I lived in India for nearly a year, and upon my subsequent visits there have tacked on another 7 months in the country over the last 13 years.
Traveler Candace shares her notes on travelling alone as a woman in India. Her article, a reaction to this very dark picture of Indian men written by an exchange student (do also read the counter-piece), made me want to share my experience as a woman in India too. And also because since the highly publicised 2012 rape in Delhi, people ask me: is it really that bad? what is it really like?
Well, honestly, I haven’t had any particularly bad experiences in India. Sure, people stare more in India. And when it’s men or teenage boys, it can be a bit unsettling. But look around — women and children stare too. We’re staring material. People are often genuinely curious about foreigners. Get over it.
I had one guy I didn’t know e-mail me for a “sex date”. A fellow traveller leaning in a little too close on a bus (I swapped places with my male companion). A furtive breast grope at a crowded new year’s party. A friend of mine had somebody mumble “are you interested in a fuck?” while she was hanging out in front of a shop — she had to make him repeat it three times before she understood, I think the guy was more mortified than she was. In one of the hotels I stayed at, the manager came to chat with me during dinner a little too often for my comfort. But maybe he was just honestly curious (I really don’t know).
Let’s put this in context, though: like most women, I get unwanted attention in the West too. See #shoutingback. So this is not limited to India. Now, true, despite all the kamasutra and tantra idealisations, India is more sexually repressed than Switzerland. And more male-dominated. And it’s big. So yes, there are creepy guys, and there are definitely issues that need to be addressed. And there is risk, too. The Delhi rape didn’t just come out of nowhere. Years ago I read Bitter Chocolate, a book on child sexual abuse in India, which is quite chilling.
All this doesn’t mean that each woman’s trip to India will necessarily turn into a horror story. It’s quite possible to spend time in India without feeling like a sexual object at every turn of street. Being “sensible” is a part of it, just like it is in the West.
I’m careful how I dress, knowing that as a white woman I’m likely to start off with higher “sex capital”, so in doubt I might dress a little more conservatively than my Indian peers. I use the ladies’ compartment in the Delhi metro, the ladies’ side of the bus when there is one, the ladies’ queue — specially if I’m unaccompanied. I don’t feel like I’m driven by fear: one part is “do as Romans do”, and the other is that it just makes things more relaxed and avoids potentially annoying situations.
In her article, Candace points out one piece of “advice” that was given out to students going to India: “don’t smile at people”. I spent most of my time in India glaring at people, to be honest. A few years ago, I realized I spent most of my time in Switzerland glaring at people. I started smiling more to people I didn’t know, and trying to approach strangers in a more friendly mode rather than defensive. It changes things.
Sure, a smile is an invitation to some kind of interaction. If you have huge boundary issues you might prefer to lock yourself up in a scowl to prevent anybody from approaching. Interaction can indeed lead to unwanted attention, but it can also lead to friendly interaction. My life in India was (and is) filled with friendly men, and yes, having friends is something that will increase your safety — and your feeling of safety. For example, I travelled all the way to Chennai in sleeper class with my friend Shinde, something I would not have done on my own.
So, here’s a quick selection of some Indian men I met along the way.
Shinde and his wife Nisha, whom I stay with when I go back to Pune:
Madhav, who helped me find hotels to stay at when I kicked myself out of my pay-guest place, and remained a close friend for many years:
Mithun and his family, who helped me out when I arrived in India, hosted me and helped me find a flat so many years ago:
The “Delhi Boys” plus my host Sunesh’s family in Kerala:
Satisha, one of the helpful staff at Hillview Farms:
Thanks to Claude for sharing the article that got me started on The Life Nomadic.