“Look out!” my friends reminded each other repeatedly, as we wandered out into the streets filled with cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, cows, goats, horse carts, and sometimes an occasional elephant. After three weeks in the southern Indian state of Kerala, we were still lost without clear lines on the road. We watched auto rickshaws speed by, sounding their distinct horns in an aggressive greeting, if not to merely inform others of their presence. The chaos of the mysterious system that seems to guide the roadways in India is something that must be seen to be believed. It also required a bit of vigilance to assure no one in our group carelessly steps off the crumbling curbsides.
We were quite nervous to jump in our first auto-rickshaw. We had seen them driving past our cars and vans for over a week now and we knew we would eventually be riding in one ourselves. After negotiating a fare that was likely high above what the locals would typically pay, four of us crammed in the back of an auto for our first ride. The raincoats we wore over our kurtas, as we anticipated the arrival of a monsoon at any moment, stuck to our skin as we squealed and squirmed trying to get situated in the back of the auto. We waved furiously to our friends crammed in the back of the auto following us. It was liberating for the humid air to suddenly feel like a breeze as we sped up passing villages, crossing bridges and smelling the seawater on our way from the hotel to the city. We were crossing over into a new period of our time in India. We had the freedom to roam.
It was liberating and terrifying, and a hilariously small step into the next months of new adventures and experiences. For the first time though, we were moving through the streets without the safety of the car window. Suddenly the stares, smiles, smells, sounds, and sights, were no longer guarded by a glass shield. We were experiencing India in a whole new way. It was the stares that I felt most penetratingly though. I was ready to see all this new place had to offer but I wasn’t entirely ready for it to see me back. People stared not in an unfriendly or aggressive way necessarily, but they no doubt stared. Sometimes my friends would ask if I could feel the weight of the eyes on me and I most definitely could.
The stares made me intensely alert to my otherness in this new space. I could pull my scarf tight to cover my fair skin and freckles, but my blue eyes still were impossible to shield. My time in India was intended to be an intellectual journey and I had begun to internalize the stares that questioned my belonging in the space and distracted me from acting as a camouflaged participant observer.
From my courses, I was keenly aware of India’s dark history of colonialism. Furthermore, I feared my presence only propagated the often-shadowy roots of international aid and investment, anthropology’s colonial histories, the missionary conquests and white savior complexes that have brought so many here from “the West,” and the many other toxic power dynamics that seek to exotify and exploit the Global South. I knew there were limits and barriers to my understanding of this place due to these histories and structural dynamics that have developed over time.
When eyes from every street bore down on me, I feared these limits and my own ability to conceptualize this experience. Though not explicitly hostile, they felt haunting, daring and intense. Somehow the stares both broke the ice and continued to keep a barrier between myself and whomever was with me on the street. They were unrelenting and left me feeling exposed. It was as if the person doing the stare was seeing through me. In the coming weeks, I tried to let go of these worries and the guilt that followed these interactions. I found that a simple smile allowed for a break in the tension. Young girls were especially eager to smile back at me. Though I still secretly worried they saw me the same way that young girls in the U.S. see the slim, fair models that are plastered all over billboards and tabloids. Even India the preference for fairness is reflected in advertisements. And here I was a billboard for a neoliberal, colonial aesthetic.
My unique appearance or the experience of being stared at might not have had anything to do with the histories and dynamics that I felt the weight and guilt of. My professor advised me to suspend my own judgments or concerns about what the staring means to me or how it makes me feel. The interaction she said might have much less to do with my presence and myself as a representation of these structures than I assumed it did.
It was the babies’ and children’s’ stares that never failed to jar me though. Their eyes were often painted with thick black Kajal (or kanmashi in Malayalam). I assumed for most of my time in India that this was purely cosmetic. Along with its cosmetic history though, there was another history I was completely unaware of. As I dug deeper into the meaning of Kajal, I discovered that mothers applied it to their children’s eyes to strengthen them and protect them against the evil eye.
The evil eye (typically understood to be a blue eye) is a curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare, usually given to a person when they are unaware. Many cultures believe that receiving the evil eye will cause misfortune or injury. Reading this immediately complicated my initial impressions and experiences of feeling I was being stared at. I was not only being stared at but I was also doing the staring. I felt suddenly all the instances of looking into people’s’ homes and lives and communities could echo this idea of “harm from the eye” or produce a “maleficent influence.” My stare did have the potential to cast a malevolent curse and to cause harm to those who were unaware of my gaze. But the tiny babies that stared back at me with Kajal lined eyes had their own sources of strength and ferocity that I wasn’t even previously aware of. The experience served as a greater reminder of the limitations and histories of my individual understandings- the ones that I was creating while in India and the ones I brought with me.
I had never realized the histories that the color of my own eyes held or any of these connotations to people in other parts of the world. This is not to say that it was the reason that I was experiencing the feeling of being stared at or that anyone looking at me was necessarily connoting it to the evil eye, but it serves as a reminder of the complexities of cultural exchange and the histories that influence them. I wish I had spent more time recognizing that those looking back at me had their own history and fierce forms of protection against my potentially “malevolent gaze,” instead of being overwhelmed by my foreign aesthetic and my own self-consciousness.
For the rest of my time in India, I was told to “look out” every time I crossed the street. I dodged buses and auto-rickshaws adorned with talismans warding off the evil eye, a reminder of my foreign gaze. Paradoxically India taught me to “look within” myself to examine my own limitations and biases in my understanding. Of course, my own understandings and perceptions played a huge role in the way that I am experienced India. The perspectives, histories, assertions, and cultures of those observing me and my own perspectives were somehow being exchanged and examined in these small interactions that required us to look, see, and stare.
Lucille Ausman ’17 is a senior at Smith College studying Cultural Anthropology and International Politics. She participated in a Global Engagement Seminar in Southern India during the summer of 2015 with Professor Charles Staelin and Professor Nalini Bhushan. This traveling seminar was title “India in Transition” and it examined the contrasts between India’s rapid modernization and it’s ancient philosophical histories. The course also attempted to question how we define modernity and traditionalism. During her time in India, Lucille interned at Madura Microfinance in the city of Chennai and did research on the financial habits of female entrepreneurs in rural villages.by