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Living like a Rajasthani Princess

They are wearing their long pink garments with short sleeves, and I my green bikini.

Before allowing themselves almost freely into the arms of the waters of a hotel swimming pool in Pushkar, a small town of Rajasthan, India, the two women take off their beautiful sarees and jewelery behind a tree. It is around 7:30 pm, and this is the only time my friend Ghanshyan’s wife Babli and her sister-in-law Tara are allowed to swim – when almost dark.

Both Babli and Tara know how to swim, and their smiles clearly exhibit their love for swimming, if they have a chance to do it. Their English is not as good – they know a few words. I cannot speak their languages either – Hindi or local Marwari. We all, however, manage to communicate through words or miming. For example, they ask me to ‘exchange’ my white skin with their brown chocolate skin. They think white is beautiful, and dark is not.

In the pool, Babli and Tara keep looking at my body and ask why I am thinner than they are even though I am older.

‘Running and yoga. Everyday,’ I tell them, trying to act each out in the pool.

‘Good for health. You do yoga? Swim everyday?’ I ask, already guessing the answer to my questions. Shy with a smile, they say ‘no’ by moving their heads sideways – left and right, the Indian way. Busy all day at home with different chores, there might not be much time for Rajashtani women to keep their body in shape or in health. Also, it might be a cultural taboo for women in Pushkar to indulge in physical exercises. Even tonight, they are allowed to swim only because on their behalf I took the permission of Prakash, the owner of the hotel and Babli’s younger brother-in-law. Prakash, with some hesitation, accepts, not wanting to break my heart, his western friend.

At 8 pm, Babli’s father-in-law bellows out from the hotel. It is time to go home. A Rajasthani woman’s place is at home before darkness sinks. The order of the father-in-law must be obeyed.

Twenty minutes in the pool opens a tiny window into these women’s lives and offers Babli and Tara with a world of happiness. Another event of felicity for the ladies, earlier during the same day, is dressing a western woman in an elegant Rajasthani saree meant for a bride. Where expression might find itself mostly through sarees and ornaments for Rajasthani women, practicing this art form on a foreigner might probably be even more liberating.

Babli and Tara together with Sumani, Tara’s younger sister-in-law, and Sumani’s mother first help me wear a long green skirt with intricate golden rims, and later a golden brown top. All is done with love and utmost care.

Each of my arms, one by one, is dressed with several different colored bangles of shiny stones. Two white diamond earrings replace my long silver earrings, and my pink and dry lips are painted with dark red lipstick. Babli gently decorates my neck with her precious gold Rajasthani wedding necklace. It shines as it is the kind that only a princess would wear. The others put their final touches on their ‘art’ – they crown me with a diamond headdress, bless me with a red tika on my forehead, and place over my head a bridal veil of light green, rimmed with golden flowers.

This is a half-an-hour endeavor for my female Rajashtani companions, and they are fully absorbed in the creation of their ‘art’. And, it takes half-an-hour more for them to take me around in their garden to different spots where Prakash, the youngest son of the house,  takes my photos. At each spot, I am instructed by the ladies to pose differently. Sometimes I have to put my hand on my waist, sometimes under my chin but with each pose, I am ordered to smile. Of course, each different pose and each smile squeezes out a brief giggle from each Rajasthani woman.

The swimming pool and the ‘bridal’ sessions with Rajasthani women are my privileges to enter a female world in Rajasthan that might usually be swallowed up by another external world belonging to the Rajashtani men. I am fortunate to own a key to this world, too – my western looks.

In the world of Rajasthani men in Pushkar, I witness the pride and happiness of two male friends of my friend Ghanshyan, in being able to use their hard-earned cash to buy a brand new van. They earn the money, they make the choice to purchase a car and they have  the freedom to drive their newly acquired vehicle. This might only to be dreamed about by Rajasthani women in Pushkar who are usually not allowed to work.

The new owners drive their van to the house of my friend Ghanshyan and many other friends to exhibit it. The van itself is blessed on its ‘forehead’ with red vermilion and around its ‘neck’, right below its windscreen, with a long garland of orange marigolds. The owners present us with yellow desert called sweet balls, like new and proud fathers in my country Northern Cyprus, who distribute baklava to their relatives and colleagues right after the birth of a child. The presentation of sweets by the male Rajasthani van owners is followed only after a hug is given to them by their friends. The first bite of the sweet is not taken by friends until the owners do it first.

Swimming in a pool at any time of the day and being able to purchase and drive a car must be as sweet as my Indian confectionary for many others in the world. However, even sweeter must be the freedom of being able to move into any world one wants to venture into – be it of men or women.

The next day, as Babli draws intricate lace-like patterns on my hands with a tube of henna, I wonder what it would have been like if the henna had been painted all over my body and if it all of a sudden turned into a spider’s web. Would I have felt suffocated and started tearing up my lace dress of henna? And is this how Babli perhaps feels every day in her small house in Pushkar which she shares with ten other people? Or does she know that there are no other choices for her or does she just not know that there might be other choices? Or is perhaps what suffocates me a heaven of security for her in a big but sometimes lonely world?

I feel that Babli is my own private henna painter today and not a mother, wife and one of the two brides of the five-roomed house in the countryside of Rajasthan. The meal – roti and Rajasthani dal called kurdi- we have before our henna session, is as delicious as last night’s roti and fried bitter gourd. The bitter gourd comes from the fields, close to Babli’s house, where she picks these cucumbers with fat ‘pimples’ the day before with her two sons and husband, my friend Ghanshyan. She invites me to come to taste the gourd at dinner time with them as I admire the dark green bitter gourd plants. They remind me of vineyards except that they are closer to the ground and one has to bend when under them to pick the fruit.

We wait for the henna to dry on my hands while sitting on Babli’s big wide bed she shares with her husband and two sons in a tiny room. One of the other rooms in the same complex is occupied by her husband’s brother and his family of three. In the other rooms, her in-laws and single brother-in-law live. The toilet and the kitchen are out in the yard, away from the shed where each morning Babil’s father-in-law milks the cows for his grand-children’s breakfast. After our henna jam, we move on to sit close to the shed, in the yard under a big wide mango tree and watch the stars.

Babli’s husband tells me how his whole family used to sleep in a grass hut in the same yard, when he was a child.

‘Even though we have lots of land, we did not have money to build a house,’ he tells me as he proudly looks at their almost new cement house with five rooms. The family now earns money from the hotel they built seven years ago on one of the lands they own.

I think about a family with three sons sleeping sometimes in the hut, sometimes under the mango tree. I imagine the night breeze lullbaying the children.

Babli wakes me up from my thoughts to take me back to her room. She opens her closet. She is excited. She wants to show me something.

The closet is jammed with a rainbow of sarees, and an infinite number of bangles. She exhibits them to me with pride and joy. She wants me to choose a saree and some bangles. She then leaves me in front of the flat open closet to look for an album she carefully reveals from under the mattress of her bed. I follow her to look at more than twenty wedding pictures, all the same size, all showing her husband and herself in her wedding saree with shiny beads and in her gold jewelery weighing her down all the way to the ‘earth.’ Only the decoration behind the couple changes. The expression on the newly-weds is almost always the same – solemn-, just like their outfits.

‘Her sarees, bangles and wedding pictures are Babli’s life,’ I think. She lives with them twenty-four hours of the day except when she is in the kitchen cooking or in the yard washing clothes. And she does not hesitate at all to share her tiny but big and perhaps only world with me.

As I drive a jeep of another Rajasthani friend of mine called Panchu through the Rajasthani desert of light red sand the next morning, I enjoy the freedom it gives me and the fact that I can drive my own life in the direction I desire. I probably would not have the strength Babli has to live and endure a life with ten people in a world where there exists no privacy. But again, I try to put myself behind Babli’s eyeballs and reconsider the meaning of ‘privacy’ which we so dearly cherish in other parts of the world. ‘Privacy’, to Babli, might probably be ‘loneliness’ and a fear of being disconnected from the love and security her own and husband’s family provide her with. She would perhaps rather have her life ‘packed’, in safety, in a small room with her family and cherished sarees, bangles and wedding pictures than wildly driving a jeep in a wild desert with no end or clear directions to follow.

At the end of my jeep ride, I join my friends Panchu and Ghanshyan in a Rajasthani restaurant where meat and beer are served. No eggs, meat, drugs or alcoholic drinks are allowed in the holy town Pushkar or around where I spend several days with Babli and her family. The restaurant where we meet is, therefore, in a village called Kanas, in the vicinity of Pushkar. I am the only woman in the restaurant, and unlike the Rajasthani women, I am able join my Rajasthani male friends in committing the sin of eating mutton and drinking Bullet, the famous Indian beer. Kanas, our place of  “sin,” is in the middle of the Rajasthani desert where all is cooked in the garden and where village men wash themselves from a pool in the same garden.

The son of the restaurant owner comes to our table proudly taking two big bottles of beer – one from the left and the other from the right pocket of his trousers. We drink the beer by a vineyard and under the hungry gaze of two stray dogs. The smoke of our Indian bidis, cut tobacco rolled in a leaf, draws even more attention from the only customers of the restaurant – Rajasthani men and the stray dogs.

The Rajasthani women in their dazzling kurtas, sarees and gold jewelery, passed to them from their mothers, walk by, gracefully carrying their golden jugs of water on their heads.

‘Life for women is difficult in Rajasthan, too,’ I say, looking for comments in the eyes of my friends Ghanshyan and Panchu.

‘It is, especially in the villages,’ responds Ghanshyan, enjoying his sin – a huge chunk of mutton cooked in spicy masala.

‘The lucky ones are the Rajashtani princesses,’ Panchu overtakes, chuckling and giving a piece of meat to one of the dogs. I ask him what he means.

‘Those who are married to rich Rajashtani men live like princesses,’ he explains, ‘but less gracefully.’
Ghanshyan, now almost satisfied betraying his Hindu gods and godesses with meat and beer, comes back into the conversation.

‘In the past, being a princess in Rajasthan blew all their senses wildly into the air.’ But now, he continues, those senses are replaced by sedentary lives and gluttony for ladies married to rich Rajasthani men.

Ghanshyan asks me to look up at one of the hills facing us.

‘There used to be a Maharaja’s palace behind that hill,’ he says and invites me to imagine myself as a Rajasthani princess living in that palace.

‘Imagine,’ he enthusiastically starts his account, ‘living in the palace of a loving and young Rajahstani Maharajah with slanted green eyes and chocolate skin, and imagine living with him in the middle of a desert, in a green valley surrounded by hills topped by more than five hundred Hindu temples.’

‘Yes, I can,’ say my senses, ‘I could also see myself as a Rajhastani princess looking at the sunrise every morning through the wide windows of a palace in the middle of rose, cherry and daisy gardens visited by beautiful elegant female peacocks, turquoise hummingbirds and emerald parakeets.’

‘When not imagined but lived,’ Ghanshyan interrupts my imagination, ‘being a princess in Rajasthan gave you the power to be creative with the help of the magical mighty winds of Rajasthani desert, and the music of the peacocks’ cry for love.’

‘But more importantly,’ Ghanshyan knowingly smiles at Panchu, ‘being a princess activated and adorned your imagination with more beauty than hundreds of Rajahstani women combined together, with their mouth-watering light yellow, green, pink sarees and lace-like gold jewelery decorating their chocolate-dipped skin.’

‘But now,’ Ghanshyan comes back from his imaginary account back to our dinner table, ‘Rajahstani princesses only exist, living as comfortable as the princesses of the past but not as inspired by the beauty of their lives and the magical Rajasthani surroundings.’

‘What matters more to the princesses of today,’ Panchu interjects, ‘is to relax in front of their TVs while their maid cooks chapatis and dal for their several elegant meals of the day.’

But is this true, I inquire, that the senses of rich Rajasthani women of today have become ‘bland’ because of their own fault? Is it also true that their past ‘versions’ were more imaginative and had more active lives? Were they not as trapped in their palaces as the ones of today? Did they also not have to bury their senses in their palaces and their gluttony? Was Rajasthan not the territory of men in the past as it is today where the senses of women are as tightly shut in between the four walls of their palaces?

‘Perhaps,’Ghanshyan thoughtfully answers. ‘Or perhaps I want to believe that there was much more freedom, for those women who could afford, to be inspired by the beauty around them and use their stimulated senses to start an earthquake in the depths of Rajasthani desert.’

Or perhaps, my friends Ghanshyan and Panchu are saddened by the fact that the Rajasthani women of today, even though living in luxury, cannot easily break the chains of TVs and their ‘duty’ of being a wife, to the walls of their homes.

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