Being a foreigner in India attracts a lot of stares. We get stared at a lot, particularly when in smaller provincial towns and cities, and I have never quite got used to being stared at all of the time. It is not just brief glances because I happen to stand out in a crowd, but unbroken gazes for minutes on end. Most of the time I just ignore them or have almost grown immune to it all so that I hardly notice. But on my cranky, bad mood days, I notice it a lot – and it gets to me.
It was a cranky, bad mood day and I was on the Main Bazaar in Delhi: a street crowded with people, cows, cycle-rickshaws and Kashmiri shops selling anything from carpets to shawls to ornaments. The Main Bazaar is conveniently close to New Delhi railway station and is an area where many foreigners stay. On the Main Bazaar, there are usually more than a few characters who like to stop and stare. They are usually visitors from other parts of India who have probably never seen a real, live foreigner before. One of my tactics is to stare right back until the starer looks away. This usually takes anywhere between twenty seconds to three minutes. It is a bit of an endurance test and, if I am totally honest, quite a futile endeavour. If I manage to get them to look away, they are usually at it once again within a matter of seconds of me looking away. Then I simply admit defeat, give up and end up feeling even crankier than I did at the outset.
Deep down I know the excessive staring means nothing untoward, as gazing is a big thing in India anyhow (whether there are foreigners around or not!). Indeed, it is a national past time, with people doing a lot of it out of natural concern or curiosity for new things. So I try not to take offence. In the West, making prolonged eye contact (male to male) can often lead to the one doing the staring paying an unscheduled visit to the nearest accident and emergency department. I think I can leave behind the UK what-are-you-looking-at-do-you-want-your-face-smashed-in type of stare and opt for the Indian is-everything-alright-you-look-different-what-do-you-need type of stare: even if it does last for a near eternity.
But it’s not just the staring when on the Main Bazaar. It’s the attention also: attention from certain types of people whom you wish to avoid at all costs. My advice to any foreigner having a cranky, bad mood day is to keep their eyes fixed firmly on the ground when walking along. This is for two reasons. First, it will help to avoid treading in the latest mess left by some urinating, defecating cow. There are estimated to be 36,000 cows in Delhi alone and sometimes I get the impression they are all hanging out together on the Main Bazaar. Anyhow, the authorities are now clearing them from the city streets in an attempt to give Delhi the appearance of an international city (apparently, international is the in-thing to be these days for many Indians).
The second reason for gazing at the ground is to avoid making eye contact with people you do not wish to make eye contact with. They include Kashmiri shop owners and local drug sellers. Both types have graduated with flying colours in the art of pestering foreigners.
So there I am, walking along with eyes fixed firmly on the ground, when some drug seller slimes out from nowhere and begins to walk alongside. I say “walk”, but it is more of a stagger. He is a dishevelled figure, stoned on heroin or some other substance, and whispers in my ear, “Hashish – good Manali”. My non-response results in the type of substance being offered getting stronger – “Hashish…Cocaine…Heroin?” Silence just encourages him; he probably thinks it is part of my hard bargaining strategy. But it is not and I have a tactic to deal with such characters.
The most common (and because of that, annoying) question asked of foreigners in India is the “Which country?” one. Usually the question arises from natural curiosity and after providing the answer, the questioner says “Good country” – it is always “good” regardless of the country’s name. It is a bit like the second most common question “What is your good name?” – it is always “good” as opposed to someone asking about your “bad” or just plain old ordinary name.
Drug sellers, and others who latch onto foreigners with the intention of scamming them, usually ask the “Which country?” question as their opening gambit just to engage the foreigner. They sometimes preface “Which country” with “Hey, man” and try to talk in an American accent because, to them, being white means that we all talk and sound like Americans and will grant them automatic respect for their hip and cool American charm. However, any foreigner knows full well to be extremely dubious of Indian people approaching on the street who address them in such a manner; they may as well have the word “slimeball” plastered onto their forehead.
My drug selling companion tries to strike up some banter by asking, “Hey man, which country?”
I reply by groaning, “Denland”. He looks puzzled. To help him out a little I tell him that it is next to Finmark and Ireland.
“Which island?” he asks, and I tell him,
“No, not island – the country of Ireland”.
“Yes, which island?” once again comes the response. This merely succeeds in piling more confusion onto his pre-existing drug-induced confusion. So the Ireland/island thing continues, before he eventually gives up and staggers off with a look of utter bewilderment, not having understood that Ireland is a country, and probably having forgot the reason why he had approached me in the first place. I wonder if drug sellers base their marketing ploy on the notion “You too can be like me”. If his state of staggering confusion is supposed to entice anyone into taking the very substances that made him that way, then somehow I can’t see it working.
The shopkeepers are more persistent. Even though I am looking at the floor someone shouts, “What are you looking for”, when it is blatantly obvious to anyone in his or her right mind that I am not looking for anything. I must have inadvertently made the slightest eye contact with either the shop owner or the shop itself, or something remotely connected with the shop owner or the shop because he has gained encouragement from some quarter and picks up pace by following and shouting, “Why don’t you want to see inside my shop? Looking is free.”
Apparently, uninvited hassle is also free.
To avoid it all you could of course never leave home in the first place, I suppose. But it’s a no-win situation because even if you do walk along staring back at people or with eyes fixed on the ground you are almost certainly asking for trouble as some cow, cycle rickshaw or moped will suddenly appear from nowhere and mow you down. So what’s the answer? Don’t go outside if you are having a cranky, bad mood day. Otherwise, go outside, immerse yourself in the madness and don’t go stare crazy – just enjoy.