(Written for Last Word, The Kolkata Telegraph, July 17, 2005; you can tell I loved doing this particular piece.)
It’s a well-known village on the road from Colombo to Kandy, where like bright birds-of-paradise, the cashew girls flutter around passing cars, calling out to buses and scooters from their small tables.
They’re mostly young, though I spot a few older women. They dress in shades made more vivid against the sharp green of the landscape: shrieking, happy blues, lipstick reds, sunrise yellows. Framed by their umbrellas and dancing plastic packets of cashews, they look like a flock of chattering macaws.
The driver, and later, a shop owner and a woman up the road selling king coconuts, are a little abashed by questions about the cashew girls. But we’ve heard the catcalls from passing buses and trucks, seen the flirtations conducted right out here in broad daylight. The photographer, who stopped the car to take pictures, got his wires crossed. The three girls who swooped down on him wanted a little flirting, a little ogling, perhaps a little more than that. He wanted pictures. And roasted cashews. He got back into the car a trifle puzzled.
Some of the cashew girls are known to ply quite a different sort of trade; they catch a lift with a local lorry driver, go up the road and come back with another obliging trucker. The village is moderately notorious, known for the cashew moms as well, the ones who sent their daughters into the same trade they plied many years ago.
But there’s something about them. A freedom in the way they move, an absolute assurance in the way they look men up and down, assessing and rejecting, a happiness in the schoolgirl banter they exchange once they realise we’re in the market for, well, cashews. They know their worth; they charge higher for cashews that have been flirted over, they toss their heads and walk away, hips swaying, from a crass trucker who has offended them by quoting a price too low, too soon.
They remind me of the women I saw in Sikkim, the tough mamas and daughters who manned the chhang stalls. Those women would come out and flirt with the drivers of tourist cars and buses in just the same way, with the same firm air of command. Like the cashew girls, their control of the situation was never in question: they were the ones who got to pick and choose, to say no or yes. Some never flirted; some had affairs freely, with a refreshing lack of coyness or shame; some looked up and smiled only at one particular driver.
Back in the metros, Colombo and then Delhi, I look more closely at the women. The ones who strut their sexuality but retreat into the “good girl” persona; the ones who chose to make their own way but confess it still hurts when they’re called “easy”, or “sluts”; the ones who believe that sexuality is a possession you hand over only to the right man. They’re beautiful, but there’s a subtle difference in the way they dress, which is to attract attention and appraisal and perhaps approval. The cashew girls, twirling in their bright feathers; they dress to please themselves. The men are just an afterthought.