To Guide or Not to Guide?
When people ask me about traveling to India, our conversation often goes something like this:
Person: Could I come on your next trip?
Me: We only travel with people who saw us in our underwear 40 years ago.
Person: Then could you recommend a good tour guide?
Me: Um… What were you doing 40 years ago and what underwear did you do it in?
If you hire a car and driver in India, one of the unspoken-but-expected givens is that your driver will supplement his relatively-tiny wage with under the table gifts from the restaurants, shops, and attractions he steers you toward. Since your driver most likely knows good places and is also looking for your recommendations and repeat business, this actually works out quite well. Most of the time. Unless we’re talking about hiring guides.
Our general experience in India is that hired guides spend most of their time reprimanding us. “This way Madam. Madam, look here. Madam, come come. Madam I am telling you…”—by which point Madam has either wandered off to take pictures (Janine), actively interrupted his script by asking random questions (me), or lost all patience and started giving the tour herself since she clearly knows a LOT more history, better stories, and English (Jaya).
Our usual technique has been to read up on a site’s history and significant features before arriving. But if it’s large, if the signage is nonexistent, and if the architecture stunning, we might opt for the guide. We have yet to find any reason to be glad we did so, and Day One of our Rajasthan trip when we visited the 800-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Fort at Jaisalmer proved no exception.
Before we’d gone half a block, Manish informed us—for the first of about a hundred times that day—that he was a Brahmin and just guiding us as a favor. He told us the main attractions at Jaisalmer were not worth our time and money, and that we should visit a recommended street with the Fort’s ‘famous’ silver shops instead. Over the next few hours he repeated this with increasing urgency as he raced us through the 800-year-old fort, letting slip the unsurprising information that the best silver shop belonged to his family, who were Brahmins, and that he knew foreigners always wanted to buy many things there. Many many things.
Between plugs for the delights of his familial silver, Manish delivered a prepared spiel from which he couldn’t be diverted, but which also included no more information than what was posted on various plaques around the Fort. Each of us would take a turn listening to him while the other two explored.
It was almost lunch time, and all that guidance had made us hungry. Jaya informed Manish we were no longer interested in his services or his family silver.
At the Patwon Ki Haveli, a boy offered to show us one of the houses that made up the old family mansion. It wasn’t in good shape, but we could still see beautiful carvings and the remains of wall paintings. Our young guide showed us up to a roof terrace which (apart from the dead pigeon in the middle) offered a terrific view. The boy, who told us he’d learned all the English he needed to know from tourists, began his spiel about what happened in the “before time”.
Jaya tried to suggest he meant “in the old days” but he told her she was wrong, and launched into an enthusiastic description of the many and varied uses of “cow shit”, which he said was pressed into “shit cakes”, while “dry shit” was used for fuel. Janine and I tried not to look at each other, but Jaya is made of tougher stuff.
Jaya: “You mean cow dung?”
Boy: “It is shit.”
Jaya: “It’s polite to say dung.”
Boy (shouting, in case we were not stupid, just deaf): “SHIT! It comes out of cows.”
(Jaya was disgusted, but I have to confess Janine and I each slipped him a large tip.)
Our guidebook told us to look for the maharajah’s lake, Gadsisar Sagar Lake. As we approached, another tourist told us the story of the Maharaja and the Courtesan.
While at the lake, we met some other tourists who described an amazing puppet show they’d attended the night before, so we decided to attend.
Or even better—we decided to stick with the best guides of all: good friends and great books. So if you’re planning a trip to India and you don’t have an old roommate familiar with your underwear from decades past, I’d recommend you take a look at a book I just finished. Marriage Unarranged by Ritu Bhathal is charming ChickLit that’s also the perfect intro for your first trip to India.
Marriage Unarranged by Ritu Bhathal
‘Chickpea Curry’ Lit — Chick Lit with an Indian twist!
startedended with that box…
Aashi’s life was all set.
Or so she thought.
Like in the Bollywood films, Ravi would woo her, charm her family and they’d get married and live happily ever after.
But then Aashi found the empty condom box…
Putting her ex-fiancé and her innocence behind her, Aashi embarks upon an enlightening journey, to another country, where vibrant memories are created, and unforgettable friendships forged.
Old images erased, new beginnings to explore.
And how can she forget the handsome stranger she meets? A stranger who’s hiding something…
When we meet Aashi, she’s spent her life becoming perfect—the perfectly dutiful daughter, perfectly affectionate sister, and perfectly charming fiancee. Growing up in England in a large, loving Indian family, she’s been content to fit into the mold of what everyone else expects. The only initiative she’s ever displayed was to choose her prospective husband instead of the traditional arranged marriage. But that just meant her life was like one of the Bollywood movies, right?
Only, life takes a turn away from Bollywood when Aashi catches her fiance cheating, and realizes she needs to call off her upcoming wedding. In any culture, this wouldn’t be fun, but for Aashi and her family, it’s a catastrophe. The entire family is left reeling, especially when ex-fiance Ravi implies she was the one at fault.
For the first time in her life, Aashi doesn’t have an expected life path to follow. As her family unwinds the complex plans for the cancelled wedding, they realize the only thing left to cancel is the planned trip back to India to buy wedding clothes. Devastated and lost in the wake of her ruined wedding, Aashi decides to make the trip anyway—accompanied, of course, by both older brothers and her best friend.
There are numerous elements of conventional chick lit and even romantic comedy tropes in Marriage Unarranged, as well as Bollywood standard tropes. On the flight over, Aashi has a meet-cute with a handsome (Indian, of course) young man. Her girlfriend and her brother become the obligatory Bollywood-style beta-couple. There’s plenty of clothes porn, and even a new gay friend.
All of this happens in a setting author Ritu Bhathal is uniquely qualified to describe. She brings an affectionate but pragmatic eye to the realities of life that straddles traditional Indian culture in a modern British setting. Thus as Aashi faces her future, she and her family also come to terms with contemporary issues like feminism, homosexuality, children born to loving single parents, and feminism.
“This was something Aashi hated about India. Many men still saw women as objects, rather than individuals, and over the years, she had got used to the stares men gave any women, especially those from abroad.”
But there’s more to Marriage Unarranged than a boy-meets-girl plot. Instead, Aashi takes us on several journeys at once. There’s the trip she takes with her brothers and friends, which shows the noise, color, smells, wonder, and sights of traditional India. We get an insider’s view of life in India, especially when they visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Readers visit an exotically different world as Aashi describes the queues waiting to enter, the sense of peace her prayers bring, the gold leaf covering the temple glowing against the lights and garlands of flowers, the special blessing of helping with the massive feat of serving meals to tens of thousands of worshipers every day.
“The temple glowed, lit up with thousands of light bulbs, illuminated for the special day that was Vaisakhi. The reflections of the lights twinkling on the surface of the surrounding water in the sarovar made it look like the temple was floating in the night sky.”
But as Aashi becomes more comfortable with her cultural past— the temples, shops, hotels, and traditions of India—she also begins another journey to know herself, to find her strength as a woman and an individual instead of just a role.
If you enjoy a beautifully-told story, especially one that involves exotic travel, other cultures, romance, and a character who doesn’t just change but also embraces the inner core of strength we suspect she’s always had, I recommend Ritu Bhathal’s joyful, funny, and thoroughly entertaining debut novel, Marriage Unarranged.