Devil in the Details

Rajasthan and Northern India
December 7-21

Sunset Over the Thar

So many things have been said about India. Prior to our departure, a cacophony of voices expounded the horrors we would surely encounter in the Subcontinent. Per Dr. Brennock, retired infectious disease pathologist-extraordinaire and Mission Viejo’s talking head on travel medicine, India was reason alone for Ollie’s costly rabies vaccinations and Ryan’s and my diphtheria and Hep A boosters. It was for India that we continued to shoulder our arsenal of azithromyacin and ciprofloxin, hydration powders and loperamide. So great was my fear of the bacteria and contaminants I guessed I would encounter that I endeavored to quit my deeply ingrained lifetime habit of nail biting, and succeeded. Before we left, my sister and her boyfriend sent us off with a battery-powered child locator device in the event Ollie was pulled away from us by India’s seething masses. And despite the extra weight, I packed several long-sleeved shirts and floor-length skirts so as not to draw attention to myself in a county where a woman’s modesty was tantamount. More than anything else, I fretted night after night over just the prospect of bringing a child to India; and was sick to my stomach for this same reason the night before we flew out of Kathmandu.

But there was also the prospect of enlightenment. The Rastafarian-cum-saddhu-wannabes who crowded the buses out of Chitwan across the border and rode down the length of the Ganges to Varanasi were after it. The French and Israeli kids in tattered packs and baggy cotton homespun trousers crowding the travel operators in Kathmandu where they purchased train tickets bound for Gorakphur while positively reeking of ganja; well, they wanted it, too. If you listened to them, India was the true turning point in all our journeys, the axis upon which our perceptions would forever revolve upon. India could change a man, assuming you could pass through her shadow and emerge alive on the other side.

These are the kinds of things foreigners tend to think about and say before they come to India. These are the kinds of things that cross their minds before they arrive in… say, Bangalore. But that is another story. This story is about the time we spent in the North, the hammered-gold, wheezing heart of India.

I'm with the band

Consider my surprise when we first touched down in Delhi. Driving down the green beltway that links the city to the airport, the first thing we encountered was India’s highest caste. Squinting through their tinted windows, Ryan and I watched children texting from the backseats of their shiny Tata SUVs, their Ray Ban- clad fathers shouting into their mobiles and their mothers, also in the backseat, in the most elaborate silk saris. Always there was a driver.

We stayed with a couple of hucksters running a half-way decent hostel/travel agency in Karol Bagh. As we soon learned, the Delhites could be the worst of the snake-oil salesmen, and no sooner had we dropped our bags were these two arranging to pack us off to some commission-paying houseboat far in the outer reaches of Srinagar. We politely declined and set out to explore the city on our own.

Delhi has a number of fantastic sights that anyone who makes a business in carting around foreigners will laugh at you for wanting to see.

“Why go see the Red Fort? The real one is in Agra!”

“Humayun’s Tomb? The Taj Mahal is much better!”

So we did what anyone would do in our shoes and left. Neither Ryan nor I had the mettle to get behind a wheel in this country where so many cows and children darted in front of your car, so we hired Daulat, a capable and quiet man from Himachal Pradesh, to take us deep into the desert. That morning, as the vegetable man trundled by with his cart of shallots and fava beans and the campfires of street families huddled behind nylon sheet shelters trailed thin plumes of ash, we sped out of Delhi’s alleyways and headed deep into Rajasthan.

We crossed the Shekhawati in the first day and made camp with Tony, the grandson of a Maharaja who made a business of renting his family’s hunting lodge to foreigners that found themselves in Mandawa for the night. Ever since 1971 when Indira Gandhi eradicated the privy purses of the Rajs, the caste has hunkered down deeply into the tourism business, renting rooms in converted heritage hotels that were once grand estates or charging admission to national landmarks and funneling the profits into massive family trusts. Around a campfire, Tony served us a curry made with, of all things, a porcupine he had shot out in the bush earlier that day. Due to the language barrier, the animal’s identity was not entirely revealed to us until after we had finished our meal, and for hours afterward, I stared blankly at the ceiling in our room. A maharaja, one of the “great kings” of India’s princely states, just served us…porcupine.

That was the moment we realized that everything in this part of India could come for a price. For the right amount of rupees, beautifully frescoed havelis that had been retrofitted with the proper plumbing could now sleep two comfortably for the night. Anything could be hired for the journey; camel caravans, Marwari horses, even the fanciful “Palaces on Wheels”, luxury train cars commisioned by the Rajputs in the heyday of their rule. For a million U.S. dollars, every courtyard in Udaipur’s City Palace could be roped off and strung with lights and parasols for a wedding or other grand event.

Though we operated on a far more humble budget, that didn’t seem to stop the hawkers. With the light-skinned “Angrezi” (literally, English), the almighty dollar was implicit, and everyone was in on the game, from the rickshaw drivers to the ticket-takers at the national monuments where the foreigner is charged four times the local rate. Ollie, for his part, didn’t make things any easier. Left to his own devices, he barreled through every merchant’s open door, sending glasses of chai skittering across the room before he launched himself headlong into piles of folded saris on the floor.

India pulled us in fast and hard. As we drove from Jaisalmer to Jodphur, I saw out of the corner of my eye a wandering ascetic setting off into the Thar desert, clutching only a small bundle wrapped in white cloth. In Jaipur, I stepped out of the car right in front of a Muslim fellow who had just finished urinating off to the side of the road and was wiping himself carefully with a rock, lest any stray drop touch his clothes. In Jodphur, a crowd gathered to watch Ollie get a trim from a sidewalk barber, and local children pursued us from a distance through the vegetable market, giggling furtively from the shadows cast from the bare light bulbs swinging overhead. Outside of Delhi, women in saffron, scarlet and magenta waved from fields of brilliant mustard. In the desert towns, they stooped over their treasure troves of silver and meenakari, beckoning slyly from behind dancing kohl-rimmed eyes.

“Sister, come see.”


Come see, come see. Everything had to be touched, savored, examined under a magnifying glass, always over a cup of chai. During a twelve-day whistle-stop tour of Rajasthan, we begged, bartered and haggled our way through eight cities and one desert outpost, were off-loaded countless times at commision-generating jewelry stores and wood-block printing workshops, and were solicited by everyone with a trinket to sell, a frescoed wall to see, or a camel to ride.

And there was the poverty. Only four Indian states have a lower poverty rate than Rajasthan. An impossibly small child clung to his mother’s breast as she weighed okra for a customer in the market. A boy in rags banged a small drum and sang folk songs for visitors to the sand dunes outside Khuri. A troop of children offering service as guides were always there to meet us at any spot possessing no more than a lick of history. In Jaipur, a kid in high school selling puppets conversed with me in six languages fluently, saying he needed money for pens and paper. In Uttar Pradesh it was more palpable; throngs of people clustered around roadside trash fires as mist set in for the night and their livestock stood in silent circles around them, silently chewing cardboard scraps and discarded plastic.

We stove not to harden ourselves to this country as many travelers tend to do. We became more patient, waiting for each place to reveal itself to us slowly through both its beauty and its pain. We learned to move efficiently and wordlessly away from the touts and hawkers, and we gave more than a little everyday to someone who needed it. I stopped raising my eyes to every individual who stared, stopped worrying about hemlines and long sleeves. Perhaps it’s a silly and somewhat irreverent analogy, but we became not unlike the quiet and wide-eyed cows that endlessly meandered through the bazaars at night; frequently herded in one direction or another, occasionally harried or shooed away, sometimes offered a treat or two, always sticking our noses into anything that looked interesting.

In the north of India, the devil resided in the details. We never once lost sight of Oliver, but we lost ourselves on the ramparts of Meherangarh Fort as the kerosene lamps in Blue City flickered on at sunset. We followed wedding processions through bustling towns and wandered outside under a swathe of stars far beyond the reach of street lights near the border of Pakistan. In Bikaner, Ollie pirouetted himself into a frenzy dancing the Ghoomar in a hotel lobby. Ryan, in serious pursuit of the purified state Ayurvedic massage was purported to induce, was instead nearly drowned in baby oil while having his nipples caressed by a heavyset fellow in Udaipur.

Despite my precautions, India did indeed get under our fingernails, much in the same way that it was mainlined straight into our collective conscious. At the end of thirty days, though we couldn’t spit betel-quid as well as the municipal bus drivers, we managed after all to emerge on the other side of the Subcontinent with more than just a photo of the Taj Mahal to prove it.

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