MUMBAI, India — Cristiana Peruzzo, 35, describes herself as a short, slim, relatively plain looking Italian woman. “I like myself,” she says, “but I don’t consider myself a sex bomb.”
She would date in Italy, but she never got a tremendous amount of attention.
Then she moved to Mumbai.
Peruzzo joined a social networking site to meet people and was suddenly bombarded with interest from men. Over the course of a few months, she met 16 of the almost 50 men who contacted her.
Peruzzo says that during the first encounter, the men would act like they, too, were interested in friendship. But the mood would quickly change. Many would assume she wanted to have an affair with them even though she expressed no interest, she says.
And they would not back off.
Some would send a barrage of text messages and call day and night. One phoned 10 times a day for months, she says, even though she told him she was not interested and stopped answering her phone.
Peruzzo is not alone.
While many — if not most — Indian men do not act this way, the behavior is common enough that plenty of foreign women living in Mumbai jumped at the chance to tell stories about experiences they have had with men who just do not get the hint.
Some foreign women here consider the behavior, which can be characterized as an extreme amount of one-sided communication, as innocent flirting. Others find the barrage of messages and phone calls to be nothing short of harassment or even virtual stalking.
Peruzzo received so many texts that she began transcribing them in a diary. It filled 68 pages, she says. A shipping company executive who she had just met wrote: “sleeping … alone ... do you want to come over??”
A multinational executive, married with two kids, wrote: “my name means Cobra in Hindi n my cobra is a darling! u hv 2 make him dance according 2 ur tunes! he can dance as long as u want him to. Will u make him dance?”
Australian journalist Virginia Moncrieff, who has worked across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, remembers being in India and having a long chat with a university student. She gave him her phone number, and he proceeded to call and text countless times a day.
“I still can't figure out why, when I was so obviously displeased and bothered by the endless, endless calls that my new ‘friend’ just could not, and would not, stop contacting me,” she wrote in an email.
According to cross-culture and gender specialists, this behavior in "new India" is a result of shifting social norms, a low level of interaction between opposite sexes, influences of pop culture and differing interpretations of power dynamics between men and women.
As Mumbai changes and modernizes, there is confusion over what type of behavior is acceptable in personal as well as work environments, says Jerry Pinto, author of "Surviving Women," a manual of gender politics in India.
“We are going through a period in which no one is quite sure what the rules are,” he says.
While harassment of women happens all over the world, the behavior may be more crude in India because there is a lack of understanding of sexual and political correctness, says Sameera Khan, a journalist and writer who covers gender issues. In the West, more workplaces and universities have clear policies instructing people what is acceptable behavior.
In places like Mumbai, she says, there is often no understanding where the line is drawn and people freely mock those with less power. At workplaces, for example, some employees send around mass emails blatantly making fun of women and lower caste people, she says.
Many Indian men grow up having very little contact with women outside their family, cross-cultural and management consultant Rajeshwar Balasundaram wrote in an email. Men sit separately from women on public transportation and at schools and do not develop platonic friendships. When they meet foreign women, they rely on the stereotypes they have acquired through Hollywood and Bollywood movies of foreign women as free and loose. These men think they can communicate freely with these foreign women, but sometimes they get carried away.
“They think the Western woman is fair game,” says Times of India columnist Bachi Karkaria.
A foreigner might be trying to make friends, but if she gives a man her phone number, he assumes she wants to take the relationship further, Karkaria says.
Bollywood films also convey that a man will succeed at seducing a woman by continuing to pursue her.
Indrajit Chattopadhyay says he flirts with women by sending them five to 10 text messages a day. If she does not respond to the initial messages, he continues sending them.
“If I find the water is cold, I try and make it warm before taking it forward,” he says.
Chattopadhyay, who lives near New Delhi, says that he listens to women’s signals and only continues when she shows interest. He just continues a bit longer than men do in the West.
“If I send five [text messages] today and no response, and five tomorrow and no response, obviously I will trickle down to two and then one and then zero,” he says.
Foreign women here say they have learned to tame their usual friendliness to avoid being the objects of incessant attention.
When Maddie Gressel, 22, first moved to Rajasthan in northwestern India, she was eager to make friends and would freely give away her phone number, she says. But she quickly learned that men assumed she was interested in more. She started receiving text messages 10 times a day with poems like, “Love is the flower you hold in your hand.”
Gressel says she no longer gives away her number easily.
Other women block numbers on their phone, avoid making eye contact with men at bars or on the street, and stop being so friendly.
Peruzzo says she turns her phone off every night to avoid text messages from men she thought were just friends. She has also stopped meeting men through the social networking site.
“At the beginning you do it because it’s nice and it really raises your self esteem. At 35 to have so much attention!” she says with a laugh. “But then you have to pay for it, and I wasn’t willing to pay for it.”