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Disco palaces and a labyrinth of stares: women + India

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At last, Rajasthan! The land of elephants and camels, forts and palaces. As soon as we stored at our hotel I felt we were in a different world. We wandered into a reception that resembled the living room of a rich eccentric: the table in the centre displayed magazines several years out of date and was surrounded by chairs with ornate inlays showing Mughals, the walls were festooned with dark furniture and a suit of armour, and another table held about five ancient telephones. It took further wandering to discover our host, who appeared to be similarly old and eccentric (his description of how to get around the surrounding streets was more a descriptive exercise than of practical use).

Weird, eh?

Weird, eh?

In the morning the famous Pink City of Jaipur turned out to be orange. It's appropriate, given the rest of this this entry, that the first thing we saw was the Hawa Mahal, a kind of gilded five-storey mask for the court ladies: a tower of marble lattices and little windows through which they could view the plebs below. My favourite level was 'disco palace', where the window panes were of a lurid, coloured glass.

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Then we fell – okay, I fell – into the clutches of the markets and ended up with part of a sari (gorgeous material, but for me wearing a sari feels like being wrapped up as a Christmas present). After a traumatic experience at a restaurant (Rich discovered that an espresso in Jaipur can mean instant coffee with milk), we ran out of time to do anything else, and resolved to tackle more the next day. This was not to be; as I recovered, Rich was struck down and was in bed most of the day. I ventured out alone to the Pink City to pick up a salwar kameez suit (the long tunic and trousers worn by many Indian women as the light alternative to a sari) I had ordered.

One of the hardest things about India is how much your gender suddenly matters. You walk through a labyrinth of stares, and learn to seek that gap. You know that reacting to comments will just lead to trouble, that returning a stare is seen as an invitation. Not all the time, of course, but enough of the time to make you wary. You travel to another country and hope to meet people, but the context means you close yourself and walk on, and pretend to be deaf. The stares aren't always flirtatious - they may just be curious, but they are intimating in how relentless they are. To what extent do you change yourself to avoid them? Can you? My guidebook says no to exposing the knees, that vest-tops are risqué. I have only vest-tops so I cover my shoulders with my hippy wrap, a purple thing with wizard sleeves that probably is the social equivalent of parading through town on a giraffe. But it's me.

Hippies in the Hawa Mahal, wizard sleeves and all.

Hippies in the Hawa Mahal, wizard sleeves and all.

Adopting local dress is another technique, and luckily even before I started traveling I looked forward to buying beautiful, colourful salwar kameez (a long tunic with baggy trousers). But does it make any difference? I'm not sure. The stares have been the same, and after a group of Indian women erupted into giggles as I passed by with my sari fragment I suspect it's like a giraffe in drag. I've mentioned the friendlier side of public curiosity as well: the number of people (usually teenage boys but also families) wanting photographs – our rickshaw driver at Agra wanted a snap, and at Agra fort we were so bombarded by people that we had to say no as they were costing us time.

Back at the Taj, wearing a salwar kameez suit.

Back at the Taj, wearing a salwar kameez suit.

Here even the horses keep up appearances.

Here even the horses keep up appearances.

Back to me on my own. The stares were continual as I entered the Pink City. After managing to get lost (impressive as the Pink City is famously built in a grid) I richocheted between various helpful shop-owners (and by the way, did I want to see their wares?) before at last finding the right place. I can totally do this, I thought, and felt very accomplished as I bartered with my guy and said 'no' multiple times. It's refreshing, saying no that many times. Returning I found Rich still 'indisposed', so I decided to grab dinner alone at a restaurant a couple of streets away. Unfortunately this involved crossing a major Indian road – a hectic torrent of rickshaws and motorcyles. The Indian technique of crossing roads is to pretend that you're a vehicle as well. You just walk out. No one slows or anything; they simply behave as though you are another rickshaw, and that you'll continue in roughly the same direction at a consistently crazy speed. When I panic I tend to leap around. Hmmm, I thought.

I waited and waited for the gap that never came, and a rickshaw slowed down beside me and the driver started offering his services. "I just want to cross the road... I'm not paying you to take me across the road!"

Eventually he took pity on me, leapt out of the rickshaw, seized me by one arm and marched me into the flood of traffic. "It's easy," he kept saying; "I die! I die!" I kept saying back. We got across.

In the restaurant I bumped into someone we'd met trekking in Nepal. Whilst chatting, an Indian guy sat down at a table near us and opened the paper. My friend left before finishing as, like everyone else in Jaipur, he wasn't feeling too great. As I ate his leftovers the stranger started speaking to me. At first it was the commonplace: where was I from? Why was I in India? Had I seen Jaipur yet? Had I seen Amber Palace? No, I hadn't? Then: he could take me to Amber Palace. We could watch the sunset there together. He could be my guide in every respect. I had such beautiful eyes. I lamely said something about going around Jaipur tomorrow with my husband, how he was waiting for me at the hotel. Claiming to be married can be an easy way of dealing with some Indian curiosity; the idea of an unmarried couple is quite weird in India, and sometimes we've not had the energy to be ambassadors for Western ideas about liberal lifestyles. So much for independence, I thought bitterly, but no matter – this guy's purpose was not to be blunted. I should leave with him now, we could see the sunset, if I needed ANYTHING I need only ask him, did I want to eat the food from his plate. With this last veer from the merely creepy into the creepy and desperate he finally noticed I'd stopped responding, and that other heads had turned. He sat back and lapsed into silence. Rattled, I ate and paid as quickly as possible before exiting.

The rickshaw driver had waited for me. "I can drive you back to your hotel," he announced. "Look, I just want to cross the road, my hotel's really near," I said, and stared hopelessly at the ongoing stream of tuk-tuks, bikes, cycle-rickshaws, dust, so on. "Ten rupees, and I'll take you across!" "I'm not paying you to take me across a road." "I'll take you across for FREE!" "For free? Okay!" I leapt in, and he performed a casual U-turn in the centre of the maelstrom. "Ten rupees and I'll take you to your hotel," he shouted as I jumped out. "No," I bellowed back.

"Ooh la la!" he called after me, sounding more amused than annoyed. "OOH LA LA!"

I'm thinking the sari fragment counted as my 'disco palace'... So much for the 'New Woman', whatever that's meant to be, anyway (I wish I could link to a relevant post about gender binaries, but in this context we're pretty much time travellers).

Posted by wanderingwolf 08:07 Archived in India Tagged india women jaipur

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