Sunday morning in Pagdandi, the book chai cafe that I love so much. I’m trying to finally write some letters when Ashwath suddenly asks me:
“So Mandula, how do you experience it? To be a woman here in India, I mean?”
I stop for a second and consider which answer I’ll give him. But I’m warm from my spicy ginger tea and I have the time. I can try to explain.
I can try to explain that being a woman here has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. That I, who used to love smiling at strangers, have adapted a habit of explicitly looking past everyone I meet on the street.
I can tell him about the staring, the hungry eyes, the cartoon-like licking of lips. I can try to tell him how dirty I felt when a strange man just kept asking me if I wanted to have sex with him.
I can tell him about how, for the first time in my life, I have realised what an enormous privilege it is to grow up in Amsterdam as a girl.
And Ashwath will nod. He will smile and be nice. And I will want to scream at him.
Because for the first time I’m not satisfied with these conversations. My identification as a feminist was always in the safe context of civilised and multi-sided conversations. It relied on other people who cared to discuss the hidden paradoxes of phallocentrism and other abstract issues.
There is nothing abstract about gender inequality here . Nothing hidden. And that suddenly makes it very hard to be reasonable.
Of course, there are a lot of explanations for the oppressiveness of the patriarchy in India. The sexual frustration of unmarried men, the way young boys are spoiled and simply traditional norms.
Also, I really can imagine how with the increased access to (mostly western) pornography, I as a foreigner am so easily thought to be eager and horny, up for anything anytime.
But I notice how hard it is for me to talk about these things to people here. Disgust just takes over and I do not want to be culturally insensitive or even plainly rude.
So for the first time in my life, I just swallow it.
I do not scream at Ashwat, but I smile back at him. I smile and I’m nice.
As much as I hate it, I know that this is not my place, not my time. Even though it is hard, I did not come here to be the bold new voice of women. Instead, I’ll just have to keep listening, keep capturing and trying to remember, so that when the right time and place do arise, I can speak up.