The Eyes on My Street

My sister took a couple of days off work recently, after almost a year. She has been working in the corporate sector for a while. Her already demanding job (physically, temporally and mentally) – which became more so in the stitch of work-from-home where lines between work and home were further blurred – made such a break all the more imperative.

She didn’t have grand plans, she planned to just hang out with her friends and de-stress. And she had a nice time too. But the unwinding that the trip offered was instantly undone when she returned home to mom’s dismissing looks and tone.

You see, she had returned at dawn, and that made my mom very upset.

“Log kya kahenge, sochti ho? Sab dekhte hain, kaun kab aata hai (Do you even think about what people would say? Everyone sees who returns when.)”

That was the only issue – that the people around, our neighbours, would judge us for having an unmarried girl return home at this hour. Nobody cares that she’s an independent, free-thinking, adult. Nobody cares that she can make decisions for herself to live a life she finds value in.

Growing up in an Indian society, more often than not, makes you feel out of control of your own life. You are asked and expected to conform so much that your authentic self starts to feel inauthentic. When my mother was sharing her displeasure and fear of the incident with me, my mind went to a lot of places, as it generally does, mostly looking for new hidden structures her disappointment tries to reinforce. This time though, it immediately went to the concept of eyes on the street. And how on my street, they were so in defiance of the initial intent.

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When Jane Jacobs proposed the idea, she intended it to result in safer public spaces that would enhance mobility. But the eyes on my street do the opposite. While Jacobs’ eyes saw things with a sense of belonging and respect for the divide between the public and private, the ones on my street do neither. These eyes watch for personal amusement. They aren’t just eyes who surveil but also mouths who talk and discourage movement that they don’t find socially acceptable, which in most cases are ones not abiding by the patriarchal expectations of how a woman should behave in society. These eyes don’t care, they condemn. I can’t say for certain if their aankhein makes our street safer, but their nazar definitely does not.

How people’s gaze can visually control another, creating pressure for them to act in a certain way, is a much-discussed affair. Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punishment argued that this gaze is so powerful that even when the exact knowledge of who is watching is unknown, the control persists. And this happens on my street.

It’s funny that what Foucault stated about a prison seems so relevant to my neighbourhood. And I feel that it speaks volumes about our society. We regulate our behaviour to accommodate these strangers’ perceptions of us, not because we care, but because our parents do. They have somehow become the ‘prisoners‘ who are subject to the ‘state of conscious and permanent visibility’, and maintain the function of power automatically, reinforcing these values where strangers get to dictate the actions of one’s life. So we never played on the streets, learnt to ride a bicycle there, never went to the nearby shops in our comfortable home clothes or even stepped out wearing what we felt confident in, or did several other things which instil in you a connection with your neighbourhood to make it feel like home. Because this hidden Big Brother was always on watch.

So in Orwellian fashion, we found ways to navigate and break these rules, undetected, which ended up with us moving out.

As we started working, we lived away from home which introduced us to a different way of living. Now when that gets taken from us, it leaves us with a sense of being in a bind. When the pandemic made us move back to this setting, the eyes and ways to dodge them came back as well. It was a reminder of how little control your society affords you if you dare to live differently, which in most cases means doing things that prioritise your happiness, not theirs.

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I don’t mean to misrepresent. Our parents accord us a lot more freedom than most. We know it, appreciate it, value it and try not to misuse it. Something that hardly seems like baby steps to us is a giant leap for them. We acknowledge that and respect them for that. But the generational practice of passing down arbitrary societal expectations, which end up defining us, needs to come to a halt too.

Data shows that the most-watched places are in the west because they go by the CCTV numbers. But in countries like India, where social control of individuals is a cultural legacy, people are watched even when there are no CCTVs. Privacy has been an illusion for some time now. While technology has rendered it a smokescreen, the physical surveillance done by the people, like those on my street, has also tried to impact the ways in which we act. They’ve made our home a place we want to evade and not come back to.

So while the eyes on my street won’t stop seeing, we try to make their gaze less influential. We try to take away from them the one power they think they hold, that is to regulate us.

Priya is a researcher and an accumulation of antithetical.

Featured image: Rémi Thorel / Unsplash