‘Pagal ho gayi ho? Teen ladkiyan, akeli jaaogi?” (Are you crazy? The three of you will go alone?) she fumed, grinding her teeth so hard, I could almost see sparks fly. By any stretch of arithmetic leap, three people cannot be alone. But this is India. If you are three young women, you are alone.
We were just a singular lump of trouble any which way you looked at us. Young and alone! It didn’t matter if we were three or fifty girls together, we’d still be alone. All of us neatly bundled up in a package marked “asking for trouble!” How strange to be part of a modern world where being alone, in some crazy way, was to question the world order. A world order created by men and viciously enforced by men. A world, where a short journey with your girlfriends is denied to you because as women, that is asking for trouble.
Well, if that’s what it was, we were ready. Fresh out of high school, this was our first year in college. By Indian standards, too young to be living alone, too young to be traveling alone or just simply, too young to be left alone!
What a cruel irony, I thought to myself. In a country with almost a billion people where every nook and cranny, every inch of inhabitable physical, spiritual and emotional space is literally bursting with people, women are always alone! Where any sort of going-it-alone is swatted down like that annoying fly buzzing over the juicy, ripe summer mangoes, women are always alone! Where no matter how hard you try, you can never be by yourself, women are always alone. And yet, being a single woman is an act of defiance so grave that it is punishable by just about any man walking down the street.
In a crowded bus, when the crotch of a stranger standing by your seat rubs on your shoulder, you glare back in anger. All you get is that unspoken question thrown your way: why are you alone? Doesn’t matter that you are sitting with your best friend by your side. In the theater — making your way in — the tobacco-breath of a man hovers by your ear lobes; his eyes questioning in the dark, where are the male relatives? In a wedding ceremony the sweat drenched fineries are fighting for space between the daalmakhni (lentils) and the dahi vada (yogurt) while the quiet gaze of the server focused on your chest questions you, where’s your husband? Just as a clarification, boyfriends did not qualify as legit male presence, at least back then.
My distraction was rudely disrupted by my friend’s father’s booming voice, “you do not have my permission to go on this trip so, no, you cannot go alone.” We exchanged quiet glances. The frustration from the mature end of the room so intense it could shatter the delicately balanced teacup on the side table. I could hear the bells clang in the puja (prayer) room, an old grandmother bent over the incense, oblivious to the unfolding drama. The stoic composure of having navigated her years, the vacant eyes that awaited no surprises, wrinkles crisscrossing her face, ear lobes stretching to her jawline as if carrying the weight of her womanhood in her pierced ears. Her knitting needles and a ball of yarn strewn carelessly across her puja mat, “what was she even praying for,” I wondered.
My friend stormed out of the room, a deafening silence engulfed the house. Her mother looked heavenwards, worried eyes making a silent plea to the gods. Perhaps we all needed a few prayers.
The year was 1992, the place New Delhi, and girls were always alone.
As we packed, warnings from our respective families flashed in our heads but it didn’t matter, we were far too deep into it to turn back now. But it was easier said than done.
Getting a reserved seat on the train was harder than getting a green card for permanent residency in the U.S. And we had no time to wait — we were leaving at night — absolutely no room for deliberations or mortal fears. “Okay, so we’ll have to travel in a second class compartment on an unreserved seat up to Pathankot and from there we get on a bus,” I announced. “What!” came a surprised retort, I turned around to humiliate the defector, “let’s do it,” she added before I could say anything. Sure, hearts were beating fast but oddly enough we all looked like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland…our mouths spread in wide grins and our bravado floating in and out in nervous anticipation.
Packed and stuffed into an autorikshaw we got to the old Delhi Railway station. One of us mindlessly paid the driver and we started to walk towards the station. It was starting to get a little dark, the gut-wrenching stench of pee and kerosene-spiked chole-puri (curried chick peas and fried bread) battling for olfactory superiority, wailing babies, men clearing their phlegm congested throats in grotesque animal-like noises, trains screeching in the background and a sea of humanity emerging from and eloping into dark corners.
The November breeze was getting nippier, shadows longer, all in all a heady concoction of excitement, fear and danger lurking everywhere. All of a sudden, with a loud thud she dropped her bags and started to run in the opposite direction. My friend and I, with our mouths agape stared at her running shadow, “what, she bailed on us?” we asked incredulously. Standing frozen we tried making sense of the situation, she had our train tickets. It had just been a few seconds but felt like all eternity, our minds racing for our next move.
And just then, with the grace of a jaguar hot on the trail of its prey, our friend sprinted back to where we stood petrified, elbows on her knees gasping for breath. “What happened,” I asked in stunned disbelief. “A jerk groped my breast as the crowd walked towards us,” she said. She ran after him so she could slap him. “Did you?” I asked. “Yes, I caught him by his shirt collar and slapped him so hard he’ll think twice before going close to a girl” she replied victoriously, rubbing her hands off on her jeans in obvious disgust.
Was this some kind of Shakespearean foreboding, an ill omen even before we embarked on our trip? Or were our worst fears behind us? It was hard to say, we hadn’t even boarded the train yet. “I wish he had shaved,” muttered my friend under her breath caressing her palm from her “high-impact” slap. We all burst out laughing, high-fiving as we headed to the platform, bracing ourselves to board the cattle-wagon on unreserved seats.
And so began our journey from Delhi-to-Dharamsala!
Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan-government-in-exile, the holy abode of the Dalai Lama, set in the midst of wild and picturesque scenery at the edge of the Himalayan range. The rolling hills, gentle slopes covered with magnificent pine and cedar forests, cherubic lama boys and fragrant mountain air. The food, the handmade arts and crafts, the spirituality, all beckoned us.
But most of all, behind that rolling fog, at the end of the Himalayan rainbow awaited the man of our dreams: Richard Gere!
“Pretty Woman” had released a couple of years back and, according to the grapevine, the Hollywood actor, Richard Gere, was visiting the Dalai Lama. The calling was too strong to heed to mundane warnings. My drama teacher’s face contorted in disgust flashed in my head, “Stereotypical feminine behavior, a pair of pants and you lose your heads!” What did she know, this was no ordinary pair of pants, this was Richard Gere, and she could save her feminist theory for another time.
Today, when I look back it all sounds, well, young and stupid. But as we embarked on this adventure, in the pursuit of this nonsensical dream, we were happy and alone. As we trekked from Mcleodganj to Triund Hill, my friend unwrapped the ladoos (sweets) her grandmother had secretly packed for us; we sat on a rock taking in the view. We all knew what the old, bent-over grandmother knew. Perhaps she’d read too many faces in the past. Perhaps she could see we were foolish but determined. Perhaps she wanted to bless this foolishness in her small way.
We went everywhere asking for Richard Gere’s whereabouts. Nobody seemed to know, nobody seemed to care. Finally, after a short trek up the hill we reached the Dalai Lama temple complex. It was a spectacularly bright morning. The sun shone over the magnificent snow capped mountains, the sounds of the prayer wheels and monks chanting could be heard in the background, a gentle breeze blew our way, keeping us awake and aware to soak in the tranquility.
Little lama boys were playing in the courtyard. One of us asked a little boy, “Do you know if Richard Gere is visiting the Dalai Lama?” He looked at us imperviously. My friend added helpfully, “You know, the American Buddhist actor?” No reaction. The lama boy’s friend was getting impatient and wanted to get on with whatever they were doing. He said something in Tibetan. The little boy started to walk away, paused and said, “don’t ask others, they won’t know, find him yourself.”
That’s when it occurred to me, what were we even looking for? Was it really Richard Gere? This was an entirely new place for us — different people, different sights and sounds — a completely new landscape. We had places to explore, sights to view and food to taste. Every morning we’d wake up to new plans for the day, our plans as ephemeral as the morning mist.
The excitement of ethnic silver jewelry pulled us one way, the aroma of Tibetan dumplings the other, there were exotic fruits to be tried, fruit juices to be sampled, beautiful flowers to be posed with and mountains to be climbed. Mr. Gere was becoming burdensome. The Dalai Lama temple was our last resort and we had decided that our quest for a sighting of Richard Gere would end here.
Not finding him did not disappoint at all. After all, like the Buddha said, “You only lose what you cling to.” Our days were filled with endless possibilities. And each one of us was alone.
A former journalist from India, Pande studied international affairs at Columbia University. She is currently a consultant on political and regulatory issues in Asian economies. A West Windsor resident, she is the mother of two school-age girls.