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Disastrous Distractions

I pause for a moment on the walkway crossing over the tracks, staring at a numberless train below. Night of October 14th: after gurdwara goodbyes and some more wandering, I am short on sleep and looking for my platform.

A young man swoops down to ask if I need help. Ignoring my denials, he plucks my ticket from my hands and sets off for help.

I lose him for a moment and panic shatters my heart. But he’s there in the crowd, waiting for me, all politeness and chivalry. I’ve had one or two men innocently offer (unnecessary) help before, and I do not want to offend him by being rude.

And he’s still holding my ticket.

Down on platform 3, I can’t understand the script on the waiting train. I can’t read Hindi or Telugu, is this my train? Yes, yes, this is your train.

I find car S3, but before I can look for the sometimes-posted reservation chart, he is asking me to stay, talk with him, sit with him. Polite but insistent, saying I can wait to get on my train. How much time has passed? I have to tug my ticket from his eager hands. I say I need to get settled, he asks me for my number, I lie about a boyfriend and dive through the door without my standard double-check.

My berth number is mired in young, curious men. The entire area within sight of my window seat is full of them. No women or man-with-wife to ask the usual train confirmation question, just a cluster of eyes and bodies. I throw my bag under the seat and mentally check out as quickly as possible. The train starts moving and slowly the berth area fills with more young men, pressing me closer to the window. They slide down to make space, and I am asked to move my purse. I refuse, as the width of that small bag is the buffer space for my body, without it they are free to press in and close off my air, remove my agency.

I count twelve in a space for six. Fervently texting local friends to see if this is normal, I have my headphones in and am focused on the view clicking by. I endure an hour and then move to find another seat (since rules don’t matter anyway), taking my bag with me and stepping over and through the bodies.

That’s when I discover half-empty berths, or evenly seated spaces. What I thought was a packed train was just a packed audience.

I find a family, beg them for their upper berth, and slide away from sight. Except slowly, over another hour, the side berth below becomes slowly packed with young men. At least six for where two would sit, but I stop counting.

The conductor arrives and as I am trying to explain why I am in the wrong berth, he tells me that I am, of course, on the wrong train. Going where, I could never understand. Just not Chennai.

One who was so annoyed at disrespect for reservations and space actually never had a seat.

The conductor is a mix of advice and indifference. The father belonging to my escape berth was very concerned about my safety, but a plan was established: another hour, and I would get off at Warangal, and try to find a train to Chennai. “The stationmaster will help you.”

But now the conductor’s a little too interested, and I have to keep him at a distance.

The stationmaster was indifferent. Was told that my train left an hour before, my entire ticket (all the way to Kanyakumari)  was invalid, and there was nothing to do. Dismissed.

I refused to give up, “I am a woman, alone, at night, somewhere in India, I don’t know where I am. There MUST be something.”

And I am instructed to purchase a general ticket for the next train to Chennai, leaving at 1 a.m.

Ticket procured, I slide onto the floor and wait. Darkness closes in over my heart and mind, and I reach the worst moment in the journey.

General ticketing is the lowest train class. There are no assigned seats, just a free-for-all. I have seen crowds push themselves into the few train cars, hanging out the windows and the doors. It’s rooftop train travel contained in a couple of boxes. And, of course, almost entirely men.

I wait, expecting to soon be pressed into a tiny space with a hundred curious hands. Eight hours of exposure and touch.

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Public Property

In which I cry quite a bit over twenty-four hours.

The lies begin again on the last bus down through the mountains: a young man is sitting next to me and politely inquires about the book in my hands. We chat for a moment and he doesn’t push the conversation — a point in his favor.

At the next break (Indian buses stop every two hours at least, sometimes for twenty minutes so everyone can eat), he waved me over to join his friend and him for chai. Thinking that I had few options for burning bridges on such a small bus, I join them, and he seems harmless. Still, I inflate the lie I told my Golden Temple guide: this time, I am engaged, and have left the ring with my mother to avoid theft. The bus rockets down the scraggly roads and he asks me for the wedding date. I stalled, mind blank, trying to figure out when people usually get married, and say, “June.”

The incessant bumping and brushing up on every bus is getting to me. Individual harmless contact, but the crowded conditions and rocking vehicle mean that contact is almost constant. Too many male rears brushing by my face, getting off and on the bus.

Young men try to snap a photograph of me against my will on the connecting bus to Haridwar. I throw my elbow up to block their shot, pull my scarf over my head to shame and block them, and, for the first and only time, receive an apology.

The trains to Delhi are full, and I am forced to take one that leaves Haridwar at 1 a.m.; the station is crowded all night, plenty of women gathered in groups, with their families, or securely in the ladies’ waiting room. As usual, eyes of all genders follow me wherever I walk. Blank, unfeeling stares; mouths closed or hanging slightly open. Men’s looks linger the longest, taking in my whole body.

I find older women to adopt me, young girls to smile and laugh with, until my train leaves.

I have a confirmed ticket but not a berth yet, and I find the conductor. He seems a little too interested in me, so although I comply, I refuse to lie down on the berth he has found until the ticket is completely settled, at which I point I plan to close the curtains and isolate myself. He returns, and, I, believing it is over, sort out my things and settle in. He closes the curtains for me. A minute later he has cracked them open, is leaning over me, hovering, asking me to kiss him. I strangle out my lie, my false engagement, and he sputters. “Get out of my space now or I’ll scream.” My go-to line. He comes back three more times for ticket-related issues, but tries nothing, and I don’t speak to him.

A kiss in India is quite serious, as I am told. Even married couples do not hold hands in public.

I lay awake for another hour of my three allotted for sleep, watching every movement in the curtains. But he doesn’t come back.

In the Delhi train station’s women-only waiting room, a boy wakes me, shouting to his brother and standing right next to my sleeping face — clearly his gender hates me.

Delhi means men shouting to me on the street or from cars, ridiculing me, taking liberty with my space, asking me where I am from or

I shake a young man who falls in step with me on the street, following me for several blocks and trying to talk with me. I have been warned that this is not acceptable behavior, and when he protests with “You don’t like Indians,” I shut him down.

Delayed hours later than I was told, I go to meet the young man who works at a computer repair shop about my busted laptop. He is another thirty minutes late, and I am forced to sit on the front steps and endure the stares, taunts, and general hubbub my presence creates. Children laughed unkindly, acting as if I was a scary thing to test their courage against; teenagers lounged on their scooters, trying to look cool. Elderly locals stared blankly, and I could not elicit a smile from the women. Cornered on the step, I simply have to endure.

He arrives and opens the door; then explains that my computer may be completely unrepairable. I burst into tears, strain heightened by a week of expecting a difficult phone call and being unable to access Skype.

He crosses to the other side of the desk, all comfort in his voice, sits next to me asking what was wrong, puts his hand on my leg.

I am too upset and shocked to hit him. And he has my computer. Children throw small firecrackers into the shop, at one point boys run in and out screaming “I want to fuck you!” and they must have all been hovering outside — I wouldn’t look, fervently trying to find an alternate repair option online. He sends the children away, shouting out the door, offers his help over and over, gives me a massive discount, I’ll help you with anything anytime …his ardent lingering handshakes holding my still hand.

The sun has set and I wonder how I will get by the firecrackerchildren and the leering teenagers, but I won’t ask him to walk me home. I decide to go alone, and make it untouched through the tiny clattering streets to the main road stuffed with men. Clutching popcorn and wondering at my childish regression, I navigate the gauntlet. I can still feel his handprint on my thigh, a warm pulsing hate.

Collapsing on my bed, door locked and blocked, I breathe and stare at the pillow.

My friends, a young couple I met in McLeodganj, have invited me out; afraid but unwilling to inconvenience them, I agree to meet at nearby  Connaught Place, thinking that it should be simple via rickshaw.

I can feel the panic attack swelling as I make my way back through the male-dominated streets. I haggle with a bicycle rickshaw driver over the fare, there’s confusion and disagreement at first. I focus on calming down as we dart around cars, covering the short distance in a few minutes. But he refuses to take me across the traffic on the main road encircling Connaught, and I can’t clearly see my destination. We argue. He swears it is a two-minute walk, directly ahead, but I am reluctant to go alone in the dark. No budging on either side.

I crack. I jump out of the rickshaw, saying something like “I know how to make you come with me,” and refuse to pay. Walking backwards, the New Yorker side comes out and I throw my arms wide, gesturing at him — “eh? eh?” who knows what I said.

No pursuit. I make it to the other side of the traffic and find the walkway I am supposed to take. A huge crowd of men are hanging around in what looks like a dead end. I turn sharply, walk quickly out of sight, burst into tears, call my friends, and sit down in the corner in front of a closed storefront to cry and shake until they come find me.

I am public property, a celebrity without the glamour, a common space open to all. Someone to be photographed and enjoyed, to be touched and perused, eyes and hands sliding over without consequence, a toy for children and target practice for men.

Gifts

Sikhs seemed to give without hesitation or question.

The off-duty tour guide who had corrected my foot placement freely gave explanations of Sikhism and his time despite my being clear that I could not compensate him financially. I was slightly concerned about his interest, although, at his invitation, my friends always accompanied us. With his guidance and explanations, we had observed the night’s closing ceremonies.The softly reading voices waft out of the rows of rooms where six men take turns reading the holy book without ceasing, having been hired by someone for the blessing.   Each replica of the sacred book is wrapped in white and gold among incense and prayers, and carried to a special resting place — miniature carved beds with soft white cushions. In the morning, they will be taken out again with equal ceremony, and one page will be read at random, becoming that day’s wisdom. Volunteers haul the heavy golden litter onto their shoulders to carry the original holy book from the temple at the center of the pool. The text read from that book is posted on the wall, along with translations.

Our guide even took us to a few smaller nearby temples; at one, we observed a ceremony in which a lithe priest is hauled into the air on a simple wooden seat and unties the long swathe of fabric covering one of the tall sacred poles. This sought-after fabric brings good luck and prosperity; every morning the pole is wrapped with fresh cloth, funded by the donation of a particular family who would then stand and receive the blessed pieces of the previous day’s wrapping. The extra bits would be passed to the waving, eager hands of pilgrims pushing each other aside like a bouquet-tossing scene in a bad romantic comedy. Seeing two men argue, both gripping tightly to the last piece of fabric, was the most un-Sikh thing I had seen in Amritsar.

Our guide spoke to the priest, who returned with a piece of the fabric and, relatively unceremoniously, handed it to me, The Tourist. Stunned by the significance, I felt that I did not deserve such a sacred item, not being Sikh, but our guide was proud to see me with it. I stood there, stunned, as a small group gathered around to watch me having my photograph taken. I slowly began to wonder if this man was eager to indebt me to him. Although courteous and informative, he, twice my age and a bachelor, did inquire about my perspective on marriage and relationships, as the two of us walked back to the Golden Temple just ahead of my friends, as we seemed to navigate the chaotic narrow streets more easily.

Remaining respectful in case he was genuinely curious about a foreign person’s ideas, I gave a more conservative view than I actually hold, as well as tossed in a lie — that I was very likely going to convert to Judaism so that I could marry a serious boyfriend back in the States.

As I walked into the Golden Temple with my new orange scarf fluttering, an elderly Sikh woman said something I could not understand and reached to touch the sacred fabric. She may have been merely pointing it out, but, suddenly inspired, I offered it to her, remembering to hold it with both hands in the greatest respect. She looked to a younger man seated near her, eyes wide and confused; he spoke, and, of course, I could not understand him either. She slowly allowed herself to take the fabric into her arms.

It felt natural and beautiful.

I had forgotten the guide. He had walked farther ahead as my friends were sorting out their shoes (you can only walk in the temple barefoot), and came striding back, upset. I led him away from the direction of the woman, explaining myself.

Everything I had seen and heard in the temple emphasized equality, service, humility, and giving to others. The fabric had never been mine. Instead of treating it casually, I had felt it was too precious for me to have. And I try to give away what I think is beautiful, because in the giving it becomes much more than an object. It was an honor to have it for a moment, but the greatest honor was in having something worth giving.

And, since he had suggested that he somehow join me in Rishikesh, I did not feel guilty leaving a negative mark on his memory of me.

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