I bought a glass of cold coffee at a small coffee shop in Bangkok and walked to the bus stop on the road. There was nobody about and I sat on the bench. I am not a huge coffee drinker but for the next forty minutes I sat there and sipped my cold beverage like it was an elixir and watched the Thai world pass me by. Many would find nothing remarkable in this. But for me it was extended exhilaration. I was in a hot air balloon that gaily floated about for much longer than expected. Not many things matched up to my feeling during the next few days of my stay and travel within the country. Because if the intention of travelling was to see a new world, mine was unfolding within my body right then, right there. To wear a dress and have leisurely coffee on the road and not to be stared at or bothered in any way was as much of a New-Man as any Paul could become for me.
My body’s flashcard stored no such memory it had relished back “home” in the city of Delhi where I lived. As a college student, I had once been heckled by a stranger in a twisted combination of outrage and mock politeness: “Button your shirt, ma’am.” The sense of entitlement with which the man had expressed anger over the clothes I wore had in turn created an anger in me white hot enough to make blurry the memory of what had happened after. What I do remember is reporting the incident to my friends, and I had probably added that in the confrontation that followed I had ended up hitting him. I don’t think that had actually happened, and in later years when I looked back on the incident I felt surprise and guilt at my own lie. It was not something I usually did. Probably the sense of violation in me had been so steep and the desire to retaliate so strong that I had started believing in it myself. Without that bit of fiction, possibly, there would have reigned in me a helplessness that would have been too humiliating to live with.
With a history like this, to be in Thailand with a girlfriend spending with pride and caution our nest eggs, and not to be constantly reminded of my gender while being outside, was the best kind of tripping I could ask for. Encouraged by my friend and finding the place a haven for first-time try-outs, I wore a two-piece swimsuit on the island of Koh Samed and for the first time as a grown up, that much of my skin rendezvoused with sun, wind and water.
My heart warmed up when at night in Ayutthaya, the old capital, we saw a bunch of women going around on motorbikes much after the markets had closed. They didn’t become handicapped at dusk; the streets belonged to them and they were the lights.
When returning from Ayutthaya to Bangkok on a train, my friend had a can of beer in her hand. She initiated a conversation about the country with the guy sitting next to her and at no point did she have to face judgmental remarks or fend off unsolicited invites from him.
A lot of this can appear laughable or naive to people depending on their gender or context. But living in a world where I get reminded of my gender before, and sometimes without, it being acknowledged that I am a person, I do not have the luxury of taking these things for granted. Women in Thailand have their own struggles and it is not as if gender hierarchies, or crimes, for that matter, do not exist. World Nomads, a popular website for travellers, has this piece of advice, or rather, admonition, to dispense about being in the streets or back lanes late at night in Thailand: “That’s as silly here as it is in your home town . . .” But just like Maya Angelou had surmised about people (“At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”), with places too, what I end up remembering is how they made me feel. This was a place that had its priorities right, that helped me feel like a person again, without constantly tagging my gender.
First published in The Quint, 24 Jan 2018.