February 21, 2012

Going Solo

WHAT STOPPED ME FROM writing this for nearly five years was guilt and fear. What prompted me to start writing this was an old and sustained rage. A belated realization that telling my story is not only valuable, but vital.

Let me introduce myself. I belong to a small and elusive group, and I have many stories to tell you. They all tie into one, larger story – the reason why my group is so small and elusive, and why we inhabit the fringes of our very homes by choice. I am a solo Indian woman traveler. I heave my backpack up and hit the streets, walking my unique path along the greatest romance that human beings have ever dreamed up – the romance of the road.

Even before I go, I have to deal with an overwhelming sense of loneliness, a sense of the singularity of what I am doing. Many of my friends are half-fascinated, half-incredulous. They inhabit a four-cornered structure that pats them on the back for staying in. Travel is meant for family vacations, or at most a holiday with a bunch of friends. I cannot explain the nature of my thirst and the process of my adventure. My family is worried about my safety. They wish I would change my mind. I am extremely lucky; they have finally, finally, learned to let me go, to trust me. I have not been locked up. I have not been confined, as many of my closest girlfriends are.

Yet, I have been locked up. I have been confined, in other ways. The locks and chains are in my mind, they are on my TV screen, they are in the banal adages repeated generation after generation about what is right and proper and good for a girl to do. I have struggled long and hard for the people who love me to understand the nature of my fight. I have learned to discard those who will not, at the cost of security and comfort, those two medals they give to women who trade in their freedom for a celebrated and limiting role.

When I do hit the road, I meet so many people who are totally perplexed by me. “You are traveling alone? Why? Aren’t you afraid?” Again and again, I have trained myself to keep my mouth shut, and observe before I make any criticism. After five years of observation, I feel compelled to shout from the rooftops. I finally refuse to feel guilty. I finally discard the fear psychosis that inhabits my mind and terrorizes me all the time.

People constantly tell me about the emancipation they see among Indian women. More education, more jobs, more mobility. Sure, I agree, especially because you can see these things in the city, a space I have inhabited all my life. But that’s not the point. A few allotted bus seats do not stop us from being groped on public transportation, or from lecherous eyes grazing on our breasts. A job does not grant us freedom from the special limitations produced by the all-encompassing heterosexual family unit that makes up our aggressively patriarchal nation-state. The very idea of this nation-state limits and subordinates our sexualities.

For the majority of Indian people, to do or say or think or feel a certain thing is un-Indian or anti-Indian – never mind the relative concepts of who or what is ‘authentic’ in the first place. The political emancipation might have happened, but that does not stop many of the Indian women in village panchayats from being mere puppets to the whims of their husbands, and that is just one example. From billions.

We can vote now. We can go to school, to college. We can get a PhD. We can file a case against domestic violence, or rape, or street sexual harassment. But have we realized that the personal is political? That submission exists in the mind? How many of us actually go to the police or our courts of law, and how are we treated by these institutions? Do we feel safe? Do we feel compelled to dress, and act, and be a certain way, because that is the accepted way? Are we free?

A major part of my guilt consisted of being aware of my privileges. However, I let go of my guilt (after holding on to it for many, many, many painful and stifled years) after realizing two things. In the face of the overarching patriarchy that engulfs rural and urban India alike, my privilege may work at one level, but totally falls flat at many other levels. As an urban woman, I have had to deal with my own unique set of challenges. They have been gut-wrenching, and I have fought every step of the way. This is something to celebrate. That was the first thing I realized.

The second thing I realized was extremely revelatory: my privileges afford me the ability and means to tell the stories of those who do not have the same privileges. My urban upbringing, my education and exposure to information about my rights and duties and qualities, and the mobility that I snatch for myself all combine with my travel experiences to give me a lens not afforded to my white counterparts. My lens is more personal. I am not only looking at the women, but communing with them in their own language. I am staring straight at the woman I could have been.

There is no innocence in drifting once you have seen something like this. You either do something, or you don’t. Not doing something is a political stand. I am finding freedom, and beauty, in the unlikeliest places. I am finding relentless, constant injustice. And I want to bring these stories to you. I don’t want to be neutral. I don’t want to observe any more. I want to take a stand. I want to make my stand known. I want to understand, I want to start a dialogue and I want to intervene.

As a traveler I often feel the need to shed all labels and immerse myself totally in the pleasures and pains afforded by the road. But I realize that this label – that of the solo Indian woman backpacker – is special. It carries the weight of an amazing responsibility. I embrace it. In return for the intense communion the road offers me, and its gentle indifference, I promise to be unflinchingly truthful.

25 comments to Going Solo

  • Avi

    Wonderful read and kudos to you. I love all tree huggers, but it seems you are doing more with your life than many would. I doff my figurative hat to your spirit.
    “There is no innocence in drifting once you have seen something like this. You either do something, or you don’t. Not doing something is a political stand. I am finding freedom, and beauty, in the unlikeliest places. I am finding relentless, constant injustice. And I want to bring these stories to you. I don’t want to be neutral. I don’t want to observe any more. I want to take a stand. I want to make my stand known. I want to understand, I want to start a dialogue and I want to intervene.”
    Touching. Would love to know more about these tales. Would love to know if something can be done about them. More power to your back packing.

  • kitz

    Having been brought up in rural India, how women are discriminated in the society. They are given the right to educate but not to think. Thinking women are always looked down upon. Customs and notions supersede laws. “Marriageability” is the most sought after virtue and any breach of convention is a blot on her resume. Justice is denied to women because they were dare to question the society.

  • Rheea

    It’s incredibly important that you wrote this. And you wrote it so well. As a reader I was engrossed till the very end, making mental notes to myself and having various debates in my head about things you wrote. A sign of a great piece of writing.

  • Love this! I am off to Varanasi soon, on my own. Initially, I met with some resistance from my relatives (not so much from my parents), but I am off nevertheless. It feels great to let go off of the fear. Finally.

    • Shreya

      Varanasi is amazing, and scary for a girl on her own. If you befriend a girl called Ranjana on the banks, please give her much love from Shreya didi.

  • Freya

    Shreya, you stole my heart! Stuck in the cage of roles that a woman plays thru’ life, today at 38 I am at crossroads. I look forward to reading more of your writings and am proud that at 22 u have had the courage to break the bar. Kudos! Also if I may add you on FB.

  • Shoshana

    Loneliness. Fear or apprehension. Being constantly questioned. If you don’t have sufficient gray hair, being stared at and worse. All of these things await solo female travelers in India, no matter their color. The specific nature of the comments will differ but some of these same emotions are awakened in everyone and shadow one slightly. I work hard to get past them, but I would be the first to admit that it is draining. Thank you for your inspiration.

  • Shreya

    Dear friends, it is so nice to read your feedback and comments. I did not realise the piece would resonate with you deeply, but I am so glad we have this connection.

    It has been a while since I wrote this, and since then I have jumped several thousand paradigms. Reading this embarrases me now, because it also sounds like a little girl’s tantrum, but I don’t want to dismiss it either, because as I mentioned in the beginning of the piece, I kept my mouth shut about it for a long time. If I were to rewrite this now I’d do it very differently.

    The big story I wanted to express that was raging inside of me was the story of the mythical “development” of India, the lockstep march of progress we all seem to be following. I especially wanted to express how I found that instead of improving the lives of women (especially impoverished women), it seems to be cementing the immense inequalities and injustices we already have.

    So much of my rhetoric in this article assumes unquestioningly the liberal humanist idea of the stable “I”, the individual, along with the grand narratives of “freedom” and the central slogan of second-wave feminism. If I were to rewrite this I would radically question this assumption and try to explore a more nuanced approach much more relevant to urban Indian women solo travelers, who, as you demonstrate, are definitely not as rare as my piece (arrogantly, self-indulgently) assumes!

    Perhaps Anindita will allow me to revisit this piece at a later time with some of its flaws, and its cheesy sentimentality, revised and reconsidered on this forum. Having dismissed this work so thoroughly, I must admit that the heart of it still resonates within me, and it is this that perhaps touched you too. I cannot thank you enough for bearing with me and understanding.

    Much love,

    • Nandini

      Hi Shreya,

      I don’t know how many of the women who read your articles are mothers? Especially of a girl child? I appreciate your admittance that the article was a bit immature.

      My daughter is now 21 studying in China, she loves to travel but I have set some boundaries to protect her. In my opinion having a companion may provide a deterrant to anything untoward, better safe than sorry!!

      It does not mean I don’t trust her or she has less freedom!

      This is my opinion entirely.


      • Shreya

        Dear Nandini,

        I understand and appreciate the pragmatics of the boundaries around your daughter.

        I do concur that the article was immature, although perhaps not in the same way that you seem to think so. I simply meant that I have more nuanced ways, and perhaps less immediately vulnerable ways of expressing the same desire to travel, a microcosm of the larger desire to have freedom of movement.

        I would hope for you to come back and read it not as a parable towards hoping that all women go out and travel everywhere, regardless of all risk, but as a protest and a proclamation towards my own personal desire to be free of the structures that make these risks so palpable in the first place.

        Also, my mother would also say she trusts me and that I have freedom as far as her support for my adventures and initiatives is concerned.

        Thank you.

  • @Shreya: Of course, we’d be happy to carry a revisited version as well; a continued conversation about this sort of thing–with all its attendant nuances, (re)considerations and so on–is exactly what this site hopes to capture. Thank you again for writing the piece.

  • Shreya

    Thank you very much, Anindita, and the pleasure is all mine. I will definitely give it a good think and try to get closer to what I mean to convey.

  • The solo woman Indian traveller label isn’t easy. We are lucky to have it, will cherish it while we can fight, and will inspire fellow women to embrace it. You keep doing what you do, Shreya. Travel & inspire. Brilliant post.

  • kokila

    hi Shreya

    Nice read…liked it…and motivated myself…..!!!!!!!! Keep going Gal….all the best..hope read some more…..!!!!

  • Rajyashree

    I have rarely read something so wonderful, so soul-touching. I can really relate to the “romance for the road” you talk about here, and I can feel what you mean here in the marrow of my bones. Did you write more about these travels?
    I wasn’t brave enough to back-pack solo in India when I was there. Now that I can in Europe, I realize how much I would have loved it back home if I could. The road has been full of surprises and adventures and has always been the best way to know the spirit of a country or any place. I hope I can go back home one day and travel solo like you. You are definitely an inspiration.

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