The negative stories are not meant as a diatribe. I was there, this is what I experienced, and I am trying to understand it. Although sexual harassment affects Indian women, my experiences seem to be in the extreme — my race and foreign-status ignites a hyper-expression of gender dynamics that are always at work in Indian society. Those who can be inspired to harassment by a white face are not suddenly changing character, even if they do not (or so frequently) harass Indian women. Instead, the narratives of race and culture attached to my body produce a space of perceived freedom, of availibility, where there are no consequences. Indian media portrays Western/white women as sexually available; and in a way this is true, since society has a weaker hold on sex and sexuality in America, in comparison. Men take this representation to the extreme when they call out sexual advances, or directly ask for sex. Very often, they are appropriating my presence for the performance of their gender: one acts verbally against another’s body, sexualizing them against their will with words, sometimes touch, to assert their own power. A play of male dominance through the reification of sexualized gender roles.
The intense sexual harassment worried me. The humiliation and violation, of course, but more troubling was the chance that it would interfere with my ability to form friendships, to trust Indian men.
My friend Vishnu is evidence of how this did not happen. Here is a happy story:
Vishnu, my new Varanasi friend, offers me a tour of the city, calling in his brother to take his place in the tea shop. We set off into the dense maze of tiny twisty streets. People reach out to greet Vishnu over and over, hands clasping, words shared — other shopkeepers, friends. He’s lived in this city all his life, having only made one trip outside, to the great city of Kolkata (a.k.a. Calcutta). Relaxed and confident, worldly and friendly, he treats me as a person not as the American White Girl.
Shrines are tucked into corners and carved into walls; the city is bursting with devotees. Every pathway has a sacred point, honored with decorations and whatnot — paint, offerings, images. An expressive celebration. Sacred trees persist in narrow, cracked openings. We meet a cluster of them that have been growing for centuries in a quiet corner of the frenetic city, near a open-windowed small room where men have chanted for as much or longer.
He leads me to a temple where three strung bells hang above a square (railings included here) opening in the floor, and I can see three levels below, down into the earth, where a shrine rests at the bottom of a spiraled square staircase. Only Brahmins could go in for ages, but now it is open to other worshipers (but not to tourists). So we gaze from above at the beloved below, removed but in awe.
We’re telling stories and enjoying the exploration, continuing down a (thousandth, it seems) staircase towards the Ganges, towards a burning ghat. To be honest, I am not eager, concerned about coming too close to such sacred, sorrowful rituals. There’s no time to discuss ethics because when we reach the last step, we see several police officers ahead — we immediately turn and duck back up the stairs. Vishnu explains that cops in Varanasi sometimes harass anyone leading a white person around, demanding bribes. I’ve encountered Indian police twice, and I would prefer to avoid a third; but Vishnu laughs at my bounding away, he’s not nearly as concerned as I am.
We are marked. A brown Indian boy and a white American girl are not supposed to be friends.