The sun had almost set by the time we reached the hotel. A dilapidated looking mud-plastered building with small rooms and narrow stairways was going to be home for the next 2 days before we proceeded to our next destination, Pushkar. The world-famous Pushkar fair attracted tourists from all over the world. It was no surprise that a mere postal clerk from downtown Philadelphia landed here too, along with a friend. It was surprising to notice a sea of people all around me. I had underestimated ‘India is crowded’ part lent by the tour guide back home.
On my way out in the evening, I noticed a few street sellers right outside the hotel. A bright lit market spread as far the eye could see. The clamour distracted me more than I could pay attention to a certain something. In all this chaos, a very melodious voice diverted my attention to a young girl who was packing up some stuff she had bought from the shop I was standing next to. She smiled as soon as our eyes met. My acknowledgement turned into a query, “Panini?”
“Yeah? Oh yes…Lil Nas X” she immediately took out her headphones to converse. “You like them?”
“No!” I chortled at the possibility. She joined in. Her cascading open mane fell on her face. Her eyes lit up as she laughed. Her hands and feet were small, I noticed. And her tiny frame in a hoodie and distressed jeans made her look every bit like my Indian friends back home. Except that it seemed easier to hit a conversation with her.
“Are you looking for something?” she finally asked.
“Yes, I am actually. Do we have something nice to eat around here?” She directed my attention to the market. “Of course, a lot of it I can see here. But I’m looking for a place I can sit and eat in comfort.”
She agreed to walk with me in search of such a place. She showed me around like a seasoned guide. I paid more attention to her chatter than any place that she showed me. Her descriptions were not only about the places but people as well. To add to it, she explained the historical relevance of some of the buildings we passed by. Before we knew, we found ourselves back at our original spot. “Well, we seem to have run out of places that would interest you and I need to head home now. So, what do you wish to eat?”
I shrugged my shoulders, unsure of what to tell her. She was quick to offer though, “would you care for some home-made food?”
“That would be perfect!” She headed home and I followed her like a clueless puppy. Surprisingly, everyone at her home welcomed me with open arms. A large front-yard lead to many rooms on all sides on three floors. Almost a dozen people passed by me. I thought I had landed in some apartment-style habitat, but she corrected me that this was her ‘joint-family’. As expected she was quick to explain all about that as well, apart from the history of the building. This was as amusing as it was interesting to me. I had never experienced anything like this. My joy was unbound when I was served with food. It was a plateful of the spiciest dishes that I had ever had. It left me exhausted and reaching for water every two seconds.
When I left her home, her family came to see me off at the door. I waved to them and ascended the steps. From the corner of the alley, I turned around to look at her and realized that I had not even asked her name.
The next day, we were supposed to take off for Pushkar which was about 10 km away from here. A taxi came around noon to pick us from the hotel. Just then I noticed her emerging from an alley nearby.
“So, we meet again,” excited at the prospect of having another conversation, I approached her.
“Indeed,” she smiled and extended her hand for a shake. “This is my little sister.” I shook hands with her as well. “We came by to get some supplies. My mother is making a very special sweet that we have during festivities. Would you like to have some?”
“I am on my way out to Pushkar. We checked out of the hotel.” I was as disappointed as she was.
“Maybe, sometime soon.” I smiled at the girls. “Let me drop you home,” I offered her a ride.
“We can walk. We usually do.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind dropping you home.” The girls and I packed ourself in the rear seat while my friend seated next to the driver. That’s when she began her story of Pushkar. She prepared me with the details I doubted anyone else would have shared with us. She was keen to understand our interests and suggested places that would have amused us. By the time she realized we had crossed past her home, we were almost three kilometres away.
We directed the driver to pull over. I stepped out of the car to make way for the girls. Her sister followed me but before she could, the driver stepped on the gas again.
“Arrey… STTTOOOOPPPPP!” she yelled, but he would not listen. In the confusion, the rear door closed, and they were off. Her sister and I ran after the car, screaming and seeking help from the passersby, but the car kept heading ahead. Across the turn, we noticed that they had stopped. Both of us caught up with them soon after, only to be told by my friend that she had jumped over from the rear seat onto the navigator’s seat, next to my friend and both of them had forced the driver to push the brakes.
When we reached, I noticed her reprimanding the driver, “What do you think you were doing?”
“You guys were talking so much, I got confused who was to get off and who was to stay back,” he reasoned.
“Are you crazy! These are the tourists,” she pointed towards me and my friend, as we got busy unloading all our luggage from the car. “Of course, they were the ones you were to take along, not me! And when I was asking you to stop, why did you continue to speed up?”
“I don’t know. You all want to control us all the time. First, this Gora got late because he was chatting with you. Then you guys tagged along. And then you forgot where your home was! To add to it, you were taking forever to get off. I got miffed.” The driver’s absurd reasoning reflected in her expressions.
We were, at that time, dependent on her to rescue us from this situation. We were in the middle of the road, on our way to Pushkar arguing with the driver who was supposed to take us there. And here she was educating the guy on etiquette.
“Bhaiya, these people come from abroad to experience life in our country. They are hopeful that they will witness something that they have not elsewhere. And we must to be nice to them. Else they will stop coming at all and who will you ferry in your cars then? The camels?” By now the driver seemed embarrassed.
She continued, nevertheless. With one hand on his shoulder, she offered him water from the other, “have some water and think hard. When they go back home, they don’t want to take this image of chaos to their country. Give them the best experience so that they can remember you for life.”
The driver seemed pleased by now. I don’t know what she said but he walked up to us, apologizing. He grabbed our bags and re-loaded them in the trunk. With folded hands, he urged us to carry on with the journey. I looked at her for her approval. She nodded. I knew I could trust her and so I did.
Sometimes, you don’t need dramatic innuendos, disproportionate experiences or even significant milestones that change the course of your life. Sometimes, it is simple acts of kindness that can lead you to believe in humanity and the beauty of accepting people as they are.
“How will you manage?” I asked her.
“I know my way back home.” She smiled, held her sister’s hand and proceeded.
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