The Wandering Women

Illustration by <a href="">Martina Paukova</a>
Illustration by Martina Paukova

For As Seen On [  ], the 2015 UO writing competition, we invited writers to reflect on the changing relationship between performance, audience, and public space. The theme was prompted by both the ongoing movement of art practice out from under the proscenium arch and into public spaces and what it means to exist in the public realm today — on display, for fellow residents and surveillers alike. We expected a broad range of interpretations of performance, from investigation of how formal stagings have engaged the city in new ways to acting out rights through protest. And we surely got them!

Today, we are pleased to present the winning essay, selected out of 64 entries from around the world: “The Wandering Women” by Maya Sorabjee. In a break from our New York City coverage, Sorabjee takes us to Bombay, where the intersection of loitering and gender identity potently demonstrates why occupation of physical and, increasingly, digital space is still a radical act. While her descriptions of place firmly situate the reader in the unique street culture of Bollywood’s heart, Sorabjee evokes with equal deftness the near universal component of women’s experience of public space: the predatory male gaze.

In the coming weeks, we will also publish the competition’s two runners-up, each sharply illustrated by Martina Paukova, so stay tuned! All three winners are collected in a book currently on sale at Greenlight Bookstore and available online with a donation to Urban Omnibus. Snag your print copy today! And for the full sensory experience, be sure to listen to readings of the winning pieces by five talented young actors. –J.T.

On Falkland Road, the buildings sweat. Pastel façades drip with dirt, punctured by apartment balconies that form regular three-story grids. The twisted wrought iron of the balustrades bend with the women who lean on them. They are framed curves of exposed skin, waiting their turns in a grim ballet. A young lady in a fuchsia sari leaves her post and returns to inner grime through the balcony door. A few minutes later, she emerges again.

Falkland Road is the main thoroughfare of Kamathipura, Bombay’s red light district. Like most chunks of land on the island, it was built from marsh and is now prime real estate. But less than a century after it was stolen from the sea, Kamathipura became the city’s most notorious site of public looking — conspicuous consumption of the vilest kind. Millions of migrants — most of them male — flood India’s financial capital in search of work, and many end their nights on Falkland Road. They stroll along the trash-lined streets, gazing into windows that glow scarlet. In 1978, photographer Mary Ellen Mark entered the labyrinth of brothels with her camera. Ikat-print bed sheets and checked curtains became spit-stained drapery for the depravity of the night, where 50,000 women were on display.

Though still a locale whose primary currency is the gaze, the number of sex workers in Kamathipura has now dipped below 2,000. The skyscrapers have staked their claim, and the pastel chawls must bow.

Photo by Maya Sorabjee
Photo by Maya Sorabjee

At the Gateway of India, the men look through their mobile phones. They look at you, because you chose to wear a skirt today (it’s hot). They won’t ask permission to take your picture; they won’t hesitate to whistle. You walk across the public square and the pigeons scatter. But the men remain, in throngs. They call out — kya item!

An item number — what the men refer to in their lascivious calls — is a trope of Bollywood, a musical performance strategically positioned in a film. It has a standard formula: superficial lyrics; irresistible rhythm; a crowd of dancing, ogling men; and, at the center, a beautiful woman: the eponymous item. Thing. The ingredients are spun together in the industry centrifuge and spat out as the latest chart topper, reverberating across the city in mobile phone ringtones and taxi stereos.

On the streets of Bombay, the item becomes you, since you chose to wear a skirt.

Photo by Maya Sorabjee
Photo by Maya Sorabjee

Bollywood is still urban gospel, stirring the hearts and libidos of young Indians with every movie release. A billboard advertising this year’s Diwali blockbuster is lit in neon on the ziggurat front of Eros cinema. The building itself is an old Art Deco palace of looking; on its opening night 80 years ago, Eros’ bow brought to Bombay the first inkling of the heady, globalized world it knows too well today. In the cold glint of Hollywood, American culture seeped into the city, its legacy now everywhere: in the nearby stalls of Fashion Street where they hawk exported H&M dresses for a tenth of the price, in the Starbucks franchise at the back of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where they sell chai lattés without a trace of irony.

On the façade of Eros itself, the billboard is plastered with the smiling, airbrushed image of whichever Bollywood diva is currently trending. She is minimally adorned (in Western clothes) for the benefit of her male audience. She looks down at you with a wink of tacit understanding, because you chose to wear a skirt today.

The male residents of the city bring their picture house fantasies to life on the pavement.

Photo by Maya Sorabjee
Photo by Maya Sorabjee

Charles Baudelaire popularized loitering in nineteenth century Paris. Flânerie it was called, made possible by Baron Haussmann, an urban composer who swished his arms in broad strokes, tracing new boulevards through the medieval city.

The wide sidewalks became communal stages. Of the man that would traverse them, Baudelaire wrote:

His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.

The flâneur was noble in his looking, seeing in the multitudes and the architecture an inbound modernity. But he looked at women, too:

He delights in universal life. If a fashion or the cut of a garment has been slightly modified, if bows and curls have been supplanted by cockades, if bavolets have been enlarged and chignons have dropped a fraction towards the nape of the neck, if waists have been raised and skirts have become fuller, be very sure that his eagle eye will already have spotted it from however great a distance.

The item girl, then, is immortal. Though inextricable from Bollywood today, she still moves under the glare of the City of Light.

On a cold night in Paris, I walked home from Luxembourg Station along an empty side street in Saint-Germain. A man on a motorcycle pulled up, slowing his speed to my pace, and began to follow me. “Tu veux me connaître?” he asked. Do you want to know me?

Photo by Maya Sorabjee
Photo by Maya Sorabjee

Every city has its own breed of flâneur. In 2012, a sociologist, a journalist, and an architect began to think about Bombay’s loiterers.

These three women — Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade — had grown tired of living on the peripheries of their urban worlds. They took issue with a status quo that kept women at home but let men spend their spare hours on the streets, lingering in clusters large and small. Loitering is a beautifully improvised performance, with skeletal stage directions: congregate at chai stall, squat on sidewalk, smoke a beedi.

Draw a line connecting the dotted loiterers and a massive concrete playpen forms in which men carelessly saunter while women are held at bay. The girls who dare to defy the urban hegemony are met with a panoptic gaze that pastes itself to their legs as they walk the streets. Just look around: the difference is stark — it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd, with a perverse gender plot twist. The statistics are no better: in Maharashtra’s urban environments (of which Bombay is one), there are twenty female workers for every hundred male ones.

So one day, these three women did something seemingly innocuous. They created the hashtag #WhyLoiter and used it whenever they went out. It quickly became an excuse to wander around in public space — strolling along Juhu Beach, stopping for a cigarette at a paan shop, cycling through the by-lanes of bazaars. Phadke and co. discovered a method of casual dissent, tapping into the politics of fun. And Bombay’s virtual commons — the fluid spheres of Twitter and Instagram — began to bulge with pictures of women in the city. A corpus of performed pleasure emerged around #WhyLoiter. Selfies of girls hanging out in Shivaji Park proliferated across the Internet, happy fuck yous to the unpermitted photographs that men had always taken.

It was a glorious enactment — flip the phone camera inward, place yourself in the thick of the city, smile, and stay there. The mechanics of voyeurism were interrupted as the photographer became the subject; the viewer, the viewed.

Loitering is a non-productive performance. For the most part, no transactions are made, no useful goals are met — timepass, locals call it. But in a city tacked together by codified spaces of consumption and propelled by the ceaseless churning of surplus capital, loitering, in its invitation to slack off, is powerful. Throw gender into the mix, and it can be revolutionary.

Leaving a trail of images in their wake, the ladies of Bombay roamed.

Photo by Maya Sorabjee
Photo by Maya Sorabjee

The city is lined with lovers. Without fail, they meet in the evenings and assume their places: sitting on the promenade of Marine Drive, leaning against the palm trees that dot seafront parks. Bombay is strange that way — an inverted patchwork of public and private space. The home, somehow, is the dreaded site of public tribunal. Your mother and father and mother-in-law and father-in-law and grandmother and grandfather and uncle and aunt are all there, inspecting your every move and the number of hearts in your WhatsApp messages. Who is this boy you’re talking to Where is he from What do his parents do? they demand.

In the face of such scrutiny, a city of 21 million people can become intimate. The throngs protect, thickening the distance between you and your disapproving kin. And so the contraband couples come to the borders of the city and cuddle on reclaimed land. Like the concrete beneath them, they too must steal their space, sculpt it to their contours, make it their own.

The cement tetrapods on Marine Drive break the tide of the Arabian Sea against the swerving tar. Seawater sprays onto the couples at sunset like scattered applause.

Photo by Maya Sorabjee
Photo by Maya Sorabjee

Can’t get enough? Listen to actor Xandra Clark’s rendition of the piece from our January 13th reading of the winning essays at Greenlight Bookstore:

Maya Sorabjee is a student at Brown University concentrating in architectural history and urban studies. She grew up in Bombay.


The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Urban Omnibus Writing Competition

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