Wandering around Pune’s old city, we stopped to stare at a beautiful and elaborate rangoli (a ground painting made with colored sand) created to celebrate Republic Day. As I took a nice, touristy photo of the display, Jenny noticed that most of the men crowded around weren’t looking at the display at all.
“Take a picture of all these guys staring at us,” she said. Like a good husband I complied without thinking, raising the camera and pausing to give the subjects time to smile or turn away.
Nobody smiled. Nobody turned away. I snapped the picture anyway.
And then I realized that there two extremely good reasons why I should not have:
- Angry-looking men probably don’t want their picture taken.
- Angry-looking men certainly don’t want their picture taken when they’re hanging out in their city’s red-light district.
Our first impression of Pune, gleaned in the autorickshaw from the airport to our hotel, was that we saw more women driving scooters and motorcycles in five minutes than in a month on Delhi’s streets. Gender equality! Female empowerment! Hooray for Pune!
Maybe that’s why, just before this picture was taken, the seven or eight women we saw standing outside a particular house, looking bored, smoking cigarettes, wearing short skirts, tsking at us as we passed, didn’t register with Jenny, whose eyes were on the rangoli and ears were tuned to the blasting patriotic music accompanying it. Or maybe she thought they were just another symbol of gender equality and female empowerment. But no, turns out we had stumbled onto Budhwar Peth, Pune’s red light district. The rangoli was positioned just after we turned onto the street, just after the first house-of-ill-repute; having only passed one group of women, she can be forgiven for not realizing exactly where we were.
Except while Jenny hadn’t noticed the prostitutes, I had. And yet I snapped that picture anyway. So if those men, fearful of being exposed as johns, had chased us down and stolen our camera and run us through a sugarcane grinder, the fault would have been all mine.
After taking the picture, I smiled at the guys as I always smile at people whose picture I’ve taken. When the glares continued, I grabbed Jenny’s hand and pulled her down the street. We passed many more houses crowded with many more women who were symbols of something quite other than gender equality and female empowerment. In one house, a woman leaning on a second-floor railing laughed and shouted and beckoned us with a wave of her hand. I smiled sheepishly; at least she smiled back. Maybe THAT’s the picture I should have taken.
Here, incidentally, is a nice picture of a lovely rangoli.