Recently I traveled in India with my husband who did doctoral research there 48 years ago. I had no goals of my own other than to be open. Back only a short while, I am still pondering the journey. Here are glimpses of the women I saw, often only from a distance, with gratitude for so much kindness.
“Welcome to the City of Joy,” says our guide when we step out of the airport into the warm Calcutta night. “You have arrived on Maha Shivaratri, the Great night of Shiva. This is especially a holiday for women. Every woman wants a husband like Shiva.”
The streets of Calcutta/Kolkata are thronged with people and every kind of vehicle imaginable. Temporary temples to Shiva have sprung up on every corner, strung with blue and yellow lights (Shiva’s favorite colors) garlanded with marigolds. The pale blue god is often featured entwined with the goddess Parvati, his bride, who in her other aspects is Durga and Kali. Both goddesses favor red. Red and green lights also festoon the streets. Later we learn that the goddess and god figures are made with Ganges river clay mixed with straw (by artisans who are almost all men). When their day is done these clay deities will return to the Ganges who is the Great Goddess.
(In Varansi we’re told that only men attend the funeral pyres at the ghats. “Women might weep and distress the spirit of the dead person.” Women do go out on boats to release the ashes to the Ganges. Brides also come to the river the day after their wedding and immerse in all their finery.)
Overwhelmed by the intensity of communal life, I write in my journal: “The human world is not what I thought. It is a susurration, a murmuration…pressed up close together, close as minnows or bees or starlings….”
But it’s not that simple. People, maybe women especially, yearn to fulfil individual dreams and talents. Lena is our daytime guide in Calcutta, a brisk, friendly woman in her late thirties with a passion for her city. Over lunch she tells us her story. She worked eleven years for a doctorate in history, completed her dissertation only to be told that to be awarded her degree she must pay an astronomical fee that she could not afford. “I gave up marriage and children for my studies. Now I am nowhere.”
Our guide in Darjeeling expresses surprise that we had a woman guide. He also voices disapproval of some young girls who’ve dyed their hair pink. “Destroying their natural beauty!” He has one daughter, clearly the apple of his eye. He put her through college. “Then I told her to come home!” Instead she stubbornly remains in Delhi where she is training to become an airline stewardess. He is full of exasperated pride at her ambition and daring.
“Ninety percent of women in India do not work,” our guide to the Taj Mahal informs us. “My wife, she has an easy life.” My arguments that she must work hard for the family are to no avail. “No, no,” he insists. “She doesn’t do the marketing or cleaning. She watches television all day while I work in the hot sun.” From this guide, I learn that Shah Jahan built his great monument to love when his wife died in her fourteenth childbirth, a fact that along with running sexist jokes and the food poisoning that is overtaking me, colors my view of this wonder of the world.
Other men confirm the ninety percent statistic, confiding with a mix of anxiety and pride that they are the sole support of their families, in some cases several generations. Many men work far from home in order to make enough money to keep the family going.
Yet we are also told, “only women can pick teas leaves. Only women have hands small enough to harvest spices.” In the rare times we are outside of cities, we see women in the fields doing stoop labor, dressed in bright saris. It is also largely women who sweep the streets with twig brooms. The ninety percent may pertain to jobs in cities that are largely unavailable to women.
With the exception of Lena, all our guides are men, as are the drivers, who tell us much more about daily life in India. (Note: one driver has a fourteen-year-old daughter who wants to be an aeronautic engineer!) I find myself missing women. Whenever I can, I talk to women who also seem willing to connect. There is the kindly woman waiting with us at 3:00 am to exit a train. She has just returned from visiting her daughter in London. She is concerned about my obvious illness and wants to make sure I am brushing my teeth with bottled water. A woman in a waiting room at a hospital where I’m being tested for acute pancreatitis also reaches out, saying she had noticed I was upset. Almost every woman I encounter wants to know if I have children. I always ask in return, though one young woman is shocked that I cannot see that she is unmarried.
“Happy International women’s day,” I say to a receptionist at a beach hotel in Kerala. She shakes my hand and takes me on a tour of the butterfly garden. She tells me she is walking several miles every day and doing pushups so that she can lose enough weight to be an airline stewardess. She has just gotten her training certificate. Another young woman who wants to fly.
On our way home, we change planes in Delhi in the middle of the night. I’ve just gotten an ear infection. Exhausted and in pain, I make a hurried stop in a washroom. When I emerge from the stall, a washroom attendant, matter-of-factly and tenderly, rights the rumpled tunic that I have left in disarray. I have no money with me, nothing to give her but gratitude.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She has recently released the 25th anniversary edition of The Return of the Goddess, A Divine Comedy. Her graphic novels The Book of Madge and Madge Returns, having sold out as a signed limited edition, are now available in one volume from online purveyors. She is also the author of three collections of poems as well as the classic cozy mystery novel Murder at the Rummage Sale. She has just completed a sequel. A fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute, she lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley.