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'Anything would be better'
As for more meaningful exchanges, they do happen when a visitor is blessed with the right congenial companion in a train compartment or cafe. But the divisions here are more obvious than the connections, and this holds true for Indians too. If the tourists are often estranged from the Indians they encounter it is not so different from the tremendous divisions cleft between Indians by caste and economics. First and Third Worlds live side by side in India everyday, tourists notwithstanding. Staring out the train window at a Delhi slum is no less alienating for the young Indian bank manager seated across from me — she's just more blasé about it.
Her name is Sonali, and aside from giving me plenty of tips on what to eat in Jaipur — "Look for golgappa" — she talks about modern India with a mixture of pride and impatience that sometimes shades into anger. "For every $100 of GDP there is at least $10 of corruption," she says. "Politicians have Swiss bank accounts. There is a revolution coming, I think."
Aren't you worried about what a revolution might bring, I ask? She waves her hand. "Anything would be better than this," she says.
Sonali is skeptical about the lasting effects of publicity over the Delhi rape and murder case. "This happens all the time," she says, "all the time. After the publicity dies down this case will drag on like the others. It will be forgotten."
Even when education and relative social status are accounted for, personal interactions here are fraught with another level of unpredictability lent perhaps by culture or, perhaps, mutual unfamiliarity. One day on the street in front of my hotel in Jaipur I am sipping the local street version of a cappuccino — essentially foamed milk and Nescafe. The Jaipur courthouse is steps away, and I am standing with a lawyer and another man. "How old are you?" asks the second man. I tell him. "Wow!" he says. "Nice body!"
The lawyer nods in agreement. His friend then reaches out and cups my left breast. "Good!" he enthuses. "And six-pack too, yes? You are married? No? How many girlfriends?"
Just then a cart comes down the road, pulled by a camel. "A camel!" I note helpfully. The lawyer then makes a remark I don't quite catch, which makes both men erupt into whoops of laughter. I am pretty sure he was comparing my breasts to the camel's humps.
The lawyer points to his friend. "He is unmarried too," he said.
You don't say. Well, it's been fun, but I really must gulp the remainder of this scalding hot beverage and be off.