Updated: May 2, 2020
In the largest camel fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan, a local and a foreigner truly sit at the opposite ends of the world in their thoughts about women.
“Tell your American friend, I want a gori mem.” Pyarelal Singh, about 55 years old, had made his requirement for a white wife known rather matter-of-factly. “He can shortlist about 50 women and I’ll choose one.”
Pyarelal and the group of men sitting around him in the dusty, open grounds of Pushkar, enduring the cold November winds from the Aravalli mountains of Rajasthan, are camel traders. They have travelled about 250 kilometers from Palana village by foot, ambling along for days with their ‘wares’ for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. My friend Nick and I were out at dawn for a walk through the vast fair grounds where hardy traders in vibrantly coloured turbans arrive from various parts of West India and make temporary settlements; clusters of makeshift tents for their 10-day stay and flocks of camels marking their respective territories. Pyarelal’s caravan hailed us over for tea and we gladly accepted in the biting cold that winter morning.
Appearing to be the chief of the huddle, Pyarelal looks around to see if the effect of his statement has reached his men. When I inform him that Nick is British, not American, he nods the Indian nod, uncaring of the difference.
I convey the proposal to Nick in English.
Nick’s expression is fuzzy behind the vapours wafting over his face from the tea in his hands. All eyes have turned on him. “Tell him it doesn’t work that way.” When I do in Hindi, Pyarelal straightens up and says, “He can name his price! I am rich.”
It dawns on me that Pyarelal is not joking about the wife. Or the money.
Couples fall in love and take time to figure if they want to spend the rest of their lives together in the west, Nick explains. Pyarelal is quick to make plans to spend a year abroad with his chosen lady. “But eventually, she has to come to my village with me, walking by my side, where everyone can see her.”
In a country where dark skin is a social disadvantage, white wives even in modern, urban societies elicit admiring glances and stir envy. In a remote Rajasthani village like Palana, it’ll be a conquest story that will last generations.
“And, don’t worry about my other two wives. They’ll be at her beck and call.” A spirited discussion ensues over the profiling of the girl, the remuneration, the follow-up procedure, mostly amongst the Palana men themselves. We are allowed to leave only after they have our phone numbers and our promise.
Translating for both sides, not just the language, but the way of life, I come to be sitting on the median of two polarized worlds. I could comprehend both cultures, even though quite literally east and west. Sitting here, far from my city life, I could also comprehend that I was a paltry, privileged percent of Indian women who could choose a culture of her liking and be on the favourable side of gender equality.
Nick and I had wandered the grounds a few times past camels with endearing lady names, decorated in feminine beads, colourful tassles, mirrorwork and tinkling anklets, in the hope of catching a trade in progress. This morning, we probably did.