While She Was Somewhere Being Free

While She Was Somewhere Being Free


I find myself walking a paved road in the middle of a baraat, a groom’s wedding procession. It resembles a parade that will eventually pour through a small Indian village leading to a clearing where the bride and her family wait.

On either side of me is a row of men with bright green vests and orange turbans. They line the procession, forming a boundary between village spectators and members of the wedding party. They stretch out far in front of me to where the celebration begins. On their heads, these men carry three-foot wheels of flashing carnival lights with multi-colored bulbs sticking out along the edges. The scene looks psychedelic.

Leading the caravan, is what I’ve come to call a truck DJ: a truck decked out with rope lights and large speakers that blast the latest Hindi music. Over the last year, I’ve seen them used for everything from religious festivals to political rallies. They typically drive slowly along the roadsides as crowds of men follow, erupting into dance. I’ve only ever watched from afar, taking pleasure in their exuberance while also feeling slightly frightened. Even dancing, throngs of men can’t shake the impression of a mob.

The truck DJ is followed by dhol drummers. The hefty drums, about two feet in length, hang around the men’s necks and are struck from both sides with curved rods. I can feel the beats vibrating in the ground, traveling into me through my feet. The rhythms start slow. They build. The drums let loose, enveloping and pulsing into each body. Amidst the drummers, swarms of men buzz in ecstatic dance, shimmying, jumping, arms waving and shoulders thrusting. They throw crisp ten-rupee notes into the air at other men dancing.

Behind the men are the female family members of the groom. I am among these women, the only foreigner in the village. The groom, Vinay, is my colleague. He’s invited everyone from our office to his wedding. Our office, an NGO based in Uttar Pradesh—the state most often featured whenever the New York Times reports a brutal gang rape. In fact, it was the story of two girls strung by their necks from a tree that prompted me to move here. I didn’t understand how this kind of violence could happen, and so I came to learn from local women. But after a year of sitting in women’s circles, hearing stories that are shaped by so much more than just brutality, I’ve grown deeply protective of UP. I find myself defending my adopted home against the stereotypes elite friends from Delhi and Mumbai mutter about “backward” folk. No story can represent the complex lives of 204 million humans.

When it comes to Vinay, we’re not particularly close; neither his English nor my Hindi is good enough for us to have a full conversation, but I’m fond of him. At work, he greets me warmly whenever I pass his desk. Sometimes he invites me to play cricket during our lunch break with the other IT guys, and I follow the group down the street, through a broken cast-iron gate, past a family of water buffalo, to a grassy lot near our office compound. Vinay points to where I need to stand in the outfield, and we laugh at my inability to catch the ball. I love hearing the guys squabble in Hindi over the score; it transports me to memories of touch-football with my older brother and his friends and gives me the sense that a universal language connects us.

I am the only female employee who’s come to Vinay’s wedding, the handful of other women either home managing family duties or traveling for work. As a result, I arrived alone and was ushered by one of Vinay’s sisters into a small one-room building that must have been a classroom on the grounds of a school. The concrete walls were covered in peeling blue paint. They held in the chilled December night air. Only smartphone lights illuminated the faces of Vinay’s female family members, primping as they waited for the baraat to begin. Rows of cots filled the space where women sat with makeup bags open on their laps, holding up pocket mirrors, applying lipstick.

If you had seen my arrival into that crowded room, you’d never guess I was a stranger. For a split second, I even wondered if I’d met these women before. They engulfed me in embraces, introducing themselves with names I immediately forgot. One woman grabbed my hand, leading me to sit beside her on one of the cots. Their greetings struck me as preposterous, mystical even: I’m treated in this familiar way, yet I am no one to them. A feeling of awe held me. No matter how many times I was greeted with such warmth in UP, it never stopped being meaningful, always resonated as a homecoming.

The truth is that though I am a foreigner, this country and culture are not foreign to me. That though I am perceived as an outsider, I do not fully perceive myself as an “other.” My grandparents, my mother’s parents, are Iranian, and after their fathers died, both were sent to India as children to be raised by their aunts. As I got older, I longed to better understand my lineage through these places, but as a Zoroastrian and Jew, Iran shut me out. India became a surrogate homeland where I’d hoped to be taken in as my grandparents had been. Now I savored the moments when I felt welcomed as a long-lost cousin, privy to intimate spheres of life.

The women were dressed in an assortment of supremely bright colored and bejeweled saaris, kurtas, and lehangas—basically, variations of small blouses, long skirts, and thoughtfully draped fabric sashes. Embroidered sequins and plastic crystals ornamented their bodies, though little pudgy portions of stomach remained exposed. Compared to them, I was understated in my crème-colored cotton kurta with muted orange patterns, but I felt elegant. I’d worn black leggings, and I’d draped a teal sheer dupatta across my torso to cover my breasts. I’d also worn my biggest chandelier earrings and applied copious amounts of makeup, giving myself the thick Amy-Winehouse-eyes I sported in college during my hip-hop performances. I’d learned my lesson at a friend’s cousin’s wedding I’d gone to months before, where I’d shown up without makeup or jewelry in an attempt to not draw attention. The horrified sisters-of-the-bride gave me a makeover; turns out, my attempt to be unassuming drew more attention. This time, my hosts were content with my appearance, not focused on applying more makeup to my face but instead gathered around me to enthusiastically ask questions.

“Aapaka parivaar kahaan hai?” Where is your family?

“Amerika mein rahate hein lekin bhee parivaar Mumbee mein.” Live in America, but also family in Mumbai.

We went back and forth, my broken Hindi benefitting from exaggerated facial expressions. We snapped selfies, until, eager to contribute, I volunteered as a photographer. The young girls, enjoying their budding beauty, draped their arms over one another and struck pose after pose, their gesticulations indistinguishable from a gaggle of girls living in Los Angeles.

Eventually, we streamed from the room and into the procession, where now I cling to the group like a feather tucked into their braids. I stay close to the sisters whose faces are most familiar. As I get my bearings, taking in the psychedelic scene, I smile widely. It fills my face. This is my first time in the center of baraat action. At other weddings I’ve always been invited as part of the bride’s contingent, which waits patiently to receive the groom’s procession. This, in contrast, is exhilarating. All my senses activate, my body tingles.

I notice a girl about eight years old walking next to me. Compared to the other girls, she’s dressed in the most rundown clothes. No one’s paying attention to her, and it’s not clear to me how she’s even related, or if her mother is present. I offer my right hand. She takes it, and I’m grateful for her company. Her hand in mine feels like family. Given the booming music, we cannot speak to each other, but I make silly faces for her to laugh at. There’s so much that can be communicated without words.

Depending on the beat of the drum and the popularity of the song, our women’s group joins in dancing. The women are more restrained than the men, but their movements are sensual and beautiful. One of Vinay’s sisters-in-law has a fake braid filled with plastic jewels that runs all the way to her waist. I watch it bounce as she undulates her hips. During one song, she turns toward me, making eye contact, inviting me in with a warm smile. I acquiesce for a moment, letting go of the little girl’s hand as I shimmy my shoulders toward this dance partner, but then I stop. I’m unsure of how to dance when visible to men. I offer my hand again and am relieved the little girl is still there to grab it.

In public, my body has not felt a safe place to be. I’ve needed to become literate in the language of men’s stares so I can decipher the differences between harmless curiosity, distant sexual interest, and potential threat: Is he staring from far away, looking me up and down, or is he in a group that could follow me? I’ve been instructed to never walk alone outside, and for the most part, I’ve obeyed. On one hand, more attention comes my way as a white woman, but I know now most of the men are more intrigued than hostile. Still, my best friend, Pooja, has reminded me that I’m a projection of men’s hungers—my presence invokes Western women’s assumed promiscuity. I try to counter the assumptions through careful consideration of how I walk, sit, stand, gesticulate, and what I wear, portraying myself as either more masculine or modest depending on the setting. I am perpetually monitoring the countless ways my body can signal an invitation I never mean to send.

My public self must also take into account that I’m here to do a job. I’ve transplanted myself for a purpose. Sharing with my colleagues all the messiness of “who I really am” is not what I came here for. How I act in public—when and how I speak, what and how I eat, what invitations to dinner I accept, what I say about myself—all funnel into a purpose. Does this serve the work? Will this serve the work? The work’s at the center.

To stay sane after a day of tuning into my surroundings in these various ways, I often rely on dance, unleashing my raw self in the privacy of the little room I rent. Most evenings, when I get home to the guesthouse managed by our NGO, I push the twin bed to one side to make a four-by-four-foot space in front of a small mirror. It’s there, sequestered, that I dance the frustration from my bones, where I punch at the air while lip syncing to DMX’s “X Gon’ Give it to Ya” and Ludicris’ “Get Back,” saying all the words and feeling all the feelings I shouldn’t publicly express. It’s where I give myself permission to inhabit a sexualized body that body rolls, booty shakes, and grinds to Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” and “Numb.” Hours in front of that mirror sweating out the projections from my pores, attempting to transmute the stories of abuse I’ve heard that day, finding hope through the beauty of my body and returning to some individual sense of self, flesh and organs that are mine, mine alone.

On occasion, the opportunity to dance with others has arisen. When it’s been just among women and girls I’m working with, I cheerfully join, bonding through the magic of shared movement. Sometimes when Pooja and I are the last ones in the office, we put on music and boogie for a few minutes. But during festivals or birthday events when men are within view, I dance stiffly or not at all, even if my girlfriends are dancing—not worth worrying what the sway of my hips might suggest about my character or how being sexualized could undermine my professional image.

So although I know I could bust a move here at this wedding, that my cells could leap to life with the drums were I only to let them, I hold back. But as I watch my companions dance, I feel a surge of confidence. I have lived here for a year after all, have navigated overnight trains alone and have slept on rooftop terraces with new friends. I have exchanged songs of justice, a village once falling silent to hear me sing, “If I Had a Hammer.” I once taught a group of girls duck, duck, goose to calm us down after a minor earthquake interrupted our workshop. There are instincts I have now that I didn’t have before. I can trust myself to find the boundary between having fun and making a scene. I know how to respectfully take up space, how to meet a moment.

I observe the women a few seconds more so I can copy their movements. Then I begin to dance. They respond with delight. A Hindi song that I recognize is playing. A circle forms so we can all face each other. Our movements synchronize. Our left arms fasten to our waists, our right arms extend into the circle palms up. In time with the music, we pull our right arms to our sides while we push out our right hips. I begin gushing joy; it rushes to join their rivers.

From time to time, I look out at the men alongside the procession. My presence attracts attention, but the women I’m with don’t seem to care, so why should I? Let them stare. Vinay’s two younger brothers join us, wanting to celebrate among their sisters. One appears to be my age, and he speaks fluent English. His eyes are a light brown, almost hazel. His teeth are beautiful. His jaw defined. He’s wearing a white Nehru jacket over a white kurta. He is Fine with a capital F. It’s been seven months since I kissed a man, so locking eyes for a moment is all it takes for fantasies to flood. Nothing will come of it, but like a succulent that plumps from just the slightest moisture, I’m fed by the fiction alone.

He’s got dance moves and puts his hand out to me. Here, where most touch is taboo, the very notion of a man’s hand is erotic. I hesitate, but the women nudge me forward with encouragement. Is there a reputation I’m risking? Are there consequences? No, I decide, I am safe. Releasing the little girl’s hand, I take his. It’s warm. Heat flushes through my body. We face each other and dance as the women form a circle around us, clapping. His left arm rises into the air, pumping with the music. His body sways. I try to copy. My left arm digresses into hip-hop movements, falling off the quick rhythm. My hips sway the way I once learned in a salsa dancing class. My wrist twirls the way my Iranian aunts taught me. My head bobbles like I’ve seen in Bollywood films. My body flips through dancing codes searching to land on the right one for this time and place. The sight is surely absurd, but I’m relishing the freedom.

When the truck DJ begins a new song, I take my hand from his. I put it to my heart, mouthing “thank you.” His eyes twinkle with playfulness. I give him a smile. The smile comes from a wild place of being unrestrained. Then we both disappear into the crowd. I wonder if the little girl watched me. What did she think of the spectacle? Vinay’s sisters yell over the music, “you beautiful dance,” and I laugh a great belly laugh and thank them. Somehow my right hand finds the little girl again, and we walk through the procession together, the air cooling the sweat on my skin. My curly hair has expanded in the heat of movement. I’m grounded in the pleasure of my companions, this scene, my body, no longer fixated on outside perceptions of me.

I see five of my male coworkers watching from the sidelines, and I go over to say hi. This is the first time we’re seeing each other outside of work, and I’m reminded how much I wish camaraderie had been possible. Joining them for their ritual drink once a month, though, wasn’t in the cards. The only restaurant in town serving alcohol does so in a room with tinted windows. A sign on the door reads, “no women or children.”

I haven’t fit neatly into the normal roles and personality traits of a single woman, so it’s been unclear how to relate to me. My nationality hasn’t helped either. As the only foreigner in our organization, they were understandably skeptical of my intentions. Was I one of those arrogant Westerners who’d just parachuted in to build my résumé, tell them what to do, and would soon be gone? After five months, I finally proved I was here with no ulterior motive other than to learn from them and support their efforts. At that point, two of them had invited me to collaborate. It was a big win.

One of those guys was Aajay, who was stationed in Varanasi. We’d spent hours together traveling to villages far outside the city, co-leading menstrual health sessions for groups of young women. During our car rides, I’d helped him overcome his self-consciousness discussing periods, and he had helped me navigate office politics. He explained why maternal mortality was so high, and I explained the importance of using play as a teaching tool. We’d achieved a professional partnership, and I had a big soft spot for his earnestness.

So I’m smiling widely, waving to them as I approach. This celebratory context has brought us together, and they look wonderfully relaxed with tousled hair and rolled up sleeves. Maybe we’ll see new sides of each other tonight.

When they spot me, their expressions are pleasantly surprised, then concerned.

“Hey guys! How fun seeing you all here!”

“Ariana! You’re here too! But come get food, not a good idea for you to be there.” They think I’ve been wandering in the baraat alone.

“Don’t worry, I’m great! I’m with Vinay’s sisters. I’m dancing.”

Still, this situation is new to them. They feel responsible for me, so their eyes request I become a spectator: leave the limelight where you are seen, evaluated, undressed, stay with us. But I gently refuse. There’s no danger here. They don’t realize I’m already protected by a web of community, that Vinay’s sisters have taken me in as more than a stranger. Smiling, though a little disappointed this interaction didn’t go differently, that we fell into a rut of seriousness, I turn away from them, back into the sea of color. Tonight, I don’t feel like dealing with self-anointed knights stifling me in the name of protection.

Eventually, we’re led to an outdoor area where Vinay dismounts from a souped-up white Jeep, the back seat converted into an elevated throne that enables him to look out on the baraat. He climbs onto a small stage awaiting his bride. She arrives with a quiet escort from her family, taking her place beside Vinay. They’re lit by floodlights from the videographer. The stage has an awning of light-purple fabric, and a backdrop made of fake flowers frames the new couple, who are given large red and white flower garlands to place around each other’s necks. In ritualized playfulness, the bride is tugged out of the way by her family the first two times, dodging Vinay’s attempts to put the garland around her. We all cheer when he succeeds. Then she places the garland she holds around him. The wedding has officially begun.

The bride and groom take a seat on a red two-person couch center stage. Guests can choose to take a picture with them. At this point, there are girls holding both my hands and clustered around me like I’m the queen bee of a teenage posse. The fact that I’m likely ten years their senior doesn’t dampen my pride. Life’s surging in my veins. I’m so far from home and yet, look at what I’ve created for myself. Look what I’ve said “yes” to. There’s a peace being out of place, the peace of feeling that a series of my choices brought me to this new moment. I have done well claiming my life.

When I detach myself from the group to get food, the little girl joins me. We practically skip with delight to the buffet. Northern Indian food and the Indian version of Chinese food are set up along three tables that form a U. As I load my plate with a little bit of everything, Vinay’s eldest brother, Raj, comes up to introduce himself, then says, “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I don’t mind. I’m twenty-five.”

“Are you married?”

“No, I’m happy alone.”

“You know, you’re getting a bit old. Better think about marriage soon. Aren’t your parents concerned about you living in India alone? You need to be careful.” This out-of-the-blue advice feels creepy, though I know it’s a cultural way of showing care. But I’m just trying to get food in peace, and his need to warn me in a setting where nothing dubious is afoot makes me feel like actually he could be someone to watch out for. So I briskly thank him for his concern, and make a mental note to avoid him the rest of the evening.

I look around for the little girl, but don’t spot her. I’m relieved to find the same five coworkers from earlier standing in a circle eating. As I walk towards them, my teal dupatta falls away from my chest, and I sense how my breasts push against the tight fabric of my kurta. When I first moved here, I wore the dupatta simply to be culturally respectful, but now I feel strangely exposed without it. I quickly re-drape the cloth. I keep walking and the other guests turn to watch me, as if I’m a celebrity, and though I’m used to this, the attention causes the high from the procession to wane a bit.

These colleagues form a wall around me. A refuge from Raj and the staring, where I can enjoy my food.

“You look very beautiful tonight, Ariana,” says Aajay.

He’s sweaty from dancing to the dhol. Paan bulges in his cheek. His teeth are tinted red from the betel nut. His eyes are glossy. Maybe he’s drunk. Maybe they’ve all been drinking together. These colleagues must be about thirty years old, and rarely escape the obligations of fatherhood. But tonight, they’re away from their families. The glint in their eyes as they look at me feels different. This is the first time I’m seen with makeup and jewelry. My status as an attractive woman has now dawned on them. Maybe it’s actually not a new realization, but without the barrier of my professional persona, I feel their gazes as more penetrating. Can I blame them? I, too, am free from the usual inhibitions, seeing them in new light.

When we finish eating, Aajay asks me, “Why aren’t you dancing?”

“I have been dancing, you just didn’t see me within the crowds.”

“We all go dance now. Come.”

I must admit I’m giddy. They are including me in an activity. I think of the high I’d felt dancing in the procession. I think of the various places around the world where I’ve busted a move, the times I’ve said “yes”: a bar top in Guatemala, a beach in Thailand, even a Skrillex concert in Delhi. Why not here? I want to throw off the constraints of traditional womanhood and bond with my colleagues as one of the guys, show them I can have fun too. For one song, I can afford to release myself from professionalism and not put work at the center. Fuck it.

The makeshift dance floor is located in another clearing, which we get to by walking under a temporary metal archway covered with blue cloth. The dirt ground leading up to the dance area is covered with green nylon fabric so people’s shoes don’t get dusty. Trees are decorated with red lights and hanging strings of orange marigolds and white jasmine. Chairs are placed underneath them. I can smell the sweet fragrance of the flowers as I walk past. My five colleagues lead the way.

On the dance floor, the music blasts into our ears. The five of them stand across from me as if we’re separated by an invisible barrier. I jump along to the music, hopping from one foot to the other, kicking out whichever foot isn’t on the ground. I’m going for a goofy vibe, sticking to the least sexy aerobic movements I can conjure. Some of the guys are also jumping, and some shake their hips from side to side. Their arms rise into the air and their shoulders hop up and down, up and down. I do the same. I begin to laugh. They’re laughing too. Another few colleagues join. Now eight guys are bunched together in a small semi-circle facing me. My smile wavers. They sing along to the music and form an amorphous blob of shifting limbs jutting out in different directions. Another guy joins. There’re nine of them now. I start avoiding eye contact. I focus on our feet twisting and bouncing. I glance up, and it’s as if they’re all singing to me. We don’t touch, but the two feet of space between us is filled with something. The air is dense. The attention is uncomfortable. Do I feel like a stripper or a goddess? Is there a difference?

Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn to find Raj. He urgently beckons to me. I step off the dance floor and lean in to hear over the music. My heart is thumping.

“Stop dancing. Don’t be dancing”

“Why? These are my coworkers.”

“This is not a good idea.”

“These are my coworkers. I’m fine,” I yell louder so he hears me clearly.

“Are you comfortable?”

“Yes. I’m fine! Please stop.”

“Do you know how you look?”

“Come on, it’s fine. It’s just dancing.” As I’m trying to get Raj to leave me alone, Aajay and another coworker emerge to see what’s wrong. They are a mix of protective and possessive—in some ways these are one and the same. Their honor is now tied to mine.

They get into Raj’s face, flinging Hindi at each other. Trying to be heard, they get louder. I’m not sure what’s exactly going on. It looks like a dance between two men trying to protect me from the man trying to protect me. My colleagues also appear to be defending themselves from any mischaracterizations and annoyed that their fun dancing with their woman is interrupted. I’d witnessed enough sexism at our NGO to know that working in “women’s empowerment” did not mean employees were enlightened feminists. And now that Raj knows I’m not in danger, I suppose he’s protecting the sanctity of the wedding space by insisting this unhinged woman get a hold on herself.

The conversation reaches some resolution. Raj leaves. Aajay motions for me to return to the dance floor, and I do so briefly out of adrenaline-fueled spite for Raj, but I’m shaken by the scene I’ve generated. I know Raj is kind of right: Dancing with nine guys doesn’t look good, and it didn’t feel that good to me either. I call it a night, force a smile, wave the group goodbye, and walk away. The little girl is waiting. She puts out her right hand, and we silently find seats in a section where some women sit. She quietly observes those around us chatting. I’m wondering if she thinks less of me now.

I’d gone too far, the dancing with these men too much of something—too much subtext. I hadn’t been unsafe, but I knew better. I felt ashamed. Neither my colleagues nor Raj were “wrong,” in that they’d played the roles they were supposed to play. The ones letting loose let loose, and the one maintaining virtue upheld virtue. And overall, each sought to protect me at different points this evening when witnessing me in unfamiliar groups beyond their control. Between the different warnings and invitations, it was on me to determine who to actually trust at each time. So I was the one who misjudged the moment, overstepping the line of cultural appropriateness, entangling myself in dynamics I was unprepared to handle. And what for? I had not succeeded in becoming “one of the guys.” I did not feel liberated. Instead, I felt even more reduced to a symbol of desire, a body capable of disruption, simply by its presence. And through this dance, the men too had been reduced to two-dimensions.

It’s one thing to say fuck it on my own terms, but this wasn’t that. My act of rebellion, just another brand of chains—a wild individual, not necessarily a free one. There’s something to be said for accounting for context, for choosing degrees of authenticity depending on the network I’m a part of. There’s freedom in maintaining boundaries of respect. I breathe in, then out, clasping my hands to quell their fidgeting. But I also don’t regret what I did. There’s something to be said for owning your fuck ups, for valuing them and claiming them as part of your story.

I decide to move on, emotionally speaking. There’s more of the night to enjoy. I cleanse my mind by recalling the way the Fine guy’s hand felt in mine. The way he looked into my eyes without devouring me. Bounded. There was nothing more he wanted. Just a dance. I think about the group of female family members, the space they’ve made for me to open up, the way they’ve had my back. We could move our bodies without consequence.

I look down at the angelic presence beside me. She pulls two small chocolates from her pocket and offers me one, smiling, and I smile back. We pop the chocolates into our mouths, and as it slowly melts on my tongue, I automatically murmur “mmm.” She leans her head against my shoulder, and I sync my breath to the rhythm of hers. Music plays. Women talk. Various lights continue to flash. We sit awhile, watching the world around us hum, feeling the freedom that comes with stillness that’s ours, ours alone.

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