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Daily Rituals in Pushkar

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PUSHKAR, INDIA:  Each day, around sunset, the resident tourists gather at the steps leading down to Lake Pushkar to bang their drums, run around, gather in circles and repeatedly say "Om," have their faces painted, recite chants, and, in other ways, act like a movie-producer's vision of an Indian Hindu.  Most of them are dressed in genuine Indian clothes - loudly colored or gaudily-patterned polyester robes, sarongs, and saris machine-manufactured by People's Dye Works No. 14 in the Guangdong province of China.  Nearly all sport tattoos or some piece of metal injected into one bodily part - noses, lips, tongues, eyebrows, stomach, scrotum, etc.

Around the same time, the local Indians go to the same place to watch the Ersatz Indians go about their daily rituals.  The local Indians are easy to spot: the men wear trousers, loose, but comfortable, long-sleeve button down shirts; the women wear simple, single-color sarongs, a minimal amount of jewelry, and sit quietly beside their husbands.  The few Indian children - most with coloring books or cartoon guides to the multiplication tables - sit politely and quietly at their tables.  Both the men and women look like they have bathed recently; neither the men nor women sport any form of body art other than a modest mark on the forehead.

Self-styled Indian holy men descend on this spot shortly before sunset.  They ignore the local population and head directly to the lakefront, the site of the greatest concentration of tourists.  Perhaps these holy men know that the local population does not need additional spiritual enlightenment, living in such a holy place is more than sufficient.  More likely, these holy men know that the local population will not pay 100 rupees for a piece of string from the local Brahma Temple, for painting a mark on their forehead, for part of the cost of making a pilgrimage to the Hindu holy city of Mecca, or for leading them in a genuine Hindu prayer.  A prayer that may, for all their knowledge, be a verbatim rendition of a Hindu-language commercial for suppositories. 

An Indian gentleman - noticing my clean-shaven face, western-style clothes, and absence of dreadlocks, tattoos and aroma of marijuana - turned to me and said in nearly perfect English, "Do they act like that in your country?"

"Yes.  We have special places of people like that.  They're called universities."

"So there are a lot of people like that?"

I explained to him about western student culture - an oxymoron at a fair number of campuses: experimenting with alternative lifestyles and new personalities; the chemical induced voyages of self-discovery; trying to create an idealized version of the 1960's (better and cheaper drugs, less violence, parental and social acceptance of this institutionalized rebellion; no threat of being drafted); and using a credit card with a parent's name on it.  His response to my summary of student life: "In India, people go to university to study."

"Oh most people go to university to study.  When they leave, they cut their hair, remove the piercings, cover-up the tattoos, and get jobs at prestigious law firms.  These people," and I gestured towards the lake, "can not handle the real world."

"But why do they come here?"  He was from Amjer, the nearest major city to Pushkar and was in the city for business - selling hammers, saws, screwdrivers and other tools to small shops and construction companies.  "This used to be such a nice, quiet town." 

Pushkar is a striking town.  The town extends for several hundred feet from the shore of Lake Pushkar - and Lake Pushkar is smaller than most lakes found in city parks of a small-sized American city.  The entire lakeshore is lined with Hindu temples and ghats - steps leading down to the lake for purposes of Hindu rituals.  The winding streets and alleyways are too narrow for most motorized transport and the noisy, blue smoke-spitting autorickshaws are prohibited from the city center.  Aside from the bleating of cows, the occasional firecracker or the roar of a motorcycle - almost always driven by a tourist - the town is quiet.

"Look at the quality of goods here."  He began to lament about the stores of the main bazaar.  "Several years ago, you could buy stuff from all over Rajastan: rugs, carpets, clothes, silk, wool.  Good stuff.  Now it is all junk."  There was a lot of truth in his comments.  Several guidebooks emphasized Pushkar as a bazaar town where high-quality handicrafts could be purchased.  My experience here was different from my Lonley Planet-driven expectations: stores sold cheap, machine-made and dyed T-shirts and pants; healing crystals; books on new age thought and philosophy; and pirated Grateful Dead and Bob Marley CDs.  The only handicrafts on display were bongs, pipes, bamboo flutes, and costume jewelry involving some variation of a silhouette of the marijuana leaf - the same type of kibble found around Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and Madison.  In fact the whole town had the feel of a slightly, run-down college town.  I began to wonder whether I was going to be late for Psychology 172.

Several small Indian children - no more than ten years old - walked out in front of the crowd and began to play flutes and a stringed instrument that was part violin and part guitar.  They were actually able to carry a tune: all of the players were on the same key and, for the most part, they kept the same beat.  Several young women began to free form dance on the ghats behind the children; other tourists stopped playing hacky-sack or juggling to listen; even more people began to drop 20 rupee notes in the bowl in front of the children.  Perhaps I was being too hard on Pushkar.  This really was a special experience: the sunset, the holy lake, the temples in the background, the children playing music.

A western man with dreadlocks and several days growth of beard sat down next to the children and started playing his drum: loudly; with a completely different beat; and no sense for the nature of the music being played by the children.  Almost instantly, the gentle, soothing music of the children was drowned-out by random, rhythemless banging on a drum.  After a few minutes the children stopped playing; bowed to the audience; picked-up their money, and said "Thank you."  Shortly thereafter, the man stopped his performance and skulked off.  I wonder whether he was going to find the children and ask for his cut of the donations.

At the table next to me was a mother having dinner with her daughter - or a young girl that I assumed was her daughter. The girl was the same age as the children who just stopped performing.  That was about all they had in common.  She was dressed in a long, red sari studded with beads, mirrors, and sequins.  Her long blonde hair was tied back in several ponytails - each ponytail tied back with some type of stuffed animal ribbon.  Even at this age, her ears were pierced she wore multiple necklaces, bracelets, and rings.  The mother was dressed in a similar manner - except her hair consisted of fluorescent pink dreadlocks.

Later that evening, over cocktails at the Pushkar Palace Hotel - a rather tiny resort owned by the local Maharaja - I mentioned experience at the ghats to a group of South Africans.  These people were not in Pushkar to play drums, dance naked in the streets, or to find enlightenment.  They were celebrating, with a trip to India, the sale of their business to a large, American financial conglomerate.  They could afford to stay at the Pushkar Palace; I could only afford a gin-and-tonic.  As the topic turned to the mother and daughter, Murray, the former CEO of the acquired entity, remarked, "I bet she shocks her mother by becoming a stock broker!"

He began to imagine the scene, doing both the mother's and daughter´┐Żs voices: "Mom.  I am going to business school"  "What?!  I worked and slaved to take you to India; to send you the best gurus in town; to teach you how to roll a dovetail joint!  And this is how you repay me!" "But Mom.  It is what I want to do!"  Couldn't you at least enroll in art school for a few years.  See if you like it."

Murray turned to me and noticed my empty drink, "Want another?"  "No thanks.  This place is a little beyond my budget."  "Nonsense."  He gestured for a waiter.  He placed an order for several bottles of expensive wine, two scotch-and-sodas and, as he pointed to me, "whatever he wants."

I spent the rest of the evening with this group of South Africans, discussing corporate finance, arbitrage, mergers and acquisitions, investment strategy, the global financial system, and competition law.  A complete turn from watching the sunset with a bunch of hippies.

Toward the end of the evening, a man with an uncanny resemblance to Monty Python's Terry Jones came to the table and gestured obsequiously to Murray.  He introduced himself as the owner of the hotel and wanted to make sure that we were all enjoying ourselves.  "If there was anything we needed, then we should feel free to give him a call."

He then spent a few minutes talking about the hotel, its facilities, and admiring our (mainly Murray's) choice of wines.  Murray turned to me and said, "The owner.  He is a Maharaja."

"Oh.  I have met Maharajas before.."