Rajasthan is beautiful… really it is, the palaces and forts in Jaipur are breathtaking, the markets thrive with sights, sounds and smells, there are the most amazing sunset spots all across the state, you can practically TASTE the romance of Udaipur and the cities although not particularly easy to navigate, are amongst the best places I have ever been lost in. Sadly, along with all of that comes a lively tourism industry, which in turn can lead to scams, pick-pocketing and begging in the streets, so I was glad to have the opportunity to explore a rural village during my trip.
We drove for hours down dirt tracks and Rajasthani countryside, through fields, past sheep, and along dusty roads in our bumpy jeep until we saw small houses materialising in the distance. The closer we got to the village the more people we began to see, all of them smiling and waving, looking curiously at us. Some children even began chasing our vehicle until we turned right into our hotel.
Considering Tordi Sagar isn’t usually a top spot on tourist route plans, our hotel was absolutely gorgeous. Upon arrival we were adorned with necklaces made of bright orange flowers, the hotel manager applied a red bindi to each of our heads (in-keeping with Indian tradition), and we were offered a glass of lime-flavoured soda each. Casual-and-kind bell-boys carried our backpacks up to our rooms for us and bid us to follow them on the way. My room-mate and I were led up a flight of stairs and along a balcony corridor which over looked the village, the sun was shining and the only sounds to be heard were those of the children being let out of school below. The door to our room was dark and wooden, carved with an ornate design and locked with a padlock from the outside. Once we were let into the room it reminded me not of the bare-looking, simplicity of the budget accommodation we had stayed in thus far, but of Rajashtan’s answer to a boutique hotel. It was cute and kitschy with eyelet windows letting in the fresh air, a dark red patterned rug, blue, green and yellow painted walls, hanging curtains and tree-embroidered bedspreads. The interior was so lovely that I didn’t even mind when it was explained to me that when we would leave the next morning there would be no electricity and that hot water was a luxury which Tordi Sagar had not yet gained.
After ditching our backpacks, we headed out into the village to soak up rural Rajasthan life. Roaming down the dusty narrow streets, we saw women looking down from their perches in raised windows, apprehensively examining us foreigners. Round one corner we found a potter, spinning fresh clay to be sent off to the larger cities once finished. At no point did this man make us feel obliged to buy, instead he allowed us to take photographs and even try our hand at spinning on his pottery wheel.
Next, we came to a school for one of the 'lower castes'… there were perhaps fourteen children of varying ages who came running towards us. Each of them was slightly darker in skin colour than the other children we had seen since arriving in Tordi Sagar and I noticed one little boy appeared to have Down’s Syndrome. I was informed that this was a school for the less privileged children of the village. And yet each and every child was kitted out in a pale blue shirt and a grey skirt or trousers just like so many children in the UK are during the summer time. I loved the fact that all of the children appeared to be so proud of their uniform! One of the little girls came and grabbed my hand… she had the driest skin and most matted hair I have ever seen. Her shirt looked dusty and she had a smear of mud on her face, but she was one of the prettiest little girls of all time as her smile was just incredible. She followed me around, holding my hand, asking me to photograph her and then she started tickling my tummy screaming, “Gili gili gili”. I don’t know what this meant exactly, but she was giggling to her heart’s content, so I did the same to her. If I could have kept her I would, but our local tour guide advised us to leave the children behind as they would get in trouble with their school master if they kept following us.
Exploring the hotel before lunch allowed me to find a horse tied up in the back yard, an amazing rooftop which I learned could be seen from anywhere in the village (this helped later on in the day when I was wandering around the streets alone!), and a dinning table out in the open air laden with vegetable curries, rice and breads.
After dining, I decided to allow a local lady to give me a henna tattoo which took maybe ten minutes… Henna is an art form which is so traditional to India and I had been wanting henna since I arrived in Delhi but found the prices charged in the major cities to be a little extreme. This lady, on the other hand, charged just 75 rupees. I gave her a little extra as a tip and she seemed so grateful.
I headed out into the village whilst I let my henna dry and found that a couple of the guys from my group had chanced a cut-throat shave by one of the locals. Both of them appeared slightly nervous, especially as swarms of men started surrounding them, wanting to see the Westerners get a shave. I couldn’t watch, so went wandering by myself for a little while and I’m so glad I did!
I found a trio of children sitting out on their porch and as soon as they saw me they started chanting, “Photo-photo-photo-photo-photo!” I didn’t have the heart to say no, so I started snapping shots of them, each one documenting the delight on their faces to see a Westerner photographing them outside their home. Each time I took a photo, I realised that more children would join the fold, pouring out of the house until eventually there were nine in total. The oldest girl approached me, smiling and taking my hands in hers, “My name,” she gestured to herself, “Puja. Your name…” she gestured to me, I replied, “Gabbi.”
“Hello,” she smiled. “Now, you come and see child.” She paused before dragging me up the steps to the house and inside. For a few seconds I was nervous… this child could be taking me anywhere, were there any adults home? Would they mind a Westerner entering their home? What was going to happen to me???
My concerns soon vanished as she took me into a room where there were five adults. They gestured me in warmly and the children tripped over one another trying to carry a plastic chair in from another room for me to sit on. I sat down and Puja started to tell me a little about herself.
“My name Puja. I twelve years old. I go school here and learn Engleeeeeeesh. My Engleeeeeeesh good, yes? I top of class. I know alphabet like true Engleeeeeeeesh. Now I want you see our child…” and before I knew it, she lifted a blanket from the bed beside me and beneath it lay the tiniest baby I have ever seen. The baby was red, wrinkled and had closed eyes, it’s mouth was open and a kind of strangled gargling sound came from it. “Child, child,” Puja pointed at the baby, “Mother and child,” she pointed from the smiling woman beside me to the baby. “Child came yesterday, very early,” Puja explained. “Mother went to city to have child and now they here, back home. Understand? Now, you kiss child.” Puja picked the baby up, swaddled in its beautifully patterned blanket, and put it in my arms.
Looking down at this baby, I had no words. Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked around the room at all of the locals young and old who had gathered to watch me, The Westerner, cradle this sick child. Each person smiled at me, nodded encouragingly, and one man even removed a camera-phone from his pocket to snap a shot! I looked back down at the baby and felt saturated by the love in the room, lowering my lips to the baby’s forehead, I placed a kiss right there as my tear dropped to it’s head. Handing the baby back to it’s mother, I explained to Puja that it was time for me to go, and bidding my thanks to all of the adults I started to leave. The nine children followed me all the way back to my hotel and when I bid my final farewell to Puja, she sang after me, “A – B – C – D – E – F – G…”
As the sun started to fall, I hopped into our jeep and my group and I drove up to the sand dunes to catch the sunset. After an intense hike up the caramel sands, we watched the sun setting over the barren desert with a mug of chai in our hands and a packet of biscuits each. None of us spoke, instead we all just sat there reflecting on the day and once the sun had gone, the moon arrived surrounded by the twinkle of stars overhead.
Over our roof-top dinner, my group and I discussed the different experiences we had each had that day… Some had attended a wedding in the village, others had bumped into my little matted-hair friend from the school again, whilst a couple had gone shopping in the little market. None had a story as fantastic as mine though! A part of me regrets not asking for someone to take a photo of me and that baby… I had my camera, but it just didn’t feel right. It is a memory which won’t stay with me because of the visual I saw, but because of the feelings I felt and no photo could ever capture that.
Fireworks started going off not far from us, and we assumed they were to celebrate the couple that had married. We watched them light up the night sky over the sleepy village and we knew that none of us would ever be the same again…
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