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.”
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.