Story and Photos By Linda N. Cortright
It is three o’clock in the afternoon and I am one of only a handful of people walking down the cobblestone street in Jaisalmer, the 'Golden City' located in India’s Thar Desert and considered one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. It is 114 °F and it is only the first week of April. According to the thermometer it should be June. Most of the shopkeepers lining the streets that wind through Jaisalmer’s ancient fort are closed. They will reopen closer to evening for all too few tourists braving the heat (and the threat of Covid). But I am not on a shopping mission. I am off to meet a friend— someone very special I have not seen for six years.
As I slowly make my way down the street, thankful to be dressed in my lightweight cotton salwaar kameez, I am sucking heat through my nose that burns my throat like blackened toast when a man calls out to me from across the street.
A nearby shopkeeper with an ample belly and a warm smile waves his hand towards me.
“Please, M’dam. Be careful where you walk. The stones are very slippery. Please walk along the smaller stones. Then you will not fall.”
Now, to be perfectly clear, I have heard ‘M’dam, M’dam’ shouted in my direction no less than a million times when I am in India—possibly two million. Invariably, it is the siren call of a shopkeeper beckoning me to come and see their wares. Some stop after just two words, no one ever just says “M’dam.” But often this is the start of a long chorus that if given the slightest acknowledgement, you have now signed up for a full-scale conversation and let there not be a shred of doubt . . . Indians are Olympians when it comes to talking. (They are my people.)
Two years of virtually no business can lead one to the brink. The challenges in my own American reality have been bone-jarringly difficult. But it is no comparison to those who are tasked with survival on a daily basis, many of whom inevitably have large families to support as well.
Mind you, I am exploding with joy to be back in India, the land that I call home. But even in the quick few days since I’ve been back, the amount of time it will take for many to recover must surely seem like an eternity.
The shopkeeper and I talk about the US, and not surprisingly the conversation quickly turns to politics. Prime Minister Modi’s desire to lend favor among the Hindus has sent seismic ripples throughout a land of more than a billion people. Of the many wondrous things about India, its relative religious harmony is nothing short of extraordinary. Although nothing is ever perfect (how can it be when there are a billion people which equates to a billion problems), but acrimony is kept at bay—for the most part.
Gadisar Lake in the foreground, an artificial lake built by the founder of Jaisalmer, King Rawal Jaisal in 1156 AD. On the hilltop sits Jailsamer Fort, one of the oldest "living forts" left in the world. Approximately 5,000 people still live in the fort, many of whom are descendants of the original Rajputs and Brahmins.
The shopkeeper and I keep talking and now he wants to know what I think about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
This conversation is not atypical. Indians are always talking politics and not just Indian politics. Many are keenly aware of what goes on in the White House and there’s nothing like having a hot-blooded American directly in front of them to do some fact checking. Frankly, I don’t want to be that American. I am happy to talk (and rightly maintain my own Olympic standing) well into the night. But political discourse, regardless of one’s beliefs, can be an express path to disaster.
“Afghanistan is a very difficult situation. I don’t think there are any easy answers.” I reply. And then, without taking a breath, I change the subject to camels, explaining that I am interested in learning more about camel hair.
“Would you like to go to the desert and ride a camel? I can take you there.”
I’m sure he can. In fact, I suspect darn near anyone in Jaisalmer can take me to see the camels, particularly if it means a fistful of rupees. But I don’t want to ride the camels. I do, however, want a fistful of their fiber—and that is only the beginning.
The golden yellow limestone and sandstone provide an exquisite character to Jaisalmer, which is popularly known as 'The Golden City'. The limestone and sandstone carvings used throughout much of the architecture define everything from century-old temples to crowded alleys.
During this growing exchange which began with helping me avoid a full-on face plant to a discussion about Dromedaries, I have gradually inched my way across the street closer to his shop, careful not to get plowed over by a high-speed motorcycle or a tuk-tuk passing by. He motions me to come up the few stairs and sit down outside. In most other situations, the proximity to the shop’s front door is the threshold to everlasting tea and bargaining. But I have already explained this is my 20th visit to India and I am well equipped to open my own souvenir shop should I so choose. He understands, and so with less than ten minutes before I must meet my friend, I walk up the stairs. My exit strategy is firmly in place.
I am prepared for him to ask if “I would like a chai?” Perhaps he will suggest, “Please come look inside, looking is free.” Or maybe he will tell me I am his first customer of the day and that will bring him good luck. I have heard it all. But he says none of these things. Instead, he leans over to grab a white plastic chair, the kind they sell at Rite Aid for $9.99 in a rainbow of colors. I can see that part of the back is cracked but otherwise it looks sturdy. He pulls the chair over and positions it beside him, close, but not too close.
It is bloody hell hot, and I am anxious to sit. But again, every little move that suggests I am here to stay will no doubt lead to retail perdition. I look down at the chair and instantly imagine the relief of plopping down, and then I think about the battle that will ensue when I have to politely exit in ten minutes. I am just getting ready to explain that I am more than happy to stand when the man pats the chair seat several times and says. “Please have a seat and make your bottom happy.”
If I had been drinking a cup of milk, it would have come out my nose. There is so much to love about India, and often there is nearly as much not to love too. But for all times I have heard “M’dam, M’dam” and paid the consequences for stopping to answer. Not once has anyone invited me to have a seat and make my bottom happy. And so I did
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"M'dam, M'dam., would you like to see some beautiful pashminas? I give you good price."