Majnu Ka Tilla, the Tibetan “colony”, extends along the large Yamuna river which runs through the eastern side of Delhi. Strings of prayer flags distinguish the neighborhood from its Indian neighbors across the broad, bustling thoroughfare ; to the east, trees close the final distance between the buildings and the riverbank. A forest meets Yamuna’s other edge the city’s protected woodland.
This means that, unlike most places in Delhi, you can see the stars from my rooftop.
Look west, and the dense lights turn the haze into cloud cover and drown any celestial attempt to be seen. Overhead, the sky fades into potential sparkle, and as you look out over the river, the stars fully arrive in the darkness, filling out the east.
Jyoti, my Belgian/Nepali roommate, left Delhi for a Vipassana retreat, which is a particular and intense form of meditation. My time here is winding down as well: after extending by more than a month, I’m looking at the last two weeks of so in the country, spending time with local friends and preparing for the final haul — the challenge of Kolkata, and the east.
I invite a friend to come by after work and enjoy the rare view of the stars, promising to attempt proper chai with the supplies brought back from Vishnu’s tea shop in Varanasi.
Jyoti and I had no trouble adding each other to our rooms when either was coming or going, and I thought nothing of it. In the early afternoon, I swung by the desk to let the receptionist know that I had another person coming tonight, honoring the notice declaring that guests must be registered if they are there after a certain hour.
The receptionist asks for the nationality of the guest.
And she explains that only Tibetans and foreigners are allowed.
I’ve been living next door to this woman on and off for a month now; I adjust the truth and look for a loophole, banking on my longterm presence. It seems possible to get around the rule, and I go back upstairs, exhausted from irregular sleep.
In the half-waking daze post-nap, I remember DePaul, ethics, and myself. It doesn’t take long to pack.
Indians are allowed to work in the guest house and attached restaurant, although it is run by Tibetans and owned by a Nepali. The young guys who wash their clothes on the rooftop and snooze in the afternoon, who carefully treated me with respect, are the grunt labor, working in the kitchen or on the cleaning staff. Even the one who sleeps in the lobby at night, there to unlock the door if needed, is Indian.
I lay the keys on the desk, backpack on. Having promised to not do anything dramatic, I lay words on carefully: I’m leaving but will pay for tonight, because I know it is past the check-out time, although I was supposed to stay for the rest of my time in Delhi.
“You’ve been kind to me, and I’m grateful for that,” I go on, and she gives a real smile, the first true one I’ve seen from her. And then,
“I know you just work here, that you do not make the rules, but please tell the owner that I am deeply offended, and will not stay where my friends are not welcome.” Her face drops, then almost looks as if she could cry when she hears what I say next.
“When Tibetans fled the Chinese, Indians welcomed them into their country. That Tibetans won’t allow them into a guest house is unacceptable.” I gesture at the enormous framed image of the Dalai Lama occupying almost an entire wall of the lobby, and say, “You have to take down the photo of His Holiness [hitting home with their terms] or allow everyone.”
And walk out in her silence, returning to Paharganj, the chaotic old market budget neighborhood where harassment is plenty and the people let you know exactly what they think.
This is not a condemnation of the entire Tibetan community. That would require standing on the outside in judgment, rather than acknowledging the complex, conflictual dynamics between the two cultural and national entities. There has certainly been unfair conduct from Indians towards Tibetans (and I experience far more harassment from Indian men), but marking injustice where it occurs must be done on both sides. The Tibetan community tends to be privileged, especially by foreigners. And the exclusivity at the guest house, especially matched with employment of cheap (Indian) labor, is deeply problematic and unproductive.
The negative stories are not meant as a diatribe. I was there, this is what I experienced, and I am trying to understand it. Although sexual harassment affects Indian women, my experiences seem to be in the extreme — my race and foreign-status ignites a hyper-expression of gender dynamics that are always at work in Indian society. Those who can be inspired to harassment by a white face are not suddenly changing character, even if they do not (or so frequently) harass Indian women. Instead, the narratives of race and culture attached to my body produce a space of perceived freedom, of availibility, where there are no consequences. Indian media portrays Western/white women as sexually available; and in a way this is true, since society has a weaker hold on sex and sexuality in America, in comparison. Men take this representation to the extreme when they call out sexual advances, or directly ask for sex. Very often, they are appropriating my presence for the performance of their gender: one acts verbally against another’s body, sexualizing them against their will with words, sometimes touch, to assert their own power. A play of male dominance through the reification of sexualized gender roles.
The intense sexual harassment worried me. The humiliation and violation, of course, but more troubling was the chance that it would interfere with my ability to form friendships, to trust Indian men.
My friend Vishnu is evidence of how this did not happen. Here is a happy story:
Vishnu, my new Varanasi friend, offers me a tour of the city, calling in his brother to take his place in the tea shop. We set off into the dense maze of tiny twisty streets. People reach out to greet Vishnu over and over, hands clasping, words shared — other shopkeepers, friends. He’s lived in this city all his life, having only made one trip outside, to the great city of Kolkata (a.k.a. Calcutta). Relaxed and confident, worldly and friendly, he treats me as a person not as the American White Girl.
Shrines are tucked into corners and carved into walls; the city is bursting with devotees. Every pathway has a sacred point, honored with decorations and whatnot — paint, offerings, images. An expressive celebration. Sacred trees persist in narrow, cracked openings. We meet a cluster of them that have been growing for centuries in a quiet corner of the frenetic city, near a open-windowed small room where men have chanted for as much or longer.
He leads me to a temple where three strung bells hang above a square (railings included here) opening in the floor, and I can see three levels below, down into the earth, where a shrine rests at the bottom of a spiraled square staircase. Only Brahmins could go in for ages, but now it is open to other worshipers (but not to tourists). So we gaze from above at the beloved below, removed but in awe.
We’re telling stories and enjoying the exploration, continuing down a (thousandth, it seems) staircase towards the Ganges, towards a burning ghat. To be honest, I am not eager, concerned about coming too close to such sacred, sorrowful rituals. There’s no time to discuss ethics because when we reach the last step, we see several police officers ahead — we immediately turn and duck back up the stairs. Vishnu explains that cops in Varanasi sometimes harass anyone leading a white person around, demanding bribes. I’ve encountered Indian police twice, and I would prefer to avoid a third; but Vishnu laughs at my bounding away, he’s not nearly as concerned as I am.
We are marked. A brown Indian boy and a white American girl are not supposed to be friends.
I’ve been warned about train delays in India, but it had never happened to me, so I didn’t pay much attention. My departures and arrivals are carefully timed, avoiding suspect late night hours. This worked well, until my train from Delhi to Bodhgaya was delayed: instead of leaving at a completely manageable 10 PM, its departure time was pushed forward to 4:30 AM. Jyoti and I stood at Platform 1, staring at the screen. My hope that it was a mistake ached in my body as I wondered how to spend the night at the train station.
But the answer was simple, I needn’t have worried. We returned to Majnu Ka Tilla where I was able to rest for a few hours in Jyoti’s room, and arranged a lift to the station via the guest house staff. Three or four guys standing around the desk, chatting in Hindi to each other and Jyoti. Everyone gets involved, a classic experience. In the early hours of the morning, I woke the man sleeping in the lobby — a staple in any guest house — who called the driver again.
The train arrives in the fading darkness, as promised, but we will stop and start, inching our way towards Bihar. I suspect that we have been shuffled out of the way, an odd one out of sync with the rest who must wait for everyone else to pass by so as not to disrupt the others. Slowly slowly, we ease east.
I’m not well-stocked, and ration out what food I have if we have a train-apocalypse where our pace slows to walking. A good-natured man in our cabin space points it out, and I make a quick joke about perpetual train rides. And the train passes its original arrival time, then threatens to ignore its proposed one as well. Night settles in.
We’re moving, but not that much. Railroad tracks stretching into the black hole of Indian delays, always progressing never arriving. I am afraid to sleep, lest I miss my stop. I sit, awake, by the window, waiting blankly.
My ticket is for the middle bunk, which drops down to form the seat-back during the day. The men around me suggest that I rest, and I explain that I am afraid of oversleeping. I look up into their genuine smiles, their involvement in my well-being. They explain that I will be woken, that no one will let me miss the stop. So we convert our cabin area into bunks, and all stretch out to sleep.
When the conductor comes, he fusses over my ticket. “This ticket is for yesterday. You must buy a new one.” Appalled that he could blame me for his own train being delayed so long that we are into the next day, I splutter a protest, but it is drowned out by the chorus of voices around me, my cabin-mates charging in with Hindi in my defense. The conversation leaves my comprehension, but the conductor leaves me alone. I am told that he was confused. I suspect that he had been attempting a scam, but I keep the thought to myself.
As promised, someone wakes me when we are nearing Gaya, and I collect myself. It’s an awkward early hour, nearly 4 AM on the following day, but it is much better than arriving at midnight. I had been anxious over the anticipated intensity of the coming days. Now I was all patience, and fatigue.
Another white female foreigner had arrived sometime in the night, and is sleeping on the bunk below mine. Someone wakes her up as well, in case she is going to Gaya as well. Confused and in a daze, she explains that she is not. Those of us who are leaving wait in the aisle, quietly but warmly, another little community alive for a moment because of a train.
I want to keep the happy memory, as I make my way through the crowded (despite the hour) station, but I begin to wonder if I was treated so well because of my race. Would a young Indian woman traveling alone through the night receive such kindness? No one is simple, I would not deny them their humanity; but after this much time in India, I need to acknowledge that my skin color and foreign status opens doors and generates useful attention.
I’ll wait out the night, go to Bodhgaya by auto rickshaw at sunrise. Normally I would sit on the floor with everyone else, somewhere near a cluster of women. But the hour and the severe economic difference in Bihar, the poorest state in India, amps up the spotlight, and I slip into the first class waiting room, my face granting me instant permission.