Every pop of my personal bubble ate away at my composure. Chicago culture ran on insulation; breaking, reaching out to another, was a choice. My previous criticisms of such a system creep back into my brain when my frustration overflows. To move through a city of millions in silence and isolation seemed unnatural. To live exposed can be unbearable. Perhaps I could call India an education in extremes, which turns a critical eye back upon “home.”
Slide my stories away if you think I am overreacting. That question is no longer useful to me.
I see the intensity of my environment in the moments that I am free from it. Returning by wander to the gurdwara, having promised to join them for lunch, I paused to escape the dust and heat via a selection of shops set back from the road. I had been babying myself with the small glass bottles of Sprite, cool fizzy medication for only ten rupees — they must be immediately drained and returned for recycling. The shopkeeper offered me a chair and then walked away. He tinkered with the fruit piled on the stands at the sidewalk, spoke to the one or two men attending the produce, and accepted a phone call.
My presence was accepted and ignored. I drank the soda, gratefully silent and unperturbed, deeply aware of how unusual this was.
The day before, I had attempted to make a similar escape, diving out of the harassment-constant streets into a small cafe and ordering the cheapest drink, those small glass bottles. I sat down at a table and was soon joined by two men, despite several empty options surrounding us. I immediately stood and took another spot without making eye contact (trying to play the good girl), sipped the last, and left amid sniggers and stares. Writing this, I entertain fantasies of having tossed my soda into faces, laps, pouring it slowly in great expanding anger on the table they invaded.
This time, I gently added my bottle to the crate with the other empties, and joined the men at the fruit stand to pick out a small, lovable cantaloupe (a.k.a. muskmelon). With spaces to relax, I had truly begun to ease away from being constantly on defense, the tension/energy releasing into being able to enjoy the city again.
I ducked into bakeries, curious about the purpose of mysterious stringy noodle-like sweets and delighted by the discovery of peanut butter cookies. I poked through tiny bookshops open to the street and wondered at the chaotic piles of complicated pans and dishes.
Able to feel something other than anger, frustration, and fear.
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.”