It began with a bus ride. Three of us -- a lifestyle writer, a photographer and I -- had overslept and missed our train to Ajmer (in Rajasthan) from where the small town of Pushkar is only a half hour bus ride. The short version of how we finally reached Pushkar (and only three hours behind schedule) involved that bus, a smaller bus and a vegetable cart. The cart, of course, is an eyebrow raiser, so let me explain. We had gone to Pushkar during the "Pushkar Mela". Held annually, this is a camel fair, where traders from surrounding states come with camels, and around this event an entire industry has cropped up. Clothes, handicrafts, ferris wheels -- you name it. Visitors throng the tiny town, both from within the country and outside it. The fanfare of the mela is complemented by the fact that Pushkar is a religious hub. The Pushkar lake, around which the town has come up, is sacred. There are 500 temples in the town alone, and also a famous temple to the God Brahma. This is the only temple to Brahma in the world, we are told, as legend has it, Brahma fell in love with his own daughter, and so, is not worshipped anywhere except here. Back to the vegetable cart -- with the influx of visitors and camels alike, cars and other modern vehicles are not allowed in the town, and some vegetable sellers moonlight as makeshift taxi drivers for the duration of the mela -- much to our shock and delight.
So here we were, on a vegetable cart with our bags and a tripod, navigating our way through the narrow streets of Pushkar. Radheshyam, our illustrious driver, had promised that this was normal during the mela, but all the tens of people pointing and laughing at us made us rather suspicious. I'm ashamed to admit, but we made Radheshyam take us to four different guesthouses before we settled on one, although we did get off the cart! We settled for Sunset Cafe, right next the lake, and the hotel came complete with a one year old Alsatian called Honey who jumped on you every chance he got. (Yes, Honey is a boy.)
At night, we eyed a rooftop restaurant called The Bird Eye; a Goa-lite eatery, complete with wall graffiti, psychedelic music and an Israeli menu. The owner, about twenty-five, defied the image of Pushkar we had in our minds. As we sat down, a waiter offered us beer, a clear no-no in the religious town. (Non-vegetarian food, alcohol and drugs are not allowed, as hoardings all over Pushkar constantly remind you.) Interest piqued, we chatted him up and asked him what life in Pushkar was all about. He hinted that his restaurant had police protection, and therefore he could serve whatever he wanted, directing us to look at some of the patrons who were smoking more than just regular cigarettes. So, is this a hippy town rather than one filled with religious people, we asked. He took offence, and told us with great pride that he went to pray by the lake for three hours every morning and insisted that all his staff do to. What's more, he told us, he belonged to the Parashar family who were alone allowed to touch (and therefore clean) the Brahma idol in the famed Brahma temple. His cousins rotated this sacred duty he told us proudly, adding with a slight chuckle that sometimes they paid one another to take their turn, as these holy duties were performed at the unearthly hour of 3am!
It was clear to us that Pushkar's local gossip was going to be far more interesting than the Camel Fair. We asked him who else we should meet, and he pointed us in the direction of a Canadian girl who had settled down in Pushkar and opened a cafe. The next day, armed with notepads and cameras respectively, we headed to Laura's Cafe. Her story was a common -- she had come to Pushkar and fallen in love. We were interrupted by some guests, and while she scurried to the kitchen I waved down one of her waiters to chat with him. Are you from Pushkar, I asked him. What do you think about foreigners here, especially the women? Are they not different from the local Pushkar women who are kept inside the house, I probed, and how do you feel about that? He was a bright boy, only a few years younger than me, but much taller. Laura appeared as he disappeared. She told us it was for the waiter we had just been talking to that she had decided to live in India. She knew she might have to move home in a few years, but she mused that at least she could leave him better off than she found him; as the owner of this fine establishment.
I can't lie and tell you we were not a little shocked. I know love breaks through all barriers, but we were so blindsided by this plot-twist that we remained mum for a while. How do you communicate, we asked her. ("He knows some English.") What about his family? ("They have been really good to me.") What about your own parents? ("I can't tell them because some time ago I tried to date an African American, and they did not like that at all.")
While my fellow companions wandered off to take pictures, I decided to explore the street shops with their curious little pajamas and fashionable kurtas. I was accosted by a pandit who literally forced some flowers into my hand and insisted that now I better go immerse them in the lake. Before I knew it, another pandit had appeared to escort me to the banks, and then another sat me down to start the prayer. Now, I'm a fair girl -- Kashmiri -- so it's understandable that the pandits were a little confused whether I was Indian or not. I was dropped like a hot potato the moment they heard I was from boring old New Delhi, and not Italy or Spain. Of course, I resisted all attempts they made to empty my pockets, giving them only Rs 100 as donation. I'm not that cheap -- but the pandit doing my ritual called out to another take over while he was doing it, and the next took a cell phone call while he was performing the rites! I was also told that if I did not have the money on me, I could go to the ATM and call them (I was handed a business card). Ignoring this, I asked him what he thought the young people of Pushkar. He told me, with much disdain, that a lot of the young Brahman boys who should be following in the family footsteps are more attracted by commercial ventures -- eateries and guest houses -- and are being lured by foreign girls "by the sex". As long as the romances stay causal, the pandits seemed to accept it, but the moment they wanted to get married, was the moment trouble would start, they predicted.
To a married couple, we thought! We found one in the whole town. The foreign half was a French girl, a doctor, who had settled down with a farmer in Pushkar eleven years ago. (There were two other couples, but neither Indian was native to Pushkar). Her husband, she told us, is illiterate. She home-schooled her children because, if they went to a local school, they could never fit in French society. It isn't easy, she mused, telling us that she has seen many girls attempt to settle down inPushkar for love, but ultimately give up and go home. She found the pace of life peaceful, and although she prayed as a Hindu, she felt the pandits had become too commercial for her liking. She was trying to teach the locals to recycle, and to join drives to clean the Pushkar Lake. She was busy. She was happy.
The three of left this little bubble brimming with thoughts. In a place known for religious tourism, romance was blossoming. For my fellow journalists, their story was the people who travelled through India and fell in love. For me, it was the tide of events leading to a new Pushkar itself. Tourists with cameras abound. For every picture you took, ten people were taking a picture of you. Everyone knew everyone. Even the three of us were waving to all shopkeepers and entrepreneurs as we walked by, as if we'd known them for years! But far beneath this cosmetic change, is real churning. India today is bursting with news of religious extremism and bomb threats. But here, in a religious hub, there was no talk except that of romance (with a few wily pandits trying to make few extra bucks thrown in)!
Before we left, we decided to visit the mela again; we'd gone the previous night be we had been overwhelmed by hundreds of men trying to get into "entertainment" shows featuring young girls promising to change into 'nagins' (snakes). In evening light, it looked lovely. We climbed aboard a ferris wheel to get a proper view, and were rather amused with the scores of Rajasthani aunties riding along with their faces covered with their chunnis! Camels -- 50,000 -- were everywhere, with the usual cows and horses thrown in. Very much the show we had originally come for.
There is a lesson to be learnt. Go visit, but when you do, dive in. You get much more than you paid for!