Ways Not to Say No
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the dynamics of being female are subtle.
By Sanjena Sathian
The headlines get you first. Banaras: Russian tourist has acid thrown in her face in the home of the holy Ganges. Local boy feels “spurned.” Delhi: Uber driver sexually assaults female passenger. She was out late. She was there. Bangalore: Woman gang-raped. She met the guards on a sunny day in middle-class Cubbon Park; they attacked her that night. People guess they’re migrants, the guards, that they were far from home and wives. They were alone. There’s nothing like a full stomach and a happy house to calibrate your moral compass, right?
You talk about the headlines at parties in air-conditioned apartments. You talk about them with men. Each time one comes up, it balloons bigger and more hideous. Each time one comes up, you ink a new contract with a new man: you agree to check the danger at the door and be safe and protected here, inside. Men are always telling you to take care. You are forever saying ”thank you.”
He is not in any headlines; no one calls him a wolf.
The neighbor is so helpful. He knows you’re new, that your Hindi is weak. He calls electricians and Internet providers for you. He stops by in the morning and in the evening, on his way to and from his job at the American pharmaceutical corporation, just to check in. “You have to be careful with all these guys,” he says, gesturing to the rest of the world.
After the party where you saw the Bollywood star and glimpsed the Four Seasons sign lighting up the city, the college acquaintance from the States goes out of his way. It’s too late to take a cab safely, he counsels. The couch is yours if you want it. Or even the guest room, with the locking door. You agree, because it would be strange, rude and paranoid not to. Because even if you weren’t scared before, you feel a chill now, as he talks of the lecherous wolves out there, howling up at the Four Seasons sign, talks of the headlines. Of course you will stay, it’s so kind of him.
During the interview, the guy your friend’s friend introduced you to offers you cigarettes and tea. “Americans,” he says of you, knowingly, beginning to discuss his French girlfriend. As you talk longer and later, your little table at the Mumbai bar acquires a portside view of the rest of the world. In a sentence you sweep from the Himalayas to London. And yet, when you stand up to go, after he has reached for your hand, after you have shaken it off, embarrassed, after you have stayed despite the grab because you weren’t done hearing what you came to hear, the world has never felt so small. “I don’t know this driver — anything could happen,” he says. He gets in the car with you to make sure you get home safe. As you drive across the water, you hear the echo of what he implied, and what you agreed to by letting him.
It’s only late afternoon. A sunny day, in middle-class south Calcutta. There are filmmakers asking you to act in their next productions — to be shot at September Durga puja, when the goddess of power and strength reigns. People are showing you their draft black-and-white photography books, which capture history and telescope it out into modernity. They’re listening to ghazels and qawwalis and teaching you about the nation’s poetry.
He is older, educated, bicontinental. Back in America, he gave you India, spoon-fed it to you, taught you the word “postcolonial” and told you that if you wanted to be a writer you had to do two things: fall in love, and move to your motherland. Here you are now, years later, thanking him for the advice.
He congratulates you, and then he shields you from oncoming traffic, translates for you, encourages you to try street food, teaches you about your own ancestors. Each time he annotates simple sightings with rich history, you grow weaker. How would you ever know this place without him? You look away when he says something about your thick South Indian hair.
He’s got money. He’s got women. He is not the struggling emigrant from Bihar living in squalor on the outskirts of Delhi, sexually repressed, furious at modern women for wearing jeans and holding jobs. He is not in any headlines; no one calls him a wolf.
When he walks the two minutes from the artists’ squat to your guesthouse, or slides into the car, eyeing the driver powerfully, or knocks on the locked guest room door, or steps into your kitchen to investigate the lighting fixture, nothing happens. He could go back to his girlfriend or wife and say, “Nothing happened.” And you — if you were to look him in the eye and say, “Stop,” you would feel ashamed for presuming there was anything to reject.
You go to wherever it is you are calling home at that moment: your new, foreign apartment or your hotel, where you will sit alone sweating under the ceiling fan and swatting mosquitoes. You could have stayed inside and said no when he invited you out. The thought of the white plaster walls and the gecko for company made you say sure. He hugs you too hard. He says he’s never had the opportunity to fall in love with someone like you. He tells you to be safe, to mind the wolves. You say good night and you say thank you.