Location: South Bombay, in the alleys around Flora Fountain
Point of contact: An erotic “massager” at a small stall
It is late morning, and the golden, nostalgic South Bombay sun isn’t doing much for the shaded alleys around Flora Fountain. Yet they sparkle. Stalls of shiny sundry trinkets line their edges. Watches with metallic dials, sunglasses, electronic gadgets, binoculars, colourful water bottles, all dazzle passers-by with their collective allure. But no one stops to make a purchase – perhaps because they’re overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of things to choose from; or, as the woman behind me matter-of-factly tells her friend, because this stuff only looks good, quality bekaar hai.
I begin to wonder what she means. I’ve spent a lot of time with objects, and I suppose none of these trinkets will endure as long as Vermeer’s paintings or Tagore’s poems. But I can say that objects are not just commodities, and their quality isn’t defined by durability. An object matters for the stories it tells, for all the intangible aspects of life it can capture in its tangible body. It matters fo– “Come come, best quality, sir!” The world shifts back into focus. A vendor is gesticulating enthusiastically for me to take a closer look at his stall, which I appear to have been absently staring at in my reverie. Now that I’m actually looking, I cannot believe my eyes.
There, among the cheap hair dryers and knock-off Rolexes, lie carefully arranged and proudly erect “massagers”. Again, I have spent a lot of time with objects. I have travelled extensively to see some of the world’s most valuable and bizarre ones. I’ve seen jewels at the bottom of the ocean and held Renaissance masterpieces in my hands. But nothing could have prepared me for dildos in the middle of a Bombay street. And nothing can stop me from touching this object now. So, I walk over, place my hand on it, and glance into its world.
It comes from a little factory across the border, smuggled into the country hidden among the other plastic knick-knacks that now lie around it. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve conjured up a thrilling tale of an elaborate smuggling operation. I would’ve imagined a pick-up truck driving down back-lanes in the dead of night, making its way to the factory to stock up on “adult massagers”. I would’ve imagined the tired faces of the truck driver and his accomplice, braving the night and all necessary border checks, occasionally having to hand out a freebie to placate an overly suspicious official. They know they are liable to be caught and jailed. Yet they drive back and forth every week, because no society should be deprived of the opportunity to take control of its own pleasure. An illicit yet noble venture.
But touching this object does not give me the liberty to imagine. It tells me the tale like it is. And in reality, no one – not the factory owner, not the workers, not the smugglers – was concerned with the pleasure this product would bring to its user. Indeed, the “massager” was not created as part of a revolutionary effort to bring sexual freedom to a country that tried its best to stifle it. Like any other commodity, it was created because its business is profitable.
You would think this secret operation – of winding down dark lanes, sneaking past border checks, and bribing customs officials – would culminate in an equally secretive sale. But the dildo stands proud atop this little stall now, defying all expectations, proclaiming its existence. Crowds taking otherwise peaceful strolls through the market begin to stare when they see it – in shock, amusement, confusion, awe even, and the rare look of bashful longing. Those who don’t stare are likely making a conscious effort through gritted teeth and popping forehead veins to avoid eye contact with the object or its enthusiastic vendor.
The vendor, in turn, declares equally to all that his product is “best quality!”. If he had made this claim back in the factory across the border, or in the customs office, it would have been far from credible. Back then, it was a cheap sex toy in a lewd, graphic box – a token of obscenity and organized crime. But here, in this open-access alley, at the heart of a blatantly diverse city, something has changed. Like many others who have travelled long distances to come to India, it seems to have found its purpose.
I can see people pushing their way to the stall in huffs of irritation and self-importance, proclaiming to the vendor that it is unacceptable and immoral to have these obscene toys out on display. Aisi cheezein yahaan pe illegal hain. Of course, everybody – from the smugglers to the vendor and his customers – knows this. Yet no one shows up to enforce the law. I can see the customers, young and old, braving the stares to make their purchase, and becoming instantly at ease once they start talking to the vendor. I can see them walking triumphantly away after they’ve bought what they came for. This dildo is no longer just an illicit commodity. It is provocative – a catalyst for sexual liberation, spinning its own narrative of resistance from a small corner of South Bombay – one compassionate vendor, one happy customer, one goaded passer-by at a time.
“Take it home, sir! Phir kar lena jo karna hai,” the vendor suddenly says, half amused, half unnerved. Startled, I let go of the massager and am brought instantly back to the present. I’ve embarrassed myself. I didn’t think I would ever be caught making prolonged physical contact with an erotic device in the middle of a Bombay street. I have no choice but to purchase it now. And I’ll do it with pleasure. After all, it may have started out as a low-grade, illicit commodity, but here, it is a symbol of courage and rebellion. And of course, as the vendor happily reminds me, it is “best quality!”
This piece has been written by Farishta Anjirbag. She will be writing for the network for a brief period before moving onward and upward. We are proud to host her large ideas and clever writing.
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