The guilt ebbed as I rolled my suite case away. I walked into Udaipur on Saturday morning to a bright, clean yellow sun, a calm atmosphere, and the smell of roses. I knew immediately that I liked this place. I called the number I’d been given for Madhu–that kind stranger I mentioned. The Madhu who answered was a man, which was odd because, through all the emails we’d exchanged over the last few days, I had come to think Madhu was a woman. He sounded a bit confused as to who I was but told me I should take a rickshaw to where he was.
The friendliest rickshaw driver, Javed, drove me through the small city, up around narrow, winding streets, past meandering cows, flower-sellers, bright fountains. Different smells wafted through–roses, spices, the mild farm animal smell. Everything in the city is bright and fresh. So vastly different from Delhi and from that train ride.
When I arrived at the place that Madhu had said to go to, I immediately realized that something was amiss. For starters, it was a bed & breakfast. And the other thing is that Madhu had absolutely no idea who I was. He had simply thought that I had wanted to rent a room. It didn’t help that he spoke very broken English–which was another strange thing because his email’s had been so eloquent. After a few failed attempts, I mentioned Rita, the woman who orchestrated this whole residency. He knew her and said that he was a painter and that she had asked him to teach a painting class for someone.
Oh. Madhu the Painter, not Madhu the Principal. The very moment I realized my mistake, Madhu the Painter’s cellphone rang and, who was on the other line? None other than a very worried Madhu the Principal! Who had gone to the station and, after waiting and waiting, had begun calling everyone she knew (and she knows everyone in Udaipur, so it was pretty convenient).
One rickshaw ride later, I found myself outside Madhu the Principal’s house, who , let me tell you, is definitely a woman. Not only is Madhu a woman, she is a powerful, very, very popular woman. She is also a mother, and a really good one at that. I haven’t stopped eating for three days–if I refuse, food is simply stuffed into my mouth. It’s awesome.
Madhu’s husband is a kindly children’s Doctor and his practice is attached to their grand, three story, entirely marble house. She only calls him by the name, “Doctor Sareen."
Let’s go back to when I arrived. Out came Madhu, long black hair, black and gold sari, kind smile, fussing already about how tired I must be and welcoming me graciously. When I went for my suite case, Madhu stopped me. "No, no. I’ll have our servant get it, Miranda. Don’t you worry.” I moment later a tiny girl, dressed from head to toe in barbie-doll pink, came out of the house. I was about to tell Madhu she had a beautiful daughter when the girl started to struggle with my suite case. My suite case is appallingly heavy and my efforts to help only seemed to make things uncomfortable. It’s her job, not mine, to carry that thing. She is the servant.
Later that day Madhu explained to me that she took in sweet little Hema (who is actually 15, but looks more like she is eleven), whose family doesn’t have anything. Madhu wants to enroll her in school as soon as she can. I feel a little bit strange being doted on so much. Hema cooks for me and cleans constantly and brings me tea. When Madhu is out and it’s just the two of us, she giggles at me, and rolls her eyes at my terrible pronunciation of the two or three Hindi words I know how to say. I like her.
Life with Madhu is in constant motion. I found myself, a few hours after I arrived, sandwiched between nine women in a car, sari’s draped everywhere, as we drove around laughing and gossiping. Madhu does things for tens minutes, and then it’s on to the next thing. They had to make an appearance at a funeral. Ten minutes. Go to the temple. Ten minutes. Have a meeting with another principal. Ten minutes. Drink chai. Ten minutes.
In the evening, she showed me how to put on a sari, layer after layer of golden and white and pink silk, folded back and forth and around. And off we went to the Sakhi woman’s club on the other side of the giant lake. Did I mention that Udaipur is the City of Lakes? Everyone at the club looked like a magical princess from my childhood dreams. Each wore a sparkling, vibrant sari. Intricate patterns, bangles, dazzling earrings, bindis, hair pieces. I felt like a peasant in my plain old green dress. But I wasn’t treated that way. Madhu showed me off to everyone. The women performed dances, laughing and laughing whenever they messed up.
Oh, to be around women again. Another thing I have learned never to take for granted is the company of females. I have missed being around women so much in the last week. Other than my professor and her girls, I really, really didn’t interact with another woman. I tried to smile, make eye contact with the women in Delhi but they would only stare, almost coldly, for a second and walk away. But I went from one extreme (stuck on a train surrounded by men) to the other (smushed into a car, surrounded by women) in a manner of hours, so all was well.
Today, Madhu has already taken me to four temples. In Hinduism, you pray to different gods every day. Each god has a different temple and a different ritual. Incense is lit, certain steps and statues are touched, bells are rung a specific number of times, flowers are strung and placed at different points. Madhu has told me the stories of a few different gods. As she finished telling me the story of Lord Ganesh, the god whose head is an elephant (who is worshipped on sundays), an elephant crossed our path. Madhu honked at the rider so she could pass it.
My jaw must have been hanging near my collar bones because Madhu laughed and laughed at me as I stared at the giant, graceful creature. “What? You haven’t seen an elephant in the road before?" I didn’t have to wrack my brains for very long. I have a vague, toddlerish memory of seeing an elephant, or riding an elephant? But I think that may have been a dream. "No, never."
India. I am in India, guys. Although I still feel like I am living in some strange dream, I’ve got to say, I am pretty glad to be awake for it.