I wake up at five a.m. on the train and watch the dawn come as the miles fly by. A man snores, a woman talks in Hindi in her sleep. We pass endless mustard fields, the yellow of the plants so bright they seem unreal.
Our twenty hour train ride passes surprisingly fast. We even arrive at the Jaipur train station five minutes early. After unlocking our luggage, we haul it onto the platform and try to find the autorickshaw area. We wander aimlessly in circles for a good half hour and I make up a story in my head that if we go past the waiting area one more time one of these families will feel compelled to adopt us because we are obviously not very good at life.
We’ve almost made it to the autorickshaw area when a driver comes up and asks if we need a ride and when we don’t, where we’re from. “Canada!” he says, “I have a friend in Canada.” He shows us a photo of his friend, who he met in Jaipur ten years ago. They’ve never met again, but they are still writing to each other online – in fact, his friend sent him a message just thirty seconds before he shows us the phone. Hooray! Penpals DO still exist.
We are here to meet Shahid, who has been driving an autorickshaw in Jaipur for over ten years. Todd met him two years ago on his first trip here. Shahid waves and comes over and Todd gives him a hug and I insist on one too. Shahid is exactly as advertised – a tremendously competant driver with a ready smile and a real interest in people and life and the world. He asks if we’d like music on our autorickshaw trip and YES PLEASE so we get to bop around in our seats to Hindi music as we zip down the road. At a traffic stop, a fellow autorickshaw driver dances to the music and calls to us, “This is a great guy if you need anyone to take you around!” (I second the recommendation: https://www.tripadvisor.in/Attraction_Review-g304555-d12980905-Reviews-Rickshaw_Jaipur-Jaipur_Jaipur_District_Rajasthan.html )
Shahid drives us to Nitin’s house, where we will stay for the next six days. Nitin and his two children come outside to greet us and I immediately feel like I am visiting family, not strangers. Nitin runs Saksham, an NGO whose mission is to ensure children living in slum areas get access to education and women from low-income areas get equal opportunities. Nitin’s dad waves from the little store he runs, and we go through the gates. We walk up the steps and inside the apartment. Our room is large, with a big bed and high ceilings. I find a picture book, “Tales of Gods and Demons From Indian Mythology” on the bookshelf and ask the kids if they’d like me to read it out loud.
The nine year old girl, G., asks if I’d like to hear a story instead. Would I!
“Once Lord Krishna was playing baseball with his friends by the lake. The ball fell into the lake and Lord Krishna said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll go get it.’ His friends said no, no, don’t go get it, there’s a five headed snake who lives in the water and is poisoning the village. But Lord Krishna said, ‘I’ll be all right,’ and he dived into the water. He and the five headed snake fought and fought in the water until finally the snake begged for mercy. Lord Krishna said, ‘I will give you mercy, if you leave this village forever.’ The snake promised to go and the people were happy.'”
I am blown away by her erudite confidence. I mean. When I was nine, I could probably recite half the plot of a Captain Caveman cartoon before forgetting the rest. Her four year old brother, S., says he’d like me to read a story from the book. So I read all about King Trishanku, who REALLY pissed off the gods by asking to go to heaven in his human form instead of as a soul and ended up with no hair and all his jewels turned to bones.
“Want to go to the park and play badminton?” says G. and so we all walk over to the lushly green park. Like the Delhi enclave, this neighbourhood and its community centre around the park. Children are playing on the swings while adults chat on the benches. G. and I play badminton (she plays well, my playing is a hilarious travesty) while Todd pushes S. on the swings.
Back at the apartment I tell G. the story of Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People’s Ears. She asks if we can have a story every night and I am thrilled. “Just like One Thousand And One Nights!” I say, and she asks what that is. I tell her the story of Scheherazade, who escaped death by telling a story every night for one thousand and one nights. And promise to tell her another one tomorrow.