"The old man's hands trembled," he said, and went on to explain how, when she visited the village, "the young men twirled their moustaches."
He mimed the action, and repeated the phrase.
"That was many years ago," he said. "The poet doesn't know if she ever returned. He doesn't know who she was."
He looked away, out across the busy road, towards the encircling desert.
Altitude and solitude. Her phrase, years ago now — a different world, a different life. How do I now differ from that person I was; how have I changed? What have I accomplished?
Then a jet fighter thunders in from the desert, from the direction of the Pakistan border, and circles the city. Jaisalmer fort dates back to the 12th Century; after the better part of a millennium we still kill each other and call it defence. Later in the afternoon I read The Times of India and learn that by 2009 India hopes to have two "carrier battle groups" each with "two to three guided missile destroyers, two multipurpose frigates, two attack submarines and a tankers, among other warships". The aim, apparently, is "to project force as well as act as a 'stabilising influence' in the entire Indian Ocean and beyond" (The Times of India, 9 January 2007, p. 13).
Something seems wrong. It's not just that the visitors come here in their hundreds every day to gawk and photograph and record — the man standing conspicuously in front of the palace with his camcorder held out, panning slowly to fix everything and everyone has become ubiquitous — it's the way Jaisalmer has responded to that influx. Even if I felt like buying something here (I don't) I'd doubt whether the price would be fair, or at least in line with what I'd be charged somewhere less internationally famous; I'd doubt the quality — had this item been manufactured "efficiently" for the tourist market? In short I'd doubt the authenticity of what I'd be offered. What I AM offered.
The closer I look, the more I begin to question the authenticity of much of what I see. The basic structure of the fort and much of its impressive detailing surely dates back to the fort's construction, that is, the original building and some subsequent additions. But there's the catch: when do these later additions and changes cease being "authentic"? The concrete floors, plastic flowers, electrical wiring in metal conduit, the careful floodlighting at night to enhance the fort's "golden" character — these have their own kind of authenticity, but it's that of modern India; it has as much to do with the fort-as-survivor of a long gone time as do the giant windmills slowly turning on the horizon, supplying never quite enough power.
But it's not just places and physical objects, it's the relationships between people. Denise and Rosa had noticed this too, and, if I've understood them correctly, felt a little let down when they discovered that the enjoyable conversation and enthusiastic interest they'd encountered seemed so often to lead eventually to a request to visit someone's shop, or buy something, or even to a request for baksheesh. I've experienced much the same; sadly, I find myself becoming increasingly guarded, even suspicious, when treated with what, elsewhere, I usually regard as genuine friendliness, most likely arising from curiosity. The sort of pseudofriendliness that disappointed Denise and Rosa also disappoints me; it's like the sudden, deflated feeling that overcame me when I discovered the woman at Naini Tal was actually interested, not in me, but in the possibility of converting me to the Full Gospel Church. These kinds of ulterior motive degrade relationships — what appears to be mutual interest turns out to be self interest. The relationship is not authentic. Many religions seem to have this capacity to degrade relationships by reducing genuine interest and compassion to the building up of credit for some kind of afterlife. Even in its seemingly less self-interested form, that of expressing concern for others because it's the will of god (or other diety), the relationship seems less genuine, less authentic than a relationship filtered by nothing other than an openness towards the other person.
Now for the qualifications. First, this particular form of inauthenticity is by no means always the case. Even here, in the tourism hotspot of Jaisalmer, I've enjoyed wonderful, uplifting exchanges, like my encounter with one of the residents outside the hotel. I walked past, and, catching her eye, said, "Namaste," with the formal gesture of hands joined.
"Namaste," she said, smiling. Then, "Hindi?"
"No Hindi?" she said, thus exhausting her English.
I thought for a moment.
"Aloo gobi," I said, grinning. The equivalent of saying, "spaghetti," to an Italian.
She thought this was wonderful.
"Aloo gobi!" she called out to her friends, with some kind of commentary. She turned back to me, enjoying the joke.
"No Hindi?" she said again, as if hoping I'd managed to acquire a working knowledge of the language since she'd last asked.
"No Hindi," I said, and looked remorseful.
She looked disappointed, but still smiled at me. When I saw her the next day and said, "Namaste," the enthusiasm of her response — a lovely, deeply expressed, "Namaste," in return — meant more to me than any of the conversations I've had with overtly friendly shopkeepers and others trying to lead me towards a purchase or a camel safari. What the vendors don't realise, of course, is that I'm a lost cause — you can lead a camel to water but you can't make it pay to drink.
Second, and perhaps less obvious, is that from another perspective maybe it's quite possible to be genuinely and deeply interested in a potential purchaser not just as a source of income, but as another person, a human being. For some, this might be one of the joys of selling trinkets to tourists — the joy of having an endless supply of (sometimes) interesting people to chat with. To see these conversations simply as a sales pitch is to insist that no other perspective can be compatible with that view; it's dualistic in the sense that it requires you to accept only one of several possibilities. I don't know if there's a cultural aspect to this, but suspect there is; moreover, I'm sure there'll be times when, back in New Zealand, I'll find the polite invitation to browse without harassment to be dull and impersonal.
1. Dancer at the Bikaner camel fair.
2, 3. At the Karni Mata Mandir, the "rat temple" at Deshnoke, near Bikaner.
4. The singer and harmonium player.
5. The old drummer at the Karni Mata Mandir.
6. The white rat. I hope you get to share the luck.
7. Mr Sharma, founder and curator of the Desert Cultural Centre at Jaisalmer.
8. Pigeon doing yoga at Jaisalmer fort.
9. Black (pariah) kite hunting pigeons; Jaisalmer fort.
10. In Jaisalmer fort. The calf was 9 days old when I photographed it.
11. The rooftop of the Surya restaurant, Jaisalmer fort, at sunset; 13 January 2007.