Jaipur; Return to Jhotwara; In which I discover that being an uncle is exhausting work

We were supposed to be visiting Kuldeep and his family in Jhotwara, a suburb of Jaipur, today. We couldn’t get there as early in the morning as Kuldeep wanted, though. We needed to eat, of course, and then we needed to spend some time with Arvind, our host. We’d hardly had a chance to spend any time with him while we’d been there. Even when we did start to leave, it was hard to find an autorickshaw that would take us so far. We found one who asked for 50 rupees, but it was clear that he didn’t have the faintest idea where we were going, let alone how far it was. He’d never been out to the suburbs, clearly - since even after we cleared it up, he only asked for 80. Still, we had to wait for him to finish his chai before we could leave, and then we discovered that we’d hired the only slow rickshaw in India. Whereas the usual autorickshaw ride is a hair-raising episode of screeching tires and last-second dodges through paper-thin gaps in traffic, this guy didn’t go above a sedate 20kph and was happy to putter along in the shoulder and let the traffic pass him.

We didn’t get to Joshi Marg in Jhotwara until 11:00. Yannick met us at the corner, jumped into the rickshaw and directed it through the maze of backstreets. At the house, the driver suddenly demanded 200 rupees to cover the pain and emotional trauma of taking us all the way to the house: “leftrightleftrightleftright two hundred!” I’d been planning to give him 90 anyway and didn’t really feel responsible for him undercutting himself by not understanding the distance involved, but made it an even hundred to shut him up.

There was nobody home at the house. Kuldeep and Pushpa were at work and the kids were at school. We rushed here for this? We hung around looking at Yannick’s photos until Pushpa came half an hour later. She was only coming to collect the three of us so that she could take us to work and show us off. A big misunderstanding ensued when she tried to get us to bring our bags along. We were all confused - we’d thought we were invited to stay the night, and she thought we were leaving with Yannick. Like we’d have come all that way just to visit for an hour? It was very awkward - we weren’t sure if we were still welcome to stay or not. And how do you ask that question politely? The last Pushpa had heard, it seemed, was me the night before on the phone saying we couldn’t come - Kuldeep hadn’t mentioned that he’d guilted me into accepting.

Pushpa brought us and Yannick to her workplace, a private primary school five minutes’ walk from the house. It’s a two-storey building with classrooms around an open courtyard. First things being first, we were introduced to the principal. Not even in the school two minutes and already we’re in the principal’s office? A new record for both of us. The principal was a tired-looking and overworked woman in her forties who, I think, is having a rough time with her work - she digressed into a hair-trigger rant about demanding Indian parents that frankly made my hair curl.

Yannick had to rush off directly afterward to catch his bus. He was running very late - I wonder if he made it? Pushpa took Sheryl and I around to the classrooms - every classroom. There were a dozen rooms or so, with fifteen or twenty kids in each class. They were spookily well-behaved. Some classes even stood up and chorused “Good Morning!” when we appeared. To be honest, that freaked me out. I’m not used to school kids behaving well in the first place, and for them to actually show polite respect to a visitor pushed me right into Twilight Zone territory. I didn’t really know what to do except smile and wave, really. Only the oldest kids are given any English instruction at this school, and we weren’t able to chat individually with them anyway. Some of the teachers spoke English though. There were one or two of them for every class - some of them darn cute, I couldn’t help noticing. I’m such a sucker for a pretty girl in a sari. None of the teachers had much to say to me as a male visitor in a female world, but some of them chatted with Sheryl. With nothing really to contribute, I did my best to look benevolently avuncular.

Pushpa, of course, had to get back to her own classroom, so we hung around in the computer room and waited for Pinky and Gunu to show up. Times certainly change - I didn’t see a computer in any of my schools until I was twelve, and those were cast-iron Commodore PETs from the early Industrial Age. This anonymous elementary school in a poor, dusty suburb of India’s poorest state had a row of battered five-year-old PCs - not the state of the art, certainly, but more than sufficient for school kids.

Pinky and Gunu finally showed up and much drama ensued. Gunu was crying because Pinky had slapped him. Amid the crying and comforting and punishing our presence hardly appeared on their radar. Pushpa handed them over to us (or us over to them) with some relief. We spent the next two or three consecutive lifetimes babysitting them and entertaining the entire crew of neighbourhood kids, who were overjoyed to see us again after Holi. It was exhausting, like spending time with drunk crazy people. The constant cries of Auntie! Auntie! Auntie! Uncle! Chris-uncle! Auntie! Uncle! wore us out quickly. We started to run dry of ideas to keep them amused after the first two hours. We tried to take it in shifts to give each other a break, but Sheryl was more popular, unfortunately for her. She likes kids more than me, though. While one of us was keeping the kids at bay the other would try and do research in the guidebook to try and figure out where to go next. We never had more than two minutes peace at a time, so that took, I kid you not, all day. I’m just not cut out to be a family man - I don’t know how parents do it. Probably speaking the same language helps a bit. Also parents can tell them to piss off for awhile, but honorary uncles and aunties stuck with babysitting duty don’t have that option. We were utterly exhausted by the time all the kids had disappeared one by one back home. It was all I could do to keep Gunu occupied by playing Not Quite Cricket for a couple of hours. I can’t figure out the rules of cricket at the best of times - when they changed every two minutes I was hopelessly lost.

After Pushpa came home and had had enough of the clattering of the plastic cricket ball and bat, Gunu was strongly encouraged to go and play outside. He dragged us to the park - a little spot of dusty green grass among the dusty dirt lots of Jhotwara. I can’t say my enthusiasm was at high water at that point, but Sheryl was going and, remembering the boisterous crew of boys from Holi, I thought it was a good idea to go along. It was all kids in the park, not families. I’m glad I went along to keep things civilized - in a reversal of the usual pattern, I was welcome and Sheryl was decidedly not. I got to play catch with the older boys and realized quickly after they scattered in panic from my first throws that they don’t play catch with horizontal baseball-style throws, but rather toss the ball high in the air, cricket-style - I should have known. In contrast, Sheryl was ignored or stared at unpleasantly, and twice had a ball accidentally-on-purpose fired at her head.

Sheryl was so uncomfortable that we didn’t stay long in the park. She’s a very good judge of atmosphere, and we both share a finely-honed talent for knowing the right time to leave. We cut it a little too closely this time, though - a few thrown rocks followed us when we turned our backs. How many times are we going to get rocks thrown at us in Jaipur? I’m not liking the place any better even a couple of days after our ugly experiences in the Old City. The rock-throwing wasn’t much of a surprise to Pushpa, who I think is much better in tune with her neighbours than the optimistically good-natured Kuldeep, to whom it came as a disturbing surprise.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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