David and I collapsed into our hotel bed, completely exhausted, our brains sparking with emotional outages and our hearts overwhelmed. It was only noon, but we had just returned from a small village in the desert that might have well been in another world. India itself is an incredibly foreign place compared to the rest of the world; a sanctuary of spiritualism, ritual, and ancient culture, for better or for worse. But venturing into the folds of every day Indian life, especially that of its poorer people, brings you closer to the depths of this complex country.
We were staying the Rajasthani desert town of Pushkar, a small city that was made popular in the 1970s by foreign hippies wandering through and settling to create a laid-back, Western-friendly atmosphere. Since long before that, Pushkar has been an important site of religious pilgrimage, home to a lake sacred because of its ties to Brahma. We were sitting on the edge of this lake when a local man carrying a stringed instrument approached us and started to play. I automatically turned my head away, aware of this common scam where touts will force a service upon you and demand payment. David, however, was sincerely intrigued by the instrument, being a violinist himself, and listened. The man went through several more songs that were actually quite beautiful and it was impossible to keep hiding my appreciation for his music. He also had a really hip look about him, decked out in fashionable jeans and shoes, his hair lazily groomed but still impeccable, in that enviable way Indian hair can be. He ended up talking to us a little bit and answering David’s questions about the ravanhattha, his traditional Rajasthani folk instrument. David gave him ten rupees, an amount that some buskers will complain about for being too small, but our musician held the bill to his forehead and closed his eyes in a symbol of gratitude. It was easy to like him.
We saw him again the next day, as we were wandering through the small streets of Pushkar. He seemed genuinely happy to see us and insisted that we get chai together at a nearby shop. Feeling relaxed, we agreed and headed into the back of the shop. He introduced himself as Jethees (my best approximation of the spelling) and he played a few more songs for us. We didn’t know really what to expect…maybe a conversation getting to know him as a person, but he seemed very quiet and a little shy. This endeared him to us more, after encountering so many smooth-talking touts that are obviously working their way to your wallet as fast as they can. We talked about his music and family and he told us how his family had been traditional Bhopa musicians for generations and his dad passed the skill down to him. I noticed, as we talked that he was wearing the same clothes as yesterday and there were large holes in many parts of the fabric that I hadn’t noticed yesterday. He seemed earnest, but not curious about us.
Jethees mentioned that he brings tourists back to his house to meet his family and show them how he makes the ravanhatthas. It became clear that this was his main pitch, entertaining foreigners in the hopes of selling a ravanhattha to them. He sold them for 1,000-5,000 rupees ($15-77 USD) depending on the quality. We admired the instrument, but told Jethees that we would be traveling for three more months and couldn’t take it with us. No worries, he said, you come to my village anyway and we will make you a meal and you can meet my family.
David and I did some quick side eye telepathy to one another. We had been invited to another Indian home early in our trip and it turned out to be a lovely, authentic experience of people just enjoying each other’s company. Jethees seemed less eager to just make friends, but we didn’t know what to make of his offer or if we should take it at face value. David reiterated that we couldn’t buy a ravanhattha and we didn’t want to waste his time if he was trying to sell one. Jethees waved it off and told us to not worry about money and that we should just be his guests. Finally, we agreed and arranged to meet him the next day at 9am. Some of the most intriguing travel experiences come when you just say yes, so we were ready to roll those dice.
The next morning, we met Jethees in front of the chair shop and he finished buying some groceries for his family to cook. I had budgeted to potentially give him 1,000 rupees at the end of our experience, because of Jethees’ demeanor, I still felt like this would be a service- a cultural experience- provided and payment would be needed, regardless of what anyone said. Also, I couldn’t in good conscience let a rural Indian family spend their money on feeding me. So I let him finish buying groceries, then the three of us hopped on his motorbike and sped out of the city.
As we cruised along, Jethees had to stop a lot to slowly guide the bike around the many sacred cows that meandered through the streets. After navigating around one bull, David leaned forward and joked to Jethees,
“Too many cows!”
Jethees did not respond and David quietly wondered in my ear if maybe that was an offensive thing to say. A few minutes later though, as we swerved around yet another animal, Jethees exclaimed in agreement.
“Too many cows!!”
Once we left the limits of Pushkar, the town’s buildings gave way to the open Thar Desert, reminding us of the harsh climate of the region. We passed a couple miles of empty dirt until a small group of thatched huts appeared. This was Jethees’ village. We got off the bike and he led us to his hut, a half-open structure with some cots in it, piled high with various blankets. His family was all gathered around a fire; his wife and their two children, his sister, mother and father, and several other members. There were some introductions and greetings, then Jethees grabbed a blanket and laid it down for us on the sand. He called over his wife and gave her the groceries to begin cooking with. She was shy and didn’t acknowledge us too much. His sister however, was all smiles. No one spoke any English except the father. While the women cooked, Jethees pulled over a metal toolbox and showed David the parts that he uses to make the instruments. The box was full of random odds and ends and it seemed unlikely that a ravanhattha could be assembled from those few items.
I’ll admit the best word to describe my reaction to Jethees’ home was shock. I was expecting rural, but had never experienced first-hand such poverty. It seemed impossible that an entire family could live in such meager quarters. When Jethees was busy with something else, David and I fell into a quick huddle. We were overcome with what these people lacked and even struggled to believe this setup was real. We had encountered so many outrageous scams in India that we wondered if all these people actually lived somewhere else and gathered at a mock village to garner more sympathy and money from tourists they lured here. That seemed too elaborate even for India though, and we faced the fact that we had just been privileged enough to only experience such poverty through distant media. I struggled with the concept that there didn’t even appear to be a bathroom, but I later learned that over 40% of Indians still defecate in the open, despite various toilet education campaigns led by the government. I instantly promised myself that I would give the family more money than I had originally intended.
Jethees rejoined us and told me that his sister and wife wanted to give me something. The women came up and led me off to another hut. When the three of us were alone, both of them broke into big smiles and seemed much more at ease. To my surprise, they started taking my scarf off in order to dress me in some of their clothes. We started laughing and communicating in hand gestures as they tried to put a shirt on me but found my shoulders too broad. Switching outfits, they cinched a skirt around my waist, wrapped a veil around me, and stuck a bindi on my forehead. Then, the sister came at me with some old lipstick and painted my lips (and some teeth) with it. She held up a broken piece of glass for me to check out my transformation and I smiled approvingly. We marched back out to the other hut and my outfit was admired. Jethees offhandedly mentioned that it was a very nice outfit that cost 5,000 rupees. David silently wondered how we would get me out of it before we left.
After eating the simple but delicious food that had been prepared for us, Jethees’ dad came over and showed off his own skills at the ravanhattha. Something we had noticed about Jethees was that his repertoire seemed to consist of three songs, two which seemed to be named Cobra Song and, oddly enough, Frère Jacques. Sure enough, as his dad started playing, he also only performed the same three songs, albeit with a little more skill than his son. At this point, we sort of suspected that they were neither traditional Bhopa musicians nor ravanhattha-makers, but rather middlemen who sold the instruments and did so by learning just a couple demonstrative songs. However, this didn’t bother us because everyone has to make a living somehow and though we’ve learned to roll our eyes at the ‘my family has been doing this for generations’ claim we heard so much around India, we could still appreciate the extensive effort that was going into the sale. We reiterated to Jethees that we couldn’t carry a ravanhattha with us, but he waved us off. “Money doesn’t fucking matter,” he stated matter of factly.
After a while more of hanging out with the family, various members started to join us on the blanket. Jethees, his dad, his wife, and a couple other women holding small children gathered around. I could tell the final pitch was coming. Jethees started showing us his ravanhatthas again and his wife put a delicate anklet around my ankle, as an extra gift. I tried to cut him off before he got too far into his spiel and said we couldn’t carry a ravanhattha, but we could buy his CDs that he also had for sale, intending to overpay him for one. Before I could finish, he started to plead. “I need a new tent for my family,” he begged. Suddenly, money did fucking matter. I interrupted him because it was too uncomfortable.
“We’ll buy a CD, no change,” I said as I quickly pulled out 2,000 rupees, knowing that was the price of a mid-range ravanhattha. Suddenly the worry and tension in the air lifted and Jethees stopped protesting. He nodded and insisted on giving me an extra CD. His family seemed contented with the amount, though Jethees still seemed a little off.
He asked a common phrase we heard all over India, especially after a hard haggle. It was hard to read him, but I think he was worried that we felt cheated by our experience, an empathetic sentiment that was rare to come by.
“Yes, are you happy?” Jethees gave us the ever-noncommittal Indian head bob. I asked to be changed out of my outfit and the women took me back to their hut. They still seemed cheerful, so I hoped that it had been a good deal for their family. After I was relieved of my traditional garb, we said goodbye and Jethees took us back to town. Emotionally exhausted by the complexity of the situation and seeing how so many of the world’s population actually live, we went back to our room and fell asleep.
I’m not sure if the money I gave Jethees will go towards a new tent or not, but I was happy to have given it. I don’t think his family necessarily needs my sympathy or my guilt, but my experience with them stuck with me a long time. I also don’t think Jethees misled us when he told us not to worry about money and ignored that we couldn’t take a ravanhattha. Earlier in our trip we met a young guy with a bike in Agra who talked to us about difficult cultural differences with Westerners. His main complaint was that they never said what they mean. He gave a tour to a Western man and though the man said he was happy and everything was fine, he got upset at the end. It’s true too, that Westerners will often feign politeness or lie to avoid a potentially difficult situation. I could easily see how Jethees expected us to end up being fine taking home a ravanhattha when there may be no real trusting what a Westerner might say.
I struggled a lot with whether or not I would write this story because for a while it was too emotionally heavy in my mind. The uncertainty of the situation we were going into. The discomfort of being face to face with extreme poverty. The guilt of being extraordinarily rich in comparison and the distaste for having power through that wealth. I’m sure this same situation would affect others differently. They may have an easier time not feeling guilty or see the more idealistic side of the village families.
In the end, I wanted to share this story because it’s simply a window into the world of different humans on the other side of the planet. They are no better or worse, but just people being people and now I know they exist. Like, really exist, not just in some charity commercial or in some vague idea I have of the world. They save up for stuff they need and giggle while playing dress up. This is one of the really incredible things I love about travel. It’s not just seeing beautiful landscapes and having fun; it’s education on a personal level. It’s putting a human face on the rest of the world in a way that breeds understanding and compassion. The Dalai Lama believes that universal compassion is the key to happiness and a more successful world. While I struggle with universal compassion for all those unseen, each face I meet spreads my ability a little further. I hope someday I can turn my compassion into something even more tangible and helpful.
I think it’s a start.
If you would like to see Bhopa musicians in actions, I found this beautiful video of the exact village we were in: