Coughing it up in Delhi
By Elle Newmark
We visited a huge mosque where I was asked to don a long-sleeve cotton gown that went from neck to ankles. It was actually rather flattering to be asked to cover up my 60 something year-old body lest I inspire unbridled lust, but I also had to wash my feet and cover my head, which was less flattering.
Our twig-thin, barefoot guide in a diaper and turban, Gunga Khan, had a bright white smile, twinkling brown eyes, and a small white beard; he reminded me of a goat. He spoke no English, but he was a master of sign language, holding forth eloquently with hands and feet and facial gymnastics. He pointed and signed and grinned and gave me an approving thumbs-up whenever I understood something, which made me feel dumb and smart at the same time.
Gunga offered to take a picture of my husband and me, and he produced a photo-op-ready white skullcap, which he plunked on my husband’s head for the occasion. Gunga knew his way around a digital camera too, framing up the shot, checking the position of the sun, asking us to move slightly to the right, and encouraging our smiles with what was possibly his only English word: Cheese.
He showed us the beautiful marble mosque, explaining everything by pointing and miming and generally pissing off all the scowling, bearded Muslims who were there for serious worship. At the end, I turned in my modest chador, and put my shoes back on, and I gave Gunga a 500 rupee tip (about $10, which is three days wages for a laborer). Gunga took it with a big smile, eyed my wallet and motioned for more—the hand waving in a “Come on” gesture, the big, big smile. I was so surprised by his hutzpah (which I shouldn’t have been by then) I stupidly give him another 500—and still he wanted more! Astonished at his audacity, I laughingly refused and he laughingly walked away with a week’s wages. I bet he owes that mosque.
Later, I stopped to buy a slice of fresh coconut from a street vendor. He said, “One slice, 10 rupee. Three slice, 20 rupee.” When I said, “I’ll have one,” he looked disappointed, but handed it over wrapped in newspaper. I didn’t have change, so I gave him a 100 rupee note he gave me 80 back, then quickly handed me two more slices of coconut saying, “No charge.”
ELLE NEWMARK is the author of The Chef's Apprentice and the newly released The Sandalwood Tree. To learn more about her and her novels, visit her official blog.