When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction that over the past few months has torn my life apart, and convey it in a single succinct sentence?
“India was wonderful,” I go with, “but extremely dangerous for women.” Part of me dreads the follow-up questions, and part of me hopes for more. I’m torn between believing in the efficacy of truth, and being wary of how much truth people want.
Because, how do I describe my three months in the University of Chicago Indian civilizations program when it was half dream, half nightmare? Which half do I give?
Do I tell them about our first night in the city of Pune, when we danced in the Ganesha festival, and leave it at that? Or do I go on and tell them how the festival actually stopped when the American women started dancing, so that we looked around to see a circle of men filming our every move?
Do I tell them about bargaining at the bazaar for beautiful saris costing a few dollars a piece, and not mention the men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins?
When people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for forty-five minutes after I purchased them, until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd?
Do I describe the lovely hotel in Goa when my strongest memory of it was lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone?
How, I ask, was I supposed to tell these stories at a Christmas party? But how could I talk about anything else when the image of the smiling man who masturbated at me on a bus was more real to me than my friends, my family, or our Christmas tree? All those nice people were asking the questions that demanded answers for which they just weren’t prepared.
When I went to India, nearly a year ago, I thought I was prepared. I had been to India before; I was a South Asian Studies major; I spoke some Hindi. I knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize. I was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets. And I was prepared for the curiosity my red hair, fair skin and blue eyes would arouse.
But I wasn’t prepared.
There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailer’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.
I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.
For three months I lived this way, in a traveller’s heaven and a woman’s hell. I was stalked, groped, masturbated at; and yet I had adventures beyond my imagination. I hoped that my nightmare would end at the tarmac, but that was just the beginning. Back home Christmas red seemed faded after vermillion, and food tasted spiceless and bland. Friends, and family, and classes, and therapy, and everything at all was so much less real than the pain, the rage that was coursing through my blood, screaming so loud it deafened me to all other sounds. And after months of elation at living in freedom, months of running from the memories breathing down my neck, I woke up on April Fool’s Day and found I wanted to be dead.
The student counselors diagnosed me with a personality disorder and prescribed me pills I wouldn’t take. After a public breakdown I ended up in a psych ward for two days held against my will, and was released on the condition that I took a “mental leave of absence” from school and went to live with my mother. I thought I had lost my mind; I didn’t connect any of it to India– I had moved on. But then a therapist diagnosed me with PTSD and I realized I hadn’t moved a single inch. I had frozen in time. And I’d fallen. And I’d shattered.
But I wasn’t the only one, the only woman from my trip to be diagnosed with PTSD, to be forced into a psych ward, to wake up wanting to be dead. And I am not the only woman who is on a mental leave of absence from the University of Chicago for reasons of sexual assault and is unable to take classes.
Understanding my pain has helped me own it, if not relieve it. PTSD strikes me as a euphemism, because a syndrome implies a cure. What, may I ask, is the cure for seeing reality, of feeling for three months what its like for one’s humanity to be taken away? But I thank God for my experiences in India, and for my disillusionment. Truth is a gift, a burden, and a responsibility. And I mean to share it.
This is the story you don’t want to hear when you ask me about India. But this is the story you need.