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.
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.
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.