I had just finished dinner, and was walking along the main dirt road through town. The rain had begun to fall, and people were rushing to get where they were going, disappearing under eaves, and zipping by on motorbikes, headlights wobbly in the darkness. I was walking quickly, the heavy raindrops easily soaking through the light scarf that covered my shoulders. Suddenly a shadow dashed at me from somewhere to my right, and before I knew it, a terrified young girl had my arm, and was dragging me along with her.
“Where are you going?” she asked under her breath, darting a look over her shoulder and pulling on my arm. “Do you have a hotel room? Can I stay with you tonight?” I was so caught off guard, that my first instinct was to be very careful. I made sure my purse was still intact, and put a protective hand over it. I noted my surroundings, and stayed as present as possible as she pulled me along, desperately gripping my arm. It took me a moment to begin to understand the situation. She was telling me, as she half dragged me and half leaned into me, that she was being followed, that the man behind us was scaring her and she didn’t want to stay with him. I looked over my shoulder. A young Indian kid was following not far behind us, and now that he saw me looking, he picked up his pace and caught up to us, quickly falling in beside her. She began trembling even more violently.
“What do you want?” he was saying. “Why you are acting scared? What is the problem? There is no problem!” He was angry, aggressive. I felt instantly protective of her. I still had little idea what was going on, but judging by their body language, he was the aggressor, and she was scared shitless. I stepped in between them, and tried to put some distance between him and us. He just swerved around me and closed in on her other side. She shrank closer to me, chattering quickly, walking so fast she was almost running. “I’m sorry,” she was telling him, “But you really scared me just now. I just want to go home, and you kept trying to make me stay.”
“Why you are trying to leave?!” he demanded again. “There is no problem here, you are just acting scared, and now you make me look like bad man. Why you are doing this?!” He tried to take her arm, and she wrenched it away, speaking quickly, with tears in her voice. “Look, you’ve been very nice to me, but I just want to leave now, so please just let me go.” She tripped over the tears in her voice, and I watched wide-eyed, not sure what to do. We had arrived at a guesthouse, and she leaned in and pulled me close to her, whispering, “This is where I’m staying. I have to get my things from upstairs, will you come with me?” He was bumping into her, harassing her, demanding to know why she was leaving. I stepped in between them again, forcibly using my arm to block him from reaching out and grabbing her. He shot me a withering look, but I held firm and wouldn’t let him ahead of me on the stairs.
She shot up to the third floor, and I followed her, the young Indian close behind me. At the top of the stairs, I sat down lengthwise, my back against one post, and my feet up against the other. He would have had to forcefully move me to get into the room. She was racing around, stuffing things in her backpack, apologizing over and over. There was a frantic note in her voice and tears were very close. He kept yelling over me into the room, demanding that she explain herself, defending himself as a nice guy that only wanted to be her friend. She took out a five hundred rupee note and threw it on the bed. “That’s for the room, I’m sorry to leave like this, but you really frightened me, and I just want to stay alone tonight,” she said, hoisting the bag onto her back, and shuffling towards us. Two other Indian men had shown up, and were watching from the stairs with bright eyes and expectant smiles.
I stood up carefully, my arms gripping both sides of the banister so he couldn’t come past me, and nodded that we should begin walking down the stairs. Without stopping for a breath, he continued berating her for leaving and for misunderstanding him, but he did turn around and begin walking down the stairs. The other Indians disappeared below us.
Out on the street, I put my arm around her and steered her towards my guesthouse. For the entire five minute walk, he got as close as he could to her, demanding explanations and selling himself as a good guy. A few times, I moved to her other side, getting in between them, but he was fast and slimy, and he would immediately crowd her from the other side, or get right in front of her face. About thirty meters from my guesthouse, he must have seen that it was useless. He stopped in the middle of the street, the rain making his hair stick to his forehead, and watched as I guided her inside.
Her name was Juliet, and she was nineteen. It took her awhile to calm down, but once she had called her sister and her best friend, and told them she was okay, she relaxed visibly. She told me that she had only been in India for one week, but that she was ready to go home now. She had met up with her boyfriend and best friend in Mumbai when she arrived, and that was when she had met the Indian. He was traveling with her boyfriend.
“He’s from Varanasi,” she explained to me, referring to the Indian. “It’s a holy city, you know, so he’s a really nice guy, he just got a bit aggressive.” Her boyfriend had returned to England after several days, and left her in the care of his Indian friend. Once he was gone, the Indian got increasingly possessive of her, not allowing her to make friends, insisting that they share a room and a bed because he “was afraid to sleep alone.” This guy clearly just needed to be told to fuck off, but Juliet was too young and polite to do so. So they arrived in Rishikesh together that morning, and as the day progressed, she felt worse and worse. Just before she hijacked me off the street, she had gone to an internet café, and he had followed. She had been trying to book her ticket home, but he kept reaching over and closing the window, so she couldn’t do it. She finally managed, but he was doing everything he could to stop her, speaking in urgent Hindi to the internet café workers, asking them to close the place down before she had a chance to book the ticket. By the time she careened out onto the street, he was angry and she was frantic.
She told me all of this in the safety of my room, and later, she told me about her family, her boyfriend, and her recent job as an au pair in Italy. By the time we fell asleep that night, we were chums. I had spoken to her sister and her best friend on the phone, and promised that I would see her safely onto a bus to Delhi the following day, so that she could catch her flight out the next morning.
The next day was brilliant. We ran into the punk-ass Indian kid on the street right away, and he began his aggressive, confrontational routine again, but I took her arm and told him firmly that I was taking a bus with her to Delhi that day, so he was wasting his time. Miraculously, he disappeared and we didn’t see him again. We had porridge for breakfast and then went to book her ticket. Luckily, we met a French guy at the travel agency who had two friends leaving that afternoon for Delhi in a private car- we jumped at his offer to give her the third seat, as it was faster and more comfortable than a bus, and it would ensure that the Indian didn’t show up at the last second and board alongside her.
As we crossed the bridge that day, Juliet took my hand, and we walked hand in hand into town, where we browsed a bookshop and she bought me a beautiful ring. By the time she left that afternoon, I think we both felt like we had made a good friend. Though she was only nineteen, she was articulate, funny, and bold. Her sense of humor came out, and she mimicked French accents, Australian accents, my accent. I bought us fruit juice, water, and nuts, and she wrapped a golden string around my wrist, fashioning a lovely, impromptu bracelet. I held up my hand, with the silver ring and the golden bracelet she had given me, and said, “You’ve decorated me!” In her charming English accent, she said, “You didn’t need decorating.”
At the end of the day, I felt like I was kissing my little sister goodbye as she stepped into the car, waved, and disappeared amidst a flurry of heat and dust, while the Indian merchants called out from the side of the road, “Ice cream, Madam? Twenty rupees! Ice cream?”