Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 5

(Vegetable vendors, Crawford Market)

Soonie was the friend of a friend who had arranged for her to escort our group around Bombay. Lively and talkative, her hair cut short and her slightly plump figure tucked into blue jeans, Soonie was studying fashion design in college. Her large, dark eyes were constantly springing open as if in surprise.

She led us around - our group of five Americans and Mahendra in tow - to shops and to Crawford Market, a complex built in 1867 that to this day is the center of Mumbai's trade in fruit, fish, fowl, spices and hundreds of other goods. All the while, we were followed by a train of beggars: the one-legged and the legless, the blind, the lepers, the old, shrunken women and children with babies hung around their necks. They were attracted by our utter whiteness, and by the dollar bills that one member of our group kept extracting from his wallet and pressing into one palm after another. A dollar was at that time worth 31 rupees, and a rupee was enough to feed a street person for a day. Eventually, the mob of the needy forced us indoors where they were not permitted.
"I cannot believe it," said Mahendra. "My parents were quite wealthy, but they gave away less money in their lifetimes than you people have given away in the last five minutes."

The beggars following us were professionals, Soonie warned us, advising that our generosity only encouraged them. We darted from shop to restaurant, and left our dusty entourage staring in the picture window.

During a leisurely lunch, Soonie was asked if she had a boyfriend.
"Oh, yes, but no one can know this, Soonie said, giggling and covering her mouth with her hand. "My sister is knowing him, but my parents would be killing me if they knew I was seeing him."
"Why?" one of us asked. "You're a big girl now."
Soonie shook her head and rolled her eyes. "He is from another city and my parents are not being acquainted with his parents. My boyfriend is saying that he will have his father speak to my father, but I am being very worried."
Was the boy's social circumstances or caste the concern?
"Oh, no, his family is quite wealthy, but you see it is my mum and dad's right to choose a husband for me, and they do not know his family. Still, I am hoping for the best."

The idea of arranged marriages seemed so bizarre and antiquated to us. It would seem less so by the end of our journey, which was just about to begin. The next day, we would leave civilized Bombay for Madras and points south, on a long road trip through what would seem like the strangest place on Earth.

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