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The Embroidery of India

Watching the Ceremony
Photo by Erica Simone

The Embroidery of India

Parler Paris…
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Monday, February 26, 2007
Paris, France

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Dear Parler Paris Reader,

Special Note: Adrian writes from India this week. Even though you may find these missives a bit long, we hope you enjoy traveling with her, as she views life on the other side of the planet from the point of view of an American, a European and a “Westerner.”

Two weddings over four days began to feel like living in a time warp like the movie “Ground Hog Day” where the newscaster wakes every day at the same time to the same day. Each day plays out just a little differently and each day we learn something new about life and ourselves. The rituals were the same, but the players were slightly shifted, as a new bride and groom entered the scene along with a new set of visiting relatives and friends.

With each event, the parade of beautifully colorful and elaborately decorated women in their saris and gold jewelry was a feast for the eyes. The men were only one lap behind them, in embroidered Nehru style shirts and silk slippers. We met holy men and fortune tellers, the descendents of the doctor of the royal family, the wealthy of the highest classes from the state of Gujarat, other parts of North India and areas in the south, particularly around Mumbai (formally known as Bombay). We met the man famous for India’s packaged spices whose face framed in a turban and wearing a western suit, adorn the spice packages, of which I bought several to take home.

The spread of food, entertainment, service and opulence was impressive. One guest who had traveled from Mumbai with his wife, child and mother-in-law, remarked while sampling some of the dozens of freshly prepared dishes, “…and you thought India was poor. As you can see, it is very rich indeed.” Yet again another contrast to tease us and question.

When parting, we vowed to see many of them again – they had become fast friends. I cried when hugging our host goodbye and said, “I know it’s not polite to say thank you…but I’m going to say it anyway.” He understood. We Westerners are taught to say thank you at every turn, particularly a habit from years of living in France where you say “merci” virtually before and after every sentence. Here, it’s impolite to show appreciation for what is considered deserved or rightfully yours and I wondered if that has to do with the caste or class system and distinctive difference between those who serve and those who are served.

In some ways we have become numb to the chaos. In other ways, we are still dumbfounded by it and the never-ending contrasts of bo

th ancient and modern India. Outside the contemporary shopping malls, the rickshaws await passengers who laden with packages from the western chain stores such as Guess, Foot Locker, Benneton and Levis. Almost everyone was dressed in western clothing, a shock from having just left the wedding celebration where the women were in their finest golden embroidered and beaded saris.

The guesthouse had become home for six days where we took several meals and became a bit friendly with the workers. One young man said that he would really miss us. The Indians are enamored by us, for what reason we cannot yet discern, but wherever we go, we are asked if a photo can be taken with us centered among them. My daughter has been a “pied piper,” followed wherever we go, particularly by children, who ask her name and want their photos taken. Perhaps it’s the big camera, her big smile or independent demeanor that seduce them, but she’s enjoyed every minute and doesn’t at all mind showing them the photos she’s taken on the tiny screen.

Women are less seen on the streets than men. This is clearly a male-driven society. We were told that women who have sex before marriage are considered equivalent to prostitutes, so they marry early, mostly in arranged marriages. In fact, the daily newspaper reported that 45% of the marriages involve women less than 18 years old, particularly in the rural areas. The family unit is strong and highly regarded. Families stay and live together, celebrate together, take care of one another during hard times. The friends made at the weddings questioned our own lack of a family unit – a single divorced (very rare in India) woman with only one daughter, who at the age of 21 was not only not married, but not betrothed, either. It was so strange for them that we were happy with our situation, one living in New York, the other living in Paris. They were surprised and saddened when I reported that not only had the family unit become very fragmented in the U.S., but that in France, fewer couples were even marrying before having children!

After four days of non-stop events surrounding two traditional Hindu weddings, we moved on to visit the Golden Triangle (Delhi-Jaipur-Agra) with friends of our host family who assumed the role of guides, caretakers and hosts. By car was 4.5 hours to Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan, the “Pink City,” named as such for the color of the stucco buildings in the old walled city. Along the way, we passed hundreds of pilgrims carrying yellow and orange flags, both men and women, some of whom were barefoot walking for miles along the dusty roads. Camels and donkeys towing carts of goods were alongside the trucks. The landscape became a bit more tranquil as we passed fields of growing beets and occasional farmhouses and small villages.

In Jaipur our new hosts had many activities planned. They are also of the Brahmin caste; are diamond merchants and live in a posh part of outer Jaipur. The father of the matriarch was once Minister of Culture and was responsible for many of the important buildings in the city. In spite of their status, they live very modestly and once again we discovered inexplicable incongruities. When asking for towels for our showers, there was one to be shared between us. Luckily we carried our own supply of toilet paper, as they don’t use it (like most Indians who use a water-washing method of personal hygiene) and the drapes on some of the windows are simply unfinished pieces of fabric strung up on stretched wire. Nonetheless, their son is sleeping in the living room (alongside a servant boy who sleeps on a mat on the floor) to allow us his bedroom, they have very generously taken us in and are taking us to see Jaipur and the environs without hesitation…and these are people to whom we were just introduced.

These are the most sincerely warm-hearted, hospitable and loving people I have ever come across – and this has been true for everyone we have met. They have gone out of their way to please us, including surprising us with brand new towels for our showers and providing an Internet connection in the apartment so we wouldn’t have to visit the Cyber Café down the street. Nothing seems too much to do for us.

Friday night they escorted us shopping on the main street of Jaipur. With our host’s skillful negotiating talents, we purchased an array of souvenirs, including shoes made with camel skin, silk pashminas, trinkets, spices and chai tea to take home. They drove all over the city to show off this city that is surely the “Jewel of India.”

Saturday was a full day on a bus tour they had organized for us of Jaipur and all its most important monuments that began at the “Tourist Hotel”: The City Palace and Museum, The Amber, Nahargarh and Jaigarh Forts, the Lakshmi Narayan Temple and other sights of importance. The vinyl seats of the ancient bus were so stained and dirty that touching anything meant taking out yet another handy wipe. It was a full bus with a few young Westerners including two Aussie guys, two Belgian women, one Czech fellow, two American women, two Asians and the rest Indians. The guide, over a microphone set too loud to be comfortable, described what we saw as we drove along, just as any guide might do, but his dialog was so amusing, unintentionally, that we found ourselves crying tears in hysterics. Among them, he pointed out the Holiday Inn, an international hotel, as if it were the Taj Mahal and when passing the “SMS” sports stadium (built by our host’s father), he remarked that it was “a very popular word thanks to the mobile.” At first, we thought to drop off early and head to the city on our own, until we got a taste of what was to come.

There was an immediate camaraderie and one of two Aussie guys kept us laughing throughout the entire day. Miraculously, we bumped into the American fellow from the guesthouse and his hosts who were visiting the same monuments by sheer coincidence. Along the route, elephants decoratively painted lumbered along, herds of goats bleated by, monkeys perched on the fort walls stared us down and wild boar snorted at the side of the road. From high on the hill we had a view of sprawling Jaipur, a checkerboard of the pink and blue houses.

At the end of the long day, we were pleased to have stayed for the journey, climbed up every stair, ventured into every room of every temple and museum, shunned every hawking merchant and dined on mediocre food at the restaurant designed to profit from the tourists…with new friends.

The rest of the stay in India has been planned for us…a safari to the Rathambore National Park where we (hopefully) will see Bengal tigers, more shopping in the markets of Jaipur and a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, before heading back to Delhi and then Paris. We have been taken care of every moment every step of the way by these families who already feel very much like our own.

There is no doubt we could not have had the same richly embroidered experience in “Incredible India” any other way.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

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Parler Paris Après Midi

Come for a drink and to meet and chat with other readers in Paris:

The next gathering is March 13, 2007

So mark your calendars to be sure not to miss it! See /parlerparis/apresmidi.html for more details.

Parler Parlor French-English Conversation Group

Practice speaking French and English. Make friends, discuss interesting topics, learn about other cultures, progress in understanding and speaking, naturally and easily. Meets three times a week — come as often as you like!

* Tuesdays 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Upstairs at La Pierre du Marais
96, rue des Archives at the corner of rue de Bretagne, 75003
3rd arrondissement, Paris
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SATURday, MARCH 17, 8 P.M.

Come out and celebrate the 9th Anniversary of the
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(corner of rue des Archives and rue de Bretagne, Paris, 3rd Arrondissement)

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