Sure? Yes, I was sure. That camera bag with my journal fell off the bike while it was in motion. No robber is so smooth as to be able to pluck a bag from a bike at forty miles an hour. Still, Captain Dutt looked dubious as he extracted several sheets of blank paper from the bottom drawer of his desk and layered them with well-worn carbon sheets. Once he had the necessary number required from me to file my FIR (first incident report) in triplicate, he pinned the pages together with a straight pin and pushed the packed toward me.
“Simply write in English your account of what happened, listing the items in the bag, madam.”
He looked bored as he said this and I wondered if I had disappointed him by not being robbed. Perhaps he was hoping to track down the dirty scoundrel. Unfortunately the only scoundrel in this case was sitting across from him filing the FIR. When I was finished he called to an officer lurking near the doorway. The thin man in a crisp uniform stepped in to the office while Captain Dutt instructed him to translate my version of the loss into Hindi. When the officer stepped out of the office Captain Dutt turned to me and said, “These things take time, madam. How long do you plan to stay in Pushkar?”
I didn’t like the tone his words carried or their implication, I thought as reached for the sweet cup of chai the young Sergeant had delivered as I filled out the FIR. By the time I left the police compound I had no doubts about the meaning behind Captain Dutt saying “These things take time” meant, “You will never see your belongings again, so give it up and go on with your life.”
I parked Kali near an old and wild bougainvillea that rambled up the side of the Rajasthan Tourist Bungalow and climbed the faded red steps to the lobby as if I hadn’t a thing in the world to live for. The attachment and meaning I’d attributed to the items in the lost bag weighed heavy on my heart and mind. I did not like the way this trip was starting out.
A man with dark circles under his eyes pushed the registration tomb toward me. He looked worse than I felt.
“Everything okay, madam,” he said, pulling back his thin lips in a gesture of concern that revealed worn, yellow teeth.
I was sick over my loss and the word “NO!” bobbed in my throat like a stone in an oily pond. But I said nothing and gave him my own weary smile as I took the room key he proffered and hoped things would look better in the light of a new day.
I don’t know how you are but when something bad happens to me I can’t stop talking about it until it’s out of my system. That’s how I felt the next morning when I headed to the hotel’s diner for breakfast and unloaded my grief on the waiter, Sanjay.
“You must place an advertisement in the newspaper’s lost section,” he said. “It is the only way.”
It seemed like a ridiculous idea but I agreed to appease his insistence and because I had nothing to lose by doing so. I finished my scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee then asked Sanjay for directions to the newspaper’s office. The day was hot and miserable by 9:30 a.m. and it took some doing to find the paper’s office in Ajmer. Inside it smelled of dust and heat. Men in tan polyester safari suits and a woman in a cotton sari moved about the cavernous room oblivious to me in my dusty clothes and faded expression. A man finally asked to help me and I inquired about the price of placing an ad.
“That would be nine hundred rupees, madam. It will run three day and you can put no more than three line in your ad,” he said.
Nine hundred rupees is $30 USD. I could buy a 300-page book for 200 rupees. No way was I going to pay 900 for an ad that would do no good anyway. I decided Sanjay didn’t know best. I confess to trying to appeal to some sort of journalistic camaraderie but the ad man wasn’t buying it. He didn’t care if I owned a chain of newspaper, if I wanted to run an ad in the Dainik Bhaskar I would have to fork over the money. I turned and headed back to Pushkar.
Depressed and bored I wandered among the young men working the ghats at Pushkar Lake. When I say working the ghats I really mean working the people who walk by or near the ghats. The men have one thing in mind and that is to induce foreigners and Indians alike into paying them to perform a puja on the lake’s banks. They roamed in packs like coyotes lying in wait for someone to walk by so they could slip up behind or beside him and press rose petals into his palm. If you accepted the rose petals then half the battle was won and all that remained was the negotiation of price for their priestly prayers. Only trouble was they weren’t priests. But their kurtas were crisp and bright from drying under a blazing sun on tin roofs and their tilaks – smears of vermilion sindoor symbolizing their devotion – were freshly applied with their own thumbs between their black eyebrows. Some even clicked mala beads with their delicate fingers.
“Madam, madam, come here,” beckoned a young man from the shadows of a shop selling retro clothes.
I was intrigued by his baiting voice and longed for conversation beyond that of ordering food or asking for a room. And although I’d only been on the road for two days the loneliness of my solitary ride had begun to settle into my bones like dust in a grave.
“I’m Raju,” he said, curtly nodding his head in a manner that mocked an emperor.
He had folded his body onto a stool that was nestled into racks of clothing. At first I could barely make him out so I followed his voice. When I neared he eased off the stool and stepped forward. The cut of his black hair fell around his long face in a way that accentuated sad eyes set into a gentle face. I introduced myself and let my gaze tumble over the racks of sun-scarred clothes. The tie-dye tee shirt, moo-moos, and drawstring pants were old and rotten but I knew it wouldn’t matter to the passing foreigners. They would see the threads as golden garments that simply needed dusting off and take them home to wear as a reminder of their exotic travels, and there-by make a statement in their homelands that they too were exotic.
I commented on the quantity of goods and asked if business was booming.
“No,” his lips said while the corners of his mouth curled in a way that suggested he had a secret he wanted to reveal.
“If you don’t make a living selling clothes, then what?”
“Hashish. Change money. Maybe... something else?” One eye opened wider then the other as he giggled long and shrill, sounding like a horse that had sucked helium.
I didn’t want to contemplate the chilly meaning behind “Maybe...something else.” If I were a man would he offer me a village girl to have sex with? Since I was a woman, would he offer me himself? I didn’t want to find out but the idea of a thriving black market in Pushkar got me to thinking. Maybe my Nikon would show up for sale in one of the tiny shops that dotted the dusty road. I was trying to think of a way to introduce the topic when Raju reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.
“She loves me,” he said pointing to a faded Polaroid of a skinny girl with pale skin and dull hair. “We will be married when she returns.”
“Pretty,” I said, not meaning it and knowing the girl would never return to him, and tried to steer the conversation to my missing camera. Girls go to India, Thailand, Mexico, Egypt to lose their old self and invent a new one in a place where no one knows them and no one will pass judgment on their actions. It’s a vacation, a holiday, a time to … well, not go wild but have some fun. Raju’s girl had fun no doubt and would remember her time with him long into her twilight years, but Raju would wait, believing his love would return until a new love came along.
“Do you know where I can buy a Nikon FE2 camera?” I asked abruptly. Okay, not exactly a smooth segue but I was feeling desperate.
“I know of no cameras,” he said.
So simple, plan, and matter-of-fact were his words that I believed him. We sat silently for some time as the young holy men rounded up travelers and attempted to corral them toward the lake.
“Are all the young men priest?” I asked.
“They are not holy men,” he hissed, “They are thieves. That one working the Gau Ghat,” he said pointing out a stout young man in his twenties, “was selling shoes on Janpath in Delhi last year. Today, he claims to be a Brahman priest!”
His disdain for this breed of capitalist was vehement and I was sorry to have started him on the subject. This is what is known as opening up a can of worms.
“Do you know what they really do? They prey on tourist. They take tourists to the holy lake to make puja. They claim to recite the Holy Scriptures but they talk bullshit. They do not even know how to read Sanskrit. The foreigners do not know what is being said. They think they are being blessed but instead they are being insulted. Yes, insults,” he said, the pitch of his voice cracking on the edge of excitable rage. “To the woman they say filthy, obscene things while she sits smiling, thinking how beautiful the blessing is. After they have had their fun they demand hundreds of rupees. Sometimes a thousand! They give Pushkar a bad name. It is bad business for all of us,” he said.
If I had any hope of recovering my belongings it was gone now. Raju’s assertions about the moral character of Pushkar’s residents left me with no doubt that I would never see my camera or journal again. There was no sense hanging around. I decided to go to the police station the next day and tell Captain Dutt I would not stay on any longer waiting for something that was never going to happen.
© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide