Extract from the (unpublished) book CHASING SHIVA
New Delhi streets are so bare of traffic that I could skip along the middle lane without even causing a disturbance. It is Independence Day, the day when India awoke to her tryst with destiny and threw off the yoke of colonial oppression. No doubt the shattering masses are gathered to hear the Independence Day speech delivered by the current Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee from the ramparts of the famous Red Fort. A dull muted roar can be heard over the rooftop of the city from the direction of Old Delhi but here in the centre all is calm.
At the less famous Ringo Guest house in Cannaught Lane, the tourists are all at a loss. This unforseen holiday has disrupted their travel plans and they are not impressed by the historical import of the anniversary. Something else that Indian and Maori have in common is a history of passive resistance against the British Imperialists. In fact, the Maori prophet Te Whiti-o -Rongomai launched the first campaign of passive resistance against the British invaders in 1879 when the Mahatma was still in short pants. We hold the Mahatma in great esteem since he managed to achieve what Te Whiti had set out to do sixty years previously and got the British off their land.
Among the usual weird collection of tourists lingering around the courtyard is an Australian woman, Sue who is en route to Manali to bail her drug addicted daughter out of jail. She is shows me the bargain jewellery she picked up en route in Sri Lanka; the sale of which she hopes will recompense her daughter’s stay courtesy of the Indian Justice System. Punkej is a foreign returned Indian man and Chris The Brit has arrived with me straight from the airport. Chris has limited time in India and is as keen as I am to get out of the city. Punkej is heading to Rishikesh, Chris is heading to Rishikesh and after listening into their conversation for a moment or two, I decide that I also am going to Rishikesh. Punkej has an air-conditioned car and will share expenses. Even if the road from the Capital city to the veritable Gateway to God is as rough and as crowded and uneven as any country track and marked with the passage of my grief, there is nothing more depressing than being in a city unless it is being alone in an empty city.
Haridwar is lit up like a princess at a party, seducing us to stop and make puja on the ghat with the first greedy pujari we spot. Across the river, a three- story statue of Shiva watches over the city of his lover Ganga, I think of my own mad pilgrimage only a year ago and wonder if I should make a courtesy call to the Akhara. I doubt that Chandon Giri would be there, but perhaps they could direct me to him? I look at my companions and decide against it. We drive on to Rishikesh where I take a room at a guesthouse and settle on the balcony to watch the view. Chris and Punkej go out to drink whiskey leaving me to contemplate the rush and roar of Ganga Ma.
A woman dressed in the robes of the ashram of Pune joins me on the balcony outside our rooms. She is in Rishikesh, she tells me, to sit in the hope of darshan with some Guru whose name I don’t quite catch. Every day she sits at the gates of the ashram where the guru is currently in meditation as an expression of her devotion. So far she has sat for fifteen days.
‘Pune is finished for me now, I am looking for a new Guru,’ she declares. We begin a desultory conversation about the problems of being a woman alone in India and having to deal with all the pent up sexuality of millions of Indian men. When I confess that I am working on converting my own sexual energy into creative energy, she refers me to an Osho lecture and brings me the literature from her room.
‘Shiva gave Parvatti a meditation where she was to use her breasts as her middle eye, you want to try it.’ We agree in the end that celibacy comes from an emotional and spiritual state before it becomes a physical expression then wish each other good night and creep off to bed like nuns. I briefly imagine how it would be to literally walk down an Indian street with eyes painted exactly at nipple level. Just for luck, I meditate from my breasts and fall asleep.
At some point during the night, I wake and think; ‘What is this strange lump in my bed?’ Perhaps a dog had slipped in unheard to seek shelter from the monsoon? Poking the shape with taut fingers, I discern teeth then – in one horror movie moment that set the hair on the back of my neck on end – hair! Leaping for the light switch, the full glare of harsh fluorescence reveals a man in my bed. For some reason my mind is unable to deal with this reality and wants to focus instead on a story I read one cold Delhi winter when the papers reported that mangy street dogs were slipping into unoccupied hospital beds in the TB ward of a public hospital. Slapping this particular mangy mutt to wake with my shoe, I scream at him to get the hell out. The intruder, playing for time, manages to look more stunned and confused than I. I recognise him to be the man assigned to sleep upstairs and guard the guests. Suddenly I see myself peeking out from behind his jungly eyes. A foreign woman travelling alone draws it’s own implications but I had arrived with two whiskey drinking men so obviously I was a woman of very loose morals. Obviously gagging for it. I scream and slap him some more while I think of what to do next. Too late, I remember my trusty pocketknife which could slit a sleeping mans throat but alas! Before I can reach for it, he gathers his trousers and flees into the night. I dress, covering my traitorous breasts.
That’s the last time I ever try a bloody Osho meditation, I mutter to myself as my mind skitters around the room like a rat to find his point of entry - a half-hearted latching of the balcony door. Angry with myself for being so sloppy, I consider my choices - to make a fuss or to not make a fuss. The fact that I could choose not to make a fuss seemed to make the most sense, I could lock the door properly and get some sleep, leave without a fuss in the morning. But there comes a point in the life of a lone woman travelling in India when the behaviour of ignorant junglys reaches saturation level. I decide to fight back for myself and for every woman in India. Slamming down the stairs to alert the family, I begin yelling. ‘Call the police this white woman is gunna kill somebody!’ Indians like a bit of street theatre. I bash on the door of the manager’s family. Lights click on and hurried movement is heard beyond. ‘O bhaisaab!’ I shout. They reluctantly unlock the door. A short interval while the story is related to the ten or so family members, who peer out from behind the door. I see the dilemma reflected in their eyes, after all the only right to moral outrage I can legitimately claim in these circumstances is an economic one, this is bad for business but the woman herself is not stainless. It’s a seesaw of righteousness until I claim the universal privilege of tears. I win. I am sent back to my room while a search is begun. I show my escort the knife. ‘If you don’t find him,’ I declare, ‘I will! Then I will slit his bloody throat!’
The escort flees down the stairs no doubt to warn them that this crazy woman has a knife. Eventually, after much excitement, the unrepentant Romeo is found hiding in the bushes and dragged back for a positive ID.
‘Madam, please tell if this is the man who was in your room.’ ‘It is he.’ ‘Madam, this man is saying that you went to his room.’ I am still walking towards the man when these words register, in a flash of rage I grab his ears and bring his lying nose down to my upraised knee. This is a very handy self-defence asana taught to me by my karate sensei, designed to break the nose of your attacker. My rage empowers me. I attack him like a madwoman. He is every ignorant Indian man who has ever tried to cop a grope or behaved with insulting prejudice towards me. The crowd is alarmed and urges me to stop. They hand me a hefty pole. ‘Madam, beat him with this stick.’ This is summary justice Indian style, and something to do while waiting for the police to attend such outrages. But my original fury has been exhausted so I hand him and the stick over to the sisterhood who proceed to beat him some more, while I walk a little distance away to throw up discreetly into the garden.
A day later, on the bus to Delhi I reason that even though I had missed the opportunity to slit that mans miserable throat and was suffering from bruised and aching hands as a result of the beating, at least justice was seen to have been done and that’s more than most women can hope for anywhere in the world, but most especially in India.
Posted 21st March 2007