Monday, March 30, 2015

Pearl's Obsessions

I hadn't written a blog before.

I had a theme: shopping in India.  I had a dream: to share the experience of being in my favorite place on earth, to make it so real that the reader would smell the smells, see the smiles on the faces of the artisans and shopkeepers, taste the steaming chai handed to buyers as we contemplate our purchases.
But really, I'm a professional with a nine-to-five job that has nothing to do with writing.  I am not a writer.

Fortunately, though, I have company when I travel, or when I dream of traveling.  If I was four, you would call her my imaginary friend.  Since I'm not five, we must settle for alter-ego.

Her name is Pearl, and, thankfully, she is a writer. I long ago decided to ignore her in this effort.  She writes fiction; I, within the bounds of memory and wishes, write the facts.

But there are two things.  First,  Pearl is persistent, smart, and has knowledge of India that exceeds mine.  Second, as she often reminds me, there is truth in fiction, sometimes more truth than in half-remembered facts.

So today I will let her write some of her truth.

Roopa and the Foreigner

Roopa pulls her shawl around her as she waits for the bus.  It is a beautiful Kashmiri shawl, paisley in muted colors of sand and sky, covered in minutely-stitched handwork.  She thinks it looks well with her salwar kameez, taupe with a simple cream border, as befits her age.

Divali has ended, which means the beginning of the cold season in Delhi.  Just yesterday she pulled out the woolen blankets from the metal storage cabinets where all her winter clothes are kept. The blankets were part of her trousseau, given by her now-dead parents almost thirty years ago, and she loves them.  She pressed their scratchy softness to her, breathed the odors of mothballs and wool, and laid them at the foot of each bed.

The change in winter is subtle, but clear.  Winter is Roopa's favorite time of year.  It is the time when her son was born.  It is the time for school, which Roopa loved dearly.  If she had gone on to be a doctor, instead of stopping after high school, she might love it more, since winter is the time of health, free from the dangers of heat and disease.

Winter is also the tourist season in Delhi.  Roopa personally has nothing against the European who bring their tourist rupees to India, but she doesn't understand them, either. For example, the young woman standing across the street, apparently also waiting for someone or something. She is dressed, if you can call it that, in an obscenely short skirt, shorter than any Bollywood actress would dare. And in the cold! Roopa has heard, of course, that western women are little better than prostitutes, but she has trouble imagining an entire society filled with such women. But this woman wears too much makeup and too little clothes, much more and much less than the women of the red light district in Delhi.

Suddenly the woman looks directly at Roopa and smiles.  Flustered, Roopa looks away.  She will not risk her own reputation by talking to a western whore, if that is what she is. 


Nina's smile dies.

People in India aren't very friendly, especially the women.  Nina is with her husband, who is here on business and is gone during the day.  She has a week to see the capital city, and wishes she knew someone to see it with.

The weather is perfect, probably in the high 70s, so much nicer than her New England town, which by mid-November is cold and dreary.  She has a sweater crammed into her oversized bag, but she doesn't need it; a tee and a jean skirt are fine.

Absentminded, she scratches her leg, wondering if she should go back to the hotel and arrange to hire a driver, rather than trying to negotiate far with an autorickshawallah.  When she planned for this trip, she imagined that she might meet someone who would show her around the city.  She's nervous about hiring a driver, because the men here seem to be totally out of control, saying the rudest things to her.  Their aggressiveness scares her, as she had always thought of Indians as a gentle, spiritual people.  Uncertainly she turns toward the hotel, looking once more in her guidebook, as if the book will show her how to be in this strange place.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Back in the [Camel] Saddle Again

Jaipur is bustling today. Diwali was last week, and for a moment, the city slowed down after the biggest festival of the year. But just a moment, and now the Pink City is back to its chaotic buying and selling.

I went to see my friend Banty today, and bought breath-taking Rajasthani miniatures: horses with prancing hennaed legs, tigers so real I want to stroke their fur, a Sufi robe that seems to swirl off the paper, sweet cows the colors of dawn, and more. 

Yesterday I bought silver, heavy pieces crafted by villagers and made into powerful neck pieces, bracelets and earrings that leave me breathless. I hope they leave you breathless, too.

Later this week, hand-knotted rugs, made out in the villages and brought by camel cart into Jaipur for final finishing and sale.  Jaipur blue pottery.  Hand-carved block prints, which I plan to have made into table runners and napkins. My heart feels full, just at the thought.

Life got in the way of my plans, as life so often does.  Moving twice in a year, getting laid off and getting rehired, blah blah blah.  Through it all the dream remains, pounding softly (if that is possible), and India calls me back with her sweet insistent voice.

And finally, I am back, doing what I love most in this world, sitting in the small showrooms, offices, homes, factories, of those who make and sell some of the most beautiful goods in India.  Sipping blistering-hot and poisonously sweet chai, inquiring about spouses and children who have grown since last I was here, asking to see the wares in the back, the precious things they don't usually show.

But things have changed, here in Jaipur. There are tall buildings being built out by the airport, newly-renovated when I was here last but now unrecognizable.  The Jaipur women, previously so conservative with the pallus pulled demurely over their heads, hesitant to look me in the eye, often wear Western clothes in public and meet my glance fearlessly.

A side-effect of all this modernity, all this pull to the West, is that some of the traditional arts are being lost.  Only a few places still make Jaipur blue pottery, the rug showrooms are closed, and Banty tells me that his business is greatly decreased.  Indians want what is new--melamine plates, modern art, machine rugs from China.  There are those, of course, who value Indian handicrafts, and the homes of the educated, worldly Indians who I count as friends do have many of the things I love.  But these collectors are becoming the exception in India.

I tell myself that there are good things, a growing middle class, comforts not known before by many here.  And that is true.  But oh! the loss of the crafts that may never be regained.  I snatch up what I can, on the misguided belief that I can single-handedly save these industries.

But perhaps I am being pessimistic.  The pendulum swings in trends, as in life.  Jobs come, jobs go.  Life goes on, beauty is remembered, and beauty remains.

Heavy Antique Silver Rajasthani Tribal Neckpiece, price on request