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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.

A Nothing November

November 1st begins without a plan. It is quite a thing to know that you can take any route, crackles of energy in your contemplating feet.

The workshop had gotten some attention. We were asked to reproduce it in Pune and Mumbai, cities to the south, and The Sunday Guardian wrote a little article on our project. It had felt like a new expression of my past work, a galvanization of seemingly disparate elements of my Chicago life. The potential was worth lingering in Delhi.

November plodded by, however, without a concrete plan for future workshops. The people who had eagerly pursued us gave little information or commitment. Charnita petitioned local colleges and schools, but their answers were evasive. Even those who gave seemingly solid plans changed at the last moment.

One day, Charnita was explaining the various frustrating responses as we walked through the residential area of her neighborhood in north Delhi. There are several universities nearby, so there are many college students living in various privately-run dorms. It should be easy to find an audience, but there’s been resistance on the administrative level.

She stops at a gate; and it takes me a moment to realize that we have actually arrived at the current subject, a   local private high school. Unknown, young, female, and with an unusual subject, the administrators weren’t responding to Charnita despite her qualifications. The new plan? Send me in, to see if the foreign sparkle would get their attention.

We passed through the gate, found the main hall, and climbed the stairs to the reception. Charnita hung back on the steps and let me go forward to make our case, performing confidence despite the buzzing thought, “I am in a foreign country, selling this workshop to a school as if it is the most normal thing in the world.”

The white factor worked; I had an appointment the next morning to discuss the idea. We knew the cultural patterns, even used them to our advantage, but to see it actually happen was still startling.

In the end, it wouldn’t be enough. That night, I redesigned the workshop for a co-ed audience of high school age, and modified our written proposal to match the new approach. But the meeting in the morning eventually produced nothing.

We were left in limbo, not quite knowing whether anything would manifest, with any of our leads.

Disastrous Distractions

I pause for a moment on the walkway crossing over the tracks, staring at a numberless train below. Night of October 14th: after gurdwara goodbyes and some more wandering, I am short on sleep and looking for my platform.

A young man swoops down to ask if I need help. Ignoring my denials, he plucks my ticket from my hands and sets off for help.

I lose him for a moment and panic shatters my heart. But he’s there in the crowd, waiting for me, all politeness and chivalry. I’ve had one or two men innocently offer (unnecessary) help before, and I do not want to offend him by being rude.

And he’s still holding my ticket.

Down on platform 3, I can’t understand the script on the waiting train. I can’t read Hindi or Telugu, is this my train? Yes, yes, this is your train.

I find car S3, but before I can look for the sometimes-posted reservation chart, he is asking me to stay, talk with him, sit with him. Polite but insistent, saying I can wait to get on my train. How much time has passed? I have to tug my ticket from his eager hands. I say I need to get settled, he asks me for my number, I lie about a boyfriend and dive through the door without my standard double-check.

My berth number is mired in young, curious men. The entire area within sight of my window seat is full of them. No women or man-with-wife to ask the usual train confirmation question, just a cluster of eyes and bodies. I throw my bag under the seat and mentally check out as quickly as possible. The train starts moving and slowly the berth area fills with more young men, pressing me closer to the window. They slide down to make space, and I am asked to move my purse. I refuse, as the width of that small bag is the buffer space for my body, without it they are free to press in and close off my air, remove my agency.

I count twelve in a space for six. Fervently texting local friends to see if this is normal, I have my headphones in and am focused on the view clicking by. I endure an hour and then move to find another seat (since rules don’t matter anyway), taking my bag with me and stepping over and through the bodies.

That’s when I discover half-empty berths, or evenly seated spaces. What I thought was a packed train was just a packed audience.

I find a family, beg them for their upper berth, and slide away from sight. Except slowly, over another hour, the side berth below becomes slowly packed with young men. At least six for where two would sit, but I stop counting.

The conductor arrives and as I am trying to explain why I am in the wrong berth, he tells me that I am, of course, on the wrong train. Going where, I could never understand. Just not Chennai.

One who was so annoyed at disrespect for reservations and space actually never had a seat.

The conductor is a mix of advice and indifference. The father belonging to my escape berth was very concerned about my safety, but a plan was established: another hour, and I would get off at Warangal, and try to find a train to Chennai. “The stationmaster will help you.”

But now the conductor’s a little too interested, and I have to keep him at a distance.

The stationmaster was indifferent. Was told that my train left an hour before, my entire ticket (all the way to Kanyakumari)  was invalid, and there was nothing to do. Dismissed.

I refused to give up, “I am a woman, alone, at night, somewhere in India, I don’t know where I am. There MUST be something.”

And I am instructed to purchase a general ticket for the next train to Chennai, leaving at 1 a.m.

Ticket procured, I slide onto the floor and wait. Darkness closes in over my heart and mind, and I reach the worst moment in the journey.

General ticketing is the lowest train class. There are no assigned seats, just a free-for-all. I have seen crowds push themselves into the few train cars, hanging out the windows and the doors. It’s rooftop train travel contained in a couple of boxes. And, of course, almost entirely men.

I wait, expecting to soon be pressed into a tiny space with a hundred curious hands. Eight hours of exposure and touch.

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