At 6:54 on a Thursday evening I was standing at a roundabout in Central Delhi watching rush hour traffic. In one hand I held a professional Cannon camera I didn’t own, and in the other a flickering candle. I was wearing a backward baseball cap, with a heart insignia on it, and my hair hung in long, ringlet curls . . .
By midnight that night, I’d have crossed the state line and back, my face would be caked in dirt so thick it looked like stage makeup, my shoes would be gone (stolen), I’d have spoken twice to the police, sprinted across a gravel parking lot barefoot, squeezed through the back gate of a 5-star hotel, attended a Punjabi wedding, and discussed the price of saris with a street boy.
But just then I was photographing International Justice Mission’s Candlelight Vigil Against Human Trafficking, snapping pictures of a Delhi police officer holding a candle inside the cab of his patrol car while my friend took his statement. Alice came up and squeezed me on the shoulder, “We need to go, girl. This is cutting it close even by Indian standards.”
The invitation had said 8. Alice and I, still infallibly punctual for all the time we’d spent in India, had been advised by an insider not to even leave our houses till 8:15. I’d gone to the hairdresser before the rally to save time and Alice fiddled with the curls as she rode behind me on my scooter. I zigzagged across town, first to her place, back to central Delhi to the dry cleaner’s, and on to my house, two silk saris hooked over my handlebars.
As I pulled up to the intersection by my house, a beggar boy strode up and leaned against the van next to me, crossing his arms.
I put my visor up. “Hey Rabi,” I said. “How are you?”
He shrugged, fiddling with the dry cleaning bags. “Are these yours?”
“Yeah.” I thought, then offered, “I’m going to a wedding.” I’m not terribly good at small talk in English, but in Hindi it’s the only thing I can speak.
“How much did they cost you?” he asked. Indians aren’t very good at small talk either, it’s always straight to income, family dynamics, your personal safety and marriage prospects.
“Um. 300 rupees.”
“For both of them?”
“Yes, both,” I said, never so glad I buy my dress clothes second-hand as at that moment.
He nodded, sagely. “Not bad,” he said. “They’re not very fancy.”
I shrugged, and laughed, pulling away as the light turned green.
Being perpetually under-dressed: the curse of the American in Delhi. It’s definitely culture, it might also be an overcompensation for constantly standing out. If I’m not front and center, I have no greater desire than to be part of the wallpaper. Which is why I was grateful that wedding season always spans the most frigid weeks of December when I slipped out later, wearing at least a midriff concealing black bomber jacket over my sky-blue and gold silk sari. I had the tail end of it pulled up to cover hair — I never show it in my Muslim neighborhood, even when it’s up and unstyled. I shielded my face (as if I’d be a mystery to the neighbors, walking out my own front door) and gave just a flash of diamond spangled strap heels, as I jumped back on the scooter and zipped away.
It would take an Indian Auntie to tell you how well I really wrap a sari, but no one has sounded appalled when they’ve asked who did it. The first time it took me 2 hours, an iron, YouTube, measuring tape, two equally baffled friends, a large flat surface and a box of safety pins. This time it took 10 minutes — that was all I had. And as I pulled onto the interstate I realized my fatal mistake: I’d forgotten to pin it.
According to Wikipedia, a sari is: An Indian female garment that consists of cotton or silk up to nine yards in length and four feet in breadth that is typically wrapped around the waist with one end draped over the head or over one shoulder, baring the midriff.
Mine was, of course, over my head for the moment, and secured there by my motorcycle helmet. It connected round to the however-many yards of slippery silk that were folded and stuffed into the belt of my underskirt. One tug and I would unravel. Well, just don’t move your head, I told myself, and all will be well.
As I neared the end of the bridge that crossed from Delhi to the neighboring state, I added another admonition to my personal list: Behave like you know what you’re doing. There was a toll kiosk up ahead and I was sitting on my wallet, which was underneath my seat. This meant turning off the engine, dismounting, unlocking the seat with the key (which I was mystifyingly horrible at) and finding the exact amount of small change, in less time than it would take for the kiosk man and the traffic behind me to notice what I was wearing. No problem. Oh yes, and without moving my head or losing my clothes.
The nice thing about not being able to look around is I will never know how many people were watching, and in fact, that was the biggest concern in my mind as I drove off into Uttar Pradesh, in the middle of the night, alone . . .
Continued in Part II: A Sorta Cinderella Story