In high school, I was in a quiz team. The team next to mine was asked what the largest muscle in the body was. One of my teammates knew the answer but we had no hope of it getting passed to us, we thought. But after rather loud conferring and disagreement, the other team passed the question. We said “buttocks” and got two points. We rolled our eyes at each other. The other team had known the answer but wasn’t totally sure so it didn’t want to bellow “buttock” into the mike and risk being wrong and then called buttock for the rest of their time in school.
Life was hard enough already. High school was a hormone soup that led to many strange phenomena, one of which was that anything could be a dirty joke. I was dumbfounded by a week in which several of my male classmates went around shaking hands with girls, then informing them that it was how Martians had sex, and incensed by the other week in which other male classmates shook hands with girls and said it was to see their breasts move. All this in the same setup where a vice-principal yelled at boys and girls who high-fived in the corridor, three boys who argued about who had a better porn collection, my two girlfriends and I, who knew our romance novels had better “scenes”, as well as one pair of classmates who made out so extravagantly during lunch break that most people scooted out as soon as the bell rang. Oh, and girls who had to wear cycling shorts under skirts, how could I forget that sweaty, sticky prison?
And in that supercharged, superheated universe, we rarely spoke about the actual dirty feelings that we experienced. When I first read the news that the online fashion company Myntra was changing its logo because of a complaint by Mumbai-based activist Naaz Patel that the logo was offensive to women, I was sent back to that teenage universe. In case you missed it, Patel’s complaint to the police mentioned that the M of the logo looked “like a deliberate placement of the colour scheme” to “depict a woman’s vagina”. What now, I thought. Like many other people reading the news, I looked at the M of Myntra carefully for the first time and then tilted my head in various directions. If the pump is primed then perhaps you could just about maybe see what the complaint says. Just about. Not as clearly as those famous optical puzzles of an offline world—old woman/young woman, rabbit/duck—or as intriguingly as recent viral sensations like The Dress where no one could decide what the colour was. You can’t unsee it, goes the popular phrase. In this case, you can totally unsee it. It’s just like when you drew two Us at the back of your notebook in class VI and your friend giggled because butt heehee.
Now Patel has been mocked widely for seeing dirty where no one else had seen it. She must have a dirty mind, said the memes, the YouTube comments, the tweets. But really, her mind is just not dirty enough. As for Ms Patel, I didn’t feel like she is the team bravely saying buttock in the auditorium, or even the team choosing not to be mocked in case it got it wrong. Ms Patel is in fact the apt cultural canary for a world that is grim, grimy but not dirty. Until recently, we had the OTT shows, often the grown-up equivalent of boys shaking hands to see breasts move—before Patel equivalents got there. Our cultural productions (whether they speak of sex or not) are being driven to a dry, desiccated place and I wouldn’t blame anyone for swivelling their eyes for a buzz anywhere they can get it. Even in the corporate identity of Indian fashion retailers who have chosen to have names that mean nothing.
The deranged sense I had when reading this piece of news came less out of amazement about the complaint and more that a cybercrime complaint in December 2020 elicited Myntra’s costly acquiescence by January. I have had online stores take longer to refund me on ₹500 tops that didn’t fit, never mind police complaints. It left me with that common feeling of wondering what is actually going on, distrust, despair— all the news-reading mudras of our time. In our current supercharged universe, the ambient rasa is not eroticism, it’s paranoia. It’s not between your legs, it’s in the pit of your stomach. It’s not a dirty feeling, its a sinking feeling. It leaves you with little interest in buttocks and just a desire to cover your ass.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.