A friend welcomes me back in Majnu Ka Tilla after I stagger off the night bus directly linking the two Tibetan communities. McLeodganj was roiling sickness and a blank wall in a darkened bedroom, but I’ve been uncorked, and I wouldn’t be able to handle the intensity of what is to come otherwise. There are a few significant spots left on my list, and I’ve decided to finish out November with a couple of them: Bodhgaya (the spot where the Buddha attained Enlightenment) and Varanasi, the city of death, life, and the Ganges.
My friend, Jyoti, is Belgian and lives in Nepal. We drink lemon ginger honey tea, sitting on a bench outside a tiny counter-in a-window-sized store; rest for the afternoon; and go out to Paharganj, the budget neighborhood in the old market area near the train station — we want a night out, a mini (technically Thanksgiving) celebration.
The metro releases us into the crowd moving up and into the New Delhi Railway Station. A phalanx of auto rickshaws waits at the curb, but they don’t bother us as we weave around and across and between the lanes and people, taking the short cut through the station to get to Paharganj. Passengers wait in clusters, facing inward, some sitting on small plastic or cotton sheets. We climb the tall stairs to the enormous walkway stretching across dozens of tracks, staircases branching out and touching down on platform after platform, destinations flashing between Hindi and English on the overhanging screens.
Down the other side, another line of autos and taxis, and into a larger-than-usual crowd. A real crowd, not the typical it’s-a-crowd-to-an-American amount, filling and spilling out of the main drag.
We move closer and realize that there’s a parade!
The turban-bound men quickly indicate that this is a Sikh holiday, although neither of us know what it is. We add ourselves to the masses slowly moving alongside the parade line. The volume of people isn’t distressing… it’s a light, happy atmosphere, with delighted children and a fair mix of women. There are stalls handing out free food (this is a Sikh event, after all) in pressed-leaf bowls, spicy curries and some mashed sort of thing I do not recognize. The volunteers scurry to scoop and deliver the steaming dishes.
Various bedecked vehicles define the parade, with laughing smiling waving children. And there are serious pilgrims carefully dressed in traditional uniforms with sashes. The parade line is sprinkled with groups of sweepers brushing garbage and the random to the curbs, followed by groups of pilgrims walking barefoot. Men come cheering and dancing, but not in a dangerous fervor. Lights drape buildings and stretch across the street; people peer down from balconies and rooftops. It is cheerful chaos, and eventually the sacred book rolls by in a glass-encased trailer, tended by priests — the climax.
I feel comfortable, welcome, safe; able to join the swirl of people without being overwhelmed. Able to add my joy to the vibrancy, brightness, jubilation. The giving, feeling, expressive experience of life dancing through streets in the happy commotion.
We slip across the road, following a burst of people crossing the parade, and find the narrow staircase. The cement steps pass through a fabric store and climb farther in tight turns to a rooftop restaurant. We order our Thanskgiving meal — falafel, hummus, pita, dal makhani, naan — and settle in to watch the parade streaming by below.
A wide circle forms in the street and performance fighters take the space to dance with blades. We have a perfect view, watching their acrobatic lunges and spinning demonstrations. It’s the last event, grabbing the parade line’s caboose for attention.
Eventually, they move on too, and the road slowly empties into normalcy, save for an elephant or two wandering away into the night.
This time at the Sikh temple, the baby was awake and crawling.
I was welcomed back, offered chai, and ushered to sit down. It’s still October 14th and I’ve only been away from Delhi for a week, but it feels like much, much longer between the newness stretching out days, and the harassment piling heavily on my skin.
I wave and smile at the baby, who is slowly encouraged to sit in my foreign lap. Something in the kitchen pulls the women away, and I am left to prove myself with the child. What if she hates me, and I am the failed woman from a foreign country? Who cares if I reject normative definitions and roles, right now I am here and I want to communicate. And I so desperately need to belong somewhere, even if just for a few hours.
Seeing my chunky brown stone bracelet, I pull it off and hand it over. She stares at it and sticks it in her mouth.
Now I must prevent the child from choking on my ingenious plan. “Nahi, nahi, nahi” remembering Hindi and gently prying it away from her slippery fingers, I keep it close enough to entertain but not enough to threaten.
They return and laugh at the strangeness of an Indian baby in a white girl’s arms; sitting again, stories flutter up as well as they can with differing languages. Giving status, defining our relationships and place in the world, are the easiest points to communicate. I try to bend my story into simpler terms, sacrificing accuracy for connection, queerness in its many forms for cross-cultural commonality. I wonder at the ethics of this, the compromising for acceptance, the self-performance modifications to offer a cohesive, acceptable, and comprehensible narrative.
The baby pulls at my prayer beads around my neck, working to get them closer to her mouth, and I gently unwrap her fingers. She calmly explores my face, tugs my scarf a little, grabs my nose piercing with tiny fingers, and puts her fingers in my mouth — none of this bothers me. Except the nose, that hurts. I think children should be affirmed as much as possible, and I make a silent sacrifice of my health as the baby’s fingers pull my bottom lip way out to see what shape I make. Just another moment of “if I get sick, this was it.”
My companions gently laugh, and I can tell that they enjoy how comfortable the child is. My crossed legs take turns propping her up, depending on which way she is wiggling, and my ability to have a split focus means her curious tugging at various bits of my face does not disrupt our conversation.
Trading the child for vegetables and an awkwardly long knife, I slowly and carefully slice onions with my disproportionate blade to the others’ amusement. Sitting on the floor, navigating a basket and my knees, I think about how startled my family would be if I prepared vegetables like this back in the States. Soon we are up, the main lady and I, pulling pots and spices out for the evening meal. I am taught the rice to water ratio — four hand scoops to two scoops of water — and I remember my father carefully aligning his eyes with the measuring cup for an accurate read. I would be scolded if I lifted up the lid before it was done, as once was sufficient and more would destroy it. And she is estimating with a scoop.
Our freshly-cut vegetables sizzle in oil, and I take over the stirring, because I know how to do that. The construction of the spicy curry is basically a standard approach: onions and whatnot first, adding spices, building up the vegetables, soaked lentils, water…I try to communicate how similar an approach it is, but I think that fails to transfer.
Back sitting on the floor, waiting for the curry to cook, the baby reaches for me and crawls across the small space between us and up into my lap — I am delighted. Seeing her first smile and laugh of the afternoon (a very serious girl) filled me with a simple joy, and when she first clutched me in a hug, resting her head against my shoulder, I felt accepted in a fundamental way, with a simplicity that only children can offer. Racial and cultural divides faded away for her, and I was just another one in the family.
But it was when she fell asleep on my shoulder that the acceptance truly settled into my heart.
Her grandmother, my co-cook and main conversation partner, slips a silver bangle onto my right wrist and communicates that I should not remove it. It was one of hers, a Sikh-identifying symbol (there are six). I wave and fold my hands into namaste and attempt to thank her.
I take my turn eating and serving our spicy meal, and then she invites me to rest as the others disperse. We stretch out on thin blankets where we have been sitting, the baby nestled into one fold, then the grandmother, and a freshly-bangled me, grateful for a new normal in space that is supposed to be radically different.
Trains carried me in zigzags across western India, clickety clickety clickety, nights tucked up in the top berth, bag chained to the seat below but technically abandoned to knives, my necessary possessions whittled down to journals and medication tucked in the purse under my head.
Ahmedabad to Mumbai. Although you could argue that the entire country could count as jungle, Mumbai is where it really feels that way. Streaked, worn, white buildings; trees with draping aerial roots, crows cawing, perched above. Mist (or pollution haze?) hangs heavy from the branches and slips between the buildings, humidity turning heat into a fairytale when combined with the look of the city. I think of Kipling and mongooses.
Despite hordes of men in the streets, harassment was nearly nonexistent where I was in Mumbai. I don’t know what makes it different. The trouble is highest in areas with frequent tourists, so, although I was staying a few blocks from the train station, perhaps it is not a common traveler hangout. For the first time, women in niqab was the norm — long, black over-dresses with matching head scarves and a piece of fabric covering their faces leaving only eyes exposed. Sometimes, a colorful burst of Indian fabric will peek out beneath the hem when they walk.
I wonder if the high concentration of Muslims can explain the difference. In the States, my Muslim friends are careful when it comes to contact with the opposite gender; and I begin to breathe a little easier, thinking I am protected by the morals of a different religion.
Pune slides by under the strain of organizing transportation. The bureaucracy of train tickets means it takes hours to find the correct line, fill out the form, wait, plus time to reevaluate once the plan is denied (and it will be denied)…it takes at least an hour and a half, in my experience. At best. Rerouted and pushed to travel at odd hours, the stress wears me down and men find greater courage.
Hyderabad. A very Muslim city. My recent experience in Mumbai and the people I know from home fools me into thinking that the harassment will be light. It’s not. It is much worse than Delhi.
“Eh baby mumble mumble fuck mumble”
I am in a mosque. The religion of the four guys in their early twenties doesn’t matter, but the shell of my misunderstanding is finally broken. I had ducked around crowds, carts, motorcycles, and rickshaws, pulled my scarf up over my hair and sailed through the entrance gates. The wide open courtyard and calm reflecting pool added to my hopes that I would find peace and space. I had made it through more trains and harassment, stares and questions. I had snapped at the clerk at my budget hotel, and had taken myself upstairs to try to calm down. Now I was out trying to justify the effort of getting there.
The four guys are staring and laughing, but they are too far away for me to clearly figure out their words. I am reluctant to shout, but the respect I hold for the place also makes me want to walk directly over and shame them for dishonoring a sacred place.
Not wanting to show fear or intimidation, I refuse to leave — and turn back, sitting on the steps up to the prayer space, strategically placed near a small group of women resting on the stairs.
An obnoxious grin occasionally pops out around the corner where the boys have disappeared, and I can still hear them.
Slowly, I realize I am affixed to the spot, gripping the cool stair, staring at the tiles. I cannot muster the will to stand, to walk by them again, back out into the street, the crowds, the men reaching out with words and hands. I stare, wondering if I can do it. All of it. India.
A simple thing, really. Feet on stone leading to shoes leading to a gate leading to insanity in the forms of pressing, sticky crowds. Ashamed at the idea that words and eyes could send me home, I scold myself.
For those moments, next to tittering women and a curious child on my right, a young Muslim man on my left sitting peacefully, and before a mixture of tourists and the devoted wandering across the enormous courtyard, I really believed I had wasted my time, that I had no idea what I was doing there — and I knew I had been wondering that since I Delhi, and the purpose was suffocated by men.
And then I remember that I came to India for the direct purpose of subjecting myself to difficult situations.
I peel myself off the stairs and push up, across, down, out, through, and men come up to me — one every ten seconds calls out “Madam, what do you want?” from a shop, and every other minute a young man grins that sloppy lust grin of discovery at the sight of my face and attempts some words to get close to me. I count. Letting ugly insulting responses of anger and disdain charge through my mind, but working to keep them from my lips, I stride through, head up, ignoring almost all.
“What do you want?” To be left alone. But I say nothing.
“Hey, baby.” “Hey, fuck you” I hurl the words out like I’m in Chicago. The niqab-wearing ladies float by, and I long to cover my face.
Diving into a cafe for a cool drink does nothing to give me space. Two men come and join my table, despite six empty ones. I stand immediately, and leave.
Tick, tick, tick. I make it do a busy intersection and dive across, hurtling by catcalls and around careening cars.
Overhead, I see a huge arch announcing a gurdwara — a Sikh temple. I ask a turbaned man for directions, it isn’t far, and when I find it, I slip off my shoes in quiet anticipation.
Sikhs. Equality, respect, acceptance of difference.
I set my shoes on a shelf and slip upstairs, stopping to wash my feet on the way. In the large, quiet, nearly empty room holding the sacred replica of their holy book, I kneel and sob.
More fat wet tears soak into my knees, more tears due to stupid men indifferent to my individuality and humanity. More tears and time wasted. But most of all, I am crying because it is the first time I have felt safe in weeks.
The young Sikh men quietly pad around the room, not disrupting me.
I wipe my face with my scarf and find the free kitchen downstairs. There is a middle-aged woman sitting on the floor, with a bundle. She invites me to join her, and indicates that the blanket pile is in fact a sleeping baby.
I thank her over and over, accept the cup of chai, looking into her face not knowing how to communicate across our language barrier that I am not just talking about tea, I mean for seeing me as a person. For the safe space. It takes several minutes and the entire cup for me to calm down and peel back the walls I have built to survive the streets. And finally I can smile again without fear.
After an hour or two, I can see the sun setting and I must leave; but this time, I start out with a lighter heart.
“Hey sweetheart.” “Hey fuck you.”