India, Shopping, And The Kindness of Strangers

by Carolyn Handler Miller

I have never counted on the kindness of strangers. I could not be more unlike that pathetic creature, Blanche DuBois, from A Streetcar Named Desire, who was so reliant on them. I don’t even count on the kindness of friends. I’m an independent sort of person.

During a recent tour of India, however, I came to appreciate being the recipient of the unexpected kindness of a stranger. “My” stranger was a member of our 22-person tour group that traveled through northern India together, not an anonymous person from the general public.  Nevertheless, I could not claim to know her at all. She was part of a four-person family unit, and though they weren’t unfriendly, they tended to stick closely together. I had never even spoken to her, aside from perhaps a friendly “good morning.”

Our group had been visiting Khajuraho, famed for its magnificent temples, many of which were decorated with erotic carvings. The temples were in a park-like setting and it was pleasant wandering around to view them and climb into them.

After lunch, we had a short time to pack up and get ready for our flight to Varanasi. I am generally a slow packer, folding everything carefully and tucking in the fragile souvenirs just so, protecting them with soft clothing, rather than just stuffing things willy-nilly into my suitcase. On this occasion, though, I made short work of it. I had noticed that our hotel had a separate shopping arcade. It was the only hotel where we’d stayed that had such a thing, since generally the shops were inside the hotels themselves. This was a handsome looking building, and I was curious to see what it offered. I still had gifts to buy for friends and family, and this might be a good opportunity to find some suitable items. Once my packing was done, I rushed over to the arcade, just the other side of the hotel driveway.

The arcade did not disappoint. It consisted of several small shops, each with high quality merchandise. When I saw the items in the first shop, my heart skipped a beat. It was full of beautiful embroidered wool jackets like one featured in the window of the hotel shop in Delhi, covered in colorful embroidered flowers. I had coveted the one in Delhi, but it looked so expensive I dared not to go into the shop to ask about the price. But here, I hoped, far from the capital city, the price for such a jacket might be more affordable.

As I stepped inside the shop, several clerks eagerly surrounded me, easily perceiving my interest in the jackets, and as I skimmed through the various possibilities, one jacket in particular caught my attention: a deep red with gorgeous colored flowers. I tried it on and it fit just right.  I went through the bargaining process as quickly as politeness would allow. I probably could have bargained an even lower price, but time was running out and I was I was so thrilled by the thought of actually owning such a jacket that I wasn’t concerned about making the deal of the century.

Naturally, the fact that there was a live and buying customer in the arcade rapidly spread through the rest of the shops, and I was virtually mobbed by their representatives. I figured I would have time to visit one more shop, quickly, but then had to run to the bus. I selected a shop that was full of art work, because I was interested in finding some Persian miniatures to take home.

The amiable clerk in that shop showed me piles of them. I did not know how authentic they were, but I was fascinated that they were all pages from ancient books. One side bore an illustration and the other lines of Hindi. I found two that enchanted me. The first was a wedding procession, led by a group of musicians. Then came the dainty looking bride, carried on a litter, and bringing up the rear was the groom, mounted on an elephant. The second picture showed a group of men on horseback milling around in front of a fort. The ears of the horses appeared to be twisted backwards, a unique characteristic of the rare Marwari breed of Indian horse. As a horse lover, I had been admiring such horses at some of the sites we visited, especially in Agra. I quickly bought both pictures and asked the clerk to pack them in sturdy wrapping. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have anything sturdier than newspaper. If I’d had more time, I would have looked around for a piece of cardboard but the clock was ticking loudly.

I rushed out of the arcade bearing my precious new possessions and rejoined the tour group that was boarding the bus to the airport. The flight to Varanasi was uneventful, but by the time we landed, my bladder was about to burst. As soon as we got off the plane I hurried into to the ladies’ room, hung my bag from the shopping arcade on the back of the door, and gratefully used the toilet.

Still in rush mode, I hurried out to the parking lot, where our group had assembled. Suddenly it hit me. “My God!” I burst out. “I left my package in the ladies’ room!” Curious faces turned toward me as I explained I had just bought some gorgeous things in Khajuraho but hadn’t had time to put them in my suitcase. And in my hurry to rejoin the group outside the airport, I had left my package on the hook of the door in the ladies’ room stall. I was frantic. I had carelessly lost the purchases I had so carefully selected!

Suddenly a woman from our group reached out her hand to me. “I will help you!” she declared. She was a middle aged Chinese woman from Canada, one of the people I had barely spoken to. I will call her Agnes, though I don’t even know what her name is.

“It’s impossible to get back into these airports,” Agnes told me. “But I will explain to them what happened. I speak Hindi.” I was too dumbfounded to reply, but looked at her gratefully, tears in my eyes.

My savior grasped me by the hand and quickly led me to the airport exit, where an unfriendly looking female guard blocked the door. Agnes told her my story. The guard firmly shook her head no. Agnes wouldn’t back down and firmly added some more details. I couldn’t understand a word of the exchange, but I could see the guard was softening a little. There was some more back and forth and finally the guard stepped aside to let us in.

I rushed to the ladies’ room and could see that no one was occupying the stall I had used. I said a little prayer to the god of careless people and cautiously opened the door, hardly daring to hope. But as I pulled the door towards me, I was thrilled to see my package still hanging there!

Agnes was waiting for me as I dashed out of the ladies’ room, clutching my package. She gave me a huge smile when she saw I had retrieved it. As we rejoined the group, I asked her how she had come to speak Hindi. She explained her family was originally from India but had relocated to Canada, where there was a large Indian community of Hindi speakers. Thus, she had never lost her fluency.

I thanked her gratefully for her assistance and looked forward to getting to know her better. To my disappointment, though, she quickly merged back into her family group. We never had another conversation.

Every time I wear my beautiful embroidered jacked or look at my pictures from Khajuraho, I say a silent thank you to Agnes. How thankful I am for her help! Though I remain an independent person, I can understand why Blanche DuBois cherished the kindness of strangers. I hope one day I can be kind to a stranger, too.

 

Carolyn Handler Miller (www.carolynmiller.com) is a writer who works across a variety of media. Originally beginning her career as a newspaper reporter and magazine journalist, Carolyn's projects spans TV, feature films, books and new media. She is one of the pioneering writers in the field of interactive narrative, where she has contributed to dozens of projects as a writer, writer-story designer, and consultant. She is the author of “Digital Storytelling (Third Edition): A Creator's Guide to Interactive Entertainment (http://tinyurl.com/digstorytelling3rded)

 

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