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*August 2017 Update: I am not involved in any way in sex work and never have been. This blog is about about white women are sometimes mistaken for prostitutes in Northern India and in no way about actual prostitutes.
Living in Buenos Aires is different than living in India. Obviously. But I think it’s giving me some reverse culture shock. Being a Western woman in Argentina isn’t something I ever think about. Being a Western woman in India definitely had it’s drawbacks.
Honestly, I can’t believe how easy things are here.
For one, I am eating red meat just about everyday. In the grocery stores, the entire meat section is beef and pork. I had to actively seek out the chicken section. It had been banished to a small corner away from the “superior” meats.
And of course, no one notices me here. This is good and bad. Being the center of attention constantly is pretty exhausting. But then again, sometimes it was fun feeling like a celebrity.
I could launch into a list of all the reasons why Buenos Aires is easier (note: I don’t necessarily think this makes it “better”) but there is one thing that I think is the best:
No one thinks I’m a prostitute.
Being a Western woman in India is a weird mix of benefiting from racist standards of beauty and everyone thinking you are easy. Or worse. Sometimes, away from the touristic centers, they think you are a prostitute.
I soon learned that outside these tourism districts inNorthern India, many “white women” actually are Russian prostitutes. Chandigarh was a rich city. People can pay top dollar to do the dirty.
Don’t Be Caught Alone with Indian Men at 2am
It started my first month in Chandigarh. My friend, Saksham, and I were leaving Rohit’s house a bit late one evening. It was about 2am when started walking toward our Uber driver who had parked around the corner from Rohit’s house, no more than a 2-minute walk. A police officer approached. He and Saksham started talking in Hindi. It didn’t take me very long to figure out what the issue was. Saksham convinced the police officer pretty easily to let us go, but then another officer came over.
I had to show the policemen my ID cards— my U.S. Driver’s license, my University of Chicago student ID, and just for kicks, I pulled out a few BCG business cards. I guess even when they do get foreign tourists in Chandigarh, they don’t typically see a Western woman in India getting into a car alone with an Indian boy.
Don’t Be Caught Alone with Indian Men at 2am AGAIN
About two months later, the exact same situation happened. Saksham and I left Rohit’s house around 1am and were waiting in the market for our Uber. A police car pulled up and Saksham didn’t even let them get going with their questions. He very curtly told them we were leaving his cousin’s house, I’m an American working in India, and he was going to make sure that I got home safely because women shouldn’t be left alone in cabs at night in India.
This seemed to do it. They left immediately.
The Police Just Want Bribes
All my Indian friends told me that the police just want bribes. Apparently, they can’t legally take women to the police station between certain early morning hours. They are actually just hoping to scare the girl and the boy into paying them to leave. Either because she is a prostitute or because the horror of getting a phone call to your parents that you are out drinking with some girl is worth spending a few hundred rupees to prevent. Knowing this, I became emboldened when facing police.
It happened again months later when I was walking through my gate last one night. A policemen followed me home. When he confronted me I just said, “Mera house yehuh hai” (this is my house) and walked away.
Not Just the Police
Then, of course, there were a few incidents a group of guys walking by and calling some stuff out—basically the Hindi equivalent of, “’hey gurl, hey!”
Or a number of times I was walking during the day and men would ride up on their motorcycles and try to talk to me and get me to add them on Facebook or give me a lift home. They would ask in bad English if we could be “friends,” and I would kindly tell them, “Thanks, but I have enough friends.”
Once a man walked up to me in the park and asked if I would have sex with him. I said, “Ew. No.” I hope he did think I was a prostitute but that he was just so disgusting I had to reconsider my career choice.
The cigarette walla in my market asked Rohit if we were “just going around” (aka prostitution) or if it was a “shaadi thing” (aka marriage).
Not That Bad
Honestly, India gets a bad reputation. Being a Western woman in India could be hard, but I’ve been treated much worse in other countries. I never got groped. I never thought something was actually going to happen. I actually didn’t get catcalled that much more or less than in the U.S. Almost everyone was unnecessarily kind to me and treated me with respect.
That being said, it’s nice being in Argentina and not worrying that people think I’m a prostitute.
After leaving India, I’ve been able to weigh the aspects of the sub-continent that I’ll miss most as well as the little things that I felt were holding me back.
I met Happie over the summer quite accidentally. A group of Americans plopped down in the middle of my “not so foreigner filled” city (Chandigarh, for anyone not paying attention) for an intensive Punjabi language course. Most of these were college students on scholarship. They only stayed 8 weeks. At the end of their course, I hosted a girl, Morgan, since her sponsored housing had run out. It was through her that I met Happie, the Punjabi language teacher of the course. She was just as her name might imply- happy, cute, and fun.
So in late November, I woke up early in the morning and caught a 6am bus to Faridkot, a town in Punjabi near the Pakistani boarder. If you haven’t heard of it, no worries, I couldn’t even pronounce it correctly when I got to the bus station. Four hours later, Happie’s brother picked me up and drove me to her house, a two-story farmhouse. I met some of Happie’s friends from college, friends from Faridkot, and her family. Then the craziness of all the activities began.
Morning: Happie showed me some of her engagement photos with her future husband (they both looked really beautiful, like Bollywood stars or something). She said she had deferred taking more photos until after the wedding because she didn’t feel comfortable with him yet. It was interesting to me how completely calm she was. She had only met him once before (he lives in Canada; she’d been skyping with him for almost a year) but only once very calmly said, “I’m a bit nervous. I don’t really know him.” This seemed to fall in stark contrast to my American friend who recently married her boyfriend of four years (whom she lives with) and was a wreck of nerves before her wedding.
Afternoon: Mehndi (henna) session on Happie’s patio consisting of Happie’s friend and two other girls doing everyone’s mehndi while we drank chai and chatted. Since I had broken my arm three days prior, I only got mehndi on one hand. Happie, as the bride, had incredibly elaborate designs. Her friend produced some eeriously impressive artwork on both her hands and feet. I was sort of jealous of how ornate her mehndi was that I briefly contemplated marrying some random Punjabi man just so he could get a green card and I could have pretty mehndi on my wedding day.
Ultimately, I decided a lifetime of marriage wasn’t worth a day of pretty hands and feet. But the mehndi session was quite fun.
Early Evening: The photographer took photos of all the girls out in the field.
Some of the older women had gathered in the same patio area and were singing together (then one woman would come forward and sing a line or two by herself while everyone kept clapping). Someone explained to me they were singing “marriage advice” to Happie but funny advice. I think an English equivalent would be something like, “Sure you’ll love marriage when you’re on the beach on your honeymoon but just wait until five years of cleaning up his toenail clippings.” (No one said this specifically in Punjabi but I think that was the kind of advice being given). All in good jest, of course.
Evening: I changed into one of my “suits” and met some more of Happie’s friends from Faridkot. We talked inside for awhile before walking around to the back of her house where a large fancy tent was set up, fully furnished with a buffet-style bar, dance floor, speakers, and DJ. We ate and then started dancing.
Everyone danced, even the oldest women (actually, they were the ones who would make you stand up again if you sat down). Some of the older men would throw stacks of ten rupee notes into the air and then hired help would scurry around people’s feet collecting the notes. Then, they started firing guns out in the farm.
Night: Close to midnight, the family decided to do a tradition (I don’t know the name) in which they cover the bride in turmeric. Turmeric is related to ginger and is usually found as a bright yellow powder. Traditionally, it is used by Indian brides before the wedding to make their skin take on a golden glow. That night we all gathered around Happie on the patio and took turns rubbing a turmeric paste on her face and putting a little oil in her hair. I think this tradition was supposed to be done at 4am before the wedding but I guess since everyone was already at the house, doing it around midnight worked better.
I’ve actually used turmeric paste before. It’s good for psoriasis but stains your skin yellow. Apparently it looks much better on the ‘wheatish’ Indian complexion than on Caucasian skin. While Happie looked beautiful after her turmeric treatment, I never developed the “golden glow”, just an awkward Simpsons’ yellow.
Night continued: It was fun seeing everyone getting ready for bed. Mattresses covered almost every inch of the foyer area for all the male relatives to sleep. I shared a room with Happie’s two friends from college. Everyone just piled into her house and slept there. None of that hotel and privacy nonsense we Americans “need.”
Morning: Breakfast parathas! My favorite part of Punjab. A bit like pancakes, parathas are made from wheat flour and stuffed with vegetables (potato, onion, cauliflower, radish, etc..). They are fried and one eats them with dahi (curd, plain yogurt).
Then I started getting ready. From Happie’s house we drove down the road to a very large event center where Happie was in the middle of a photoshoot looking totally fabulous. Indian brides typically wear bright colors (red most traditionally but I’ve also seen orange, yellow, and pink). Seeing Happie all dolled up, I developed Indian wedding envy again and started rethinking my potential random Punjabi green card marriage ever-so-slightly.
Afternoon: The groom’s family arrived at the event center. The bride’s family had a long ribbon blocking them from entering the premises. The groom bargained with her friends and female cousin. In order to “get to” the bride, he must agree to pay a price to the sister/young female relative. I don’t know how much he agreed to pay. I know they started off with $1,000 but came down to something reasonable pretty quickly.
Then we all drove to the Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) for the marriage ceremony. Happie’s cousin stayed with me to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself. We left our shoes outside and covered our heads, walked in, knelt before the alter, put some money in the donation box, and moved to the side. I was pretty happy about the “moving to the side” bit because the fancy leggings that came with my dress were much too large. This could be solved by tying them tightly, but with a broken arm, I couldn’t tie them properly. Lest, I spent most of the ceremony worried about keeping my pants on. The cousin came to my rescue after and tied them properly for me in the bathroom.
The religious ceremony was short and sweet, about the same length as a typical Protestant wedding ceremony. Some words were read in Punjabi, and Happie’s finance lead her around the alter with a piece of orange fabric four times.
Late Afternoon: We returned to the event center. The entire area was decorated with nice chairs, couches, tables, and decorations. There was a stage with music and a large buffet area in the back. I’m guessing around 500 people had attended. Happie and her new husband sat on the stage as the guests lined up to say congratulations and give them money as a present. After a few hours, I went inside with some of her friends were there was another buffet. Happie ate with the groom’s family.
Send Off: Even though Happie won’t be moving to Canada for a few more months, the symbolism in Indian weddings (and American weddings) can be a bit overwhelming. Just like how in the US our Dad’s walk down the aisle and “give” their daughters to the grooms, symbolizing a departure from daddy to hubby, Indian weddings do something similar. In Happie’s case, she symbolically left her family and got in a car with the groom’s family and drove off. She gets slightly teary-eyed during this process, understandably. Also during this time, older uncles were again throwing handfuls of money on the couple and on the car. In this case, the hired help even climbed on the car the collect the rupees.
Evening: Happie’s friend, Aman, invited me to her house for the evening. I met her family and she took me into Faridkot to the main Gurdwara.
Overall, it was a really wonderful experience. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a language barrier between me and most of Happie’s family/guests. Despite that, her family went out of their way to involve me and get to know me. I really enjoyed just observing the craziness and excitement in her house. Also, her friends all spoke English and explained some of the traditions as well as just chatted with me casually. In all, it was by far one of my favorite weekends in India.
*Professional Photos taken by Piyush Bedi
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but a group of men dipping a dead body in the river was not on the list. Only about 20 feet in front of me, his thin body blocked by those still inhabited by a consciousness, I caught a glimpse of a limp wrist hanging to the side.
I didn’t spend 12 days in Varanasi, only 3. But it was a pretty amazing place; one of my favorites in India for sure. I mostly just wandered around taking photos. I wanted to post the photos of “daily life” in the religious city. It’s probably the pain killers, but I decided writing about Varanasi would be more fun to the tune of “Twelve Days of Christmas.” So bare with me….
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
12) Twelve Boats a Floating
Obviously not just 12. Many, many more than twelve. The evening Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is attended by thousands. We were on the boat and could barely see through all the boats. Then another crowd comes by foot and observes from the ghat. The Aarti is performed by seven priests who commit to the Lord Shiva, Mata Gange, Surya, Agni (Fire), as well as the whole universe made by the Lord Shiva.
11) Eleven Birds a Flying
Early morning on the Ganges, a man feeds the birds.
10) Ten Bags of Laundry
People use the Ganges for everything, include laundry. These men wash clothes on these boards, undeterred from their extremely close proximity to a small burning ghat (area on the river where bodies are burnt)
9) Nine Bathers Bathing
The Ganges is probably most famous for its bathers. Changing rooms dot the ghats. The river is considered sacred and the water is used in rituals and for purification. (I’m counting the two bathers further up on the ghats to get to the #9).
8) Eight Players Playing
I can’t tell you how many times I saw kids playing cricket along the river. One guy even let me play catch with him briefly.
7) Seven Priests at Aarti
Aarti is performed in the evening as well as the morning. My first day in Varanasi I woke up at 4:45am in order to see the morning ritual, and I’m glad I did. The ritual was much more impressive up close.
6) Six Vendors Selling
Markets. Markets everywhere.
5) Five Holy Cows
Cows are considered God-like in India. Beef and cow-killing is banned in many areas. Cows generally roam the streets (including walking with the cars). Here are some just sunning on the ghat.
4) Four Sleeping Sadhus
Sahus are religious ascetics/holy men. Their divinity is shown through their departure from material wealth and mainstream society in order to focus on the divine. They spend most of their time contemplating Brahman and meditating.
3) Three Scared Goats
Goats can also frequently be found wandering the city. Like foreign tourists, the goats have similar trouble crossing the busy streets. This morning, a mother goat and her two kids took off during a brief lull in the cars and bikes. Only one kid made it to the other side. The other freaked out and ran back to the starting point. In a moment of true humanity, one of the vendors picked up the baby goat and walked it across the road back to its mother.
2) Two Vendor Kids
These two kids paddled their boat along the Ganges to sell flowers to tourists and pilgrims for 10 rupees for a little cup (15 cents). People place flowers in the water as an offering.
1) And an Elephant by a Palm Tree
This morning I wandered around the old city, including the parts not frequented by tourists. One of my favorite things about the little alleys was how decorated the doorways and walls could be, often with little elephants or flowers.