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Life in Sleeper Class (a.k.a. O Christmas Chai)

December.

For the twenty-five-hour journey from Delhi to Kolkata, I promise myself the¬†upper side berth, a precious commodity with a guaranteed window seat during the day and a slight privacy advantage at night. I’ll watch the Delhi plains turn into Bengali woodland and think deep thoughts.

I’ve just settled into my forward-facing window spot when a young woman arrives with a baby and a giant suitcase. It’s a movie moment: her hopeful look and my hopefully-hidden hope that she is just passing through before adjusting to make space for her on the bench.

Maybe she does have a seat somewhere, and is waiting for everyone to settle in first.

My Hindi is still terrible but we can communicate without much language, giving the general idea of who we are, where we come from, why we are on this particular train in early December and subjecting ourselves to long distance land travel. The bench is not quite six feet long; I’m on the end, then the baby, then her, then a man who appears to be in his thirties and not at all traveling with them.

The first round of chai begins, and biscuits come out (I can’t remember who starts that, but we pass around different packages to dip into the hot milk tea). The rest of the people in our open-air section are men, but they seem to be respectful, even smiling and waving at the baby (who is able to sit up but not walk, so how old would she be?).

The train has officially been moving for a bit now, and that’s that. The young mother is one of those in-between passengers who have a ticket but no seat assignment. I pull my bags from beneath the lower side berth where we’ve been sitting and one of our “cabin” (non-enclosed section of eight berths) mates lifts my backpack up onto the upper one. We wedge the young woman’s suitcase under the berth, and it’s official. I leave my shoes below with her suitcase and climb, stepping from a bunk-bed-bar to another berth, into my side berth. We pass snacks up down across between. I make silly faces at the baby and the mother laughs. Then more chai and biscuits.

To some, it might look like she took advantage of us by joining our compartment-area. But to have that thought means that you come from a particular cultural background. In the West, your ticket is your ticket, and you sit in your spot, and anyone who does otherwise is being rude. In India, sure, there are assigned seats, but that’s only a guideline and, in reality, if there’s a person who needs somewhere to sit — they sit, and everyone makes space. There isn’t the same sense of property and privacy.

Marie, the best of the India foreign travelers, arrives: a slender woman in a salwar kameez taking one of the upper berths on the other side of our compartment-area. I love her frank cheerful attitude; her stories and persona brighten our space.

This is, of course, a twenty-five (in reality, twenty-seven) hour train journey, so the cycle repeats itself. Sharing stories, offering food, the repetitive sounds of chai-wallahs moving down the aisle. Marie makes noises and smiles at the child. At one point, the mother steps away, leaving us to monitor her baby for a few minutes, and I ponder community.

Night settles in and activity in the train fades into light blankets spread under stretched-out legs. Someone lightly snores on the floor space between the opposing berths; it’s as if there’s been a massive sleepover party on wheels. A baby in an adjacent compartment-area cries, and I think about how we have the best, quietest baby on the train.

Rounds of good mornings, and then breakfast. I’m reading, writing, thinking in my little cubicle, trying to not remember how long I’ve been on the train.

We have another round of chai, we’ve been taking turns to pay like a round of beer in a pub, and Marie succeeds in getting everyone in our compartment-area to take a cup. “Do you want chai, take a chai, it’s Christmas, o Christmas chai” — and everyone smiles and laughs and dunks biscuits.

When people from different cultures interact with open minds, their ways of living can rub off on each other. I am still a little too loud, oh American self, a little more friendly than a woman in India would be, but, like extra people on the train, that is accommodated. And, in turn, we foreign travelers pick up the head wobble, the chai rhythms, and the food-pushing.

Happy Life.

[I set the blog aside to work on other projects, but am taking it up again after the encouragement of a good friend. Thanks, Jenn.]

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A Day on the Street in Delhi

Cultural patterns and learned behaviors explain pieces of it; and the foreign and racial stimuli heightens the occurrence of sexual harassment Intellectually, the overwhelmingly disappointing behavior of a collection of male individuals can be analyzed with social and gender theory, with the hope that understanding will lead to empowerment and change. One striking factor is that harassment was often the worst in areas commonly frequented by foreign tourists — the most popular sites or hotel neighborhoods. Lack of cultural awareness on the part of visitors is problematic anywhere, but it is dangerous to suggest that this can dismiss accountability for such negative behavior.

For today, I am simply going to describe the public treatment I received in my last few days in Delhi, so that maybe you can understand what it is like.

I was staying in a small hotel in Paharganj, known as the backpacker’s neighborhood (budget accommodation and close proximity to the railway station). The white population is only a sliver of the crowd, but at a higher concentration than most of the city.

My life is simple: saying goodbyes, writing, collecting gifts for the package going home. Every day, I walk through the neighborhood.

Walking down Main Bazaar, the widest of the narrow roads shattering order in Paharganj, means hearing “hey, baby”‘s every ten feet or so. I used to count. Every minute at least on the main road. Sometimes every ten seconds for patches at a time. Those were not always the literal words, but that’s how I’ve dubbed the casual inquiry since the first time I heard that Americanism from an Indian guy’s mouth. Other not so pleasant comments, as well.

This should not need to be said, but for those who need to hear it: I dress in primarily Western clothes but conform to Indian modesty, always wear my hair up, do not smile or make eye contact with men. A friend commented that I almost looked angry when he first saw me on Main Bazaar.

December 9th begins just like any in Paharganj — with a lot of sexual harassment — but it is the day that I am (truly, this time) leaving Delhi.

I had visited major locations and ashrams related to Mahatma Gandhi across the subcontinent, but the thread was incomplete: the last, and natural, step was a visit to Raj Ghat, the site of his cremation, in honor of his work and what I had learned.

The park was not far from the railway station, so I made my way through the general harassment of Paharganj, dropped my backpack off in left luggage, and sought an auto rickshaw from those lining the station exit.

Auto drivers tend to be older than the typical guy vocalizing his desire and/or masculinity. They do not verbalize, but they are not entirely free from intrusion. Most often it is lack of respect and a strong drive to overcharge that dominates the exchange. One accepts my price, relatively quickly, among the many who scoff. Zooming off into city traffic, he adjusts his mirrors and I slide all the way over to one side, removing my body from the two circular reflections hanging at his eye level while adjusting my clothes to be sure that I am covered. Sometimes I add an arm across my chest, too, in defiance.

We arrive at the park; I exit with a severe look on my face and pay him. Knowing little English, he responds in a confident voice, “Sex?”

I fling out my arm in a weak hit, not quite connecting with his face, and hurl a few harsh words which sufficiently communicate my opinion of the idea, because his smile disappears and he speeds off.

Already worn down by the Main Bazaar gauntlet, I stagger into the park, stunned by the encounter — that he was almost twice my age, how clear it was that he expected a positive response, how casual.

A few couples and families occupy the wide sidewalk leading towards the enclosed reverential square. Graceful lawns separate us from traffic, drawing in a peaceful quiet despite throngs of schoolchildren on a field trip to see the closest thing you could get to Gandhiij’s grave, as his ashes were scattered across India.

I try to relax, focusing my mind on ashram memories. It is hard to ignore the elementary schoolgirls pointing at me. Depositing my shoes to be shelved away at the counter, I pass through the archway. More little girls come, giggling, to stand a few feet away and then skitter back to their friends. I walk, breathing, feeling each footprint, bringing up a meditative state. As I reach the enormous glossy slab of stone, flame and incense swirling in his honor, I lose focus. Attempt some thoughts of gratitude and respect despite the circling schoolchildren who keep their distance but remain intently observant.

Quickly out of the square, back to my shoes, across a lawn, deep breaths now, far to the edge of the initial grassy slope but still within sight of women although at least fifty feet from any human being to get a break, I sit against a tree and take out a little book of Gandhi’s writing to recover what meaning I lost.

Six teenage boys in matching uniforms gather together about fifteen feet away, stare, and laugh.

In one forceful phrase I instruct them to leave. They begin to move, but look back and linger, so I stand to go, and more of them arrive. All around seventeen/eighteen. They follow me in gangs of four or five, fanning out behind me laughing pointing jeering grinning. I lose it, shout back asking them to leave me alone, the farther ones pick up the pace.

Four months in India and I am finally, literally, chased away.

It is not violent. Eventually, after following me for a good seventy feet, they stop, I break away and reach women, crying once my face is turned away from the teenagers. But they were clearly part of a high school trip, where were their teachers? And the families, couples, adults there. This was not a subtle moment in a packed street. It was a crowd of more than twenty whooping and pursuing a girl in front of their eyes.

Delhi had been my home during the journey, hosting close friends and inspiring work. I left the park and the city hating that that was my goodbye.

Leaving Majnu Ka Tilla

Majnu Ka Tilla,  the Tibetan “colony”, extends along the large Yamuna river which runs through the eastern side of Delhi. Strings of prayer flags distinguish the neighborhood from its Indian neighbors across the broad, bustling thoroughfare ; to the east, trees close the final distance between the buildings and the riverbank. A forest meets Yamuna’s other edge the city’s protected woodland.

This means that, unlike most places in Delhi, you can see the stars from my rooftop.

Look west, and the dense lights turn the haze into cloud cover and drown any celestial attempt to be seen. Overhead, the sky fades into potential sparkle, and as you look out over the river, the stars fully arrive in the darkness, filling out the east. 

Jyoti, my Belgian/Nepali roommate, left Delhi for a Vipassana retreat, which is a particular and intense form of meditation. My time here is winding down as well: after extending by more than a month, I’m looking at the last two weeks of so in the country, spending time with local friends and preparing for the final haul — the challenge of Kolkata, and the east. 

I invite a friend to come by after work and enjoy the rare view of the stars, promising to attempt proper chai with the supplies brought back from Vishnu’s tea shop in Varanasi. 

Jyoti and I had no trouble adding each other to our rooms when either was coming or going, and I thought nothing of it. In the early afternoon, I swung by the desk to let the receptionist know that I had another person coming tonight, honoring the notice declaring that guests must be registered if they are there after a certain hour.

The receptionist asks for the nationality of the guest.
Indian.
And she explains that only Tibetans and foreigners are allowed.

I’ve been living next door to this woman on and off for a month now; I adjust the truth and look for a loophole, banking on my longterm presence. It seems possible to get around the rule, and I go back upstairs, exhausted from irregular sleep.

In the half-waking daze post-nap, I remember DePaul, ethics, and myself. It doesn’t take long to pack.

Indians are allowed to work in the guest house and attached restaurant, although it is run by Tibetans and owned by a Nepali. The young guys who wash their clothes on the rooftop and snooze in the afternoon, who carefully treated me with respect, are the grunt labor, working in the kitchen or on the cleaning staff. Even the one who sleeps in the lobby at night, there to unlock the door if needed, is Indian.

I lay the keys on the desk, backpack on. Having promised to not do anything dramatic, I lay words on carefully: I’m leaving but will pay for tonight, because I know it is past the check-out time, although I was supposed to stay for the rest of my time in Delhi. 

“You’ve been kind to me, and I’m grateful for that,” I go on, and she gives a real smile, the first true one I’ve seen from her. And then,

“I know you just work here, that you do not make the rules, but please tell the owner that I am deeply offended, and will not stay where my friends are not welcome.” Her face drops, then almost looks as if she could cry when she hears what I say next.

“When Tibetans fled the Chinese, Indians welcomed them into their country. That Tibetans won’t allow them into a guest house is unacceptable.” I gesture at the enormous framed image of the Dalai Lama occupying almost an entire wall of the lobby, and say, “You have to take down the photo of His Holiness [hitting home with their terms] or allow everyone.”

And walk out in her silence, returning to Paharganj, the chaotic old market budget neighborhood where harassment is plenty and the people let you know exactly what they think.

This is not a condemnation of the entire Tibetan community. That would require standing on the outside in judgment,  rather than acknowledging the complex, conflictual dynamics between the two cultural and national entities. There has certainly been unfair conduct from Indians towards Tibetans (and I experience far more harassment from Indian men), but marking injustice where it occurs must be done on both sides. The Tibetan community tends to be privileged, especially by foreigners. And the exclusivity at the guest house, especially matched with employment of cheap (Indian) labor, is deeply problematic and unproductive. 

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