Getting our tourist shots at the Taj Mahal
After we said goodbye to everyone at the palace, Sam, Shaniece, Camilla, Jeremy and I took a flight to New Delhi from Ahmedabad, where we stayed at the Hotel Le Roi in Paharganj for two nights. The first night we stayed in, as we were told by hotel staff that it was too dangerous to explore at night. Early the next morning we departed for Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, which was breathtakingly beautiful. Afterward our tour guide took us to visit a gemstone and jewelry shop where they sold precious and semi-precious stones including those used in the Taj Mahal such as the one-of-a-kind Star of India, a black stone which twinkles as you move it, which was used to adorn the outer archways with verses of the Quran. Upstairs there was a music shop where they invited us to try to play the sitar, and we danced the “queen dance” from the well ceremony for them. He also took us to a shop that sculpted the marble and stones used in the Taj Mahal to make tables, wall hangings, and other ornaments. The trip in its entirety ended up costing us a lot more than we wanted to spend, but it was well worth it.
Taj Mahal’s exquisite marble and inlaid gemstones
The next day Camilla left for Nepal, and we met up with Pawan, a friend of one of my closest friends growing up, and his friend Arman. Pawan and Arman, who were very sweet and funny, showed us around New Delhi near where Pawan went to school at Delhi University. We were lucky enough to take a ride on the metro, which we never would have been able to navigate on our own as the stops are labelled in Hindi. They showed us a great time and took us to a cute bar with hookah where American music was blasting and people were watching India lose the cricket final to Pakistan. It was a great way to end our month-long adventure.
Riding the metro with Arman and Pawan
Back in the States, it has been surreal to be able to eat a variety of foods and not have to cover my shoulders. I miss the morning birdsong, the chai, chiku, mangoes, pani puri, as well as the cows, buffalo, dogs, goats, peacocks, and hogs roaming the streets. There was so much I experienced in such a short span of time that sometimes it feels like it was all a dream. I’m still making sense of how it felt to be a woman there, and how people, especially women, referred to certain norms which to me feel oppressive, such as women not being allowed to go into a temple menstruating, not being supposed to sit next to a driver, or having to cover one’s head, neck, face, shoulders and/or legs out of “respect.” There is so much behavior normalized there in terms of gender roles which sometimes felt offensive to us, and likewise, some of our behaviors seemed offensive to them. For example, one of our drivers complained that Shaniece, who is very tall, failed to realize her shins were showing at the sword dance performance. This was aggravating to us, as it seemed so insignificant and not something she could help as a tall woman being forced to wear specific clothes made for shorter people. It is in these moments we had to be especially careful discerning the difference between adapting our behavior to fit their norms and staying true to our deepest values. In a society that worships so many female deities, it can be hard for outsiders to understand why women seem so subjugated. I am still having trouble wrapping my head around it.
Baby wild hogs with their mother (Video by Shaniece Maldonado)
There’s a lot I’m grateful for here in America and a lot I admire about India. The way animals are respected and allowed to live freely in India is quite nice to observe. There is a plurality and general acceptance of various religious practices; many people practice more than one religion or sect of Hinduism, and spirituality is acknowledged in every facet of life, which I appreciated especially in terms of how serious mental healthcare is regarded. While there is currently and historically a lot of tensions between Hindu nationalists and Muslim Indians, it is worth noting that many people in India incorporate both Hindu and Muslim traditions in their religious practices. Though the dress and behavior of women is highly restricted, the clothes and jewelry are flattering on all ages and sizes, and the colors and designs are gorgeous and vibrant. Vices like smoking and drinking are left to the men, and many women are disciplined enough to wake at sunrise to meditate and practice yoga. In many ways, the mentality of many women I met in India reminded me of orthodox Jewish women from my hometown who are content with their lives, much of which were decided for them. I still struggle between trying not to judge these attitudes and the feeling that this rigid patriarchal structure is more oppressively unhealthy than stable and healthy. It is especially hard for me to understand how, in a society in which so many deities are female, and it is understood that women are able to do everything men can do and more, why women are subjected to such confined lives compared to men. It also makes me reflect on how rape culture has been normalized for so long around the world and still is to a degree, even and in some ways especially in America. Here women are constantly objectified, exoticized, and sexualized, and the qualities that make us different or unique are always being pointed out to us. I can see why it might be easier to wear what everyone else is wearing, though ultimately I wish that was not an issue to begin with.
Last chai in India
Going to India was the greatest opportunity of my life, and despite several challenges and obstacles, I don’t regret a minute of it. I learned just as much what it was to be an American as I did what it means to be an Indian, and transformed my thinking in ways I haven’t even processed yet. I anxiously await the day I can return.