Impressions of India: Jaipur

Taking a walk around a medium-sized Indian city, such as Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is a sobering experience. India has almost a billion people, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line, and at any given time most of them are on the street with you. It is almost impossible to be alone in India, except in your hotel room. Everywhere you go are people; people hurrying, people standing around in groups talking (two or three at a time, at the tops of their voices), people sitting on the ground, people lying on the ground (some of them completely bundled in blankets and apparently asleep, even in the middle of the day,) people trying to lure you into their shops, people standing around eating, people standing drinking chai, an endless swarm of humanity milling and swarming everywhere you go. As a photographer who enjoys taking pictures of people in the street I like to be anonymous, and fade into the background. This is impossible for a Westerner in India. Everywhere you go you are the center of attention. Indians are extremely aware of their surroundings, and are friendly and welcoming people. In many cases, of course, there is a commercial motive for their attentions, but often it is just a desire to say hello. Children can be a real problem. You are liable to attract quite a following, and they all want something. “One rupee, one sweet (candy), one pen, one dollar, one photo, what is your name? Where you come from? Where you going? What you looking for? You give me something?” endlessly repeated as they follow you down the street. The best response is to simply ignore them, and eventually they give up, but they could give an insurance salesman lessons in persistence. This is mostly the boys. The girls tend to cluster in groups, giggling as they steal glances at you from the corners of their eyes. A smile and a greeting will usually get a smile back before they hide their faces in their hands and turn away blushing. Adults will often walk along beside you and engage you in conversation, and are sometimes quite hard to get rid of without seeming rude.

Indian cities are noisy, dirty and smelly. Music blasts at top volume everywhere, people are shouting, radios and TVs blaring, horns are blowing, engines roaring and belching black smoke, bells ringing, hawkers with portable PA systems screaming their pitches; India has no concept of noise pollution. Curiously enough the only silent creatures are the cows. Though they are everywhere, getting in the way of traffic, rooting around among the garbage, they never seem to make a noise. One would expect a constant chorus of mooing, but I have never in all the time I have been here, heard one make any noise whatever. Garbage is everywhere. The normal way to dispose of trash is just to throw it on the ground, and of course the cows (as well as all the other animals that roam the street, such as goats and pigs) do perform all their other bodily functions, so one has to be very careful where one steps. The sidewalks, such as they are, which is not much, are also cluttered with the aforementioned sleepers and sitters, as well as vendors with handcarts and vendors with blankets on the ground. The gutters are minor rivers of foul-smelling black liquid. All of this makes walking quite hazardous, especially when you add the potholes and sudden changes of level and of course the traffic coming at you from all sides whenever you have to venture into the street to avoid some obstruction on, (or complete absence of) the sidewalk. 

The stores are mostly concrete boxes with shelves and racks and low glass display cases for the merchandise. The owner and usually three or four hangers-on sit around on mats or directly on the floor. Often there is a low padded bench for customers, and all business that extends beyond a simple purchase is conducted over a cup of chai. In a country with so many people and so little commercial activity, competition is intense, especially for the attention of any passing tourist. Everywhere you go merchants are touting their wares. Again, the questions. “What is your country? How you like India? What is your good name? Where are you going? Come and see my shop. No need to buy, just look. Looking is free. Best prices.” You will find a friendly person at your elbow engaging you in conversation that soon turns to “My uncle’s store, just around the corner” These are touts, who roam the street and get a small commission for each customer they lure into someone’s store, more if you buy something. Inside the store you are sat down, given a cup of chai, and merchandise is paraded before you. Endless shawls are unfolded on the counter with a flourish; “Which ones you like? What color you prefer? Very fine gifts; you have wife at home? Girlfriend?” If you express any preference at all, the rest are swept aside, and several more brought out similar to the one you liked. And it is hard not to express any appreciation, as much of the work is stunning. India excels at hand-made goods, embroidery, weaving, rugs, carvings, miniature paintings, exquisitely executed in very fine taste. All the while you are protesting that you just came in to look, and all the while more and more things are piling up on the counter. Of course you ask the prices of things, and then you are treated to a five-minute description of the work that went into the item, how many weeks of painstaking work went into the making of it, how fine the workmanship is, how much better this one is than all that rubbish you see in the other stores, what fine taste you have to pick this particular example, before a price is named. You reiterate that you are not intending to buy anything, you are just curious to know what is available and at what cost, and immediately the price drops by 20 percent. “You are my first customer of the day, not many tourists this year, I have to make money for my family, I give you special price, just for you.” “Thank you, I appreciate it, but as I say, I am not buying anything today, I told you that from the start.” “Well, how much would you like to pay for it?” It is all you can do to extricate yourself without succumbing. The problem with all this is that it makes window-shopping or comparison-shopping quite impractical. As soon as you show any interest whatever in something, even just by looking at it, you are set upon. This has the unfortunate result of putting many tourists off buying anything at all, since they cannot stand the pressure, and so avoid entering any store whatever. The best solution is to find someone you can trust who knows the best place to go, and then go there, but finding someone you can trust is not easy in a strange place where everyone is fighting for your attention. It is really quite a puzzle. 

There are also the actual professional beggars, usually disabled, often quite grotesquely. Here the situation is quite different. For one thing, they seldom do more than look piteously at you. In India begging is pretty much of a recognized profession, and since a large proportion of the population are practicing Hindus, who give alms regularly, beggars make a reasonable income, at least by local standards. Though some came by their disfigurements naturally (or accidentally) many were deliberately disfigured in infancy for the very purpose of eliciting pity. The begging trade is actually a fairly well-organized industry; they give a portion of their take to a beggar-master who performs much the same function as a pimp in the prostitution trade. An excellent book dealing with this subject is the novel A Fine Balanceby Rohinton Mistry, a well-known Indian author. However I would suggest reading it somewhere other than in a large city in India, as it has a very depressing ending, and seeing the actuality while also reading about the background does not make for a very good night’s sleep, as I discovered! The hardest beggars to deal with are the ones, mostly women and small children, that wait at places where traffic backs up, and look piteously at you through the car window, until the traffic starts moving again. They are very hard to ignore. 

All of this poverty and dirt makes traveling in India a decidedly mixed pleasure. On the one hand there are some stunningly beautiful places, and for a photographer the opportunities are endless. On the other hand one spends a lot of time wrestling with one’s conscience about the conditions in which so many of the people live. One cannot help realizing that he food that is thrown into the garbage every day by any restaurant in the US would feed a family here for a month. Spending time watching people literally scratching a living out of the dirt certainly gives one a heightened consciousness of the wastefulness of the Western lifestyle. I certainly have no answers to this dilemma; I tell myself that just by coming here and spending what little I do spend I am making a contribution, but it is hollow consolation. I have to make a conscious effort not to brood on the situation, since that does not help anyone either. The best solution seems to be to avoid such cities, and concentrate on the good parts, which are certainly plentiful. 

The Bride Wore Red — A Rajasthani Wedding

The wedding party

December is wedding season in Rajasthan, which means that on any given day in any town there might be six or seven weddings taking place, even more in the larger towns. I was fortunate enough to be invited to one, though actually no invitation is strictly needed, as anyone seems to be welcome! 

Weddings here are very much public occasions, and much of the action takes place in the streets. If your only experience of weddings is the American or European model, a certain amount of reorientation is in order. The most important difference is that in our culture the wedding day is the bride’s day. She is the center of attention, and the groom is pretty much of an afterthought. Here it is entirely the other way around. Everything centers around the groom, and it is the bride who is in the background. This of course reflects the roles of the sexes in India. Women’s liberation has made no inroads here whatever. In Indian family life the man is the center of the universe and the woman is little more than an unpaid servant. Although officially many of the old customs have been abolished, most of the attitudes live on as strong as ever. Every parent prays for male children. Modern technology such as amniocentesis is used not for reasons of health but to establish the sex of the baby, and it is far from uncommon for women to be pressured into abortions if they are carrying girls. I am told that infanticide of female children is still an accepted, if undercover, practice in rural areas. A daughter represents a considerable expense for her parents as they are expected to provide a sizeable dowry if she is to find a husband. 

Strangely the laws of supply and demand seem to be subordinate to cultural attitudes, since the result of these policies is that there are three men for every two women in India, and one would think that this would tip the balance in favor of the women in the marriage stakes, but this is not the case. In spite of the fact that a large percentage of the male population will never have the opportunity to marry because of the shortage of women, still the parents of the bride bear enormous expenses to see that their daughter is married, and still the wife is treated as a second-class (or maybe third class) citizen. The family hierarchy has the husband at the top, followed by any male children, then the wife, and then any female children. 

An additional burden for the young bride is that since housing is expensive and in very short supply, it is almost certain that she will spend at least the start, and maybe all of her married life living with her husband’s parents. If you think that the mother-in-law has a bad reputation in the West, in India the situation is far worse. Having herself been victimized by her husband and his mother, when it comes time for the mother of the groom to acquire a victim of her own, she is generally more than ready for the task. The daughter-in-law becomes the slave of the household, and the target of constant criticism, since of course no woman is good enough for her son, the prince. Of course there are exceptions to these rules, but this is the cultural norm, so it is hardly surprising that the wedding day is not much of a celebration for the bride. 

The proceedings start with the groom being paraded through the streets, starting some distance from the place the wedding is to take place. First comes the band, consisting of several drummers, a trombonist and a clarinet player, whose musicianship is considerably outweighed by their enthusiasm and volume. They are followed by the groom’s male friends, dressed in western style suits with the addition of colorful turbans, all of whom seem to have been indulging heavily in alcoholic sustenance ahead of time. Every fifty yards or so they break into wild dancing, pulling in any passers by that they can get to join them. Dancing is perhaps too generous a description, as much of it consists of joining hands and twirling around faster and faster until centrifugal force propels them pell mell into the crowd, or prancing around wildly with their arms in the air like a drunken imitation of a Hollywood impression of a Native American war dance. Dressed in feathers and carrying tomahawks they would be right at home on the back lot of Universal Studios! 

Prancers prancing

Next comes the groom, dressed in a magnificent Rajput costume consisting of a long golden embroidered tunic, embroidered shoes and a magnificent flowing turban, mounted on a horse. Since the chances are he has never been on a horse in his life, and the nearest he has come to his warrior heritage is on the screen of the local movie house, at this point of the proceedings he looks somewhat apprehensive. His movements are somewhat hampered by the fact that he has some twenty necklaces of marigolds around his neck; every few yards another one is added; every time he passes a business owned by someone he knows he stops and another necklace is draped around his neck. Soon most of his head disappears inside the mound of flowers, making navigation quite a challenge. Fortunately a couple of older male relatives walk on each side to make sure that nothing untoward happens such as the long-suffering horse deciding to bolt. On each side are two women bearing on their heads ornate double propane lamps, casting a bright and lurid light on all around. Behind the horse walk the groom’s female relatives, gorgeously bedecked in saris and masses of gold jewelry, and a huge crowd of other guests and people who just decide to join the parade. 

The groom on his horse

This whole caravanserai proceeds through narrow cobblestone streets, spraying the passers by with confetti and some substance that looks like shaving cream that is squirted from spray cans. Meanwhile regular traffic is threading its way in both directions through the parade, while the prancers prance and the band makes enough noise to waken the dead. Eventually the parade reaches the bride’s house, and after dismounting from the horse (not without difficulty on account of the mountain of flowers he is carrying around his neck) and performing an elaborate ceremony involving striking the door post three times with a long stick and intoning some kind of incantation, the groom and as many of his friends as can be crammed inside enter the house. Inside the relatives of the bride (who is herself not in evidence at all) welcome the arriving party, and a long and complicated set of rituals ensue, involving ceremonial trays of fruit and vegetables and small bowls of spices and brightly colored powders, more flowers and more incantations, all taking place in a tiny courtyard lit by the glow of the gas lamps and the lights of the videographer who is recording all of the proceedings. After twenty minutes or so, still with no sign of the bride, the whole party piled out of the door into street again, the groom mounted his patient horse once more, and off we all went down the narrow winding alleys, band thumping loudly, prancers drunkenly prancing, and all of the followers laughing and chattering as they went. 

Part of the procession

Eventually the whole procession turned down a side alley with a large pavilion-like tented structure covering the entrance, opening at the far end into a brightly lit space about fifty feet by fifty feet large. At one end was a raised platform lined with painted panels, with two massive ornate red chairs placed in the middle. Around two sides were long tables covered in brightly colored and patterned cloths that reached the ground, piled high with all kinds of food; huge copper and brass bowls full of rice, fruit, curries and other hard to identify meats and vegetables swimming in sauces, plates of sweets and pakoras and samosas, jugs of fruit juices and lassi, pots of chai. The center of the square was filled with people, milling and chattering, large groups seated on the ground, others on plastic chairs, small children in their best clothes running in and out, laughing and shouting. 

More guests

Every table was surrounded by people with plates that they were piling with food before joining one or other group and settling down to stuff themselves. The groom and his friends mounted the platform, and while the groom, by now relieved of his pile of flowers, sat regally in one chair his friends alternated occupying the other, sometimes two or three at a time, while the photographer snapped pictures. The rest of the procession melded into the crowd and joined the rush for food. Everywhere I wandered through the crowd people smiled at me, made me welcome and pressed food and drink upon me. Still the bride had not appeared. 

Children were eager to pose

Finally after half and hour or so, a relative quiet fell, and all eyes turned to the back of the square, where a small procession of women had formed, glittering with gold brocade and vividly colored saris. In a space in the middle of the group walked a beautiful young woman in a flaming red sari, even more bedecked with gold chains and jewels than her companions, her eyes, cast demurely down to the ground in front of her, outlined in glittering silver paint, and a large jeweled brooch adorning her forehead. Her companions bore large trays heaped with flower petals that they cast before her. Slowly the group ascended the platform, where the groom, now alone, waiting in front of the two chairs. The bridal group left the platform, and the bride and groom finally confronted one another, each bearing a single long garland of flowers. 

Finally the bride arrives

For a long moment they stood looking at each other, then with a sudden movement the bride stepped forward and swiftly placed her garland around the groom’s neck, and stepped back. The groom then repeated the gesture, in turn placing his garland around her neck. At this the crowd cheered and stamped, and the couple sat down in the chairs while their friends threw flowers and confetti all round. Sadly at his point I became aware that if I did not leave immediately I would miss my train, so I reluctantly climbed on the back of my friend’s scooter for a hair raising ride back through the maze of narrow streets (and, incidentally, through the middle of another wedding procession) to the railway station, where I made it to the train just in time. I still do not know at exactly what point the couple were actually married, but I can say for sure that everyone present was having a riotously good time (with the possible exception of the couple themselves, who seemed a little bemused by it all.) For myself I enjoyed a feast for the eyes as well as some delicious food, but I was not sorry to hear those deafening drums fading into the relative quiet of the evening streets.

Exchange of garlands

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