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.
The German intern, Hannah, and I decide to take a break from ashram life for the afternoon. Sometimes we pick up something sweet, a soda or a popsicle, at a shop in town — an illicit pleasure heightened by the simple, unspiced ashram diet of dahl, rice, vegetables, and chapatis. I think we both enjoy having a small break from being the only foreigner, the isolated cultural gaff, and especially the lightest face around.
I have a low tolerance for harassment, and swing my water bottle at an auto rickshaw driver when our words aren’t enough to end his cruising alongside Hannah, grinning like a fool and murmuring to her. I find myself often apologizing after I do something, because my instinctual responses cut into our conversation: I fluidly shift from our gentle discussion to masculine, defiant aggression against male interference and back. Luckily, she assures me that my making noise in her town does not stress her out.
She invites me out to see the nearby marble Buddhist shrine set in gardens, a quiet space for reflection. Another European is joining us, Angela, a medical student working in the local hospital. As far as we can tell, we are the only foreigners; our age and gender must add an extra layer of surprise. We are a concentration of difference.
Before long, we’ve settled with a driver for a fair price, and are wandering along a lovely path to the Buddhist gardens.
Three excited young Indian girls bounce up to Angela, shouting out their “hello!”s and trying to shake her hand. She has the lightest hair and skin, the most Western clothes. Hannah has equally light features, but is wearing a kurta. She is spoken to as an afterthought, half the time. Next to the other two, my slight tan and light brown hair makes me invisible; although my clothes are modern, they are the most Indian (designed to follow the modesty rules), a loose kurta-like shirt over even looser trousers with a scarf draped across my chest, and even my hair is in a braid today because it was wet. The girls completely ignore me. This happens again and again as we explore the elaborate shrine and walk down to the Vinoban monument.
Invisibility is a completely new experience, as I am so often marked by my difference. I am delighted, and slip away around the corner or into the gardens in case the children change their minds. The other two women are a little jealous of my anonymity as I escape out of sight (singing “the brown-haired girl is leaving!”) when they are stopped yet again.
The flexibility of my status is another reminder that my privilege and distinction in India is constructed. I thought three together would compile the attention we attract; in reality, we are appraised and sorted in relation to each other.