[TW = Rape]
When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction that over the past few months has torn my life apart, and convey it in a single succinct sentence?
“India was wonderful,” I go with, “but extremely dangerous for women.” Part of me dreads the follow-up questions, and part of me hopes for more. I’m torn between believing in the efficacy of truth, and being wary of how much truth people want.
Don’t read the comments. No Seriously.
The first one when I read it was calling her a delicate little flower. The sort of consumptive lady beloved of victorian heroines who would faint at the sight of a slightly raunchy moustache and would have to fan herself if someone said the word “cockrel”.
India has always been “an experience”. You push yourself to the limit and learn to roll with a lot of punches. If you don’t, India will break you. If you do then you will learn something new that you never knew before.
I have learnt what I can really really be. I have been pushed to the breaking point so many times that I feel like iron being beaten into steel. If you survive that you can survive ANYTHING. At this point and time, I feel unstoppable because I know there is nothing much left out there to throw at me that I cannot overcome.
That’s what I am taking home. That is not what RoseChasm took home.
Because, how do I describe my three months in the University of Chicago Indian civilizations program when it was half dream, half nightmare? Which half do I give
Do I tell them about our first night in the city of Pune, when we danced in the Ganesha festival, and leave it at that? Or do I go on and tell them how the festival actually stopped when the American women started dancing, so that we looked around to see a circle of men filming our every move?
See there are two schools of though in western tourists. The first is “Oh how nice, they are watching”. Most people think this then go home. The second group think as above.
Because stopping to watch women dancing and then filming specifically them is not something “normal”.
Do I tell them about bargaining at the bazaar for beautiful saris costing a few dollars a piece, and not mention the men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins?
Tell them both, they are both integral to India. The man who beats his child will run 3 miles to return your wallet. Because in his mind beating children is okay but theft is not. The colourful pageantry is part and parcel of the groping. So tell them both. One does not exist without the other.
When people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for forty-five minutes after I purchased them, until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd?
This is India. This is the Indian man. The thug in velvet. The exploding peacock. All that beauty hides a deadly blade.
That in spite of all that colour and beauty India still hides that wanker who will stalk you, grope you and rape you.
Do I describe the lovely hotel in Goa when my strongest memory of it was lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone?
Even Goa, which is one of the more safer places in India.
How, I ask, was I supposed to tell these stories at a Christmas party? But how could I talk about anything else when the image of the smiling man who masturbated at me on a bus was more real to me than my friends, my family, or our Christmas tree? All those nice people were asking the questions that demanded answers for which they just weren’t prepared.
People want to see the good in the world. Even if you tell them this they wouldn’t want to hear it. They would rather think you had a bad experience. Or worse, you saw rapists behind every smile.
The fact of the matter is that among travellers to India there are two badges of “pride”. Pride in surviving India involves a bout of unimaginable diarrhoea or vomitting or both. Bonus marks for colour and consistency of course. And in women “that time that man did that and we faced him down”.
But that’s the thing many female travellers don’t realise. That time they beat the system doesn’t involve all the times women failed to beat it. And simply ignoring these women doesn’t make your experience worse or better.
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.
Of course not. You can read about surgery all you like but I won’t trust you to take my appendix out. The same applies to India. Nothing does it’s heights justice.
Nothing does it’s depths justice either.
And do Indians really think that we should be advising women to dress a specific way (I am sure it’s a respectable way too. Unlike those women in our movies right?)? That we are doing ourselves a favour by demanding that women dress up respectably because our men cannot control themselves?
My dog’s name is Tigger. After the Winnie the Pooh character. He is very very bouncy. A hyperactive dog.
When I come back I put food out for him. My dog eats at 6:00 AM and then again at 6:00 PM when I get home. When I put food out for him he won’t eat it till I give the signal. We did this to teach him to not steal from garbage or groceries. We trained him.
My dog behaves better than many Indian men. If my dog has this level of control, then must we not treat Indian men like dogs in order to teach them that same self control?
Or are we going to stop using that excuse? Red hair, white skin and blue eyes make you an uncontrollable rapist? Then I am afraid the problem is not those things but you.
But I wasn’t prepared.
Because you cannot be 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 tailer’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.
That’s because everything she does is “sexy”. OMG she talked to me! She is interested! OMG she ignored me. She is playing hard to get. OMG she stood upside down and did the chicken dance. She must really like the cock.
Anything and everything you say will be taken as consent for this behaviour because the Indian man has never learned to lose graciously.
I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took
More than likely its because you are the tourist attraction rather than for porn. But different people have different ethos to being photographed. My open photography was generally rewarded with smiles. Mainly because I was so open about it and after taking the shot would talk to the subject of the photo and ask if I could keep it or not. One of the downsides to shooting in RAW at the time was precisely this. But I digress.
For three months I lived this way, in a traveler’s heaven and a woman’s hell. I was stalked, groped, masturbated at; and yet I had adventures beyond my imagination. I hoped that my nightmare would end at the tarmac, but that was just the beginning. Back home Christmas red seemed faded after vermillion, and food tasted spiceless and bland. Friends, and family, and classes, and therapy, and everything at all was so much less real than the pain, the rage that was coursing through my blood, screaming so loud it deafened me to all other sounds. And after months of elation at living in freedom, months of running from the memories breathing down my neck, I woke up on April Fool’s Day and found I wanted to be dead.
This is not the hallmark of the weak. PTSD strikes even the strongest.
I have PTSD and no man could ever consider me “weak”. I know I do things that most people cannot. And sometimes PTSD makes life difficult but like India, I can beat it.
It is not weakness that makes you fear, it is fear.
The student counselors diagnosed me with a personality disorder and prescribed me pills I wouldn’t take. After a public breakdown I ended up in a psych ward for two days held against my will, and was released on the condition that I took a “mental leave of absence” from school and went to live with my mother. I thought I had lost my mind; I didn’t connect any of it to India– I had moved on. But then a therapist diagnosed me with PTSD and I realized I hadn’t moved a single inch. I had frozen in time. And I’d fallen. And I’d shattered. But I wasn’t the only one, the only woman from my trip to be diagnosed with PTSD, to be forced into a psych ward, to wake up wanting to be dead. And I am not the only woman who is on a mental leave of absence from the University of Chicago for reasons of sexual assault and is unable to take classes.
Here is where I have to be harsh.
Remember. Rose here could leave. She could escape. She could go home. She could get all this help and she could write about this.
The women of India who live this nightmare daily can never leave.
Understanding my pain has helped me own it, if not relieve it. PTSD strikes me as a euphemism, because a syndrome implies a cure. What, may I ask, is the cure for seeing reality, of feeling for three months what its like for one’s humanity to be taken away? But I thank God for my experiences in India, and for my disillusionment. Truth is a gift, a burden, and a responsibility. And I mean to share it. This is the story you don’t want to hear when you ask me about India. But this is the story you need.
There are other stories too. You may think this is the only story about India but India is writing a lot of new stories. In the midst of all this are stories of hope.
Do you know why the news is filled with stories of rapes and murders and harm of women? It’s not that these are new things in India. It’s that it is now news. News is what we see in our papers and on our TV Shows. And the time has come for Indian women to get angry and be heard. So we hear them.
These things are not going up in number. These things are probably stagnant or getting fewer and fewer. No, what’s happening is that women are more likely to fight back and the people who support these women are banding together and making a noise loud enough to be heard.
So come to India and see what you can be and see what you can forge yourself into. The news is bad because we are paying attention to the bad news. It is getting better with each day and the best thing we can do is stand up and be seen. Both men and women. Women should not hide and men should not stay silent when women are confronted.
Otherwise India will forever be known as a paradise for travellers but hell for women.