Highway Stripper by A. K. Ramanujan

Once as I was travelling
on a highway
to Mexico
behind a battered once-blue
Mustang
with a dusty rear window,
the wind really sang
for me
when suddenly out of the side
of the speeding car
in front of me
a woman’s hand
with a wrist watch on it
threw away
a series of whirling objects
on to the hurtling road:

a straw
hat,
a white shoe fit
to be a fetish,
then another,
a heavy pleated skirt
and a fluttery
slip, faded pink,
frayed lace- edge
and all
(I even heard it swish),
a leg-of-mutton blouse
Just as fluttery.

And as I stepped
on the gas
and my car lunged
into the fifty feet
between me
and them,
a rather ordinary,
used, and off-white bra
for smallish
breasts whirled off
the window
and struck
a farmer’s barbed wire
with yellow-green wheat grass
beyond
and spread-eagled on it,
pinned
by the blowing wind.

Then before I knew,
bright red panties
laced with white
hit
my windshield
and I flinched,
I swerved,
but then
it was gone,
swept aside
before I straightened up-
fortunately, no one else
on the road:
excited, curious
to see the stripper
on the highway,
maybe with an urgent
lover’s one free hand
(or were there more?)
on her breast
or thigh,
I stepped again
on the gas, frustrated by their
dusty rear window
at fifty feet
I passed them
at seventy.

In that absolute
second,
that glimpse and after-
image in this hell
of voyeurs, I saw
only one at the wheel:
a man,
about forty.

A spectacled profile
looking only
at the road
beyond the nose of his Mustang,
with a football
radio on.

again and again
I looked in my rearview
mirror
as I steadied my pace

against the circling trees,
but there was only
a man:

had he stripped
not only hat
and blouse, shoes
and panties
and bra,
had he shed maybe
even the woman
he was wearing,

or was it me
moulting, shedding
vestiges,
old investments,
rushing forever
towards a perfect
coupling
with naked nothing
in a world
without places.

Summary and Analysis

The poem begins with the first person speaker recounting an experience he had while travelling on a highway to Mexico. The entire poem is a narration of that event and is written in stanzas of very short lines thus giving the poem an almost breathless quality, matching the speed at which the speaker is travelling on that lonely highway.

Stanza 1

The speaker begins by telling us that once while travelling on a highway to Mexico he happened to be driving behind a ‘battered once-blue Mustang’ which had a lot of dust on its rear window. The name Mustang is almost synonymous with masculinity. As your textual notes tell you, the Mustang was a sturdy car named after a small hardy wild horse of the North American plains. This particular Mustang travelling in front of the speaker is obviously old and well used since it has a ‘battered’ look. It is probably dented and looks beaten up and even its colour has worn off for the speaker describes it as ‘once –blue.’

There is nothing unusual about the situation. In the United States a Mustang is a popular car and someone could be travelling to Mexico just as the speaker is. As the two cars speed along however, all of a sudden the speaker sees a woman’s hand come out of the side of the car in front of him and begin throwing a number of items of women’s clothing one after another. Along with the speaker we too are shocked and taken aback.

What is significant in these lines is the fact that the hand that has come out of the side of the car is described as a woman’s hand but at the same time we are told that it has a wrist watch on it. Normally one would expect a woman’s hand to have a bangle or a bracelet on it. The hand wearing a wrist watch becomes significant only in retrospect when we reach the end of the poem. For the moment we brush aside this question that has come up and move on to read what happens next. The words ‘whirling’ and ‘hurtling’ aptly describe the speed at which the cars are travelling.

Stanza 2-4

The next three stanzas provide the details about the clothing items that come hurtling out of the car. A straw hat, a white shoe, a heavy pleated skirt and a fluttery slip (which is faded pink), a leg- of- a -mutton blouse follow one after another. The speaker increases his speed to minimize the distance between his car and the one in front. Then follows an ordinary, used and off white bra which whirls off the window and gets stuck on the barbed wire around a farmer’s

field of yellow-green wheat-grass. The last item to come out of the window is a pair of bright red panties that hit the speaker’s windshield and are gone, swept aside.

A few assumptions can be made based on the above description:

  • It seems that there are at least two people travelling in the Mustang. One is obviously driving the car at great speed while the other is busy taking off all clothes. The former may be a man but the latter is certainly a woman for the speaker has seen only women’s clothing come hurtling out of the Mustang.
  • The items of clothing are western which is in keeping with the geographical context of the poem.
  • The speaker is obviously a very keen observer. Even in split seconds he is able to notice that the faded slip has frayed lace edges; the bra is for smallish breasts and the red panties are laced with white. He can even hear a few of these items swish!
  • Noticing the kind of objects that emerge from the window of the Mustang one can safely assume that whoever the woman in the car, she belongs to the middle or lower middle class. One can take a further guess and assume that she is probably a hooker, out with a client, who has asked her to strip on the highway. The title of the poem therefore makes sense. In fact in the next stanza the speaker calls her as much for now he too is ‘excited and curious, to see the stripper on the highway.’

The Possibilities

Having described the striptease without describing the stripper the speaker has managed to grip the attention of the readers. It has even been observed that this particular poem ‘sums up the intensity of the erotic viewer’s experience.’ It is not so much a description of the stripper or the striptease. It is more a description of the experience of a man who while driving on a highway happens to see items of women’s clothing being flung out of a moving car traveling ahead of him.

Stanza 5 – 8

The poem even at this stage is more about the speaker than about the highway stripper. Excited and desperate with curiosity he longs to see what is going on inside the car. His imagination runs wild. He thinks that the stripper by now is probably naked with her lover or more than one lover in the car. Just thinking about the possibilities of what might be happening inside the moving Mustang arouse all erotic desires in the speaker and we as readers stand along side him – all keyed up and curious as well.

Frustrated by the dusty rear window of the Mustang the speaker steps on the gas and finally overtakes the car to take a peep inside. With this peep however, the mystery about the highway stripper only deepens further.

The Anti-climax

The stanza describing what’s happening inside the moving Mustang comes as an anti- climax to the whole erotic build-up. There is no sign of a woman or any other occupant in the car — just a lonely, fortyish man, staring at the road ahead, listening to a football match on the radio.

Along with the speaker we too are confused! What could possibly have happened? Where has the stripper vanished? What about the clothes that had been flung out of the same car only a few moments back? Is the driver of the Mustang having some kind of an identity crisis? Is he a case of the ‘third sex’ a trans-sexual? Is that the reason why he had dressed up as a woman? Has he thrown away his women’s clothing because he is driving towards a city and would soon be leaving the anonymity and the loneliness of the highway behind him? A number of such questions come to our mind as we read. The ‘hand with a wrist watch on it’ now makes sense. All along it has been the hand of a man and not of a woman. The speaker has to steady his pace ‘against the circling trees.’ He is almost reeling with shock at not finding what he had expected to find. His repeated looks in the rear view mirror only confirm what he has already seen. There is no stripper in the Mustang – only a middle-aged, lonely man. We are still trying to grapple with this sudden shift in development when another one occurs in the next stanza giving an entirely different perspective to the situation.

Stanza 9

Seeing only a man and no woman inside the Mustang the speaker questions: had he stripped

had he stripped
not only hat
and blouse, shoes and panties and bra
had he shed maybe
even the woman
he was wearing,

The items of clothing that have been flung out of the car have all been those of a woman. Yet all along it has been a man who has been throwing those clothes from the car. The poet’s question is whether in shedding the women’s clothing that man has even shed the ‘woman he was wearing?’ Is there some kind of an identity crisis going on here? Has that man come to terms

with his own identity on that highway? It almost seems to be so. Having shed ‘the woman he was wearing’ the man at the wheel of the Mustang seems to have overcome the struggle for identity within his own personality. Yet the stanza ends only with a comma and the continuation of the last line leads us into the concluding stanza which takes us much deeper into this ever going struggle transporting us ultimately to a synthesis between not just masculine and feminine but between being and nothingness, between created and creator, between the worshipper and the worshipped.

The Issue of Gender and identity

The poet’s questioning in this stanza has immediately taken us to the issue of gender and the question of identity related to it. If we talk of gender, we know by now that it is a social and cultural construct. Physical anatomy is not the final determinant for making males and females into masculine and feminine. In fact it is a well accepted truth that in every human being there is a certain balance of the masculine and feminine energies.

In his poem Ramanujan provides yet another perspective on the issue of gender. Being an avid reader as well as translator of the bhakti poetry he was all too familiar with the concept of the ‘Ardhnareeshwar’ in the Indian bhakti tradition. This popular and well accepted concept perceives God as half man and half woman – Shiva and Shakti – both together representing the synthesis of the masculine and feminine energies in one body. Through his poem Ramanujan is probably trying to say that we may be perceived as male or female but the other set of traits is present deep within in each one of us. Those of us who are perceived as males would also have a feminine side to our personality and those of us who are perceived as females would have a masculine side to our personality. Of course the same may not be overtly visible.

Stanza 10

‘Or was it me,’ asks the poet, ‘moulting, shedding vestiges, old investments, rushing forever towards a perfect coupling with naked nothing in a world without places?’

The perspective shifts dramatically. It is no longer the poet watching the driver of the Mustang. It is the poet watching himself. It is a self projection. It is almost as though he has stepped outside his own self and now stands looking at it, observing it, analyzing it from a distance. The concluding stanza imparts an almost surreal quality to an otherwise very realistic poem. It also takes us away from its ‘quintessentially American’ character into the realm of the Bhakti tradition where we find an exploration of similar ideas with regard to the relationship between the devotee and the devoted.

The Indian influence

The multi-faceted Ramanujan was an avid scholar of the Indian Bhakti tradition and had translated many verses from the Virshaiva tradition. The same had appeared in his volume entitled Speaking of Siva. He had studied and researched many Bhakti poets from the Tamil literary scene. His views on this tradition shall help us understand the concluding stanza of our poem ‘The Highway Stripper.’

In an interview to the magazine Manushi, Ramanujan freely expressed his views about the bhakti movement. According to him in the Bhakti tradition ‘feelings are more important than learning, status and privilege.’ To experience God one has to cast away all privileges. Being male is one such privilege. In fact maleness is ‘an obstacle in spiritual experience, in attaining true inwardness.’ Speaking further Ramanujan says:

Power entails the seeking of more power; power and privilege need defences. Men have to overcome the temptation of this kind of seeking. They have to throw away their defences.

In the context of the Bhakti tradition, a throwing away of clothes is a ‘throwing away of concessions to social conventions, defences and investments. Nakedness signifies being open to the experience of god.’ The poet wonders whether he is undergoing a similar movement towards the ultimate union with god.

Power, privilege, pride, in fact maleness itself are all obstacles in the path of a true spiritual experience. To attain oneness with god one has to overcome all these obstacles, throw away all defences and privileges to be ready for a true inwardness, a true experience of god.

Speaking of male saints in the bhakti tradition, Ramanujan says:

One of the last things they overcome in these traditions is maleness itself. The male saints wish to become women; they wish to drop their very maleness, their machismo. Saints then become a kind of third gender. The lines between male and female are crossed and re-crossed in their lives.

The desire for Androgyny that has surfaced in the poem can thus be contextualized in the Bhakti tradition and understood as being a step towards a true experience of God which can happen only in a world without boundaries. The poet mentions a ‘world without places’ where such a union can occur. This signifies the fact that once you are ready for a oneness with god physical ‘place’ becomes irrelevant. Once one is able to transcend all physical boundaries that one has set for oneself the entire world becomes one, ‘a world without places.’ In the metaphorical sense the highway thus assumes an added significance. It becomes a part of that ‘world without places.’

Conclusion

The concluding stanza transports us ultimately to a synthesis between not just masculine and feminine but between being and nothingness, between created and the creator, between the worshipper and the worshipped.

The speaker’s perceptions and preoccupations thus undergo a major change during the course of the poem. From being an erotic viewer trying to describe a striptease and desperately trying to get a glimpse of the stripper, the speaker finally becomes a seeker of true inwardness, of an ultimate union with the Supreme Being. The ‘perfect coupling’ to which the speaker aspires can therefore mean not only the ultimate synthesis of the masculine and feminine forces symbolized in the Bhakti tradition in the image of the Ardhnareeshwar, but also the worshipper’s final union with the worshipped – a true experience of God.

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