Travel guides, to my knowledge, don't come with instructions on how to deal with men in a particular country. And to my knowledge, that's a good thing. However, a few weeks ago in Bangalore, I could have used a gentle reminder to play the part of the vacant, Indian female passenger on a long ride to the National Gallery of Modern Art.
A few minutes into the ride, the auto-wala, no older than 30, asked me for the museum's address a second time and for any nearby landmarks. I parroted what Google flashed up at me in the same swirl of English and Hindi that had already established I was an NRI. For some reason, this time, he smiled. He had a mischievous smile and a narrow, boyish face framed by straight, shaggy hair.
"Madam, aap patha nahin hain? Kahaan se hain (You don't know? Where are you from?)"
As we approached Palace Road, where the museum sits, I looked at him in the mirror for what I told myself would be the last time.
"Um, main America se hoon.. Mera chacha Electronic City pe rehte hain. Main Hyderabad se aa rahee hoon. (I'm from America. My uncle lives in Electronic City. I've come from Hyderabad)."
He pulled over as we huddled over Google Maps, waiting for each swipe to uncover the route, which he eventually recognized. As we started crossing Hosur Road, he launched into a predictable set of questions about why I was in Bangalore, what I was doing in India, and whether I was married. I answered him each time with a generic, taut response, adding at the end, like an unnecessary digestive, "Meri Hindi bohut kharaab hain (My Hindi is very bad)."
He smiled again.
Once downtown, traffic came to an inevitable grind, an opportunity which he used to play tour guide. He pointed out landmarks as we inched by them: government buildings whose lawns spelled importance, a mall frozen in renovation, and streets that sounded famous. He motioned towards the Vidhana Soudha on Ambedkar Road, turning towards me a little in his seat as he enunciated 'par-lee-ment' in even thirds. I nodded, stifling a smile.
Faint laughter filled the gaps in our conversation as it tends to where fat language barriers exist. He was cute and our stunted conversation, amusing. After six days there, I was convinced that Bangalore had a certain lazy sensuality to it, one that apparently extended to auto-walas. Using the mirrors on either side of the rickshaw, I glanced at him, imagining meeting him in a different context -- as a cousin's friend or a colleague at my internship in Hyderabad. A context that admittedly stripped him of his khaki uniform and punted him up several classes.
Our eyes met and I flinched. A rush of familiar disgust alerted me to where I was -- alone in the backseat of a rickshaw, being leered at.
As we approached Palace Road, where the museum sits, I looked at him in the mirror for what I told myself would be the last time. He was looking back at me with a grin stretching across his face. Our eyes met and I flinched. A rush of familiar disgust alerted me to where I was -- alone in the backseat of a rickshaw, being leered at. Far from unusual, this was an experience that I had grown used to over many visits to India; the driver who adjusts his mirrors away from traffic and towards the passenger in the backseat. As a teenager, I listened as my cousins advised me to sit in the far corner to avoid being stared at. I had heard from friends about the occasional driver that unzipped his pants to clutch what sat closer to him than the vehicle's handlebar. It was the same scene reproduced over and over again.
In 2013, author Lavanya Sankaran wrote a notorious piece in the New York Times on "The Good Men of India" at a time when the country and its diaspora burned with an existential crisis about its men following the fatal gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi. Sankaran compared the feral, village transplants of Indian cities to the civilised and kind, middle-manager type, the "Common Indian Man." A man who burps strangers' babies on budget flights and dutifully goes sari shopping with the biwi; a subdued paragon that would make the unaware reader believe that Indian men fall into one of two categories: the savage, angry villager or the chaste, middle-class urban chump.
After reading her piece, I, like others, ridiculed her glaring classism and neat categorisation. After all, the Common Indian Man is also known to transgress within the family. The Common Indian Man could, of course, be a devoted husband and a molester, a noted editor and a sex abuser. And, what Sankaran omitted is that most village transplants are, amazingly, not rapists.
The caution that women are told to employ in every interaction with men in India, especially the working-class, can be exhausting.
But as we sat in traffic, the auto-wala glancing at me through the mirror every 20 seconds, I understood the motivation behind her flawed appraisal. The caution that women are told to employ in every interaction with men in India, especially the working-class, can be exhausting. There is an urgency to safety that, in mundane terms, means going home early, always being chauffeured at night, not looking strange men in the eye and ignoring the ubiquitous gawking to get on with your day. It is a caution that doesn't yield to basic beliefs in most people's decency or to loftier notions of class-consciousness. Whatever route you take to get there, (if you actually need one), the conclusion stays the same: don't smile at the auto- wala, you naïve sap.
To my relief, we reached the museum 20 minutes later, its stark white gates welcoming me with comic symbolism. As the driver pulled over and wiped away beads of sweat from his forehead with a worn handkerchief, I found the cash that I owed him and waited for him to finish. He smiled once more, took the cash with his opposite hand and thanked me. I turned right, into the museum.
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