The old couple in lower berths C and D stared at us for at least twenty of the thirty-two hours between the City of the Dead and India’s south coast. We read books, rolled dice, and looked out at rice fields and rivers. The woman was plump and wrapped in a saffron sari, the man thin and clothed in a starched white shirt. We traveled with them in a curtained compartment as the train wove past scruffy monkeys and starving cows, but they gazed instead at our pale peculiarities. The way I braided my hair. The way he bit at a nail. The way we smiled and laughed across our top bunks. We didn’t mind, really. Not when they watched us eat oily lentils with forks and not when they spoke in hushed Hindi as we took off our shoes. So we looked out and not down as Calcutta wound to Chennai and the monsoon heat broke: five weeks in and we were used to being watched.
When Luke and I landed in India, we discovered our celeb- rity before our passports were stamped. Our backpacks rolled through baggage claim and a middle-aged man held out his cell phone and clicked. At first, the attention was surprising. I’d been warned by blogs and travel guides, but I didn’t expect such explicit persistence. “One photo, one photo,” they’d coo from streets and stands: “One photo, please, miss, one photo.” On our first day in Delhi, the circles in the Jama Mas- jid mosque forced us off its hot marble and our trip to the spice bazaar yielded three or four photos. Thrust into a city where chaos prevails, we were dizzied into frame after frame with beaming locals. We’d agree to one shot and be trapped in five others, avoid followers at lunch only to get them at din- ner. By the time we’d traveled west into the desert, Luke was getting fed up. He’d refuse cameras and yell off those who stared, exhausted and appalled by the endless annoyance.
I liked it.
When a rickshaw driver turned around or a schoolboy held out his phone, I flattered myself beyond the obvious parameters. I knew, of course, that my white skin and light features were responsible for the attention, but some part of me still took pleasure from being stared at on trains and pho- tographed in city gardens. I didn’t quite mind posing for all the pictures and felt, rather disgustingly, like some kind of movie star, forced to pause for snapshots outside shops and on the streets.
The sentiment sickened me. Each time I felt a twang of pleasure from the stares or picture requests, my ego was kicked down by my very revulsion that it had been boosted in the first place. I pondered my own narcissism as I smiled again and again next to Taj Mahal tourists from Hyderabad and Mumbai. “One photo please,” they’d ask, and I wouldn’t know how to say no. Luke would walk ahead and I’d inevita- bly stay behind. If it made them happy, after all, why not play along?
I confessed such sentiments to two Irish girls on the roof- top restaurant of a cheap hostel in Jaipur. We complained about the stares on trains and in rickshaws, comparing sto- ries of extremes as the sun set and kites flew up from the pink city’s nearby roofs. After a few glasses of Indian wine, I offered that maybe, sometimes, it really wasn’t so bad. Yes, they responded, nodding and thinking. They agreed with the emotion, they saw what I meant. I laughed at our depre- cation as the light faded, but searched their eyes in earnest nonetheless.
Yet as the weeks wore on, it became harder to see fascina- tion as flattery. In the Buddhist town of Dharamsala, Tibetan monks pulled cheap cell phones from within their thick maroon robes and asked grinningly for pictures against the Himalayan skyline. In a rural village near Jaisalmer, a man had me pose with each of his skinny children. In the City of the Dead, no cameras were allowed. The dying come to die in the holy Ganges River, burning on its banks and escaping reincarnation in its waters. Walking through the chaos of bells, human ashes, stray dogs, and bones, I felt a kind of dou- ble relief. Not a single Indian requested a photograph, and not one time did I snap my own lens. One night during the monsoon, we wandered down the shore to watch the crema- tions, standing beside bald men as they threw powders into fires that raged despite the rain. Not a single person was look- ing at us.
The next morning we boarded a thirty-two-hour train. In the afternoon, Luke climbed down off his berth, past the thin aged man and his saffron wife, wandering out between the cars to see the jungle fade to palms. I opened my journal to begin writing and caught the corners of my eyes watching the woman watch me. My prose was jumbled and distracted and I was reminded for an instant of a performance-art piece at the Public Theater. An actress worked on a typewriter in a cor- ner of the lobby—claiming art through the action of everyday observation. I’d left the theater with an almost angry indignation. There was nothing to be fascinated by, nothing to esteem, nothing to romanticize in this everyday examination of our immutable solipsism.
That night, when the train was dark, the woman’s eyes smiled up at me before she faded off to sleep. I heard the rain break and the men vending dosa and chai slowly fade from the aisles. Far from my months stumbling through markets and holy land, I wonder how many photographs of my pale limbs line the walls of strange Indian homes. Embarrassed, I fumbled off my flash from within the stained train sheets, capturing the woman to bring home to a tiny box on my shelf.