Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sharad's Sisters Part I

During my recent trip to India I went to Agra. This city in Uttar Pradesh is home to the incomparable Taj Mahal. It's also the home of my friend, Sharad. He was kind enough to invite me to stay there with his family on my way to Khajaraho.

I took the train from Sawai Madhopur to Agra. When I arrived at Sharad's home in a tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw), his sisters and father immediately came out to greet me. Their welcome was so warm and genuine, I was taken aback. I was a total stranger. But they made me feel like a special guest, not an inconvenience. There is a saying in India I have heard before: Guests are God.

We had chai and chatted. Monica is Sharad's younger sister, a beautiful girl of 30 who will be getting married December 7. His older, sister Aruna, was visiting in part to study computers and to help Monica with wedding preparations. Sharad's father is a respectable, quiet, and scholarly man. Monica showed me pictures of her recent engagement and future family. She looked beautiful in her sparkly red tunic and arms decorated with golden bangles.

Monica and Aruna prepared a wonderful home-cooked meal in the small, colorful kitchen. I love the simplicity of the kitchens. I am always amazed at the fabulous, multi-spiced and complex meals that are prepared within small workspaces like these that typically feature two countertop burners. I can relate, since the kitchen of my 1948 house literally has about three square feet of counter space and lacks a dishwasher (save for myself or my husband).

Looking around the kitchen I noticed there were two imprints of hands on the emerald green tiled wall. They were those of Monica and Aruna. They recently celebrated a holiday that recognizes daughters. The girls dipped their hands in a paste of turmeric and made their mark on the wall.

The girls were a flurry of activity in the kitchen before they served a feast of baby eggplants stuffed with spices; puffy puri breads, some of which were stuffed with potatoes; a salad with chilies and tomatoes, and sweet deserts including the famous Petha of Agra, which are super sweet pieces of sugared white pumpkin.

We talked at dinner and I asked Monica if she was excited about her upcoming weddings. Her eyes widened a bit and she politely smiled. There was a brief silence before Sharad gently offered that my question was not normally something you asked a daughter in front of her father. Everyone smiled and laughed. We would talk later.

Under the stars on the rooftop courtyard, I chatted with the girls. Monica talked about wedding preparations and buying saris (which are only worn by married women). She was clearly happy. Sadly, their mother had recently passed away and would not be part of this long-awaited joyous occasion. Monica was quite close to her mother and missed her very much.

I brought some cosmetics with me for Monica—face cream, lip gloss, eye shadow. Indian women are very beautiful and love cosmetics, but don't have access to the multitude of brands we do. Monica was delighted and decided she would save the facial cream for her wedding day.

It was time to go to bed. As the guest, I was given a very large bed. The girls brought in another cot-type bed to share. I insisted they take the larger bed but they said they are very close and would easily sleep side by side. They slipped into bed, beneath light blankets, clothing and all. I followed their lead and took off my belt and bangles, and slept comfortably in my jeans and top, a tummy full of spicy Indian food within the warmth of this Agra home.

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