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Saturday, July 02, 2022

Looking Through You

Do you know what it feels like to be invisible?

Written by Manjiri Indurkar |
Updated: April 30, 2017 12:01:38 am
Invisibility is, and always has been, a treacherous ally of those already on the fringes. (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)

In Umesh Kulkarni’s film Vihir (The Well), released in 2009, there’s a poignant scene where two boys, Nachiket and Sameer, cousins, ponder upon a question in the middle of a game of hide and seek — what does it mean to be invisible? Nachiket, the elder of the two, observes, “The one who is seeking always believes everyone is hiding. So if you don’t hide, he won’t find you even if he sees you!” When Sameer complains about the game being disrupted, Nachiket responds, “But tell me Samya, did you see me till the very end? Maybe, you even saw me, but you didn’t realise that it was I, because you were expecting to find me in some dark corner. What is it to be invisible? When you look at something and yet do not perceive it, isn’t that being invisible, in a way? Meaning, if we could dissolve our energy into the atmosphere around us, then maybe we could become invisible.” What does it mean to dissolve your energies into the atmosphere, and how does one do it? What does it mean to be seen but not perceived? How do you not hide and still stay invisible?

Nachiket, whose father abandoned him, his sister, and his mother, exists well within the trappings of family life — a loving, alcoholic uncle played by Girish Kulkarni, who wishes to be a singer but can’t become one, a pious grandfather very deeply rooted in the Brahminical structures of living. Nachiket wants to accomplish something that no one around him has managed to. His ultimate freedom lies in his escape into a world that no one alive has seen. Nachiket is an aberration in the family, where everyone else has tried and failed at being one. His father became invisible through abandonment. His uncle drowned himself in alcohol and became insignificant, and, therefore, invisible. Nachiket, the good student, the gentle boy, the near-perfect dream child, is nothing like the rest of his family. His life, shaped through his experiences, is driven by a series of unfortunate events. Nachiket, in that family of uber-masculine males, is the “feminine”. No one understands him. He can be seen, but he can’t be perceived. The vihir where he ultimately finds his invisibility, then, is yet another cloak. Nachiket can never be seen, quite literally now, but he was invisible, to begin with.

We grapple with these invisibilities in our day-to-day lives. My mother’s brother was an alcoholic, and, perhaps, the most misunderstood person I know. Born into a family of RSS members where everyone took religion too seriously and had set rules for life, he didn’t fit in. He never completed his education, was good at his job but never took it seriously. He would be found sleeping on footpaths in an inebriated state, brought home by well wishers who would then talk about him behind his back. He was a loving uncle, too. And, he, too, left us one day, and never made contact. I like to believe he found his freedom in his invisibility. But I don’t think he did. How could he? Family is an oppressive unit, but so is the world. To be truly free, one needs to be to exhaustingly lonely. And I cannot wish loneliness for him.

Invisibility, as a concept, is closely tied to violence of marginality politics. Women have been historically invisible. Vidya Balan’s character, Vidya Venkatesan-Bagchi, in Kahaani 2, that of a child sexual abuse survivor, is as detached from a sense of vanity as possible. The cinematic sense of hygiene that is often shown in central characters despite the desperate circumstances they are in — no sweat marks, manicured nails, shiny hair that doesn’t lose its sheen even in combat zones — is completely absent in her. Balan’s character suffers from self-loathing due to her past experiences. The societal rhetoric of attractive women asking for it makes the character’s appearance grotesque, rendering her body invisible, because no one wants to look at the hideous. Bagchi’s body is driven by her self-hate. She refuses to take care of herself because a sense of self-esteem doesn’t exist in her body. She has been made to realise that she was once attractive, and, therefore, she was assaulted, for she called for unwanted attention. But, now that she isn’t, she doesn’t have to worry. She can continue her existence in invisibility and be at peace. To not be seen, sometimes, can feel like a reward.

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Invisibility is, and always has been, a treacherous ally of those already on the fringes. As an overweight woman who grew up in small-town India, I have acquired a certain hatred for my body. My invisibility comes from the belief that no matter what I wear, no one is going to look at me. I am not the girl who gets picked up at bars. I have to be smart, funny, well-read, and well-dressed to get someone to look at me. I hide behind my flab and wear the clothes women my size aren’t expected to wear. I remember reading Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone while still in school. The unremarkable book had a passage that stayed with me. The book’s narrator, Hari, describing the physical appearance of his girlfriend, talks about how she dresses up only in “Indian clothes”.

Salwar-kameez is the character’s preferred attire and there is nothing wrong with that. What got to me was the justification. It was her choice, not like fat women, who just have to. I was that girl, forced to wear salwar-kameez, because what else could I do? My flab made me so overwhelmingly visible, my choices had to be killed, lest I turn myself into a spectacle — which, much later in my life, I did. A fat girl wearing miniskirts is stared at, as an ungodly sight.

In a television interview last year, actor Sonam Kapoor opened up about her struggles with body image issues. Kapoor mentioned an interaction she had with filmmaker Zoya Akhtar, where Akhtar called her an art installation. Kapoor, known for her fashion sense and her bold sartorial choices, it appears, is always attempting to make a statement. Kapoor, it seems, is meant to stand out in the crowd. How then would such a person be invisible? The previously fat Kapoor has a complicated relationship with her body, because no matter what they tell you, you don’t start loving your body once you lose the weight. So, she hides behind the carefully constructed image of a fashionista. It’s nothing but a façade, a beautiful masquerade. Would it then be too presumptuous to say that she is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa of sorts, a piece of art so beautiful, who we see, but don’t perceive? Isn’t Mona Lisa deliberately visible and eternally invisible?

What Kapoor and Balan give us are two kinds of invisibilities. One is associated with being a spectacle and the other with being nondescript. I find myself at the intersection of these two kinds of invisibilities. I consider myself too nondescript, and too much of a spectacle to be visible. Kapoor, when she lost her flab, became conventionally beautiful, and turned herself into a work of art. I, too, am a work of art. You can find me, in all my nakedness, in a Lucian Freud painting. I am the fat women he painted.

Delhi-based Manjiri Indurkar is one of the founder-editors of the web magazine Antiserious.

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