They say you need three things to travel in India; a good vehicle, a good horn, and good luck. All timings are approximate which translates roughly to: don’t hold your breath, it may never happen. If you are travelling with an aged mother who’s not much bigger than a doormouse, you also need the patience of a saint.
I first went to India with my mother in 1999 after she made a pointed comment over Sunday lunch that she thought I might have been by now, to which I said that I was waiting for her to take me. After all, she’s the Indian and without her I’m just a tourist. So off we went on the first of many sorties into her homeland.
It was easier then. She was a bit blind but everything else was in reasonable working order, give or take. By this particular trip however she was a lot more blind and came armed with a couple of Tupperware boxes stuffed to the gunnels with her daily meds. This time, we had decided upon an organized tour. It was the only way we could get travel insurance for the mother, and my initial plan to drag her all the way up to Darjeeling then into Nepal hadn’t gone down well with Norwich Union at all.
Davindra, our tour guide, picked us up from Delhi airport, a small group of eight, among them me and my sister, and mum. We weave ourselves, our luggage and Slow Doris through the traffic, and are quickly aware that Davindra has no intention of checking that we are still in tow.
Anyone who has experienced Delhi’s domestic airport and immediate surroundings will realize that negotiating the crowds is no mean feat. We dodge cars and painted lorries and a line of clapped out coaches before arriving at a tiny, ancient minibus with “Indian air conditioning” and no spare wheel. The vehicle jerks into the chaotic traffic.
Davindra suggests a tipping kitty, that everyone should contribute, say, fifty or sixty quid into, and from which he will tip whoever needs tipping so that we are not having to worry about it. My mother and I look at each other and hold onto our purses. The truth about tipping kitties is that they are tipped straight into the tour guide’s pocket, save the odd few rupees here and there when he thinks he is being watched. We don’t mention anything to the other tourists. They’ll get the hang of it sooner or later after being fleeced a few times.
Without warning, Davindra (armed with the bulging kitty), opens the door, says “see you tomorrow”, and steps off the moving vehicle directly into the busy roadway. The eight travelling companions, none of whom have met before today, exchange glances. We are now alone with the driver, who doesn’t speak a word of English and seems to be having trouble holding the decrepit bus in a straight line. We appear to be driving on the wrong side of the road too, heading directly into the oncoming traffic. My sister and I are not worried. Nor is my mother. We are used to it, and the old girl can speak Hindi.
I first visited India in the late nineties, and returned every year thereafter, travelling around the country, often with my Indian mother. I fell in love with India instantly. It was as though I had found the piece of me that had never quite belonged here. Like most love affairs, I spent the early part of it utterly smitten, yet the more I saw over the years, the more despairing I became.
I am sad to say that my feelings towards India have soured considerably in recent times. I was last there a year ago, and I was not sorry to leave. As one of the fastest growing economies and the largest democracy in the world, one would have hoped that India might have at least tried to drag its attitudes towards women into the 21st century.
I have always been vigilant while travelling in India. I dress conservatively in loose cotton trousers and long shalwar, but still men think nothing of openly staring or behaving in a deliberately intimidating manner. (It was a lot worse during my thirties.) I keep my eyes facing front and never, despite being sorely tempted, have I ever responded. I keep my mouth firmly shut and walk on quickly, knowing that women are attacked often in India, with little or no provocation. As if that isn’t bad enough, victims of rape are sometimes killed by their own families for bringing shame on the family for having lost their purity.
These are the things you have to deal with mentally if you’re going to travel around India as a woman, and I had to get my head around it long ago, which meant pretty much putting it out of my mind otherwise I would be filled with such bile that I would never set foot there again. Then there is the endless pestering, not just from a sexual harrassment point of view, (which is euphemistically called Eve-teasing), but also with everyone being on the make, whether it’s the taxi driver who wants to take you to a particular shop or hotel and just won’t let it go, or the swarms of traders who push and pull to sell you things when all you want is a few vegetables from the market. It’s exhausting.
Racism is rife in India, and I’m talking about between the Indians themselves. Cast, class, outrageous snobbery, attitudes towards servants (everyone with any money has servants). Even amid the servants, there are class tensions – this servant for that, another servant for the other, and they won’t do any job they feel is below their rank. Trying to get anything done in India can be intensely frustrating.
Villages in the more remote rural areas are like going back in a time machine. All the work seems to be being done by women while the men sit around talking and smoking and drinking, sometimes tea, sometimes feni, probably before going home to give their wife a beating. I have spoken to a lot of poorly-paid hardworking women in India, and their husband’s fall into two general categories: the ones who drink, and the ones who don’t. It amazes me how good-natured the women are, particularly the ones whose husband’s hit them. It makes my heart clench.
My mother has always said something about India that sticks out in my mind, which reflects a deep vein of dislike she has for her own country: “I am very angry with India. She keeps her people down.” Corruption is rife, from the highest public officials down to the single-buffalo families who water down the milk before selling it. It’s every man for himself.
There is no getting away from the bad things in India that are being openly allowed to continue with the laws of statute ignored. Religious “crimes” being judged by the elders of a village, who are invariably men. Children being sold into illegal marriages. Women and girls living in fear, and for very good reason. This is a country where mind-bending fortunes are being made, yet where millions are living hand to mouth, many working in atrocious conditions and being paid a pittance while making fortunes for the few. The imbalance in inequality is hard to stomach, and it’s created a toxic, dangerous atmosphere that is getting worse.
I have no plans to travel to India this year. I feel sad about that, as I have traditionally gone there every winter to write in peace for a while. But I can no longer keep a lid on just how appalled I am by what goes on there and the widely-held attitudes towards women.
It makes me so angry that I want to throw bricks through windows and demonstrate alongside the people who have taken to the streets in India and around the world where women are in constant danger simply because of their gender. But I know that that is not what I am. I am not a political activist. I am a writer of stories, and I believe that stories can be devastatingly powerful.
We all know the story of the girl on the bus, and the boy she was with. That is the kind of story that has the power to turn the world’s head and make it face up to the unacceptable.
Today marks the kick-off of my blog tour. For the next six weeks I shall be guest posting on a whole load of fabulously bookish websites and blogs. There will be interviews, articles, question and answer sessions, excerpts, a few moment of silliness and some wonderful virtual events by magic of Skype and Facebook Chat.
Thursday 9th January… First stop, an interview with Closed The Cover in Florida.