One of the best things about Indian society is the ‘ladies only’ spaces. In Connaught Place New Delhi, I started feeling like I really stood out – attracting looks everywhere. Now don’t get me wrong- I’m not a super gorgeous Bollywood star who is lusted after by everyone on the street. But just imagine that you walk down the street past 100 people; 10 don’t notice you at all – they are just minding their own business, 10 just nod as they pass. That’s all fine. But 80 of those people try to catch your eye. Do they have an agenda?? I didn’t know- do you have the energy to access that correctly (or at all) after the first 20??? I certainly didn’t and began to feel exhausted from being on my guard.
I thought it was time to start to blend in more. We walked into the first women’s clothing store we saw. It was small with high ceilings- which made it seem smaller. The floor space was probably about 8’x15′. There were racks on each wall with just about 30 outfits each on them. This I could do. Small scale, just dip my toe in. The woman behind the counter says ” Ma’am, we have more upstairs” and motions upstairs.
By that point I’m already looking, so sure, I walk with her up the incredibly steep stairs- 2 very tall flights up. There’s a man at the top who quickly vacates when he sees that I am shopping. When I get to the attic there are 2 very sweet older women there with racks and racks of outfits and about 2 semi-truck trailers full of folded clothing in open shelves all along the walls. What are you looking for Ma’am?” They ask. “I don’t really know- I’m just looking” I say as I start thumbing thru the racks.
Wearing a sari everyday as I travel around is way too much of a hassle to even think about. I decide that a salwar kameez is the way to go. Once I find a few embroidered things to try on, the ladies are upon me. They escort me to the dressing room like a pair of grandmothers doting over me. The feeling was intoxicating.
I put one on and stood there looking at it. “Too much silence, not good” they said. “Let us see”
“Oh this one very nice. Beautiful. “
There’s something about “ladies space” in India. The population of repressed men watching what is often the equivalent of soft porn (aka Bollywood) leads to a public space where ladies are constantly vigilant. That’s true in the United States as well. This gives ‘ladies only’ or ladies focused spaces a safety and a sweetness that is hard to describe.
Even in the airports, there is a separate line for ladies, and a small curtained booth where you are run over with a metal detector or patted down. It feels special and intimate- not as if you are being protected from the gaze of unruly, lustful men.
It’s not just a safe space but it’s a love space- especially when held by an older or more powerful woman. It’s like walking around in a hug and it’s entrancing. It reminds me of elementary school when there was this girl behind me who would play with my hair in class. It wasn’t sexual but it was hypnotizing in a certain way. I would freeze and tingles would run up my spine. There was something so very compellingly sweet about it.
I tried on a maroon one and a dusty pink that were both silk with a matching thread embroidery of an intricate pattern of flowers. I knew I couldn’t get both but I really wanted at least one. When I asked how much it was, the older woman showed me a calculator – 17,000r. It couldn’t be that much right? I mean at home this would cost maybe 45-50$. It would be cheaper in India- everyone knows that things in India are cheap. I was still basking in the grandmotherly glow of the room but when I went down the stairs to the cashier, she told me the total “That’s $82, Ma’am.”
Was I going to spend that kind of money on this garment? I mean I liked it but I didn’t LOVE it. The magic lasted long enough for me to hand over a credit card, but when she ran it, it was declined. I hadn’t told PayPal that I was in India and their fraud alert likely shut it down. “That’s okay Ma’am, that’s okay. There is an ATM on the other side. we will wait.”
When I stepped outside to go to the ATM, the spell was broken. I had no desire to go back there and haggle or spend money. I wanted to go to have some masala chai.
A space just for women is vital in a society that has so many groups of young men wandering around. So vital, that I found it intoxicating. But this is the magic of a place like this. You walk up to a dirty door covered with stickers and find a palace inside.