I stopped in Udaipur. It was over and I had to deal with that. No point cramming more temples and palaces in. As Otis Redding sang, “if you don’t know me by now . . . ” So I decided to just hang out in Udaipur and wait to see what might happen at the end.
The first thing to happen was Mewar.
Mewar is a spring festival centered around girls and women. Every night for three nights in a row, all the ladies and girls in town get dressed up in their best and join a procession down to the lake ghat (steps) to honor the Gods and pray for good marriages and fertility.
I localed out in kurta and tights and joined the procession down to the river. Getting in the midst of a bone crushingly dense Indian crowd was not something I thought I’d ever do at the beginning of this trip, but now I felt comfortable being swept along and not knowing precisely if I would get trampled and die by the end of it.
It was amazing to see so many women together. In India walking down the street you sometimes get the impression that the country is mostly men. In the service industries around tourism it is mostly men you encounter. Women lag men here by double digits in education and literacy, and seem to be confined to private spaces, making dosas. But here for the Mewar festival, they were out in all their glory.
The energy from the 90% female crowd was friendly and reserved. No one shouted out “Obama!” at me; I was just a part of the crowd, just another woman out to see what the Gods could do for her tonight. Occasionally someone would jostle me or a child on someone’s shoulder would pull my hair, but this did not feel like special foreigner treatment. I felt at ease.
Official is not official here, really; so some guards opened up a closed museum for us lakeside and thousands of women poured in to the haveli style classic architecture to take up places on the balconies and rooftops and watch the ceremony below.
The king sailed his boat out in front of the ghat and made his royal appearance (he lives in the city palace here). There were women dancing with bowls of fire on their heads to sexy tabla music; and then some guys in drag shaking it; and finally fireworks ear splittingly close to us.
The second thing that happened was a BBC reporter, special lassis and a case of bacterial dysentery. That’s gonna have to wait for the memoirs.
The last thing that happened was that for the first time, I got truly comfortable on my own in India.
My hotel was a big part of that. It was a historical, heritage hotel in the haveli style, up a mysterious, steep alley. It was ornate and classical and classy, like much of this town, understated. My room was filled with plush velor cushions and little curtained off window boxes. I felt like a princess from the 18th century. Strange two-d, richly painted miniatures of people who must have been royal family members adorned the walls. The garish and bright jewel tones of Rajastani art and fashion were set tastefully against whitewashed or light pastel backgrounds.
The whole Old City had that regal feeling, winding streets and alleys free from most garbage or maybe I wasn’t seeing it as much anymore, old white stucco buildings with domed peaks and jewel toned windows looking down at you, temples and a ferriss wheel, the old fort wall, and all of it looking out on the glittering lake and the hills as a backdrop.
Us humans are perverse. Sometimes the only time you feel at home is right when it’s time to pack up and leave. On the way out we often wonder – did I make good use of my time here? And so I also wondered – had I seen India, the real and complete India? I tried to make a list of all the places I had been to. Hyderabad. Mysore. Madikeri. Belur. Dharamshala. Mangalore. Palolem. Panjim. Mumbai. Lonavla. Jaipur. Agra. Haridwar. Rishikesh. Dehra Dun. Shimla. Chandigarh. Dehli. And finally now Udaipur. Did these places have anything in common? Was there anything about all these places that made them Indian?
I was reminded of a major theme in India Calling. India Calling is a book by an Indian American guy (ex NYT foreign correspondent for Mumbai) who comes to live in India as an adult for the first time; it’s his take on both the paradoxes of his mission to know India as an insider, and the paradoxes of a not-quite-there-yet aspiring superpower growing into its own. Part of Giridharadas’ thesis is that traditional Indian thinking lacks this western ideal of the universal; everything, especially morality, is context and caste sensitive. There is no effort to reduce the world into a set of easily understood, always applicable rules. The heterogenity of the Hindu God system illustrates this. This is frustrating for a Western reductionist like me, but it explains a lot of what happens here. Right now it explained to me why after all towns and thalis even at the last I couldn’t seem to locate India. While I felt I “got” Thailand, there was no “getting” India. It was perhaps not a worthwhile exercise to attempt to reduce one billion people into some sort of national identity or gestalt.
So there’d be no finding of ultimate India here in Rajastan. But Udaipur gave me something better, a feeling of being at home, which I had only gotten close to at the very beginning of the trip on the borrowed love of my friend’s warm family in Hyderabad. I was proud I could get to the point of feeling at home on my own somewhere in India, but it also made me feel quite sad. How would I like my new country of France? Would I be able to get decent dosa for breakfast if I happened to wake up nostalgic and wanted that one day? Would I be chilly all the time? Would I be horrified by the beef eating and the wine consumption? Would I embarrass myself by haggling prices in local shops and in taxis?
Damn you, Udaipur. Why did you have to be all shiny and romantic and awesome when I was trying to detach myself from this place? Where are the mounds of garbage, the dirty air, the starving street children, the rude rickshaw drivers, the crazy traffic, the stifling heat? Either these things were gone or I failed to notice them anymore. Maybe I could make out India better now, now that I couldn’t see that foreground stuff so clearly. Or maybe India is something you can only see clearly once it starts to hit the rearview mirror.
Goodbye for now, India.