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Eye contact in Jaipur


 Oh no, I thought. Eye contact.

The tourism books and hired guides call them “hawkers” — street vendors or peddlers who sell handmade crafts to all tourists carrying the most precious of commodities, western green U.S. dollars.  Though I’m Indian, my American T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and camera snitch me away.  But in India there is a zone of respect, and you quickly learn beggars and street hawkers won’t approach you until a connection is made.  If you’re genuinely interested in purchasing, you call them over with a hand wave, and then they’ll follow you for miles as you walk across the city until you either duck into a restaurant for cover or spend a dollar for a necklace that would cost you $30 in the states.

Eye contact, though incidental, establishes that connection.  And in those eyes, you can see deeply into the panorama of emotions that are her conscience.  There is jealously, envy, and a craving for those things she knows I take for granted in those eyes. 

I’ve spent days trying to avoid seeing exactly what she is showing me, refining the technique of looking past  people, this time my mistake will no doubt cost me.

The first thing you notice about the city of Jaipur is the color.  It’s called the golden city of Rajisthan — an Indian state located about 200 miles west of New Delhi — but the city is neither rich nor gold-colored.  It’s a mixture of earth tones, more than in the entire L. L. Bean collection.  Dry browns, thirsty tans, parched yellows and chalk khakis.  Jaipur is a desert city, and as you approach it by train it doesn’t rise from the sand dunes so much as merge with it, making the city’s fort and palace seem like an usually large rolling sand dune.  The sand of the Thar desert, a gritty coarse bleached substance is the city’s primary building material, and it took great P.R. people to advertise it as “golden.”  The Thar is the most arid region of the subcontinent, and like most deserts, wind here is the primary evil and water the primary goal.  Hundreds of years of wind have eroded parts of the ancient city, built in the 1100’s during the high dynasty of the Maharajas, and they continue to stir up the dust and sand that collects in every street and alley, making the air thick.  About every three hours, simply breathing traps so much dust in your nose that you have pick out grit in order to continue hiking up the steep hills from the base of the city to it’s fort overlook.  All the while the street peddler is with me.  It’s a battle of wills now.

There has been little rainfall this winter, you can read it on the high prices for wheat at the local bazaar and in the growth of the city’s trees.  From the top of the city’s fort — which served to protect citizens from invading mongols and other city states for centuries till it was captured by the British in the late 1800s — you can distinctly make out each tree, a lollipop of green amongst a sea of clay and tan adobe houses – all rectangular in shape.  There’s a great view not only of the city, but of Jaipur’s palace, once home of the Golden City’s maharaja.  This makes it a great place to take a picture, and here Mom takes over. 

Like a member of the air force ground crew, she waves her arm in unison, directly first the immediate family to pose here for a photo.  Next, all the women aon the trip, followed by a photo of all the men.  The children all assemble at the overlook for a photo as well.  Finally a picture of all of us, taken by the young women — called a “faria” in Gujarati — who has been following me around for about 2 miles of inner city exploration trying to get me to buy a necklace. 

In Rajisthan’s heyday, which includes the time period between 1400 and 1700, the state wasn’t a cohesive unit at all.  Like ancient Greece, rather, it was a collection of city-states clustered in one region to allow for trade, commerce and conviently, the marriage of heirs between those of royal blood from two cities.  But each city was also very much aware of the threat of outside invasion, so each of the major areas built elaborate forts and palaces.  Every city you travel to in Rajisthan has both, usually built from desert raw materials.  Less than a century ago, it would take months to travel from Delhi through Jaipur, Chittargurgh, Udaipur and Jailsalmer.  Now you can do it in less than a week, which, as you tour each fort and its obligatory palace, can seem like the 25th movement of an architectural symphony.  A construction theme taken to various degree of variation.

In Jaipur, we turned a corner in the labrythian fort and came upon a thin, old man smoking hasish on a ledge completley nude save for a turban.  He spoke neither Gujarati or English, so I couldn’t ask him a question, and Mom wouldn’t let me take a picture.  In Bikaner, located just northwest of Delhi, the palace bathroom toilet almost exploded upon flushing, appraently not accustomebed to the heavy use it would get from a trainload of tourists who had eaten a hearty fiber lunch several hours before on the train.   

She has walked with us for at least three miles and unlike us, who have been constantly quenching our thirst to outwit the dry perisitent heat of the Thar, she hasn’t had a drink.  The tourism bureau tells us not to give in.  They tell us to buy only from state-sponsored emporiums.  Hawkers have no place here, they tell us.  “State-sponsored merchandise helps us pay for relief programs and help us ensure health and well-being for all Rajisthan,” is what the tourism pamphlet says.  Still my stubborness is eroding as she relentlessly follows us.

In America we would call her the clandestine or “working poor.”  It’s obvious she has very little, but not much less than any person from Jaipur you’d run into at the bazaar.  She appears about early 30’s, but its hard to estimate age here with a western point of view, where everyone who’s 33 doesn’t have deep furrowed lines or their forehead.  her dress is typical of most of Rajisthan, extremely colorful against the bland desert tan background.  Her shirt is a deep burgurdy and her skirt is made up of a repeated square pattern, boasting pink, dark green, yellow an black.  Her collar is silver-colored and the cloth she wraps around her body and uses for a hood is turrqois with a yellow trim.  Her bangles, are shiny metal and she wears the necklaces she sells around her other arm, in her hand, or around her neck.  Her teeth have yellow stains. Her hair is deep black and her earings long enough to reach her shoulders.  Whenever our eyes meet again, she bows her head, calls me “saheeb” and offers me a necklace.  Other than that, she hasn’t said another word to us all day. 

At the bazaars, where the emporium is located, she knows she’s in trouble.  Now we have seen the “tourist” places and as my aunts and uncles undo the buttons on their back pockets, you can tell they’re ready to spend.  No one, however is going her way. 

A Rajisthani bazaar, located in the what was once the fort’s interior training field for troops, is a cross between a Saturday afternoon flea market and the New York Stock Exchange.  Everywhere you go, open booths sell everything from spices to music tapes.  You can’t ask a question, since everyone, customer and proprietor are yelling at each other, each barking and shouting as they bargain for the best price.  Goats meander through the plaza every now and again, as do the few chickens that escape the butcher’s pens in the market’s far corner.  Hershey Candies and Cadbury chocolate are really big here, and people negotiate prices for kilograms of Symphony candy bars.  When my cousin purchases one, about thirty small kids apepar from nowhere to watch him eat it.  It’s visceral satisfaction now, but when he throws the wrapper away, they’ll take turns licking it for even a hint of the sweet, lingering taste.

Dad has come across a booth which calls itself “CORNER COOL,” selling Indian music tapes, and suddenly he’s boy again.  The man gets so angry at them tha twice her slams the closet door that houses the music.  They look like they are screaming at each other, but you can hardly tell from all the other noise, especially the bleating goat drinking from the city’s open well and the squeeking tires of the produce men who wheel fruits and vegetables for sale on carts built from plywood, chicken wire and bicycle tires, and they try to announce their arrival above the din.

She hasn’t stopped stalking me.  Ask I look over the myraid of things to be bought in the bazaar wih friends, she qietly follows, quitely placing her necklaces in my line of sight every time I turn around and then bowing respectfully.  She’s been with us now for about six miles through the subterranean paths and walled streets within  the fort.  The coarse feel of sand that’s sneaked into my mouth and on my tongue makes me tempermental, so finally I place fifty cents in her worn hand and choose a white necklace.  She kisses my hand, a Rajisthani sign of thanks, and moves away, dissappearing intaneously into the the mess of turbans, bicycles, goats, and residents that come to the plaza on market days.  It is not the last time I see her.

Jaipur is not known for temples.  But when we accidentally come upon a temple carved from a large solid piece of sandstone near the fifth large gate, we enter.  It’s a Jain temple, a religon mostly common in Gujarat and not different in many of its fundamental principles from Hinduism.  The religion, the fourth most popular in India, maintains separate places of worship but Hindus are frequently seen in Jain temples.

When your only building material is sandstone and desert tan granite slabs, there isn’t much you can do to ornament buildings save for chiseling, and the people of Jaipur, and all of Rajisthan, have elevated this beyond an art form.  The small Jain temple, which is nothing more than a square-shaped space with a door on one side and idols opposite, is articulated with over 1000 statues, carved directly from the wall granite.  Overhead, a small hole at the top reveals the vacant Rajisthani sky.  Underneath this natural skylight are three stone arches, decorated with jewelery-precise patterns of diamonds, circles and lotus petals.  Our tour guide estimates it took seven men over 20 years to complete, and their creamted ashes lie beneath the temple — commissioned by the 15th Maharaja in the 17th century — new on the the Thar desert’s ancient timescale.  Most of the “new” section of the inner city is similarly adorned, which is what opened up Rajisthan as a tourist area 5 decades ago.  The older fort, the area not rebuilt during an 80-year reconstruction period begun in the late 1800’s, and the rest of the city, maintain the dry, geometrical repetition of the city overlook’s view.

As we pray, she enters.  Again bowing her head in my direction, she places one of the two quarters I gave her into a donation box.  I’ve seen the “working poor” on four continents, and as a group, none are more religious that the street peddlers of Rajisthan.  She places here necklaces with her shoes – which are removed at the base of the temple as as a sign of religious reverence.  After she prays, I become far more interested in watching her than continuing my own worship.  Several others have crowded in now, and I have to fight a bit to get where I want to go.  She silently mouthes the words and upon concluding, reaches up to raing a cermeonial bell, as per custom.  A ribbon of fat hangs beneath her upper arm as it’s raised and swings due to the force with which she hits it.  She then purchases “prasad” fruits blessed by Gods — a sort of better-tasting communion — and two gallons of water from a vendor outside the temple who, no doubt, was hoping to cash in on us.  She then touches the feet of the idol, turns around, bows and smiles to me again, and is gone, ready to take on the recently arrived European tour bus.

The character of a man, Richard Halliburton once said, is defined by what he lacks.  The same is true for a place.  The desert defines the area.  Water and the color green are forever missing from the landscape except for the unpredicatble and occasional rains, which drown the state about once every three years.  Most of the areas water comes from either a de-salinization plant or tapped underground spring.  Because there is not much of it, green foliage in your yard beceoms a symbol of wealth.  A declaration that you have som much money you can afford to waste it buying water for an inconsequential tree that itsn’t native to the region to begin with.  No one, though, can afford to maintain a green lawn. 

Dry skin, chapped lips, yellow teeth and short hair — showing you can’t afford the oil needed to keep it long and healthy — further mark the haves from the have-nots.  Water is wealth, and more children on the street beg for a sip of your spring water than for any money.  The agricultural fields that used to introduce the city of Jaipur as you approached it from the north have disspaeared, replaced with the familiar Indian site of emaciated cattle pulling wooden carts with used car tires for wheels and holding whatever measely bounties the gritty Thar desert soil can provide.

God did not want humans to settle in the Thar more than four thousand years ago.      

We’re now ending up the afternoon after 9 miles of bargaining, walking photographing and drinking.  The group has settled by the fourth gate now, all really wanting the tourist bus to get here so they can sit down and get back to the train.  We’ve been on out feet every single day, and because the train shakes likes a go-go dancer as it moves, no one has really had qulaity sleep for a week.  Near an embarkment off to the side, a silk-screener is drying tapestries.  Colorful geomertrical patterns in red, purple, pink and blue set to dry on the bland tan stone  We all huddle on a bench and watch the mothers shop.  They’ve been complaining of fatigue all day, but now they’ve suspicioulsy got a second wind.  A townswomen, another faria we guess, walks over to check out the tourists. 

The evening sunset strikes a ribbon of red, yellow and orange shades across the sky.  There’s a little breeze tonight, so below our knees sand is blowing about like popcorn in a popper.  We are on the outskirts of town now.  The city-fort and palance are taupe-colored moles in the otherwise silky smooth of distant desert sand dunes.  East of where we have spent our day, traders have set up night camps among the low-lying pale-green underbrush, huddling by a fire to ward off the desert’s unique chill, which you feel in your stomach first, then your arms and legs.

My butt was sore for the following two days.      

The train roared away from the Golden City with a belch of smoke and the shrill of loud whistle.  In less than an hour, Jaipur and the sounds and echoes of all we had seen and heard there were drwoned out by the rythmic clank of a train straining for it’s next destination.  Two weeks later, I found myself in the silent study area of Firestone Library at Princeton University, playing catch up on my biochemistry before an oncoming final.  In the eerie quiet and reflection of the flouresscent light off the polished oak tables, I heard the cries of bargain hunters in teh bazaars mixed with a student blasting a transistor radio.  If you stare at the light long enough to be hypnotized, You can see playful children asking me for chocolate or harassing desert pigeons with stones, eliciting caws from above in a splendid streaming sky that occasionally pierces the unique Rajisthani din.

It is here and there and everywhere I continue to travel — thousands of miles away from the dunes of the Thar desert — that I wear my 50 cent necklace, hear the howl of the wind and feel the soreness of my butt while pondering the odd dangers of eye contact.

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