October 17, 2002
Given the choice, we took a day bus from Jaisalmer to Udaipur. A female friend had given us a vivid description of her recent nighttime bus ride. The man in the seat behind her managed to work his hand through the gap between her seat and seatback and was gently caressing – he thought – her ass. Unfortunately for him, she had switched seats earlier in the night, so he was actually caressing the bottom of her bag. That didn’t dampen her fury, and when she realized what was going on, her insults were loud enough to wake everyone in the bus.
She wasn’t the first person who’d warned me to be on guard against “eve-teasing”, the term used in India to describe sexual harassment of women. Some had said that, particularly as western women, Helene and I could be perceived as “easy” and subject to groping. We keep well covered up – long pants, loose button-up shirts – and so far nasty incidents have been few. In Agra, early in the trip, a young guy on a motorcycle made lewd suggestions accompanied by lots of lip smacking and tongue wagging. He was a persistent bugger and when he wouldn’t go away, Helene told him that his penis was far too small to pull of any of the stuff he was suggesting, and he finally gave up, yelling insults as he went. Another night, on a train, a man in the berth opposite me (about 2½ feet away) couldn’t stop staring and simultaneously had a persistent itch below the belt. I rolled myself up in a sleep sack – including my head – and turned my back to him. Other than that the biggest difficulty has been the near-constant ogling, which is irritating, but benign. The night bus to Udaipur was no exception, and our bums were safe.
In Udaipur, once we’d checked into a hotel, we walked down to the water to watch the sun set over the two gorgeous “floating palaces” in the middle of the man-made lake. The view was marred only slightly by the ever-present mounds of garbage and the smell of cow and dog dung. Women washed clothes on the side of the lake, and three young boys quickly joined us. After the usual questions (Your name? Your country?) the eldest boy said, “My name is Ganesh. I am painting. Would you like to see my school?” I was thrilled. There I was – a painter who’d been teaching art in Canada, and now I had the opportunity to see an Indian art school. What an amazing coincidence!
Then the second kid said “Me too. I’m doing miniature paintings.” The third added, “I do paintings too. And my teachers are really good.” Obviously something was up. “Aren’t you a little young for art school?” I asked. They assured me they weren’t, and as we continued to talk two snazzily dressed young men in their 20’s pulled up on a motorcycle. “Be careful of them,” whispered one of the young artists, “They’re street boys.”
“Hi girls, what country are you from?” said the driver.
“Je ne comprends pas l’Anglais,” said Helene. If we don’t want to talk to people, our favorite trick is to forget how to speak English.
“La France? Suisse?” came the fluent reply, “Voulez-vous voir mes peintures?”
Clearly, every male in Udaipur over the age of five is involved in the miniature painting business. Over the next five or six days, I think most of them invited us to their “schools”. Once I was clued in, I noticed that half the shops in town had signs reading “painting school” or “village painting school” or, best yet, “cooperative village painting school” in their windows.
Those men who aren’t in the miniature painting business are in the “Octopussy” business. They run the cafes and restaurants that have been showing the 1983 James Bond movie (partially filmed in Udaipur) every night since it came out on VHS. They’ll be showing it every night until the end of time, or until the tourists stop coming. In the film James romances the beautiful Octopussy in one of Udaipur’s floating palaces, surrounded by dozens of women dressed in catsuits and “mini-saris” while nasty Indian men come and try to kill him. Watching the movie it occurred to me that the street boys of Udaipur have modeled themselves on 007. Well dressed, masters of many languages, they ceaselessly woo foreign women. Sadly, they couldn’t charm us into buying any miniature paintings and we caught the train to Mumbai (Bombay) empty handed.
Unlike James Bond, we are rarely surrounded by women in India – because women are rarely out and about and, if they are, are hesitant to engage in conversation when there are men around. But one place where we do see women is in the “Ladies Waiting Room” and almost every train station has one. They are great places to escape the stares, and to meet women and children. As we waited to transfer trains in Ahdmenabad, on our way to Mumbai, we had proof that although women are often regarded as the weaker sex in India (as in many other places) they’re far from it. The five foot tall, 100 lb waiting room attendant chased a huge rat out of the room, without batting an eye.
With my western background I suppose it isn’t surprising that I find the way women in India are treated by most men to be bizarre and contradictory. To be frank, it bugs the hell out of me. Many Indian men have told us of the importance of family and of loving, cherishing and protecting their wives. We’ve seen fathers who obviously dote on their young daughters. But the dowry system is still very much in place, with families sometimes bankrupting themselves to “marry off” daughters. Stories about “kitchen fires” appear in the Times of India newspaper regularly. They all follow the same pattern. A new wife who has failed to produce sufficient dowry dies “accidentally” in a kitchen fire, often while the husband and mother-in-law are nearby. Yes, I know about cultural relativism, but I still hate to see wives walking several paces behind their husbands, and married women who look barely pubescent. Studies show that birth rates of female babies are suspiciously low all over the country.
We expected Mumbai, as India’s most modern and liberal city, to be different, and it was. In the restaurants, bars and shops that line its wide streets we saw women out on their own, some even enjoying a beer with other female friends. Girls held hands with their boyfriends in cafes, and a movie matinee was packed with giggling teenagers, most of whom were female. Still though, walking from the Colaba area toward Chowpatty Beach I counted ten men before I saw one woman, then thirty men and two women.
And later in the day, as we walked toward the impressive Victoria Terminus train station, the moment I’d been waiting for arrived: a man grabbed my ass. After two months of warnings and advice, I was ready. I wheeled around, chased him down and whacked him across the back. Passersby stared as I hurled insults, and, once Helene realized what was happening, she was beside me, and it was two on one. The poor guy slunk away, leaving me feeling strangely victorious. I’d had a chance to release some of the anger that had been building up inside me from all the smaller incidents and news stories. It wasn’t until later that night, as we looked at our map of Mumbai, that I realized my bum had been grabbed on Horniman circle.
From Mumbai we went to Aurangabad, a base to visit the spectacular Ajanta and Ellora caves. At Ajanta vivid paintings cover the interior of a series of caves, which were re-discovered less than 200 years ago. Ellora, where practitioners of Hindusim, Buddhism and Jainism built more than 30 caves, is equally impressive, with huge temples carved out of solid rock and decorated with elaborate carvings and sculpture. The most famous cave at Ellora, Kailasa Temple, had quite a few visitors, but as we walked further from it we had things mostly to ourselves.
Moving through one Buddhist temple, we emerged on the edge of a cliff and made our way under a small waterfall to another cave, this one Hindu. Inside we found an amazing bas relief of a dancing skeletal figure. The three principle Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as well as others (there are millions of Hindu deities) were represented in the caves in different ways – sometimes figuratively, sometimes as lingam or phallus. Here too, the strange and contradictory treatment of women in Indian society seemed evident. Male gods are often shown with their female consorts – the female figures less than half the size of the male. But these goddesses, scattered throughout the temples, clearly receive much attention. Their stone breasts and pubic areas have been polished to a shine by centuries of hands running respectfully over them. I couldn’t help but to reach out and caress one voluptuous figure. But, passing a stone phallus later on, I stopped to rub it too. After all, I believe in equal treatment for men and women.