Better Late Than Never

Julia Cole

     This is a partial list of what I brought home from India: cotton and silk salwar kameezes, necklaces of malachite, tiger’s eye, jade, silver, boxes of saffron, peacock feathers, sandalwood elephants, vivid memories. Among the last there are the usual treasures: white morning mist suddenly yielding up the previously invisible Taj Mahal; the enfolding, velvet touch of the Arabian Sea; the vitality and vigor of the streets during midday; brilliant green birds perched on bright, dusty monuments; the strange, squawking roar-lets of tiger cubs in the Mysore zoo; sugar cane juice and alu chat bought from street vendors; sitar music and jasmine pouring in from a palace

garden; the faint noise of loudspeaker music from a nearby temple sieved through the quiet of 4 A.M. Delhi; huge Indian beds that made every night a slumber party.

I carried home much more than that, including something I should have been able to pick up a lot closer to home.


I went to India with two friends, Sonia and Marjie. I was luckier than many tourists because Sonia is Indian-born. She speaks Hindi fluently and knows many of the best places to visit. Best of all, she has cousins, aunts and uncles who took us into their homes and, in the Indian tradition, cared for us with unstinting generosity. We saw how they lived, what they ate, what they did. They picked us up at the airport (4 A.M.), loaded us with food and clothing, bargained for us in the shops, answered our questions.


The drawback was that when we weren’t staying with Sonia’s relatives looking at India from the inside out, we were in five-star hotels looking at India very much from the outside in. Considering the tastes and habits of my traveling companions, this was the only practical course. But it rankled. I’d backpacked around Europe and driven, bused, and camped across the US. I felt uncomfortable with glamour and luxury. I consoled myself as best I could by remarking that luxury was just another lifestyle, and it was only in India, where luxury is inexpensive by American standards, that I could hope to experience it.


Still, I was uneasy. Many people in India are poor, though it is not a desperate, hopeless poverty in most places. The idea of striding about someone else’s country, throwing rupees around, buying silks and jewels, eating at the best restaurants, hiring cabs, getting massages and manicures, all with the inevitable air of command and self-importance that wealth imposes on its owner, left me feeling embarrassed. I wandered around India solemnly, anxious not to give offense, seldom meeting anyone’s eyes.


My friends were less sensitive on the subject—and considerably less self-conscious. We were in Jaipur, that famous desert city in Rajasthan. We toured the City Palace and Hawa Mahal, a huge, elegant façade where, until a few decades ago, the zenana women peeked out of their enclosed world onto the streets of downtown Jaipur. We went to see the Observatory, the royal cremation grounds, the zoo. We had lunch at the Rambagh Palace, formerly the home of the last Maharajah of Jaipur, now a splendid hotel. We were driven around in bicycle-rickshaws and three-wheeled taxis. We found ourselves, finally, at the foot of a steep hill leading up to the Amber Fort, a more ancient home of the maharajahs of Jaipur.


There are two ways up to the Fort: foot or elephant. Although I am naturally a walker, genetically pre-disposed to climb things, I recommend ascent by elephant. The road is lined by a high wall impossible to see over, unless you are on top of something big—an elephant for example.


Sonia and Marjie sat on one side of the howdah and I sat on the other, legs dangling. The driver sat at the front crouched over the elephant’s head. Our patient, creaking ascent took about fifteen minutes. At the top we passed through an archway and into a large courtyard with a beautiful lawn in the center.


Dozens of schoolchildren were picnicking and began waving at Sonia and Marjie. Sonia and Marjie waved back. Way on the other side of the elephant, I gradually became aware that a small, genial riot was in progress. The children were jumping, shouting, waving furiously. They nearly rushed the elephant (unflappable except for the ears).


After we’d dismounted (at an elephant dock) one of the Fort’s guides approached us and explained the children’s enthusiasm. Simply, the children had waved at everyone coming into the courtyard, but only my friends had waved back. Naturally, the children were thrilled to get a response at last.


I stood there for a few moments feeling stupid as I considered a few obvious truths. Of course, solemnity can easily be mistaken for aloofness, even disdain. Cultural respectfulness isn’t respectful at all if it denies common human impulses such as curiosity and friendliness. Wealth may impose barriers, but they’re not impermeable.


In Jaipur, I resolved to set my self-consciousness aside.


So at the crossroads in Udaipur, on the ferries of Cochin, among the rock-carvings of Mahabalipuram, whenever I saw the curious stares of sari-clad women or schoolgirls in dazzling blue hair-ribbons, I met their eyes and smiled. And they smiled back—a much better meeting than guilt with incomprehension.


It was the most important thing I brought home with me, a very simple lesson, learned ten thousand miles away. Better late than never.




salwar kameez: tunic and pants worn by women

alu chat: spiced fresh potato snack

zenana: women’s quarters


Julia Cole was born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey.  She loves to travel, but doesn't get the opportunity to go anywhere different and unknown any more.


Photo Courtesy of morgueFile.


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Article Copyright © 2006 Julia Cole. All rights reserved.