I loved everything about India, from afar. Up close, in Delhi in early October, it was hot and disorganized and I was tired and cranky and I hated it all. There is a legend in India that hell exists far under a city in Bihar which, as far as I can reckon, is just about opposite on the globe from California. But that day I was sure they had it backwards.
I had met an old friend that day, a man I knew from the Internet, and he'd gone to great lengths to show me around the National Museum. I verged on rudeness in my anxiety to get back to my little guesthouse, and--what? Perhaps sit in the rooftop garden until my 4 planned weeks in India were up. I went back to the guesthouse praying I hadn't lost a friend.
In the guesthouse common area, I overheard an elderly British man say to no one in particular, "I was born here before Independence and I've been coming back ever since. More than anywhere I've traveled, I notice that how you see India depends on how you feel. If you're sick, or tired, it's horrible. If you feel good, it's the best place on earth." I immediately went to my room and collapsed for fourteen hours.
The next day I fell in love all over again.
I'm sure that those fourteen hours of sleep helped, but the truth is that something else--or, rather, someone else--made me fall in love again. Mrs. Sharma.
Mrs. Sharma is actually somewhat famous. Years after that first trip I read Holy Cow: Adventures in India by Australian journalist Sarah MacDonald. I was astonished to see several paragraphs dedicated to the tiny old lady who runs a small business several blocks from Connaught Place.
She had been recommended by another traveler. Her shop was in the back of an ugly cement building on Mohan Singh Place, across from a line of Government shops representing each state in India. The squat four story building houses mostly tailoring establishments, with a few places to buy snacks in the basement. (It became my go-to place to buy Kurkure, the Indian version of Cheetos.) It was dank and dim, lit only by bare incandescent bulbs. The shops are arranged around an open central area, which enables it to just miss being frightening. Mrs. Sharma's shop, number 86, is on the first floor, which means the third floor up (basement, ground floor, first floor).
It's a tiny place, perhaps five feet wide and fifteen deep. On both sides, floor to ceiling, are stacks of textile products: fabric, scarves, bags, ready-made clothes, tumbling down from their eight-foot stacks, a bit of a jumble really, a bit intimidating. At the back of the shop was a cluttered desk, the proprietor peering at me as I walked in through the sliding glass door in front of the shop.
"So, what do you want?" inquired Mrs. Sharma sharply, She was a tiny woman with large bottle cap glasses, henna-dyed hair and two inches of white roots. She didn't seem to have any teeth, but her English was flawless.
She started pulling out scarves by the dozen. After I said no to the more spangled and flamboyant of her offerings, she established my taste to her satisfaction and began to bring out items that were lovely and well-crafted.
Mrs. Sharma told me about herself. "I only sell to Westerners," she confides. "Indians never find me."
I could understand that.
"I love Americans. I was in America." She pronounced it with four syllables rather than the Indian AM-rik-a.
I thought I must have misunderstood, but she explained. Broke, illiterate, and in ill-health, she flew to America in 1980 at age fifty. She didn't speak English, and her large, conservative family thought she was crazy. (Actually, they already thought she crazy, she laughed, as she left her husband at a time when women just didn't do that kind of thing. They still don't, for the most part.) She landed in JFK and with almost no money in her pockets, but a pack of Indian textiles in her suitcase. When she left six months later, she had $20,000.00 ("Can you believe it? Twenty thousand American dollars?"), and had had open heart surgery at no cost to her. She showed me old yellowed letters from the anesthesiologist which backed up her story.
She ordered chai for us, which the "boy" (aged seventy) brought in small foil-covered paper cups. While we talked I chose three scarves, and she sent them to a tailor to be altered to my request. The scarves were beautiful and full of handwork. She showed me saris she had recently acquired, antiques, covered with beautiful handwork and handmade sequins. Her taste was exquisite.
I was astonished. I had never imagined such quality handwork. I had never seen such things in stores in the US. Indian goods here, in my experience, were mostly crudely made items whose main attraction was their cheapness.
I am a shopper. More to the point, I am in love with beautiful things, things that are unique, handmade, authentic, and exquisite. I love to find them, buy them, and share them. Mrs. Sharma told me her story, and in doing so began my own story.