1000 Camels

This travel piece is about a trip I took to India a few years back. It was published in January 2010 in The Group Online Magazine  – my favourite online literary  journal, check it out:  groupmag.blogspot.com

1000 Camels

‘Marry me madam? Pleeeeeze!’ a small boy with vanilla-bean arms pleads as he lassoes my neck with a garland of golden chrysanthemums. I give him ten rupees (too much? too little?), he smiles and scurries off to find more brides. I watch him approach another white woman, she’s more elastic than me, she’s been here longer. She leans forward, makes it easy. I’ve been in India for less than two hours and a boy’s question throws me. How did he know?

I navigate my way back to the hotel, crossing the sacred city of Varanasi through a cat’s cradle of back lanes. Cows, rickshaws, sages, beggars and bewildered tourists all compete for a bit of space in alleyways that aren’t nearly as wide as an Indian smile. I feel calmed by the chaos. I’m travelling on my own – if that’s possible in a country boasting a billion people.

Like almost every other traveller here I’m on a pilgrimage – I hope India can give me an answer. I’ve just come out of a ten-year relationship and pledge to stay single for a while, but within weeks I meet someone new. Someone so not my type and yet so disarming, that whenever I think of her it’s as if all the windows around me fly open. It’s too much, too soon, but she’s certain and deserving of certainty, so I flee to India to be alone for a month and come home with a decision.

Varanasi is blessed with contradictions – a place where people bathe naked in the Ganges, but can’t show bare shoulders. Where they worship Shiva’s lingam, but display no public affection. Where there’s so much humanity, yet the untouchables are forbidden to enter temples. The ghats flanking the Ganges smell of smouldering sandalwood and burning flesh. Pilgrims bring their dead and dying here to douse their bodies in the holy waters and cremate their cadavers on a thousand-year-old funereal pyre. It’s said to catapult the spirit straight to Nirvana – ending the cycle of endless reincarnation – a type of after-life insurance. I take an early morning boat trip to see the vermilion sunrise and witness the sadhus perform their daily washing rituals along the riverbank. The canoe is long and low in the putrid water. I nervously drink the lukewarm chai the teenage captain gives me. He spots a friend in another canoe and they drag race each other along the river. A little wrapped doll bobs up from the rippled waves. When it turns I see the bloated blue face of a stillborn. I wonder if I’ll ever have a baby.

The next day I take a second-class sleeper train to Udaipur. It’s how I imagine the Orient Express – turned-down starched linen sheets and conductors inciting intrigue as they stride along the corridors all night. Udaipur is reportedly the most romantic city on Earth. A hillside jumble of old palaces and mud brick forts radiate Yves Klein blue. I’m staying in a dilapidated haveli, a palatial home from the Raj period, detailed with arabesques and mosaics and back-to-front swastikas, which take a little getting used to. Decaying palaces along the riverbank have rickety constructions added on willy-nilly, every surface covered in frescoes and paintings dedicated to the deities. The romance feels a little jaded. I’m sure Udaipur lives up to its claim as the Venice of the East – most likely when the moat-like lake that surrounds the citadel actually has water in it.

When I ask the man at the front desk if there are any local festivities on, he tenderly twirls the end of his long, Daliesque moustache and announces that it’s the season to get married – the stars are good, the moon is right, and Fridays are very auspicious. I thank him and leave quickly. On my way to visit a temple, I pass an enormous gathering on the street. A shy young man on an elaborately decorated white horse is being led through the village as drummers clang and women in brightly coloured saris taunt and tease him. I ask a woman, whose face and hands are covered with a lacy henna tattoo, what’s happening. She tells me the man on the horse is getting married that day and his soon-to-be in-laws are parading him around to show off their bounty.

That evening I pass an outdoor festival in a small walled park not far from my haveli. The park is alive with laughter and amplified bhangra music. I sneak in through a carved wooden entrance. The park is a kaleidoscope of colour – lanterns, streamers, exquisite fabrics. A little girl in full make-up and a pink cotton sari immediately spots me. She beguilingly grabs my wrist and drags me in without saying a word. I want to back out, but the little minx has me in her grip. She delivers me to her parents who are sitting at long table, greeting guests. Her father leaps up, vigorously shakes my hand, and tells me it’s his eldest daughter’s wedding and they’d be honoured if I join them.

Most Indians have arranged marriages and this bride’s parents are clearly delighted with their choice of groom. I congratulate them and apologise for barging in on their celebration. The bride’s father insists I stay. He tells me that foreigners bring good luck to the married couple and should be treated as if a god has swung by. I’m unsure of my newly acquired status, but given their insistence, and my blatant curiosity, I join the wedding party.

As the only Westerner, I’m a complete novelty. I’m dragged on to a floodlit stage to be photographed with the newlyweds – they in silk and gold, me in cotton and sandals – smiling with strangers for the paparazzi while musicians blow horns and bang drums and women applaud in near hysterics. I dance Bollywood-style with children and old men, drink a curd-like concoction for more good luck and slurp through a feast of curries, tandoori, and sweets I’m sure I’ll regret – but it’s not every day I get an invitation to be a god at a Hindu wedding. The groom’s mother points to a table of boys and asks if I would like to marry one of her other sons – none of them look like they’ve reached puberty yet. I decline her generous offer. Like all the other women she wears a string of delicate bells around her ankles – not obtrusive but always there. Ting-ting-ting. She insists on giving me her anklets. I like the way they jingle. Those little bells inhabit an erotic space inside me. I put them on for her, but I still won’t marry any of her sons.

The curd drink and incautious eating make me feel giddy. I go back to my room with its four-poster bed and pressed metal ceilings. I lie on the too-big mattress and stroke the vacant space beside me.

A few days later I head for the Thar Desert to take a camel trek and visit Jaisalmer Fort near Pakistan. I have a paid seat on the local bus, but all seats are taken and many more people are sitting on the roof, brown bodies stuck to every centimetre, holding onto the racks like a Super Glue ad. Standing up inside seems a safer bet. My nose is shoved into an old man’s armpit. I get a seat for the last few hours in return for nursing someone’s toddler. I get off the bus bent over and reeking of turmeric. Jaisalmer is like a giant sandcastle, a living fort that’s home to 5000 people and as many stray dogs. Bastions and Jain temples decorated with naked deities surround the labyrinthine cobbled streets. It’s straight from the Arabian Nights.

Being on the Pakistani border means soldiers walk the streets grim, but hold hands. It’s strangely tender and reminds me that it’s Mardi Gras back home in Sydney. I go into a silk shop to buy a dashing scarlet salwar kameez with a turban and a floral neckpiece. The merchant laughs, he tells me it’s a groom’s outfit, then calls in his friends when I buy the bride’s matching antique sari. He asks if I’m getting married. I don’t have time to answer before he offers me a thousand camels if I marry him. When I turn him down, he ups the offer to all the camels in Rajasthan. That night I sleep lightly under a Muslim moon and am already awake when the sweet guttural call to dawn prayers is broadcast across the town.

After a week in the desert I take a sleeper back to Mumbai to wipe the sand from my eyes. I go for a stroll along Colaba Chwok – the main strip in a fairly seedy part of town – and hear Bollywood music drifting up from an underground nightclub. I slip the reluctant doorman a fistful of rupees and am ushered with great speed into a cavernous subterranean space. It’s like being inside the bottle in I Dream of Jeannie. The walls are padded and shiny silky cushions are strewn over the floor. A waiter brings me a gin and tonic and I curl up on an over-upholstered sofa. Suddenly, from behind a curtain, eight nautch girls appear wearing belly-dancing garb and start shimmying for me. I’m not sure whether to play along, but there’s no easy exit, so I smile and jiggle in my seat and when instructed to do so give the girls rupees to keep them dancing, just like any old letch. Occasionally the waiter whispers to one of the dancers and she peels away. When I’m stripped of all my rupees, I gesture to the waiter that I want to leave. He disappears and returns with a single rose in a plastic tube. He whispers that my favourite dancer has sent a message saying she wants to ‘love me’. It’s a kind offer, I say, but I’m already loved.

I have a week left to travel south. I love India’s charms, but after weeks of pissing in public I look forward to travelling easier, ‘like a maharani princess’ I tell myself. I plan to get massaged, cleansed and bejewelled. To get my hair oiled, my eyebrows threaded and my nails buffed. To do yoga and things I’ve never heard of and have my innards taken out, hosed down and put back in again. To have ayurvedic treatments and return home with a decision and my little bells a-tingling.

It’s late, but I find a tiny Internet café that’s still open. The attendant and a mangy dog are both sleeping on a mat near the door, the dog lethargically raises its head to give me the once-over. A lone cubicle with a computer sits under a softly strobing fluorescent light. Each key on the QUERTY keyboard has a sticker with a Hindi character covering it. I regret never having mastered touch-typing. I peel back the stickers to type in my webmail address. An email from her is waiting in the inbox. Her mother has died suddenly, only the day before. She asks if I’ll come to the funeral to be with her, as her family. I search for the letters hiding under the Hindi characters to tell her I’m coming home.

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