Mindy Kaling's recent Super Bowl advertisement is about her feeling invisible as a woman of colour; she can't hail down a cab and attendants ignore her presence and serve others. Mindy wonders if she really is invisible, and does a series of ridiculous things -- like stealing an ice cream from a store, getting dunked in a car wash, stretching out naked in a park. But when she walks up to Matt Damon to kiss him, she realises she is not invisible to him!
Race can be one of the reasons women become invisible. At work, many women of colour complain how they regularly get passed over for projects, presentations and promotions and are often unnoticed and unheard.
But being ignored or snubbed by people is not being invisible; neither is being passed over for a job. To me, being invisible is the state of 'not being', of not existing in someone's life or framework; it is being not perceptible or discernible by the mind and the eye. This invisibility is not the sole prerogative of women of colour. Irrespective of their colour, most women face invisibility in their lives -- as young girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers -- and even at work.
Invisibility would mean that there were no cat-calls, eve teasing, dirty gestures or guys rubbing themselves against me. It would have allowed me to be me, and given me breathing space.
I have had enough practice at being invisible, or trying to be invisible!
I was used to a certain amount of invisibility all through my growing years because of my gorgeous younger sister. She was (is) beautiful, charming and unlike me, socially adept. She was the one everyone loved. My parents got marriage offers for her since she was in high school and in social gatherings, she was the one people sought out. I loved her enough to not be jealous or distressed.
I was also happily invisible when I was the third wheel with my friends and their boyfriends. Out on a date, they would keep me well supplied with food and drink and I got to see Delhi on long drives, was treated to movies and concerts and even received free gifts. I could do what I wanted because they had eyes only for each other.
At other times, I craved invisibility. Delhi roads and public transport are notoriously unsafe for women. I had to be back home before dusk, was not allowed to walk on lonely roads or take nearly empty buses. I could not wear shorts or skirts, and was discouraged from being aggressive if someone teased me. Invisibility would mean that there were no cat-calls, eve teasing, dirty gestures or guys rubbing themselves against me. It would have allowed me to be me, and given me breathing space.
I hated the forced invisibility during my marriage plans though. I had been brought up to speak my mind, but all that changed when I had to get married. At these times I wondered if my family could see or hear me -- I would be sitting right there when my potential husbands and their families were discussed threadbare. I would rave and rant, but nobody would hear me. I was not an active participant in my own future. The only time I caught my family's attention was when I refused to walk into the room full of strangers with the traditional tray of tea. There was mayhem, but I had learnt to break through the invisibility barrier.
Yet, I did not consider all this real invisibility.
"Despite the creeping invisibility I feel invincible."
For me real invisibility began the day a young man called me 'aunty'. He was almost as old as me and I was mortified. I thought he was being cheeky and my first instinct was to call him 'uncle' and slap his face. My sister laughed at my outrage and commented that my recent marriage had changed my social status. I was no longer someone to be coveted, because I belonged to someone else and was taboo; 'aunty' denoted a respectable older woman. To me, though, it meant that my charm as a young woman was history now. I chafed at the thought, and empathised with Scarlett O'Hara and her agitation at having to change her manner because she was married.
As a married woman, I lost my individual identity and increasingly became known as someone's wife and mother. I loved it because it brought freedom for me. The only people I became accountable to were my family, friends and work colleagues. The rest of the world stopped being bothered with me and I had the social sanction to finally be me! Besides, being Preeti Singh and Nishna and Udai's mother filled up many gaps in my heart and made me complete.
Just when I thought I was living it up in the best decade of my life, invisibility has come back, staring me right in the face. All thanks to my gorgeous teenage daughter. Standing next to her, I sometimes wonder if my physical disappearance would be noticed at all. In the queue for coffee at Starbuck's where the server smilingly takes her order and distractedly hands me a wrong coffee, or at the clinic where the doctor does not even register my presence, this invisibility does not bother me - yet. For now I am just a mom, immensely proud that my daughter is finding her feet in the larger world, and is growing into a secure, articulate adult.
Instead of male attention, I hope to have the companionship of my brilliantly beautiful women friends -- finally we will be ourselves, invisible to the rest.
A survey states that women feel men stop noticing them in their fifties. I find older women incredibly sexy -- most break the shackles of various social diktats, are confident in their skins and have so many stories to tell. It's not as if older women want catcalls or guys drooling over them, but even so, it is unpleasant to cross over from being a desired woman to an older, unnoticed one. Age does come suddenly and one day the face in the mirror looks older, and the body not so young either. I am in that weird in-between stage right now. Sometimes the clothes I wear are too dowdy, too 'youngish', too bright, too dull, or just plain wrong and the hair and skin don't feel right.
Despite the creeping invisibility I feel invincible. I am financially independent, healthy and have a huge appetite for life. As I embark upon a second career, one of writing, I find this invisibility very liberating. Since people don't notice me, I can observe them and their behaviours with complete abandon. Flying under the radar, I get a ringside view on all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of people. That is formidable power!
I know though, that as I grow older and become invisible in the manner older people do, it will break my heart. That invisibility is harsh and can feel like a life sentence. I feel the pain of older people. In loving families elders are not told everything or consulted, and their opinion is not considered. In the broader society elders are treated like invalids and people are either overly attentive or horribly condescending in their attitude towards them. I wonder how isolated they feel.
At this point, though, instead of trying to disprove my invisibility like Mindy Kaling, I really want to possess Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. Under it, I would be the super-cool Invisible Woman. I would be able to keep my children safe and make sure they don't get into trouble, go to the set of Game of Thrones and get up close and personal with Jon Snow and the Lannister brothers, roam the world without a visa or expensive tickets, eat at fancy restaurants without paying, and most importantly, not be bothered with the wrinkles on my face and my weight. Instead of male attention, I hope to have the companionship of my brilliantly beautiful women friends -- finally we will be ourselves, invisible to the rest.
That invisibility I can live with - forever!