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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Watching the Watchmen

I give you - the city of Kolkata. A city of palaces, some say. Of decay and decadence, say others. But all agree that within the boundaries of this megapolis, you will find a dizzying variety of men...

Men? Ahem! you do mean people, right? whatever became of political correctness and gender sensitivity?

Um, no. I mean MEN. You know. Those interesting little fellows with Y chromosomes, an unhealthy fascination for cricket and a primal urge to grab any passing... you know. Yup, them. They are people too (most of them, anyway), but since they're the ONLY kind of people one sees on the streets, it really doesn't make sense to generalise.

Well, thats not entirely true. Sometimes you do spot the occasional woman or too out on the streets (you know the other kind of people - the ones with two... you know... well back to what I was saying). So - women. You might just spot a couple if you look hard enough. And therein lies the problem. Looking hard enough, I mean. Back when I was younger, I too would keep an eye out for specimens of the elusive homo sapiens duomammalius. It didn't take me long enough to realise that Every Single Man around me was doing exactly the same. When a woman finally did appear, there were 71 eyes staring at them on average (man, those crosseyed guys have it good). The combined pressure of so many optic beams usually had the effect of driving the woman back to where she belonged. Where that was is debatable, but it certainly kept them off the streets.

These days, I don't bother looking out for passing women. Enough time spent in the US of A makes you blasé to feminine beauty. Also, I have found a more interesting pastime. I watch the men who watch the women. And to my eye, these men provide a fascinating snapshot of urban society.

The first thing to do here, is to decide on a location. Public transport is a good place to start. Then of course, the Metro scores over buses because there are always some women travelling on it. Otherwise the exercise is pretty futile.

Next, enter the compartment and position yourself so that there a good number of men between you and the women. Now you are a fly on the wall. Sit back and watch.

At every stop some women will clamber on the train. Each of them will be perfunctorily scanned as they enter. In most case, the images will be filed away somewhere. If the women are marginally attractive, then some mental photshopping will occur (this is accompanied by a slow up-and-down movement of the eyes, much like a scanner bulb at work), and stored away for later use. Also, the watchers will only scan images of younger women. As a result, the friendly granny gets away because the men are too busy checking out her middle-school-going granddaughter.

But the largest factor determining the number of stares is attire. A sudden sharp movement of heads indicates that a pair of jeans or a skirt has walked in. In these cases, attractiveness ceases to be relevant. The suggestion of body shape, or the flash of bare skin around the ankles is sufficient to classify this as a watchable object (wo). Since these bottoms are usually teamed with tops that show plenty of arm and even hint at the shape of the bosom, its a double bonus for the watchers. An interesting phenomenon occurs now. The gaze of all watchers standing behind the wo dips gently, while that of those in front rises slightly. since wo tend to travel in pairs or small groups, this effect is not always visible, thanks to multiple foci.

Again, there are differences within dress. Jeans wearing wo attract less attention than those in skirts that bare some leg. However, this does not hold true for school uniform skirts. A section of watchers, mainly middle-aged men, draw the line here. I postulate that this sight reminds them of their own school-going daughters, and causes unwanted feelings of guilt, so they turn to those who are clearly someone else's daughters.

Also, watchers will stare much more intently at the back of a jeans-clad wo, than at the front. This is because some of those who still harbour feelings of embarassment, are in fear of being caught watching. It also perhaps explains why Indian men have such a fascination for derriere rather than faces.

The back-but-not-front category includes a very interesting kind of watcher - the segregated-school boy. Young and still not entirely clear on the fact that wo do not mind being stared (and in fact relish it - why do they wear those outfits otherwise?), these shy lads use an interesting technique while watching. They shoot sudden, nervous glances at the face and upper body, and then quickly stare around, look at their feet, or just read the poster pasted across with intense concentration for a few seconds. Then this is repeated. If his eyes ever make contact with those of the wo, then his ears burn red, and he spends the rest of his journey staring at the ground, trying to burn holes in it, much in the same way as the other watchers are trying to burn holes in the clothes of those they are watching. These lads probably grow up to write long whiny emails and blog posts about why women don't like "nice guys" like them.

The most obvious type of watcher, is, of course, the local stud. He wears polyester ripoffs of last year's Tommy Hilfiger fall-winter collection. He travels in packs and leers as he watches, Occasionally a wo will notice him staring, get flustered and look away. At this point the watcher will cast glances at his friends - sort of a telepathic high-five. Yup, yet another out for the count.

Let us move above ground now. If you have had the honour, as I have, of accompanying attractive young women on the streets of Kolkata, you might observe a little more. The only thing to note is that your presence can often violate the sampling process. Some of the more interesting watchers will choose to hold back. Others will be less colourful than they intended to be. While these are regrettable, it doen't mean that there's nothing to note.

For example, as you walk down the left of the footpath, you can note an interesting phenomenon. As the men file by a woman, they turn their heads ever so slightly. If the woman is shorter than them, as most Indian women are, the head will be tilted marginally downward in an attempt to catch a glimpse of cleavage. This phenomenon is even more fascinating to observe on an escalator. The three-dimensional movement of the escalator interacts with the head movements of the watchers on it to produce an effect that is almost artistic in its beauty. As a basis for comparison, also see if you can observe an unaccompanied woman nearby. Again, there will be the tell-tale head movement, but this time the glances will be longer. Allow yourself to take in these subtleties.

Occasionally, I try and make eye contact with these men. When it is clear that I am accompanying the wo they have just given the once-over, the typical response is to look away. This is not very interesting. On the other hand, if you do the same when the woman is clearly not someone you are acquainted with, the responses are noteworthy. The most obvious candidates are the shy ones. A little smirk as you make eye contact, as if to say - I know what you were doing - will cause a striking effect. If you're lucky you might cause some serious and long-lasting psychological damage to the subject. On the other hand, trying it on the local stud has a different effect. Usually the subject will defiantly meet your gaze. After a while, he will give up, when he notices you smirking nonchalantly, and mutter to himself. A point to note - do not try this in Delhi - you are liable to be shot in the head and the perpetrators let off.

Speaking of Delhi - this pastime loses its charm if tried there. Almost all watchers are professionals and hence, not given to sissy emotions as embarassment. As a result, there's very little variety in the view. The only thing that might strike your attention in Delhi is that sometimes, the roles are reversed - a wo might turn a watcher. This is rare, but not unseen, unlike in Kolkata. One presumes that this is a direct fallout of the number of attractive men in Delhi being greater than zero. Alternatively, it could be that the wo of Delhi have been pushed to a point where it really couldn't get any worse.

So there you are. Inveterate sportsmen are encouraged to try this game out at the next available opportunity. It can be quite rewarding, I assure you - and the possibilities for variation are endless. All it requires are a sharp eye and a strong sense of the ironic.

Is the timing of my return post calculated? The answer is no. I have always stayed far away from all Big Blog Events, being far too much of an individualist to participate in any team. However, you never know where and how an idea germinates. Also, I should note that I had finished writing a different post before this one, which will now be published later.