As Vishnu and I retrace our steps back up the staircase, I internally curse the police for making me go up it again; all worthwhile once I meet Vishnu’s friend, Deepak (pronounced “dee-puck”) at the top. There’s a view from Deepak’s rooftop which makes up for being chased away.
To get there, we pass through over a worn threshold; the hallway darkens and then gives us to a bright courtyard, safety grates filtering the sun onto the pale gray stone floor. Several woven wooden cages hang to one side of the enclosure, hosting brilliantly plumed birds. I suppress a squeal and try not to fuss over them. His younger sister slips into the courtyard, slender with long braided tresses, apparent innocence shading her inner vitality — a bright wit smoldering beneath the quiet.
Doors reveal shadowy chambers lining the central opening, and this repeats as we take the narrow curling stairs up through layers of family. On every floor a new aunt smiles from the doorway of her kitchen, aided by a hired hand, a girl close to the floor washing the glinting metal dishes used everywhere in India. His family occupies the entire house. Each uncle took a wife and a level, a slice of stone matching his other brothers’.
On the rooftop, the Ganges languishes below us, her expanse immediately overpowering any chaos of Varanasi, her calm gray worshiped belly comforting fears, absorbing prayers, receiving our beloved. Bringing in the frenetic with the spiritual.
The guys joke together and tell me stories, but I am distracted by a little boy attempting to fly a kite on a rooftop below us. He runs, but it doesnt take to the air and I want to call out to him, cheer him on. But he looks too proud, too sure of himself, for me to ruin that. Like so many young people I meet.
We spiral back down through the family tree and set off for the tea shop, where Vishnu introduces me to his mother. She gracefully welcomes me (to my surprise, considering the reputation of white girls) although we don’t have a common language; and gives me the spiciest potatoes that I have ever consumed. In fact, I’ve been fed all day — not a surprising thing once I’m welcomed into a community.
There is a rhythm and ritual to life. For example, the scarf experience:
Varanasi is famous for its fabric, known by the city’s former name, Benares. Remembering a story from earlier in the day, I ask Vishnu to take me to a shop he mentioned, a small place a few doors down from his. A single, white cushion covers the entire floor; we slip off our shoes and pad into the space with introductions and greetings. I settle cross-legged in front of the primary salesperson, and Vishnu lounges back on the side, quiet as i take the lead. The shop seems primarily comprised of linens too heavy to mail, but the man pulls down a rectangular box and introduces a revelation of color. Scarves, smaller than the average Indian dupatta but perfect for a Western woman. They flow out of the box, vibrancy in woven form, two-toned glory flittering across color identities, the glossy fabric billows across the floor in front of my knees. The cushion is designed for this parade, the salesperson doesn’t slow down, pulling out scarf after scarf, fluttering and floating into a stunning mound. Attempting a poker face, I pull out my gift list and count the women — “I’ll take seven.” We choose them carefully, comparing patterns and colors under appreciative fingers until seven, gently folded, rest to the side. Then, the bargaining. Someone orders chai and Vishnu hands out the tiny classic cups of warm spicy tea. The salesman and I begin, sitting upright, drinking, waving our arms around at each price the other suggests. Performed shock. I already know the local price, and shoot lower; we circle and debate until we arrive at exactly the expected price. It would be four to five times that, at least, in the market (for a foreigner). But we’ve come here because they’re honest. The moment the price is settled, the performed tension disappears into cheer and chat. After all that posturing, Vishnu actually has to foot some of the cash, because the sum is more than I am carrying.
Clutching my paper-wrapped bundle, I repay him after an ATM visit, carried forward in the euphoria of the experience, of how comfortable it felt, of how well I was treated, and the simple pleasure of knowing you have brilliant Christmas gifts this year.
Deepak meets us as the tea shop to say goodbye, as I am leaving that night, and Vishnu invites me to return. Genuine friendship, with kindness and grace. And the two, excited and expressive, decorate me with earrings and a necklace chosen from the shop shelves. Every piece of jewelry I have with me on the trip is a gift.
Scrambling and risking being late for my train back to Delhi, I still hold out for the local price when looking for an auto. And walk determinedly in the wrong direction, animatedly bargaining with a particular auto driver who drives slowly alongside me until he gives up and accepts my price. Despite the blustering, once I am in the auto, we both relax into stories, music playing in the background. Somehow, the conversation turns into him teaching me how to count to ten in Hindi. Eck do bin…eck do bin cha…eck do bin cha panch. We shout numbers into the traffic, zooming towards the station. Learnt by sound alone, I am not quite right when quizzed by friends later, but still impressive. Sharing knowledge, breaking down conventional power dynamics, finding common ground.
He asked for money and sex when we arrived, but I laughed at him and walked away. I didn’t care, suspecting that my expressive cheer could have been confusing. The negative wasn’t enough to take away the overwhelmingly positive day.
The workshop (radical in nature and advertised openly via the internet/flyers/personal asks) got some attention. We received requests to reproduce it in other cities, and were interviewed by The Sunday Guardian, a weekly newspaper published simultaneously in Delhi and London. It was a brief article but terribly exciting for our duo. Below is the email I wrote in response to the reporter’s surprisingly dense questions, which produced answers the little article could never accommodate. Thought I would post it here so it could see the light. [Note: Occasionally delicate writing considering the audience, was more careful than I would have been in an American context.]
1. Could you tell me about your role in the conceptualization and organisation of the workshop?
Charnita had invited me to be a content developer (from a distance, of course) in the areas of gender and sexuality. It was her suggestion that we formalize our ideas into a workshop. I was an equal partner in the conceptualization and organization of the workshop; after initial brainstorming, we divided the sections between us for a deeper focus, and then returned to compare and revise. I was concerned about the ethics of engaging such a project as a foreigner. How could I criticize another culture that is not my own? But working in dialogue with Charnita has assuaged my fears, since she was able to ground and direct my approach through an Indian perspective.
2. What is the purpose and goal and what are the means of achieving this (both in context of this workshop and of your work in general?)
The purpose of such a workshop is to create a safe learning environment that empowers young women to interrogate the system of oppression that affects their lives, and in doing so promoting well-being, awareness, and knowledge. The goal is that each woman leaves the workshop with a greater sense of self, the affirmation of her social criticisms, and the knowledge and inspiration to further develop her own ideas and perspective. To do this, we narrowed down our extensive list to the most essential pieces of information necessary to begin understanding how women’s voices and experiences are oppressed. The workshop was structured in an interactive and experiential fashion so as to provide the highest level of engagement and education. For example, examining the depiction of women in media can reveal extreme manifestations of gender roles, and therefore open up a discussion on the unhealthy effects of a divided society. By including the participants in the generation of ideas and analyses, more effective and enduring change can be produced; the process itself works to counteract the suppression that young women so frequently experience. This kind of project, although not entirely similar, is very much in line with the material and focus of my work in general.
3. Charnita also told me you took the Banana Talk session – could you tell what your experience was like? What was it that you talked of and how was the response? What was your impression of the young Indian participants – how aware (or not) were they?
The Banana Talk was a sensitive subject, since sex and sexuality are taboo topics. The discussion was approached from three different directions: (1) providing accurate information in the interest of health, (2) discussing healthy relationships, (3) continuing the analysis of gender roles and cultural/societal influences. To create a judgment-free space and preserve the comfort of the girls as much as possible, we distributed slips of paper and pens so that any questions could be anonymously written down. Their questions revealed distorted information and the painful effects of oppressive thought. Fears and insecurities were prevalent, and to respond to them effectively I had to cover basic anatomy and function. Proper education is essential for health in this area. As for my impression of their awareness, I would say that, in comparison to American students in a sexual education class, they are far behind. But, naturally, there was a range within the young women based on maturity level. We ought to be more concerned about the patterns of thinking that were revealed in the questions: deep guilt and shame, repression, distortions in the understanding of gender differences, and the negative effects of all this on perceptions of relationships, marriage being the most significant. Discussing sex and sexuality in such a context cannot be separated from the ramifications of society. The entire “Banana Talk” discussion was grounded in the same approach laced throughout the seminar: recognizing how oppressive systems of thought shape women’s behavior, choices, ideas, and thinking. The major discussion of the section revolves around the discrepancies between society’s rules and biology’s truth. Like any other section in the workshop, we never provided moral answers, but encouraged the women to formulate their own values based on information and critical thinking. You asked about my experience of it, which I would say is largely marked by concern. It was disconcerting to see such unhealthy ways of thinking, to see the oppression of their self-worth and right to be respected manifest in their questions. Despite the heavy work laid before me, the young women responded well, shy at first but soon encouraged and expressive. It was clearly a deeply needed and well received session.
4. How do you see this enterprise going forward? And how relevant do you think this kind of experiential education is for youngsters today?
As for taking the project forward, we had not discussed anything further than offering the workshop twice — this past weekend. Having received attention and invites to reproduce the workshop in other cities has sparked discussions of continuing it. This indicates a need, and that others are interested in doing similar work. But the most important indications to continue was the overwhelmingly powerful positive response from the participants, their intelligence and creativity, and that the process clearly demonstrated the need for such a project. Experiential education such as this is not merely relevant, it is essential. To receive an idea in the mind, either directly or indirectly, can settle heavily on the psyche given enough pressure. But to manifest true life skills, critical thinking, and well-being, students need to work through ideas themselves, in experiential ways that bring them to a deeper and more effective level.
5. Do you see yourself as a feminist? Is your work supplemented by any feminist ideology? Was this workshop in any way a feminist exercise for you?
“Feminism” is a loaded word, which can refer to any of the evolutions of the women’s movement, it as a whole, or take on different meanings in different minds. Too often, at least in America, feminism is pushed aside as the hatred of men and an overreaction in a seemingly equal society. This is a simplification that distracts from a necessary task. Feminism is Humanism. I believe in humanity, in the holistic uplifting of all people regardless of their gender identity. One of the concepts we discussed in the workshop was “patriarchy,” oppression based on a “power-over” system in a culture. A patriarchal society oppresses all members, but the manifestation of that “power-over” mentality affects women the most. Breaking down patriarchy means shifting the power structure from a “power-over” to a “power-from-within” — and in the doing, improve the lives of everyone. For example, the young women in the workshop constantly experience the “power-over.” They are inundated with unhealthy restrictions and pressures that force them to suppress their ideas, desires, dreams, and voices. Instead, a “power-from-within” approach validates them, encourages them to express themselves, and builds their self-confidence because there need not be discrepancies between what they know to be true and what they are told. This work is not merely an exercise, it is the manifestation of humanism: empowering the individual on a local level to effect change on a societal level. As for “ideology,” that is another dangerous word, as I associate it with the inflexible systemic thought of patriarchy. But if we are talking about women-positive and gender theory, then absolutely! Many, many writers and activists have contributed to these ideas and our approach. To name them all would be impossible. Major contributors are Dr. Dustin Goltz, Karen Finley, bell hooks, Starhawk, Judith Butler, Marge Piercy, and Audre Lourde.
6. Could you also give me details of what it is that you do otherwise, so that I can put this workshop in context?
I am a writer, director, performer, and facilitator. I believe in the cathartic and communicative effects of performance and focus on how the spoken word can promote healing and social change — especially for women. I am currently traveling in India for several reasons: there are some things that you must come here to learn and experience, and the country provides incredible opportunities to study religion and women’s situations in an experiential way.
Huge response, I know. But your questions could be answered in books!