THE BLOG

You Two Alone?: Why Women Travelling Without Men Arouse Masculine Anxieties In India

25/08/2016 2:19 PM IST | Updated 27/08/2016 9:11 AM IST
NEW! HIGHLIGHT AND SHARE
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
Brian Stevenson

On my recent visit to Srinagar, Kashmir, my young upmarket cab driver (iPhone and dollars in his wallet) waited for a few hours before he finally asked, "So, are you married?"

I said yes.

Just then my sister said no.

"Kids?" He continued, looking at me.

"Three," I answered.

The tone was of disbelief now.

"So, you have left your kids and husband alone to be here on a holiday?"

I smiled. He saw the smile in his rear view mirror.

"We should leave everything behind once annually," I said. "You should do it too."

After a while my sister told him I was messing around. "We are 'single'," she said.

There is no good way to know how a stranger will behave, but of course he would have acted differently if he did not see us as "two women alone".

After answering all his questions it was my sister's turn to be curious. "So how many kids do you have?"

Which upmarket 23-year- old wants to look like a married man with kids? The question meant he looked married with kids. He looked visibly hurt and offended. He never answered. We drove in silence after that for a while. A naughty twinkle danced in my sister's eyes.

A similar unease popped at the hotel. Here the same question was packed with general pleasantries.

"So do you like the hotel?"

"You two are sisters?"

"You like your room?"

"So you two are travelling alone?"

"So are you married?"

On an average, two couples or families would be partaking of the breakfast buffet with us. I noticed the little interest the hotel staff took in them. All the questions were served to us. They hovered to find the right moment -- a water refill or offering a special pickle. I wondered if there'd be a similar interest in two men travelling together. My sister was sure that they would induce a somewhat similar anxiety. I don't think they would. Men travelling without typical hetero-normative families have the armour of travelling for work.

On the third day of our vacation we drove to Gulmarg, a two-hour journey by car. By now I had a name for the phenomenon: "two-women-alone". Our driver was at it again. He said the travel guides and horsemen in Gulmarg are aggressive and get into fights on hiring rates. He told us to keep him out of the negotiations. We laughed, teased and consoled him. "Don't worry we will manage," I said. Our refusal to take his warning seriously upset him and he finally declared, "You are not travelling with gents, so you should be especially careful! I am serious!" We had no trouble in hiring a guide at Gulmarg. Just that the guide we hired was a wrong pick from the many available. There is no good way to know how a stranger will behave, but of course he would have acted differently if he did not see us as "two women alone". The questions returned.

"Are you two travelling alone?"

"Are you married?"

"What do you do?"

"What is your age?"

Phew.

He had the fact of his gender as his privilege card. I had class on my side. I had hired him. I would pay him if he behaved.

Try admiring a green meadow in the awkward company of these questions. I did not answer for a while. My sister took the grand it-is-none-of-your-business route this time, and so the guide latched on to me. After a while I decided to change strategy and fired equally invasive questions about his life. I mean I am a writer. This could be a gift coming my way.

"Are you married?"

"What does your wife do?"

"How many kids do you have?"

"What do the kids do?"

"How many boys?"

"How many girls?"

"What do the girls do?"

"How much do you earn in a day?"

"Where do you live?"

"Why did you marry?"

The plan failed. He was more than keen to answer my questions. He mistook my questioning for genuine interest in him. We were negotiating our privileges. He had the fact of his gender as his privilege card. I had class on my side. I had hired him. I would pay him if he behaved. Even then, he was out of control. Once when we were sitting in the cable car I was unsure if he wasn't masturbating sitting there; staring at us, both his palms covering his crotch.

Chasms.

See-Saw.

Back at the hotel I wondered on this "two-women-alone" anxiety. The questions were symptoms of the threat we posed. Two-women-alone threat. Our economic sufficiency threatened the order. Our buying power disempowered them. Their questions were an act of marking an absence. An absence is not present till its place is legitimized as an absence. The questions, thus, were mere timid acts of self -preservation.

I wonder how often my mother was asked -- you five alone?

I wanted to tell them: It is ok. You will be fine without us.

After traveling all over the world alone, a few years back, some switch in my head got undone and now I am an anxious traveller. I worry. I want to control all the variables -- airplane turbulence, traffic, weather, things I imagine will go wrong and try to pre-fix. I tire myself till I cannot tire myself more. And so I avoid travelling altogether. I have realized my travel anxiety is somewhat hereditary. My father is an anxious traveller. So much so that he hardly travels. Thus, all through my child hood years I have travelled with my mother and three sisters. We have covered half of India together. I got my love for travel in those years. I never thought on it before but now it strikes me, you need courage to travel alone with four young girls in India.

I wonder how often my mother was asked -- you five alone?

Golden Baba

More On This Topic