UDAIPUR, INDIA: Taking up her usual perch at Rainbow Cafe, Rosie is easy to spot, it’s the best seat in the house after all. She has a constant reservation of two alcoves which overlook Lake Pichola. I don’t plan to spend my entire evening at Rainbow but the charm of the lights dancing on the lake from the other side and flickering of fireworks keep me planted. Seems like as good of a place as any to spend my Diwali night.
We are joined by another local expat about 45 minutes after I arrive, Anne Vilsbøll. Anne is a Danish artist and lecturer whose made her second home here in Udaipur for as long as Rosie. Anne has a curious way about her, reminiscent of the Europeans we used to meet in the early 90s down in Key West. They are a breed of expat I have not seen since, except in rare glimpses like Anne. The world has changed since those carefree days.
The conversation starts out in the usual expat fashion, speaking in terms of generalisations of India and the Indian people. Sharing our reflections of adjusting to life here, the constant bureaucracy, having no voice with the government in terms of the pollution, having to “own” your business and home in someone else’s name, and of course the attemps to penetrate a culture and mindset so different from your own. We have all worked with Indians, managed them and we all have stories to share. Ultimately, even spending the rest of my life here I will never truly come to know how an India thinks, it seems futile making small talk about it, but the night drags on.
At some point we are joined by a Belgium tourist, Tom, who had been eating at a table nearby and reading the most curious book, Tales of the Metric System a novel by Imraan Coovadia. Tom is an Anthropologist who is currently working with an NGO to find a solution to the growing refugee crisis in Europe. He’s very interested in Anne, it could be the intellectual connection of their work.
There is a particular conversation of romance with Indians Which Tom strikes up after about the second or third drink, and before the climax of fireworks. “Their all married by the time they are 25,” Rosie states categorically. It’s true, they marry young as a rite of passage, akin to celebrating your 21st birthday it would seem to me, the majority are arranged marriages. A Western woman at our age would likely be used for our currency, expected to be a pay cheque in so many ways if we sought out a relationship, not unlike Western gay men Rosie points out. She goes into detail of the subculture of married, straight Indians who indulge in “relationships” with Western gay men. They don’t leave their wives, and she suspects it is a don’t-ask-don’t-tell subculture. To me it comes across as a familiar story, Asians being fetishised by Westerns.
I am reminded of the Middle Eastern influences I see across India from time to time when Anne brings up the Hijra, eunuchs and transgender of India. Her descriptions sound very much like the eunuchs of Turkey which existed at the time of the Ottoman Empire. They were the protectors of the Sultan’s haram. Apparently recognised by the Indian government as a third gender, many Hijra live in organised communities led by a guru. Still, many work as sex workers to survive. India has many different realities.
Anne and Rosie both have traveled quite a bit in India, as you would expect of anyone who’s lived here for nearly 16 years. When Anne moved to Udaipur, she was the first expat to purchase a home here, she says. It was a hotel of sorts in 2000. She initially had it have it in someone else’s name while the place was transformed into her home and Artists in Residence. She named her property Makanne, which is a contraction of the word makan, which means house in hindi, and Anne. Years later she now owns it and lives here two to five months a year.
One trip to Jaipur a few years ago she found a life size cow statue she liked enough to buy and have transported to Udaipur. The cow is white, and to her it was very pretty at the time. After purchasing it the locals apparently covered it in a clear enamel meant to protect it. Instead the enamel has yellowed with age, and so has her cow. The thing about where her house is located, across the narrow lane from Rosie, no cars can reach. The only way to get anything the size of a cow requires forethought and negotiation. There is a car park of sorts downstairs from Rainbow Cafe where cars and small trucks can fit. One particular morning, very early, her cow was delivered. It took six men she says to unload it and wheel it up the steep alley way to her house. The whole neighbourhood came out to watch and to this day still speak about it.
And with the dwindling fireworks, so too had the final story of the night come to its end.