LSE’s Jane von Rabenau recounts her experience of traveling in India. This article first appeared in India Today.
I have read Michaela Cross’s experiences in India several times by now. That makes me no different from a million plus people who too have read her blog. What’s different is that I could have gone through the same harrowing experience as her, because I too have been touring India extensively, alone. And yes, I too am white, in my 20s and a foreign female.
I have traveled alone to many parts of India and am now living in Delhi for over two months. I am overwhelmed with the positive and exciting experiences I have made and the hospitality of Indians towards me. Why has India been so different to me? Have I been simply lucky? Or have I looked at India very differently to get a very different treatment for myself?
Let me compare notes with some of Michaela’s experiences to explain what I am saying.
Do Indian men stare at me? Yes, they do… and so do Indian women and kids, and other European travelers. They stare with the same curiosity that I get stared at in so many other countries I have traveled to in Africa, South America, Eastern and Southern Europe and other Asian countries.
I guess that is a natural reaction to somebody considered exotic. When I took my Eritrean friend to my grandmother’s village in northern Germany, where foreigners are a rarity, she attracted everyone’s looks, some containing a hint of racism.
The stares I got from Italian men were typically accompanied with a “Ciao Bella!” This flirtatious attitude is often welcomed and accepted as part of Italy’s macho culture. In India, it is seen as sexual harassment. Why is an Italian man’s stare a compliment and an Indian man’s stare a curse, bordering on threat?
Do people take photos of me? Yes, they do… but I take many more photos of them! We Western travellers typically shoot every monument, sight and many people they come across in India, mostly without asking for permission. These pictures are posted in our Facebook page or travel blogs. But if an Indian takes a photo of a European, we get irritated and feel our privacy is invaded. Again, isn’t there a double standard here? A white skin’s privilege is a brown skin’s punishment?
Am I the centre of attention at social events? Yes, I am. Thanks to the immense hospitality of Indians, I had the opportunity to attend five weddings and several festivals. When I was dancing, lots of people wanted to dance with me, and some also took photos and videos of me. I was the only white person at these functions, and most people had never seen a white woman dancing to Bollywood tunes. In my case, the attention I got in these functions was no different from the curious and welcoming attention I received at a wedding party in Kosovo.
Did I have any negative experiences with Indian men? Yes, the worst I had was a businessman in my Air India flight from London try to grope my thigh.
But my positive experiences far outweigh the negative ones, even with men. I only had to deal with people trying to sell me stuff and not leaving me alone; and people staring at me. However, putting myself in the position of a crafts seller trying to feed his family, and knowing that there is a chance that after annoying a tourist enough, he will give in and buy something, I would also prioritise my family over the tourist.
I have been invited to many Indian homes and have been offered food by the poorest families. I have hardly ever had to stay in hotels as Indians have welcomed me to stay at their family homes, and then organised me to stay at their wife’s cousin’s friend’s house etc… On many occasions, dhaba owners or fruit sellers insisted on not taking money from me for the food as I am a guest of India.
Can one generalise my account of India? No, one cannot.
In fact, no one’s account can and should be generalised; one sixth of humanity lives in India; there are many Indias in India; every traveller interacts only with a small fraction of Indians, and can thus only give a tiny fragment of the true Indian experience — whatever that is. But I believe that we make our experiences as much as our experiences make us.
I now know Hindi fairly well, but even when I didn’t, just speaking a few phrases of Hindi, smiling and being open to chat with people around triggered people’s hospitality – and that instilled me with a sense of security. I have generally been more adapting, less suspicious and more trusting.
For instance, on a recent visit to Kasauli with a female English friend, we wore kurtis and bangles and joked and chatting with every Indian we interacted with– chaiwalas, pandits, other Indian tourists. We started chatting with clothes shop owner and had chai with him. A friend of his insisted on showing us around Kasauli and inviting us to his village. We ended up having dinner with his family – some delicious daal, sabzi and chawal – and looked at his beautiful family photo album.
I feel that many a traveller would have a much more exciting, and “real” experience of India if they would just be a more open and friendly towards Indians. A very thin line divides intrusion from friendliness. I can interpret one as the other, depending on whether I am apprehensive or open.
I am not suggesting India is a heaven for women. You don’t need to hear from me the depressing daily occurrences of molestation, sexual assaults and female infanticide. However, my experience of India and behaviour of Indians towards me has been incredibly positive. Many of my friends had similar experience. I hope India treats more foreign travellers like it has treated me. Rather than the treatment Michaela received.
Soon, I will get back to London to continue my bachelor’s degree at LSE. I will have to adjust to a life without any special attention – no ghaar ka khaana from chaiwalas, no chaat papri, no Bollywood dancing and no poojas. Maybe I will refuse to readjust and come back to India next year.
Jane von Rabenau is studying Philosophy and Economics at LSE. She is on a summer internship in Delhi, working in the area of development cooperation.