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Another Desperation

The walk between the Bhutanese temple’s guest house and the Buddha’s bodhi tree is about fifteen minutes, but every rickshaw bicyclist eagerly hawks their services. They’ll follow for a moment, ignoring rejection, then fade back.

There’s an unusually high number of men following me on bicycles.

When I first arrived, I could find every temple except the Bhutanese one with its elusive guest house. Which meant walking all over town. Going down the main road opened up more male inquiries, distinctively done on wheels. The bicycles slide closer, keeping pace for the minute or so that they (1) build up the courage to call out only to hear a quick negation or (2) are rejected immediately but linger, hoping.

Although I’m quite experienced in being shouted at on the street, this feels different. In Delhi, sexual harassment primarily functions as an assertion of the aggressor’s masculinity, often a blatant demonstration to a cluster of friends. Most of the time, the guy does not leave space for any sort of response. My presence is largely irrelevant, despite casual interpretations: those who expectantly wait for the anticipated affirmative response are the minority. Instead, men appropriate my foreign independent white female body for their gender performance, defining themselves as effective, heterosexual, masculine men by ridiculing and violating my presence. This comes from deeply divided and rigid gender and sexual norms.

Most if not all of the men in Bodhgaya actually want a response. Their behavior looks similar to the above on the surface, but it lacks delight in your discomfort and indifference. They hope. A desperate strangled hope that makes the whole performance sad. This feels similar to being overwhelmed by the auto drivers outside the train station: high demand for a rare commodity — with limited local supply.

Bihar, the poorest state in India, has some gender issues, with an imbalance in population that is not the worst in India but has been steadily dropping from its once-high position. The spread of dowry culture and a general preference for sons lowers desire for female children; and, in some cases, people turn to gender-selective abortion and female infanticide.

There simply aren’t enough women. I suspect that it increases the pressure these men feel. Bodhgaya calls many travelers, and more tourists means more harassment. I still feel more rare here than in the busy backpacker neighborhood of Paharganj.

Some are more persistent than others. A few slow down on motorbikes and call out, then move on when it is ineffective. One fellow returns three times. I am walking past the Thai-style temple when he spots me, hitting the brakes and sweeping over to begin a conversation. I treat him like everyone else: direct and polite words with a carefully neutral-nearly-negative face. But either his fantasy or his desperation is too strong to acknowledge it, and after a false departure he returns with the same words, swinging his motorcycle to block my path.

Young, well-dressed, attractive, if he was plucked out of his cultural context and dropped onto an American street, he wouldn’t have so much trouble. But he is too much like the rest, and ignoring my rejection does nothing for his case.

By now I am sure that I’m going the wrong direction, and I cross the road, sighing over the thing you never want to do — go back the way you came, letting everyone know that you are lost.

After a moment, the motorcycle guy (always remaining astride it) turns and cuts across the road, pulling up alongside me. Indignant, I say, “You are treating me like a prostitute.”

And that gets through to him. He leaves. At the time, I found it odd that that was what finally convinced him to go, that he would not succeed. Maybe he just had more confidence than the rest, so it took longer to shake him. But I hold out hope that he realized what so many others did not — what his behavior says about who I am to him.

It wasn’t upsetting, and a moment later an elderly gentleman offered directions, enabling a quick discovery of the Bhutanese temple. But throughout the rest of my time in Bihar, men would sporadically trail behind me and fade. A sad sorry desperate parade.

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Poverty in Bihar

November 27th

The auto drivers swarm when I exit the train station. This is, of course, a common experience for me in India — leaving a train station always draws at least a few offers, usually at double the price. But this is different. A few get a head start in my direction, but in a moment I am among them, twenty men clustered around me, layers of circles, waiting to hear who I will choose. I look back at the station and think about how I haven’t seen a single foreigner (I wouldn’t have noticed before, I’m often the only one) but I begin to wonder at the rarity of my occurrence. How there’s no one else looking for a lift.

I hesitate, the men wait with anxious faces, some tossing out offers. This is not frightening, as it would have been in Delhi if so many overtook me at once. There isn’t a single infuriating, anticipatory grin as I scan around the group — no well-known look of relishing imminent extortion or violation. Only strangled hope. I don’t know what to do, who to choose.

There’s no obvious “first one there” to solve the question, my usual solution. The cruel and creepy usually make themselves known quickly, but no one here is distinguishable. My hesitation drags on, a distended moment that heightens the anxiety of those waiting for my all-too-powerful choice. I want fairness and reason, and it is not coming quickly in this poverty-stricken state.

Second solution: bargain, which works in Delhi for selection and, in some cases, retribution. Here, it is a mistake. I call out for eighty rupees instead of the standard one hundred, thinking that I’ll get to ninety and we can go, but someone accepts it. Glad that the choosing is over, I toss my backpack onto the back shelf and dive in.

The young driver and I quickly pass through the simple city and out onto a long road passing fields and I wonder if the poverty is connected to the weak-looking land that cannot entirely owe its appearance to an imminent winter. Tension eases. The driver switches on his radio and suddenly I have a soundtrack to life, heightening my awareness — I really am in India.

We stop along the way, and a street-clothed man asks for a “road tax,” not even attempting to feign professionalism. I refuse to pay the ten rupees, and fake incomprehension, another common ruse of mine. The young man pays it instead; he may only be subject to corruption, and not participating. I don’t know, and I won’t be so disconnected as to pretend he has much of a choice.

Again, we stop at another cluster of stalls, mostly chai-focused, and the driver leaves me behind in his auto. He’s only gone for a moment, waving goodbye to someone and shouting. I ask, and he tells me he stopped to see his friend [unspoken: to show off his passenger]. So I figure that that’s worth ten rupees. But after crossing the seven miles to Bodhgaya, I tell him that my quoted price is unfair, and give him the one hundred rupees. It’s still an unthinkably small amount for how prices usually go; to give more would increase the ugliness of elbowing for a foreigner, unproductive for everyone.

Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained Enlightenment 2,500 years ago. A grand temple marks the spot, with a grown offshoot of the original Bodhi tree. A town formed around it, with more temples.

There are extremely poor, begging folk all over India; there is a high concentration of them in Bodhgaya, here for the merit-building donations that praying Buddhists may give and potentially the highest concentration of any tourists in Bihar. And there aren’t that many.

The destitute are often maimed, sometimes accidentally, sometimes to intentionally elicit sympathy. Sometimes they’re organized, carried to their “spot” by others who will take a cut of their earnings. Mothers may hang back and send their children to you, or point to an infant wrapped across their chest to ask for milk (which, at least in McLeodganj, they sell back to the shop owner for cash). In lucrative tourist areas, they make more than they ever could via hard labor. It is a complex situation integrated into the society, supporting the better-off in many ways, especially by producing cheap labor.

Bihar feels different.  The pleas used to make me feel cornered, anxious, overwhelmed, helpless. Here, I am simply and utterly humbled. Pity separates: one standing above, extending a thought or a small rupee bill meant well, but keeping the others below. In Bihar, poverty manifests in broader ways, a heavy message of limited options. Perhaps I am simply able to receive the message, now that I’ve cleared my head and heart. An earnestness devoid of manipulation or disconnection. That anxious desperation. There can be no superiority in the presence of that, only great humility. Maybe it is because I was raised Catholic, maybe it was my university, but I feel as if this is what they are talking about, the Jesus of my liberal friends and family, of St. Vincent de Paul. 

I have come to visit the sacred Buddhist site, but also to see the collection of temples built according to different cultural styles: the carefully painted structures stand stark and strange against the living pain. Bizarre expenditures bent on glory and peace but decorated with suffering.

It’s around 8 AM as I am walking past the grand Mahabodhi temple. I recognize some Tibetans standing at a basket or two — there’s bread! Imagine a giant English muffin, baked fresh that morning. I can’t buy enough for everyone here, and what will they eat tomorrow? The juxtaposition of nicely-outfitted Tibetans, baskets of bread for those who can afford it, the fancy temples, and the thin, begging people scattered among it all contorts my mind. I take a breather in the known — and ask about the bread.

Buy Tibetan things from Tibetans, and Indian from India = an attempt to sort through consumer ethics. The salesperson smiles, and the man behind her gives me a price that is more than double what it would cost in Delhi. I give him a startled, critical look, but he smiles and shrugs it off, but I buy it — and he asks me for a donation, says something about hard times. I leave without answering.

Priorities. Racial conflict. Discrimination.

My delight in eased harassment among the Tibetans had been too strong an influence. This is not a condemnation of an entire community, Indian or Tibetan. Eyes opened to the few who take advantage of a situation, to the desensitization, and the troubles. Traveling in India demonstrates the worst and the best of humanity, and draws out your best and worst. It is a land of extremes, with a unique education to offer.

Still, the next morning, I purchase Tibetan bread from two young Indian woman squatting next to a large woven basket. All smiles and connection and reaching out. So much for a simple answer to ethical consumerism.

A Slow Advance

November 26th.

I’ve been warned about train delays in India, but it had never happened to me, so I didn’t pay much attention. My departures and arrivals are carefully timed, avoiding suspect late night hours. This worked well, until my train from Delhi to Bodhgaya was delayed: instead of leaving at a completely manageable 10 PM, its departure time was pushed forward to 4:30 AM. Jyoti and I stood at Platform 1, staring at the screen. My hope that it was a mistake ached in my body as I wondered how to spend the night at the train station.

But the answer was simple, I needn’t have worried. We returned to Majnu Ka Tilla where I was able to rest for a few hours in Jyoti’s room, and arranged a lift to the station via the guest house staff. Three or four guys standing around the desk, chatting in Hindi to each other and Jyoti. Everyone gets involved, a classic experience. In the early hours of the morning, I woke the man sleeping in the lobby — a staple in any guest house — who called the driver again.

The train arrives in the fading darkness, as promised, but we will stop and start, inching our way towards Bihar. I suspect that we have been shuffled out of the way, an odd one out of sync with the rest who must wait for everyone else to pass by so as not to disrupt the others. Slowly slowly, we ease east.

I’m not well-stocked, and ration out what food I have if we have a train-apocalypse where our pace slows to walking. A good-natured man in our cabin space points it out, and I make a quick joke about perpetual train rides. And the train passes its original arrival time, then threatens to ignore its proposed one as well. Night settles in.

We’re moving, but not that much. Railroad tracks stretching into the black hole of Indian delays, always progressing never arriving. I am afraid to sleep, lest I miss my stop. I sit, awake, by the window, waiting blankly.

My ticket is for the middle bunk, which drops down to form the seat-back during the day. The men around me suggest that I rest, and I explain that I am afraid of oversleeping. I look up into their genuine smiles, their involvement in my well-being. They explain that I will be woken, that no one will let me miss the stop. So we convert our cabin area into bunks, and all stretch out to sleep.

When the conductor comes, he fusses over my ticket. “This ticket is for yesterday. You must buy a new one.” Appalled that he could blame me for his own train being delayed so long that we are into the next day, I splutter a protest, but it is drowned out by the chorus of voices around me, my cabin-mates charging in with Hindi in my defense. The conversation leaves my comprehension, but the conductor leaves me alone. I am told that he was confused. I suspect that he had been attempting a scam, but I keep the thought to myself.

As promised, someone wakes me when we are nearing Gaya, and I collect myself. It’s an awkward early hour, nearly 4 AM on the following day, but it is much better than arriving at midnight. I had been anxious over the anticipated intensity of the coming days. Now I was all patience, and fatigue.

Another white female foreigner had arrived sometime in the night, and is sleeping on the bunk below mine. Someone wakes her up as well, in case she is going to Gaya as well. Confused and in a daze, she explains that she is not. Those of us who are leaving wait in the aisle, quietly but warmly, another little community alive for a moment because of a train.

I want to keep the happy memory, as I make my way through the crowded (despite the hour) station, but I begin to wonder if I was treated so well because of my race. Would a young Indian woman traveling alone through the night receive such kindness? No one is simple, I would not deny them their humanity; but after this much time in India, I need to acknowledge that my skin color and foreign status opens doors and generates useful attention.

I’ll wait out the night, go to Bodhgaya by auto rickshaw at sunrise. Normally I would sit on the floor with everyone else, somewhere near a cluster of women. But the hour and the severe economic difference in Bihar, the poorest state in India, amps up the spotlight, and I slip into the first class waiting room, my face granting me instant permission.

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