Oct 19. The Sevagram train station is a small, but clean, nicely decorated place, the first and last of its kind as far as I can tell. Having just arrived on an overnight train from Chennai, I slip into the first class waiting room to change and clean up. Although Sleeper doesn’t sound “first class,” I think they mean anything that is not the free-for-all of general ticketing – being white and foreign means that no one will question my presence, anyway. I behave as if I am waiting for a train, although I really just want a safe space to open my laptop. Almost as soon as I am immobile, the young teenager who has That Look on her face comes over.
“Hello, Auntie!” Ten extra years earns me that. “Auntie” should be reserved for elderly ladies.
We chat; her cleverness and bright personality peeks through the typical demure cloak. She dashes away and returns with a notebook full of drawings: henna (mehindi) sketches of leaves, diamonds, peacocks weave and dance across pages and over pencil-line arms. Self-taught over the last year (now 13), I wonder if she could be called a henna prodigy. Naturally, I am soon meeting her parents who have been smiling gently across the room, sitting down next to her mother with drying henna-ed hands. The girl pulls out her little tube and turns me into canvas, confidently squeezing the brown liquid into flowers and vines snaking down my arm and pooling in my palm. I watch her deft movements, grateful to participate in her art; this will be my only mehindi in India. Her last act is to rub the ink onto every fingertip, up to the first crease – I am told that it increases the beauty of the pattern, and I nod, thrown by the strangeness of my hand.
When the drawing dried and was properly rubbed with oil, I set out for Gandhi’s ashram, the reason I am at this small town on the eastern side of Maharashtra. I know it is 3 km away, down the main road; the girl’s father tells me how much the rickshaw ought to cost, but I explain that I will walk. It’s Gandhi. You have to walk there.
So I take the shortcut to the main road, as he described. Every once in awhile, I confirm that I am going in the right direction by asking a local.
And they point farther down the road. At any questionable point, I reach out again.
“Gandhiji?” Arms swing out to point in the same direction. It is a parade of hand gestures creating a human sign post, a dotted line à la Family Circus.
In the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, there is a wall in the museum describing some of the letters to Gandhi. There was a collection of envelopes with bizarre addresses: “Gandhi, wherever he is, India,” or the best, a sketched portrait of him with no other information. And he received them.
One turn at the center of the village leads to a final curve revealing a complex of small buildings, thatched and mud-walled. Across the road is a guest house and a tiny museum. Inside the gates, Indian tourists wander around the labeled huts, reading about the ashram. Soon, a man in the classic white traditional clothing that marks him as an “ashramite” spots me with my backpack, and in a few minutes I am set up in the guest house and expected at dinner.
With no man by my side to address, shopkeepers and drivers must deal directly with me. I would be expected to fade behind my chaperone, appropriately silent and demure. In this country, men lead public lives. They are largely the shopkeepers, clerks, drivers; and dominate restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. Some women populate the streets, sometimes not even with men, but as clusters of school girls or with children. But I wonder where the rest of the women are, silent faces behind walls and curtains, waiting above the shop or back in the kitchen.
With prejudice and assumptions to overcome, I put on an aggressive, self-assured performance when I need to make a deal with a man. I force them to take me seriously. I walk with confidence even if I am a little lost, my face displaying a serious expression. I stare back, toss a quick glare, or ignore them completely. Although I have met many kind, gracious Indian men, in general I assume that any man who gives me information is lying to me. I check with someone else to confirm it, preferably a woman.
Waiting in lines in India is a competitive sport: people seem to cue, and then at the very front, four or five men will bunch up around the ticket window trying to order all at once. And men cut in front of you, especially if you look distracted or happen to be female. I learned to maintain my spot by elbowing my way through the clump, trying to make my body occupy more space. And, for the first time, when a man cut in front of me, I tapped him on the shoulder: he protested in Hindi but I waved him away. And he LEFT!
I realized that I am most likely placing myself into the male category, more easily done, I am sure, because I am a foreigner and other women have opened the path for me. It became clear upon arriving in Agra with two friends, a man and a woman; I charged forward and bargained with a rickshaw driver in my typically extroverted way. Once our packs were tucked into the back shelf and the three of us were squished into the seat, and the driver had dried off the windshield (wipers were broken) and punched his headlight to get it started, we set off for our hotel. Throughout the ride, the driver addressed his questions to me. My heightened need to establish myself when alone had made me a temporary man, the leader of the group.
Which continued the next day when it became clear that all the trains to Delhi were full: our options were to sit in steerage (no assigned seats, launch into the carriage with a hundred other people, I was the only one willing to try) or to commandeer a taxi to take us back to the city. We gathered all the tourists we could find to split the fare, ending up with seven people – from the United States, Ireland, South Korea, Croatia, and Holland. An intense 40 minutes of haggling commenced, led by the Croatian guy, the Irish fellow, and myself. Periodically we would circle up the group and announce the most recent developments in the deal, get a consensus, and then return to the battle. These were determined, manipulative, aggressive businessmen we were dealing with, and they were forced to bargain with a woman. In the end, the foreigner group handed the cash over to me, I finished the deal (only once everyone was loaded into the car), and we began a miserable seven-hour ride into Delhi with a coked-up driver.
Finally back in Delhi, I stopped by the train station’s ladies waiting room. Two young male teenagers entered. I informed them that they were in a women’s only space, and, when they hesitated for a moment, waved them toward the door. They left amid the smiles of waiting women, but followed me around the train station once I had met up with my two friends again, standing together a few feet away, staring at me. Some sort of childish attempt at intimidation. They were harmless, just humiliated by a woman, a foreign woman, a woman who seemed alone. My friend Paul told them to get lost, and that was that — no shame in taking an order from a man.