January 19, 2008

Walking through the gates of Chowki Dhani at night, we plunged into a sparkling fantasy world of Indian culture -- a manufactured theme park devoted to Rajasthani life. Spreading out over a few acres were women performing traditional Rajasthani dances, elephant rides, palm readers, puppet shows, magicians, jewelry and textile shops, acrobatic feats, fire pits, and mud huts serving food. It was filled with Indian families, many of whom were presumably tourists, walking around with broad smiles while children played happily. Jean and I looked at each other darkly realizing that yet again our guide had failed us.

What was the attraction of Chowki Dhani? Why was it filled with so many fat Indians looking amused and contented? By Western standards this simulation was the exact opposite of the gritty, real, spiritual India we had sought out. So why did every Indian we talk to rave about Chowki Dhani as if it were the happiest place on earth? And then it occurred to me that for them maybe it was.

After traveling through the exposed poverty and burgeoning industrialization of this country, we had reached the Indian utopia. A place where people were not allowed to beg for money or hawk their wares aggressively. A respite from the outside world of beggars, poverty, and starvation. A sanctuary where tradition is honored, all-you-can-eat food is in abundance, and people are encouraged to be joyful in the fresh open air of the countryside. Two hundred rupees (about five dollars) bought shelter from all the ills of Indian life. It was no wonder that Rajasthanis had such high regard for this carefully manufactured foreign society that so closely mimicked their own.

Sitting on the floor eating off of banana leaves, I was slightly sickened by the sheer abundance of food. The waiters kept dishing more food on to my leaves despite my protests and I couldn't help, but think of every starveling I had seen as my belly grew full and uncomfortable. My guilt increased as the food piled up on my plate soon to be thrown out into the garbage. We left soon after having nothing more to gain from Chowki Dhani. My nephews would love the clean, playful spectacle of this world. A privilege that most Indians will never know.