Gendered Spaces

I was clearing my phone and came across this picture and it reminded me of an unusual experience. One that tickled me no end and also provided fodder for thought. Since there is time, let me tell you about an evening when I discovered what it felt like to occupy a space not really inhabited by too many women.

Earlier this month, I was back in Bombay, the city of my childhood. It was a trip with mixed emotions and thoughts, a happy afternoon with friends, an evening walk by the sea and also packing up my mother’s household. That last there was a heaviness, the knowledge that for all her aided liveliness, she would never live in that house again. And as is wont, every time there is a sense of being weighed down, I chop off my hair.

Sunset Family Salon is not really for the entire family, just for the men folk, a modest place with 6 seats under fluorescent lights and whirring fans. There was a popular show blaring on the tele and I tried hard to understand what made all those people in it laugh but didn’t get it. So, I sat staring at a mirror and saw men in various stages of grooming. Haircuts, massages, shaves- the entire gamut of male grooming at 10:30pm.

The owner was a genial man, late 50s perhaps with crinkly eyes that told of laughter and an appetite for life. He made me welcome, showed me to a chair and asked me to wait as he wanted one particular guy to cut my hair. I could have told him that it was not about a sharp hair cut but just a shedding of heaviness. But I didn’t and chose to observe the scene around me as unobtrusively as I could. It must have been strange for all the men there to have a woman sit there. There was silence except for the buzz of equipment. I’m unsure if it is so always or whether it was the presence of a woman in their midst.

It was interesting how the relief on the faces of the patrons was almost in direct proportion to the vigour of their treatments. The massages though very strange to witness close up, it seemed too close for comfort, a kneading that felt strangely intimate. The new age salons have private spaces and soft lights, this one was rough and ready under harsh white light. Hair colour was meticulously matched with eyebrows and moustaches although I’m fairly sure instruction leaflets would mention their use only for the mop on the head. The head massage looked like karate chops and truth be told, I was tempted to ask for one but the hour was late. It wouldn’t do justice to cut corners on something like that. Maybe next time, if there is a next time.

At the moment, I’m mildly contemplating learning how to cut my own hair or then letting it grow out. Long hair looks pretty but it takes effort. My current shock allows me to wash and wear without the need for a comb or brush. I’ve been lazy about going to a salon for what many women consider essential grooming like monthly manicures, pedicures, facials, waxing etc. Blame it on an indifference. My indulgence remains old fashioned oil massages and hot baths, easily accessed in the privacy of my home. When you spend enough time walking with naked feet outdoors and welcome the sun’s relentless heat, the need for a pedicure or facial fall by the wayside. As to hair, I like greys so there’s no question of colouring it. If there’s one extravagance, it is the draping of everyday cotton sarees. That is a deeply sensual pleasure, cotton on skin.  

A buttercup cotton saree a friend left behind. Yellow and white remind me of wild daisies.

I try to imagine what a reverse situation will be like in one of the ‘beauty parlours’ meant ‘only for ladies’ and it would not have been the same. There would be outrage. But I could enter a male space, like in the general compartments in Bombay locals and the same would not be the case no matter how much the men might resent the intrusion.    

The young man who chopped off whatever little he could from my already short hair was pleasant and knew his job. He was the owner’s son and worked in an upmarket salon by day and in his father’s establishment by night. Sunset Salon has been the place where little boys in the locality got their first haircut and while some may have transitioned to the unisex chain salons, the perpetually filled chairs indicate a staunch loyalty of its longstanding patrons. The owner would come over home to cut my father’s hair after his stroke. Maybe if I lived there, I might want to frequent it too for its no fuss service and sense of a throwback to life when I was a child and the streets were free from traffic. The current lockdown is reminiscent of that life.  

Spending half an hour in that joint got me thinking about the spaces occupied by women as women, especially roads. Sometimes, I walk late at night and till date have never seen another woman taking a walk by herself. Usually, couples walk together. If there is a lone woman, she seems to walk with purpose and accompanied by the trappings of work or study gear. Men and boys though walk with swinging arms or hands stuffed in their pockets. The gaze of men and women differ too, raw and diffused. There have been occasions when a refusal to avert my eyes has changed the dynamic of encounters with strangers. There is a perceptible shift. The neighbourhood streets have always felt safe even when deserted, yet there are no women walkers on night streets.

Short hair and a tall frame make it easy for people to mistake me for a man and perhaps that makes it easier to roam freely. It’s only when they see me up close that there is a startle in their eyes but by then it is late to rearrange their reaction. I’ve been marked as male and it is too much work to look at me as a woman. In many ways, this androgynous receiving is a relief.