“Where are you from?” I’m asked.
“Canada,” I reply.
“But you looks like Indian.”
“Yes, my parents are from northern India.”
“Ah yes, this is why you looking Indian…What is your good name?”
“Like the car!”
“Yes, like the [Indian] car.”
“Where in India your parents from?”
“Oh! So you’re a Punjabi girl?!!”
“Yes,” I say, with a smile.
I have both travelled through and lived in Mother India several times, anywhere from three months to a year at a time, and each time I still find myself working on the balance of being an Indian born in the west, while journeying in the east. Because you see, I know better. Or at least, I should. Or so that’s what I’m told, in various direct and indirect forms.
India’s values and customs are rooted in my conditioning from being born and raised in a western society within an eastern tradition, by very traditional (Brahmin) parents.
Growing up in this way also meant I was not allowed to have male friends, let alone date. Ever. Looking back, the funniest part of this conundrum was that I was a tomboy and very athletic in my youth, which meant most of my friends were boys! (Little to my parent’s knowledge.)
An unmarried Indian woman
“So are you married?”
“I’m a brahmacharini,” is the answer I’ve finally come up with on a more recent visit to India, which seems to be the most acceptable to the locals who are parents or elders. (“Brahmancharini” refers to a woman who has renounced the householder path, and is following a renunciate path. This is not totally legit, but hey, it works.)
“Oh! Very good!” they exclaim, beaming with a smile.
Because if I decide not to go with that one it’s:
“Why aren’t you married?”
“Marriage is not for everyone.”
Or depending on my mood, sometimes I go with:
“I did not meet such a person.”
Or I look up and say:
“It’s Devi’s plan.” (Another very acceptable answer!)
Many glance at my ring finger curiously when they encounter me.
Travelling solo is abnormal
It’s very rare for a single Indian woman to be travelling alone in India, you see. Most often they are travelling with family or friends. But rarely ever alone.
“Are you travelling alone?!” inquires the young Tamil man sitting next to me on the flight over from London.
“Yes,” I answer in my zombie state, after being awake for over 20 hours.
“Oh,” he says, with a mixed look of worry, disbelief and confusion on his face.
He is dumbfounded and does not know what to say next to the single, strong, independent Indian woman from the west, who happens to be sitting next to him. So he says nothing. It’s easier this way, since he is very little experience in this situation.
When I encounter a local Indian woman travelling solo, I am always curious and most often strike up a conversation to get her rather extraordinary story. The last 30-something Indian woman whom I met on my current trip suddenly says to me over tea, “Are you married?” I look at her dumbfounded, as I couldn’t believe she was even asking me such a question. Then she quickly follows with, “What is wrong with you?!” And we both break out into deliberate laughter. A Delhi-born script writer for the Bollywood film industry for over a decade – she recently left her job, and is travelling around India fulfilling a longing for adventure and spiritual exploration. In the majority of cases people from the north have never been to the south and vice versa, and one rarely meets a local who is travelling within their own country for several months with no end date in sight. Furthermore, leaving the security of a long-time job is not common and generally frowned upon by relatives and the community. The freedom of the road is simply not a common option. It’s for outcasts, black sheep (or as I like to say, psychedelic sheep) – or for the “lost” and “crazy.”
Having a man by your side
I have travelled and lived in India with a partner or two in the past. It seems to be more acceptable because I am with a man, amid this patriarchal society.
And because there’s the consistency with being with one man in long-term relationship, it is deemed more appropriate. (But overall still looked down upon in general because we are together out of wedlock.) If I’m spending time with platonic male friends, there is most often curious looks from local men and women of all ages. And many of subtle disapproval. Because here you do not see men and women engaging with one another in a friendly, platonic, light-hearted and sometimes playful way. If a woman is spending time with a man, it’s her husband, brother or another male relative. Therefore I am branded with plenty of silent stereotypes, most of which equate to having “loose morals,” in one form or another. While this is simply not true, it’s one way I push the envelope here by staying strong in who I am, in where I am from, and hence, expressing myself freely.
I also avoid public displays of affection (PDA) if I am here in partnership. In India, you very rarely see any displays of this nature. If one does express affection in public, they most often receive relentless stare downs, in a very direct and obvious way. The vibration is everything from disbelief to curiosity, to disapproval – depending on the generation witnessing the act. Romantic gestures seem to be generally expressed strictly behind closed doors. And they certainly are in a nation of over one billion people! It seems like such a double standard since the ultra popular Bollywood industry has gotten so incredible sexy, and is constantly pushing the envelope these days. To portray so much sexual energy on the screen within a burgeoning industry that most often depicts the culture in so many ways (or symbolizes the collective societal aspiration), and then pretty much put a silent ban on it in the every day public seems totally hypocritical.
Therefore I express any type of physical affection with a man in public, I am deemed to once again have “loose morals,” and I’m pretty much exuding the characteristics of a prostitute! So I most often don’t to keep things light. Though occasionally I say goodbye to a male friend who is moving on in his travels, and we will hug in the street. Then I say, “Oh! Hugging in public, how scandalous!” And we both chuckle.
I ride a motorbike with the seat between my legs, like any westerner, though here women generally sit side-saddle. Apparently it’s more lady-like? Locals will look at me with surprise, curiosity and even disapproval when I am riding on the back of a motorbike the western way, and especially if the driver is a male westerner. It’s most often automatically assumed that I am in some sort of relationship with the driver just by that very simple act! Though I choose to ride side-saddle if I’m on the back of a local male friend’s motor bike, simply because I do not want to encourage any silent sexual innuendos with him. It’s a cultural thing, you see. Oh, and I most definitely do not hold on to the local man!
However in some ways I just stick to the culture, just because it’s easier this way. I ask myself, where do I want to expend my energy? On dealing with the constant leers, comments and advances of curious men if I wore skirts exposing my lower legs with no leggings, or tank tops revealing my shoulders and upper back, for instance. No. So I cover up, and it’s a bit hot when the temperatures rise, yet a sure way to not be harassed unnecessarily. (But still, many seem to find a way.) I do feel the leering from men is more prevalent in tourist centres like Goa and Rishikesh, which I don’t spend any or very little time in.
I often wear the local clothing, though in recent years I can’t seem to find the right sizing so I opt for Asian fusion wear (skirts or sleeved shirts with Indian prints for instance, that are made and purchased in India). I notice when I am back in the west, I feel very strange for the first while in shorts, tank tops, skirts above my knees, and fitting jeans. I notice myself looking around uncomfortably for the first moments in this commonly comfortable attire. A rather comical scene!
Women will find that men will stick their tongues out at them as they walk by. Apparently it means that this man finds you attractive. Actually I find it pretty disgusting. It once bothered me more so in my early days of travelling solo in India in my early 20s. However in more recent years I just ignore it. It discourages them since I’m not reacting. Because that is what they want, a response, any response. Even if it’s in the form of blasting them. Which I tried in my early 20s, and they just laughed. Though one of the more intelligent responses is shaming them by saying what if I was their sister, and a man was doing that to her? Or what would their mother say. That will shut them up. Fast.
The glorification of pornography
Often many young western women express their challenges to me of not being totally free here in the way they dress or carry themselves, simply because the men will see them as a sex object. For instance, wearing a tank top or not covering the chest with a scarf (no matter what size of breasts you may have!) is often interpreted as being a “loose woman.” Simply smiling and saying a friendly hello to any man on the street is most often considered an advance to him, and only encourages them to give you “special attention.” When I first started coming to India on my own in my early 20s, I had a really hard time with this, as I come from a place where smiling and saying hello is the norm to anyone you happen to pass by on the street. I once lived on an island where it was common practice to wave and smile at every single vehicle you drove by. But here, I do not make eye contact with the men, nor encourage conversation with them. Because if I do, they most often think I am interested in them, and that inspires them with invitations and wanting contact information, etc. So I avoid it.
That said, it’s important to understand the make-up of the majority of these men, whose only exposure to western women before seeing them in the flesh, is most often the glorification of pornography on the internet. That influence, coupled with that fact that it is a very sexually repressed culture – perpetuates a great deal of curiosity and projection. It’s no wonder they are the way they are with us. We don’t have to agree with it, but if we can understand the makeup, it will create empathy within us, which is so key in our human relations within this journey of life. Because I am Indian, yet from the west, I am somehow appealing in that I’m still Indian, but apparently deemed very open to physical contact (I think not), unlike local Indian women, who are generally conservative.
What’s really needed is sex education in late primary and high school, as girls and boys approach puberty. Nothing like that exists here in the public school system. Nobody talks about it here, so they have to learn it through the internet and explorations of inappropriate behavior with the opposite sex. Even my own mother did not have any type of conversation with me about sex education in the west, nor my incoming menstrual cycle when I was approaching puberty. I learned that from sex education in the western school system. This is exactly why the rape rate is so high in India. (Ninety-two women are raped daily in India, according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau, 2013.) This number only reflects cases that were actually reported.
In my view a great deal of the inequality between men and women sprouted from the myths and legends that make up Hindu epics within the Purnanas. After all, these texts were written by a bunch of Indian men. For example, take the classic of the Ramayana in which Sita finally immolates herself to prove her love and commitment to Ram. This after she is suspected of infidelity by the community during the time when Ravana kidnapped her, and Ram sides with the community.
This is so incredibly indicative of the present-day Indian culture where women are most often conditioned to be subservient and docile, and where relatives and the outer community have sway over conflict-resolution within married couple’s lives. Women are symbolized as the epitome of sacrifice, who take their fate and bear and endure humbly. Sita stays dedicated to Ram no matter how unjust his behaviour is, including being banished to the forest while pregnant with his twins amid his 14 year exile. This, after already being ordered by Ram to perform a traditional fire ritual (agnipariksha ) to test her character.
Here I cite a BBC India article titled Why an Indian lawyer tried to sue God, which recognizes that Ram in fact did not respect his wife, and subsequently this Sanskrit epic encourages the disrespect of its nation’s women in general. This type of behaviour is also reflected within the Indian society in the west. Relatives still meddle in your business; women are still looked upon to carry out domestic duties foremost; while the males are doated on and graced with family property, status, money, and prayed upon at the temple for health and prosperity.
So when I stand up to men who I feel are bullying me in some direct, indirect or
subtle way, they are not happy with me one bit. And I will project Durga’s strength. Every time. Some seem astounded and most evade taking any form of responsibility, and then avoid me thereafter. I am assured when they take lengths to sidestep me, because it tells them I am not someone to mess with, so please keep away. Because I will not remain silent, the way so many women do in this culture.
That said, I have met a number of strong, independent, single local women in India, born in India. Things are shifting slowly, but in a nation of over 1 billion, there is a massive equality gap present among men and women, regardless of where they happen to be from.
In 21st century India, where violence against women strikes in both forms – physical and emotional, publiclly validated or not – where 92 women are reported raped daily (National Crime Records Bureau, 2013) – women need to reclaim the Goddess archetype.
Some friendly advice to western women
So I tell the young women who approach me that feel constricted in true self expression while in India, that it is also important to respect the culture of the country they happen to be a guest in. That you can still stay in your power and exude a great sense of confidence and assertiveness, and that men will pick up on this, and not mess with them. That has been my experience over and over again. Because simply by being a single woman traveller here, you are exuding a strength and independence that they simply do not understand, yet it sends a clear message of “don’t fuck with me.” And yes, that they should cover up and not be too friendly to the local men, even if they are a genuinely friendly, extroverted woman. Perhaps it can be a practice for assuaging the ego’s rhetoric of “I want what I want/Gimme’, gimme’…” etc. Choosing instead to nurture a sense of humility, which develops another form of power within that is about discernment and discrimination.
Indians are a curious people. After living in the same village neighbourhood in Tiruvannamalai for a number of years when I come and visit, my neighbours observe me closely. (There she is again, “still unmarried and frolicking.” Hah, at least that is my interpretation!) But really, they are happy to see me, and I to see them. I have watched their children grow up from toddlers to school kids, and others from school-aged kids to college students.
Though having a male friend at my place for a simple cup of tea will have all my neighbours probing, and staring my friend down when he enters and exits my place. Simply because this does not happen in this culture, like it does in the west. Women do not generally have platonic male friends here. Imagine if he stayed to watch a film and left at 10pm! I’d be branded a prostitute probably. No joke! So I avoid these types of scenarios in my neighbourhood. Out of respect. Because I live with these folks. Perhaps I shouldn’t care? I see that it is my conditioning that has me act this way in a country that emanates the seed of my conditioning. And so it goes, this persistent dance with what is comfortable, appropriate, easeful, accepted, and ok.
*Note: I welcome all comments on this article, and especially specific aspects of this piece that you wish to hear more on. It is a dabble into many topics of interest that I’d like to go deeper into…
Also, if you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in Be a Solo Woman Traveller in India, It’s Ok