October 17th. I had not planned on telling the police about the guest house manager who was so determined to get into my room while I was in the shower.
I had had a lovely day. There had been genuine quiet moments (rare), allowing me to gaze into the expansive waves, uninterrupted. I had even explored a strange tiny aquarium with bizarre exotic fish.
But as I walked up the long dirt road to the train station, I wondered if I would see that man again and a foreign feeling of uneasiness creaked into my consciousness. I knew he targeted young women arriving at the train station — I walked as close to the guest house as I dared and zoomed in for a picture of its sign. Surprised by myself, I went straight to the station manager’s office for shelter from my increasing anxiety .
When the station master heard my story of windows peeked through and constant requests for room admittance, he stood up from his desk. I followed him out to the waiting area as he asked local men if they knew the offending guest house manager.
Along with four or five of the locals, he put me into a rickshaw, giving the driver instructions to take me to the police station — once I had heard that there was an all-female police office, I had agreed to file a complaint.
“All Women Police Kanyakumari.” I let the sign imprint itself onto my mind, having one of those “I’m going to remember this” moments.
Several policemen are standing in the driveway near a jeep; so much for “all women.”
One, taking the lead, inquires, and I explain in the first of many retellings that will happen over the next hour. The lead officer translates the situation to the others, and tells me that we will go to the guest house so that I can identify the man.
To my complete surprise, I begin to cry, although the threatening encounter had merely felt annoying. Hello, trauma I was not aware existed.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry, stop crying. All India protection, all India safety.” And I am packed into a jeep with six officers, driven by a woman with the most stars out of everyone. I heard “American” as she called in over the radio.
I am able to show them a photo of where we are going, and tell the story over and over.
We arrive and unload our small brigade, but I am told to remain in the jeep. There are two men standing in the doorway, watching the approaching police — neither are him. A small crowd was gathering on the pathway near the train tracks, and more were coming out of the nearby buildings. I had been so frightened by the thought of seeing him again, and now he wasn’t here.
The lead officer came back to ask if I was sure that this was the place, and I climbed out of the jeep, leading him upstairs to the room where I pointed to the cracked window and walked him through the story again — this time using my body as well as my voice to recreate the experience, embodying the aggressor.
Back downstairs, I watch them threaten the regular manager (turns out there are two). I heard references to windows and me, especially my American status being used as a weapon. One cop took a few swings at him, small punches and kicks that never connected. Intimidation?
“It wasn’t him,” I am saying, over and over, but they put him in the back of the jeep anyway, telling me that they know, they are going to take him back to the station and ask him some questions.
Now, all of us back in and bouncing over the dirt road, I think about the sniveling and crying man directly behind me. The lead officer is asking me questions about why I waited a day to report it: I thought they wouldn’t care or listen. I don’t share that I thought they would be violent.
“All India safety, all India protection,” he tells me again.
Led into the station, I am seated at a desk across from another female officer and given paper on which I write my official complaint. It takes three pages, and, along with my identifying information, I am instructed to write my father’s name since I am not married.
The innocent hotel manager was standing behind me in the office when I began to write the complaint, but by the time I was finished, he had disappeared.
The now six or seven cops stand on the steps to wave goodbye, until they realize that I am walking back to the train station — they start calling out after me, offering a lift. All of them accompany me to the station, where they stand and wave again as I thank them.
I run into the four or five concerned locals who had gotten involved at the beginning, and waved & thanked again, then ran into the station master and did the same after quickly filling him in. Thanks and goodbye.
Back on a train, watching palm trees and distant hills roll by, I cannot deny my high energy and relief, the feeling of being supported after assuming the community to be so indifferent. I also cannot forget the violence, the clout of America (they were very concerned about whether I was going to tell the embassy), and my sheltered middle class self trusting the police.
October 16th, the legally viable harassment case. Last night, I hauled the middle berth into place and hooked on its supporting chains as soon as I boarded the train in Chennai. A man tried to explain that it wasn’t immediately necessary, but I mumbled something back, stretched out on the lower berth, and slept until the train pulled into Nagercoil Junction the next morning.
My prediction back in Hyderabad’s gurdwara had come true: incredibly nauseous, I slide heavily into a seat on the connecting train to Kanyakumari. It’s only twenty minutes by rail, but a cheerful and curious man sits directly across from me, attempts to converse, and fills the empty space with stares. I have no energy for him, and stretch my scarf across my face, which makes him find another seat. I focus on not being violently ill.
Kanyakumari, a little beach town with a famous temple, lies at the southernmost point of India; but I am too sick to think of anything more than a shower and bed.
Shaking slightly, hair frizzed and clothes wrinkled, I slowly make my way out of the station and down the long dusty driveway to the main road. The plan, as always, is to ask around until I find a suitable place.
A young man jogs up behind me before I can get far, calling out — he identifies himself as the manager of a nearby guest house. I never follow touts, but I can see his hotel from where we are standing, and it’s almost adjacent to the station. I make eye contact with a nearby elderly lady, as if she could tell me if this was legitimate, but her face is unreadable. My stomach angrily churns and I know I need to find somewhere fast.
I turn back with the young man, who peppers me with questions (like everyone) but I am too sick and indifferent to engage, leaving my voice neutral and answers minimal. He tells me that he is 26 and always looks out for disoriented foreigners. I explain that I am merely sick, for a confusing moment he thinks I am pregnant, and I tell him again that a friend’s baby stuck her fingers in my mouth.
There’s another man chilling at the desk in the entranceway. The young manager collects keys and leads me up one flight of stairs; it is a nice place, but empty (it is 9:30 AM). He is continuously chatting with me, but I never smile — I need somewhere to be sick. Now.
He has called himself my “good friend” from the first moment, and eventually I mutter in response, “My ‘good friends’ always try to sleep with me.” But he didn’t seem to hear.
We settle on a room and a price, but it takes him a moment to sweep it clean. I dump my things on the bed, desperate and glad, and stand waiting for his departure. I say I am going to shower, he asks why he needs to leave, and I push him out the door explaining that I am going to throw up immediately and he better go. I tell him that I will come downstairs in twenty minutes to check in, and he agrees.
Click. Door bolted, and I strip off my scarf, shirt, pants; then, towel in hand, enter the bathroom. He’s still talking to me, waiting out in the hallway, he needs something, needs me to let him in, and follows my negating voice to the broken bathroom window — and peers through the few inches’ gap at the sill.
I am not an exceptionally modest person and am still in the equivalent of American beach wear, so my gut reaction is to stand, hands on my hips, and say “Are you really looking at me right now?”
He jumps back, and I cover the window with my towel. My mind can still file this away as a misunderstanding, and, barely bothered, I turn on the water.
Illness addressed for the moment. But soon he’s back at my covered window, talking again, asking me over and over to let him in. He says he has left the broom behind, and needs to clean other rooms. Couldn’t I please open the door? I am stuck, wet, staring at the toweled window; I have already asked him to leave, have already said again that I will come downstairs when I am ready. In a clear, self-assured voice, I explain that he is preventing my towel access, so there’s no way I can let him in anytime soon if he doesn’t step away from the window.
Another brief respite as he moves to the door to continue his pleading, and I can dry off. This guy has not left me alone for how long now?
I see his shape pressed against the half-open, but tinted, bedroom window. The hinges are on my side (literally and figuratively), so although he has pushed it open, he can still only catch wall. But I can see his hand gripping the metal latticework.
None of this has frightened me, although I am trapped again: my clothes are on the bed out of reach, and I refuse to give him even the shadow of my naked body. He is still talking., “I like you.” and “There’s something I need to tell you face to face.” It takes some effort, but I convince him to step away from the window for five minutes. Just five minutes. And finally he does.
That’s all I need to dress, pack, and prepare myself for his prompt return. Just to be sure, I look around, under the bed, everywhere — no broom. Not a surprise, but, still. Bastard.
His voice wheedles into the room again. I’m ready for him, backpack on, wet flipflops stacked in my right hand. This time when he asks me to open it, I do.
I accuse him, bellowing, and take wet shoes to his face, solid hits on each side left right left right. He stands, shocked and staring. I set off down the hallway, tossing a final outraged “fucking pervert” over my shoulder, comforted knowing that shoes are an exceptional insult here. This guy wasted almost an hour outside my door.
Down the nearby stairs, I see that the tiny lobby is empty of whoever that other man was, and no one else heard me.
I set off down the dusty path by the train station, and walk to the main road to find a new place to stay. I only feel annoyance — how inconvenient, what a waste of a cheap room, at least I feel better and got to a bathroom.
To everyone who told me that I should dress/behave differently/modestly: not only was I wearing loose trousers, a long top three times my size, a scarf draped over my chest, and had my hair pulled up, I did not smile or laugh, and was visibly ill to the point of telling him that I needed to throw up. I don’t know how to be less attractive.
But that doesn’t matter — he was drawn to me because illness gave the illusion of weakness. I dramatically underline that word because it is a key piece in constructed power imbalances and systemic sexual violence (in all its forms). The sad thing is that I’ve seen this behavior before, and it did not succeed then either.
At my new guest house, the manager’s face lights up with an unnaturally delighted smile, out of place in typical customer relations in India. I turn around to leave, but he offers me a deal plus the place is crowded and full of women. This time, rather than being neutral, I am downright rude to this person when I check in, trying to wipe away that overeager grin. A young man is standing next to me at the counter, and makes a comment to the manager. I want to turn to him and say, “Maybe this time, if I am actively obnoxious instead of indifferent and unsmiling, this one won’t come visit my room.”
But I say nothing, and let him think badly of me. Because it wasn’t my fault.
In Ahmedabad, I started to wonder if I was losing my mind.
Or that maybe I had always been that way, impulsive, careless, dropping rationality to let emotions run wild.
New friendships (and the quiet solitude of my hotel room) tempered the high concentration of harassment in Delhi. I was able to discuss my experiences and find some insight and commiseration. Breaths of normalcy in which I was allowed again to determine my own character and needs, rather than spend the energy throwing off what is forced upon me. Every day was difficult, but balanced by a reprieve.
Once out of Delhi, my exposure increased and my relief resources naturally faded. Determined to take trains for thousands of kilometers all over the subcontinent, I travel in Sleeper class. Second to lowest, they are the cheapest reserved tickets you can get; no air conditioning, but fans and open windows that are barred to keep out fare jumpers.
Curtains created a space for that conductor to feel confident invading. In Sleeper, I am always within sight of at least a few women, families, fathers with children. There are men, lots of men, but also accountability and the threat of public shame. But I am exposed, fielding stares, for sometimes days.
Stares wear away at the psyche. Blank, unsmiling faces turning, eyes sticking to your clothes and face, following you across the room and the country.
Ahmedabad hosts one of Gandhi’s major ashrams, and it is an inspiring, peaceful place — but not enough to dissolve the fear and frustration held tight in my chest.
Afraid of being lost, I gave up and accepted the offer of a rickshaw driver, so that I could get back to the railway station for my next night train. The driver agreed to 40 rupees, but then, about 50 m down the road, circled round and round a crowd of people looking for additional passengers. I waited it out, frustrated but exhausted.
He told me to get in different rickshaw with two young men, and I refused to squeeze between them and subject my body to their touch. He went round and round and, after accepting and then rejecting a woman with a child, he put two more men in the car in the car, despite my earlier protests. Unable to exit from my side, and at least not in the middle between them, I decided to be silent.
But when I realized that he charged them each ten rupees to reach the same stop, my anger at his behavior and male dominance grew. I know that I come from a different economic background, and accept double the price if necessary; but four times, from a man treating me in such a way, was enough to tip my precariously balanced mood.
I refused to give him 40 and offered 20. Which turned into an argument. Me standing at the rickshaw at the train station refusing to give in, refusing to go to the police station to discuss it, refusing to be frightened or intimidated. A crowd of men gathered, getting involved in the logic of both sides. It went on and on, me repeating my point, mixing English with Hindi, explaining to those who asked why I refused to pay four times the men. Twice, yes, but not four. And it had always been about power, about who could push who around. It went on and on. The driver lost control, threw my twenty rupees on the ground and tried to snatch my coin purse out of my hand. I snapped it out of his reach, and aimed my elbow at his face, legs in a battle stance, shouting “you gonna hit a woman, eh? you gonna hit a woman?”
He jogged over to two cops standing ten feet away and started shouting at them about the situation. I, regaining my sanity a little, walked at a normal pace over to one of the two cops and said, “Hello. Do you speak English? Lovely. My name is Bridget Liddell. This is what happened…” in a calm voice.
The cop took the twenty rupees and told me to go. I saw him talking to the driver as the crowd faded, but I did not look back for more than a moment.
Adrenaline draining, I walked away from the main road, up the driveway of the station, and, fear smothering my crazed anger, pulled my scarf over my head. I swore at myself about how dangerous and stupid that was, that that kind of thing can get me knifed or shot here.
I sat, hunched over in guilt, for most of the afternoon; wondering about Gandhi and how I failed nonviolence, exactly what may be going on in my head, and how I would prevent myself from committing suicide-by-rebellion.