One of my favorite things to do while living in Chandigarh was to ride around the city on the back of a scooter. Riding through the streets gave me a more realistic perspective of what the city was like for the people who live there. More than just the most beautiful parks and monuments, I saw what was hiding down the side streets and back roads of the city. Out in the open air, colors were vibrant and rich instead of dimmed by a plate of glass. Not everything I experienced on a bike was pleasant, but it was always authentic. I felt the stagnant Indian heat as I was affronted by the smell of trash piles baking in the sun, and fumes from the sputtering exhaust of colorful over-packed trucks.The normally aromatic smells of curry from the local food stands was cut and twisted by the ugly smell of the city. I’m not sure everyone would enjoy a motorbike ride in India as much as me as it also requires you to be blindly, or perhaps naively, fearless of the insane traffic of a developing city with a population of about a million people.
Part of why I enjoyed my time on the back of a scooter with my helmet on, is that it was the only place I ever felt truly anonymous during my time in Chandigarh. With my skin tone and my features, I was always immediately seen as a stranger in the country. But on the back of the bike, no one knew where I came from. It was the only place where I felt like everyone wasn’t observing my every move and I was therefore able to freely observe my surroundings. And I’m not exaggerating when I say people constantly stared. Perhaps it is because Chandigarh is less generally touristic, so there isn’t the same exposure to tourists as you would get in Delhi or Agra.
One Saturday, when I was visiting the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, I was approached four times by people asking to take either a photo of me or a photo with me. They were all men who wanted photos, although women were frequently part of the groups of many starers. The first time I was approached for a picture, I was sitting alone at the gates of the sculpture garden waiting for my friend Pragya to park her scooter. It was my first time in the city actually alone as I was typically under constant guard because of my gender. Within four minutes of sitting on the bench I was approached by a group of young men who asked to take a photo. It was a request that didn’t really phase me at the time. I agreed and soon they were on either side of me as I tried to give a nice smile for the camera phone. Pragya returned just as this was happening and immediately told the group of men off. She was visibly upset by the incident, which I couldn’t really understand since it felt harmless to me and yes I admit, a little flattering. Being a white woman in India was the closest thing I’ve ever felt to being a celebrity.
After the second and third time people approached me for a photo, I asked Pragya to explain why it upset her so much. She told me she hated the idea that they would take around this photo of me and tell stories about how they met me and what they did with me. This seemed like valid reasoning because it’s true I didn’t know what stories they would tell about me, or if those stories would be disrespectful towards me. At the same time though, I was thinking that it still didn’t really affect me. I would never have to hear these stories or know if they even exist. I didn’t see any harm in allowing these men to craft their own daydreams, perhaps they would impress their friends or family, because daydreams is all they would ever be.
We went to the lake that Saturday afternoon and had our portrait drawn by a street artist. As soon as we sat down for our portrait together, we began to draw a crowd. By the end there were 20 people standing in a semi-circle around the scene, taking in the unique opportunity to be outright voyeurs of my skin tone. They weren’t looking at the artist’s depiction, but just staring at me. As Pragya’s face boiled with anger, I just burst out laughing at the absurdity of the situation . I told her it wasn’t a big deal and that I didn’t mind, finding the situation so odd that it had become simply amusing.
She, on the other hand, did not find the situation amusing. She hated the idea of me telling my friends back in America about how I had been treated. And I guess her fear was right, because here I am recounting the story. The thing is Pragya sees their behavior as misrepresenting the people of India and giving a negative reputation to her country. I however, don’t view it so seriously. The episodes didn’t fill me with disdain or negative sentiment towards people in Chandigarh. I always just viewed it as a select few who were unaware of how their actions could be uncomfortable and sometimes disrespectful, and that phenomenon shows its ugly horns in different forms across all cultures.