What six years on the road taught me about being a woman

To pee or not to pee
Chatting with a girl in a skirt on the outskirts of a Barmeri village in fairly outskirted India (given that a neighbor is more likely to be dune than a human at this end of Rajasthan). She sits like a good fancy meal. Radiantly spread out. While I ask her the crucial girl-on-the-road question? To pee or not to pee.

With a straight face she points out that she just did.

At this point, I stand up (in trousers) and can wiggle out a confused “Whoa-where?”

She smiles and says, "Look around you. You can be seen for miles in this empty desert. Where will you find a tree to pee at the rear of? Those trousers of yours are quite useless before my skirt, which I can spread out nicely and pee wherever I want in this hot, shifting landscape.”

Given that I was not about to discuss the evaporative quality of desert heat, this incident taught me to dress appropriate to the climate I was about to find myself in. In a way that no climate change conversation or drawing room manners ever convinced me that I should. And I got some hands-on lessons in local thinking, which I learned over the years to neither glorify nor discount. Just occasionally, they teach us something real.
How many times have women traveling in India found themselves in this predicament!

Advantage Woman
This one should be called Advantage Woman, even the desperate tennis phrasing of it can’t take away from how privileged I’ve felt as a woman traveling through different parts of India. Rural, urban, in Maruti van or tractor, trek or drive.

The chief reason why I say this is because every rural home I’ve entered, I could go to the kitchen and talk to the ladies. I was stranger enough for the man of the house or village headman to talk to me and yet I could go in. It made more stilted conversations eventually more real, sort of the female equivalent of breaking bread with the family. In fact, barring very urban spaces, there is a welcoming novelty in a woman traveler that unleashed the inherent hospitality of rural India, in my case, though, I’ve felt safer with tribals anywhere (barring an attack at a national park in Orissa), taken long walks with strangers across hills, valleys and rivers, but it is only in returning to the city that every woman’s sexually threatened radar has beeped ever so often. In parts of UP and particularly Holi-on-the road in MP, it has beeped so furiously that the radar itself put up an EXHAUSTED signboard. I was traveling in the direction of Khajuraho, so…

Male or female
Whether it was Ardhanareshwar at a beautiful temple in Karnataka, or a nunnery in Zanskar, tradition on the road came as stunning discoveries, not second-hand opinion. From whatever century I wanted to draw from. A 6 AM rendezvous with Mr/Mrs temple complex, quite left alone unlike whatever hits the hectic tourist map of India, helped me ponder the male-female question in such a unifying beautiful way. I know when I pick up an article on it in the newspaper that I’m getting a fragment of what I saw whole.

No prizes for guessing that I was keener to draw from the tradition of the first religion in human history to officially designate a female spiritual order than I was from fights with Kerala temple priests who spent much energy keeping me out. Both taught me about the swings of human thought. Hampi, Bijapur, Warangal, Assam and so many villages in Rajasthan later, hand-crafted beauty of a thousand unknown craftsmen in monuments shifted the epicenter of my aesthetics, from the very surface to the very sublime, so quickly that it took a decade to register. The fact that it was often set next to more brutal current realities of how women get to be, made it all the more na-real. Yes na-real, a private coinage for things real enough to hurt and surreal enough to show you ways out.

Going wild, going native
What is the wild in me became a moot question when in the stilling ferocity of junglee India. Where more than woman or man, I became one of the species of life’s evolution and boy (or girl?), did I love this kind of company. Yet, something more philosophical walked in on a walk in the forest – the detail of nature’s behavior and my questions – was I all of this, too? When one begins to wonder about wondering – here, plants grew without farming. Here, animals wanted their own space and the she and he had the most amazing range of relationships that would confound the rather singular experiences of the human. At that magical middle of enjoying many a renewing sojourn in the jungles and mountains, a core question had slipped. I stopped asking myself what it meant to be a woman today. What it meant to be human had more wide-sky quality and I felt at home slurping up the big blue. So much of experienced beauty in the shape of lake and mountain can sound like retro-holiday drivel, but when one is on the road, for the road and everything off it, it enters one and make one rested and restless. But most of all, in my case, I felt it returned me to the core of what I define as my womanhood: creation, not procreation. Creation as a creative response to dumb protocols that define how we must express and perceive things. Roaming in the seasons are whiffs I hope never become too municipal. Strewn across this land are civilization-stunners, not just to be seen as postcards, but to be internalized and be changed by, over a lifetime of deep connections with land, man and meaning, making in every expression that the species finds fit and unfit.

Bringing it all back home
Which brings me to a woman who started it all for me – Robyn Davidson, who travelled the Australian Outback with four camels and a dog. I never understand when people say coffee-table books are for the snooty or for those who don’t read. Because I picked up that one and read it cover to cover. I’m still reading it, this time with my own life and its discoveries, even as I’m no longer on the road. For that can become a fix, too. And one of the first things travel taught me is to un-fix.

I hope I remain open to the path.

Senior Editor TISHA SRIVASTAV anchors Yahoo India's Video channel but makes no secret of the fact that her heart lies in travel, culture, poetry and documentary film-making. Raconteur par excellence, she has a story for every place you have never heard about.

Illustration: Bijoy Venugopal

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