NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)–The New City Palace hotel here was undoubtedly a more authentic experience, as all the guests were Indian. It was also less comfortable, since they were all strictly observant Muslim men.
I imagined that everything they knew about Western women they’d learned from reruns of "Baywatch," which, to my bafflement and dismay, are broadcast daily on Indian cable even today. My fellow hotel guests treated me as though I were perpetually clad in a skimpy bikini, either completely avoiding me or eyeing me with undisguised lust.
Women rarely live alone in India unless they are for sale. Realizing this made me see that a girl alone in Delhi is more exposed than she is in any of the other world capitals I’d ever visited. It also gave me a rush of adventurousness; I liked believing I could fend for myself wherever I ended up.
One morning I hit upon the legitimization I needed. I would make it known to the hotel staff that I had a boyfriend back in America and prove, for once and for all, that I was no wandering prostitute. I strode over to the hotel receptionist to deliver the news. He was the owner’s son, I’d gathered, and had a long, untrimmed Muslim beard and serious black eyes. With the conviction of someone on the right side of moral law, I made my announcement in loud and ungrammatical Hindi: "Soon, my boyfriend will be coming to stay in this place."
I gave the English word the emphasis I thought it deserved in the sentence. For a moment, his expression was unchanged–he’d been giving me the same disbelieving gape every time I came in and out, since I’d first marched up to his desk and asked to check in to his cheapest room.
A Different Response
As my words settled in, though, they provoked a different response from the one I’d intended. A slow, sleazy smirk broke across his face, revealing two terrible things: that his teeth were rotting inside his mouth and that he was probably the same age as I was.
My arms prickled. I had just sexualized myself to him, I realized, and in his almost certainly repressed world, it was even possible that I had made him an offer. I walked back to my room, where I sat on the edge of the bed cursing myself. That evening, I reemerged into the small lobby–the rooms didn’t have phones, so I couldn’t call down to the front desk–and asked for an extra lock for my door.
I’m not sure why I was so slow, but it took me weeks to see my mistake. In India’s realm of stark Victorian morals, what I needed wasn’t a boyfriend but a husband. It was too late to redeem myself to the New City Palace, but from now on I resolved that Benjamin, my boyfriend back in New York, would become my unwitting husband in India. He’d be like the fake engagement ring some women slip on before they head out to a bar, except rather than warding off preying men, I hoped my husband lie would draw in those prying Delhi landlords.
Transforming Into a Married Lady
I began to take other steps to transform myself into a proper married lady, starting at the local tailor shop. The hippie-girl-in-India look wasn’t doing anything for me, anyway–it was neither especially attractive nor useful at helping me fit in. I needed to get some salwar kameez outfits made for myself–the loose, pajama-style pants, or sal ¬ war, and knee-length tunic called kameez or kurta, which, along with a matching scarf, comprise the most common daily uniform of women across India. The costume is tailored differently depending on the region, religion and modernity of the woman wearing it. A Muslim pulls the scarf across her head to completely cover her hair; a rural Hindu drapes the scarf across her face to demonstrate respect to her elders; and a middle-class city girl wears her tunic short and fitted over jeans, a gauzy scarf tossed over a shoulder.
When I showed up to my next apartment viewing, I wore my salwar kameez in a traditional village style, the scarf folded modestly across the chest so it functioned as what I called–to myself, because I had no one else to say it to–a "boob remover." I smiled shyly to emit what I imagined was a wifely aura and dropped an early mention of "my journalist husband" who would soon be joining me in Delhi.
To my relief, the landlord accepted this without questioning. Achieving a facade of moral respectability turned out to be as simple as shedding my Western skirt and reciting the words "Mehre patee aungi." My husband is coming.
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Excerpted from "Sideways on a Scooter" by Miranda Kennedy. Copyright 2011 by Miranda Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Miranda Kennedy reported from South Asia for NPR and Marketplace Radio for five years. Her book, "Sideways on a Scooter," is about six women she came to know intimately in her time there. Now she works as an editor at NPR’s Morning Edition in Washington, D.C.
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