Thursday, June 4, 2009

Generally Speaking


I was awoken this morning by the soft pitter-patter of shuffling feet just outside my door. A Rajput woman wearing a red sari with golden trim was shuttling water to the kitchen in a five-gallon, pewter drum expertly balanced on her head. Her neck remained perfectly still even as she kicked the annoying little dog that nipped at her ankles with every graceful step.
Mukta, the house mother brought me a fresh chai as I sat sweating bullets in the scorching 7:00 am heat. The warm, frothy drink was delicious despite the congealed chunks of fresh butter that bobbed up and down throughout it.

I left the guest house on foot but was quickly apprehended by one of the many rickshaw wallahs who seem to scour the city for westerners whom they can overcharge. I had been told to go meet with Brigadier General Singh upon my arrival as he also happened to be the administrative director of the Veerni Project, the NGO that I am working for. As the rickshaw snaked its way up the winding road to Umaid Bahwan Palace we sped past a group of Dalit (untouchable outcaste) ragpicker children. Their radiant, pearly smiles sharply contrasted their dirt covered faces and matted, dready hair. Passing by, I turned around to watch them return to the gutter in search of recyclable plastic scraps.

The rickshaw driver pulled up to the palace gate and expressed to me with gestures that he would wait there for me to return. After explaining to five mustached guards that I was not there for the audio tour, I was eventually led to the General's wing. He had not yet arrived but his secretary insisted that I wait for him in his office. After initially resisting incessant attempts to serve me tea, coffee, water, or cola, I finally succumbed and settled into a chair opposite the general's empty desk.

Now, I know that Indians are very trusting...but I decided then that it was exceedingly unwise to leave a curious, mischievous young man alone in the office of such an important man. What state secrets lay unprotected in the file cabinet to my right? Was the nuclear football sitting in the drawer to my left? A large framed photo of the Maharajah of Jodhpur hung unassumingly on the papered wall in front of me, above the general's chair. His highness looked down on me with a Mona Lisa smirk that seemed to say, "don't even think about it, man."
The general's desk was mostly bare. There were no papers waiting to be signed; no dossiers to be considered. Two blown glass paperweights sat on each corner opposite from me. I picked one up to examine its fiery colors but quickly put it down, fearful that at any moment the general would arrive and arrest me for snooping. The only other item on the desk was a rhinestone encrusted fingernail-care kit. Through the glass top I could see clippers, brushes, lotions, balms, and salves; I began to suspect that Brigadier Singh was a well groomed man.

Fifteen minutes general.

Half an hour...nothing.

A full hour passed before the general burst through the door like John Wayne busting into a saloon in an old spaghetti western flick. I awkwardly rose to meet him, embarrassed that I had dared to sit down before his arrival. "Namaste Brigadier Saheb," I stuttered as we shook hands. His nails were long but well manicured; just as I had suspected.

He invited me to sit down and we began to talk. He told me about the Veerni Project and other programs that he was involved with. He asked me if my hotel was satisfactory; I wonder what he might have done had I said that it wasn't. Who knows...maybe I missed out on a stay at the palace! Nearing the end of our conversation, the general asked if I had any questions. I suddenly remembered the advice that Govind, the hotel manager, had given me earlier: "Ben saheb, do not ask any questions...Brigadier hates questions." With that in mind, I politely said, "no saheb," stood, shook his hand a second time, and made my exit. The five mustached guards stared at me as I passed through the palace gate. The rickshaw wallah, who had not moved an inch for nearly two hours, drove me back to the hotel, seemingly content with the forty rupees (less than one dollar) I had promised.


I find it a little strange that Brigadier Singh is the director of the Veerni Project. It is the older generation of Rajput men afterall, who have instigated and perpetuated the patriarchal aspects of society that result in the extreme subjugation of women in Rajasthan. I suppose that his position as director is indicative of the interplay between social organizations and the political mechanism here in Jodhpur. Could it be that Veerni is only able to do what it does because there are watchful eyes keeping it in check?

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