into play.
Something that was produced inside you or had entered you, such as bodily fluids, stool, urine or unfinished food or remnants of food, or was stale, was ridden with guilt and shame and could only contaminate others. These are the fundamentals of the principles of entho and basi, basically untouchability. This contamination was strictly hierarchical: it could only pass from the socially superior to the inferior. A lower-caste person could eat the entho food of a Brahmin, and a woman could eat a man’s. Therefore a young man could not blow smoke at his elders, certainly not his father. Now imagine a woman doing it. It was an act of transgression that needed to be punished. Wish our hair could get as deeply conditioned as our minds.
Something else happened when a woman’s mouth came into focus. This happened with lipstick, too. One can sense the reservation against it in Parashuram’s brilliant observation: “Thonter sindur akshay hok (May the sindur on your lips be blessed with eternity)”. A little later, Madhabi Mukherjee’s character in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar declared rebellion when she allowed her Anglo-Indian friend to apply lipstick on her.
I remember my mother hurriedly erasing her lipstick before entering the house of her in-laws. Which makes me wonder if a woman’s mouth is a private part. Or maybe a woman is composed entirely of private parts, which is why almost every culture, and not any one in particular, asks them to cover up?
The mouth is particularly dangerous. It can also speak. At times, when a woman speaks her mind, it has a more disastrous effect than her smoking.