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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.

Understanding the Stories

Illiciting intense emotions, the negative always supercedes the positive in my memory, pulling raw at the mind and drawing up the darker sides of humanity. The truth is that every challenging story from India was leveraged by a deep positive, as every harassing man was tempered by the encircling protection of women. India, in my experience, is a land of extremes: an ancient civilization embodying the human story. One of the oldest living cities on earth coexisting with progressive technology, rampant cruelty and indifference matched by truly genuine human connection and potential. To stand outside in judgment is dangerous, indicative of a divided perspective on the global community. If Earth were a single organism, then India marks the development of its human aspect. To see its violence and slf-destruction is to contemplate the dangers that humanity lays against itself — our indifference towards the earth, to our slow and unnecessarily-advancing death. To witness the fear, the seeming social decline, the brutality, must be tempered by realizing that aggression is learned, gender dynamics constructed and perpetuated, economic strife the result of unhealthy economic structures. To abandon it is to forget our united desire for life. The privileged, local or global, can choose to withdraw entirely or to engage, learn, grow, and empower others.

To travel there is to be challenged into becoming the best and worst of yourself, to crack open and gaze into the misery and ecstasy of what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, an education in humanity.

Delhi: Finding Home Across the World

In August, Delhi had been soaked in heat, its cluttered old market neighborhood sticky and pressing in close. The dusty crowd, the sheer volume of surround-sound stimulation, overwhelmed me. Still reeling from the sudden shift, I could only leave my hotel room for an hour at a time; and I showered at every return. A previous traveler had told me to leave Delhi as soon as I could; I took off for the Himalayas with no intention to return.

Six weeks later I was passing through and met Charnita, the future co-facilitator of the workshop.

From then on, it was home base, grounding weeks of sporadic movement. I resented its pollution haze which wrings out gorgeous sunsets and early death. Its center-less patchwork maze distorted my understanding of urban life, and the reckless harassment dueled with Hyderabad for Worst Gender Trouble. 

Over time, reliable auto drivers appeared among the ruthless, the smog lifted to reveal the stars, and I grew into a new appreciation. Returning from Varanasi at the end of November felt even more like coming home.

Nomadic life does that to you: “home” takes on new space every few days,  in a way is attached to anywhere your backpack rests for more than a night. It’s a lifestyle, not a vacation. Living unattached to a physical place can bring out the essence of community and home when you choose to build it. Without the assumed pedantry, the general slog of living can become something more than itself. 

Jyoti, a Belgian friend, welcomed me back to Lhasa House in the Tibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla with fresh fruit and toast — luxury itself. Among long term travelers, cultural identification can become fluid. Jyoti has moved beyond travel: although Belgian, she lives in Nepal and is only in India to fulfill visa requirements. Emanating peace, she evokes a Buddhist atmosphere; naturally, she felt deeply connected to Nepal years ago and rearranged her life to make a transition possible. Although we each inherit a culture, to suggest that that is all we are limited to does not match reality. Encountering, engaging, and embracing other cultures requires thoughtful ethics. At the same time, not everyone’s assigned cultures, countries, and practices match their inner selves.

Jyoti shifted to my former rooftop room, and rented the kitchen across the way. We wander the (Indian side of the neighborhood) market, a medley of colors — produce piled high in front of seated vendors. We collect vegetables for dinner from the waiting heaps. And choose oil out of the options that a shopkeeper lays before us, as browsing is rare outside of Western-style grocery stores. More often, the salesperson reaches for your requests; there is no casual perusal of what you might want to purchase, no search for potential inspiration A LA leisurely Americans. You are expected to come to the shop with articulate-able purpose. I struggle with this.

Once we have flour, we cross the pedestrian bridge back into Majnu Ka Tilla, and climb the four flights back to our rooftop home. Having access to a kitchen again produces excessive delight: to know all ingredients, return to brief veganism, and, most dearly, prepare fresh vegetables again.

Stories of temples and poverty, scarves and friendship mix in with the spices. I battle with dough in my first attempt at chapatis without watchful eyes guiding my work. The imperfect (American?) version. On the laundry-bedecked terrace, Jyoti covers the rusty low metal table with a stretch of bright fabric, and we lay out the haphazard dish collection. Under the slightly smothered stars, we reimagine convention and celebrate our good fortune to have such a beautiful little home.                            

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