The waiting area outside the yoga studio starts filling with the usual suspects. Everyone nods and smiles in companionable silence and agarbatti fumes until a new girl walks in - supple, blonde, stunningly beautiful. A middle-aged gentleman a regular, almost always in pro-cycling day-glo) cannot contain himself. “Hi!!!” he says, to her, eyes brighter than his tee-shirt. “Hi! Have a seat. Take my seat. No. No, take it.” The young woman smiles, indicates with her hands that she’d rather not but eventually, to be polite, capitulates. The man stands inches away from her.
“Russian?” he asks. She must crane her neck to reply but she is remarkably composed with a monosyllabic, “Ukraine.” “Ah, the Ukraine,” he says knowingly, “I love it.” “You’ve been?” she asks. “No, but I know many Indian men married to Ukrainians.” The woman nods. He continues, “Many of my friends have Ukrainian girlfriends. A lot of them are models. Are you?” The woman is unsmiling as she says, “I’ve moved here from Paris where I was Head of Marketing for a [she names a massive technology company]. My husband was transferred to Mumbai.” Day-glo guy looks glum. The agarbatti smoke clears but there is now Major Awkward in the air.
We’ve all seen and been part of exchanges like these. It’s enough to make you believe Raj Koothrapalli’s selective mutism with women was actually an excellent survival strategy in "The Big Bang Theory". You see a guy approach a girl and your first thought is, “Be cool Indian dude bro, be cool.”
But Indian bros can’t seem to be cool when they’re talking to a girl they find attractive. They come across as arrogant or smarmy or gauche and often seem jettisoned at you from the testosterone atmosphere of an all-male herd. But ask an Indian man and chances are you’ll hear that Indian women are equally arrogant, notoriously hard to approach and the fear of rejection is crippling.
How did we get to this lose-lose situation? Has a culture of arranged marriages meant we didn’t need to develop any dating smarts? Is it the fact that growing up, we aren’t allowed to fraternise with the opposite gender (unless they’re related, resulting in most people’s first crushes usually being a cousin)? Should we, as per usual, blame Bollywood?
Or was Margaret Atwood talking about the average urban Indian dating scene when she said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Let’s take a step back.
Random Indian Male
To begin with, Indian women are not big fans of The Random Indian Male. It’s not because (as the comments section of this video about pick-up lines and Indian women suggests) India’s “poor male to female ratio…” results in “most Indian girls getting enough attention without even trying much and as the rule goes, you do not value what you achieve easily.”
And when I say The Random Indian Male, it’s not you personally, you understand. Just the heaving, senseless, lascivious mass whom – every moment of the day – we must shut our ears to, learn to cede public space to, audit how we appear to, expect physical and psychological trouble from.
Sure, women all over the world face street harassment, catcalling or the harder to point out, but as intimidating, eyefucking. These videos of what women walking in New York and Delhi go through, no matter what they’re wearing, shows that the entitlement of male strangers predisposes us to general distaste at best, worrying about assault at worst.
But there’s one thing the videos don’t catch. In India, in addition to the quotidian catcalls, the constant commentary, the sexual innuendoes, we also face clear threats of misogynist violence in everyday life. Overtake a man by mistake when you’re driving and you’re doomed to his aggression until your paths diverge. Confront someone taking a photograph of you and his friends will gather around, too close. Women I know have been driven into, had sticks thrown into the spokes of their motorcycles, have had men spit in their paths…
So if a girl is at bar or in a public place and you want to tell her she’s beautiful or you’d like to talk to her, start with the assumption that she is already primed to go into self-defence mode. I’m sorry. It’s the fault of the other Indian dude bros.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the Kama Sutra. In a chapter on building confidence in a woman, Vatsyayana advises that women want tender beginnings, warning that, “when they are forcibly approached by men with whom they are but slightly acquainted, they sometimes suddenly become haters of sexual connection, and sometimes even haters of the male sex.”
What did I tell you?
Indian women also know how easy it is to get slut shamed and are less likely to trust an encounter with an absolute stranger. In the Quora entry How would Indian girls like to be approached for a date?, Sanjay Sabnani’s entry makes a valid point about the inherent hypocrisy loaded into this, our immature dating milieu:
“…women are treated like damaged goods if they have been associated with serial dating or pre-marital sex. If you want to date an Indian woman then please understand that the “why” you want to go out with someone should be more than “because you’re hot”. As Indian society normalizes to a more cosmopolitan sensibility, dating will also become more normal. Right now, dating in India is a slippery slope…”
Bollywood of course teaches us nothing. We’ve shouted for days into the dustbin about the dangerous stalking-as-courtship, no-means-just-hard-to-get clichés. This Buzzfeed piece about Bollywood songs corrected for sexism makes the point perfectly.
I asked the women I knew if they’d had any good experiences with being approached and complimented by strangers. They had!
A random Facebook private message to one was a beautifully written note, including a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “human loneliness, the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy – and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge.” The stranger simply told the woman he thought she was beautiful, ending his self admitted "high-noon heroism" with a gracious “Consider this a fleeting moment in a crowded street, where a stranger smiles at you heartily and you forget about it… someone looks at you with awe and respect and you are too busy to even notice… They pass and you forget about it.”
Another woman said a man asked her if she was from Iran, complimenting her on her kohl rimmed eyes. He’d left Tehran decades ago and missed his homeland and his people. “The compliment felt spontaneous and true,” she says, “he left with a smile.”
Yet another says a man came up to her and said her aura was magnetic, but “It wasn’t a pick up line. He said it and left.”
The stories poured in. There were common threads. Not one woman mentioned how the men looked, how rich they seemed or how exceptionally funny they were. They were charmed, flattered and remembered the incidents long after they happened for a few reasons. The conversation seemed friendly, the compliments sincere. The men showed no sense of entitlement and seemed to expect nothing in return. In many cases, the men were alone or in a group that contained a number of women.
The idea is to come across as genuine, non-threatening, pleasant and casual.
It’s an online interaction but this London story featuring a Twitter DM conversation is a master class in taking a chance at an encounter, an amiable reply and a delicious cliff-hanger.
You have to be cool Indian dude bros, be cool.