Abandoning the Smile.

One night last summer, I was making an entry into my journal, when a guy approached me.

My sister and I had travelled to Auroville in Tamil Nadu to experience spirituality, and I was sitting in the common dining hall of the guest house we had checked in. I was angry and frustrated; I had earlier that day travelled six hours by road to visit my friend’s two-year-old daughter who had been admitted in a hospital. When I reached the guest house, I had to eat cold potato salad that my sister had saved for me.

I had seen this guy before in the guest house, he had himself recently checked in, and I had learned from my sister that he had gone through a bad divorce and that he was in Auroville to understand about spiritual tourism. On other nights, I had seen him walking in the open gardens of the guest house often with his iPad Air. Before that night, I had liked his mysterious personality. This was soon going to change.

The inevitable predicament for women in this world, despite their education, race, colour, and nationality, is that they have been or will be mansplained at least once in their lifetime. I have been mansplained myself, unfortunately from a very young age. I have mostly survived through good humor, often recalling these instances during the lasting company of my girlfriends and by writing about them. However, some of these instances leave you with a thread of violent retribution that you are not allowed to assuage legally. If that had been the case, most of us, would have been free from our neuroses and ill temperaments.

That night, as I continued to write down the positive side of jealousy as an emotion, this man walked up to my table, and suggested, “You should not be so flustered in a place like this. This place is meant to relax. Take things lightly.” At first, I was baffled but, I figured that since I was in a place like this it would be better to let the matter remain unacknowledged. It would have been so, and I am traditionally a calm person, but the next night during dinner, he mentioned the incident again, reassuring that his observation about me had been right. This time though, I retorted dripping with sarcasm, “Oh really!” but of course, my scathing tongue couldn’t bruise him. He went on to talk for another twenty minutes during which he slipped it as gentlemanly as he could that it was quite obvious that “I was the older one. It showed that I had considerable power over my sister.” He managed to piss off two women that night, at the same time.

I have to admit that writing about this incident six months later is a weird way to salvage my pride. But, this piece is not about him or my inability to come up with the right thing to say at the moment of calling. It is about this process, of how men and women interact, and in some instances, how women and women interact that leaves one feeling vulnerable and offended at the same time. I have very limited knowledge or interest in how men interact among themselves and so, I refrain from mentioning about that here.

For some of you, who know me for a long time, you might have observed that I have an angry resting face. It means that when my face is devoid of any emotions or when I am not engaged in a conversation, my face remains arranged as when someone is angry. My eyebrows are closed together and my mouth is drawn into a frown. It is not a pleasant sight to see and I do not take pride in this mostly because I have some very bad photographs preserving this perversity for eternity. I mention this here because it is related to the incident mentioned above but also to bear witness to the struggles of people who are told often to lighten up or as is more common in the case of women, smile.

I like smiling as any average person does and on most occasions, which are truly hilarious (and not offending), I smile and laugh. I have smiled at strangers, kids, friends, parents, relatives, acquaintances, students, mentors, boyfriends, animals and at myself. It is quite natural to smile in response to sweet, nice, and cute things and people. What is offending is when I am asked to smile because the other person perceives me as uptight or too serious or when a man realizes that I am a woman. The first occasion is as frustrating as the second but there is never really a gauge to measure such things. If you have figured out by now, I have been asked by many people (men and women) to smile or laugh [open-heartedly].

It is not easy to write further without drowning myself in liquor to soothe the anger that rises at the numerous occasions when I have been asked to loosen up. I remember one occasion, when I was sitting at a café with two work-friends for a work meeting. We had met that day to salvage the organization’s poor communications but instead I was listening to how people working as employees in some companies used their lunch hours to shop for essentials and visit salons. It was really not funny. First, I believe in personal hygiene and that my refrigerator should be stocked with food and I believe that if employees are expected to work on weekends or at midnight, salon appointments should not be an issue. Second, I was an employee working under someone, and this felt like a breach of conduct, this was personal. Third, the organization’s communication was in a dire state. So, I couldn’t laugh. I tried to smile conveying my discomfort but it was interpreted as my inability to muster the courage to laugh a good heart’s laugh in public. I was told, “Rathi, you can laugh. Come on!” I quit the organization two months later.

I have not always been the victim, however. I have committed versions similar to the aforementioned to other individuals. In my defense, they were mostly men. But, I still do reel under the thought if at all we could be a little more doubtful, about ourselves. I wish we could doubt our perceptions of others’ responses and reactions. I wish we could believe in the fundamental right of people to exist in a manner that is comfortable to them most. In our desire to change the world and by that virtue, change everyone around us, we often skip changing our own selves. And, if we could look at the temperaments we so casually display to loved ones and strangers from a higher perspective, we could learn a thing or two about diversity, multiculturalism, introversion, shyness, and most of all, about women’s disposition in public places – places where they are under constant stress, panic, and in some cases, under threat.

I believe in smiling at strangers but I cannot often do that, at least not in most public places. I believe in the transformative power of physical touch, in a hug, but I am scared when a man – known or unknown – breaches the space (literally or figuratively) that I need to feel powerful. I believe in hearing stories, in the cathartic release of endorphins, but in a world where fear is the base frequency, the threat of being stolen of your vital life source, your esteem is ever high. I believe in creative expression, whatever art form it be, but when standing upon the ruins of others is becoming the norm, I fear the possibility of my smiles going down further. It is not easy being a social construct; it is definitely not easy being told how to be a better woman.

Looking back at that night, when the guy approached my table, I coax out of myself a fit remark that I would tell the next man who will do something similar. It is not fun especially because it is something that will happen in certain terms sooner than I might anticipate. I wish I was as suave as Shulamith Firestone, when she writes,

“In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. And this meant that I smiled rarely, for in truth, when it came down to real smiling, I had less to smile about. My ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them. ”

I hope for this ‘dream’ – smiling without being pursued and at something that truly deserves one.

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