Last year in Ahmedabad . . .
YOU can tell how densely populated India is when you look down on it from a plane. The hour-long flight from New Delhi to Ahmedabad traverses the states of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. Villages dense as polka dots cover the burnt, brown land. The flight left at 6 a.m. and arrived in Ahmedabad at 7. The air was still coolish and felt rinsed and fresh. The sun sparkled, not yet frightening in its heat, and wildflowers nodded beside the road.
The view from my hotel window revealed a typically Indian paradox. On the right was a kidney-shaped swimming pool, surrounded by a neatly manicured lawn. The pool was having its bottom and sides lovingly vacuumed when I first saw it. On the left was a village of brown dung huts with a well at its center shaded by drooping trees. Children scampered, women drew water at the well, old men in white sat in the shade, and young men instantly spotted me at my window and started shouting, making me shrink back into the shadows. We were in the middle of a big city. Yet here, behind the best hotel, was a piece of rural India, separated from a swimming pool by a green-covered chain-link fence.
My room was small, very simply furnished, and quite clean except for some sand on the royal blue carpet. On the bedside table, a small printed booklet catalogued the endless array of services the hotel offers. On a glass shelf in the bathroom was a tiny plastic pot of thick, fragrant, yellow oil. A beautiful, evocative substance: apparently something no Indian lady would want to be without.
I had to find an address at the center of town. The young woman at the desk was surprised that I intended to walk but helpfully drew a little map in my notebook to show me the way.
It turned out to be an exciting walk -- my first solo foray on foot in an Indian city. Crowds jostled on the side-walks and spilled into the dusty streets. People peered at me with curiosity. Swarms of motorcycles and three-wheeled scooter-cabs flew by, honking in cacophony. A Hindu procession with banners flapping and little boys clapping crossed my path.
Most buildings were modern and nondescript, but very dusty, and seemed in danger of crumbling from exhaustion. By the time I got to the central square, opposite a large, parched park called (of course) Victoria Gardens, I was confused, the sun was blazing down, and I was panting from the heat.
A motorcycle pulled up and a large young man with curly hair offered assistance. I showed him my map and he said he would take me there. I was relieved until I realized he planned to take me on his motorcycle. But, not wanting to appear ungrateful, I swung my leg over and clutched the seat beneath me. Only later did I realize my faux pas: Indian women always ride sidesaddle.
It was a harrowing ride through the swarming traffic, but soon we stopped outside a building with a decidedly closed-up air. My escort spoke very little English, but he noted my crestfallen look and knew just what to do. He led me straight inside the house next door.
The middle-aged man on the sofa was drying his hair with a towel. He was gazing at a series of snapshots of a young Indian family in a distinctly un-Indian setting. There were a small table with an ancient black telephone on it, a large white refrigerator, and a simple, well-worn table and chairs. A photo of a gentle-looking woman in a sari smiled from the center of the table. The room opened onto a sun-soaked inner courtyard strung with washing, and onto two other rooms shrouded in darkness.
For India, this is a house of affluence. Vasant Guptay is a retired businessman and amateur archeologist, a person of prominence in his community. But at that moment he was very embarrassed, not to say completely overcome, to have a foreign woman thrust through his back door while he was completing his morning toilette.
The photos were of his daughter and her family, who live in Charleston, S. C. The woman in the sari was ``my beloved wife,'' who died last year, leaving him quite alone.
Mr. Guptay was the soul of hospitality. He made me feel he had somehow been expecting me, though he confessed he hadn't had occasion to speak English since 1947. He had the look of a man who was always expecting something, but for whom, of late, that something never seemed to turn up. His joy at having a visitor was immense.
He made some phone calls for me, and I arranged my afternoon appointments. He showed me a very yellow newspaper clipping in which he was mentioned as part of an archeological team, and which announced that Ahmedabad was not, as had been supposed, a city founded in the 16th century by the Moguls, but an ancient, thriving cultural center dating back to early Hindu times -- a discovery Mr. Guptay found most gratifying.
As it was still early, he excitedly proposed a visit to two famous mosques. Would I like to go? They were the only buildings worth seeing in Ahmedabad, and they really were splendid. And I would be able to take the scooter on, drop him at his sister's for lunch, and be on time for my first appointment. Of course, I would be delighted.
I'm grateful we left his house through the inner courtyard, which opened onto a narrow street and a small, quiet square. Otherwise I would not have seen the crooked, delicate, sagging two-story houses with their intricately carved wooden balconies -- vestiges of a 19th-century India of traditional, secluded, urban gentility now all but vanished, and certainly invisible from the ferociously 20th-century main road.
The little square was deserted except for a bullock cart at its center. Three women in deep red and gold saris sat near it on the ground, hoping to sell vegetables. A tiny girl of three or four was rocking a baby, asleep in a sling of cloth whose ends were tied to the rims of the cart's wheels. I wanted to linger in that little square, but Mr. Guptay found it all very mundane and hurried on.
The mosques were truly beautiful, though the soles of my feet did not enjoy them. We had to remove our shoes to get anywhere near, as stern Muslim attendants reminded us. The scorching red sandstone felt like a griddle. I darted from one patch of shade to the next, while Mr. Guptay -- whose feet were not bothered -- pointed out the miraculously intricate carving that covered the rose-colored pillars.
The scooter-cab dropped him at his sister's as arranged, and that is where we said goodbye. I felt like a visitor from another planet who has made friends with an earthling and who must now return forever to her own galaxy, millions of light-years away. I promised to come back to Ahmedabad, bringing my husband, who would love the beautiful mosques. Mr. Guptay insisted on it -- suddenly coming up with many other points of interest he would show us. But neither of us really believed I would ever return.
I spent the next day in a village two hours' drive from the city and returned to the hotel very hot, dusty, thirsty, and wilted. What I wanted more than anything before the return flight to Delhi was to dive into that kidney-shaped pool with its freshly vacuumed bottom.
With my bathing suit on under my clothes and clutching a towel, I crept downstairs. Pausing in the lobby, I looked out the glass doors onto the garden. A few ladies in saris strolled on the clipped grass, and two men in elegant suits were chatting at the bar. No one was in the pool.
Come to think of it, probably no one has ever been in that pool. Indians don't seem to go in for swimming in public. The only non-Indian in sight, I simply couldn't go out there, peel down to my bathing suit, slip into the water, and swim around under their polite scrutiny. I went sheepishly upstairs and took a cool shower. Then I put two drops of thick, fragrant yellow oil behind my ears.