Was this exploitation?
The old woman crouched while a man placed the ninth pot on her head. She grimaced as sweat ran down her face, the crowd holding its breath. I could almost feel the pots literally crushing her.
The woman stood up and started wiggling her hips. She wore a plastic grin, as if casting a spell to keep the pots balancing. The tower swayed precariously, but some miracle kept it upright. For a split-second the facade dropped and I could see the pain in her eyes.
For less than three dollars, I was watching a feast of Rajasthani dancing. But something had stuck in my mind. While the men played instruments in the band, or introduced the dancers, it was the women doing the hard work.
Some even risked their lives, dancing with pots of flaming oil on their heads while cotton dresses swirled about their feet. How many had got this manoeuvre catastrophically wrong while practicing? I pictured a fat guy in a suit out the back, counting the money and sucking on a cigar. This didn’t seem fair.
I was in Udaipur, often called “India’s Venice”. I preferred to think that Venice was actually Europe’s India, a joke which fell mysteriously flat when I explained to my local audience that it was because Venice was also crowded and smelt like shit.
No, Udaipur was even more gorgeous than Venice, and its people were a hell of a lot nicer. I wandered through this town of narrow alleys and winding roads, the white pastel buildings revealing hidden secrets.
Udaipur was so lovely after the stress of Jaipiur that I didn’t want to leave. Its man-made lake was the arena for some unbelievable sunsets, while the decadent City Palace rose precipitously from the water like a sheer cliff.
I also reunited with Steve, who I’d met in Kyrgyzstan and flown with to India on a whim. Each morning we’d have samosas and chai. On the third day at our favourite spot, a guy asked if we’d like to drive out of town for an hour on his tuk-tuk to smoke opium.
I was much more interested in the diligent young lad who worked in the chai shop. I’d wrongly assumed that he was the owner’s son. But no, he was a kid from the countryside whose parents couldn’t afford to send him to school. So he was working here for $2 a day, clearing tables. Probably ten years old, this was the start of his working life. My heart ached.
After eating lunch one afternoon, a delicious paneer do pyaza, the cook started talking to me about religion. “It’s hypocritical you know. People in this country give so much money to temples, yet they ignore the beggars starving to death outside.”
As he said this, a man rode past on an elephant, blocking the street and nearly crushing a parked motorbike. The cook didn’t even give it a second glance. Such is life in India.