“You will get stared at,” she told us bluntly. “And people may want to take pictures with you.”
She explained that it was up to each of us to decide how we wanted to deal with that, but wanted to make sure we were aware of what we’d be up against at the Ajanta and Allora Caves.
Because much as we try to dress in Indian attire and adopt as many cultural practices as we can, we can’t help that the way we look makes us stand out in a crowd.
Even in Pune, we are usually the only white people around and I often catch locals discreetly staring over at us in a rickshaw on our way home or walking to the program office. I figured our experiences in Pune would be a taste of what was to come at the caves.
Not only was I wrong, but looking back on it, I realize that nothing Kelsey could have said would truly have prepared me for the amount of attention we drew this past week.
First at Ajanta, we noticed groups of people looking over at our group of 20 American college students and giggling or pointing. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t encountered before and we made our way fairly peacefully through the caves, admiring the detailed paintings on the stone walls with the guidance of our docent.
At one point during the day, however, we took a moment to sit outside and get some air. As the whole group was sitting there a group of Indian men and women walked by. One woman reached out and touched Dena’s face and I saw her eyes shoot nervously to the side before the woman kissed her fingers as if she’d just seen a work of art or eaten some really good Italian pizza. Continuing past Dena, she reached out for my face and took hold of my chin. In a moment of panic I tried to turn my head away from her but she held fast. It wasn’t long before their group walked on.
To be honest, I wasn’t incredibly bothered by the invasion of space. I had kind of expected it to some degree, so it didn’t faze me too much. What bothered me most was that it was a woman who reached for me. I’ve heard over and over again that women are supposed to be our most trustworthy allies in India. Based on articles I’ve read and what people have told me, I naturally hold Indian men to a much lower standard than women. It may be unfair, but I expect male strangers to sometimes be rude, sometimes be sexist and sometimes overstep boundaries. From women I expect better. So to have a woman reach for my chin and say something I couldn’t understand in Maranthi was a bit of a shock.
But that was nothing compared to what we experienced the next day at Allora Caves.
Unlike the paintings of the Ajanta Caves, the most impressive aspect of Allora was that each cave had been carved from one giant piece of rock. There are dozens of caves that have been sculpted and thousands of intricate details laced with tradition and religion too complex for me to possibly understand. Although, to be fair, I may have stood a better chance of understanding if I hadn’t been so distracted by other people being distracted by us.
I didn’t get touched at Allora Caves like I did the day before, but I certainly felt more vulnerable when the staring and picture taking increased tenfold.
At one of the first caves we visited, I struggled to listen to our guide as I felt the presence of a hundred eyes on my skin, only gaining in number. I tried to push them from my mind– especially the men who gave me an uneasy feeling–but in my peripheral vision I started to notice picture phones pointed in our direction.
I tried to turn away, to use my scarf to hide my face, to do anything to block myself from the photographs, and then Sheetal, one of the ACM employees, noticed them.
She made a beeline for the camera phone.
I couldn’t make out much of the Maranthi she spoke to them, but when she took the man’s phone out of his hands and clicked through its contents, it was pretty clear she was deleting the photos he’d taken of us.
And so it went all day. Wherever we went we drew a crowd. They would surround us as we went on the tour, separated only by the mama bear buffer of Sheetal, Patsy and Kelsey.
When we stopped to take group pictures all bets were off and groups at least twice our size stopped to take pictures of us (which Sheetal promptly deleted).
Sometimes they would talk about us and laugh or try to get their children to high five us and only once during the day–during which I can safely assume I was featured in over 100 pictures–did someone ask permission to take one.
I would have been much more frustrated by the situation if it hadn’t been for the incredible ACM women coming to our aid. I felt so safe among the chaos knowing that they wouldn’t let anything happen to us.
For the remainder of the day I would simply put my hand to my face if I noticed someone take a photo and now that I’ve seen Sheetal, Patsy and Kelsey handle the paparazzi and learned to follow their advice–make it clear if you don’t want your photo taken–I know I can better handle the Indian paparazzi in the future.
I so often take for granted the diversity of the US–where it would be almost unheard of for crowds of people to flock around and take pictures of someone who looks different from them. And I think that makes it hard for us to make sense of the photography we’ve been encountering. There’s not really an equivalent in the US and it’s particularly strange to us because there’s no easy way for us to understand their motivation.
When it comes down to it, I’m pretty sure the pictures are harmless. Most people are just interested because they probably haven’t seen people that look like us in their day-to-day life many times before. And I imagine they’re just taking pictures to show their friends later.
“Look, these are my American friends!” they will say.
“Guess what? There was this massive group of American students at the caves last week. I even got a picture of them!” they’ll brag.
It’s something to get used to while we’re here and it really makes me appreciate the subtlety of people in Pune when they try to sneak a glance at us or ask where we are visiting from. As I said, I don’t think its malicious in any way and now we’ll be better prepared for the future.