The other day, I took a short walk out of the gated colony in which I live, to the nearby market. As I approached the back-gate, a man passing within a few feet of me, turned his face to one side, away from me, and spat.
Let me be clear: I knew he wasn't spitting AT me; he was small-built and spare, shorter than me, wearing a workman's grimy pajamas and thin vest, dark-skinned, black-haired, moustachioed. He might have been a carpenter or day-labourer. Such a person, typically, is brought up to feel he doesn't have the right to look directly at someone like me, and so he doesn't. Yet I knew that the spitting action was in some way related to my presence on the street, because it's a gesture I've seen many times: a quick, sideways voiding of bodily waste, by men and sometimes women too, who spit as an instinctive response to feeling discomfort.
It's really not a big deal, because it happens all the time. The only difference, perhaps, on this occasion, was that I was still under the spell of New York. I had not yet zipped up my custom-designed invisi-lenses which protect me from sights I'd rather not see while out on the streets here. So I noticed the gesture more than I normally would, more than I WILL, in a few weeks from now, when it will have become so routine that I will no longer pay attention to it. It got me thinking about the way it makes me feel to know that my sheer presence can cause another human being to feel the need to void a little body fluid.
It was not because of anything particular in my personal appearance -- actually it probably had very little to do with me personally. It was a generic response to something unfamiliar or unexpected. Maybe my presence there on the back-lane, en route to the back-gate took that young labourer by surprise. Maybe my hair was a little too short or my blouse a little too bright a shade of red for his taste. Whatever it was, the sight of me triggered a response. I am sure the man would be astonished to hear that I (a) noticed his action (b) thought twice about it. Because another feature of the exchange, if I can call it that, was that it was supposed to pass unnoticed. I don't believe the labourer intended me to notice his action, and it's even possible that I'm simply over-reacting to something that had nothing to do with me. He had a need to spit, I happened to pass by at that precise moment, and so when he spat, I imagined it was on account of me.
Except that it happens routinely. At any time, when I am walking around in a public place, it can happen that someone passing by me -- a cyclist, an autorickshaw driver -- turns his head to one side and spits.
Most of the time, it's true, I screen it out of my mind. I'm sure that's a much more practical response. But this morning -- like I said, I wasn't wearing my mental shields -- I noticed and reacted (privately) to the incident. I mean: whether or not the gesture is aimed AT me, surely it has to remind me that I am not a valid or acceptable feature of the environment in which I live? Surely it is a hostile act?
The moment the exchange occurred, I became conscious of a number of things: that I was bigger than the man; that I occupied the middle of the lane; that I walked with the confidence of someone who felt it was my right to be in the middle of the lane, while he sidled along the margins; that very likely, in his view and in his society, women ought to walk with their heads modestly covered and perhaps their faces averted from men; that women over a certain age should not go around in bright red clothes; that women who don't wear clear and positive marks identifying their marital status (as I do not) are to be considered suspicious, and very likely of shady character; yet on the other hand, my gait and confident presence suggested that I could only be a resident of the colony, and therefore a member of that class to which this labourer would feel himself bound to show respect; that I live in a city where the overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens do not recognize me as being a member of their tribe, but an outsider in some fundamental way. An outsider to their idea of a decent and normal world.
It is very disorienting to return to what is supposed to be 'my country' and yet feel so utterly distanced from the people around me. Or -- to immediately amend that statement -- it ISN'T really disorienting at all: it is the norm of my experience and I usually don't notice it, or pay attention to this sensation, because it would take too much energy to keep on and on noticing it, and the only reason (I think) I reacted on this occasion is that I had just returned from being a foreigner in another city, where, by contrast, I felt entirely comfortable. No-one paid the least attention to me: I was neither more nor less visible than anyone else on the streets. What a privilege it was, to be invisible!
-- uh-oh -- the power's gone! Gotta post and exit --