THE CURRENCY OF TOURISM
The Indian rickshaw driver in Jaipur, his hair slick with some unfamiliar oil— his clothes painfully worn, but cleanly pressed—will tell you his name is Raj. This is what all the drivers will tell you while they hustle after you: "Miss, call me Raj." You do not need to know their real names nor do you need to know his. It is the time and the circumstance. You need only to step into his cab.
His name is Raj and he smiles like a hook that is coated in black velvet and his legs are long like all the men in the streets. And like those men, his eyes move over you and under you and beside you in a way that means he would like to eat you. Each man comes to you like you are dragging them along with you. Your name may be unimportant, but your body is not. You are white and you are wearing clothes that do not drape loosely, that are not colored, there is no dark beauty in you, but there is a hot thing between your legs. There might be a scent you exude, an earth thing that smells like rotting fruit, your white skin soft to the touch; you imagine then, the men, animals like yourself, following you hungry for an unfamiliar thing.
Yet, Raj has slept with other white women. He is familiar with your kind. You will learn that part of the courtship between a foreign man and a white woman is to tell you this in a way that is like sharing a shameful secret, but one which means simultaneously to provoke and provide. The confession lets you know there is a way to enter into an exchange, an understanding. By day, women pay Raj to take them through the city and at night, at night. In this time and circumstance, you do not need to ask any questions about what happens at night. All you need to know is you are dragging men like you are the tree you passed in the bazaar, its yellow birds clacking up like screams and everyone dancing around it.
If you sleep with one man on this trip, you will sleep with two. It is the time, the circumstance, and you have already fucked in a room high in the mountains as if your life had suddenly become a film. It is as if you have arrived in a script, the way your Nepalese guide seduced you, and you slept under all the blankets, the Himalayas outside the window, alone in a large resort in the off-season. Even now, only a week later, you cannot remember his body, exactly. This is the currency of tourism. Your body, the light thing, their bodies, the dark thing—contrasts that call for interpenetration, a kind of spending.
Raj pulls the rickshaw into a dark alley. He tells you to lean forward and because it is the time and the circumstance, you do. You have paid him and he will pay you. He promises his dark hands, the palms white, can make your breasts larger. And, because it feels as if a film is laying itself out and in the next scene of this film you already know the pleasure of him touching you, you open your shirt.
You understand how far one must go to meet their desires. Some must go further than their homes. They travel to enter into a symbolic other. This time, this circumstance, call for you to meet your desire in the mimicking of a colonial relationship. When you return to the public streets, he tells you to "sit back, sit back," and you do, regally white in the back of the cab. You must pretend you have never touched.
You are like a white doll, someone once said to you, a woman in a bar in another country. She wanted the man you were with to know that you were unreal to her. She said it as a compliment and because you understand this desire for the opposite, the other, the inverse, you took it as one. This man wanted to treat you like a white doll, to spit on you and come on your face. And, because you understand the power of representation and the desire to have the other fulfill the image you hold, you gave him what he wanted.
Do not misunderstand, these acts were not part of humiliation, they were part of experimenting with an image, pushing it onto a real body, to pose and mimic and enact. For you too, it was a way of slipping into something already on-going. To give up feeling the self and to become an image of that self you take off your clothes with a man you do not know. He says his name is Raj, but you know this cannot be true. It becomes a scene, the time and the circumstance creating a distance between the moment and your representation.
There is no need to explain or to discuss the move he makes toward you. When he touches you, he is not predatory, but he is catching his breath which feels not unlike your own unburdening into his hands. He says he would suck every strange part of you, but he cannot touch you in this way because it is Friday and there are evening prayers. One must not allow one's mouth to touch a woman and touch Allah on the same day. You want to know these rules, to understand them, but in this time and circumstance, there is only exotic observation.
Now is when you will come to understand the tourist's gaze, how it is always watching for moments of authentic otherness, the allurement of the strange. And you will feel the miracle as he finds this in you, fingering your unfamiliar body which is so familiar to you. He puts his fingers inside you while watching your expression, to see it pleased, to see it change, to help you see his face as he encounters you. When he pulls his fingers out he says this strange shape of you is a gift from God. Touching you like this, you are his yellow bird, his white doll. He is kneeling at your legs and watching you and touring you like you, your labia, and your cunt are holy for merely being there.
Yes, it is exactly this: you are fucking him in a way that means colonization, the dark man taking the white woman through the city, and he is fucking you in a way that means colonization, the white woman being taken through the city by the dark man. This is the time and the circumstance.
What I am saying is that you must remember that what you have in this room, now, with this dark other on and inside your white skin, is a moment in which the representation of the thing has become more important than the thing itself. You are fucking each other's desires, as they are limited through your bodies and the cultural symbols you carry and this trade is good, this trade is good.
Afterwards, he must wash and wash his hands repeatedly and bury the evidence of what has happened in the trash. You are taking his picture to keep a moment, like you took a picture of the birds outside the hotel window. And then, you are walking out the door together, people watching you.
On the way to the airport, he will give you his card and tell you a story of a white man who wanted to pay to watch him bathe. He refused, but he was not angry. He understands when we come to another country it is not the foreign body itself that intrigues us, but the image of that body, its outlines, its otherness. Wanting to watch it, after all, seems natural to him.
Listen. Now is when he will tell you his real name: Shakir Kahn, and you will ask him to repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. As if to take you into direct contact with him. You will hold hands and it will feel very much like you are escaping; but, he will strew the space between you with the details of his life. He was born a Muslim, he lives in a small house with bare white walls, his father is no longer alive, and he wants to move to your country. When his hands are in yours you will know that he holds on to you not for you but for the image he has of your country. It is the ending you expected, you could have predicted. Though you will not want to admit it, on the plane, you will be relieved to leave him behind.
But, later on, when you're back home, you will want to re-live this desire, and you will be able to do so, even as you move into this time and circumstance, by the re-telling of it. Here, it is for you, then, this throbbing red thing in me and the way—in this moment—I am showing it to you and asking you to also see me as a representation of myself. Am I not cosmopolitan? Am I not that woman, sexy and larger than life, in a film?
It is a complex thing: this desire to be represented outside of the self, so I am making a moment now into which I am forcing you to come—some of you coming with pleasure, others against your will—and what is happening now is an encounter between you and my otherness. That foreign pleasure I carry with me like a way of representing the distance between real life and all my other selves. Is telling you this not another way of fucking you in order to bring desire to myself? Have I not used you as Raj has used me and as I have used him? The fact remains: I am now in your time and circumstance and you are in mine.
Written under the influence of living and traveling overseas, but also inside the echo of Marguerite Duras' screenplay for Hiroshima, Mon Amour.