The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.
Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?
1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.
We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.
It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.
But first, we must find a way out of the suffocating swarm. I try my most rude dismissals in whatever words come to mind – in English and in my special mishmash I’ll call Hinjrati – which fall on deaf ears. I clearly am not intimidating. But even the rejections by dad, who is speaking perfect Gujarati and Hindi, are ignored. Suddenly, my father is yelling at the top of his lungs, telling them to go away, that we have no need for your services. He is shaking.
Alarmed, I begin to aggressively shove against the dholi-wallahs. I don’t know when or if I have ever seen my dad so upset and I am now angry at these human parasites. I protectively encircle my arm around my dad’s and I yell at them to leave, Ja, ja! I consider suggesting we abandon our excursion. But dad’s shouting seem to have some effect. Most of them walk away, their voices muted, whining that he would speak to them in such a way.
In front of us lay the steps to Palitana, carved out of the mountainside itself. I try to focus on calming down, on forgetting the disturbing swarm and the four or five dholi-wallahs still trailing us. Step 1.
The guidebooks say the climb takes a couple of hours. When we reached about the one-third mark, dad decided to negotiate with the dholi-wallahs still following us. But they insisted on the same price they quoted at ground level. We turned them down, and mercifully, they began to descend, finally leaving us alone. At this point, it’s been about an hour and we are roughly 1,100 steps up.
For the next two hours, Dad and I climb. We take regular breaks to catch our breath, gaze at the scenery and gauge just how much higher we have to go. And, most importantly, we talk.
To be honest, I’m still processing all that I heard and learned that afternoon, and what and how to write about it. (Quick fun fact: Dad encouraged mom to take music lessons and she was learning how to play sitar before she had to give it up when they moved to America.) There weren’t many surprises; it was more like the backstory was being filled in. Context was added to the history of my father’s life and our journey as a family. It was as if it was finally age-appropriate to him to share the full story with me and for me to receive it. We talked about my mom and brother, but we also talked about my dad’s relationship with his parents and siblings, his life as a young bachelor doctor, his desire to live abroad – including an unsuccessful attempt to migrate to London – and unexpected anguish in the first few months of being a newlywed. He spoke of dreams and heartbreak, the painful process of accepting life’s deepest disappointments and remaining optimistic anyway.
It’s a cliche to say it but I don’t think I’m gifted enough as a writer to put it any other way. That day, I was able to interact with my dad as a whole person, and not only as my father. I gained a deeper understanding of what motivates him, his passions and dreams, and amazing effort both he and my mother put out to move to America, make a life there and give me and my brother so much more they they had.
The writer in me recognizes a good story, a tale of a family through three generations, one that leaves one country for another and makes a home within a culture so different from their own. But writing about yourself is tricky and I don’t want to hurt either of my parents by writing so candidly about our history. So I’ll let the voices, the characters, the stories, rumble around my head for a little while longer.
I’m glad we didn’t let the dholi-wallahs make us abandon our trek up to Palitana and back. This day was a gift.