A Year in India – Friends and Fiends
Last night I sat at dinner on the rooftop of a Buddhist dharma center in Bodh Gaya with three other women. We hailed from Australia, Denmark, Britain, and America. We were white women in India, and thanks to the availability of Western porn on-line and in seedy little cinema halls, we are every repressed Indian village guy’s fantasy. Our conversation soon drifted to travel horror stories. We had all taken a train to Bodh Gaya, and we had each had an experience of merciless harassment on the way. One woman was stared down for endless hours despite ignoring the gawker, and another woman had been taunted with suggestive comments by a fellow traveler. They were new to India, so they hadn’t realized that they’d had it easy.
My train to Bodh Gaya arrived promptly at the station in Delhi, but the doors remained locked. People surged towards their respective coaches, but no one could make way for anyone else. I had gotten caught in a crushing crowd and was groped by anonymous male hands a nd fingers along the way (for the second time in the past year, mind you). I was carried in the wrong direction by the surging tide of people all pushing against each other, as I searched for my sleeper car. My chest and ass got the most attention unfortunately, but a few special degenerates reached further down. I yelled at them in Hindi to stop, but when I got only crooked smiles and guffaws in response, I gave up being angry and just concentrated on self-defense. I used all my strength to push my way out, still holding the hand of a little Vietnamese lady who had gotten separated from her party in the chaos. She was hysterical. I held myself together until we found our car, and she found her friends.
The last time I had been groped at the train station, I recovered from the shock of being pinned against a train car by a drunken Indian soldier by staring out the window for hours and listening to the Monty Python and the Holy Grail soundtrack that my brother had given me. “Always look on the bright side of life… ” This time, as we told our story to the sympathetic Indians in our sleeper berth, shared food with one another, and tried to brush it off, we were instantly adopted by all the Indians in our compartment. We had gone from heavy groping to heart-felt greetings in a matter of minutes.
Harassment and hospitality… As a foreigner living in India I’ve had to get used to being greeted with cat-calls on the one hand, and genuine smiles of welcome on the other. I’m hounded mercilessly or hugged warmly. It’s all very confusing for an American used to a certain reserved distance from almost everyone: sexual harassment occurs infrequently enough in the States to make one boil indignantly when it does sneak up on us; you just don’t stare or talk to unfamiliar people on the public bus; guests occupy guest rooms for a few days tops; and you certainly don’t make strangers a part of the family.
Strangers have an odd effect on people — they challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Simmel, an early sociologist, says that it is the stranger who really makes the native aware of him/herself in a new way. In India, as so many other places, one often gets the sense that the stranger is a flavor that people either love or hate, with no in-between. It feels sometimes as if I, the traveler, am always holding a mirror up to people. The differences between us act as a mechanism for reflexivity, and sometimes that makes people very anxious. They see themselves in the reflections of our eyes, and in the subsequent squirming; many either exaggerate the differences or gloss them over completely. How does it feel to hold up a mirror for so many people? Well, I’ve been based here for over a year — my arm is getting tired.
India does not have a patent on sexual harassment — every country has its versions, some worse than others. Here they call it eve-teasing. Women are subject to this all over India, but it is particularly bad in my stomping grounds in north India. Foreign women are not spared; on the contrary, we get it far worse than anyone else. I think it’s worse now that I kind of understand what they’re saying about me in Hindi, while I sit staring hard out the window of the bus. When I didn’t understand a word of the language, I could pretend they were joking about Indian cricketers or corrupt politicians.
I had my first lesson in eve-teasing almost exactly ten years ago, during the first week of my very first trip to India. I had come with a study abroad group, and we lived in a hostel in the middle of the city. I was wide-eyed in love with India during those days. I thought it was perfect. Now I love with more maturity; India is not the paradise of candyfloss Bollywood; it is perfectly wonderful, but it is far from perfect.
I love Bollywood movies; the wet saree dances in the rain, the heroes with outstretched arms, the rivers of glycerin induced tears as drama ensues. On our first free day, during my first ever week in India, I went in search of a move theater; my American compatriots went shopping or napped to the tune of their lingering jet nag. I wasn’t afraid to go alone; in India, women are goddesses, right? India’s soundtrack was happy, orchestral, staccato; it was dressed up so brightly that it glittered. I was naïve, to say the least.
The theater was in a dinghy hall in Connaught Place. I went to see Hero No.1 starring Karishma Kapoor and the ineffable Govinda. He loves her, she scorns him, he gives up, but then she misses his attentions, so now she loves him and he scorns her, and then… I’ll never know how it ended, because I fled the theater in tears before the finale. (Of course, to be honest, it’s safe to assume that Karishma and Govinda fall for each other, hurdle all obstacles in their path, and sing a duet at the end).
Seated on either side were men who come with their friends. Before the movie the man on my right asked me where I was from, what I was studying, and if I liked India. I was courteous, but my answers were short. I’m from the States, studying Indian culture and language, and yes, of course I love India… !
The movie started and I lost myself in Govinda’s charming smile until I felt my neighbor on the right start to slide his leg against mine. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. I scooted to the left. He stopped. Phew. I was flooded with relief, until he started up again ten minutes later. I said, “Stop it, bas!” He would stop for a while, and then resume just when I had begun to relax again. When I was fully pressed against the left side of my chair, my neighbor on the left decided to get his grabs in. I shot them dirty looks, I pleaded for peace, I thought about leaving a hundred times before I was finally driven from the theater. The man on the right whispered, “Where do you stay? Let’s go there together.” “No, no, no,” I boomed at him in reply. I found myself trapped in the middle of an aisle. I was afraid to push past a row of these terrible men in the middle of the movie. But finally, when I was being groped by both men at once, I stood and pushed my way out. I was pinched and squeezed the whole way down the aisle. I was blinded by the sun light as I knocked the usher out of the way and opened the door, the tears like prisms in my eyes, making the whole frenetic world outside dance and sing, “Tu mera tu mera tu mera tu mera, tu mera Hero Number 1!”
I was alone and ashamed, and at that moment I realized that outside of the Bollywood bubble, the villains in India almost always get away with it.
“Guest is God,” they tell me. They are my Indian mom and dad. I’m their fourth daughter now. My home away from home is a two-story house with marble floors and a brightly colored stained glass window separating the living room and the kitchen. Right now, their three real daughters are all in America — two permanently settled there, but one is finally coming home for good this spring after more than eight years living abroad. Our relationship is built on real fondness for each other, but also fueled by missing our loved ones across oceans.
They emotionally adopted me seven years ago, the last time I came to do research in India. My friend told me that her parents would love to meet me, that they would pick me up from the airport, and that they would help me to readjust to India, since this time I wasn’t coming with an organized student group. I worried that I would be a bother to them, a burden. I’ll stay a day or two, I said, just to get readjusted. But I stayed on long term — they insisted, and I was happy to comply. They were sweet and wonderful, and they still are.
When I first arrived back in India, seven years ago, in the very wee hours of the night, I noticed straight off that the rooms were dark and empty, the floors were made of dirt, and nothing hung on the walls. I was struck that these kindhearted people must be very poor. I resolved to help them. I was led to a comfortable room, a boxy bed, and a well-loved pillow. I closed my eyes and drifted off, feeling so much gratitude that I thought my heart would burst. In the morning I discovered that they were just redoing their floors; they were replacing a cement floor with a marble one. They still find it funny when I tell that story.
My Indian dad is a doctor, and now they have a lovely new house. Even though I’m here on a grant, they won’t take a cent from me for the food I eat or for the laundry that is done by servants. I have soaked in their hospitality, knowing full well that Americans rarely open themselves this way to anyone; in the States, usually even relatives schedule visits way in advance, and brevity is often expected. Seven years ago in Delhi, I was welcomed home as if I was a family member, and I was surprised how quickly I actually became one. If only everyone in India was so kindhearted!
Unfortunately, harassment is not just perpetrated by men passing along a garbage- strewn road, grabbing a handful of my butt as they hurry ahead. It is the most difficult, the most intrusive, when the harassment comes from acquaintances.
One acquaintance in a pilgrimage town, a junior professor who had agreed to help me with my research, has been a particularly difficult character. He was supposed to be helping me with my work, so for a while I rode around with him on his motorcycle, soliciting interviews in villages. At first I rode sidesaddle, the way that Indian ladies do, but he voiced disapproval immediately. “Don’t do that, just straddle the seat, it’s better that way.” So I put my bag between him and me as a polite physical buffer, but he told me to put the bag behind me, and argued with me when I resisted. Then, “Come closer to me,” he said, “it’s too hard to balance the bike when you’re back like that. Put yourself against my back.” I pretended not to understand. My stomach turned over; not again, I thought to myself, not another pervert. I ignored him.
The next day, and every day after I wore a long skirt, so that I had no choice but to ride sidesaddle, a fact which irritated him to no end. “Why don’t you wear pants anymore?” he asked one day, “Real American girls always wear pants.” “Well, I’m just like an Indian woman then, like your sister or your mother,” I shot back. He didn’t like that and gunned the engine forward, so that I had to hold onto the back bumper in terror.
The professor wanted to meet in private, but I wasn’t having it. He wouldn’t let up, “It’s bad to meet in public, because people will see us together. We should meet in your room. I have a reputation to maintain.” But I refused daily, hourly, as he hounded me about it more and more frequently. “No,” I said, “It would look even worse to people if they saw you coming and going from my room. No. What would my fiancé think… ” (I had exaggerated my relationship to keep unwanted suitors at bay — I told men that I was engaged. Some women travelers even buy fake wedding bands). For some reason, even my “engagement” wasn’t enough to keep the professor (or the rest of my Kushinagar fanclub, for that matter) at bay. He came one day and told me that he had rented a room where we could meet for “important discussions.” “No,” I said again. He was angry.
I had to fight him, resist him, put him off every single day. He would call several times a day and say that he was free, and I would make up reasons why I couldn’t meet him. Finally, I told him that I didn’t need his help anymore, and he bristled, but kept calling. “If I’m not your professor anymore, then now we can be friends,” he said in a greasy voice. “No,” I said, feigning respect, “I am just a graduate student, and you are a professor, so you will always be an honored professor to me.” I was trying not to declare war. In a small town there is no avoiding someone, especially if they are determined to see you.
At our last meeting he asked about sex, about how experienced I was, saying that even in his late thirties he was still an unmarried virgin. I told him to get married to a nice girl soon, and then I told him that I was feeling sick to my stomach, and had to go back to the Vietnamese temple guest house immediately. Months later, I still get anxious when I think about it. And I am doubly distraught when I recall that when I go back there soon to resume my research, I will also have to resume the even more exhausting work of keeping him away from me.
In 2002, I heard by email that my youngest Indian sister, my bahan-ji, was getting married. “You must come,” they said, and they were right. I had been gone for a year and a half, but when I returned for the wedding, the shade, I felt at home again immediately, as all my Indian relatives hugged me with enthusiasm.
Welcome to the Indian family, where your mama is your mother’s brother, and yourmasser is your mother’s sister’s husband. Your cousins aren’t cousins, but instead they are cousin-sisters and cousin-brothers, because yes, they are often that close.
My Indian sister’s wedding was wonderful. I felt more genuine affection from some of the aunts and uncles, than I did the last time I met some of my real aunts and uncles. There were days of ceremonies, good food, colorful outfits, and footloose and fancy-free Punjabi dancing. When my sister was ready to get married, I helped lead her out towards the stage where she would exchange garlands with her sweetheart (yes — it was a love marriage). She looked so beautiful in her heavily adorned red lengha.
These days my dear Indian parents worry about their strange American daughter, still unmarried at thirty. Worse yet, I have been dating someone over a year with no date set for a wedding, and no sign of even an engagement on the horizon. I tell them that my boyfriend loves me, I am happy, we just don’t want to rush into anything. They are very afraid for me. “Really,” my dad asks, “how do you know that he won’t just get tired of you? You must get married as soon as possible.” My dad asks about our plans, especially now that he has returned to America to teach… “How will this work?” I triumphantly point out that once I get back to America we will be living together. “That’s how serious we are about one another.” I think I see my Indian dad blush. My Indian mom’s brow furrows deeply. I realize that I just confessed to premarital relations. My cheeks color just a shade shy of my sister’s crimson wedding finery. They shake their heads with concern, and pray that I am safely married very, very soon.
My Indian family has given me a repertoire of curses to hurl at harassers. I have a list of over ten most excellent gallies, and we rehearse the litany regularly. Mostly I just reduce my Indian family into peels of hysterical laughter because I am saying such trashy curses with the earnest diligence of a student trying to get the pronunciation just right. I pause and concentrate. “Gand me baans dungee!” “I’ll stick bamboo up your ass!” My family laughs, and I smile.
I rarely use gallies in real life though. I’ve learned that most harassers are looking for attention from you; they want communication, even the exchange of gallies would often be a reward for their obnoxious glares and advances.
Once though, when I was leaving a theater with friends, someone grabbed at my ass. I turned to face the crowd of men behind me. “Bahan-chod!” I screamed self-righteously at the whole crowd with every frustrated fiber of my being. I had hurled the gally out there into space, at the guilty party and at the innocent multitude. “Bahan-chod! ” I felt better for a moment, but then as I began walking again, my other butt cheek was pinched with extra enthusiasm. I flattened my back against the paan-stained wall, and glared as the crowd passed. I was the last one out of the theater.
Foes and family. Fiends and friends. There are the kind ones, and then the kind who don’t know the meaning of the word. I am a daughter or a target, depending on who is looking at me. It is exhausting. I return to my family in Delhi regularly; I have to recuperate, gather my strength, prepare to re-enter a world in which harassers and stalkers hurl themselves against the emotional armor I wear to protect myself. I do still love my India, but if I want to live in this country I have to deal with the good and the bad, the bahan-jis and the bahan-chods. I carry pepper spray, and I have my Indian mom on speed dial.
Jessica Falcone is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She is currently spending a year in India to conduct research for her dissertation on the changing dynamics of Buddhist pilgrimage in India. This is Jessica’s fourth trip to India.