Heart of the Old City
There’s something to be said for a game named after an insect that takes the better part of a PhD to understand.
Having shown the mildest of interest after watching from the sidelines for ten minutes, the eldest man looked at me and pointed the handle end of the bat at my chest. I was seated on some steps by the side of a water pump; my feet reaching over the open sewer ditch to the ripped asphalt. “Do you want to bat?” he asked me.
I admit I hesitated. Fifteen years ago, I would not have. How hard could it be, anyway? I grew up playing baseball and was decent at it. I’ll show these Indians a thing or two on how to a hit a ball. I was confident. It had to be easier: after all, this heavier bat was flat unlike the round Louisville sluggers in baseball.
The bowler started his sprint to the staircase from an alleyway out of sight. It was just a small open area in the Jodhpur’s Old City. Thwack! My first swing, a defensive one, sent the ball ricocheting off the driver side door of a parked car and it was received with
Neighborhood cricket match...
a roar of approval from the fielders. All my swings were defensive. The spin the bowler put on each pitch kept me permanently off balance. With a few adjustments, the rest of the setup was vaguely familiar to me. Instincts took over. Instead of the sliced off pentagonal plate flush to the ground, the set of three stairs leading to the neighborhood Hindu shrine behind me stood for the wicket. Other boys had already positioned themselves in doorways, in front of immobile feeding cattle, and between motor scooters. Traffic would often interrupt and we’d have to wait. Eventually the bowler put me out for six runs in two overs. What does this mean? I cannot really say. Someone had to explain it to me. What I can tell you is that my performance was the worst of the eight of us. But I attracted the most attention, and a lot of disapproval from the elderly women in saris who disapprove of anyone playing in their streets. If this had been the days of elementary school, I would have been the last kid chosen when we lined up against the wall. Of all the times I have used sports to meld
Visit to Barber
He took it like a champ...
into a culture’s fabric, this was the most familiar, the one to which I could most easily relate. A small ball, in this case a red tennis ball used to play fetch with a dog, and a bat were involved. All I knew is that I had to hit it without it being caught in the air or striking the painted areas of the steps behind me. I had stepped upon the boys’ neighborhood cricket ground, in many ways no different than a narrow city street in Brooklyn where stickball used to be played in a parallel universe.
When retired, I walked back to my seat. Lovejeet joined me and brought his own cricket bat to show me how to grip it. The game continued without us; two others had taken our places. The youngest neighborhood children circled around us. The concept of personal space is a mystery to these people. Four or five took a seat on my lap. One snuck in behind me and balanced his abdomen atop of me and spun around using my head as a fulcrum.
Lovejeet reminded me of a few of my mistakes. He took the bat in his hands. “You have to
Beauty in staeliness and simplicity...
grip it like this.” I studied his wrists carefully. Clearly, there is a lot more to this game than the convoluted terminology. Then again, try explaining baseball to a European who has never watched before. At least I had some foundation to work with.
More children gathered around until a neighborhood elder swatted them away at their thighs. Like bees to a bowl of fruit salad on a summer’s day, they’d be back soon enough. “You see him?” Lovejeet pointed to the current bowler. “He is a software engineer. The batter, he is an art designer.” So, I was beaten by superior talent athletically and intellectually. “And you?”
I paused. “I teach. I write.”
“About?” inquired Lovejeet. Among other reasons, he sat down with me because his English was the best of his team. I liked him immediately for the sole reason that he was the only Indian I have come across in a week that sweats as uncontrollably as me. As far as I was concerned, he was more human than the others.
“India and travel. For example, why is everything closed today?” It was a weekday. Even the staff at my hotel told me I would have to
Jodhpur's point of reference anytime when looking up...
resort to dining at their rooftop restaurant because all the others would not be open.
“Ah, yes. There is a strike.”
“In all of Jodhpur or in all Rajasthan?”
“No, no, no! All of India!” Stores and services were at bare bones from the Nepali border to Tamil Nadu.
“For only today, all the stores are closed”, I confirmed. “Hindus and Muslims.”
“It is because of Amunah Temple, in Srinagar.”
“Is it a Hindu temple?”
“And what did the government do? What happened?”
“The government is not taking any action about the land.”
“It’s Hindu land?”
“Yes, many peoples goes there from Bombay and-”
“So, Hindus travel to the temple.”
“Yes, but the Muslims are so terrorists like this that they throw the stones and broke the stuff-”
I interrupted him from time to time. “But why are the Muslims unhappy?”
Others start to chime in. They want to contribute. One fielder answered, “The Muslims think we are all Pakistani and the temple land was…was…”
“But the temple has always been Hindu?”
“Yes.” Lovejeet went on to explain some story about how Muslims claimed the area as their own and made an announcement to
Apartments with a View
Could you imagine if this were lit up at night?
that effect to other Hindu pilgrims. Naturally, tensions mounted in the region.
I was curious about the situation in Jodhpur, closer to the Pakstani border. “And no problems in Jodhpur? Hindus and Muslims OK?”
“It’s OK. We treat them so well, they don’t find any difficulties over here” he went on. The Hindu-Muslim split in the city is eighty-twenty.
“And they treat you well?”
“And you go to school with Muslims?”
“Yes, they are combines. We also go to functions over there.” Then the conversation took an odd turn. There are so many terrorists over there…”
“Over where? In Pakistan?”
“Yes, they come over here and, how do you say, they want to breaks India into so many parts.”
“Why do they want that?”
“You know Jammu and Kashmir? It is an Indian place.”
“So it’s all about Kashmir.”
“But this is Rajasthan.”
“Yes, but what we can say?”
As darkness smothers the Old City of Jodhpur, more of its Rajasthani characters are revealed. Kites still flutter like paranoid pigeons. The length of their tethering puts them at eye level with the base of the ominous Meherangarh Fort. The behemoth rises above alleys of activity and energy,
Mehrangargh Fort - Inside
Ominous on the outisde, very welcoming withn the walls...
now a bewildering maze from which there is no exit. Shadows and distant noises abound whose sources are never truly defined. If careless and no longer sure where your point of origin once was, it would be good fortune to find anyone able to lead you out of the puzzling turns where stray dogs and invisible cattle add to a heightening panic and the possibility of never finding your way out.
Vertically empowered Meherangarh overlooks Jodhpur on all sides like a protective mother. From its ramparts the city’s bumpy surface of cubed rooftops becomes one of a raised and depressed blue ice cube tray that would go into my freezer. The fort’s stern and intimidating exterior deceptively encloses within its formidable gates a delicate mini-city of palaces, thrones, doorways, apartments, and courtyards. Refreshing breezes whistle through cool latticed balconies, festival halls, and museums in which are housed prized possessions of past Maharajas. By the looks of things, it was good to be king. The visit to Meherangarh is a foray back into the unfortunate necessity of tourism. Having arrived when the gates swung open, I had the fortress to myself and did everything in my power to poke, prod, explore,
A bumpy ice cube tray...
and deviate from the assigned path of the walking tour. When scolded by the green and yellow-turbaned guards, I mocked ignorance, apologized, smiled, and followed the direction in which their forefingers pointed me. At the sign of the first Westerner ninety minutes later, I took it as a sign to wrap up my stay.
Before I did, I had to reclaim my ID, a deposit for the self-guided audio tour with earphones I immediately stuffed into my backpack. I mistakenly went back to the entrance; staff forwards all passports and cards used as compensation to the exit. My error now clear to me, the Customer Service Manager sent one of his staff to the far end of Meherangarh to retrieve it. In the meantime, Ganpat and I struck up a five-minute conversation to kill the time. An hour later, we still hadn’t finished.
The thin, cheerful, and stately man of sixty-two with finely intonated English first took note of me when the receptionist asked me in which language I wanted the audio tour programmed. Choices ranged from five or six European tongues and a smattering of Asian ones: Hindi, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.
“Which would you like, sir?” she inquired.
One is inanimate, the other on a break
I immediately came back to her, “Sanskrit. I paused and put my right fist to my chin in a pensive gesture. “In fact, make it the ancient academic version, if you could.” The poor woman was paralyzed, and then went into a slight panic. I just waited silently until she started to mumble to herself. Clearly, these folks are not accustomed to a crass sense of humor. She foolishly took me at my word and hopelessly scrambled around for a solution to my problem. Her sincerity and gullibility was frightening to me. “Tell you what, you can put in English this time. Is that OK for you?” Relieved, she pressed the appropriate buttons and handed me the console.
Ganpat recalled the whole ordeal. “I love how you did that!” he chuckled. “Nobody has ever asked for such a silly thing!” His voice bounced of the stone walls and vaulted ceiling of his alcove office.
“I get bored sometimes” was the only thing I could come back with.
“Hah! Come sit down. Your ID will be back in a few moments.” It took little time for us to touch on topics of mutual interest. Ganpat was a refreshing change from the
Tucked In Tight
Jodhpur creeps right to the base of the rockface...
pretense of other Indians of mild status. I answer and ask direct questions without having to worry about any slights of offense. Ganpat and I touched upon the strike in India, the very same subject Lovejeet told me about. The Fort’s Customer Service Manager detailed a much more rounded explanation of the conflict, which lead me to inquire about the one force that drives all of Indian society: religion.
“But as religion can unite you, it also divides you at the same time” I opined.
“Yes,” responded Ganpat, “that is true.” I cited Gujarat State with a Muslim-dominated population. There have been simmering tensions on and off there for years. Next, I made mention of a national strike over what on the surface appears to be a petty conflict over a modest temple and land several hundred kilometers away.
“As an outsider we look at all of this and say, ‘Wow…’
“You see, emotionally, in the name of religion, ninety percent of Indians got together and raised their voice because in Kashmir the fundamentalists-”
“Which fundamentalists?” I was referring to Hindus or Muslims.
“Both. They didn’t want anyone to get a chunk of land for their purpose. That is why they got aggravated.
“Yes, but when people here get aggravated, it is very dramatic.”
“It is. To be very honest, unfortunately, we are a confused lot.”
“What is the source of the confusion?”
Ganpat gave pause. “We really don’t understand where our country is going. You see, I am an educated person.” I concurred. “I did my Master’s in ancient human history and basically I am a farmer. Having a little bit of education, today I feel that…where do we go? We are misguided by bloody politicians.”
“They are confusing us and we are finding great difficulty.”
Time to change topics and pick at him a little more. “Do you think much has changed in Jodhpur and in Rajasthan over the last twenty years?”
“In what sense?”
“Yes.” he replied with a deep conviction.
India after Independence, we had this progress. At the same time I say we are paupers.”
“To whom? A superior?”
“Yes, and we have done much progress in industries and some other fields…in agriculture, but at the cost of nature. We have played a lot with the nature. You see, at one point, we say that we have reached progress, but at what cost? We have got millions and millions of trees. We have disturbed lakes, rivers. We have disturbed our motherland. We are excavating minerals, but at what cost? What are we leaving behind for the coming generation?
I inserted the idea that people in India do not think about the future generation, much less tomorrow. Ganpat politely disagreed. Everything about him is wrapped in courtesy. “Some people do think.”
“And then our education system…is not good…because we are not getting the right education.”
“But is education equal in the public eye for someone from a high caste all the way down to the lower castes?”
“It is not” Ganpat grimly confirmed.
“So if a Dalit goes into the classroom with high caste students, that Dalit has no chance.” I egged him on to see how invested he is in the caste system and what his true feelings were.
“You see, I did not get the opportunity at the chance at my fairly good education in a high level school. I never got this opportunity. And today, I feel…”
“You feel cheated?”
“Yes! I feel cheated and humiliated because I have been deprived of the opportunity!”
“Not the guarantee.” I wanted to be clear.
“Not the guarantee,” he precisely repeated. “And what makes our government feel that children from this society will get higher education and children from this society will get-” he cut himself off and began a new thought. “They pretend Dalits will get higher education, but in fact it is not reality. We are hypocrites.”
I inquired why with an unintelligent question. Ganpat deftly shifted to the next idea lined up in his head. “You see, things have changed. The condition of the Dalits in 1947 and the conditions of the Dalits today…it’s a tremendous change! Now Dalits, fortunately, they are awakened people. They are for their rights,” Ganpat swung his fist-clenched arm across his chests as a gesture of firm cheerful approval. “They fight for their rights, and they are listened. That’s a change, a good change, I would say. In past, people used to call them Untouchables. But now today, fortunately, it is a crime if I use this word Untouchable. If I’m charged in the courts, I will be prosecuted.”
“And what would be the penalty?”
“Ten years imprisonment, rigorous imprisonment.”
“For using the word?”
“Yes, for using the word.” Wow. “Can you believe that? It is true.”
My expired ID arrived. Our fifteen-minute conversation lasted well into Ganpat’s work day. He suggested I stop by for tea at his house later in the afternoon. I accepted before he could finish wording his invitation. He pulled out a business card and on the back wrote the directions in Hindi for me to give to the rickshaw driver. “See you at six o’clock.”
Earlier in the afternoon, he drew a sketch of his family residence and described it as a series of homes in a single walled complex. Each brother and his family occupied a house around the original family structure. It is hard to know what to expect when visiting someone’s home in India. Will it be a modest apartment like mine back home? Or a stately mansion? Perhaps I will take a seat on the floor of a mud hut and make myself comfortable. You just never know.
I pulled up to the residence in a more modern neighborhood of Jodhpur and paid my driver forty rupees for the twenty-minute ride. I looked at a walled gated complex of impressive block homes. Servants greeted me and showed me through the manicured gardens and walkways to the split-level home belonging to Ganpat. The former twenty-year veteran tour leader for an upmarket British travel firm greeted me with that kind of radiant smile you come across once every few months if you’re lucky. This time, he was in a light linen dhoti, instead of the button-down collared shirt and slacks I saw him in at the office. His affability was as intense as his hospitality.
“Richard!” he screamed arms outstretched. “Did you get here OK?”
Well, yes and no. “It was entertaining. I gave the driver your card with directions, but he couldn’t decipher them.”
“Huh? Did I make a mistake?”
“I doubt it. He couldn’t read any of it.”
“My handwriting was that bad?”
“No, no. He couldn’t read. He didn’t know how.”
“Oh, this can happen here.”
“It is no matter. He compensated for his illiteracy by not having a clue about Jodhpur. I got to see more of the city than I ever intended.” We started down the walkway.
A tour of the house was next. His family history is a soap opera of high level bureaucrats, senior military officers, high court judges, and well placed lawyers. One family member had once been a step away from becoming President of India during the Indira Gandhi administration, he told me in his study.
So much for sitting on the floor of a mud hut.
Over tea, we picked up where we left off. We chatted about nothing in particular. Ganpat, having attended to my comforts, now had a lot to say. I gave him the floor.
“Once when I was working, there was this lady and her husband was a big business man.” Both were on a fifteen-day tour, Ganpat being the leader. “The lady, the professor lady, came to me and said, ‘Mr. Singh, I’d like to sit next to you.’ I said, ‘Madam, of course, please!’ The lady went on, ‘Well, Mr. Singh, for the last couple of days, we have been traveling with you and we like you.’ I said thank you very much. ‘We would like to give something to you and your family.’ I said thank you very much but no. By the grace of God I have everything and whatever little God has given to me I am very happy.
“Very interesting. OK…She went to her husband and after fifteen or twenty minutes she came back to me and said, ‘No, my husband is really willing to do something.’” Ganpat asked for some time to think about what would be appropriate. “So ultimately I reached my group back to Delhi and took them to the hotel and told them that I hope they enjoyed everything. The lady, she came back to me, ‘Ganpat, you did not answer my question.’ You promised me one demand that you will give me?” Ganpat made sure. The lady at the end of her journey said yes. “You promise me?” asked Ganpat. ‘Yes’ OK, then, do one thing: When you reach home, kindly send me a letter of thanks and that would be a big reward to me. She was taken aback. She never expected this answer. ‘OK,’ she said, ‘and I really enjoyed traveling with you.”
All the man wanted was a letter and a thank you. During my stay with him, he asked even less of me.
“When you were a tour director-”
“No, no, no” he corrected me. “Tour leader.” Tour director. Tour leader. Whatever.
“As a tour leader, did you lead tours only in Rajasthan or all of India?”
“I used to take, you see: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and all Rajasthan. Sometimes into the remote areas and Gwalior. Sometimes, I would go to Gwalior” just south of Agra, “with my group.
“I am really proud of my city”, Ganpat spoke up about Jodhpur.
“What is it about Jodhpur that is appealing? There are three primary cities to see in Rajasthan: Jaipur, Udaipur, and Jodhpur. What is special about Jodhpur?”
Ganpat’s voice intensified, “I am proud of my city. Very proud of my city!” He put down his drink and regained eye contact. “They are still preserving their old values. Generally, Jodhpur people are very friendly, very cooperative. Unfortunately, because of the tourist coming into this place, it really has spoiled our culture.”
“Here in Jodhpur, or everywhere in Rajasthan?”
“Yes, but you know as a tour leader, that Rajasthan is the benchmark for tourism in India. Everything that is promoted about India starts and ends with Rajasthan.”
“Yes. Our culture is entirely different than to the rest of India. We give importance to old values.”
I brought up the symbol of Rajasthani culture in the eyes of many foreigners: the turban. “Can you explain at when a man wears a turban, why he wears it, at what age, and what the colors signify?” You need a guidebook to understand this. “So when I walk through Jodhpur and I see a man, how can I simply understand what I am looking at?”
It turns out, like with all of India, nothing is simple. Answers do not fall onto anyone’s lap.
“You see, I am sure you have read about Rajput civilization…”
“Yes.” My answer was more to needle him on than it was to acknowledge a history about which I know very little.
“When we excavated this area, you see, we found some brass statues, having the turbans.”
“On the statutes?”
“Yes. Not the real turban, but brass carvings. So you make of that the hypothesis of the turban.” Such was his theory about the headwear’s origins. “So the system of the turban goes back to this ancient civilization. For the last five thousand years, we have been using this.
“Now, I am sure,” meaning I will have no clue, “that you have observed in each state like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh…each state will have different types of turbans. Coming back to Rajasthan, every fifty kilometers you travel you find a change in the color and the style of the turban.”
“Why?” Simple questions do not always generate simple answers.
“Because the style and color of the turban would bespeak the legion and the caste of the person…and the colors would tell you-”
I reverted to my visit to Meherangarh. “At the fort, the staff wore long white robes with a green and yellow turban.”
“Yes”, I agreed. “Dotted. So, at what age does a man decide to wear-”
“Not decide. It is natural. Very natural. In the countryside, a child of about eight or nine would have the turban. And in the cities, you would find very few people…But in the countryside, in the desert, ninety-nine percent would have the turban. Now this turban would be ten to fifteen meters long.”
“What is the material?”
“Pure cotton. So, as you know, our economy is based on agriculture.” That I actually could confess under oath to knowing. “The herdsman, when he goes to the countryside to graze his animals. And these people would only style with white color. So when we see that and someone in a white turban, he is dressed and ready to go!” he stressed energetically. “You can tell much about the families.”
“Kind of like the tartans in Scotland?”
“Yes! Exactly, yes!”
“So when I leave Jodhpur I plan travel in the direction of Bikaner and Jaisalmer. What do you suggest-”
“Ah! Then every fifty kilometers you travel, you will find the change in dialetcht.”
Dialetcht? “You mean dialect?”
“Yes, dialetcht.” I let it go. “Bikaner people, they speak Rajasthani, but the dialetcht would be different. Then if you go to Jaisalmer, dialetcht will be different again. And if you go the West, very Western Rajasthan, very near Pakistan, it is different. Then, because of the geography and physical conditions, you see, this geography and climate conditions, they play a great role in deciding the dialect.” He got the pronunciation right that time. I shouldn’t fixate on such trivia. “As you know, in desert area, it is a very harsh place, and that is why their dialetcht would be very harsh.” He was back to dialetcht again. “They sound very rough! But in Jodhpur, they sound melodious, the local..dia-”
“Dialect. And it is very respectful. Suppose I talk to a young person, a young boy. I would use a respectful tone for that unknown person, that young boy. So, coming back to your next destination, Bikaner or-”
“Jaisalmer. What should I expect outside of the obvious?” Of course, plans change and it so happens that I would not make the move west after all.
“You can, you can. Unfortunately because of the situation, people are spoiled. People in Bikaner…For example, had you come to this place, say sixty years back, you would have found this place entirely different…VEERRRYYYY courteous people! Down to earth! My God! Very hospitable, very hospitable. They are warm inside.
“Suppose, and it is always better to visit a poor people who is living in a hut because-”
“People who have less give more.” I couldn’t help myself. I have to stop cutting people off in interviews or I’ll turn into the next Charlie Rose.
“Exactly!” Ganpat screamed. They always do. His wife peered from behind the drapes to see if he was OK and motion him to calm down. Thing is, Ganpat was calm. “You really snatched my words!” Perhaps, but that is not always a good thing. I should slap myself on the wrist. “So-called poor people…I would say they are the richest people” he beamed. “Why are they the richest people? They are very warm. They are very welcoming. And no matter how poor these people are, but if you visit that place unannounced, they will make it a point that you are comfortable there. These people, they will offer you either to drink or to eat. And they do not know you only drink mineral water. But they would bring you water to offer you.”
We were seated diagonally from each other on the kind of decorative furniture Mom puts in the living room that no one ever uses so as not to ruin the room pristine splendor. He put his cup down leaned into to me closely and seriously. “And one thing I would like to tell you, my real India, my real India, does not lie in cities. My India lies in countryside. People living in huts, people living in misery, they are the real Indians, I would say. And very strongly I would say, with my first-hand experience.”
“Do you have a village in mind near Jodhpur or in the West of Rajasthan I could visit?”
“Do you have much time in Rajasthan?”
Ganpat leaned back against the upholstering of his chair, brought the fingertips of both hand together in front of his nose, closed his eye, and fell silent. Not a bit of the prolonged silence was uncomfortable. He asked for time, which I unconditionally granted.
True to form, the jovial Ganpat switch gears and we went off on another path. “How do you find India? Are you often bothered?” The tables were turned and I was game to answer his questions not having to worry about controlling my candor.
“At times the relationship is adversarial. It’s to the point where when I want to get a ride or I want to buy something as a foreigner, it is a nuisance. I don’t want any problems. I just want what is fair and to be kind. But there are double standards. The foreigner does not care to pay a different price than what an Indian pays. If a rickshaw ride for me is fifty rupees, you are going to pay differently than I will. To walk through the market, it is a constant badgering of ‘Hey Mister, come here’ of touts who are going to lie to you and try to get you to go somewhere. ‘No, that restaurant is closed!’ ‘I can help you!’ ‘Hello, my friend!’ It’s constant and you have to filter it away. It makes coming here one more layer of a challenge. So as soon as I step off the train, they’re on me.” I harbor some dislike for touts. It’s impossible to distinguish the sincere folks from those practicing deceit.
“Yes, and that really brings back to an image of my country.”
“But to be fair, it happens in many, many countries.”
This comment provoked Ganpat’s ire a bit. “Well, I’m not bothered for other countries. I’m bothered for my country because I’m an Indian. And I have all reasons to feel sorry about my country. My country was a beautiful country, Richard. By God! By God! Fifty years back, forty-five years back, there was love and affection, between each of us.”
“But now it is much more aggressive.”
“It is. And now we have different values. Selfish. In past, it was not.
“There’s a place called Bassi.” Ganpat had learned to spell everything for me. Otherwise, I would butcher the transcription from Hindi. “I took my group to this remote village and we stayed for two nights in the former ruler’s haveli,” a Mughal style private residence. “I took my group members to tribal area, and those are called Bhweels. It’s a tribal. So, listen: I had a very pleasant experience there. When I arrived visiting with my groups to that tribal area, I used to carry some candies for the children. In front of my group, it was very moving, I called all children with all affection and distributed candies to all of them. After some time I have noticed there is a young, small boy standing in the corner with his tattered shirt. I called him. ‘Please’”, he motioned as if there were sweets in his hand, “and offered him that candy. He looked at me and very honestly said, ‘No, you have already given me.’ Ganpat suddenly and thunderously clapped his hands in a moment of revelation. My neck snapped back.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please come!” he called out to his group. Who says these are poor people? Look at this honest young guy. I forgot that I gave him this candy. I say,” he exclaimed, “this is my real India. And at that time, Richard, I felt proud of my nation, my countrymen.” In this sentence I could detect a solemnity in his voice and the slightest dampness in his eyes.
“Divisional Commisioner, you said?”
“Yeah, Ganpat, something like that.” Kind enough to give a ride to my next commitment, he performed a U-turn before he let me out the door. He did not need to honk the horn. Attendants were already at the gate. One was armed. We simultaneously craned our neck to get a peek inside, though I was the one who would see more. Whoever inhabits this small mansion commands the attention of many others.
“Whoa,” Ganpat whispered to me out of the earshot of the guard. “She’s a big gun.”
I do not like to be made to wait, a regrettable personal trait when traveling in India. Servant #1 showed me to a sofa, the only comfortable piece of furniture among the austere chairs in the parlor. Servant #2 dashed off to make tea. Good, I thought. I was hungry. Tea always comes with side treats or biscuits. When the tea arrived, I almost swallowed the crackers whole. Time continued to pass with very little to keep me occupied. My notebook was complete. Minutes passed and the only sound I could detect was children playing in the distance and servants clanging dishes in a kitchen somewhere nearby. Books were laid out on the coffee table: Sweden in Pictures, African American Art, and the Singapore Encyclopedia were properly located among Amsterdam beer mats. In full view were photos of her and the husband receiving degrees from Harvard and other poses of prominence. It took very little time to conclude this woman isn’t just on the way. She’s there and people should know about it.
I needed to go to the toilet. My tea finished, Servant #3 brought me through a boy’s bedroom fit for an American. This is India? The walls were plastered with still shots of cricket players and NBA stars. LeBron James is the desktop image on the flat screen monitor for his computer. On the floor sat a PS2 console in front of his television set. Ball caps hung on his coat hanger. His room was a reflection of the whole home: secular and very Westernized.
Still, time dragged. What was this woman doing, staving off nuclear war? I had decided I will make this a short courtesy visit and be on my way for dinner. My hunger pangs far outweighed my interest in this social call.
Madhukar, her husband, appeared and threw me a huge bear hug. I had not seen him or his wife since a trip to Cambridge in April. The greeting made me feel we were friends since college. He apologized for not getting back to me through email. I shrugged that off. I was just happy to be with the guy, if famished. As we entered conversation, Kiran finally came through the drapes into the parlor in a deep orange sari and shook my hand with the gentlest of reserved smiles, a clear opposite of her equally well placed husband. I could have been an ambassador presenting my credentials.
Twenty more arduous minutes went by with other guests she was entertaining. I was looking at the wooden arm of the ornamental chairs as possible sustenance. The others departed and as I was ready to ask if she could arrange a rickshaw to come collect me and bring me to the nearest buffet table or injured water buffalo.
“Richard,” Kiran softly asked, “would you like to join us for dinner?”
I jumped up, grabbed by pack, and indiscreetly replied, “Let’s go!”
It was when I jumped in the official white SUV with private driver and armed guard that it hit me. Yep, she is a big gun. With her fourteen-year-old daughter and younger brother in the back, we swerved through the streets of modern Jodhpur under sirens and police escort. We were important.
A side from the lavish detail of the twelve-star hotel where we dined, a few things still stand out from the experience. The driver opened the door and the first thing I heard from the little tike’s mouth was, “Not here again! I hate the food here!” That stopped me. I wanted to inject him with a dose of reality. This is not the time, I told myself. But he was too young to grasp that he lives in a bubble shaped by the fruits of Mom and Dad’s accomplishments. Hotel staff searched out a private suite. Never disrespectful, the boy urged Kiran to go with the large room; the forty-inch flat screen TV picked up his favorite cartoons.
We wound up in the dining room as some sort of compromise. Kiran, such a high public official, prefers to remain out of the public eye when out with her family. In t-shirt and shorts, I bequeathed the ordering to Madhukar. What came next was the coldest beer, moistest meats, finest service, escorts, and attention to the last detail. The Four Seasons has got nothing on this place. Eating on the shiny marble floor would be a joy for me. Still, little Buster was not satisfied. He stared at his cell phone until Kiran pushed it away. He has no clue.
I like Kiran. She is stately. One of her most appealing qualities is her ability to say a lot without talking. Every now and then, she would ask me a question: “Have you seen such in Jodhpur that is reflected in my paintings?”
“No”, I said curtly. “I have no idea what is going on. A walk around Delhi, Agra, and Jodhpur doesn’t cut it.”
I volleyed back a question for her. “Wouldn’t you be insulted if someone coming to your country for a week said ‘yes’? What, they saw a man in a turban serving medallions of lamb in a posh restaurant,” I directly alluded to our surroundings, “and there’s a connection?” Are you kidding me, I wanted to add. Kiran finished her bite, and pensively took in my words. She said nothing, and there was a lot in that absence of speech.
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