24 February 2009

Near Violence.

We arrived at the Hospet public bus station just in time to hop on a local bus that was heading to Hubli, four hours away. From there we would catch an overnight train to Mysore, and we had booked a slightly higher class than usual, so I was feeling a bit excited and relieved that this sleeper would not have a) giant cockroaches, b) many small cockroaches c) 4 people sitting upright on a berth meant for one and then chatting all night or d) all of the above. Now just to get through this bus ride and we would be set.

The bus was about three quarters full when we got on, but I knew not to get my hopes up. At the last minute, just when you think you will have some breathing room, people (and on a night bus from Goa to Hampi, an entire marching band with instruments, including a tuba) pile in and fill up every square inch of space. That's why I was surprised when the conductor told us not to stow our bags under the bus – rather we should stack them on the very last bench seat and sit beside them. As I had predicted, the seats around us filled up quickly and the bus heaved to a start.

Almost instantly a man in full Muslim dress (long white top, baggy pants and small crocheted cap) gestured at the bags and motioned for us to move them. Now, these are not normal bags. They bulge out like pregnant women and are awkward, heavy and strangely shaped – but he still grunted and pointed. “I'm so sorry! They are too big. This is the only place they fit.” I said to the man in a polite and friendly totally Canadian tone, “See?” I pointed to the luggage rack, which was only deep and wide enough to accomodate shopping bags, and then back to our backpacks, showing with my hands the difference in height. With the bus packed we could not have shimmied them back out of the space they were jammed into even if we had tried. He looked irritated, but I apologized profusely a few more times, and though he didn't speak English, he wobbled his head to show that he understood.

The ride was bumpy as hell – Sean and I literally getting 2 feet of air on some speedbumps (which the driver of the ramshackle bus did not slow for) – with a cycle of people getting on and off the bus. As this was a short distance bus, I could tell many people were using it as work transportation, and this made the seating situation a bit more awkward. People couldn't immediately see that the bench was being occupied by our insensitive Western bags, and they would beeline for what they thought was the empty seat, only to arrive at the back and be disappointed. I felt like a bit of a dick – but there was nothing we could do.

It got dark around 7, and we were still about ninety minutes from Hubli. The bus emptied at a stop and refilled quickly, with a few men left standing in the aisle. It was far from packed, yet the 3 remaining seats beside us were full. An older man in a lungi (loincloth thing) marched right up to us and really leaned in. “Move.” He said, pointing at our bags. We repeated the spiel about space. He repeated, “Move.” It was now Sean's turn to be irritated.

“Where to, Sir? They don't fit anywhere!” This really set the man off.

“THIS IS 6. NOT 5. 6 PEOPLE SIT. YOU MOVE.” I then chimed in, with an exascerbated yet still polite tone.

“We cannot move them. Please speak to the conductor. He told us to keep them here. They do not fit...” As I was speaking, the man's face began to get red.

“MOVE BAGS.6 PEOPLE” Now Sean and I were mad, and people began to look on curiously. The conductor was at the front of the bus, making his way slowly as he collected fares. He was far enough away that he could not hear the exchange.

“We can't. Where would we put them? The conductor, talk to the conductor.” I said loudly, Sean echoing my statements with slightly different wording. To this man it may have seemed that 2 young denim clad foreigners were disrespecting him in front of his countrymen, and in India saving face is the number one priority in life. He must have only been able to understand part of what we were saying in our strange American accents, and he was PISSED off – probably more at what we represented than at the situation itself. He pushed his pointed finger into my face, and then thrust his hands ar our backpacks and screamed “MOVE BAGS!” Sean reacted quickly and swatted his gnarled hands away.

”NO!” I shouted, also protecting our bags from his grasp.

“YOU STOP TALKING NOW. YOU! STOP TALKING NOW!” He shouted directly into my face. I was incredulous.

“No. I will not. I don't have to. Talk to the conductor.” I said dismissively,

“YOU STOP NOW. YOU NO TALK! YOU! NO TALK!” He shouted again at me, and then looked at Sean, pointedly addressing only him. “MOVE BAGS. SHE NO TALK!” Everyone around us was looking. The young men beside us scootched as much as humanly possible and made room on their bench for the man, but he again thrust his finger in my face to silence me as I called for the conductor. Sean had had enough.

“You don't point at her!” I had to physically remove Sean's arm from the air in front of the man, and I just kept talking – mostly to prove a point. The man still yelled.

“YOU STOP TALKING! YOU NO TALK!” I laughed and shook my head.

“Sir, you have gone crazy. You are being very rude.” I waggled my finger near my ear in the international symbol for loony. This was perhaps the wrong thing to do, as he became incensed, fists balled and shaking with rage. It was very apparent that he wanted to hit me, and a macabre part of me was fascinated to see if he would. Still screaming at me to stop talking, he sat down directly beside me where the boys had made room. “See, sir,” I said sweetly, turning my head toward him “there is simply no room for our bags anywhere.”

The conductor was nearby now, and while a part of me was a bit gleeful at the calm way I had carried myself while this man had lost his shit, I wondered if I was somewhat in the wrong. This is a male dominated society, and I should be culturally respectful when traveling in their country. Women here DO NOT talk back in public (maybe jokingly, or in Mumbai – but not in rural Karnataka) and here I was mouthing off an elder and refusing to shut up when he asked me to. To be sensitive to Indian cultural mores should I have stopped talking?

I decided no almost instantly – this is not United Arab Emirates et al. I did not knowingly come to a country where sexual discrimination is legislated - this is the world's largest democracy – and so if misogyny rears its head at me I do not have to abide by it. That said, in practice India is still crazily patriarchal and in ways sanctions violence against women – many things demonstrate this collective violence. Acid attacks leave many disfigured or dead. Just 3 weeks ago at a bar in Mangalore (also in Karnataka) a group of girls on a staggette at a pub were attacked and beaten up in public for drinking and being out at night. In small towns, mobs have attacked women who dare to wear jeans rather than a salwar kameez or a sari. Wife beating is an acceptable practice in rural areas. There are still witch burnings in remote areas(!). And of course, honor killings, while not that common, are not all that uncommon either. And most of the time, the men and their families who commit all these crimes are mysteriously never charged.

BUT, and it's a big but - this is also a country that has had an elected female Prime Ministers, has equality laws on the books and worships a pantheon of Mother goddesses. Would this old crazy man have wanted former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to “stop talking” when she was on the world political stage, speaking on his behalf? Did he want fierce warrior goddess Kali to shove her lolling tongue back in her ash rimmed mouth and shut the fuck up?

Fuck him. I'm glad I talked back and didn't shrink into the corner like he wanted me to – I was probably the first female in his 60 plus years who had challenged him in public, a right guaranteed to all Indian women and one not often used..

The conductor finally arrived at our seats and proceeded to collect the fares from those around us. The old man gesticulated wildly at our bags while speaking in rapid Kannada, yet the conductor just wobbled his head from side to side in an indifferent manner and breezily responded. The old man protested weakly, but it was clear he had been dressed down, and this time by someone in uniform, a hugely shameful thing in India. He sat in silence for the next hour, still wedged in beside me and putting his elbows in my face as often as he could get away with, like a territorial dog. I contemplated using my limited Hindi to call him one.

As the bus edged toward Hubli I began to have eerie thoughts – would the old man have a son with a bottle of acid at the bus station, waiting to splash it in my face? I mentally practiced blocking techniques that might lessen the damage and leave me with less disfiguration....and I put my swiss army knife in an accessable place in my handbag.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened and to get to the train station we actually disembarked at the stop before the bus terminal, making our way awkwardly down the aisle with our huge bags. I caught a final glimpse of the old man as we reached the door, his mouth agape as he saw the actual size of the backpacks – clearly he hadn't been able to see their entire girth when they were crammed between the seats. I sincerely hope that the belligerent old fucker felt like the ass that he was and realized what a crazy scene he had caused.

I fell asleep on the top berth of our sleeper train with a confused heart – it was the first time that I had felt so much hostility from a stranger while traveling abroad. Hell, it was the first time that I had felt that much hostility from a stranger, period. Was I really wanted in this country? Should I be here? Was I corrupting the local way of life? No one on the bus had rushed to the insolent Westerner's defense – were they all thinking the same bile-filled thoughts as the man and silently cheering him on as he berated me?

We awoke in Mysore – the train magically only 20 minutes late. We quickly got a taxi to our hotel and set off the explore the city, a pleasant and clean Raj-era capital with colonial architecture, a huge, almost ridiculously picturesque market, and the friendliest people I have come accross in India. Rickshaws and shopkeepers charged us fair and consistent rates, and people tripped over themselves to shake our hands, politely ask our “good names” and make small talk. “Which country you from?”
“Canada.” (Which they always liked, because their language and ethnicity is called Kannada.)
“Ahhh, very good one. Big country. French and English!” And just when we thought they were about to try to lead us to their shop or sell us something they would again shake our hands, tell us to enjoy Mysore and go on their way. People thanked us for visiting their city instead of relentlessly staring and seeing us as giant walking slot machines spitting out 5 rupee coins. Any doubts I had about being in India as a tourist vanished.

I suppose one bad egg exists in every city – maybe even a dozen bad eggs. But to witness it here in India - in this place of magic and mystery where archaic gender roles are still enforced and women are severely punished for small social infractions – here it played with my head. For the rest of that day, and until the kindness of Mysore soothed my nerves, I felt like I should be unobtrusive and quiet – a good woman who wouldn't set off any local male tempers. I wished I was wearing a long, attention-detracting sari or abbaya so that I could blend in and not risk anyone yelling at me and pushing their barely contained violence into my face. It was a bad feeling, and one that hundreds of thousands of women deal with every day. So I wrote this and reminded myself of all the things I believe in.

I wish that every woman had this option.


Advocatus Diaboli said...

Your posts on India are very interesting. And good for you for standing up against the crazy man, trust me when i say Indian women are very vocal and when threatened they can dress down any man in their vernacular tongue, though not particularly encouraged it does happen.
As for the incidents in the m'lore pub, it was one political party trying to bring back "Indian Culture" and chuck westernization out.
And India is not a democracy - Its a Pseudo Democracy :)
Also next time carry pepper spray with you. It is a very common accessory for college going girls here. Far easier to pull out and fend your attacker than a Swiss knife. But be sure to Yell AND run after spraying the miscreant. But in case you are in a bus - spray and yell the rest will be taken care of ;)

person within said...

Congratulations for standing up for what you believed in!! Sometimes, its really important for these hackneyed old fools that the time where the girl should meekly listen to him and not answer back, that era is gone. I really appreciate your valiant efforts..
Your blog is a pretty interesting read of someone else's perspective of my beloved country.
When I read through them, I realized that you love this country more than many people who stay here, call themselves Indians and are the first persons to rape her of her wealth..
Thanks for coming to India..
Hopefully, the next time you come to India, you will notice a sea change in the attitudes of women and of men towards the women.