Public Places In The Past Smelled Bad

I'm always clocking the "mph" in each new city I visit in India.  No, not the miles per hour - the men peeing per hour.  So far Jaipur has the highest mph.  Can't turn around without seeing some dude huddled up against a fence or a tree, scenting the area.  A few days ago I shared a taxi with a couple of Danes from Jaisalmer to Udaipur.  I explained about varying rates of mph across the country and said I had a daily quota to meet: five men peeing in public, or I've gone under. They laughed and said I was exaggerating.  I counted seven before the taxi arrived in Udaipur and we parted ways.  Victory?

There are lots of great smells in India.  Incense and flowers and stuff.  But the number one most common odor here is urine.  There are five hundred million men in India and they are all manufacturing a powerful eau de parfum that they spray all over every public space.  Streets, parks, train stations, you name it.

That's not all, of course.  India is one of those countries were women are not encouraged to go out alone.  If I get on a bus or train, I'll see men - alone or in groups - or families.  Not groups of women.  Western women travel alone here, but not Indian women.  And there's always something prickly and uncomfortable about being the odd person out.  I can say from experience, it's really, really uncomfortable to sit down in a train car when every other person around you is male.  It's really hard to fall asleep in your berth when you can hear men's voices around you and no feminine murmurs to balance it out.

I've met so many friendly people.  I've found helping hands along the way when I needed it, I've asked for directions and gotten guides instead.  But that doesn't change the fact that male-dominated public spaces are fundamentally hostile to unchaperoned women.

Westerners - Americans, certainly - feel like we have a right to public spaces.  We're used to seeing them as an extension of our homes, as the focal points of community activities, as friendly and welcoming.  And that often seeps through to writing about historical eras, where characters venture blithely into the streets without a wink of fear.  They travel alone, they go out on foot, and they don't suffer constant harassment.

But, seriously, imagine your usual gently-bred Regency heroine.  She's sweet and innocent and she says "limbs" instead of "legs".  Does she see five men peeing into a ditch every day before lunch?  Does she think the world smells like urine?  No.  No she does not.  Why?  Because she stays inside.

Public spaces, public life, street life -- these things didn't really exist until the latter half of the nineteenth century (reams have been written on the birth of public spaces and it's a fascinating topic).  There are still places in the world that are male-dominated, where social life is private, and they really do give us a glimpse into what it would be like for a lone woman in a hostile world.  The answer?  Scary.  Disgusting.  Chaotic.