INDIA ADVENTURES, DAY 10 AND 11: In our previous episode, Sage took a shower using a bucket and ate someone else’s nightmare. And now, today!
In the morning I walk to the park alone. I surprise an elderly woman as she comes around a corner and she grins and says something nice in Hindi.
The park is filled with men. In fact, aside from one woman who’s stretching before a jog, it’s all men. The older men are ambling around the park, some in pairs and some alone. Two men are walking around the park backwards. They never look behind them, and never trip or fall. The oldest men are sitting on park benches in a circle. They are dressed in wool and winter hats.
Five men in their thirties are playing badminton. (If you had asked me for a list of the most popular games in India, badminton wouldn’t even have made the list.) Two teams, and one referee. One guy has a BOOMING voice and he shouts, “HAAAAA!” every time someone makes a point and it makes me jump and laugh every time. I walk back to the apartment, and then Todd and I go to find an ATM. When we do, there’s no rifle-toting security guard and it feels positively illicit to be using it.
Nitin picks Todd up and they head to Bagru. Todd is writing an article about Saksham, the NGO that Nitin runs, and at Bagru Todd will meet the people who block print the fabric that the women involved with Saksham sew and sell. I stay home, ready for a rest day. I walk over to the Brown Bites cafe again and listen to Billie Jean and write and happily drink two Americanos and eat masala Maggi. (I am a creature of routine, even if that routine only includes two days). On the walk back to the apartment, a little girl is entranced by my strangeness and keeps turning as she walks to look at me again.
When I get back, G. wonders if I will help her with her English homework, so I quiz her about Levi Strauss and how he brought canvas for wagon covers to California during the Gold Rush and everyone was like, “What the hell do we need wagon covers for? Make us PANTS.” Because growing up in California I went to a new school almost every year, I kept ending up in history classes that began with the California Gold Rush and I am amused that EVEN NOW I cannot get away from learning about it.
G. asks if we can play a game Todd and I brought on our travels, Bohnanza, a German card game in which you farm beans. I wonder briefly if I should simplify the rules – adults have had trouble grasping this game – but in the end I teach her the real rules and she beats me soundly. Nine years old, people.
Then we play Snakes and Ladders with S., and I learn how to reliably count to five “ek, do, teen, panch, char” (HA, not so reliably as I’ve just asked Todd to check and he says I’ve written “one two three five four”) – Ek! Do! Teen! Char! Panch! – as we move the pieces around the board.
The next morning we wake up and drink chai. Today G. and S. bring their two little cousins to see us and ask if I can tell a story. I tell the story of the Hatseller And The Monkeys, with Todd translating the story into Hindi. When the Hatseller chants, “Meri topi vapas kar do!” (“Give me back my hat!”) we all shout the words together and then the kids fall all over each other giggling.
After the story the kids go get ready for school and I can hear them all over the apartment chanting, “Meri topi vapas kar do!”, fading into the distance as they go down the stairs.
We eat parathas and chutney at home, then head out into the world. We stop at the Elements Mall for coffee at Cafe Coffee Day. Two security guards, a woman and man, stand at the door. They run metal detectors over us and inspect our bags. The mall has seven stories but only seven stores, the rest of the mall is empty. A Youtube star is coming to perform here in the evening. We take the elevator to the seventh floor, and because we’re in one of the tallest buildings as far as the eye can see I’m able to take photos of the skyline. There’s a bright green house that I immediately name The House of Whimsy with an outdoor spiral staircase leading to the roof garden. I imagine living there, waking up every day to chai and visits from S. and G.
Outside we hire an autorickshaw driver. His windshield has three cracks on it, which is a little nervewracking, but the trip to Pink City (downtown Jaipur) is uneventful. Here the elderly buildings are all sand coloured and ornate. I’m reminded very much of a gigantic version of Kensington Market in Toronto. This street for educational books, this street for jewelry, this street for pens and notebooks. (I avoid shopping as much as possible in my life, but I admit, I am crazy tempted by the notebook stores which are unadorned, small, practical, and devoted to words.)
We head down an alley and meet three men sitting together at a small store. They ask where we are from, and are charmed that Todd speaks Hindi. The oldest man, tiny and beaming, points to the giant man sitting next to him and says in English, “This is my daughter!” and the giant man roars with laughter and says, “Son! Son!” and the dad giggles and waves his hands and says, “YES, son, son, my son.”
At an educational book store we ask for a Hindi workbook for Todd, targeted at children in grade five. A young woman in a blue headscarf that hides all but her eyes comes up and asks in Hindi for a book and then turns to us and says, “A dictionary would work too if you are learning.” I ask if she’s buying books for her kids and she says, “No no, for me.” The clerk hands Todd a book with a bright yellow cartoon bird on the front and hands her an Advanced Chemistry text and the contrast is wonderful.
We turn into the fashion section and my glasses are a massive hit. Wildly stylish people are waving and saying hello, two men who could give the Jet Airways Flock Of Handsome Flight Attendants a run for their money shake my hands and ask where I’m from. There’s a pile of sandals in front of every sari shop and everyone inside looking at the riotous silks is barefoot.
Eventually we arrive at the public library. Todd has a project in Toronto, visiting every single library branch and associated neighbourhood and writing about what he sees. So we’ve come to the Jaipur library so he can include it too. The security guard at the front asks us to leave our backpacks with him. There are two long tables in the front courtyard full of students who are silently studying books. I can’t see one computer, one phone.
Upstairs, the books are in rooms that circle the courtyard. To get from one room to another, you must walk the narrow balcony overlooking the courtyard and the studying students. One room is in heavy use – more silent students, more open tomes – and the rest are empty of people. The towering bookshelves are filled with dusty books, more books piled on top. (It feels so much like the library in Hogwarts that I genuinely wonder if JK Rowling went to Jaipur at some point before writing the Harry Potter books.) One door is barred from the outside with two metal bars that have been screwed into the wall and I whisper to Todd that it’s to keep the most dangerous books from breaking out.
I turn right into the next room and stand alone, trying to remember this moment. Sunlight streaming through a small window that’s been there since my grandmother was a child. Books surrounding me. I close my eyes for a moment. This is my version of church.
We walk past a lassi (sweet or salty drink made with yogurt and spices) and a well fed orange cat suddenly appears. “MROOOOOOOOOW!” she demands, looking at Todd, “MROOOOOOOOW!” The lassi shop man grins. “She wants lassi. Don’t give it to her, she has it all the time.” The cat throws him a disparaging look and says to Todd, “MROOOOOOOW!” but we say goodbye and continue on our way.
We walk past a man who is chipping away at what looks like pink rocks. He sees me watching and takes a small chip and eats it to show me that it’s edible. I’m wondering if it’s sugar, but Todd says it’s pink salt.
Todd has found a small restaurant that gets excellent reviews and we head down the stairs to a basement filled with customers. As we eat samosas and chole bhature a waiter sings to himself. On the way back up the stairs I hear a sound and look to my right.
There’s a man! Sitting in a small cubby under the stairs! He’s washing dishes! (C’mon. JK Rowling went to Jaipur.)
We pass a store selling mirrors only, a store selling just bracelets. Todd finds an autorickshaw driver in his sixties who has an electric rickshaw (instead of running on natural gas) and he asks for directions to the apartment from another driver and says he’s ready to go. Our driver is not very confident, and boy howdy do you need BUCKETS of confidence to survive the traffic here. He keeps up a running commentary in Hindi muttering about the other drivers and Todd translates in a whisper – “Go, you fool! Aren’t you going to turn? Turn here, don’t you know how to drive?”
Eventually he pulls over and asks for directions from another driver. The other driver explains to us that he thought it was closer and his electric rickshaw can’t really make it all the way back to the apartment. He offers to drive us the rest of the way and we happily agree. We pay the first driver the full price because hell, he didn’t know, and he also found us a knight on a horse to get us home.
When we get to the apartment our new driver gives us his mobile number and says to call if we need anything. I say, “Okay, thanks, we’re all set!” and smile and get out of the autorickshaw while Todd sits inside, listening to the driver explain the places he can take us. I walk away and Todd finally follows me.
I ask, “Wait, is THIS gentle offer what you meant when you said it could be hard because some people tried so hard to sell you things and you didn’t know what to do?” He nods. I laugh and laugh. “Good lord. It’s just your New England reticence at work. Your inherent terror of saying no makes it seem like a hard sell, but all you have to do is say thank you and goodbye, and walk away.”
There’s not much I liked about growing up in California, but I do think it turned me into a straightforward person who’s good at saying no nicely when it’s required.