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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The ruby dealer of Jaipur

Salman Rushdie once told me (genuinely, he did) that the very first story he wrote was called 'Good Advice is rarer than Rubies', though because he felt embarrassed by it, he did not allow it to be published until he was long since established, with Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses already under his belt.
He had no reason for embarrassment. It's a good story, about a woman waiting patiently for a visa outside the British embassy in Delhi.
Patience is an Indian virtue. The heat, the land, the sheer density of population demands it. In the seeming chaos of Indian road traffic, where cows really do wander down the street blocking the flow of vehicles, each takes his turn, with a cautionary honk of the horn to let others know he's there.
Patience is required in the gem market of the pink city also. These wily men, with their habitual squints from holding stones to the fierce sunlight to examine clarity, are slow and cautious negotiators. Everything has a series of prices, some notional, some wildly optimistic, some for the passing tourist, some for the fellow dealer.
Like the accretion of rock on a dank cave floor, a slow drip-drip of perusals and refusals eventually leads to upward progress. After an age, stones are chosen, scarlet rubies, blood red in hew and the size of a child's thumbnail.
More back and forth, over masala chai, about settings, metals, the cost of handiwork, the time it will take.
But in the end the negotiations with this squint-eyed, pot-bellied man run almost longer than the work takes. He rolls up his white cotton gemsacks carefully, and I agree to return.
In the interim, the Marxist and I jump into a tuk-tuk and head for the relative cool of the mountains - Rajasthan is, after all, a desert.
After the sun sets, we drink cold beers and watch the lights of Jaipur come alive, twinkling like a glittering salwar kameez below us as we stare down, struck dumb, from the cool, dark seclusion of the Nahargarh fort.
When we return, bumping down the mountain, the squint-eyed man is repeatedly apologetic for the unnoticed delay. He hands me the pendant and ear rings, and I turn them slowly in my hand.
The rubies twinkle like the lights of the city from the mountain.

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