Monday, February 11, 2008

The other side of Delhi

Yesterday morning we saw a rickshaw driver beaten by a policeman. The police here carry a long stick, about 4 feet, which I didn't want to see used. We're not really sure what the rickshaw driver did wrong... obviously it was something, but we couldn't tell what. He caned him in the side of the knees twice, and hit him three or four times in the face and chest with the butt end of a shorter instrument. The street, like everywhere in Pahar Ganj, was packed. We seemed to be the only ones who were surprised.

Rickshaw drivers here have been on my mind. Taxis are rarely used here. Usually it's either autorickshaws, little three-wheeled green affairs that resemble a dirtbike with a two-person back seat and an enclosure (rent Darjeeling Limited to see), or regular rickshaws, which are a two-seated carriage pulled by a man on a bicycle. We haven't used a cycle one yet, partially because I'm having a hard time stomaching it. Some of the men pulling these little open carriages are well past retirement age. Even our autorickshaw driver confessed he works seven days a week, as many hours as he can stand. Some things I'm getting used to here - like ignoring pushy vendors, negotiating aggressively, declining any offers of help - but I'm nowhere near ready to ride through town in a carriage pulled by a 70-year old barefoot man on a bike.

And where are all the women?

During the day the ratio of men to women in public is easily 15 or 20:1. I have my guesses as to why. I suspect they're busy elsewhere.

A large percentage of the women we see, actually, are white tourists. We've noticed a pretty strange demographic: white tourists here (other than the middle-aged, of which there are tons) tend to be of certain ages. Two men travelling together will universally be in their late thirties. A man and woman will be in their mid twenties, a little older than us but not much. The only people our age you tend to see are pairs or threes of women, and you see no men our age here unless travelling with a woman. (Exception: the odd man our age here and there who's travelling alone.) It's bizarre, we have no idea why this is the case. Why would women our age be drawn to India as a travel destination more than men, particularly? If anything, I would have expected the reverse; that pairs of women would be more drawn to more familiar places (relatively) like Europe for safety reasons, while men would feel more comfortable venturing farther.

Who knows.

D is also for Dizzying. Personal space and solitude don't exist in Delhi. Although there have been quiet moments on our rooftop, in our hotel room, briefly while walking along Rajpath away from the touts, there is no silence and no solitude. We're getting used to people brushing us as they pass, to motorcycles and rickshaws passing within inches of each other on the streets, to veering sideways while walking to avoid getting clipped by the bikes whizzing by.

We're having a slightly harder time getting used to the low-level but persistent harassment. On the subway yesterday, it really felt like the whole platform was staring at us. This isn't just paranoia, it's substantial. We find it happens less when we take certain precautions - dress as covered-up as we can, keep our hair tied back tidily (braided is best) and don't make eye contact - but it's unavoidable in certain circumstances. It's yet to become really threatening - I don't think either of us have particularly feared for our safety since arriving - but it does make things uncomfortable.

We both think it will be easier when Sumeet is with us, which will be in about two weeks. It makes me angry that this behaviour will stop when we have a male with us - shouldn't it stop because we have a right to move freely in public, to dress as we're comfortable, and to be shown some basic respect? - but then I think more, and it's the same in Canada. Women don't get street harassed in Canada when with a male friend, a boyfriend, or, best, their father. The same disrespect is there, the same attitude that men are not to be messed with but women are open territory when in public. Plus, as far as we know, violence against white tourists is much less prevalent here than various types of violence against women is in Canada. Once or twice in Canada I've experienced street harassment that was genuinely menacing, and genuinely frightening. Here it's a low drone with little behind it. We stand out here; it happens more; but its differences from the streets of Montreal or Toronto are differences of degree not of kind.

Which gets me thinking about one of the few occasions when I've been cat-called while with a boyfriend. It was from a moving car in New York City. My partner was actually pleased; he felt good to be with a woman who was deserving of cat-calling (... by other men [my addition]). I'm not sure I have the time right now to fully take apart what that means, but I think it's relevant.

I think that's long enough, and E. needs to use the computer. We'll have to talk later about where textiles come from, why the cook in our hotel kitchen had to come here from Nepal (we don't know the answer), and why everybody everybody everybody wants to sell us something. Whatever the social problem, poverty is usually the reason.

Take care, all.


E'sdad said...

Love your blog. Let me make some comments based on my experience of India (and everyone's experience is different).

Can't say I ever saw anyone being beaten by the police, but I do remember how oblivious everyone was to lepers and blind beggars, until I saw a beggar collapse on the street. Many people responded to that!

Your reluctance to use anything but an autorickshaw is understandable. but what will you do when all that is available are unmotorized rickshaws? Incidentally, what you refer to as a "regular rickshaw" is actually a cycle-rick, which is a step above the rickshaw powered by a man on foot, which curiously they have in Toronto. Also, you must realize that by disdaining the "carriage pulled by a 70-year old barefoot man on a bike" you are also depriving him of income.

As for the preponderance of young women tourists, it is probably because the man-boys are at home with their video games.

The harassment you are experiencing is probably worse in Delhi because they are used to tourists there - it will get better as you travel further, either that or you will get used to it!

Finally,the answer to why everyone wants to sell you something is probably the same as the one given by the bank robber when asked why he robs banks: because that's where the money is.

M. said...

Hi E's Dad,

Really good point about the cycle-rick income. It's a tangly issue, for sure. We had the same conversation about some young people - kids really - we've seen working, eg. in restaurants, washing dishes, etc. On the bright side, they seem relatively together, healthy, etc - on the down side, my God, I'm a Canadian, shouldn't they be in a free and mandatory school? Of course that's not the case. It's something we're both thinking through.

We laughed at the man-boys comment. And then we stopped. That's our dating pool you're talking about.

You're right about the harassment getting a little better, and about the money. It wasn't really a mystery *why* they want to sell us things. Still, it's sometimes a relief to get away from it for a few hours.

Thanks for reading and posting - would love to keep hearing about how our experiences compare to yours.