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Last year in Ahmedabad . . .

By Kristin Helmore / May 15, 1986

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.

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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.