Agra is less developed than Delhi, and this is the old market neighborhood clustered around the Taj Mahal. Comparable to the old market neighborhood of Paharganj in Delhi; this is not how the whole country looks.
The only photo I have of this daily experience: a cluster-“line”
Agra from the roof
With no man by my side to address, shopkeepers and drivers must deal directly with me. I would be expected to fade behind my chaperone, appropriately silent and demure. In this country, men lead public lives. They are largely the shopkeepers, clerks, drivers; and dominate restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. Some women populate the streets, sometimes not even with men, but as clusters of school girls or with children. But I wonder where the rest of the women are, silent faces behind walls and curtains, waiting above the shop or back in the kitchen.
With prejudice and assumptions to overcome, I put on an aggressive, self-assured performance when I need to make a deal with a man. I force them to take me seriously. I walk with confidence even if I am a little lost, my face displaying a serious expression. I stare back, toss a quick glare, or ignore them completely. Although I have met many kind, gracious Indian men, in general I assume that any man who gives me information is lying to me. I check with someone else to confirm it, preferably a woman.
Waiting in lines in India is a competitive sport: people seem to cue, and then at the very front, four or five men will bunch up around the ticket window trying to order all at once. And men cut in front of you, especially if you look distracted or happen to be female. I learned to maintain my spot by elbowing my way through the clump, trying to make my body occupy more space. And, for the first time, when a man cut in front of me, I tapped him on the shoulder: he protested in Hindi but I waved him away. And he LEFT!
I realized that I am most likely placing myself into the male category, more easily done, I am sure, because I am a foreigner and other women have opened the path for me. It became clear upon arriving in Agra with two friends, a man and a woman; I charged forward and bargained with a rickshaw driver in my typically extroverted way. Once our packs were tucked into the back shelf and the three of us were squished into the seat, and the driver had dried off the windshield (wipers were broken) and punched his headlight to get it started, we set off for our hotel. Throughout the ride, the driver addressed his questions to me. My heightened need to establish myself when alone had made me a temporary man, the leader of the group.
Which continued the next day when it became clear that all the trains to Delhi were full: our options were to sit in steerage (no assigned seats, launch into the carriage with a hundred other people, I was the only one willing to try) or to commandeer a taxi to take us back to the city. We gathered all the tourists we could find to split the fare, ending up with seven people – from the United States, Ireland, South Korea, Croatia, and Holland. An intense 40 minutes of haggling commenced, led by the Croatian guy, the Irish fellow, and myself. Periodically we would circle up the group and announce the most recent developments in the deal, get a consensus, and then return to the battle. These were determined, manipulative, aggressive businessmen we were dealing with, and they were forced to bargain with a woman. In the end, the foreigner group handed the cash over to me, I finished the deal (only once everyone was loaded into the car), and we began a miserable seven-hour ride into Delhi with a coked-up driver.
Finally back in Delhi, I stopped by the train station’s ladies waiting room. Two young male teenagers entered. I informed them that they were in a women’s only space, and, when they hesitated for a moment, waved them toward the door. They left amid the smiles of waiting women, but followed me around the train station once I had met up with my two friends again, standing together a few feet away, staring at me. Some sort of childish attempt at intimidation. They were harmless, just humiliated by a woman, a foreign woman, a woman who seemed alone. My friend Paul told them to get lost, and that was that — no shame in taking an order from a man.
Delhi is hot, with crowded streets, sellers hawking clothes, jewelry, fruit, anything, shouting after you wherever you go. Half-starved dogs flop beneath cars, twitching at flies. Tiny rooms stuffed with wares open onto the street, and sizzling pots turn out piles of fried mystery. Tiny rusted cars honk their way through bicycles and rickshaws, all careening around people and street carts with no logical sense. People squeeze through tiny spaces to escape being crushed. Trash gathers in heaps everywhere, there are no garbage cans. All painted surfaces are peeling, buildings patched together somewhere short of completion. There are few foreigners, and women are always a minority.
Everything in India seems broken. When I was in Agra with new friends, to see the Taj Mahal, I had to go to six ATMs to find one that was working. A bicycle rickshaw driver took me to one after the other through the rain, finding one where the electricity was off, another that was closed yet labeled as 24 hours. We covered six kilometers with stories about his family and Agra; at every stop I handed him my umbrella for him to use while I was inside, useless in the face of his already-soaked clothes. Six.
Gritty and dirty, the cities can drain your energy. I have learned to double the time I think I need to do anything. Trains come in late, this or that line might take forever, or you might need to go to four more places to find what you need.
Now, in Shimla, a town perched in the Himalayan mountains, 7000 feet above sea level, the frenetic pace has eased. Pine-covered mountains and cool, misty air indicate a space of peace. I now know what it is like to be inside a cloud that is raining on you, and see blue sky above it. This is still India: cars zip around corners, crowds mill around favorite shops, and men still dominate every space. But there is space to breathe.