Runner-Up, 2014 Creative Nonfiction Award
When I was nine years old, I read Swiss Family Robinson, and it exploded my imagination. At that time, my family and I lived in a middle-class neighborhood in New Delhi, the capital city of India, far, far removed from the social and cultural milieu of early 19th century Switzerland in which Johann Wyss wrote his masterpiece. I knew our enormous, overcrowded city was distant from any shoreline but that didn’t stop me from imagining my family sailing on a huge ship and crashing (gently) onto an uninhabited island. I took it for granted that once there, like the Robinsons, my family, too, would get into fierce adventures with an impossible array of wild animals. We would grow our own food, collect dazzling pearls, and transform a hollowed out cave into our home. Most importantly, I would have a magnificent tree house to disappear to every afternoon with an enormous stash of books.
The evening I finished reading Swiss Family Robinson, I decided that it would be appropriate to share my plans for our future over dinner. It didn’t occur to me that neither of my city-bred parents had ever touched an animal that hadn’t been brought home from our local butcher shop or that, for most of their lives, they had lived in apartments. I enunciated my plan over fish curry and rice. Ma nodded, but I could see from the way she concentrated on picking out the bones that she wasn’t totally sold on the idea. Clearly, she would need more persuading. Baba, on the other hand, ate in his usual brisk manner, but maintained eye contact throughout. Good. I had his complete attention. He heard me out but brought up a practical problem: All of the world’s surface area has already been mapped, he said, there isn’t anything left to be discovered. Where will we go? His question stumped me. I knew he had to be right. He was always right. This was beyond disappointing, but I appreciated his honesty, and was relieved we had figured this out before actually boarding the ship. His final words on the topic, however, cheered me up.
“You can have an adventure any time you want,” he said. “All you need is your imagination and the willingness to step out.”
Years passed, we continued to live in New Delhi, and I swiftly came to realize how imperative it was that girls and women in my city not have a sense of adventure at all. Venturing anywhere outside our immediate neighborhood, even if it was a short walk across the street to buy candy could elicit catcalls, whistles, and unwanted invitations. Bus rides were the worst. If unfortunate enough to be standing, a stray hand could reach out from anywhere to pinch, poke, stroke, or cop a feel. If sitting down, the nearest man could mistake your arm as a platform to rub himself.
I learned the name of this peculiar brand of behavior: eve-teasing, a term prevalent all over South Asia. Its biblical connotations are curious given that Christians and Jews together comprise a minority in our part of the world. Irrespective of religious differences, the implication is clear: It is always the woman’s fault. It is the temptress in us, in all of our collective DNAs beginning with Eve, which leads men astray.
Which is why eve-teasing is a part of any Indian woman’s life. It can sneak up on you in crowded, public places, and isn’t dependent on secret alleyways or red-light districts. It doesn’t require women to be urban or rural, to dress conservatively or provocatively, to be a teenager or significantly older. In a country divided on caste and class distinctions, eve-teasing is the great equalizer.
Worse, it comes stamped with an in-built sense of machismo, a kind of bravado that is lent its normalcy by our cinema, especially the Hindi film industry, popularly called Bollywood. For the longest time, in film after film, the entire courtship period between the boy and girl would begin when the boy spotted the girl, and immediately thereafter, he and his friends would begin to tease her. Sure, she would huff and puff, but it wasn’t real rage. It was indignation, and it was cute, because like a small child, she didn’t know any better. She hadn’t yet been tamed of her wild ways. Whereas the boy already knew what was good for her, for him, and for the two of them together, so he would persist and eventually win her over—his rightful prize, the ever-dutiful, modest, Indian bride.
The Hindi phrase for rape is izzat lutna. Literally translated, it means “stealing honor.” As a child, I heard the phrase in movies and TV shows, and because, for the most part, Indian media was extremely conservative, all they ever showed was a woman being pounced upon by a man. I assumed it to mean beating, clearly a terrible thing to do to anyone defenseless, irrespective of gender. But the “stealing honor” part never made sense. When a man roughed up another man, of which there were several instances in cinema, why didn’t the victim say he had lost honor? Why was it only applicable in the case of women? And why was it that afterward these dishonored women on screen were allowed only one of three options: embrace a life of recrimination and indignity, commit suicide, or marry the rapist, as if a lifetime with someone bestial could somehow turn magical?
But what about the other end of the spectrum? What if the option of marriage itself was denied to you? The way it was 400 years ago in the court of the mighty Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. He established a fine city and, in the manner of all megalomaniacal rulers everywhere, named it after himself: Shahjahanabad, the City of Shah Jahan. It was a walled, wealthy conclave with fourteen gates that guards locked up at night. Shah Jahan, a man of many accomplishments including building the Taj Mahal, is popularly thought of as a great romantic. After all, he did build the world’s grandest and most beautiful mausoleum for his principal wife, and for as long as she was alive, he is reputed to have been monogamous, a rare feat for any medieval ruler.
But it is this very same sensitive, romantic man who passed a curious decree soon after wearing the crown of the emperor: He forbade his own daughters and nieces from marrying. He believed their marriage would diminish the pride of the royal family, for how could the princesses ever find grooms of a stature higher than theirs? Plus, there was the additional concern their marriages would increase the number of aspirants to the throne.
I imagine the scene inside the Mughal harem that particular afternoon. I imagine the oldest princess, Jahanara, already established as a formidable poet and philanthropist, immersed in a new Persian verse. I imagine her younger sisters and cousins tightly knotted into a group, gossiping away from her, breaking into peals of laughter like teenage girls anywhere. And then, the arrival of the palace eunuchs bearing a royal decree. Probably the girls ignored them at first. They were used to the eunuchs, those adult men castrated in their boyhood but entrusted to protect the harem from the world outside that quivered like a mirage, laden with temptations.
I imagine their leader summoned the princesses to the courtyard, gave them the briefest of glances, and then read out the decree, carefully keeping his eyes locked to the page. How did the princesses react? Did they rush to their rooms, their anklets and bracelets cantankerous and irritable, echoing with every ounce of their being as they willed the decree to be a joke, even though in their hearts they knew emperors are not prone to humor? Did they collapse onto each other, sobbing for support, wiping tears with the expensive, gossamer muslins from Bengal they so favored? Did someone faint from shock while others resisted the urge to misbehave, if only for this one time in their entire lives, and experience that excruciating thrill that comes from hurling a heavy vase against a full-length mirror, watching it crumble into a thousand fragments of stardust? Or, were they quiet and solemn as they buried dreams that featured a husband and a brood of children and reconciled themselves to a life caged within the same four walls of the harem that would see them from childhood to death bed?
And through their grief, did they curse the man behind the decree—Shah Jahan, their emperor, father to some, uncle to others? How could a man so wedded to romance be this cruel to his own daughters and nieces? Why deny them their opportunity for happiness when they had grown up in his shadow, watching him wrestle with the agony that comes from losing one’s beloved?
These days, Shahjahanbad is a maze of noisy traffic, narrow streets, and an endless wave of people. But on Sundays, a portion of it transforms itself into a secondhand book bazaar. Makeshift stalls and booksellers sprout as if by magic from the ancient sidewalks. The bazaar attracts readers and collectors from all over the city and for those blessed hours, we sift through books worn and new, literary and scientific, under the watchful gaze of old buildings.
The book bazaar was one of my favorite haunts as a college student. Sometimes, I went with friends, but mostly, I went by myself and spent nearly all the money I had managed to beg, borrow, and earn throughout the month.
It was a Sunday in March of 2002, and after having spent the entire afternoon buying books, I was left with only a handful of rupees and knew it was time to return home. The bus stop was mostly empty but it smelled faintly of onions, old socks, and body odor. I didn’t care; I had a backpack full of new books.
When my bus arrived, I got a seat fairly easily. What made it even better was that I had it all to myself. I leaned back, my arm wrapped protectively around my backpack, the two of us quiet and content against the snarls of New Delhi’s impatient traffic. I sat up straighter when there was less than a kilometer to my home, which was also the last stop for the bus. I realized I was the only woman on board; there were three other passengers who sat separately, looking out their respective windows, minding their business, just as I was minding mine.
I confirmed the last stop with the conductor, a small mousy man with a pronounced squint, and heaved on my backpack, about to stand up. But instead of slowing down, the bus picked up speed. I could tell it was headed towards a remote stretch of Delhi’s green belt known as Jahanpanah Forest.
From the corner of my eye, I saw those three passengers rise from their respective seats and slide on to those in front of me. I gripped the handlebar, struggling to keep my expression neutral. They began talking to each other animatedly, and I listened to them, to the matter-of-fact way they discussed what they were going to do to me, as if I wasn’t there, as if I was a dumb animal that wouldn’t understand their words or intent, and I realized they were friends, not just with each other but also with the driver and the conductor. They had probably decided I was the entertainment for their evening the moment I purchased my ticket and informed the conductor I would be getting off at the very last stop.
I glanced at the closed door and windows. It was a busy evening in Delhi, but no one would ever hear my screams, and even if they did, few would probably jump in to help a stranger. I knew my city well. And so did they, which is what boosted their confidence. Within minutes, I would be in Jahanpanah Forest, an unforgiving landscape heavy with thorny trees.
Just then, I felt the bus slowing down. We had caught the very end of a traffic light. It was orange for a second before flicking to green, and I had that moment within which to make up my mind: Stay inside the bus and embrace whatever fate lay ahead or jump, knowing the massive tires of the bus would be mere inches from my legs.
I gripped my backpack and swung it over my shoulders. There wasn’t any time to lose, to pause or think. I ran to the heavy door and pushed it open. I shot a quick glance at the men. They sat immobile, pasted to the seats as if from shock, their eyes widened at my stupidity. Even though it was clear I was going to jump, none of them tried to pull me back. I knew what that meant: If not me, there would be someone else. There is no dearth of young, vulnerable women in a large city.
I jumped, broke into a run, the tires barely a foot or so away from me, and didn’t stop until I reached home.
In August of 2006, I left Delhi for an adventure abroad. My destination: Moscow, Idaho. I enrolled at the local university to fulfill a lifelong dream to study writing. On my first day, my roommate, a doctoral student of biology, who had arrived from India a year ago, gave me an unofficial tour. I was bowled over by the green-leafy gorgeousness of the campus, by the overall systematic cleanliness, by the friendliness and ease with which everyone seemed to go about in Moscow, my new hometown with a population of less than 25,000. I was comforted by the red brick architecture of the building that housed the English Department. Perhaps the fact that both my undergrad and grad degrees in India had been from red-brick institutions had something to do with it.
But I know appearances can deceive, so I asked my roommate, “How safe do you feel here?”
She answered without a moment’s hesitation, “I often walk back home from my lab past midnight. All I need is my phone to feel safe.”
Her words reassured me but they weren’t enough, and so during our first week, I bombarded her with questions such as, “Can I just go outside and lie on the grass and read a book? Nothing will happen? No eve-teasing?”
Someone else might have found my questions weird or strange, but not her. She had spent many summers in Delhi. She only said, “You will be fine.”
The following summer, one of my American friends from the creative writing program invited me and another of our classmates to visit her hometown in north Idaho. We set out for our three-day trip, driving on mountain roads lush with tall Douglas firs. It was a kind of green very different from the tropical one I had known back home, somehow more aloof and somber, and temperatures perfect for picnics—warm and inviting during the day but deliciously chilly at night. When we pulled into the driveway, I saw the mere handful of houses that made up the entire village and felt a tiny frisson of sadness for my friend, for the reality of having to grow up in a world so small, so inward looking, so far away from the giddying choices of cinemas, theaters, museums, bookstores, and restaurants I had taken for granted all my life in Delhi.
The following day, my friend took us to a river beach that her family had frequented ever since she was a little girl. It was quiet and peaceful, save for the wind whooshing through the trees, the gurgle and ripple of the water—its surface so clear the pebbles shone like jewels—and the complete absence of traffic. The three of us were alone on the beach and my American friends decided to go skinny-dipping, a term I had only ever vaguely encountered in books. Within seconds, however, they demonstrated what it actually meant and to my absolute horror, I was now face to face with two adult, naked, white women, a form of human life I had previously encountered only in cinema. They plunged themselves into the cold water, giggling with excitement and at my stunned expression.
I watched them from the shore, my toes buried in sand, jeans rolled up to my knees, and my nerves knotted up with anxiety, fear, and embarrassment. At that moment, our gender was our only commonality, and I felt distant from them, as if our friendship and passion for books and writing had been peeled and cast aside just like their clothes. There could not be a starker reminder of the difference between my world and theirs in terms of nationality, culture, and definition of modesty. It reiterated what I already knew about myself: I would never feel their level of comfort or safety in any part of the world, no matter how small or inward-looking. My Indian-ness would never take a backseat and allow me to be as uninhibited as they, and I realized I was okay with that. But I also wondered, with a touch of envy, how it might have been to grow up in small town in north Idaho, surrounded by enormous forests, a sparse population, and a very different kind of freedom than I had ever known.
On Sunday, December 16, 2012, I was very much in Moscow. I don’t remember the specifics of what I did the entire day, but I imagine it was like most other Sundays: I woke up on my own without an alarm clock blaring in the background and slowly made my way to the kitchen, where I made a big breakfast and coffee while listening to music. Then I went grocery shopping in the afternoon and returned with ingredients for a stew. I tossed it all into the slow-cooker, looking forward to its simmering goodness for dinner.
Halfway across the world in Delhi, a 23-year-old woman and her male friend watched the movie Life of Pi at a theater. I wonder if she loved it as much as I did. I imagine she and her friend were still talking about the film—its music, the lyrical imagery, the special effects that made the tiger Richard Parker come alive—as they walked down to the nearest bus stop. Within minutes, a bus pulled in, looking just as ordinary as the hundreds of others that crisscross Delhi’s labyrinth of roads every day. The young woman and her friend checked with the conductor. Yes, the bus was headed in the direction of their home, and so, they hopped on board.
What was the first thing she did? Scan around for a good seat? Probably not near the windows. December is a chilly, unforgiving month in Delhi. Did she even glance at the four men pretending to be co-passengers? I assume she didn’t, lost as she may have been still discussing Life of Pi, grateful as she must have been to be out of the cold, heading toward the warm cocoon of her home.
But how swiftly did the mood inside the bus change? At what point did it dawn on her that this was not going to end well, that the four passengers, the driver, and the conductor were all friends? Was it when they pinned her down? When they started beating up her friend with an iron rod? Or when they decided to use it on her again and again and again as an additional weapon of sexual assault?
I learned about it the next morning while reading The Times of India through the convenient app on my phone, from the warmth and safety of my bed in Moscow. Numbly, I called home. My parents refused to talk about it. Ma’s reaction was clear and emphatic. She had skimmed the headlines and that was it. She would not read the details of a rape conducted inside a moving bus. Her last words on the topic were, “You were 22. She is 23.”
It’s now been seven years of living in America, understanding it, and in many ways, making it my own. Ma frequently asks, “How much longer will you live so far away?”
Most days, I hasten to change the topic. I distract Ma by pretending to be one of our annoying relatives until she bursts into giggles. But other days, I am not as nimble, and Ma catches on to my hesitation and homesickness. “Come back to Delhi,” she insists, “Come back to us. There are excellent opportunities here.”
I promise to look into it. And I do. Half-heartedly. I tell her my reasons: “I don’t want to return to a world where I will hesitate to travel by myself, where if I go out to eat on my own or buy a drink, someone will assume that I am asking for it. All I want is a little bit of dignity.”
My voice cracks with frustration. I know the comparisons are unfair: Delhi is approximately 90 times the physical size of Moscow; its population 600 times greater. I thank Ma silently for not stating the obvious, while I hide from her how some nights I lie awake, oscillating between gratitude and fear: I have never been in a serious accident, never broken a bone, never been hospitalized. What if someday something terrible happens to compensate for all this good fortune, something so terrible that my parents never see me alive? Worse, what if something happens to them, and I can’t make it there on time?
This time, it is Ma who changes the subject.
I am constantly haunted by the image of Shah Jahan’s daughters. I imagine they gathered in secret the night they first heard the decree. Maybe they met inside the chamber of the youngest princess, after carefully posting their maids in attendance, so they would be alerted in case a patrolling eunuch was around.
I wonder if they cursed us, all of us future girls and women of Delhi and bequeathed to us this life of constant oscillation between guilt and fear, just so the world will grant us our sliver of peace and dignity. Are we echoing their dilemma in having to choose between our duties toward families and our desires as young women?
It’s a difficult choice, this dice I roll inside my head every day. Is it better to return to Delhi, where I can once again embrace my nationality, seep into its rich history and the many, many exotic offerings of food, art and cinema, the sheer choices that come with living in a huge city, even if it means needing a male companion to travel with at night and tutoring my senses so I no longer hear catcalls, nor feel the touch of an intrusive, roving hand? Or, is it better to live on in this tiny university town so far away from India, from the people and culture that define me, where I have to explain and defend where I come from but where I can enter a restaurant by myself to enjoy a glass of wine without raising eyebrows and then walk back home late at night, my mobility as a woman not dependent on anyone else?
I will myself to return to my present: a Saturday morning inside my apartment, quiet, save for the familiar gurgle of my coffeemaker. From the living room window, I see the neighbor’s red and yellow tulips in full bloom. The parking lot is crammed, a tell-tale sign that this is graduation weekend and proud parents have poured into town to celebrate their sons and daughters. I imagine the happy faces and wish my parents lived across the street instead of halfway around the world.
I sit down at the dining table to finish making my grocery list for the coming week. Besides basics like milk and coffee, I include ingredients for a Mexican chicken soup and Thai fried rice. At age nine, I wanted an island adventure replete with a tree house and with my family and exotic animals for company. Now, at 34, I usually adventure alone or with my friends, and many of these are restricted to gastronomic experiments inside my own kitchen, for I have also discovered the comforts of being a creature of habit.
The microwave clock tells me it is 9 a.m., meaning 9:30 p.m. in India. It’s time for my weekend call to my parents. The phone rings twice, and Baba answers. The first time I heard his voice after coming to America, I burst into tears. He kept saying “hello” and repeating my name, but I clamped a hand tightly over my mouth, refusing to let him hear the homesickness, the request, “Baba, will you please come here and pick me up?”
Right now, though, Baba tells me they are just finishing dinner. I ask if I should call later. My father, the most considerate man in the world, pooh-poohs my question. We make small talk. When we are physically face to face, he and I can chat for hours—history, politics, geography, books, personal stories— but the phone makes us reserved and awkward. Still we persist, until Ma is done with dinner and can come to the phone.
My coffeemaker beeps. I grab the largest mug I own and fill it to the brim. I settle down, put up my feet, and dig into the cookie jar. This conversation will last only for an hour or two but it will nourish me for days.
For now, that is all I need.
Sayantani Dasgupta teaches at the University of Idaho. Her writing has appeared in journals such as Crab Creek Review and Gulf Stream. Her work has thrice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her essay “On Seeking Answers” received a 2010 Pushcart Prize Special Mention.