I sit on the unfinished makings of a concrete balcony, the door to my home-stay room at my back. I can see rooftops, palm branches, the black silhouettes of crows darting between them. The days light is nearly gone, and below me in the winding alleyways people head home in the dusk, men on rickety bicycles and woman in paintbox saris carrying bags of food. I have been in India for less than a day, and already I am immersed, my senses overwhelmed by the variance and pace of this incredible country.
Almost a week later, and I am in deep, helplessly drawn into the riot of each and every day. So much of Kerala is the India of my imaginings, my minds eye fed by the pens of first Kipling, and later of Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. It hums with life, every street alive with colour, every turn filled with a hundred new sights, sounds, smells; incense, soap, shit, burning smoke; the sickly sweet smell of decay, the spice of perfume and the warmth of hot oil and frying bread. It is vital and real and uniquely beautiful, and yet. And yet, I know already that my time here is going to be harder than I thought.
A lot is said about women travelling to India. The first response I got from many people at home when I told them I was coming here was of fear, to the extent that I was told that I shouldn’t include it in my plans (sorry Grandma). The news is full of the stories that we are all now familiar with, of what it can mean to be a woman in this country. And yet I was undeterred, naively sure that as long as I was careful and didn’t attract attention to myself I could handle a few leering men. That first day, walking through a nearby Hindu neighborhood, my white skin covered by long trousers and a scarf wrapped around my shoulders, I felt the weight of many eyes raking over me and understood that I had been wrong.
I feel vulnerable here in a way that I haven’t felt before. It is the crawling eyes that follow me, but strangely the stares aren’t the worst thing. What I find more difficult is being ignored, the fact that men address Rikki whilst leering at me, and I hover behind his shoulder feeling useless and vaguely angry. I like speaking to people, and, cultural or not, I am not ok with being treated like less than a human being simply because I am a woman and I am white.
The people here are at the centre of India’s beating heart. Children smile and wave from windows, and women in elegant saris shout hello, tossing long oiled braids of raven black hair. One elderly woman smiled and grabbed my arm the other morning as I passed her, her long fingers gripping my skin, tight and reassuring. Some of the men I meet greet me with a head waggle and a welcome, keen to share snippets of the rich local history or offer advice. But still the flat leers of others lead me to shrink away where I would approach, to cast my eyes to the ground where I would raise them in friendly greeting.
I was unready for the stares, the eyes that follow me down the street, but mostly because I was unprepared for the effect that they would have on me and my own behaviour. I allowed them to make me feel that I had done something wrong, and I shrank into myself, lowering my eyes to the ground and meekly letting Rikki lead the way. I allowed rickshaw drivers and restaurant owners to look through me and speak exclusively to him instead. I allowed them to take my smile.
The key word here is allowed. I cannot change the stares, as much as I cannot change the fact that I have fair hair, blue eyes and white skin. What I can change is my response to the way in which I am approached, and the way that I act accordingly.
I will not allow the behaviour of a few to taint the love I have for many. And I am already in love with India. I loved her before I met her, before I put even one dirty soled foot on her earth. I cannot wait for the adventures I will have here, the people I will meet; and I cannot wait to explore the country I have dreamed of since I was seven years old with a big smile on my face – even if I have to do it under the weight of a hundred pairs of eyes.