This personal essay titled, ‘To Collect Women‘ was rejected by numerous magazines and websites because it wasn’t “personal enough,” or because it was “too personal” and “too vernacular,” and didn’t fit the theme enough. It explores the phenomenon of women fearlessly occupying daunting public spaces, such as bars, exemplified by the author’s encounters during ladies nights.
One afternoon, after going through many ordeals to successfully purchase a MUBI student subscription, I decided I would watch as many ‘art films’ (in languages I don’t understand) as I could that very evening. To add a little more effect to what already seemed like a very liberated act, I would head out to a ladies night, drink a lot and pay very little (order fries or garlic bread or whatever the cheapest item on the menu was so I’m not thrown out). This day, and the smug smile it put on my face from imagining that I was really quite a Frances-Ha-kind-of-free-spirited woman for those three hours, launched a series of expeditions — ladies night, book, movie, pen, pencil, and some inane image of myself to live out for a while.
After a few times, the staff who felt I occupied too much space (sitting at two, sometimes four-seaters) and gave them too little business, started demanding that I sit at the bar which was mostly empty on such days, except for corporate men with beers and complaints about their bosses, intense frustration with their female colleagues (surprise) and equally intense praise for some fancier place that had more exquisite liquor. This vantage point not only allowed me to people-watch easily without appearing sneaky, but also put me in steep view of others. Different women made periodic eye contact and quickly looked away — as if they were suspicious of or concerned for me.
I always met their eyes too, smiling half-smiles before their gazes averted, but mostly just to watch them dance with their women friends or sing ‘I Want It That Way’ loudly depending on the degree of inebriation. Once, a woman came up to me and asked if I were alright. I asked her why she thought otherwise. “Because you have come alone. We kept thinking someone would join you but nobody came. Are you sure you are okay? Come with us no, you can join us, don’t feel shy,” she responded. The genuine concern in her voice explained the looks I had gotten thus far, and I smiled rather blankly when I wished instead to thank her. I said I was absolutely fine and that I liked being here by myself. She nodded and went off to order another round.
Countless people have written in ways better than I ever can about women’s friendships in bars: women in restrooms who have held hands, held hair back and held together those few moments like they’d known each other for years. That day, my first instinct was to wonder why people saw my aloneness as a pitiable state and an invitation to enter into a cocky discourse about being alone, loneliness, enjoyment and whatnot, and what it was that afforded me this capacity to go by myself, to be alone and to enjoy it. For me, it is the presence of all these women, their voices enveloping me and their eyes periodically glancing in my direction that allow me to occupy a public space as daunting as a bar, to feel powerful in those moments and want to do it again.
Ladies night is infamous for the devious marketing plan — the assumption that women come in hoards to drink at a discount or for free, and the business follows in hoards from men who come to watch women drink. Someone on twitter observed quite funnily that the reason a Men’s Night would be a big flop is because men will come in for their free drinks, but who is going to come and splurge money to watch them? Nobody. When I felt guilty for feeding shamelessly into this system, a friend brought up that so many women get off work early on Wednesdays, and go drinking in groups because they feel safer when the bar is populated with more women. I know I feel safer. Sure, it’s sexist; surely I am unethical for endorsing it, but if there is any benefit to be gained from this system it is that it gives drinks and incredible sisterhood to women who may never see each other again.
The woman who had approached me out of concern returned after placing her order. By this point, the music was so loud that we had to scream into each other’s ears. She repeated that I should join them and then said that she saw I was reading something earlier, and inquired what book it was. I handed her the book, she read the blurb, said, “Funny Boy. Hmm. Funny Boy,” twice as if she were making a mental note. Just before bidding me goodbye, she said, “Even I want to read more. I always wanted to read more books…Okaybyenicemeetingyou.” She vanished before the intensity of her words hit me. I didn’t know what would be a suitable reaction to honour such a confession fully. I realised that the compromise of endorsing a problematic ladies night was more than worth it in exchange for collecting numerous such precious momentary friendships. Maybe I secretly seek them out now.
Recently, I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant with earphones plugged in, trying to compete with the remixed 2000s pop music and Bollywood songs that were playing, when right next to me, two women danced together, holding each other and continuing to drink. My eyes fixed on one of them for long, at once admiring and envying how freely she danced. She came up to me and asked if I was by myself, said they had noticed me and something to the effect of, “Seeing you makes me want to go to a bar by myself one day.” They then invited me emphatically to dance with them and I refused too many times until it felt rude not to oblige. That night, with these two women I had never met before, there were no introductions, no small talk, no daunting questions about what I did or who I was. They held my hand, walked with me and we danced to “Chaiyya Chaiyya”, hand on head and hips with a spirit I haven’t ever seen emerge from my body.
Before we left, one of them said something about how seeing me alone was very ‘cool’ or ‘inspiring’ — nice, big words that hit me in all the vain places. But I wonder if they knew what I will never be able to tell them given that our paths may never cross again. I wonder if they knew that it was the first time I had danced in nearly two decades, that I didn’t think my body was capable of holding the capacity for movement, moving without failing, that my first and last memory of dancing was at a Bharatanatyam class where the teacher made it clear to me that I was not good, able or worthy enough of moving in the way the other children were, and that since that day I haven’t had the gall to dance with even the people I am closest to. It was a sight of myself that even I had never seen and these two women managed to unknowingly coax it out of me.
I marvel each time at the capacity of women to share the deepest moments with each other despite knowing fully well that it is a passing one. Maybe it comes from a shared knowing that while we may not remember each other’s faces, let alone names, or cross paths again, the meeting is not really momentary because in those few moments we manage to swallow each other whole and hold the other inside us. Inside me, the smug freeness of ‘going solo’ is now slowly beginning to tell itself to hold its horses because these fleeting ‘stranger-women’ I have been collecting are not leaving my insides anytime – as much as I may think otherwise.
Prerna is a student of English, Gender Studies, and Music, currently residing in Chennai. Her writing often emerges from the complex interplay of these diverse realms, as she seeks to find their place amidst the intersecting currents of culture, feminism, caste privilege, and queerness.