Pushkar is just 18 kilometres away from the Dargah Sharif, in Ajmer. CK, my companion, had a ‘bulawa’ to go to Ajmer, and I hopped along for the ride. As one of the oldest cities in India, Pushkar is also one of the five sacred pilgrim spots for devout Hindus. As we walk towards the lake, which has 52 ghats, I see a distinct difference in the shops that line the street. If in Ajmer’s bazaar, the shops had an Islamic slant, in Pushkar, statues of gods, rudraksh beads and flowers abound. Even the incense smells different — udh had swirled in the dargah area, while here it is sandalwood and mogra.
At the Dargah Sharif, if we had a khadim, here we get a panda. Rakesh Sharma, a young man in tight jeans, clingy T-shirt, a windcheater and fake Ray Bans, helps tourists in making a deal with the gods. Nirvana is promised as he leads us through the streets, smelling of cow dung, smoke and hot oil.
We climb down the steps and, as if on cue, a priest appears and Sharma says we need a puja thali. We will share one, CK says. Ah, husband-wife, Sharma explains to the priest. “No, we’re not,” I tell him. “Oh, how can you share a thali, then?” He asks. “You can’t share karma.” “We are going to the same heaven, right?” CK asks, holding out the plate to me. I hide my smile. CK had been googlingPushkar on our drive and most travel blogs warn of the priests of Pushkar. We are asked for our gothras. CK knows his; I don’t. Besides, do non-Brahmins have gothras? In the end, the priest carries on and our not-so-legit paths to heaven are eased.
Sharma leaves us at the end of the road and we head towards the Brahma temple. Pushkar has over 500 temples. Of these, many were destroyed or desecrated during Aurangzeb’s rule. Though, the current structure dates back to the 14th century, the original temple is believed to be 2000 years old.
It is almost noon and as we walk back to our car, we stop at a roadside stall. A fat man wearing an oil-stained baniyan and yellowing pajamas is frying onion kachoris and mirchipakoras. In one corner is a tea urn. CK and I sit on the steps and place our order. Tea is served in kulhars. Instead of the tamarind and mint chutney, the shopkeeper insists I eat the kachori with kadhi. The food is delicious and I eat slowly, feeling an incredible sense of contentment. At a little distance, a foreign tourist is taking pictures of a group of sadhus who know exactly how to pose. One of them has a chillum and is stoned to high heaven.
From across the road, a wandering musician comes with his ravanhatha. The music is haunting. The musician asks me to buy him some food. I get him a plate of kachoris, pakoras and tea. There is a companionable silence between us. In an inexplicable way, there is a great sense of belonging. For the moment, we are all one family.
Anita Nair is a well-known novelist. her books include The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress, Lessons in Forgetting, Cut like Wound and Idris. Follow her on @anitanairauthor.