Shake Hands With the Pterodactyl by Chris Corcoran

It’s our final day in Udaipur. Six weeks in the city of romance, and the second leg of our second Indian winter adventure is coming to an end. India is more familiar now. The curves of learning are more subtle. I pay attention, then ask questions.

I can’t say I’m happy to leave. So many remarkable people helped us with our NGO project, “Dreaming Big,” in which we brought three girls and four boys from Hunar Ghar, a primary school in the Rajasthan desert, to the city to open their world to possibilities. These kids, from the lowest caste of Indian society, now have a chance at a better life thanks to the exceptional school they are fortunate to attend.

Among the remarkable collaborators was Colonel Siraj—a retired Army officer who founded a charitable trust that awards grants to deserving university students. He had recently opened a growing library on the ground floor of his family home where poor kids living in crowded conditions can do homework and use laptops. The Colonel was happy to host our students and talk with them about the importance of education (“We can give you the books, but you have to read them.”). He even gave each student a wrapped gift of a geometry set. Firdous, an 18-year-old computer science student working part-time at the library, walked the kids through some computer basics, much to their delight. And the Colonel’s daughter-in-law Ashima, who was in Udaipur on a surprise one-day visit from Angola where she runs an after-school program, took the time to lead the kids in some rhythmic fun and games.

Dr. Richa Bansal graciously supported our project by giving free dental exams, toothbrushes, statues of Ganesh and sweets to the students. Hmmm. Dr. Garima, a young female associate, talked to the kids about what it takes to become a dentist, how to brush properly, and not to eat supari nuts because they are bad for you and can cause infertility.

It was important for the kids to see and experience women working in professional jobs, ones that don’t limit them to motherhood and backbreaking subsistence farming.

It turned out that Dr. Richa and her husband Dr. Manu Bansal, along with some affluent friends, collectively support a primary school in Udaipur. Dr. Manu offered to take us there and when I asked, he agreed to include Colonel Siraj in the outing. We met the principal who told us about the improved curriculum and plans for growth, and we witnessed the building of the second story amidst piles of stone and dust. One classroom was especially eye-catching. Every wall was covered with brightly painted pictures and names of animals and objects and alphabets, in English and Hindi. It was wonderful to observe first-hand ways in which people are supporting education here—for boys and girls. Who knows what new collaboration may come from bringing these three men together.

I can’t say I was sorry to leave, either. Blaring electronic wedding band machines accompanied by singular booming drums and high-pitched flutes pierced the air day and night with bad Hindi pop. Being close to the city palace, our neighbourhood was a prestigious target area. Fun if you’re a young Indian man; annoying if you’re trying to sleep. Gosh. Another year older and my tolerance for noise has decreased significantly.

And I’m more aware of gender bias—subtleties I didn’t pick up on last year. Take, for example, Premilla, wife of Suresh who is Peter’s music guru and friend. They had invited us for dinner at their home on the eve of Holi, the festival of colours.

Twenty people live under one roof: the elder father who is blind, his four sons, and all their wives and children, with three more on the way. Premilla is the main cook for this brood. She goes to bed around 1:00 am and gets up at 5:00 am—every day—that is, unless she’s having her period, in which case she’s not allowed in the kitchen.

After the neighbourhood priests had properly blessed the Holi tree with pujas and it had erupted into flames with fireworks popping every which way, sending people running for shelter, we went back inside where my partner Peter and I were served a delicious thali, a typical Indian meal with a little of this and a little of that. Except for the elder father, we were the only ones given food. As we sat on a couch surrounded by various family members, Premilla stood right in front of us watching us eat and urging us to take more. Her face was completely covered by a veil. Her chatty brother-in-law kept reminding us his two daughters had married last May, as if it were some coup and his standing in society had automatically hitched up a notch. Maybe it had. Wedding costs are mind-boggling.

Premilla’s comportment that evening was unexpected. In the privacy of their small downstairs bedroom (which they share with their 17-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter), or at the “mutton house” (their cottage in the foothills of the Mansoon Palace where wild peacocks roam), Premilla was engaged and animated. But now we saw a different side of her. As a traditional Indian woman who is only 36, Premilla is deferential to all the males in her world: husband, son, father-in-law, brothers-in-law, nephews.

What we struggled to understand was all discussed and explained the next day when they visited us at our apartment. Their marriage had been arranged before they were born—or to be more exact, their respective mothers, who were friends, decided that if Mom A had a boy, and Mom B had a girl, these children would marry. And so it came to be: Suresh was eight and Premilla was three when they were officially married. I thought at first I hadn’t heard right, but it was true. There was no ceremony when they were older. Premilla moved into Suresh’s family home when she was 18, and their son was born three years later.

We commented on the veil she had worn the night before and learned that women eat only after the men have been served, that men—even family members—do not address women directly but refer to them indirectly as the child’s (children’s) mother, and that only women cook in the home although men are the chefs at restaurants. If Suresh’s father is displeased with Premilla, or any woman in the household, he can beat her black and blue, and she must take it in silence. This has happened to her more than once. Premilla accepts her role without question. She tolerates male chauvinism as a matter of course, never questioning. She is happy, she says—and we believe her. And the men are happy with the arrangement, too. Or are they?

Suresh told us he knows many men who berate and beat their wives for simply standing on a rooftop and looking into the distance—if there’s a man within view. I asked him why they would do such a thing. What were they afraid of? “They are jealous and don’t trust their wives,” was his simple answer.

“But what about the younger generation who are getting a good education?” we asked. Suresh’s nieces who married last year are both at university. “Will these young women go to work?”

“They will find jobs and work until they start having babies. Then they will stay home.”

I was reminded of when we’d visited their cottage for barbecued mutton a few weeks before. Suresh had arrived early to start cooking the stewed meat over an open fire, something Premilla will not do as she is a strict vegetarian and doesn’t touch anything with a face. The party included their teenage kids and several nieces and nephews. There was much talking and laughing as they proudly pointed out improvements since last year. While we ate, Premilla had sat beside the fire constantly making and serving chapattis—and not eating. It was only when we finished that she brought out her own food from the kitchen. I had forgotten that at the Holi dinner.

Later that evening, the girls taught me how to tightly wrap a pashmina around my head and mouth to protect against exhaust fumes. They were experts, and my attempts were deemed hilarious. They wanted to know about Canada, and after describing the beautiful landscape where we live, I exclaimed, “You should come and visit us someday!” The girls stopped, looked at each other, then at me, and shook their head. “Oh no, we’d never be able to do that.” I smiled through my shock and said, “Well, you never know!”

Hmmm. From what I’ve observed, Indian women from well-educated, enlightened families—or ones who marry into them—are better able to make their own choices. I hope that Suresh and Premilla, and the others in their family, are able to relax their thinking around such strict traditions and give these girls better options. If the girls from the desert have a chance to rise above male dominion, surely these girls deserve the same.

I found out that the very young absorb gender roles in India just like they do anywhere. We’ve become good friends with Helena and Manu, owners of the haveli where we were staying, and their two kids Tia and Solomon. The whole family speaks Hindi and English. We even got to know Ken and Sue, Helena’s parents who were visiting from the U.K. We ate mutton in their private courtyard along with guests from Denmark and Montreal. We danced at a family wedding, oohing and aahing over dazzling saris adorned with exquisite jewelry, and men in colourful and ornate wedding garb. We had drinks on the roof complemented with juicy gossip about the local ex-pat community.

I spent an evening with eight-year-old Tia in her room singing and playing around on her keyboard, and later reading to her and Solly, who is five. Tia’s English is British accented, like her mom’s. Solly speaks English with more of the traditional Indian intonation. I found it both charming and disconcerting to talk with them. As we sat reading a new fairy tale book with stickers, a gift from the children’s Nana, I witnessed a subtle interplay of male empowerment. Solly wanted to play with one of the larger stickers—remove it and then place it on the accompanying shadow sketch on the proper page. Tia shook her head and pointed to all the stickers she would allow him to play with. They were all the small ones. Solly kept pointing to the large one. Tia said no. This went back and forth several times. Then he calmly started removing the sticker, very slowly, not saying anything but looking at his sister the whole time. Tia started fretting, but mildly, and she never made a move toward him. I tried to be only a witness and not interfere, but I did ask whose book it was and she told me it was hers. Solly continued to gently remove the sticker and even though Tia fussed, she didn’t stop him. Finally it was off and ready to be placed. He turned to the correct page and stuck it on. A minor victory for budding male dominance, a major blow to gender equality, however nascent. I wonder if their parents know—and condone—it.

Then there was the guy at Upkar, a grocery store selling western products like peanut butter and good cheddar cheese and canned sardines and Kalamata olives. What a find for a couple of Westerners! Peter was buying nuts and raisins for our long upcoming day of travel, and I was a few steps away looking for band aids, when I overheard the following: “You buy Monaco crackers? You should put these back and get the new flavoured ones—they are much better!” Okay, I could take a customer checking out what was in someone else’s cart, and even offering helpful advice, but this guy was loud-mouthed and sounding aggressive.

Peter answered him in a lighthearted way. “My wife picked out the crackers. She’s the boss. Ha ha.” Oh my. You’d have thought a pterodactyl had crashed through the window! The guy, sporting the dyed red hair popular among some older Indian men, was outraged.

“That’s outrageous!” he cried. Everyone in Upkar could hear him. I kept my head down and tried to ignore what was going on. Rising to the bait of an ignoramus is not my style. But a few minutes later I found myself in the checkout line behind red hair. He turned and looked right at me. I smiled and nodded toward Peter, who had stepped out of line to get something. Red hair looked me straight in the eye, shook his head in disgust, and muttered in a confrontational tone, “Unbelievable.” What a rude man. I wanted to have a word with the store manager but our rickshaw was waiting so I had to put it off until next time.

We leave early tomorrow and I venture into the streets for the last time. I go to Teena’s shop to buy her delicious chai tea mix and some face cream—and a pack of Kama Sutra cards for Peter’s daughter and son-in-law who want to get pregnant. Teena runs her own spice shop, and her husband Prakash has a variety store across the street. Now that’s gender equality! Teena’s spices are unique blends popular with locals and tourists. She had hosted our students in their apartment above her store, showing them how the chai spices are mixed by hand. Their four-year-old daughter helps out by inserting a label into the plastic packet just before Teena seals it over a candle. We hug and say goodbye. “See you next year!” we promise.

I head down the hill toward the Jagdish Temple to buy some fruit. The lady vendor I’ve bought from several times before remembers me. I tell her I want only a few bananas and a half kg of oranges. “We’re leaving tomorrow,” I explain, but don’t know if she understands. She weighs the bananas on her scales, using the octagonal-shaped lead weights of one-half, one and two kilograms to even out the score. Then she plucks a grape from a bunch and hands it to me. “Very good!” she prompts. I wipe it off on the hem of my tunic and pop it in my mouth. She’s right, it’s firm, juicy and delicious. When I look up to tell her yes, please, I stop and stare in awe.

Approaching the fruit stand is a tall, dark Indian in drag, wearing a red sari and the lipstick to match. I look away and pretend I’m not rendered speechless. It’s my first Indian drag queen. “Okay, I can handle this,” I think. I tell the lady I’ll take a half kg of grapes. Unfazed by her new customer, she doesn’t skip a beat, and as I look around I realize no one else does either. I steal another glance.

As I make my way back up the hill I question my reaction or over reaction. Why didn’t I just say “hi” and smile? Next time I will.

Chris Corcoran, November 2020

If you’d like to read more about the school project, check out our blog: