An ongoing and occasional series on a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. You can find the previous posts here.
I left Udaipur and traveled up further into Rajasthan. Chittorgarh, Pushkar, Ajmer, Jaipur. I stayed at a government rest house, as advised, where, as it transpired, they tried to kick me out. I was invited, on a train, to the wedding of the rail line’s paymaster’s daughter. I declined. I was, at that point, intent on sticking to my plan. It was all I had in the midst of so much new and foreign.
But more than the signs quaintly telling me I was not welcome,
On the way to Ajmer, the train guard left me a note.
“Hello Dolly. Namaste. I want to meet you at Ajmer with you. You should meet me at platform. Then we go to picther or see the Ajmer city with us. I like you. Yours.”
I did not meet him.
I took a bus to Pushkar. Three men sat on the bench seat in front of me. One of them, a propos of of absolutely nothing, turned around and asked, “You enjoy the sex?” I started yelling at him, “Why do you ask me that? How come you think you can just ask me that? What is wrong with you?” At which point he and everyone around me began apologizing. “I can tell you have good nature, ” said the man next to me. “You say good.”
That night I thought, “I should have gone to the wedding of the train paymaster. I would have been an honored guest. I would have given his daughter a large wedding present. Dollars.” It would have been something neither the family nor I would ever forgotten. I only regret what I haven’t done.
And then I decided I wanted a salwar kameez. The Northern Indian costume of tunic and pants. I wanted to fit in, to be less visible. In Jaipur, you could get one made at the street bazaar. Tailors sat in booths hung with curtains. I do not remember how I chose, but I picked out a sky blue fabric covered with small, muted gold patterns, from a young Kashmiri. He pulled the curtains closed, and began to measure me. Yes. Measure me. It took me much longer than my usual level of competence could predict to realize that these measurements were not necessary. I do not know if I was lulled by the way he kept patting my cheek softly, or by all the colored bolts of cloth, but when he looked up at one point and said, “This is OK?”, I realized it wasn’t. I backed up. He nodded his head, no objection, no more measurements, no harm done. As though he was experimenting with a new species to find out what was possible, and having found out, was content to let it go.
At least he asked.
Of all the mistakes I made in India, or wrong decisions, or social gaffes, that one stayed heavy with regret and embarrassment. I felt terribly ashamed, too ashamed even to admit shame. So foolish. I read my journal now and see that I was not honest with myself afterward. I tried to brush it aside, to tell myself it was OK. But I felt it was my fault, I felt I should have known, I felt I had participated. He had a pretty mouth.
I look back on my trip through India and I can see that I thought I could protect myself by dressing appropriately, keeping my head down, and writing diligently in a notebook. I didn’t understand that by traveling alone, unmarried, in a culture where women married young and traveled in reserved train cars, I had put myself out on a cliff, lit by spotlights and announced by megaphone. My own personal “son et lumiere.”
I hold no grudge, almost 30 years later. No one ever harmed me. No one persisted, much, past the first signs they’d gotten it wrong. A voyage of self-discovery at 25, unmarried, alone. I was apt to discover men. But I was too overwhelmed by the journey to pay attention, to understand the culture, to keep my guard up. So they discovered me first. I was not ready. That’s no one’s fault, not mine, not theirs. I am only understanding this today. It’s been harder to forgive myself.
I no longer have the salwar kameez. I’d show it to you if I did.