It is my first morning alone in India. My traveling companion, Maria, has left for Paris, and I find myself wandering the streets of Varanasi, taking in the sights and sounds with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Walking along the ghats, a young boy approaches me. He smiles widely and shows me a water balloon with purple fluid in it. I shake my head at him and say “no,” but as soon as my back is to him he slams me, and all at once, me and my belongings are covered in purple dye. I run after him, and he disappears above the ghats, laughing. I want to laugh too- but I can’t. Instead, I duck into an abandoned temple to hide, feeling angry and ridiculous.
On my walk home I feel like a walking target. I can feel the beginnings of my moon blood starting to flow, and the usual stares and comments from men as I walk home are getting under my skin in a way that makes me boil. All of the suppressed resentment I have felt since arriving in India is surfacing and I don’t know what to do with it. I decide to write it all down and it pours out of me, hot and angry, and fluid. I’m sick of being a woman in India, I write. I proceed to air out my grievances, most of which have to do with Indian men, and once it is complete I know I have to share it with someone. So I post it on social media. It is International Women’s Day, and I see posts with radiant, smiling women everywhere. As soon as I have posted the message, I take a breath and pray to the Divine Mother. I apologize for my anger, ask her for grace, and let a few tears fall as an involuntary oblation.
After a few hours I’m restless and hungry and venture out of my room. Something feels different. I feel lighter and hardly notice the comments of passing men and pushy touts. Later, I am browsing the racks of clothing at a local store as the salesman is encouraging me to sit down and have chai. I agree and he orders a younger man to go get the tea. This family owns a dog- a dachshund- they are the first Indian people I have met who own a dog (like, let it live in their house, own it). As we are sipping tea the younger man introduces himself and we start to chat about Varanasi, and what to see and do here. He is a student at the university, and is studying Spanish. This is his family’s shop. I’m struck by how kind he is, and leave the store with more items than I actually want or need. On my way out he flags me down and offers to take me to the most famous temples, if I’m interested in seeing them. Am I interested in seeing the holy temples of Varanasi? You bet I am. Normally I would never accept an offer from a stranger to be my tour guide, and especially not in a foreign country. But I found myself saying yes, eagerly. I trusted this guy.
The next day I am walking back to my hotel, to meet Ayush, my tour guide, when a motor bike pulls up beside me, and I suddenly realize that this is my ride. He smiles warmly and motions for me to jump on. I have never been on the back of a bike, and feel my legs trembling, but I still trust this guy, and in a few moments, we are weaving in and out of the beautiful chaos of Varanasi. I am so thrilled, I can’t believe it. This is fun.
The next few days are a whirlwind of incredible temples, amazing food, and great conversation. I am treated with so much care and respect by this sweet young man, who never tries to come onto me, or asks anything of me in return for his time, care, and effort. I have seen things that I would never have been able to see if left to my own devices.
At the Vishwanath temple we are able to get right in, bypassing the line of worshipers that weaves down the tight streets of the old city. After receiving a blessing from the temple priest, who humorously throws a garland of flowers over my head, I whisper a wish into the ear of a statue of Nandi the bull, and I know, deep within my heart, that this prayer will be answered.
I book a plane for Delhi a few days before Holi with the intention of ending up in Rishikesh for the Holiday. Ayush finds a cab to take me to the airport and we part ways. I have fallen in love with him, but in a way that is so pure and so clean, I am not the least bit ashamed of it.
I realize, upon leaving Varanasi, that my prayer for Grace was answered. It was as if Mother India herself, heard me in my moment of weakness, and responded by showing me the kind and courageous men who I had been neglecting to see amid the clamour of the more obvious jerks. I left Varanasi a few days after meeting Ayush, but his impression stayed with me. And for the rest of my journey, I continued to meet Indian men who treated me with kindness and respect, and cleared away obstacles from my path, without asking anything in return. In the end, and to my total surprise, it was India’s men who made my journey so safe and comfortable. I realized during this experience, that it is natural for men to take care of women. I had been so accustomed to shunning ideas like this one, which historically have been used as excuses for disempowering women, that this revelation came as a bit of a shock. It is natural for men to take care of women. Any by “take care” what I really mean is, honor. What is unnatural, is for men to treat women like objects, or like untouchables, or like infants. What is unnatural, is for men to dishonor women, and vise versa.
I am still learning about the mysterious nature of Grace, so I can’t really tell you what it is. But I do know that it was the spirit of Grace that responded to me that day, my first day alone in India. And that She is always there, waiting for us to be ready to let go of our suffering.