Are you Russian? Wearing shorts in Delhi

By Tao Tao Holmes: 

It was 8:30 pm on a snug July evening in Delhi, and my flatmate and I were walking back from Green Park market, a relatively upscale neighborhood of India’s capital city. By relatively upscale, I mean that I have yet to see a single goat, and meandering cows are few and far between. It’s in an area of South Delhi, which is generally more affluent than the Old City and many other parts of Delhi, and the neighborhood into which my apartment has been squeezed is surprisingly progressive. And by surprisingly progressive, I mean that I don’t feel uncomfortable in shorts.

Such an absence of discomfort may also be attributed just as much to my skin and hair color as to the neighborhood, or more so, the perfect alignment of both; Safdarjung Enclave is predominantly northeastern, which means that the Indians have some Chinese mixed into them. With my partial Asian parentage, darker skin and coal-black hair, I blend right in.

A woman wearing shorts in Delhi would stick out like a sore thumb. (Flickr Creative Commons/Elodie N)

This sense of racial ambiguity I’ve always found a boon, and over the years I’ve culled a decent collection of alter-ethnicities. Each time I’m mistaken for a new subgroup of the human species I feel a little tickle of amusement. And so, the other evening in Green Park when a portly semi-bald Indian man asked me if I am Russian, my immediate thought was quite ludicrous: I can pass as Russian!

This should have been the first red flag. Nothing about my appearance says Russian. Nothing at all. Philippine/Portuguese/New Caledonian imposters do not generally try their hand at passing for a Ruskie. But the truth is, after being a foreigner in Delhi for even a short period of time, you become quite accustomed to utterly bizarre conversation starters and weird, if not disturbing, exchanges with locals. After a while, you either turn into a complete Scrooge and refuse to acknowledge anyone who addresses you, or, alternatively, you go along with it and have some fun. I do a little bit of both, but this evening I was feeling up for the latter. So only naturally I pulled out my svelte Russian accent.

Glancing at my Nike sports shorts, the man had in fact first asked me if I was an athlete, to which I had responded “Chyeaah dawg,” hoping this might shake him off. It did not. The athlete inquiry was closely followed by the ethnic question. The man looked to be unavoidably walking to the same intersection as we, and so I responded with a sardonic “DAAA – that iz yehhz, in Ruh-shin.” My flatmate strolled on my other side, the passing traffic muffling our exchange from her ears.

“What sports do you play?”

“I uh-play zee oh-key on zee ice,” I responded. “And zee futbol uv course.”

The man sullied the evening air of our stroll home with a few more indolently received words, before I quickened our step and shed his pesky presence. I glanced back to see that he had stopped moving, stranded on the road outside a local hotel.

I turned to Kristin. “Yo! I just passed for Russian! Whaddup?!” I was pretty stoked.

“Wait, sorry –– what did he ask you?” Kristin peered questioningly at me, a New Yorker seven years my senior, not to mention a three-year India veteran.

“He asked if I was Russian. Pretty random. I never thought I could pass as Russian. But hey.”


“You know ‘Are you Russian,’ means ‘Are you a prostitute,’ right?”

I stopped walking. “What?”

“Girl, we’re in India. We’re in Asia. That guy just thought you were a Natasha. Oh my god. I can’t believe you didn’t realize.” She looked up, hunched over laughing.

“But––.” I sputtered. “I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts. I haven’t washed my hair or worn makeup in a week. How could I possibly be a prostitute?”

She shrugged. “You were wearing shorts.” Her laugh had graduated into a grin.

At this point, there was nothing left for me to do but laugh. Which is funny, since nothing about prostitution is laugh worthy. In fact, it took only a moment for my laughter to metamorphose into revulsion. The repugnance and audacity of that seemingly harmless pervert in addressing me while walking home with my white friend out of Green Park market, was, and is, disgusting. The idea that any woman would ever choose or be forced to continue talking is even more appalling. And yet, it happens every day and every night. Endless times.

That evening, my naïveté proved comical, rather than harmful. But I was reminded that in a city like Delhi, a young woman, particularly a foreigner, can never be off her guard. And wearing shorts is a luxury best let go. There are other places for that.

Tao Tao Holmes ’14 is in Branford College. Contact her at