Pretty fly (for a white guy)
[Note: I’ve been given permission to write this blog post on the understanding that I will name it the above title. I have spent almost all of my life knowing this song, and assuming that ‘fly’ in the title referred, literally, to a ‘beautiful fly’ because women were spiders who desired the fly (see lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/offspring/prettyflyforawhiteguy.html). Lucy now tells me this makes no sense whatsoever and it means ‘cool’, which makes far more sense both in the context of the song and in the context of this blog post.]
Jaipur is a mixture of stereotypes (the snake charmer at Chandpole gate, the sacks of dried red chilli that burn your nose as you walk past, puppets and jodhpuris) and a sense of alienation that has little to do with the city itself. Travelling with my friends, Lucy and Charley, has been a new experience for me, not the least because I usually travel alone but also because of how people react to us as a trio. I cannot claim extensive travel in India on any scale, but the places I have been to have reacted to me in two ways. A) You’re a foreigner attempting to be an Indian. B) You’re a Mumbaikar, and are about as knowledgeable as a foreigner. And yet, my status has brought with it perks I never noticed until this trip. The ability to disappear for one. To blend into a crowd, despite my obviously out-of-place clothes, and to be not looked at twice. Charley, who has glorious and long red hair, cannot do this. Lucy, whose eyes are sea green, also struggles. And I, default traveller with these two wonders, find myself a sudden centre of attention, a focus as a means of communication with my travel partners.
I cannot quite pinpoint how this feels. On some level, it is a strange sense of belonging to barter with a shopkeeper in Hindi, using the usual ploys (“What? That price?! How will I eat?”) and have him play the same game on the other end (“Block printing Madam. Extra special. Never find anywhere else”—despite the fact that the shop next to him has the same piece on display). It is also nice to leave said shop and have your friends thank you, instead of laughing at your Hindi. I have held more conversations in Jaipur with locals than I would have done on my own. Most of these have been answering questions few of them would have asked an Indian: Where are you from? How do you three know each other? Can I take your friends’ pictures? No? Okay—can I take your picture first and then take your friends’ pictures? Some of them have been strangers who smile at the three of us and then melt with joy when I can speak Hindi, because they want to help and wouldn’t know how to in English. I’ve translated instructions from a guard in Hawa Mahal and stood witness as my friends were blessed with sacred thread and given prasad and a tika for a Mumba-devi festival that I have never heard of (and still believe is made-up).
But there have also been strange moments. A man who caught a pigeon and shoved it in our faces while shouting “I love you!” and then followed us down the street. The autorickshaw that would not leave us alone. The resentment of several well-meaning and perfectly nice people when I’ve prevented them from taking a picture with my friends. The sudden appearance people next to us when we sit down (women and children mostly), as their partners photograph them sitting in front of a wall.
I went to a new year’s party this year, where I was called ‘white’ for not knowing what the word ‘patiyala’ meant (it is a large peg of alcohol). However, having now seen Lucy weeping because her sunblock has melted into her eye and watched Charley spray herself with mosquito spray like it is perfume, I think I’m pretty fly for a white guy.