I didn’t think it would happen. As I left the comforts of family friends holding my hand and showing me Kolkata and Delhi, I was actually genuinely scared for my life. If I didn’t get the luck of the draw for tourists assaulted on trains or hostels, surely my short temper would be the end of me with the pinching and whistling men on the street. Never mind the constantly changing balance between animal feces, urine, deep frying, and burning garbage in the street, the instant flooding upon rainfal, and the general overcrowding causing an unmanageable quantity of waste in the streets and tumbling houses.
So, I rocked up in Jaipur a few days ago. Honestly, on the drive in I wanted to leave. The bus was weaving through slums and running over piles of manure faster than they could be avoided. I’ve never wanted a bus not to stop so badly in my life. In even a moment passing you could see small disputes over cents and children savouring small pieces of bread you knew was their only food. “If this is the real India,” I thought to myself “I’m done. I’m going to pay however much it is to stay at the Fairmont we just drove by until my flight leaves next week and I’m not leaving until then”.
I got out of the bus to find my rucksack unloaded into a pile of freshly liquified mud and got stalked for 2 blocks by the thirsty rickshaw drivers that practically licked their lips as they saw my non-indian face in the window as the bus pulled in.
Before I sound like a total B, I’d like to say…the situation for women in India is grim. Nevermind foreign women…alone. To be on high alert isn’t only natural but necessary, and out of self-preservation, everyone must be seen with caution. For example, the group of 4 men who circled me at a food stall that night I arrived, started pinching my ass and calling me a sexy mama-cita until I verbally tore a strip off of them yelling so the police close by would come get them away from me and take me to my hotel safely.
Anyway, a guy offered me a ritzy hotel room for 200 rs a night (like 3.50 USD), so out of dumb curiosity I got in a rikshaw sponsored by him to check it out. Obviously it was bull shit, but the driver who has turned into my Prabu (for those who have read Shantaram, for those who haven’t-do it), showed me Hotel Vaishnavi where I have been happily hanging out since.
The day after the incident I stayed in all day loving my wifi and cable TV. They have a reasonably priced restaurant with room service and I’m almost caught up on One Tree Hill, Grey’s, and Christmas movies from the 1990s. Then yesterday I decided to venture out and do the sightseeing shindig as per Prabu’s directions. I told him I wanted to walk and offered him a 100 Rs as thanks for showing me a good route, which he declined as he pointed me in the right direction.
Two weeks in this country and I still felt off of my game. More than I have anywhere else. I couldn’t quite figure out where I should be walking, if I should be walking…I couldn’t actually read the map at all. I stopped to get some deep fried daal and curry for breakfast and had my first taste of ‘India’. The man gave me a price, obviously the local price, I went to pay him and he said ‘no, pay after you eat’…fair, the locals do it too. I ordered a chai, which he called somebody on his mobile to bring (I didn’t realize he didn’t make it), and ate whatever he served up to me. It was so cheap I would have paid for every piece, but he refused my payment in the end. After an hour or two….I kind of lost track…of him teaching me Hindi and me teaching him English, he said “you are a guest, now you are my friend, a friend and guest to India shall be showered with welcome, that doesn’t mean paying”. Ordinarily I would be under the impression of ‘how am I going to pay for this later’ but my gut told me he was genuine. I accepted his gift and continued as per his directions to the old city.
As I got into the old city I asked to photograph some spices at the street bazar, the man happily allowed it and asked to buy me a drink. I was taken back until he clarified either a cola or a chai so we could talk. “it is broad daylight, I will not do anything”…red flag! His two sisters came and insisted it was safe, that they would even join. Hesitant, I accepted. We talked for a while as they asked questions about the weather, the food, the music…I concluded by asking why it was they found foreigners to be so fascinating. He replied “in India we are too poor to go away, to talk to foreigners is the closest we will come to seeing anywhere else in the world.” And that simple statement brought me to a new level of empathy with the harassment I had been receiving. Realizing that perhaps some of the ‘hayyy ladeeee where you from’ was genuine curiosity, and in sad way a plea to learn.
I continued down the street to find groups of children staring as I took photos of decrepit buildings and street vendors. I offered to take a photo of them and got a posse for blocks as they wanted to show me all sorts of colourful things and, of course take more photographs. As we walked down one alleyway a calm and proud woman pointed at the camera then at her and her son, I calmed the children and took a photo. The look in her eyes was incredible. A sense of attachment that I don’t think a Westerner could fully comprehend, just to the image of her and her son. The connection I sensed to hers led me to get a copy printed for her. She attempted to repay me the small fee. I declined, and gave her son a hug while she cherished the photo. With his impressive English he told me how happy his mother was that he would have something to remember her by. Something so simple but such a big impact; a reminder of how we can leave somewhere even just a little better than we met it.
I continued wandering the old city meeting many charming locals including a stunning elderly woman sewing bangles. Her scowl was impressive as her eyes pierced through the tourist taking photos from afar…as I asked her if I could take one, honestly assuming she would reject my request, she smiled and said “you ask, I smile”.
As I headed back to the hotel I started to feel absolutely vial. Perhaps it was wearing a tshirt, crops, and a scarf in 41 degree heat for 5 hours of walking, perhaps it was the ice cream lassi…maybe I had bad water. Either way I felt like I was going to drop to the floor at any moment and my stomach was expanding like a balloon. A pair of older men waived me in to their tire shop just outside of the city gate. They cleared off a seat, cleaning it off and placing it beneath a fan, instantly fresh bottled water and chai were at my disposal and they were calling my hotel to send a driver. Not only did the men reach out to help me no questions asked, but I felt, finally, at ease to accept it. I didn’t think they were telling me to come in to rape me, I didn’t think they drugged the chai. It was almost like Kua and his train station crew…It probably sounds super dodgy, but in the moment the humanity overshadowed the logic.
My Prabu picked me up, dropped me back at the hotel free of charge and everybody checked on me for hours. I laid in my bed watching A Cinderella Story sipping oversweet chai and as I stared at my recently finished novel, Shantaram I remembered what Vikram said, “That’s how we keep this crazy place together — with the heart. Two hundred fuckin’ languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart”.
For the first time, I believed it was in fact true. The friends I had stayed with had never met me before, but they welcomed me to their homes and lives without hesitation. Yes, some are creepy, but so are men back home. I looked at every unique moment of that day and saw events that only happened out of love. Yes, a country with a billion people living, in some cases, virtually on top of each other there needs to be love, but their heart is beyond themselves, and I had the gift of receiving it.
If India isn’t proof not to judge a book by its cover [or its first 10 chapters] I don’t know what is. I’m still on high alert, but I believe for the first time that I’m going to be fine. That there is more heart than there is bad. And I’d like to believe that is true of everywhere even if we don’t all show it the same.