6th March 2020
When the mullah woke me it was raining, raining hard. This was not what one expects in Rajasthan in March. Then I remembered Narenndra showing us photographs on his i-phone the evening before – Jaipur had been in white-out, inches deep in hailstones. We had worried about the crops that were nearly fit to harvest. They might have been flattened, ruined, lost. Was God wreaking storms and starvation as well as pestilence?
I opened the i-Pad. A second English person had died in Milton Keynes; a first person in the Netherlands and someone had tested positive in Vatican City. Was God not looking after His own? President Trump, who had claimed that a dozen US lives lost had been a ‘hoax’, now said “it would go away.” He said that the US was very strong because the nation had been “..very strong at the borders…” The FTSE 100 was down another 3.6%. I closed the i-Pad and packed. Today we were off to Bikaner.
Thanks to the generous eaves and balcony overhang it was easy to walk round the haveli without getting wet. By the time it came to say regretful goodbyes and genuine thanks it had stopped raining but everything dripped. The streets were flooded. The chug of little motors came from the pumps emptying cellars that had once been ground floors but now were below street level. Monu had managed to park the door of the bus near a high kerb and Dasrath held our hands to make sure we didn’t slip. As we left Fatehpur by the main drag we looked back and saw the waves of our wake lapping shopfronts. The water was over the bus’ hubcaps.
Narenndra had persuaded his aunt, who lived a few dozen miles south of Bikaner, to entertain us for lunch. We were invited into the ‘front room’ where upholstered sofas and chairs, protected by heavy duty, fitted plastic covers, were arranged round the edge of the room. Those of us with shorter legs perched on the edges of our seats like children. Plate after plate of delicious food was brought from the kitchen and placed on the glass coffee table between us. One of Narenndra’s cousins who spoke perfect English sat with us. He told us that he had been married ten days earlier. His wife, whom he had met on the day of their wedding, had already returned to Bikaner to complete her studies. He looked as though he wasn’t quite sure what had happened to him – a dream from which he’d just been woken. We quizzed him about their lives and he quizzed us about ours. As we did so a continuous stream of men, relatives or neighbours, came to peer at us round the door. I felt like a Rare Breed.
A few years previously we had shared a sleeper carriage in a train from Kolkata and the charming Indian on the other top bunk, responsible for most of the secondary schools in Odisha, had been fascinated by my nearly white hair.
“Don’t you dye it? Ever? Really?”
Now here we were, 9 of us, most sporting varying shades of un-dyed grey hair. All of the ‘older’ women one sees in rural India wear beautiful saris and always look very considered in their dress, even when bent double in a field weeding between rows, by hand. We must have looked astonishingly casual in our jeans or Rohan.
Finally, unable to do any more justice to Auntie’s delicious cooking, we went outside for the obligatory team photograph with her and the immediate family. Then we realised that the men’s lunch had been what we had failed to demolish. Perhaps they hadn’t been looking at us as a spectacle at all, but at our clearing dish after dish, wondering at our prodigious appetites; wondering whether there would be anything left for them.
Narenndra asked whether we would mind going across the track to visit the Gaoshala, the village animal rescue shelter. It appeared to be run by his family so it was the least we could do. Cows, that roam the streets by day return home at night but inevitably they grow old or are hit by traffic. Goashalas, enclosed yards with a few pens round the side, are maintained by village support. Some people give money; some corn or hay, some give their time – whatever anyone can afford. We contributed. As we walked back to the bus we asked a married cousin of Narenndra’s where he lived. He pointed to a large house next to his mother’s. Both would have stood well in North London. When asked what the family mainly did he replied ‘village development’.
We thanked our hostess. We had had a fantastic lunch and a privileged time with her and her family. We hoped she had enjoyed it too. As we left I turned round and saw her and her sister laughing – it seemed as though they had.