The final trip taken as an iSPiiCE volunteer is to Agra to see…well, you know what…it isn’t the fort. But having already had a special time (very special, thanks to a rip in my trousers) at the Taj Mahal with Kristina, I wasn’t keen on going again. So my final weekend in the state of Himachal Pradesh consisted of two contrasting activities – shopping and sitting.
On the Saturday Natasha and I went to McLeod Ganj. I’m not a fan of shopping with women. Or shopping in general, actually. India, however, caters very well to the shopaholic. From market stalls to shopping malls, you can buy just about anything in this country. I stuck to my list – no spoiler alert here, I’m just not telling you what I bought – and then we wandered aimlessly around the Tibetan-influenced, touristy town. The vibe here is so relaxed and laidback that if it tried to walk elsewhere it would fall over before it had taken its first steps.
My highlight here was chatting to a shopowner from Kashmir – most seem to be from that area and have permanently resided elsewhere for a while, even though they all insist I visit the region of their birth – and drinking tea with him whilst Natasha inspected his rugs. His differing attitude towards us was particularly interesting. Whilst I conversed with him about our past and our respective families, every question he asked Natasha was business-orientated. Whether he thought my younger friend could be more easily persuaded to loosen the purse-strings may have been in his thoughts, but I have noticed that male and female travellers are treated differently if travelling together.
The main instance of this over the weekend was that Indians we met would talk to me, as opposed to talking to us. It happened in the MAXXI – a jeep that is crammed full to act like a bus – and it happened the following day at the wedding anniversary reception we were invited to. I was being asked to answer questions about Natasha – questions that should have been directed at her, but were instead directed at the male member of the group. ‘What does she do here’ and ‘What relation is she to you’ were just two of the examples. It was a shame to see in a country that seems to try to empower women, and had the longest-serving female head of state in terms of years in power.
On Sunday Ramesh, as I have just alluded to, hosted a wedding anniversary reception for one of his relatives in the grounds of his house. Which also happens to be where we stay, so whilst we were invited to proceedings it would have been rude if we had opened the curtains to scores of people milling around outside.
I had misunderstood the nature of this event in its build-up, and thought we were going to witness one of those famous, extravagant Indian weddings. A wedding anniversary was always going to seem low-key in comparison, but when we compared it to the same event at home we understood the scale and lavishness of what we were watching. A large red-and-white canopy transformed the exterior of the house. Part of the floor was painted green with swirling white patterns dancing within. The inside of the house morphed from a room with a TV into a colourful Hindu shrine, in which women (I wasn’t allowed near it) were chanting relentlessly for hours.
The ceremony, indeed the event as a while, possessed strong religious overtones. A priest was placed cross-legged at the end of the painted piece with the husband and wife, who sat patiently and diligently through his numerous prayers and offerings. Their patience must have been sorely tested when Ramesh ordered food to be served to the masses whilst this process was still very much in session.
Food, as with many ceremonies and festivals in this part of the world, is an integral part of a wedding reception. The layout, serving and composition of the food was uncannily similar to the housewarming we attended on the previous Monday. Food was eaten communally in sittings off a banana leaf (or, if you were hanging with the bigshots when food was announced, a plastic plate) whilst sat cross-legged on mats on the floor (or, if you were hanging with the bigshots when food was announced, a plastic chair). Rice, dal, paneer, aloo, mutter, more dal – all cooked in giant vats to serve the 250 or so people who came, ate, and left at various times of the day.
Two things I noted. One – the orange dessert provided, called meeta, pretty much tastes the same as rice pudding but is in solid form. Imagine eating rice pudding with your hand, how amazing and messy would that be! Nom-nom-nom. Two – the whole neighbourhood was here, all ages and genders, so I saw how babies and small children are fed in India. It is similar to the popular ‘here comes the aeroplane!’ method – except that the Airbus A380 is not a spoon, but the hand of the provider. The hand which then returns to providing food for its owner’s mouth. A very easy way to spread disease, surely.
The reception was a long yet enjoyable and interesting experience. All of the women looked so graceful and beautiful in their saris and salwar kameez’s. Once again, people were friendly and eager to talk. We left for a short time to head up to the Norbulingka Institute that I visited on my first day here, but people were still eating heartily when we returned. Nothing brings a community together like free food, it seems.
Soon after the reception’s conclusion it was time for me to leave this precious corner of India and return to Delhi on a bumpy, archaic bus. No diarrhoea this time, thankfully. A return to the capital, and an emergence into the furnace. No more views of snow-topped peaks – not when it’s 43’C, and only getting hotter!
Love you all