The fourth and final stop on my book tour was Amritsar, Punjab. I arrived alone. A friend in Seattle had asked me which part of my book tour I was most looking forward to, and I said without hesitation that it was Amritsar. I said what I have known for years - I love traveling alone in India. Because, to really know India, you must travel alone. India shows itself in all its complexities especially to women who travel alone.
As my book tour progressed, it was as if I was gradually and systematically shedding all that was known. At the Mumbai launch of 'Foreign,' I could spot in the audience my immediate family and dear friends from school, college, work. In Bangalore, I had extended family, former Times of India colleagues, friends from post-graduation and from my early days of marriage and motherhood. In Delhi, I had old friends and a handful of new friends with whom I connected on social media and was delighted to meet for the first time in person.
In Amritsar, I had no one. In the quiet of the hotel room, I felt that familiar feeling of calm, the exhilaration of solitude, the thrill of setting my own agenda and breaking it at will. I felt excitement for the next morning, for heading into the streets of a new town, looking like an outsider, appearing to others as lost, strange, foreign. Many will tell you that India isn't a safe place for women to travel in alone. I have done much of such travel and I am here to tell you otherwise. I have never once had an ugly situation develop when I travel alone in this country. And, no, I haven't traveled just by air and air-conditioned taxi alone. I roamed in small town buses, hitched rides on strangers' motorcycles, walked on foot asking for directions, clambered onto bullock carts.
All this is not to take away from my outrage and shame at the recent reports of the rapes and murders of tourists and citizens alike in my country. I carry these reports as wounds and sores on my heart. But I want you to know that the contrary is also true, that this is a beautiful land in which a MeeraBai roamed in a trance and a Sonora can unhesitatingly say 'Yes' to an invitation from a library-bookstore in a city that she had lost all hope of ever having a reason to visit.
When a woman travels alone here, people step up and make themselves known. So, a young woman in Amritsar's Golden Temple unhesitatingly steps up in a crush of crowds to adjust the mandatory head scarf that's fallen to your shoulders, puts her hand in yours and doesn't let it go for the next 45 minutes. So, you fumble around with a language you can't speak and are told that you actually speak it quite well (although this might be because Punjabis are notoriously liberal with their compliments). So, you stand in the middle of a crowded marketplace and get stared at until the stares fall away from boredom. Now, you fit in.
And, lest I forget, you get the unparalleled pleasure of a total stranger walk up to you and say, "What a beautiful book you have written. I know exactly what you meant in that line about...." I hope I am never too cool to blush at that. I hope I am never among so many friends that a stranger cannot take the seat next to mine. I hope I am never so familiar that I am not known.