It is late in the evening, around half past seven. A motor car has pulled up alongside the city’s crowded throughway. The driver stands ahead of the vehicle. Mildly interested, he looks to his back while seemingly waiting for someone. On the driver’s seat is a thirteen-fourteen year old boy. He is trying to stay awake as his rather large pair of eyes keeps drooping off. As it is, he is the ‘gaurdian’ inside the car. The other person there may be a girl of sixteen or a woman of twenty five or somewhere in between, it’s difficult to tell. She is dressed from head to toe in black. Her headscarf, too, is black. She caresses the set of porcelain vessels placed near, thinking of her newfound domestic bliss, a sweet smile spreading over her face. After a while, she fidgets a little and asks the lad, “Khayer, your people are still not done with buying things? My feet hurts. And my back.” The child, himself losing patience, replied “Who knows? They spend two hours to purchase one right thing. I don’t think we are going home today.” Inside the car, in the darkness, she had taken off her burkha, along with the headdress. When the car parked beside suddenly pulls away, the light from the nearby shop falls across her face. This time, she covers her head with the burkha, but does not draw the veil over her face. The Chaitra-heat has given her a headache. As she looks outside, she notices a man, leering. There are numerous pedestrians on the street. Most of them were work-weary, homeward Bengalees. Who would want to stop and stare? But this man looked like he is here for a stroll in the evening air. To escape from the sight of his snake like bright and crude eyes, she lay back on her seat and hides herself in the darkness of the car. After lying low for quite a while, a slight movement reveals that the man is now at the other side of the car, his gaze like a searchlight, probing inside the dark cave of the car. Her mind feels with deep irritation: “Does that man have no mother or sister? Or has he never seen a female of the humankind? “Even hiding provides no respite.” Now she veils her face carefully and moves to the light, sitting up straight. Perhaps the man would lose interest at this complete lack of skin exposure. But no! What a trouble! The man has turned around and was walking towards the car. There is only a few feet between them now. She is consumed with anger and her mind fills with stories of so many humiliated abused Bengali women. How will she get rid of this beast in a garb of sophistication? What is this perverse curiosity with the female body? She wonders whether she should alert her young brother who would have the driver tell the man to leave. But what right did she really have to ask someone to leave a public space like this street? Yet, the audacity of the man seems to be increasing. Due to the heat, she had taken off her black heeled shoes. Her socks, covering upto her knees, are black as well. She wears her shoes back on and thinks for a moment. A plan of action had formed. She rests her right leg on the back of the driver’s seat, crosses her left leg over her right and begins to dangle it. Any other color would have been different. But the arrogance of the black socks and shoes, the audacious posture, was not tolerable to this gentleman’s enjoyment of feminine grace. Awaking with a start, he looks at his wristwatch and walks away in long strides, without the bravado or the inclination to look back.
Translator’s NoteThis short story was originally published as “Mukher Motoh” in Pother Kahini (Stories of the Road) published in 1931 and conserved in Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. The story, in Bangla, was later included in the volume on short stories, in the series Bangali Muslim Meyeder Sahityachorcha (2019) (Bengalee Muslime Women’s Literature), compiled and edited by Saifulla and Kamrul Hasan. A dominant social narrative that the sexualized female body should be covered up or protected to deflect sexual harassment is subverted through the final gesture of the unnamed heroine. It is significant that the story was written long before the feminist rhetoric came into play in Bangla literature and portrayed the female protagonist in an agentive role, who does not seek male protection to extricate herself from an unfavorable, potentially harmful position. The syntactical formations aid the increasing discomfort and fear in a woman being objectified and her final moment of rebellion, in which she upends the patriarchal license to voyeurism. The story depicts anawareness about sexual harassment and right to self defence being exercised, long before the Indian Penal Code had come to force. This leads to the story, from pre-Independence India, to gain in contemporary significance. The translation of the story in English (as a Modern Indian Language) contextualizes a woman’s agency from decades ago to the present-day struggles of women against sexual harassment.
Bionote: Oindri Roy is an Assistant Professor in Gokhale Memorial Girls’ College, Kolkata since October 2019. She has worked as an Assistant Professor in Adamas University, Barasat till September 2019. She earned her doctoral degree in 2017 and her Master’s degree in 2013 from EFL-University, Hyderabad. Her publications are chiefly based on the role of gender and sexuality in literary studies. She has co-edited a book on literature and childhood. Her other domains of interest include Post-Feminsim, Queer Studies, Intersectionality Studies in Story-Telling Praxes and Comparative Indian Literature.