So the other day I found myself in an Uber cab with a very chatty driver. I would like to think that I’m usually excellent conversation material, but after two hours of sweating it out in a dance class, I’m a sloth. I’m mute, and I’m slumped so hard I’m trying to fuse with the seat. Amidst my deliberate languor, the driver began to engage me in diatribes about terrible motorcycle riders and their recklessness. I harrumphed in agreement from time to time, all the time pondering how rude it would be to whip out my headphones and plug my ears in. I didn’t.
Something was to break me out of voicemail mode. I was still about a kilometre and a half from my house, when the driver nodded towards something, and said.
“Look at that. Isn’t that disgusting?”
Now, there’s a reason I’ve called this an average conversation, and the reason is that I've had conversations like these way too many times before. I knew where this was going, but I sat up in my seat to look. What I saw was a young woman standing by a shop talking to her friends. Right away, I could see what had offended the driver - it was that the young lady was wearing a dress. I pretended not to understand what was happening.
"I've been seeing this since morning. It's pathetic. I know what's behind this. It's that Shah Rukh movie. Have you seen it?" I shook my head, and this icon of male virility pressed on, undeterred.
"You should see the kind of clothes Anushka wears in the movie. Suddenly, all these girls want to copy her."
On other occasions, I might have let this pass, but something about this man's smug sanctimony really annoyed me. Moderating my tone only a little - and only because I firmly believe that shouting never convinced anybody - I said -
"What is your problem? Let her wear what she wants."
The driver was astounded at this statement. A drawn out "Siiiir" burst out as he gathered his thoughts.
"It's because of women like this that the reputation of Bangalore is getting spoilt. They wear clothes like these and when something happens to them, they cry rape." He didn't of course use the word 'rape' because naturally even the mention of that word would have shaken his delicate constitution.
If I was annoyed earlier, I was boiling at this point. This man didn't care that women were getting assaulted, and that the men assaulting women was a blight on Bangalore's name, but it was women's fashion that was intolerable? On that day though, I had decided to channel all my frustrations into reasoned argument.
"It's the men who're assaulting women that are besmirching Bangalore's good name though, isn't it?"
The driver smiled patronisingly and brought out one of Those Analogies, sparkled to a shine. I don't think he was quite at the point of doubting my masculinity, he probably just thought I was mentally deficient.
"You see, it's like with dogs. Dogs are perfectly OK as long as you don't go and stick your fingers in their mouths. If you do though, they'll bite."
This wasn't the first time I've been hit with one of Those Analogies. Among other beauties, I've heard women compared to beautiful flowers that needed to be covered to be protected from bees. I persisted with my approach though, likely only bolstering his belief that I was an overdeveloped child with a beard.
"Are you saying men are dogs? Are you saying that men have no self-control?" This, despite the fact that as a dog lover, his canino-phobic analogy made no sense to me at all.
He glanced sharply my way for a moment, before that oily smile restored itself on his face. "Siiir", he exclaimed. "That was only an example." Puffing up as much as anyone can in the confines of a Tata Indica, he pointed out that he would never ever do such a thing. He was a father to kids, and he had never, ever had a drop to drink in his life. He hadn't smoked either. In fact, he had rejected drink even when alcohol was pressed to his lips by his friends. That's the sort of man he was.
All this time, the one thought in my head was that traditional notions of morality in India - not drinking, not smoking, not swearing and so forth - were so far removed from my perspective. Where was equality, where was empathy? I wished to point out his hypocrisy, but did I mention that this whole conversation was in Hindi? An approximation to Hindi, in my case though, but expressing this thought was a bridge too far. I didn't even deign to nod at that self-indulgent peacockery.
Dropping his voice to a confidential whisper, the driver went on. "You know what, I see girls sitting around here drinking at night."
"I've actually told them several times not to do so, but they don't listen at all." Fatherly concern dripped from his voice, but I nearly burst out laughing at the irony of our situation. Just then, we were passing by one of the locality's shadiest - and most popular - watering holes, generally full to bursting with drunken men. This was in fact the sort of place that needed his moralizing on the harmful effects of drink. The thought hadn't even occurred to him.
"Look around you." I said, pointing to at least four different groups of men in tank tops and shorts.
"You tell me why you think these men are wearing shorts."
The driver didn't respond, apparently busy in flicking on an indicator switch, so I galloped on.
"The answer is simple. It's hot, and shorts are comfortable in hot weather."
He didn't agree of course. He insisted that women wear shorts just to expose bare flesh, debasing themselves and staining Bangalore's good name - inspired of course by Jab Harry Met Sejal. I was this close to giving up, when the driver pointed out yet another young woman. "See?!"
This time I was genuinely confused because even trying to see things with his eyes, I couldn't for the life of me see what he was upset about. Eventually, a dim bulb flickered hesitantly in my mind though. "Are you saying that because she's wearing a sleeveless top?"
"Yes! Such a shame they can't be dressed properly." I shut up at that point because reasoned argument had hit a brick wall, and banged itself into concussion on its unyielding hardness. The driver changed tack a little and began to point out examples of women who were dressed properly in his view, but given that I was completely unresponsive, he gave up after a bit. Presently, he mumbled something.
"What do I know, sir? You know much more than I do."
Despite myself, I almost broke into a smile. I had got under his skin! Never mind that I had set off hoping to change the man's mind, but this would do. Yay! Unreasonably thrilled, I got off where I had to, and pulled up the Uber app to give the driver a two star rating (I reserve one star for cosmic catastrophes), when I saw that this driver had received a whole bunch of badges for being an excellent conversationlist. Deflation was instant, and an image popped into my head - the same driver chatting with another passenger about this extremely strange male passenger he'd just ferried, and the two of them having a laugh about beta males and the moral decay of this country. I would like to think that the fact that this driver belonged to a certain religious community that was significantly more rigid in their definitions of gender roles - that's me being polite here - meant that he was more the exception than the norm, but that would just be me deluding myself.
This was only an average conversation with an average driver, and I'm so tired of it all.