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.
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.
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.
There was a pile of at least twenty milk cartons on our front stoop yesterday morning.
Although there are heaps of litter everywhere and no garbage cans, there is a collection service — an open-bed green truck that charges up the road every morning — and I have never found trash like that in front of the cafe.
My manager discovered a small booklet lying amongst the refuse, one that is used to record orders in a restaurant — a particular restaurant (the name printed upon it), one “Taste of India.” It’s just down the road.
They walked uphill at least 100 feet to dump their garbage on our doorstep.
“Should I go down there and say something to them, or is that too American?”
“Too American. They are Indian, and we are Tibetan. There is not a good relationship between the two communities,” she waved her hands around a bit, “…”
She explained that there would be no point in talking to them, nothing would be done. I bet there was a bit of a peaceful Buddhist perspective in there as well; here, I am more aware of my American upbringing than ever before. We spent the morning discussing local stories of discrimination against Tibetans by Indian police, and I shared a little bit about Chicago.
Out of respect for her, I won’t say anything directly to the restaurant. But I stopped eating there long before this, and I am spreading the word amongst the travellers I know. Just a little organizing, just a little sprinkle of American resistance tactics.