Installment #8 - November 11, 2000

Rajkot and the Bhatt Family

Rajkot is on our itinerary because it is the home town of the Bhatt family. Early in the planning of our trip, Sheela Bhatt (Rita’s son Shashi’s wife) offered to arrange for us to stay with her uncle Jikaka and aunt Benifaiva and use the Bhatt house as a home base. We gratefully accepted her offer. Over time, the plan to travel in a counter-clockwise circle starting and ending in Delhi evolved, and the concept of a home base was replaced with a six day visit to Rajkot.

We arrived at the Rajkot Junction train station around 11AM on Sunday. Jikaka met us at the station with his car [known as the Bhattmobile, no doubt] and driver and escorted us to his home, where we were set up in “Sheela’s room”. Jikaka told us that the second story had been added for Sheela’s family when she was very young, and had been Sheela’s home for six months after her graduation from UC Berkeley; thus the name “Sheela’s room”.

Rajkot is a rapidly-growing town with new construction everywhere. Builders buy up old houses, rip them down, and build multi-story apartment buildings. Just like home. The streets seem cleaner than in other cities we have visited, and air pollution seems less.

Under Jikaka’s guidance, we visited the market area where Rita had a ball. We toured Gandhi’s family home with Jikaka acting as our Gujarati-to-English translator. We visited the Watson Museum (which has exhibits on local geology, history, and wildlife) and we explored Rajkot’s ice cream parlors.

We got around town in autorickshaws that have rather small seats. Jikaka’s, Rita’s, and my rear ends do not fit across the seat, so we must have looked a little like a circus act as we got ourselves into and out of the rear of a rickshaw.

We visited a local movie theater for a Hindi movie, arriving fifteen minutes early. We found the theatre auditorium to be completely dark, so we felt our way to our seats. Finally the lights came on, a few other people came in and took seats, and within a minute the movie started. With occasional explanations from Rita or Jikaka, I was able to follow the story and enjoyed the movie.   

We paid a visit to the Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, where Jikaka introduced us to the director of the ashram who invited us back for lunch. The ashram is very clean and well-maintained. It seems to be run in an efficient, business-like manner. And it is doing good works for poor people and disaster victims in the area. I was impressed, and look forward to a return visit.

Jikaka, Benifaiva, Rita, and I traveled by car to the town of Gondal, 30km or so south of Rajkot, to visit the Pandya family, related to Jikaka and Benifaiva through their older sister’s marriage to Dr. Pandya. We traveled on a recently widened and repaved national highway—the best road I have seen here so far—where many new businesses have sprung up in the last six months or so.

Benifaiva and Jikaka prepared and served Gujarati food that they had specially prepared without hot spices, and I found it delicious. She served me a cup of buttermilk that I drank, and then she tried some herself and decided it was sour. She chuckled for the next couple of days about the fact that I had downed it anyway. [Those of us who know Allen's culinary leanings are chuckling as well.]

I continued my habit of early morning walks and explored much of the city on foot, as I tried to attain the arbitrary goal of finding my way back to the railroad station. And on the fourth morning, I finally found it!

Along the way, I found cows, goats, and pigs searching for breakfast on the streets. I watched a vegetable vendor at the side of the road in the outdoor produce market with a pile of onions on a piece of cloth. She would take one onion, then turn to another piece of cloth where she would peel it and cut it. While she had her back turned, a sheep moved in, took an onion from the pile, and moved off a short distance. The vendor turned around, took another onion from the pile, and turned away again to process it. The sheep moved in again for another onion. On the third go-around, she saw the sheep, and raised a large stick. The sheep wandered off down the road toward the rest of the flock.

Morning worship was held in small temples accompanied by chanting, beating of drums, and ringing of bells. Chai vendors fired up their portable stoves to begin the day’s business. Newspaper delivery guys rolled and folded papers and piled them on bicycles. Rickshaw wallahs slept in their rickshaws (an acrobatic feat, as far as I'm concerned), and many people slept on the sidewalk, covered head to foot by blankets. In front of the train station, a whole family (three or four adults and several children) made their home on the sidewalk. The older children were up and playing while the adults and babies slept.

In the train station, passengers slept on the platform. Morning baths were taken at faucets between the tracks, men at one faucet, women at the next. Women from nearby neighborhoods brought metal jugs and filled them with water from the railroad’s supply. A cow and a goat wandered along the track (and moved aside when the train came). Local residents used the railroad property as a bathroom, and could be seen squatting in the dirt and on the tracks.

In the downtown area, many local residents were out early—walking, jogging, or walking their dogs. Most buildings had someone sleeping near the front door, acting as a guard, I assume.

Our time in Rajkot ended all too soon, and Jikaka called the driver for the ride back to the train station. Jikaka had greeted us when we arrived, saying that we were part of the family. We left feeling that it was really true. We reluctantly said our good-byes to Benifaiva and Jikaka, and headed on toward Mumbai (Bombay) on the overnight mail train.

Green Monster note:

We left Rajkot without the Green Monster. It now sits in the corner of Sheela’s room loaded with all the things we brought and now think we can live very comfortably without, especially since doing without means we don’t have to drag the Green Monster from place to place. We did not need another bag to replace it, as everything we kept fitted (just barely) into the other two bags and two backpacks, although we may need to add another small bag later. Between the house and the train station, Rita bought a couple of saris that we have not yet found a place for, and I’m sure our “stuff” will continue to grow. We will return to Rajkot near the end of the trip to recover the Green Monster. It will be a great excuse for another visit with Benifaiva and Jikaka.

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This gate at Jikaka’s house displays names
and educational status of most of the family.
Sheela’s father is at the upper left; her mother,
Shirley, at lower right; and Sheela and her
two brothers are on the lower right section
of the left gate. Jikaka is Mr. N. J. Bhatt.
Jikaka directs as his driver maneuvers the car
into its parking spot in Jikaka’s yard.
Allen, Benifaiva, and Jikaka sit in
Jikaka’s living room.
Rita buys dried banana slices and other
treats from a friendly shopkeeper.
Rita shops for bangles as Jikaka,
her shopping guide, looks on.
Vendors show their goods at the
indoor vegetable market.
Rita shops the Rajkot vegetable markets.
These three tribal Gujarati women are wearing
a backless sari blouse (a Choli). You can see
some bare back on the woman to the left.
Very practical in this area—its hot!
Rita shows off her Toofani Dosa—an Indian
crepe about three feet in diameter.
Benifaiva, with help from Shivangi (her
sister’s granddaughter) performs a Puja
(Hindu ceremony) celebrating Dev Diwali.
The Tulsi plant in the pot in front of Benifaiva
(considered to be female) is being married
to Lord Vishnu, god of sustenance.
Mahatma Gandhi’s family moved to Rajkot
when he was about seven and his childhood
home is now a museum. This statue in
downtown Rajkot honors him.
Jikaka, Rita and Allen enjoy supper
at Stimulus Restaurant.
The staff of the Stimulus Restaurant
pose for a digital picture. We were
the only customers at the time,
so we got lots of attention.
Here I am during a visit to the Pandya family
in Gondal, sitting on the swing with Jikaka
and his brother-in-law, Dr. Pandya.
Lunch is served in Gondal. Left to right are
Rita, Benifaiva, Jikaka’s nephew and his
wife Dolly, Dr. Pandya, and, of course, Jikaka.
A Rajkot tailor works in his shop. Indian tailors
do good work inexpensively, and custom-made
clothing is usually less expensive than
ready-made clothes in the US.
Benifaiva and Rita pose in Benifaiva’s kitchen.
I stopped at this store for a cold drink, and soon
was answering a lot of questions about my home
country and my visit to India. Lots of guys in the
towns we have visited seem to enjoy an
opportunity to practice English.
I stopped in the Rajkot vegetable market district to take
a picture of a chakdo (a three-wheeled motorcycle) and
showed the result to its driver on the screen on the back of
my digital camera. The word spread fast, and soon there
was a crowd of guys who wanted to see THEIR pictures.
After each picture I took, the crowd gathered around in a
tight circle to see the result on the small LCD screen.
One variety of Indian garbage disposal.
This one is working on a banana peel.
Rita rests on the Green Monster, which rests at its
semi-final resting place in Sheela’s room at
Jikaka’s house in Rajkot. May it rest in peace.
We will pick it up near the end of our trip and
man-handle it home.

Administrative note:

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