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A shopping trip in Jaiselmer and how to test Pashminas

The tailor served us chai while we waited in his shop for the bus to Jaisalmer. Lena, Bengt and I were going there for the weekend. We got a little anxious as the time that the bus was due approached, but the tailor said: “Don’t worry. I will be told when it is coming.”

Quarter of an hour later his phone rang, and he ushered us out to the main road, where the bus duly stopped, and waved us off. (He was waiting when we arrived back in Shiv the following evening, and boarded our bus to tell the driver to take us on as far as the camp gates.)

The bus had a driver, a conductor, and a little boy (the son or younger brother of one of them) who leaned perilously out of the door as we approached every stop and shouted: “Jaisalmer, Jaisalmer.”

We were treated to a background of Rajasthani music, and the driver sounded his horn loudly whenever he overtook sheep or goats on the road, and each time he neared a stop. There were four other men in the driver’s cab, and the bus remained full, with a few people standing much of the time. It would stop by some tree or rock beside the road, with no village or house visible nearby, and passengers would get on or off. Above the window to the driver’s cab was a picture of a smart Americanstyle wooden house, with red maple leaves and waterfalls behind it. Across the top, in capital letters, was the message ‘IN ANY HOME IS GOD’. On either side were metallic icons of Hindu gods. The little boy and the conductor wanted their photos taken and laughed a lot at the result.

Approaching Jaisalmer there were modern red and white striped windmills beside the road. Some were already operating and feeding the Rajasthani grid, others were still under construction, and some huge tubular sections lay waiting to be erected. From the ramparts of Jaisalmer fort on top of its rocky outcrop, I looked out across the flat expanse of the desert to see forests of wind farms on the sand-hazy horizon.

It was impossible to imagine this great expanse of desert under water, but that is what the proprietor of a restaurant on the ramparts described to us. He told us that, when the great rains struck the region several years before, he had looked out over an enormous lake stretching as far as the eye could see. The rain had been so heavy that the hard-baked earth could not absorb it, and it was three days before the water soaked away.

Re-tyred book coverWhile we filled in the necessary police forms at the hotel, the owner embarrassed us by telling us that we were very noble. He was impressed that Europeans would come to this out-of-the-way corner and give their time and effort to help in the village schools. He and his younger brother owned this eighteenth century haveli, where we ate supper on the roof, with the floodlit fort towering above us.

“One of our ancestors worked as an architect for the Maharaja,” he told us, “and the Maharaja gave him this house as a reward for his services.”

He explained that his family was Brahmin, and because of the government’s reverse discrimination laws they had found it hard to get work, so they had turned the haveli into a hotel. (These reverse discrimination laws reserve places in educational establishments and jobs in government services for people from the lower castes.)

Lena and I shared a beautiful clean room, with cushioned window seats in front of tall, elegant, shuttered windows, looking out on a quiet narrow street.

We were hungry, and Lena’s guidebook recommended the Trio restaurant, inside the fort. After wandering through the bazaar, skirting round cows and occasionally bulls, we found the restaurant in a large open square, or chowk. A big bull with magnificent long curved horns stood in the middle of the traffc nearby. It amazed me that the bulls there roamed freely and seemed as calm and docile as the cows.

The other customers in the smart rooftop restaurant were mainly Indian families out for a weekend lunch. One group must have been on a visit home from the UK, as they were speaking English and their children had English accents. The food was a welcome change from the cauliflower, pea, carrot and potato curries we usually ate in camp. We were served aubergine and mushroom dishes, and naan bread instead of chapatis.

I loved to wander through the bazaar, looking at the bright bedspreads and hangings displayed on a wall here, and trying to identify the seeds and spices set out in front of a shop there. On one display of bedclothes a notice advertised ‘Magic bedsheets – no need for viagra’. I watched a sadhu going from shop to shop begging. He was a wild looking man with a bronze begging bowl, wearing a rough saffron garment which left one shoulder bare, and his black hair was long and unkempt. One shopkeeper gave him money in exchange for a blessing, and then consulted him briefly, presumably about some more specific need, for which he received another blessing.

Men squatted at the open doors of their clothes shops and tried to entice us in to see their wares. When we smiled and walked on they would call after us: “Come to my shop tomorrow.”

When I showed an interest in a display of kurtas, the owner ushered me in and turned out his wares onto the carpet in front of me. The shopkeepers would always spend a long time chatting with us. Some brought us chai, and many of them, when they heard we were from Shiv, would ask if we were teachers, and would remember other volunteers they had met. Each time we visited Jaisalmer these men would recognise us from previous visits, ask after volunteers who were not with us, and offer us chai, so our progress through the streets was slow.

Re-tyred book coverWe walked into a large, modern Kashmiri shop. Unlike most of the others it had big windows and a front door. The owner welcomed us and closed the door while he gave us a tutorial on pashminas and how to tell the difference between a true pashmina, a Kashmir wool shawl, and shawls made from synthetic fibre. He unlocked a safe and showed us his most precious pashmina – as light as a cobweb but very warm. True pashminas are made only from the hair in the beard of a Kashmir goat. Kashmir shawls are made from hair from other parts of the goat and are a bit heavier and thicker but still very warm. Man-made fibre shawls are thicker and heavier still but not nearly so warm, and they are usually coloured with chemical rather than natural dyes. He showed us how to distinguish them from those made of hair or wool by setting light to a little strand cut from the fringe – the smell of burnt hair identifies natural hair or wool, whereas man-made fibres smell like burnt plastic and melt to a hard little ball. Pure silk does not burn at all.

He told his assistant to bring us chai, and when we admired the carpets hanging on the walls he spread some of them out on the floor and told us all about them. He knew our funds were limited and we were not going to buy any carpets, but he seemed to enjoy educating us.

“My family is still living in Kashmir,” he said. “I return to my village every year from the middle of March to the end of July. It is very hot in Rajasthan then.”

He explained that his family had moved away from the disputed border with Pakistan and were now living just outside Srinigar.

“But they cannot move further away because of their goats. The carpets and pashminas are handmade by people in my village. As soon as I sell one of the carpets I phone home and ask the villagers to start on another one, of exactly the same design, to replace it. Each carpet takes months to make.”

Extracted from Sara McMurry’s thoughtful and fascinating book ‘Re-tyred’, her account of several teaching stints in rural India. Find out more here.

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