a picture we shouldn’t have taken

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:

  1. Angry-looking men probably don’t want their picture taken.
  2. 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.


17 responses to “a picture we shouldn’t have taken

  1. You caught them with their hands in the marmelade, eh? 😀 Nice Rangoli, btw!

  2. Wow, they look really angry. Well, you made it out safe and have a very interesting story to tell!

    I love the colors of the rangoli! Very pretty!

  3. Haha…enjoy Pune! Don’t forget to get try the bakharwadi! 🙂

  4. Are all those men lining up outside an “office” waiting to get serviced??

    That seems like an odd way to engage in an illegal activity!

    Maybe someone can explain how this “industry” works in India. Just curious

  5. Are you guys really new yorkers, or what? I am having my doubts….

    Nice post, even nicer picture. This place has got a crazy under-belly.

  6. Yikes. Hey, is there any Slumdog Millionaire talk there? It’s all over the place here in America..what do you guys think? What’s the general opinion…the “buzz?”

  7. I live in India, and while it may seem from their reactions that they’re pissed off, they’re probably not. Indians are not usually that quick to smile into a camera, in fact if you walk into a photo booth you’ll see pictures of a bunch of people who look like they can’t stand the fact that a lens is being pointed at them. It’s just a weird cultural thing… believe me, if they *were* upset at being caught out… they would have forced you to delete the picture at the very least.

  8. When I lived near Pune years ago, and had to cycle everywhere, I didn’t think of it as female empowerment. I thought of it as lack of infrastructure! No public transportation means that whether your legs were aching or not, you had to hop on to that bike and pedal, pedal, pedal – three miles to junior college, four miles to your friend’s house. My more fortunate friends had mopeds. Funny how things can look so different when you look at it from the outside.

    When I joined Delhi University, I loved that I didn’t have to bike everywhere. I could hop on a bus or an auto. Of course, the Delhi men were a shocking lot of boors compared to their gentler Maharashtrian counterparts. But that’s a different story.

  9. Those guys look angry to you ?
    Hmm…. must be some sort of cross-cultural thing.
    Or maybe their brown faces ?
    They’re not angry at all.
    Infact I can see a couple who look happy to be photographed.

    Besides, Budhwar Peth isn’t exclusively a red light area. There are businesses and residences there too.
    So unless you photographed someone right ouside the door of a brothel, there isn’t any stigma to being photographed in Budhwar Peth.

    p.s. You’ll find me there all the time. The only 2 shops in Pune city that sell Atmel AVR uPs are in Budhwar Peth …

  10. Have to agree with Sanjay here…..they don’t really look angry. In fact, numbers 4 and 6 seem to be wondering if they should smile for the camera! 🙂

    Quirky Indian

  11. ha ha ha.. i remembered 2 incidents from your story. First one a frnd and I had lost our way at night and landed on the BP roads. It was a nightmare literally with no one on the road except for ladies staring at us.

    Actually the Ganesha festival decoration in this area is quite famous so ppl throng this area in that festival period. So did a couple of my friends. 2-3 ladies pestered them to come inside and these guys pushed an innocent guy in tht group ahead saying he would have fun and ran away. The poor kid caught up later with his clothes torn (only that and nothing more). Sad but we laughed a lot.

  12. And I shld tell my fiancee the hooray for pune part. Maybe she will start riding and I will get rest. She is from Delhi you see 😀

  13. They don’t look that angry to me, either. Remember, in many countries staring at strangers is considered acceptable and smiling at random strangers is considered unusual. You two are just wonky looking foreigners to them and for all you know they were likely staring at you because the were curious.

  14. Living in pune, I’ve never thought of the women on two wheelers as symbols of gender equality. I suppose when we are used to things,we see nothing new or outstanding in them. Good to know though!

  15. That rangoli is actually for religious harmony and unity. it has symbols of all the major religions of India with an Indian flag on top of it.
    Great blog guys, i have been reading it since last two days at work. lol

    Best Regards


  17. Pingback: how to enjoy Delhi during the Commonwealth Games (despite what the media says) | Our Delhi Struggle

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