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The look that drives you crazy

The look that drives you crazy

india Updated: Aug 20, 2006 03:42 IST

If I ever get down to writing my book of short stories, one of them will definitely be on my next-door neighbour in Calcutta: a woman my mom's age, living in a joint family. She and her husband had one room in the house to themselves, and she'd spend the whole day looking out of the window. I don't think she went out anywhere, and she'd sit and, literally, watch life pass her by.

The subject of one of my possible short stories knew exactly when I left the house and when I'd come back (and who I'd come back with, even if it was Bozo my pet Labrador), because her bedroom window overlooked our main gate — and she'd always be sitting there.

While I was growing up, I used to be really irritated that I was constantly under the next-door scanner. But later I realised that this kind of "looking in" was part of the community building effort in Calcutta — specially north Calcutta (where I grew up) which was a wee bit less sophisticated than, say, south of Park Street. The maids at home used to tell me how the neighbours used to enquire about what went on in our house: the kind of food we'd have ("They have mutton every day?"), whether my mother wore a kaftan at home ("She doesn't wear a sari? How odd…"), whether I had 'boyfriends' coming over ("She goes to one of those co-ed colleges, isn't it? I'd never let my daughter go to one…") and so on and so forth.

In Delhi, it is different — at least in south Delhi it is. Everybody puts it down to, "Oh, here, nobody gives a damn." And thank God, I say, for that.

Only here, the people who want a "looksie" are the drivers — who huddle together as they wait for their memsaabs to fix their hair so that they can drive them to the parlour, or the babas to finish drinking their milk so that they can be driven to the tutorial class — and the security guards, who, of course, are paid to be on the "look out".

When I first bought my car, I used to wash it myself  on Sunday afternoons, and there would be a crowd of drivers and guards who'd stand at a safe distance and look. "Koi problem hai kya?" I'd once asked in the best Hindi I could muster up, and they all scrammed. Even now, whenever I have a male friend or colleague coming home with me, I always look around guiltily to see if I'm been looked at and, most times, I encounter "knowing looks".

Sometime ago, I used to share my flat with this girl from Bombay, who perpetually wore a look of horror on her face because she couldn't get used to how uncouth Delhi was. One day, I came back home to see her sitting with puffy red eyes. "You've been crying," I said. "What's up?"

"It's one of those drivers out there," she said sniffling, pointing towards the gate. "He was ogling at me, and I got really angry, so I said, 'Ghoor ghoor ke kya dekh rahe ho?'"

"And?" I asked, feeling awfully protective. "What did the scoundrel have to say?"

"He said 'Main kyun dekhu aap ko, meri wife ki shakal aap se behtar hai'."