Here is the story of the strangest thing that happened to me during my five month trip to India.
It happened in Jaisalmer, which is in the far north-west of India, on the border of the Thar Desert. Jaisalmer is a magnificent town, with a beautiful sandstone fortress standing tall in the centre, and dozens of golden side streets where many doors have the Hindu elephant god Ganesh painted on for good fortune.
I spent a week in Jaisalmer, and halfway through I went to the far south of the town to visit an ethnographic museum, because the guidebook told me to. Close to the museum was a huge reservoir full of catfish, and I sat by it before going in, finishing Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks and gazing across the cool blue water when it got too intense. (As you do). A local man came by after I had finished and fed the catfish.
I have been to a lot of strange, ramshackle, and downright rubbish museums in my time. This one was a large, murky room full of Rajasthan cultural items: old musical instruments, some paired with crackly recordings; curious, leering dolls; dozens of other things whose poorly translated English captions only hinted at their true use. No one else entered the museum the entire time I was there.
It wasn’t the most satisfying wander, but things quickly got a lot more interesting. Halfway through my expedition through the room, the curator of the museum, who I’ll call Mister, came over to ask if I needed any help. Very Britishly, I told him that I was fine, but very Indianly, he made it his mission to help me understand everything as clearly as possible regardless.
We walked around the museum together, and Mister eagerly described each exhibit as well as he could in his poor English. He was about a foot shorter than me. I have the memory of him holding my arm as we walked, but I don’t think I’d have tolerated that. Having said that, at that point I thought of him as a kindly old man.
But when we finished the walk around the museum, Mister wouldn’t let me leave.
I’m not sure if we had chai or not, but this is India, so let’s assume he did. We moved to another equally murky room adjoining the museum proper, and we sat down on his sofa together. He told me about a South American couple who actually got married in his museum about a decade ago, and he shows me grainy pictures. He asked me all the typical things people asked me as a tourist: where are you from; how long are you in India; are you alone; what have you liked the most so far.
I answer the ‘Are you married’ question differently depending on how safe I felt. If I felt very safe I would say that I was single (which was essentially the truth). If I didn’t feel safe, I’d say that I had a boyfriend, or a husband, or that he was in the army, or that he was back at the hotel right now. I wore a ‘wedding ring’, but the cultural significance doesn’t translate.
Anyhow. I told Mister that I had a boyfriend at home in England, and his eyes widened.
“And he let you come over to India alone?”
“Yes. It’s not like this in England; women have much more freedom.”
“Ahh, acha, acha.”
As far as I was concerned, he was just a lonely old man. But then things took a stranger turn.
“You have had… the sex with your boyfriend?”
I blushed and nodded.
“You are married?” I ask him.
“Yes, I am married. But me and my wife, we no have sex any more.”
Fine. Okay, Mister. Okay. Whatever. But Mister wasn’t done.
“But my friends, many of my friends — I have many woman friends — they ask me for help with their marriages. They want to do the sex, and their husbands, they don’t want — or they want, but they cannot, you know?”
I laugh. Please stop.
But he does not. I hear about the advice he has given his female friends about how to make their husbands more interested in them. I hear about his sexual escapades with his wife. I hear that he was betrothed to her when he was 10 and she was 5, and they married at 20 (“Is too early, na?”).
Most bizarrely, I hear about when he was 23 and he found a hotel room with two female friends. I listen as he struggles to think of the word for anal sex. In the most glorious coincidence, I supply the word “backside”. Backside is a common way of saying “the back entrance” or “back bit” of buildings, and it is used constantly in India without any thought of innuendo.
Throughout all this, he was enamoured to have me here, listening to him. He held my hand. And when I eventually managed to extricate myself, he hugged me very tightly. (He comes up to my chest).
When I leave, blinking in the bright desert sun, I have no idea whether I’ve just had a powerful heart-to-heart with an old man, or whether I ought to be upset.