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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 27.2156, 77.4902
Of all the wonderful places and palaces I have seen in India there is one thing that has truly impacted my enjoyment of exploring here, and that is that in this country, to all men I must be invisible. At first I thought our guide's only looking at and speaking to my young roommate was an older man thing, where he was infatuated with a young woman and flattered by her attention. This was bothersome, and I mentioned it to him, but he denied it vigorously, and tried, after that, to look at me occasionally to make his point, and when he did, I felt acknowledged, a powerful thing. He is a lovely man, extremely generous and very kind, but although he is a professional guide and is 69 years old, he has a blind spot as to his looking at and speaking only to my roommate, Meghan, and not to me. He definitely should know better. For the past two weeks I have been an afterthought, an "Oh, yes, you are there too" sort of startling remembrance, but it happens too infrequently. "Meghan, is that alright with you?" "Meghan, do you want tea?" "Meghan, we'll meet at 5PM." "Meghan, tomorrow morning yoga at 7:30AM. Okay?" "Meghan, do you need a break?" "Meghan, how long is your flight home?" Never have I been included in any of these comments or questions, and after two weeks of being basically ignored in our very small group, it hurts.
Yesterday we went to the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, one of the national parks in India. It is absolutely stunning. We saw not only many species of birds, but jackals, antelope, a python sleeping in a tree; it is a peaceful and beautiful place. Part of our experience there was riding bicycles through the sanctuary, as it is so large bicycling makes it much easier to go further into the park. Somehow I got a semi-broken bike; it made alarming and loud noises with each revolution, and felt like something was dragging, slowing the bike down. I have both an off-road bike and a racing bike at home, so I know what a bicycle should sound and feel like, and this one was not in good repair. But the sanctuary guide and my roommate set off ahead, so I had to use this one or lose them. I could see the guide talking and pointing out many things to my roommate, and when I caught up I had to ask him what he had said, what I had missed seeing. This was irritating, as here was yet another guide who was pretending he had only one person on his tour, the young one. I was again the leftover.
Usually my ego is strong enough to weather passing insults, but with the stress of trying to keep up on a basically broken bike, and again seeing that I was nothing in this guide's eyes, I almost lost it. I kept telling myself, you are bicycling through a bird sanctuary in India! Think how remarkable that is! And asking for divine help in being gracious and not yelling at them or telling them how rude and insensitive they were being. "The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it." So said Sri Nisargadatta, and I tried mightily to destroy the abyss. On the long ride back (about 12 kilometers total) they rode very far ahead; at times I wasn't sure which road they had taken. Once they waited for me to catch up, but went on talking just to each other, and then they both pulled very far ahead of me again. I didn't see them until we were back at the beginning of the park; they were still chatting and waiting for our driver to take us back to our hotel when I finally arrived. I was so very hurt at their insensitivity, magnified, I'm sure, by the stress of trying to ride a malfunctioning bike so many miles. I did tell them it would have been nice to have had company, but both seemed surprised. "Who is she? What's she doing here? Is she a part of our group?"
No one, I think, wants to get older, to see physical changes that inevitably come with aging, but considering the alternative, most of us continue to press on, to do the best we can with what we've got. But why don't people understand that ALL human beings continue to have feelings and need respect their whole lives long? Is there a switch we should find when we turn 50 to turn off our feelings, or simply accept less than what is given to others who are younger? Are we no longer human beings, worthy of love, compassion, consideration, or attention? I remember learning at a very young age that older people have feelings. This sounds strange, but I must have been 5 years old at the time, and I was still small enough that my father would sometimes pick me up when he came home from work. He was carrying me around the kitchen (which was very exciting, as I could see what was on top of the hutch, the refrigerator, mysterious and appealing places when you are very small and curious), and then for some reason I looked at his arm holding me. He had blond hairs growing on his arm, and I pulled one, trying to get it to come out. He uttered a cry of discomfort and quickly set me down. I was sad because I was no longer being carried, and absolutely surprised that anything could hurt my Daddy. But I also learned that day that even older people have feelings. He told me, "That hurts! Don't ever hurt people." I guess (at the tender age of 5 years old) I had never thought about grown-ups or older people having feelings, but from that day on my eyes were opened to the fact that other people felt things too, and not just my own little self. It was a good lesson in learning to become unselfish, to becoming thoughtful and considerate of others.
When we reach our 40s, 50s, 60s, and some readers I know are already in their 70s, we still need respect, consideration, kindness, and love. We are still the same human beings we've been all our lives, it's just that when we look in the mirror now we wonder who that person is. I don't feel inside what I see in the mirror; put up a reflection of me at 20 and that's what I feel like, that's how I still see myself in my mind's eye (and in my dreams). It's always a surprise to see photographs of myself, since that's not who I think I am.
This story is not about jealousy, but my reaction to unkindness, thoughtlessness, basically rude behavior and hurtful actions, all --not directed, since I seem to be invisible here-- just lumped right there where I am, except they don't see me. And that hurts. What have I become, as an older woman, a ghost? Am I no longer worthy of attention or conversation?
We all crave, or at least need, attention; otherwise we are nobody to others. And that's what has caused my unhappiness these past two weeks in India: I have been treated like nobody, even though I am sitting or standing right there beside whoever is talking; to them it must be that I am simply not there. (The exception to this is when we visit places where children and vendors try to sell things. Then I am certainly noticed!) I know our guide does think of me, as he includes me in his gift buying, his presentation materials, his ordering foods I especially enjoy, but when he speaks to us, he only looks at and speaks to or asks questions of Meghan. Am I being oversensitive? As a female I do not know if older men are treated this way in India, but I wonder if they experience the same feelings of marginalization. (I think not.)
Several years ago I saw the movie "Michael"; all I remember about the story is that he was an angel. One of the characters in the movie asked him how he knew so much about people, and his surprising, stunningly simple answer was, "I pay attention." So should we all. In the meantime, I will continue to look at our guide when he speaks only to Meghan, and hope that he remembers there are two of us present. It wouldn't matter so much if there were more people in the group, as then I'd have someone else to talk with, to be with, but with only two of us it is a difficult situation for the one left out. Such a simple oversight has blighted the whole experience of this otherwise amazingly wonderful tour.
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