Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Travel Tales: India, Day 5 in Ajmer and Pushkar

We enjoy a lie-in this morning as Pushkar is not far from Jaipur. We take full advantage of the breakfast spread at Clarks Amer, even getting a made-to-order Masala Dosa. Our drive to Ajmer is uneventful, and we are there by 11:30.

That day, so very long ago, when I had heard Sufi music at the Dargah in Fatehpur Sikri, has led to a lifelong passion for the same. This trip to Ajmer to see the Dargah of Moinuddin Chisti, the founder of Sufism in India, is special to me. I am a bit nervous though; I have heard stories of touts and beggars and am wary.

The driver parks some distance away from the Dargah and we make our way through a very crowded street amongst a throng of shoppers, limbless beggars on wooden platforms-on-wheels, veiled women dragging kids with an arm which peeps from under their black cover-alls, shops selling colourful plastic buckets stacked precariously, copper pots and iron woks, colourful material for women, and whites for men, it's all here.

I feel very conspicuous, a visibly Hindu woman in a very Muslim area. I scold myself "For God's sake, this is a secular country". But an undercurrent of nervousness makes it's presence felt in my stomach and I am ashamed of myself. The Dargah is crowded as we cover our heads to enter. No touts or beggars or shopkeepers have accosted us. This place has gotten bad press for nothing. There is music playing, the kind of music I like. We walk around the resting place of the Saint. I admire the Saint but I do not like the crowds and the pushing. I want to leave. I am not sure what I am searching for but whatever it is, I do not find it here.

We drive to Pushkar, hardly an hour away. We check into the Pushkar Palace hotel. Its a beautiful old haveli, right on the lake. There is a green haven of an inner courtyard. Our room is furnished with very authentic furniture. I simply love the old fashioned dressing table and wardrobe in the dressing room. I peer with interest at photographs of turbaned and impressively mustachioed men standing with chests out in front of dead tigers. Men looking uncomfortable in Western suits, hobnobbing with the British rulers. Children with big beautiful eyes. Family portraits, everyone standing stiffly to attention.

We sit basking in the afternoon sun in the outdoor dining area of the in-house restaurant, right on the lake, drinking numerous cups of chai and enjoying the quietness. It slowly seeps into us, this quietness, and the heart's rhythm slows. We finally stir ourselves to take a walk around the lake and visit the Brahma temple. There is a multitude of small temples and shrines along the way. There is a marked presence of Israelis here. As also young folks looking to indulge in hallucinogens. This bit makes me a bit sad.

I walk down the steps and scoop out some water to sprinkle on our heads. Then we walk into the Brahma temple. It is old and we sit on the steps, rubbing shoulders with ancient stones put up by hands long since gone.

My man wants a Panchranga pagdi (5 coloured turban). He finds a shop and buys one without much bargaining; he never likes to haggle. Then we walk into a bead jewellery shop to buy Maitu dozens of strings. As I settle down to a nice game of bargaining, she is visibly fascinated. I learnt this in my mother's lap, I am good at it. I laugh and joke, playing a game of' "I may buy this, but I may not", tantalising the shopkeeper into coming forward with better and better offers. He, on the other hand, plays his part beautifully, analysing my likes and dislikes, and bringing forth wares which will tempt me to just pay a bit too much for the pleasure of owning it. It's a game of wits, and I enjoy playing it. Maitu is amazed "But it was so very pleasant". I am surprised she thinks it ought to be a case of "who wins" and not "let me see, what will make you buy/sell this". I am sliding deeper and deeper into my Indian-ness.

Yes, it seems as if my partially Westernised shell is getting discarded and I am Indian again. My Hindi, rolling so stiltedly on my tongue the first day here, is fluent now, all the forgotten expressions and native-speaker quality coming right back. I strike up conversations with strangers, asking direct personal questions with nary a qualm. I shoo away beggars without being annoyed. I do not cringe every time I visit a toilet. I do not frown on my feet which have now taken on an ominous black colour. If things don't happen on time, I just shrug my shoulders and wait. I bargain with the best of them. Too well.

When we reach back our hotel, I am taken over by guilt by the last bit I squeezed out of that so nice shopkeeper. It's only a few dollars, I think. I walk back to the shop and give it to his child, knowing it is too much for a little one and I say "Buy yourself some chocolate beta (son) ". The shopkeeper is surprised.

That night we watch the lights on the lake as we dine in the in-house restaurant. The buffet is not extensive but it is not too bad. We are happy to have had an easy, relaxed day. And the children like Pushkar very much. It is cold in the night and we need to have the heater on in our rooms. We sleep astonishingly well.

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