Tripping On India: We Are Family

The reDiscovery Project

Writer Ambika Vishwanath and photographer Hoshner Reporter of The reDiscovery Project take a selfie outside Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur.

Many years ago, I was travelling across Turkey, with a white male friend. We were off the usual tourist circuit and visited small towns and villages. Because we couldn’t pass off as related, I wore a ring. When anyone asked if we were married, this helped avoid a lot of questions and made life easier. For years, Hoshner and I have travelled across India on holiday, our home, and as an unmarried couple, not pretending to be anything otherwise. During these trips, we faced everything from funny looks to almost-denied hotel rooms. It doesn’t help that in many parts of the country, Hoshner looks like a foreigner! So when we embarked on this adventure, I was secretly relieved that because we were now married, we wouldn’t experience such instances.

India is a funny place. I’m convinced the word pluralism was invented for this crazy nation that is full of contradictions and inconsistencies. On the one hand you have beaches in Goa with people wearing next to nothing, sadhus smoking all sorts of things, and Bollywood music that can occasionally be offensive and derogatory, and on the other hand there are policemen who don’t allow young couples to hold hands, families that sell their daughters for pennies and politicians who feel they can tell women what to wear. Somewhere in the middle of all these extremes lies the warm hearted India, the hardworking farmer who invites us home for tea, the families that want to feed us because we are new to their village, and the earnest caretaker of the random tomb who is excited that he has a visitor. Yet, no matter where we go, from small town Tamil Nadu to villages of Arunachal Pradesh that don’t feature on the map, one question remains constant: Are you family?

There is such joy when we reply that ‘Yes, we are family’ because once you are married in India, you have crossed an invisible line into acceptability. There is new respect to be accorded. When we say that not only are we married but newly so, there are smiles and joy. Never mind that we are probably a little mad; we quit our jobs and packed our bags and here we are traipsing around the country in state buses. We are married so we must be sensible. Our last names are different on our ID cards but this surprisingly is not too much of an issue. “Oh it’s no problem, government bureaucracy is so slow.”

I love travelling as a ‘family’. There is a certain freedom I never had when I travelled with friends or solo, both of which I’ve done plenty of across the world. Women don’t stare and men don’t bother; I have a husband, my protector and the person apparently authorised to speak for me. Security concerns are fewer and hotel staff, especially in small-town India, are more respectful. Forget about staring at my chest, they barely look at me at times, all queries are addressed to ‘sir’. While the inherent patriarchy is upsetting, one does feel safer travelling as a half of a couple.

A big advantage with travelling as a married couple is, because we are apparently more trustworthy, people invite us into their homes and women are more open to Hoshner because I am around. As a photographer he is careful and mindful of photographing women. We have found that as long as I am by his side, more often than not they don’t see him as a threat. People, especially villagers and farmers, are less uncomfortable about answering questions, because they see us as a unit, and the family will do them no harm. How we are perceived and received and consequently how our experiences are fashioned are therefore significantly shaped by the fact that we’re married.

However, being ever inquisitive, they love to ask questions. Including, of course, the eternal interrogation about children. Do we have any? When will we have them? Why don’t we have them yet? One of my favourite conversations was with an older woman at a popular monument in Gujarat. Hoshner was off taking photographs and I was sitting under a tree waiting. She was also waiting and we got chatting. She proceeded to tell me all about her family (husband and many children) and all their extensive travels (in Gujarat). She was impressed by our travel project and said that along with travel I should write about babies and that we should use the time alone to produce some. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that our meagre budget barely covered our needs and we were not about to share it with a third person!

This is in direct contrast to a conversation I had in a bus in Tamil Nadu with a school teacher, another older woman. I increasingly find, not necessarily in a nice way, that Indian women love to give other married Indian women unsolicited advice. Discussions about intimacy (read sex) are apparently no longer taboo if you are married. So the school teacher, apart from telling me some interesting stories about life in Karaikudi and alerting us to some cool neighbourhoods to explore, basically told me not to have children, and that our chosen life was inspiring and exciting. I was pleasantly surprised, especially knowing that rural Tamil Nadu can be fairly conservative, and she knew I was part Tamil. Perhaps it was the educator in her, or maybe she just saw us as weird city folk.

At the risk of generalising, certain parts of India do seem to adhere to a certain mentality. Of the states we have covered thus far as part of the reDiscovery Project, some are definitely more interested in our marital and child status than others. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are high up on this list. I am not sure why, perhaps it’s because they have more conservative societies or more gregarious communities that don’t shy away from asking intrusive questions. I have even had someone be so audacious as to tell me I am old and should have children soon. I could only laugh in response.

However, the idea of questioning us (mostly me really) is never hurtful or malicious. Curiosity is a great leveller. The boundaries we are used to in city life don’t exist in rural and small-town India. It appears that people feel that by questioning you and sharing information, this bridges gaps and includes you in their sphere of life. This is further emphasised when you are a couple; the family that travels is easier to relate to. When we tell people our story, of a photographer and writer attempting to ‘rediscover’ the whole of India, the questions, and looks of bemused wonder, increase manifold.

Tripping On India is a new monthly column about the travels of writer Ambika Vishwanath and photographer Hoshner Reporter, the team behind The reDiscovery Project. Follow their journey here.

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