Notes on traveling alone as a woman in India.
“Let us make one point, that we meet each other with a smile.”
― Mother Teresa
I met them the first day I moved into the Delhi neighborhood of Kishangarh, two 20-something brothers who ran a small shop owned by their aunt and uncle.
It was only my second week back in India last year and they instantly made me feel at home with their warm eyes and kind smiles. Although they were not twins, they bore a remarkable resemblance to each other and if one of them hadn’t worn glasses, I would never have been able to tell the two apart.
Their shop was thirty seconds from my apartment, making it easy to run down in the morning to pick up two eggs for breakfast, or a one-rupee packet of Tide detergent – rose-scented – when I wanted to do my laundry, or – on days when Delhi belly forced me to a liquid diet – some Maaza mango juice and a yellow Maggi packet of tomato soup.
I was hardly at that apartment, between jaunting around with The Adventurists and field visits with the NGO, but whenever I was arriving or leaving, I always made a point of stopping by their shop, to either say goodbye or, better yet, “I’m back.”
They would teach me phrases and numbers in Hindi – bīsa for twenty, tīsa for thirty – but most importantly, they taught me what kindness looks like.
* * *
You may have seen a certain CNN article making the rounds on Facebook last week, one with the title, “India: The story you never wanted to hear.”
It was written by a 20-something woman named Michaela Cross, a student at the University of Chicago, about her experience studying abroad in India for three months – an experience that resulted in her having a public breakdown in the US this spring and then being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In her account, Michaela describes being groped, stalked, and stared at; she talks about being filmed by a group of men while she danced at a festival and hiding out in a Goa hotel room after a staff member tried to rape her roommate. There is no question these things are wrong and horrific to have gone through.
But as I read her story once and then a second time, I confess that something about it didn’t sit right with me. How is it, I kept asking myself, that I spent ten months in the same country and didn’t have nearly the same experience?
“When I went to India, nearly a year ago, I thought I was prepared. I had been to India before; I was a South Asian Studies major; I spoke some Hindi. I knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize. I was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets. And I was prepared for the curiosity my red hair, fair skin and blue eyes would arouse.
But I wasn’t prepared.
There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailor’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.”
It was only while reading these paragraphs a third time that one line in particular truly struck me: “I was prepared…to not smile in the streets.”
Because if there’s anything I feel really helped me connect with the men I met in India – and possibly even kept me safe in certain situations – it was a smile. It was looking them in the eye. It was taking the time to say hello and ask their name.
There were times when I would board a train, find my seat in the sleeper class, and realize that all seven of my fellow passengers in that compartment were men. There would be a moment as I sat down – normally out of breath, my scarf no doubt tangled in the straps of my backpack – when we’d all sort of stare at each other, silent, the wall between us high and wide. This moment never ceased to intimidate me.
How were seven Indian men and a tall, blond, fair-skinned foreign female going to pass the next 20, 30, 40 hours to wherever we were heading?
But that’s when I would smile. I would try to break the stares and meet one of their gazes, maybe waggle my head to one side, and say, “Namastē. Āpa kaisē haiṁ?” I would do whatever I could to take down the wall between us, one brick at a time.
To hear Michaela say she was prepared to not smile, to in a way keep herself closed off from interacting with those around her, seemed entirely opposite to my own philosophy in India.
* * *
It is of no credit to my memory that I cannot remember the names of my friends in Kishangarh– and as I’m in DC for the weekend and my notebooks are at home, I can’t look them up either – but I will never forget those two brothers.
I have no photos of them either – as much as I insisted on taking one before I left for the final time last December, both brothers had not shaved that morning and were thus camera-shy.
But I do have photos of other men I am grateful to have met in India.
Men who took the time to tell me about their flower business, or refused to let me pay for a cup of chai, or prepared a bowl of noodles for me on a Tuesday afternoon – men who never once treated me as a sexual object or made me feel uncomfortable.
And in light of Michaela’s story, I feel compelled to share them here, and briefly tell you their story. To generalize an entire population based on the actions of a few is a dangerous thing, as one of Michaela’s classmates, Katherine Stewart, wrote in her own response on CNN, titled “Same India – Different Story”:
“So why should all Indian men be subjected to judgment for the rapes that some men have committed? [Michaela] does not address the fact that there are warm and honest men in India. When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism.”
I am of the belief that there is nothing quite so powerful as a name and a face, so much so that this has become one of the main drives behind my love for travel writing – that by illuminating the story of an individual, we might better understand the whole.
Here are a few of the individuals I met in India, men who indelibly shaped my love for the country:
There was Tara Singh, a kind soul in Delhi whom I will forever think of as “the man who boiled my noodles.” I had been down and out with Delhi belly for three days, bought a packet of ramen noodles, and asked the owners of my guesthouse where I might find hot water. They sent me to the hotel’s rooftop kitchen, where Tara Singh proceeded to not only cook my noodles, embellishing them with fresh coriander, onions, and tomatoes, but also taught me how to make chapatis and showed me photos of his family and friends.
There was Chotelal, a flower seller in Kishangarh. It was all too easy to miss his stall on the side of a busy road, but once I discovered it, I returned to him several times before leaving Delhi. The time and care he would give a bouquet of just three flowers, asking if it was for “home or gift,” carefully wrapping it in patterned plastic, and securing the bundle with a curled ribbon from the ring of ribbons hanging by his shop, was incredibly moving.
There was a soldier named Pappu Kumar on the train to Guwahati. We chatted for an entire afternoon during that 42-hour journey, and I’d look on as he bartered and bantered with hawkers, like the woman selling water bottles full of honey. When chai wallahs passed by, I soon learned I wouldn’t get very far insisting on paying for my own cup of tea.
There were Surin and Suresh in Mumbai’s Dadar flower market, who have been in the business for nearly twenty years. They gratefully explained the use and significance of many of the flowers for sale – from bundles of rose petals to bright green tulsi, or holy basil – and I couldn’t help but laugh when they teased a friend of theirs one stall over [photo below].
And there was Ajit in Cochin, who ran a small stall by the Rickshaw Run finish line. He now lives in Dubai, but works at his family’s shop whenever he’s back visiting. We would talk about life in his new home away from home as he’d mix up yet another fresh lime soda to keep me cool in Cochin’s brutal heat.
* * *
I am all too aware that bad things happen in India – we need look no further than the gruesome gang rape that took place in Delhi last December. I am aware that just because I was never groped or stalked does not mean that it doesn’t happen there every day, both to local and foreign women alike.
But I am also aware of the intense warmth and beauty of the country, and it breaks my heart to see it stereotyped and generalized in such a way.
I don’t say this to see the world through rose-colored glasses, but for me it ultimately comes down to a choice – do we choose to focus on the bad, or do we remember the Chotelal’s and Tara Singh’s and Pappa Kumar’s who changed us forever, and for good?
Women – be smart, be sensible, be safe, but please do not stop going to India.
If you’re a woman and have traveled in India (or elsewhere in the world), I’d love to hear from you. What has your experience been? What helps you connect and keep safe on the road?