The metro spat me out at an obscure badly lit stop on the red line named Tiz Hazari. It’s named after one of the largest district courts in Asia. The Tiz Hazari Court complex boasts 400 courtrooms and a staggering 50,000 visitors a day.
I’d been told on the phone by Vikas Travels that the bus to Jodhpur left from behind it (or “backside” as they say, which still makes me giggle), so I made my way around the imposing colony of buildings, passed rows of 4 by 4 feet stalls, each with a single wooden bench opposite a desk and chair, above which hung signs that read things like ‘PV Singh. Advocate.’
On exiting the “backside” gate of the court grounds, I found myself in a murky puddled street cluttered with bicycle rickshaws and a few dingy storefronts selling mostly kaney (chewing tobacco), gum and cigarettes. I didn’t have an address, just a rough location the agent had given me – “backside courthouse”. I called the number and had one of those baffling conversations that you begin to get used to in India after a while.
“I’m at the backside of the courthouse. Where are you?”
“Yes, but where is office?”
“Yes, I’m backside courthouse. Do I go left or right?”
“Do you have ticket?”
“Yes, I have ticket.”
consults with someone, then comes back on the phone.
“Yes, but where are you exactly?”
I was standing outside a petrol station mulling over whether to go left or right. A black sedan churned up a spray of mud onto my trouser legs. I went right. After a few yards, I spotted the Vikas Travels sign on the opposite side of a crossroads, where a bus was being loaded with luggage. Things were looking up. ‘Office’ was a bit of a stretch. Beneath the sign, an open storefront and formica lift-up counter, behind which two men were noisily conducting business. They looked surprised to see me. I confirmed my ticket and took in my surroundings.
It was a street cum freight yard illuminated only by an intermittent bare bulb. I’d got there early on purpose as I didn’t know the area and wanted to be sure of the pick up point before my bus arrived. I’d imagined relaxing with a book and a cappuccino while I waited. There was nowhere to sit, the light was too dim to read by anyway, and there wasn’t a café or restaurant in sight. The bus being loaded in front of me had most of its rear windows blown out. The body was scarred with dents and scrapes. I remembered what the nice-sounding manager of my hotel in Jodhpur had said after asking me which travel agent I’d booked with.
“Rajastani tourism is notorious. I would strongly advise you, take the government Volvo bus instead.”
“But Vikas Travels say their buses are deluxe.”
“Madam,” he’d replied with an audible sigh. “They can say whatever they want.”
All around me, men in dark balaclavas and headscarves were pushing or pulling wooden carts through the streets, stacking up boxes and bulky burlap parcels. At first, they were too busy to notice me. But after the bus pulled out of the yard, fifty or so men stopped what they were doing, turned towards me – and stared. It was like I’d disturbed a colony of meerkats. Sex-starved meerkats!
Now, I’ve lived in India for five years. I’m used to attention. In Varanasi even septagenarian western women get propositioned. But this was different. Rationally, I knew I wasn’t in any immediate danger but my security felt precarious all the same. I looked down at the puddle by my feet, cursing my whiteness, sweaty hands clenched inside my pockets, my whole body crawling with that special vulnerability that only women can feel and only men can create.
I got on the phone and called a friend. “I’m not in a great location. Can you just talk to me for a while? I want to look busy.” He knew me well enough to get that I wasn’t being nervous for no reason and obliged by chatting about his ride on the metro. But the connection broke after only a few minutes. “Sorry” he texted, “went into a tunnel”.
There wasn’t a female in sight. I went to buy some chips, not because I was hungry, but just to move out of staring range. And there I saw one, behind the counter. A woman. She was brusque, squat-faced and short-tempered but to me she was a goddess. I wondered how much I’d have to pay her to come to Rajasthan with me. Returning to the bus, I found a place in the shadows, pulling my coat up around my ears, and trying not to make eye contact with anyone. In the dimness a pair of trousered legs stuck out from under a jumble of sacks a few inches away. “Oh my God,” I thought, “someone has died here and no one has even noticed!” I tried to untangle what I was actually seeing from my fears of the same. The torso was missing. The legs ended at the hips. A severed body? The escalation of my horror gave way to relief followed by a shadow of amusement when I comprehended that I was looking at the lower half of a manikin.
I called an Indian friend and tried to explain what was going on.
“I know it sounds stupid, but I’m having one of the most uncomfortable evenings of my life.”
“Where are you exactly?”
“Behind Tiz Hazare courthouse.”
“Just call me when you get on the bus.”
Clearly, there was something he wasn’t telling me.
“Wait. What? What’s going on?”
“If I tell you now it won’t help. Call me when you’re on the bus. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. But don’t talk to anyone.”
Fifteen minutes later, my bus arrived. It looked quite a few notches down from deluxe but at least all the windows were in tact. I huddled into my seat next to the window. The seat adjustment lever didn’t work and the curtain was stuck and wouldn’t draw, but I didn’t care. Two or three women also boarded. I felt like kissing their feet. When we pulled out onto the main Delhi streets I called up my friend again.
“The place you were…”
“It’s a well-known red light district. The only women who go there are prostitutes.”
A mobile phone from the seat behind me began playing Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
“Get some sleep, Rebecca,” he said. “It’s going to be a long journey.”