Martian in India


After Pushkar, we returned to Delhi for a night before flying south to Kochi (formerly Cochin) to explore the south of India. I was really excited to see a different part of the country, and had heard from so many sources that Kerala is an amazing and special place. We spent several days in Kochi, including a day on a houseboat in the “Backwaters of Kerala”, and also had a few days to relax and take in the indescribable beauty of Munnar, a hill station with rolling hills of tea bushes as far as the eye can see. We capped off our India trip with five days in Mumbai.

Aside from nearly oppressive heat in Kochi, Kerala was really the highlight of our trip, for me. The extraordinary beauty of the place and the vivid colors of nature—the oranges of sunset, blue of the ocean, green of the tea plantations—were such a welcome change from the drab grey that I had lived with for months in Kathmandu and that we also saw in the north of India. But more than just the colors and the slightly different cuisine, the people of Kerala were not like the rest of the people I met in India.

Most of the time that I was in India, I felt like a Martian. Everywhere I went, all the time, people stared at me, took pictures of me, tried to take pictures with me and generally made it their business to make me their business. While I didn’t feel physically unsafe, the experience of being leered at and photographed every moment of every day was not a nice one. Judging from how much more interest I received than my traveling companion, who has dark brown hair, I think my light hair was really what attracted all the attention. Sometimes, I would walk around with a scarf on my head despite the heat just to try to minimize the stares I got. This sounds like a relatively trivial thing to let bother me- ok, people stared at me a lot. But there were several cultural norms at play that made this a particularly uncomfortable experience.

Indians, in a gross generalization, do not smile very much. At least, almost no one smiled at me. In fact, the only person who I can really recall smiling was the female owner of the guesthouse where we stayed in Kochi. Which brings me to the next point: there are very few women walking around in India. As we walked on the streets, went sightseeing, went shopping and ate in restaurants, we saw almost no women. Therefore, my friend and I were a major attraction simply because we are women. Finally, as I mentioned in the previous post, Indians like a to-do, meaning a simple interaction can quickly draw a crowd. Asking a rickshaw driver for a ride, ordering a meal or even simply walking down the street was occasion for approximately a dozen men to start shouting their take on the situation (or anything else, generally) in our direction. These three factors, combined with the incessant picture taking, made me feel like I had dropped off planet Earth and landed somewhere very different.

The result of all this negative attention was that, by the time we reached Mumbai, I was pretty ready to leave India. In my last post from Nepal, I wrote that I was hoping that using the focused viewpoint of my camera viewfinder would help me to process the immensity of India. Ultimately, it was my inability to focus on photography that made India so hard for me. When I photograph, I like to make myself inconspicuous and try to capture moments as they happen. With the incessant attention on me, I never wanted to stop walking and take a picture, let alone sit down somewhere and watch my surroundings, because I knew that immediately several men would be bothering me to buy something from them or take a picture with them.

In some ways, my approach to traveling is completely unfair. Why should I have the right to gaze uninterrupted on the people in a place I visit, but they can’t do the same to me? This gets at the inherently exploitative nature of traveling that has been bothering me a little since I got to Asia; this same feeling that I am exploiting another place and culture for my own enjoyment or learning made me feel uncomfortable bargaining over very small sums once I started traveling (I had no problem at all in Nepal, but there I felt more like a local).

Despite my misgivings about exploiting another place for my benefit, I was frustrated with India when I left. I felt like I wasn’t really able to get a feel or image for the place because I was constantly on guard against harassment from Indian men. In Indian culture, it’s considered rude and promiscuous for a woman to look directly at a man. Since I was always the object of gaze for men, in order to avoid looking back, I had to walk around all the time with my eyes turned down. As a photographer and anthropologist, this was really hard for me, and ultimately stifled my ability to enjoy India.

I have some ideas about how things could have been better, and some day I will go back to India and do it again, differently.  For now, I am loving my travels in Southeast Asia. Stay tuned for forthcoming posts on Cambodia and Thailand!

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