This is a story of lust, depravity and what can happen to a lone woman traveler. (But it's not "X-rated.")
It takes place in India, mostly New Delhi, and it could happen to anyone. Well, maybe not anyone. After all, not everyone knows Isabel. I know Isabel, and I prize our friendship dearly, despite the fact that without her, there is a 2 percent chance I might not have sunk to the wanton depths I did.
What happened was that I got off the plane, and about 12 hours later said something that changed my life. I said, "Isabel, these are my favorite shoes, and they're wearing out. Know anyone who could copy them?"
"Of course," said my friend. "We'll go to the Chinese in Khan Market."
The Khan Market is a driveup shopping center with a mishmash of open-front shops and stalls, bloody carcasses collecting flies at the butcher shops, stacks of plastics and hardware overflowing from the housewares shops, caftans waving from improvised rods inside and outside a tailor's. Tucked in as well is a neat shoe shop presided over by a gentlemanly Chinese perfectionist.
It would take him 10 days to copy my shoes, and it would cost me roughly $35. Since the Italian-made originals now sell for $85, and in my size have to be specially ordered with maybe a three-month wait for delivery, I didn't argue. I was, in fact, elated.
As we left, I noticed a stunningly beautiful woman in a blazing red tunic and harem pants combination that was clearly the inspiration of some of the zillion-dollar numbers in the fashion magazines.
"Oh," said Isabel, unimpressed, "you can get those for 30 rupees, ready-made."
Thirty rupees is less than $4. A quiver of desire went throughme. In an outwardly calm voice I said, "Might we have a look?"
We had more than a look. In the days to come, we foraged and pillaged, we careened around from the Khadi Bhavan (handlooms) and the Tibetans (jewelry, clothes, "antiques" and junk, pouring out of stalls set up by long-ago refugees), to the Sundar Nagar market (classy air-conditioned antique shops, jewelers, art dealers, handicraft marts), the hotel arcades (similar to Sundar Nagar), and the Cottage Industries emporiums (one big, one with wares from all of India, smaller ones representing each state's standout products, all with fixed prices and guarantees that what they say is what it is).
Both the opulence and the misery of India assault you in the bazaars of Chandni Chowk. We shoved through the twisted mass of carts, cars, cows and people anyway, halting as we could in front of turban makers, silver shops where the goods are priced in grams, sari sellers who sit cross-legged or squat on pouf-like platforms and fling out lengths of silk like crepe paper streamers.
"I have to go to the Red Fort," said Isabel. "A friend wants me to get her a silver belt, and I want to see some rugs. Do you want to come?"
Most people go to the Red Fort to see the Red Fort. It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century and is regarded as one of the city's most magnificent monuments. I went to the Red Fort because, by then, India had been revealed to me as the bargain basement of Asia (if not the world), and I was feverish to see ALL its wares.
Isabel has lived in India for 17 years, and if she was going to the Red Fort to see silver and rugs, four typhoons and six plagues would not have kept me from going with her. Also, I had by this time lost all reason. On days when Isabel tired of flitting off with me to buy 50-cent vials of flowery perfumes, $20 silk rag rugs or $1 animal-shaped brass locks, I sneaked off on my own.
Once I put off a shopping bout to have lunch with another friend, but that only led me to a new level of lust. We ate in his garden. When I arrived, I was wearing a sweater. Since the sun was warm, he lent me a shirt to change into. It was an oversize, cotton, tunic-like kurta, and I fingered its handspun texture lovingly. I could scarcely wait to streak off to buy half a dozen of my own, $14 for the lot.
I made another attempt to change obsessions and went to Jaipur. Disaster! Jaipur is one of the world's greatest architectural treasures, but it is also in Rajasthan, a state which, along with Gujarat, produces what I'd call the most facinating art items and artifacts in India. Rajasthani paintings on cloth (pichois) are justly famous. So are their gems.
Ah, yes, the gems. I already had mortgaged my soul to a string of carved amethyst beads, half of them as big as marbles, but the $100 I was prepared to pay wouldn't get them. They were manufactured in Jaipur, though, and that's how I "happened" to wander into a hotel arcade jewelry shop.
The proprietor was snoozing on a mat on the floor and I told him not to get up, but he insisted. He was weak in the bead department, though, and I would have left except that he was funny, flip and offered to read my palm. Even so, neing a good Indian merchant, he always came back to business.
"How about a stone?" he asked, unwrapping a packet of odd-lot rubies.
"No, no," I said. "I don't like the little ones and the big ones all look like glass. I like a stone you can peer into and see something.
"Flawed, you mean?" he asked.
"Yes, why not?" I agreed, hoisted on my own petard, since I'd only been making conversation.
He pulled out another packet and I indolently reached for a chunky aquamarine. "How much do you think that one's worth?" he asked.
Having once bought rubies for 10 cents each in Thailand, nothing fazes me.
"Fifty rupees?" I said sweetly. "Six dollars."
He laughed without mirth. "It's nearly 15 carats! But you're almost right. I bought it myself for 37 rupees. Give me 100 and it's yours. My wife's waiting for me and I want to go home."
I gave him 65. I later had it tested. It has several carbon spots, to be sure, but it is genuine.
"No one will believe you if you tell them how much you paid," said my jeweler as we parted company. He was right. No one does. Of course, no one believes about the dresses either. Well, I can't help it. Back in Delhi, I walked past a Connaught Circle store called Cheap Jainy (no relation) and there they were, leftovers and seconds from an export line of gay gauzy cottons, nothing more than $4.
"Four dollars?" said a woman when I raved about them at a cocktail party. "That's too much! Why didn't you come last week when the company I'm with had its sale? Everything was about $2."
"Exhibition and sale" is apparently the magic phrase to look for in the daily papers. Unfortunately, I looked a little late and got to a sale at Cottage Industries on the last day rather than the first. They were showing and selling tribal-made artifacts from Assam, and a Swede who got there early had bought almost everything, museum-quality objects woven of reed and straw, unique primitive wood carvings. Three naked men were left and I grabbed them up for less than $5 each. They were explicitly made and I thought I might have to bandage them to get them through Singapore, the Capital of Clean, but fortunately no one at customes peeked.
Before that, though, came the problem of How to Get India Home. The one suitcase I was carrying wouldn't make it. Besides the three statues, three dresses, six shirts, one tucked-top blouse, two Tibetan wall hangings called tankas, one brass handbag, two pichois, five more wood carvings and a 15-foot-long garnet bead necklace (for $35, who'd walk away?), there were some other items.
But Isabel, the secret weapon India doesn't even know it has, came through once again. She introduced me to another shopping addict who mentioned Sumitra's, a leather goods store I'd somehow missed. It was a $1.25 cab ride away, but I let myself loose and found success in the form of a canvas and leather one-suiter with a shoulder strap, another handsome export design but selling for $7.50. Naturally, I couldn't turn up my nose at a $2 canvas and leather shoulder pouch, and the only thing that saved me from a soft suede shirt-jacket (under $50) was the wrong size.
Loot! Well, the prospect of it has brought Westerners to Asia for centuries. And if packing and mailing had been easier, safer and less expensive, I daresay I would have bought another third of the country. However, even the crazed and depraved have moments of lucidity. Thank Heaven. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Cootner/Newsday