In my memory, Meena is standing in that poorly lit kitchen of hers, with a stove and a few pans stacked on a cement shelf by her head. She is making hundreds of rotis (the flat, rolled out, Indian bread that’s cooked over an open fire), wearing a long-sleeved tunic blouse with a floor-length skirt in that bold floral print that was so common with women in Rajasthan. She’s chatting away about how her younger sister is to be married soon and how she vetted the boy on the phone to make sure he had a good head on his shoulders. She’s laughing and laughing, proud that her sister is about to be married to a good man, and vigorously rolling out dough. Sometimes, the veil that she wears over her head and chest comes sliding off and she meticulously pulls it back into place and tucks it behind her ears.
I moved to Jodhpur, Rajasthan in the beginning of 2013 to work in the villages surrounding the city for a couple of months. When I found a run-down guesthouse behind the Clock Tower plaza, I quickly signed up – the rent was cheap, the room was big with a private bathroom, there were no rude questions about my marital status, and there was the promise of hot water. This was a rare jewel.
Meena was the daughter-in-law of the owner – she was the caretaker of the home, and the unofficial host to everyone who passed through. The family belonged to the Rajput caste, which I knew followed the rules of purdah: strict segregation of the sexes. Women are not allowed to speak to men outside the family and they have to keep their head and faces veiled in public. For the first few days of my stay, I saw her floating through the background, disappearing through doorways like a ghost, always with a sheer veil pulled over her face.
A couple of days into my stay, I was unpacking a few clothes and books out of my suitcase when I heard a knock at the door. I turned to see Meena standing in the doorway with a wide, toothy smile. “Halllooo” she said, in a strong, singsong, Indian accent. “I am Meena what is your name?” Her English was broken; there were no pauses between her sentences and her words brimmed over with unwarranted happiness. I introduced myself and explained that I’d be staying at the guesthouse for a few months for work. When I told her I was from the United States, her eyes lit up. “Oh, you are so far away from your home. But so lucky you are, Sruthi. I am so happy that you are working and traveling. I like so much to do what you are doing but it is not possible for me, you know. I am only housewife.” She bookended her confession with a rippling giggle.
She asked me if I wanted to accompany her up to the terrace where she had hung the laundry to dry earlier in the morning. On the roof of her house, we sat on plastic chairs. Above us was Meharangar Fort, the old palace that watched over Jodhpur during the time of the kings, and around us, the city’s quaint blue homes, spilled like legos across the horizon, dotted with women on other rooftops laying out their laundry to dry in the blinding, white sunlight.
We talked first about curious things. I asked her how she had learned such great English – from long-term guests that stayed with her. She giggled again and said, “I am smart Sruthi, I study till eighth standard, you know.” She asked me where I was originally from, and I said Kerala, which triggered a lot of questions. We moved onto housekeeping topics, common to Indian culture – how many brothers and sisters I had, my father’s job, if my parents accepted my decision to move so far away from them. I asked her about her family, her native village outside Jaipur (almost 6 hours by road). She told me about her 7-year-old son, Akash, who spoke even better English than her.
Within 30 minutes, she proclaimed that we were going to be great friends. Her veil had fallen to her shoulders and she gazed at me with an embarrassingly genuine smile. I felt like I was 12 again and we had just exchanged friendship bracelets.
Over the course of the next couple of months, I worked a lot from home, so I saw Meena everyday. She often implored me to keep her company while she made dinner. I used to stand with her in the kitchen while she told me about her day – going to the market to recharge her mobile phone, negotiating the rickshaw fare with the same guys everyday for the same route, sneaking out to a beauty parlor in her neighbor’s home so that she could gossip and get her eyebrows threaded at the same time. If I was working in my room, she would sit on my bed and ask me how much my computer cost, how I learned to type so fast without looking, or what kind of job I had that required just sitting in front of laptop for days on end.
One day, having exhausted all the usual questions, she sat on the edge of my bed, staring at the wall, twisting the loose corner of her veil over and over again in her fingertips. I continued tapping on my keyboard.
“You know Sruthi it is hard to be at home all day. I do all housework, but I have no friends, no one to talk to. My father-in-laws don’t like me.”
Moments like these came often. Meena would make some statement about how bored or unhappy or restless she was and I would stare, unsure of what to say or do. We had declared ourselves friends, and I felt a huge responsibility for her happiness. When she saw the helpless look on my face, she would pat me on the leg and say, “You are here now so I have a friend,” followed by a blush-inducing smile.
One time, I got back from a four-day, overnight field trip to the villages, eager to tell Meena about my adventures. I walked through the entire house calling her name, until I heard a small voice coming from the ground floor corner room.
“In here,” she called.
She was sitting on the bed legs tucked underneath her, veil thrown to the side, hair undone, staring at the wall.
“Meena, what are you doing?”
“Just sitting Sruthi,” she sighed.
“How long have you been sitting here?” I asked, slightly stunned.
She let out a hollow laugh, “A long time! All work is finished very early you know so I sit here until my son comes home.”
I looked around at the simple furniture: the plastic chair, the bed, and the tiny stream of light that was falling from the window.
“Come sit with me Sruthi,” she patted the bed next to her. “Tell me about your trip.”
At the age of 20, Meena was promised to a man she had never met. She was plucked from her home to play that universally feared and detested role: the daughter-in-law. Historically, daughters-in-law are considered liabilities in the receiving home – another mouth to feed, another body to take care of – so the bride’s family is supposed to send money with the bride in order to “pay” for her stay in her new home (at least, this is one of many justifications for persistent and abominable practice of dowry). As per tradition, Meena moved into her husband’s family’s home, and quickly got to work, learning to cook all the preferred dishes, cleaning, washing, and generally keeping out of sight.
In her ten years of living in her husband’s home, she served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to her fathers-in-law everyday (she had two, because her direct father-in-law also had a brother who lived under the same roof). Everyday, she placed their meals on a desk in each of their rooms. On rare good days, they grunted in acknowledgement. But on most days, she was met with complaints – the curry was too salty, the roti was too cold, why didn’t she make rice? They quickly got angry, because they were deserving of good food, made exactly to their tastes, not too much, not too little, not too hot, or cold. When this happened, Meena could only do one thing - stand silently in the doorway, with the veil pulled all the way over her face, head lowered, the fabric fluttering in front of her mouth whenever she exhaled. As per caste rules, she is never allowed to speak a word to her fathers-in-law, as long as they live. They can speak to her and her job was to listen, with respect and docility.
I didn’t meet Meena’s husband until a week after I met Meena. I spent many days wondering who was the man behind this profoundly complex and sad woman, imagining a large Indian man with a paunch and an ungrateful nature, until one day, he came bounding up the stairs. He stopped in his tracks when he noticed me sitting at the dining table. Meena came out of the kitchen.
“Meet my husband Sruthi. This is Ram Singh.”
Ram Singh was small statured, with twinkling eyes and bright, jeweled earrings in both his ears. He smiled, an unexpectedly kind smile. Meena giggled when she saw the stunned look on my face and patted him on the shoulder. “He is a simple man you know? He no study in school like me, but he is hardworking.” I am not even sure he understood what she said, but together they laughed.
They loved asking me about myself – a girl who looked like them, but otherwise acted nothing like they did. Meena firmly believed that Kerala was a foreign country. When I told her it was a state in the south, she admonished me for not speaking Hindi even though I explained to her that the whole bottom half of the country didn’t speak Hindi. She blinked in disbelief.
“You are so crazy Sruthi,” she said, slapping me playfully on the shoulder, and they both laughed as if I had just told a joke.
"I have so many friends, you know, from everywhere they come here to my house." She beamed as if her home was the top traveler’s destination in the world.
She spoke the most about Emma and her boyfriend Martin, who had come from England to stay with Meena during a 3-month internship at the nearby 5-star hotel. She had pictures of the two of them carrying Akash around on their backs and playing cricket in the courtyard. Mark and his wife, two Americans who had converted to the Hare Krishna Ram religious sect, stayed with Meena for a few months while they visited holy temples in the area and set up an export business of Indian trinkets and handmade jewelry. Sometimes, she spoke about Esmeralda and Adam and a few other names that I can no longer remember.
Meena had an email address that Mark had set up for her before he left that she wanted to use to keep in touch with her friends. At least once a week, she came to ask me if she could check her email. She didn’t know how to use a computer, so I logged in on mine, and we both sat on the bed waiting for the new messages to load.
Her inbox always read the same: 0 (zero) unread mails.
She deflated each time.
“Ok Sruthi,” she said again in her singsong tone, “it is ok. We will check again next week.”
The next week, nothing. I offered to resend emails to Mark and his wife and Emma and her boyfriend. She dictated short messages to me while I typed:
Hi Emma, How are you? This is Meena here – Meena, Akash, Ram Singh. We are still here in Jodhpur and we are missing you everyday. Where are you now? Please answer my mail.
Every week, it was the same. I logged in. The loading bar crept forward ever so slowly due to the fragile internet connection. Every time, as if it was the first time, Meena peered into the eerie glow of the screen with painful anticipation.
“I email them – all of them. Why they are not answering me?”
I never knew what to tell Meena. That they had all gone back to their daily lives? That they had forgotten about her? That they were too busy to email a lonely, emotional woman in middle-of-nowhere India?
Like everybody else, I also left. In Bombay, I settled into comforts I never had in Jodhpur – my own flat, friends my age, and an active social life. I spoke with Meena a few times on the phone, once every couple of months. Her laugh came pouring out through the speakers, as she told me about how Akash was doing in school, how Ram Singh was working hard, how her older father-in-law passed away.
She always asked, “When you are coming back Sruthi?” and I made up things like, “Oh, my work might bring me back next month. I’ll call you and let you know.”
In the end, I never made it back to Jodhpur. And thanks to a handy pickpocket in Bombay, I lost the only phone that had her number stored in it.
Pico Iyer says, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” But I wonder, when did travel become so solipsistic? For all the traveling we do, this vast world of seven billion people has been reduced to a playground that exists only for our own egos, and we’re running around trying to take as many photos and collect as many stories as possible, to frame on our walls or post on our blogs. When did the delight and complexity of getting to know another soul become reduced to a few hundred words or pictures we trade to measure our adventures against others’?
For many people, Meena’s friendship was a great, exotic experience, but for Meena, each “friend” was as precious as a jewel. For Meena, Jodhpur is not a setting and her life is not a story to be read in a blog, a book, or recounted over cocktails. For all the joy and happiness each one brought, every person that passed through her life eventually turned right around and left. The danger of a self-absorbed tourist is that everywhere he goes, his reality goes with him, like a shadow. Travel, in its most touching, heart-breaking reincarnation, is the realization that our experiences are not just an extension of our own lives, but rather a bittersweet and complex inhabitation of another soul’s reality.
Travel to lose yourself or travel to find yourself, it doesn’t matter. Travel the world a million times over. But in the process, don’t forget to find others. Find Meena, the bluest of jewels in the famed blue city of Jodhpur. Put down the camera. Put down the preconceived notions you’ve been toting around like a backpack. Let her make you chuckle and gasp and cry. Break your bubble and let your lives bleed together. And when you eventually leave, don’t forget to call. She’ll be in her kitchen, vigorously rolling out rotis for dinner, and she’ll always be waiting.