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 five, 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 fair 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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Jaipur Jeweler

The jeweler read my palm instead of selling me jewelry.

I had asked my driver, Bhati (to whom I will undoubtedly devote many posts, sweet fellow), where I could find an astrologer, as Jaipur is known for its fortunetellers. He winked at me and said that most people just used computers nowadays, I'd be better off getting my palm read.

"How much?" I asked, always the skeptic.


I had been told many times that the good fortunetellers don't charge for their services, as they regard them as gifts of God, not to be sold, so I was pleased with this information.

Bhati and I decided to swing by my favorite Jaipur eatery, The Rainbow Restaurant, before going to the jewelers.  The Rainbow is the only place in all of India where I can get food hot enough for my palate.  Most places, they take one look at my fair skin and take out the spices.  "I want it Indian spicy, not gora spicy," I plead, and the waiter laughs and brings it bland enough for my grandmother.  Makes me crazy.  But one time Bhati went in and read them the riot act, and I've always gotten spicy good Rajasthani food at the Rainbow.  If you look it up on line, Westerns review it on the power of its pizza.  I don't know what's wrong with people, sometimes.

Sated, I headed to the jewelers.  He was in the back office, looking at the books.  (Literally.  Ledgers.  Remember those?)  He sat me down and asked me to put out my left hand, palm up.  Men's fortunes are read on their right palms. I can think of several reasons this might be so, none of them flattering to women, so I don't ponder too deeply.

Indian men just don't touch strange women's hands, so he used the capped end of a ballpoint pen to move the fleshy skin of my palm slightly to see the lines. He said that he was going to tell me my past.  I wondered what the point was of that. He pointed out that I'd know if he was accurate about the past, not the future.

I determinedly didn't look up at him, didn't respond to what he said.  He talked about moving a lot as a child to new places, a loss when I was nineteen, told me that I was in my second relationship (I wore no rings) but that a third one was possible.  He tried not to look disapproving as he said that.

At the end, he told me that my lines were good, that all he saw was a bad influence of Saturn, but almost everybody has that. Saturn is trouble. He gave me a mantra, in Sanskrit.  He asked me to feed some cows, back in my home, as payment for his services.  I tried to imagine cows wandering the streets of Berkeley.

I asked (really, I asked--he did not try to sell me anything) about Indian gemstones.  He sold me a small sapphire to wear on the middle finger of my left hand to counteract that pesky Saturn.  He told me that I couldn't wear it until I got home, dipped it in milk three times at 7 am on a Saturday while reciting a mantra.  He said that I should not let anyone touch the ring, blessed by his guru in Varanasi, lest the power of the stone be diluted.  He himself only touched the ring, would not touch the stone.
Image from
Most of what he told me that day was accurate.  I did move around a lot as a child, I did suffer a loss at 19, and I was on my second relationship with a chance at a third.  He and I disagreed on whether it was advisable to take the risk on the third relationship.

I performed the ritual with the ring when I returned home, and I have never let anyone touch the stone.  I was unable to find cows in Berkeley, however, which may have ruined the whole thing.  I don't think so, though.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sleeping in the Shade

They say that Vishnu sleeps on the Ocean of Bliss, and dreams, and we and the world are his dream.

I thought of that when I saw the Taj Mahal.  In front of the Mausoleum is the long running fountain you see in pictures, and on either side of the fountain is a beautiful park filled with fruit trees. Under those trees, shaded from the hot midday sun, old men lie sleeping.  My first thought was that India herself is the dream of those old men, snoring in the shade of the Taj.

One old man twists and turns on the hard ground, bitten by bugs and tormented by nightmares.  His are the dreams of hungry children and ruthless dacoits, of beggars pleading for a rupee at the entrance to the Kali Temple in Kolkota.

That dapper old fellow, the one twitching a bit and wearing a well-pressed dhoti, is busy dreaming up Bollywood, dancing in his sleep.  Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai cavort at his command; he is the Director and Producer, the true Star.

The lovers, the suitors, the dreamers, they are the dream of the rotund old guy sprawled out under a flowering mango tree, the one surrounded by butterflies.  He smiles in his sleep and his large gray moustache twirls upward.

A scrawny old guy chews in his sleep.  When I look closer, I see that he has a ragged five-rupee note clutched between fingers crowned with black-crescent fingernails.  The shopkeepers, the sellers, honest and dishonest, labor for his dreams. Commerce flies behind his eyelids.
Photo by Laff for Photoshop Contest on

A wooden staff lies by an old man wearing an old, clean dhoti and tie-dye turban.  He dreams of fertile fields and waving grain.  The guy who sleeps too close to the fountain and feels the spray of the dancing waters at his back dreams of floods and storms, gales and monsoons, snow in the Himalayas.

And finally, alone in a corner of the Mosque that flanks the great monument, a quiet old man wearing white sleeps quietly. His prayer rug is beneath him, and peaceful smile plays on his lips.  He dreams only of God, and thus of everything.

I wonder whose dream has created me.  Perhaps it is the shopkeeper, for that is my ambition.  Perhaps the lover, and certainly the holy man who dreams of God.  I smile at them all, and try not to wake them.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Miniature Artist

An artist friend of mine* just posted a small rant on Facebook. He was talking about talent--that to call an artist talented is almost an insult, because it is dismissive of the thousands of hours spent honing one's craft, perfecting one's senses, learning to speak in the language of art.

My friend Banty would agree. Banty is the owner of an art school in Jaipur. He teaches one thing only: the craft of the Rajasthani miniature. His own skill is so great that his paintings have been shown all over the world. The craft of miniature painting was handed down from his father, whose work hangs in pride of place in his office.

In the front of Banty's workshop, his teenage students paint birds and elephants and war horses and gods. They use brushes with a single camel hair to add detail. I always stop and watch with such fascination that I fluster the earnest young artists. But the hand of the young man closest to me  does not falter as he adds faint dappling to the war horse on the paper before him.

Rajasthani miniatures are what most people think of when they think of Indian art, and the artists take that responsibility seriously. They learn by doing, copying classic miniatures hundreds of times. Banty  has been painting since he was a child. He has painted thousands of Rajasthani miniatures, honing his art with each new piece.

Banty is a jovial man, round-faced with a robust curling Rajput moustache that he fingers endlessly. A large gold watch hangs loosely on his wrist. When I met him for the first time, he greeted me with a laugh and offered to paint my name, the date, and the place--Jaipur India--on a grain of basmati rice.  He smiled as he handed it to me in a velvet-and-plastic presentation case. He showed me a painting of his father's, along with a similar one of his own. He dared me to guess the number of soldiers in the war scene, which I failed to do. (There were over a thousand of them, swarming at the bottom of the large piece.) Apparently no one has made a correct guess (the prize was the painting), as he went through this show with my partner five years later.

He started showing me paintings. There were hundreds of them, elephants and tigers, gods and kings. They ranged from student work (still beautiful, still intricate, still spellbinding) to work by one of the school's five master craftsmen. I chose several student paintings to bring back for gifts. Many were painted on recycled paper, and bore legends in Urdu and Persian having nothing to do with the painting itself.

I asked to see paintings of Ganesh.  I shuffled through perhaps fifty of them, until one grabbed my eye and heart. He had the most beautiful eyes, looking soulfully at the viewer through long eyelashes. He was too expensive; I just couldn't do it. I gave it back with a pang, and left with the smaller paintings.

When I got back to California, that Ganesh haunted me. I sent an email to Banty, asking him about the piece. He still had it, but circumstances intervened, and I couldn't buy it then either. Two years later, I was back in India, and I asked Banty if perhaps the Ganesh was still in his studio. I tried to describe it, but all I could say was, "He had beautiful eyes, and the mauve paint surrounding the actual painting had an imperfection in it." I watched in disbelief as he smiled, pulled out his portfolio of hundreds of Ganesh paintings, and said, "I have it."

I shouldn't have been surprised, perhaps. Although it was not one of his paintings, he knew each of the thousands of paintings in his studio, each step towards mastery made by each of his students and their teachers. The thousands of hours spent in painstaking learning of the craft, of practicing the craft, was not only a means to an end, but an end in themselves. The craft is the meditation of the craftsman, and the guru knows them all.

My Ganesh
*Brennen Reece, the fantastic photographer, graphic artist, and musician who is designing the logo for The Tiger's Armoire, as well as photographs taken of his equally amazing wife, artist Sarah Scott. He also rants about people like me who put two spaces after periods because we were taught to type in the Dark Ages. I am scurrying to correct this.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Artistic Temperament

My friend Vimal and I were sitting in the United Coffee House, sipping coffee floats.

"I haven't been here in many years," she smiled, looking nostalgic.  "I used to come with friends, other artists. . ."

Her face took on the soft glow of a woman remembering good times.

She shook herself and came back to the present.

"I want to read you a poem."  She opened the book before her and started reading.  The poem was in Hindi--I didn't understand a word--but it didn't matter. It was a poem of loss and joy and power.

Vimal is a poet and a writer and a documentary film maker.  She is known, among other things, for a documentary in the 1980s comparing the position of women in Egypt compared to that of Indian women.  Back then Egyptian women were far ahead.

She is very striking, in that way that I have come to think of as "Indian artist."  She almost always wears saris, though I have seen her in a salwar kameez once, when she decided I needed the education of the Delhi bus system.  She wears enormous, nickel-sized red bindis and dark kohl.  Her eyes burn with intensity and intelligence.  When I saw Lalita Lajmi in Taare Zameen Par  with Aamir Khan, the famous artist immediately reminded me of my friend.

Vimal has an agenda for our day.  We are going to the IWPC (Indian Women's Press Corps) headquarters, where we will drink chai and talk to journalists she knows. The afternoon will pass quickly, because her friends are as smart, informed, and opinionated as she is.  I was in India when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and their depth of information about the ramifications of the crisis in Pakistan was astonishing.  But they're funny, too:  when I said I thought I'd take some Delhi tap water home and drink bits to accustom  myself to Indian bugs, one said dryly that the Hepatitis B count was up that week; she'd written the article herself. I really ought to wait a bit.

We will go to Connaught Place and go to galleries owned by friends.  Inevitably, one or two of the artists being shown will be hanging out in the office, and will talk about wanting to come to America and show in New York.  They will give me their cards, as if I can make this happen.  But the gallery will be beautiful, and I will long for paintings and sculptures, modern pieces that have a whiff of ancient ideas and traditions.

Then we will go to the IIC (International Cultural Centre--everything goes by initials here).  We will sit in the cafe and MPs in their raw cream silk Nehru jackets and little Gandhi caps will come up and greet her.  Renowned artists will stop to exchange information on their latest projects.  Most of this will go on in Hindi so I will sit like a dunce.  After more tea and talk, we may go to a cultural program.  Once I went to a show of Orissa dance and cried through the whole thing, from the solitary tabla player to the dancer's salute to the gods, through to the final note and the dancer sinking back to the earth.  Perhaps tonight's performance will be less emotional; one can hope.

Once Vimal went shopping with me.  I wanted a pair of gold earrings, so she took me to Karol Baugh, an old shopping area that was shown in the shopping scenes in Monsoon Wedding.  It was crammed with shoppers, and, because there had been a bombing in a shopping area just two weeks prior in Delhi, there were metal detectors and armed guards on the streets.  People walked around the metal detectors and the guards ignored the whole thing.

We went into a jewelry store, all red velvet and gold, wedding colors.  There was a long glass case, and stools before the case, where shoppers sat as they were shown heavy gold jewelry.  The wedding season was in full swing, and parents were buying the heaviest, most ornate pieces they could find for their daughters.

I wanted something small, very small.  I thought Vimal looked a bit embarrassed by the modest pieces I tried on.  The salesman kept trying to tempt me with five thousand dollar bangles rich with enameling.  I wished I could do her proud.  Instead I bought a tiny pair of earrings, and we walked down the street, ogling the goods displayed in each window.

The next time I saw her, I wore the tiny gold earrings as we sipped our iced coffees, and she smiled.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Calcutta Scarf-Seller

I was standing on College Street in Calcutta, looking up and down the street, when he approached me.  Dazed and glutted from a phenomenal Bengali meal at Aaheli, I probably looked even more confused than I was.

"Can I help madam?"

I alway steer clear of offers of help from men alone.  Always.

"I know there's a music store near here, but I can't quite remember where."  It was the food talking.

"I know the place.  It is this way," and he began walking in he direction I had started to take before he approached me. "Come, come."

Now I was in for it.  I had been in the tiny music shop, tucked back off the street and stuffed floor to  ceiling with CDs and cassette tapes, two years previously, but I really wasn't sure that I could find it again.  Bengali CDs of Srikanto Acharya singing bhajans (hymns) can't be had just anywhere.

The street was packed, as streets in Calcutta are, and I knew where to catch the Calcutta subway if I needed to get away, so I headed out, winding between shoppers and students and vendors and the odd pariah dog.

Even though it was December, Calcutta was 90 degrees and humid.  I love Calcutta and don't care about the weather, but it made keeping up with the fast-walking thirty-something a challenge.  Five minutes later, me panting, we got to the music store, tucked deep into a shopping area that I would probably not have found on my own.

"Thanks so much, " I said, waving what I hoped was a cheery goodbye.

I bought my CDs and returned to the street to head towards the closest subway station.
Shiny hats with whistles for sale, Calcutta

"Madam. Madam."

He was one of those guys you see all over the place, oiled hair and small moustache, skinny-hipped and white-shirted.  I had almost forgotten what he looked like in the time I was in the record store.

"Yes?"  I'm afraid I sounded a bit weary.

"Madam, you must come to my shop."

Figures.  I knew there was a catch.

"I'm sorry; I'm not buying today."

"But Madam, looking only.  Not to buy."

Does he think I'm stupid?

"Is it close by?"  It had to be the food talking.

"Next block only."

Gentle reader, I followed him.  One more block of students and workers and shoppers and dogs.  There are no cows in the streets of Calcutta.  I wonder why not?

He turned into another small shopping area, a long hall going into the ground floor of a building.

"New shop," he said.  "Opened last week only."

He stopped at a set of smudged sliding glass doors, unlocking them carefully.  The shop was, perhaps, three feet deep, a Formica counter with shelves behind it.  He flicked on lights, low-wattage bulbs, and went behind the counter.

He started pulling out silk scarves, one after another.

"I am not buying,"  I repeated.  "Looking only."

"Oh, but Madam, you must buy!"  he cried, looking truly tragic.  "You are first customer!"

It was true.  I had heard this belief before, that the first customer of the day determines the business fortune of the day.

Defeated, I picked out one small oblong silk.

He named a price, ridiculously high.  I named another, much lower, but still, I was sure, more than enough for him to make a profit.

"Oh no Madam."

"Fine," I said, really and truly irked.  "I don't want it then."

I turned to leave.

People can always tell when you really aren't going to bargain, you aren't faking it, you are going to walk away.

"Yes Madam," he accepted my offer.  "It is the first sale of day."

He didn't try to sell me more, just wrapped the scarf and I left.  I was burning, shaking mad, feeling manipulated and used.

I stuffed the scarf in my bag, wondering who I would give it to, since I didn't even want the thing.

I climbed on the subway, still steaming. I made the long ride to Tollygunge, where I was staying at the Tollygunge Club, a true throwback to the Raj.

I sat on the bed and pulled out the scarf I hadn't wanted.  It was stunning.  Salmon and teal and new leaf green, intricately hand-woven.

I'd give anything to find that shop again.

The wrong intersection, Calcutta