Last week I attended the Kumbh Mela, a gigantic religious festival held once every twelve years in Allahabad at the confluence of three rivers sacred in Hindu mythology. Remember how I wrote recently that I'd yet to have any negative experiences with Indian men? Well....
First of all, I'm very grateful to be in India so close to the events of 16 December. More attention than ever is being given to the safety and rights of women, and I'm fortunate to be here at a time of such heightened awareness.
I'm not sure if the Delhi rape case was the impetus for setting up a Woman Power Camp at the Kumbh Mela, but discourse with one of its operators was enlightening none the less. The baba (or guru) with whom I spoke claimed to be working in partnership with a female guru, but at the time we visited there were no women to speak of in the camp. Among the subjects to taught to female visitors would be self defense, health and "marriagability". I didn't ask about the last one. We all posed for pictures with the greasy baba, then he kicked our male friend out of the frame and put his arms around only us girls, making self-satisfied little grunts as he did so. Gross.
One thing I've come to realize is that while Western women get stared at a little in the towns I've visited, for the most part local men are inured to tourists there and blase. At the Kumbh our presence was a sensation. Every time we stopped to talk to somebody it was common to be surrounded by a dozen men listening in, nodding, taking our pictures and asking if we had boyfriends. We were discouraged from leaving the gates of our camp open because our poor guard had to work overtime turning away curious passer-bys. Fed up with being stuck inside, we went outside and sat by the road to watch the religious processions. The police showed up and yelled at the organizer of the camp, asking why we were sitting by the side of the road "like beggars" and insisting that we not go outside after dark.
Later that evening one of the other girls and I walked down the road to buy some water. There we were approached by a group of boys, one of which asked if he could have 'one minute'. We ignored them and turned back to the camp. They started following us. I wasn't scared--I figured they were just curious--but a few minutes later a car pulled up and out jumped one of the men from the camp.
"What the fuck are you looking at?" he yelled at the boys in Hindi, "Get out of here!" They scattered.
There on the road he delivered a safety lecture replete with parables about snakes and saints. The next day the story had expanded to include a simile about how the boys (whose numbers, in the story, had grown to 30) were like "jackals stalking a wounded deer." I couldn't help it--I laughed out loud at that. Our friend's concern for our safety was touching and timely, but I wonder if his view of us as victims isn't the tiniest bit patronizing.
My female friend said the male attention we get, how we constantly have to cover our shoulders and legs, makes her feel like a prostitute. I've never felt like that. And I've never felt like a victim. Is there something wrong with me? Am I missing some essential ingredient that I need to feel fear? I worry about being assaulted, yes, but it's always in a more abstract way. I take precautions. I trust my instincts. Aside from a few moments of justified paranoia, I'm pretty blase to the idea of being assaulted. I've always felt pretty big and tough and untouchable. I wonder if this is similar not flossing until the dentist says you must. Is assault one of those things that you have to have an experience with before you're wary? Am I healthier by not living in fear or am I just a fool?
In the meantime, yes darlings, I'm staying in at night. I'm flossing my teeth, and I'm being careful. Except for riding around on the back of motorcycles, but everyone does that here.
Love, Your Dear Wounded Deer