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Himalayan Retreat


My spirits rise as we weave into the mountains, stars above and lights below. I immediately feel safer in the well-known streets; everyone, Tibetan, Indian, foreign, seems much more relaxed, friendlier. The sun breaks over the peaks as I sit at breakfast at 6 a.m., fresh off the bus, waiting for a monastery’s guest house to open.

But the friend I’ve hoped to visit is away, and the surge of peace is temporary. It slips away with the afternoon, and succumbs under the final blow — a mistaken meal I knew I should not touch.

It’s the last time I’ll eat in McLeodganj. Once or twice I day, I haul myself out of bed to fetch crackers and ginger ale, then return to continue the complete withdrawal. I reject all stimuli and fall into distraction, total avoidance of any real stimuli. The wallpaper is too much; to look out the window would be exhausting.

Three days of shutdown. Then, slowly slowly, I realize that I can feel again. That I had not let myself feel fear, not since that moment, that night I took the wrong train — waiting for the general ticketing cars at one o’clock in the morning, I shut it off. A blank dark blind pit filling with fear deep in my chest, heavy hurting holding my heart until the theft, until waiting with the police in the darkening city when it broke, overflowing into my mind to be too much, until I felt and purged it. Until I rested and let it in.

Slowly slowly, I woke up into freedom. Liberated, I returned to Delhi, able to breathe, experience, and enjoy.

November Sixteenth

November 16.

I didn’t know about the strike.

All the shops and restaurants in Majnu Ka Tilla are closed in protest, I think it is the Chinese ambassador. There’s a rumor that there is a fine if you’re caught open. I’ve invited Charnita to my neighborhood today, but there’s nothing here to see.

Sitting secretly in my guest house’s ground floor restaurant, verifiably the worst food in town, Charnita experiences thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) for the first time. Begun with chopsticks and finished with a spoon, like all Asian noodle soups that I’ve encountered. She’s never used chopsticks before. This fascinates me.
The darkness sits heavily between us. I try to explain why I feel so lost, inexplicably raw. I take her to the rooftop, to sit at the top of those metal stairs for the best view. We share thoughts on life; and in a spontaneous, hopeful moment, I suggest that we dash across the city to Dilli Haat, an enclosed market showcasing Indian crafts. Purely for fun and freedom.

We take an auto rickshaw to protect her strained ankle. The driver starts the meter, and the two of us fall into a deep conversation, roused by his asking for directions.

It’s a test and we know it — he’s taking us the long way, doubling the price on purpose. Confusion. Charnita warns me of his behavior, I see his obnoxious grin in the mirror, the ridiculing smirk. I quickly end that with an aggressive lecture, but I’m the reason we don’t just get out — I can’t believe that it could be that bad. Charnita tells him to pull over, but I hesitate, and he takes the opportunity to take an exit onto a flyover.

Speeding along the highway, Charnita takes a phone call. A moment later, a motorcycle carrying three men dives into our lane, and the two on the back reach for Charnita’s bag — she struggles for a few seconds, and they rip it from her hands, her phone shatters on the tarmac, and the motorcycle speeds away.
Our driver does not speed up, I can’t get the license plate, and the motorcycle is gone.

Charnita luckily had her business phone in her pocket, and calls the police. I sit, wishing her bag, with her laptop, had never been taken. Who eventually arrive where we have pulled over. Explanations. Arguments. Driving back to the scene of the crime. We wait for whoever has jurisdiction over the flyover. Wait on the side of the highway as dusk settles in. The auto driver is with us, and presents an alternative account of his behavior. The cops believe our version, and hit the man, who cries.

We wait to be hit by a car, for the cops to come, for anything. And then we give up, ask for a lift to the metro, explain that we are two unmarried women and the sun has set, we are expected at home.

I break. The fear I’ve not allowed myself to feel, the fear tightly gripped below my conscious mind, deep in my heart, cracks open in a quiet, suppressed panic on the side of the highway.

The next day, I pack my bag and leave for McLeodganj. Back to the Himalayas, to my Indian home, to the quiet place I last felt safe.

There’s no further discussion of reproducing the workshop. Our energy and initiative was stolen with her bag.

“All India Safety, All India Protection”

October 17th. I had not planned on telling the police about the guest house manager who was so determined to get into my room while I was in the shower.

I had had a lovely day. There had been genuine quiet moments (rare), allowing me to gaze into the expansive waves, uninterrupted. I had even explored a strange tiny aquarium with bizarre exotic fish.

But as I walked up the long dirt road to the train station, I wondered if I would see that man again and a foreign feeling of uneasiness creaked into my consciousness. I knew he targeted young women arriving at the train station — I walked as close to the guest house as I dared and zoomed in for a picture of its sign. Surprised by myself, I went straight to the station manager’s office for shelter from my increasing anxiety .

When the station master heard my story of windows peeked through and constant requests for room admittance, he stood up from his desk. I followed him out to the waiting area as he asked local men if they knew the offending guest house manager.

Along with four or five of the locals, he put me into a rickshaw, giving the driver instructions to take me to the police station — once I had heard that there was an all-female police office, I had agreed to file a complaint.

“All Women Police Kanyakumari.” I let the sign imprint itself onto my mind, having one of those “I’m going to remember this” moments.

Several policemen are standing in the driveway near a jeep; so much for “all women.”

One, taking the lead, inquires, and I explain in the first of many retellings that will happen over the next hour. The lead officer translates the situation to the others, and tells me that we will go to the guest house so that I can identify the man.

To my complete surprise, I begin to cry, although the threatening encounter had merely felt annoying. Hello, trauma I was not aware existed.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry, stop crying. All India protection, all India safety.” And I am packed into a jeep with six officers, driven by a woman with the most stars out of everyone. I heard “American” as she called in over the radio.

I am able to show them a photo of where we are going, and tell the story over and over.
We arrive and unload our small brigade, but I am told to remain in the jeep. There are two men standing in the doorway, watching the approaching police — neither are him. A small crowd was gathering on the pathway near the train tracks, and more were coming out of the nearby buildings. I had been so frightened by the thought of seeing him again, and now he wasn’t here.

The lead officer came back to ask if I was sure that this was the place, and I climbed out of the jeep, leading him upstairs to the room where I pointed to the cracked window and walked him through the story again — this time using my body as well as my voice to recreate the experience, embodying the aggressor.

Back downstairs, I watch them threaten the regular manager (turns out there are two). I heard references to windows and me, especially my American status being used as a weapon. One cop took a few swings at him, small punches and kicks that never connected. Intimidation?

“It wasn’t him,” I am saying, over and over, but they put him in the back of the jeep anyway, telling me that they know, they are going to take him back to the station and ask him some questions.

Now, all of us back in and bouncing over the dirt road, I think about the sniveling and crying man directly behind me. The lead officer is asking me questions about why I waited a day to report it: I thought they wouldn’t care or listen. I don’t share that I thought they would be violent.

“All India safety, all India protection,” he tells me again.

Led into the station, I am seated at a desk across from another female officer and given paper on which I write my official complaint. It takes three pages, and, along with my identifying information, I am instructed to write my father’s name since I am not married.

The innocent hotel manager was standing behind me in the office when I began to write the complaint, but by the time I was finished, he had disappeared.

The now six or seven cops stand on the steps to wave goodbye, until they realize that I am walking back to the train station — they start calling out after me, offering a lift. All of them accompany me to the station, where they stand and wave again as I thank them.

I run into the four or five concerned locals who had gotten involved at the beginning, and waved & thanked again, then ran into the station master and did the same after quickly filling him in. Thanks and goodbye.

Back on a train, watching palm trees and distant hills roll by, I cannot deny my high energy and relief, the feeling of being supported after assuming the community to be so indifferent. I also cannot forget the violence, the clout of America (they were very concerned about whether I was going to tell the embassy), and my sheltered middle class self trusting the police.

Not justice.

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