Back in Jaipur we are relieved that the cold wave which is killing people across North India hasn’t settled in here too harshly. The days are clear and sunny, around 20C, and at night it goes down to a bearable 8 or 9. Contrasting this to your reports from Canada – minus 50 with the wind in Winnipeg; too much snow to drive on the upper levels in Vancouver – I guess we shouldn’t complain.
Our order here, already late, was supposed to be finished when we arrived. Far from it. Only a few samples from the hundreds of duvets we ordered are ready. At first glance they look good- the seams are serged, at least. But of the four pieces we are shown, three have problems. On one the pattern has been applied horizontally rather than vertically; on another the pattern on the pillow shams runs at a different direction to the duvet cover; and the pattern on another is one that we didn’t order at all. We had hoped to wrap up the business in Jaipur in a couple of days and get the shipment on its way – but this doesn’t inspire confidence.
On the positive side we have caught the problems early, and they can be fine-tuned. We also have more goods to select, and now we can spend more time at the production centers and talk with the people there. We’ve already mentioned Sanganeer, where the “Moghul” block-print designs are produced. Now we are able to make a trip to the village of Bagru, where another style of printing, which our merchant calls “Bhooti” comes from.
In many ways Bagru is like a million other small towns in this country: directly on the fault line where the tectonic plate of the old India runs up against the new. Electricity has brought light and refrigeration, but also amplified noise on every corner; new wealth has created comfort and commerce, but development is rushed, shoddy, and buildings are hideously ugly; water mains are coming, but meanwhile the roads are all ripped up, and look like they have been for a long time. Living in the middle of this slurry of modernity is the Old Village, where livestock are part of the landscape and no woman walks out without her face completely covered. Like the town, not much has changed over the generations in the manufacture of Bagru block prints, except it now happens in a concrete and cinder-block warehouse. As if to emphasize my point about the co-existence of the old and the new, a cow is stabled just inside the factory gate. On the other hand, the cow might not be as much of a cultural leftover as a part of the production process. A small team has gathered to shepherd us through the facility including Dilip the production manager and his assistant Farooq. None of us has a very good grasp of the others’ language, so the Q & A is done by committee. Many of our queries land haphazardly in places no one seems interested or able to look for them, but I do gather that cow dung is used in one of the rinsing procedures. All the colours, in fact, are produced with natural dyes which, among other things, is a big benefit to the heath of the workers.
Unlike the “Moghul” sets from Sanganeer, where colour is applied to the block and the block is stamped on the fabric, here they use a “resist-dye” procedure. First the block is dipped into a gum solution, and then the pattern is stamped on the fabric. Then a mixture of sand and saw-dust is sprinkled over the sheet, which adheres to the gum. The sheet is cleaned off and dyed, with the colour permeating everything not covered by the gum/saw-dust mixture. The same process is then repeated for another pattern and another colour. The effect is quite different from the refined look of our other prints. The Bagru prints are strong and bold, with a simplicity that belies the skill and time it takes to make them.
Our plans are tossed into turmoil when the only train between Jaipur and Varanasi is canceled due to the foggy weather on the plains. This means we have to go by road to Delhi, and take a train from there. That vast metropolis starts to congeal about us when we are still 50 kilometers away, around about Gurgoan. Growth has been so fast in Gurgoan that no one knows how many people are here, whether it’s 2 million or 10 million, only that the population has so far out-paced infrastructure and resources that even the model high-rises that are everywhere get only two hours of water per day, and 60% of electricity is pirated from the wires. In Noida farmers have made big money from selling to property developers, but the urban/rural divide is still stark. This last week a girl was sitting with her boyfriend parked at the side of the highway, when she was attacked and gang-raped by thirteen locals. The first reporters to the village encountered some extraordinary attitudes, including the head man saying: what’s the big deal; it was only a rape; and the grandmother of one of the accused: they shouldn’t have had a chance to rape her; she was acting indecently and should have been stoned, first.
The trip to Varanasi is uneventful, and there we have two tasks. The first is checking up on another of our orders, which is (deja vu) supposed to be ready to go. We always like to visit Ajit, but this time he has neglected to finish some of the seams inside his duvet covers. This will take another ten days. In the meantime it is the national kite-flying festival, known locally as “khicchiri”. In our photos, the spots in the sky aren’t specks on the lens, but kites. In a play on words, the local name for the festival is also that of a dish made with rolled rice, and we are privileged to share it in another extraordinary meal from the kitchen of Ajit’s household.
The second task is to find a statue for our friends David and Vaune. The parameters they set are quite wide, but Kali is at the top of the list. Kali is a very interesting and enigmatic figure. She is often called the dark, horrible aspect of the Goddess, a symbol of death and destruction. She has a garland of skulls around her neck, a severed head in one hand, a sword in another, and a skull to drink the blood from in another. And yet many texts refer to her as very beautiful, and she dances on the prostrate form of her lover, Shiva, who is obviously enjoying himself. Varanasi is the city of Shiva par excellence, and being a place of death there are many Kali shrines here. We find a nice cast-bronze figure in the market, and Katheryn decides it will add significance if it is blessed at one of the shrines . There are three that I know of on the way down to the Manikarnika Ghat, the famous open-air cremation site on the banks of the Ganges. The first one is managed by a guy we have known for years. He is also a fairly heavy user of a certain sacramental herb favoured by Shiva, and is apparently unavailable somewhere in the back. The second is a statue set in a wall on a steep flight of stone steps. In the dark, if it wet, the garbage and cow shit on the steps becomes so slippery and hazardous we have knick-named it “The Stair of Death”. Today the image is covered with a sari, with only the eyes peeking out. When we ask someone if we can unwrap it, just for a second, the response is so emphatic we figure we should just leave it alone. The third shrine is open, and there is Kali is all her black-faced, red-tongued glory. We take a couple of snaps. Since we are nearly at the river, and there are still five hours before our train goes, we decide to take up one of the touts yelling,”Boat! Boat!” and have a row on the Ganges. Krishna is our boatman, and, as ever, the light is extraordinary in one of the most amazing places in the world.
The first Kali shrine is open when we return, but our friend is still nowhere in sight. By this time we have to think about catching our train to the real city of Kali – Calcutta. Back at our hotel we log onto the Indian Railways website, and find out our train is running 8 hours late. Rather than spend the night on a platform in Varanasi station – a grim prospect – we take a room, and set the alarm for early. I still can’t sleep, and repeatedly phone the info line for updates. At 6:00am I am told it is due at 8:35. At 7 the message is the same, so we get to the station by 8:00. The shock comes when we are told that our train has already left! This is a significant blow, in a number of ways. We have flights booked from Calcutta to Bangkok the next morning, and now the next scheduled train, even if it is on time, probably won’t get us there. I never thought that with 36 hours to do a 14 hr. trip we wouldn’t make it, but now that is a distinct possibility. To make sure the authorities know that this is not our fault, I dial the info # and give it to the clerk. He has a mini-tirade with the guy on the end of the line telling him the train which left ½ hr. ago isn’t there yet. But this doesn’t help us, not even with getting a refund. The rules state that if you miss your train, you can get a 50% refund within the first three hours. It seems self-evident to everyone we talk to that a) the train has been missed and b) the refund will be 50%. But my hackles are fully up, and I end up bouncing around the station like a pin-ball trying to make my case for a full refund to the proper authority. All my avenues lead to one Man, the Big Boss, the Station Master. But he won’t be in until 10:00. Officially. Who know’s, they say (meaning: he can do whatever he likes) maybe 10:30. In the meantime, my 3 hours of 50% refund grace expire at 10:25, after which the penalty is 70%. And we still have no way of getting to Calcutta. I suggest to someone we could take a bus. He is shocked. “The road!” he says, “You will not make it!” The only possible flight is routed back through Delhi, and is more expensive than our Bangkok tickets. The one concession I manage to wring out of the station underlings is that they will honour the 50% refund until after I have talked to the Station Manager. Finally my sleep-deprived, emotionally-exhausted brain has a good idea: we can change our Bangkok flights! With some of the pressure off, I go in for my interview with the Big Boss. He is sympathetic, but about a full refund he spreads his hands. “Even I” he says, “can do nothing.” He also assures me he will pull some strings, and get us berths on an otherwise-full train this afternoon.
It isn’t until we are in the taxi travelling the marvelous early-morning streets of Calcutta to the airport, and checked in and on our plane that we finally feel that Kali, the destroyer, has taken her sacrifice and is done with us. David and Vaune be warned: that’s one spunky lady you are getting!
Check out more of our photos, like the view from the taxi below, by going to http://www.kebeandfast.com and clicking EXPLORE.