Picture a woman cornered and a bevy of men gloating at her discomfiture. And now ask what it would take to upend this power equation.
The woman was dog-paddling with the occasional hard, inefficient kick. Her wet hair was plastered in a way that masked her gender. For the most part I could just see her head, a speck bobbing in the vast empty expanse of the lake. With some kicks, her naked body would come up and I could tell that she was large and well worn, like someone’s favourite old couch. A cop on shore yelled at her, “Hey! Hello! What do you think you are doing?”
The lake, set in a serene grove of mature trees in the heart of south Calcutta, is surprisingly large for an inner-city water body. It is well loved by all and thronged every morning by walkers, joggers and forced maniacal laughter. But swimming in it is a strict no-no. There are many reasons for this—a history of a rash of suicides plays a role, but the most pedestrian reason is that several rowing clubs use the lake. Those slim boats, called sculls, raced in regattas are dangerous because the rower sits facing the direction he just came from. If a scull in full flow hit your skull while you were swimming, you would likely not survive and the sculler would be emotionally maimed for life.
So here was someone openly flouting the law. A crowd of onlookers had gathered on shore, eager for a showdown. If the woman had heard the cop, she gave no evidence; she looked straight ahead, her pace slow but deliberate. A man on a scull came by, curious. The cop, entirely unaware of how tippy these boats are, asked him if he could pick up the woman. The man wasn’t about to do that, but he wanted to talk the woman out of the water. “Ei, meye!” (“Hey, woman!”) His choice of vocabulary said the man had pegged her at a low rung in the socio-economic ladder. Was it her naked, old body? He was talking to her, and she, wordlessly, kept moving towards him. They were both far enough from me that I couldn’t see their eyes. But at some point he must have seen hers. I saw him furiously rowing away with this parting shot: “She’s a raving lunatic! I can’t help her.”
The woman swam on a straight line along the kilometre-long axis of the lake. When she grew tired she would stop and tread water for a bit and then resume her slow, steady roll. It started to drizzle. The cops were watching, defunct, on shore. The bored crowd started to disperse.
She had covered nearly three-quarters of the lake when they came for her. Someone had evidently had enough. There were four men in a dinghy. As they cornered her, she let out a gravelly growl. It sounded like a potent dirge. I heard words of loss not ordinarily spoken in strange company, a loss she appeared somehow to be celebrating. She twirled weightless in the water, her arms raised to the rain, wailing but really roaring. What struck me was the stark differential in power between her and the dinghy men. The men were intimidated, their body language that of a close encounter with storied wildlife. They quickly called for reinforcements. Another dinghy and four more men later, they got her.
I didn’t stay to watch her being bundled away. I wanted to savour the image of her twirling in the forbidden waters under a monsoon sky, having her moment of public bliss. Here was a naked woman surrounded by a bevy of clothed men. Such tableaus in India usually speak a particular language of power; the lake-woman had upended it with graceful ease.
As I walked away I thought of some recent spawns of this language: the woman in Patna, who was publicly stripped and fondled by five men in full view of hundreds of bystanders and their cellphone cameras; the tribal woman in Guwahati who, also having been publicly stripped, ran through a crowded bazaar chased by leering men. There are many more, too many more.
So why was the lake-woman different? Was it that she had chosen to be naked? Or was it that she was not young and nubile? Perhaps it was the perceived lunacy? Or maybe it was the danger of being dragged into deep dark waters by a deranged old witch.
Whatever the answer is, the lake-woman has inspired me to plot my own moment of naked power.