A friend in the States, a friend in France. I've known both for more than a quarter century and have visited both in their homes several times. Each time, I suggest to them before leaving that they come visit me in India.
Their usual reaction: a small smile and then they shake their heads, no. Both have essentially the same reason. "I'm scared of how I will react to the poverty," they say. Thus both, so far, have not turned up to visit me; neither has personally contributed to the tourist industry in India.
Others like them have, though. We don't get tourists in the numbers that Spain and Turkey do, for example. But close to 7 million people came to India in 2012, generating revenues of nearly $18 billion. That kind of money means livelihoods to thousands across this land, especially in such favorite spots as Rajasthan, Hampi, Agra, and Goa.
Now I don't know how many of these millions of tourists are aware of and react in some way to poverty. But the reality is that the number of visiting tourists has been steadily rising for years.
Except that the past few months have seen the opposite: tourist traffic to India is dropping. Plenty of tourists are choosing not to come on trips they had planned. In particular, foreign women are changing their minds about visiting India. One report suggests that there was a 25 percent drop in tourist arrivals over the first three months of 2013. That's fueled by a 35 percent drop among foreign women tourists.
Why are women shunning India? One word: rape. It started with the sickening gang rape in Delhi last December and continued with a sequence of other widely reported ones. Among them was the assault on a Swiss cyclist couple who camped near the town of Orchha; the South Korean woman raped by the son of the owner of her hotel in Madhya Pradesh; the Englishwoman who actually jumped from her Agra hotel window to escape men trying to enter her room late at night. Put it all together, it's enough to put substantial fear into women thinking of visiting this country. Enough that on a May trip through France and Spain, plenty of people I met asked variations on "just what is going on—all these rapes in your country?"
And now the news of an American woman gang-raped in the hill town of Manali.
It's hard to find new ways to feel depressed and outraged about, well, yet another rape, so I won't try. Previously expressed sentiment will have to do.
But there is one aspect of this Manali rape that deserves attention. On Monday night, the American woman went to visit friends in a village a couple of miles outside Manali. Visit done, she decided to return to Manali, but was unable to find a taxi. At one in the morning—1 a.m.!—she "accepted a ride with three men in a truck."
The men raped her.
By no means am I condoning this rape. Like many of my fellow citizens, I would like to believe that India is, or one day will be, perfectly safe for women to travel in. It may never come to pass, but it remains an ideal worth striving for. In the meantime, it is simply not true.
And so I would dearly love to know what was going through the American woman's head as she left her friends' home that night. Why didn't she wait till the morning to return? What possessed her to flag down a passing truck and climb in? Nowhere in the world, and certainly not anywhere in India, should a woman take a ride from three unknown men in a truck at one in the morning. Why did she do it?
After all, one precaution women are taking about travel in India is to cancel their plans altogether. (Or, in the case of my friends, not make plans in the first place.) But if you're in India already, another precaution, surely, is to avoid taking crazy risks. And this late-night, hitched ride was just that: a foolish, crazy risk.
These days, I don't try so hard to persuade my two friends, French and American, to come visit. I understand their fears about poverty. We see it too, every day, and I don't know how we get accustomed to it, if ever. I also understand the fear that the sequence of rapes has released and I don't know how we get accustomed to that either.
But we do get accustomed, and to way too many things. Many of us remember, all too well, when the November 2008 assault on Mumbai prompted the local home minister R.R. Patil to tell us that "incidents like these keep happening in big cities."
You know, like cars jumping red lights. Burglaries. Murderous attacks by armed gunmen. And—why not?—rapes. All keep happening.
But get used to it? Thanks, but no thanks.