By Anamika Mukherjee
I wouldn't say that I'm quite the quintessential interpid woman traveller, exploring the farthest corners of the globe alone, bravely going where no woman has gone before, without a thought for my safety or sanity; but then, I have done some solo trips in India that have been considered quite... adventurous, for want of a better word. I have been led to believe that it is rather brave - if not downright foolhardy - for a woman to go traipsing off into the remotest corners of Madhya Pradesh, Ladakh, and Tamil Nadu alone, as I have done on various memorable occasions. Reactions of friends and family have indicated that this is not quite the normal thing expected of a well-bred, seemingly intelligent and sane Indian woman.
And for what, pray? Not for anything sensible and laudable like work, or even social work - merely for pleasure, for a holiday. What's that? A young and respectable (married!) Indian woman holidaying alone? Who ever heard of such a thing?
Very few people, apparently... and not just amongst my friends and family. Reactions from members of the general public who have see me travelling, then looked around for a companion and found none, have been varied and diverse, but unanimously incredible.
There is, it seems, a peculiar and unspoken hierarchy for women traveling in India, which I'm not sure exists anywhere else in the world. At the top of the ladder are women travelling with husbands, mothers, sisters, and other members of the family - the more, the merrier. Women carrying babies or young children, whether in all-women groups or with husbands, are at the very highest rung of the ladder, and young men will sometimes even give up their seat in a bus/train for them, while older men and women will offer to hold the kids, or accommodate sundry pieces of luggage that inevitably accompany such travellers.
Women travelling with husbands, but without children or extended family are also generally judged to be respectable, and are usually left alone. They might, however, be subject to some harassment if they are sufficiently young, even remotely good looking, or if there is any suspicion whatsoever that the accompanying male might not be a legally wedded husband. I faced such harassment in rather scary circumstances at the hands of a local traffic cop just outside Delhi, who was not convinced that Amit and I had been married eight years, and demanded to see the kids as proof of our relationship! This was rather difficult to arrange, as we didn't have any at the time. He then took each of us apart and asked for the maiden name of the other's mother!
Elderly women travelling alone (not as rare as one might suppose) are strictly left alone. They are immediately recognisable as the Family Matriarch, withered and old, loud-voiced and not averse to obscenity, immune to leers and (being partially deaf) lewd comments, used to having everyone around them come running, snap to attention, and do exactly as they're told. They will immediately remind you of your mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great-grandmother, and the archetypal Aunt Agatha, all rolled into one. Nobody, but nobody, messes with them.
Younger women traveling in groups are seen as fair game for young men roving in gangs, but the larger the group of women, the rarer the men who will take them on.
A Young Woman Traveling Alone (AYWTA), however, is right down there on the bottom-most rung of the ladder. AYWTA is viewed by some with a leer, and by others with extreme suspicion normally reserved for cobras, scorpion and the like. For example, AYWTA on a bus or sitting in a restaurant (in semi-urban or in rural settings; big cities have their own, completely different set of rules) will be carefully shunned by all the respectable "family" men. Wives, if present, can be safely parked next to her, and perhaps young male (and, of course, female) children, but other male members of the family will conspicuously avoid sitting or standing nearby, or even looking in her direction. The unfortunate bus/train conductors and restaurant proprietors who must deal with her do so quickly, with an air of embarassment, while carefully avoiding her eyes and all the other eyes focused on them.
I've had bus conductors show very visible reluctance in having to place male passengers next to me while I was travelling alone, even when the bus was quite full and the seat next to me was the only vacant one left. I've even seen the young men selected for this terrible task blanch and visibly pale at the prospect. But then there was the guy who not only sat willingly next to me (though other seats were vacant), but, much to my disgust, fell asleep (and drooled!) on my shoulder. Only after waking up and taking a careful look at me, did he realize with a start that I was - horrors! - AYWTA, and quickly moved away with a mutted apology. (Probably the fact that he was significantly inebriated had something to do with his belated realization.)
If the reactions reserved for AYWTA were to vary only between embarassment, suspicion, and shock, things would be great for us women travellers. Unfortunately, however, too much of the attention focused on AYWTA is of the unwanted type. Young men, singly or, more worryingly, in gangs, will leer at her unabashedly and perhaps make some lewd or disrespectful comment, blandly assuming that AYWTA must be a foreigner. I have had the dubious pleasure of retorting in the vernacular, and leaving the ruffians somewhat abashed; they didn't intend to pick on an Indian woman, nor did they want their ribaldry to be understood.
I have also been the subject of a most "decent" indecent proposal, when an elderly Greek (?) gentleman (who must have been at least 80 in the shade, 95 in direct sunlight) communicated to me that he would be delighted if I would care to join him in his room that evening. Well, I declined, but you have to hand it to the old grandpa for trying.
Not all indecent proposals are so polite and lacking in deceit. On a particular occasion in Manali, I found myself hunting for a roost for the night the hard way - on foot, luggage in tow. It was June - peak season in Manali - and decent rooms were impossible to find. After being turned away for the umpteenth time, a young and smooth, smart sort of chap approached me and suggested a hotel just down the way. I normally brush off these touts without even looking at them, but tiredness and the beginnings of despair dulled my usual alertness and I found myself following him into a hotel. "A room for this madam," he said authoritatively to the chap behind the counter, adding in coarse vernacular, "she's alone."
Well, they found a room for me, of course, but by then my stranger-alert antennae had picked up some really seedy signals, so I beat a hasty retreat. I could just see a long line of men queuing up outside my door once darkness descended, with the tout selling tickets for the gallery view no doubt.
The other sort of attention AYWTA attracts is that of the con artist. This could be either man or woman, decently dressed and well spoken, who approaches with an innocuous question, perhaps conserning the time or else asking directions. The person then proceeds to sit at a very respectable distance from AYWTA and slowly (and completely without prompting) brings out the sob story... Robbed, cheated, or somehow hoodwinked out of all their money, credit card, cell phone and vital addresses, they are roaming the streets of a strange city without enough money to get home, do you think you could help, sister...
Oh, sure, I've heard that one before, brother. I might be AYWTA, but do you think I was born yesterday?
And so it goes... the good, the bad, and the downright ridiculous. I wouldn't say it's dangerous for women to travel alone in India, but I wouldn't say it's easy either. You have to keep your wits about you, and you have to remember to be suspicious, even if it is tempting to be trusting. And it helps if you are completely immune to staring, leering, and general lewdness. I'm sure a course in self-defence and the company of some reliable weapons of male destruction would help, but so far I've travelled with just my wits and my backpack, and I've managed alright. One thing's for sure: if you do travel alone, you might be wary, tense, lonely, scared, or just plain bored - but you'll never be left alone.