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Cricket, peacocks, and gold: a reporter's Indian notebook

The scene: a country hotel in the north of India with a glorious several-acre garden. Lawns are immaculate. Roses are blooming. Birds are singing in the mango orchard.

The Indian winter temperature is nudging 70 degrees. But the Indian guests -- better suited to summer temperatures that can reach 120 degrees -- are still bundled in jackets and sweaters in the midday sun.

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Lunch is being served in the open under big, colorful umbrellas with white linen tablecloths and white linen napkins. Waiters are dutifully serving and expectantly waiting for bakshish (a Hindi word meaning tip or charity). A khaki Army truck rolls past in a cloud of dust.

There is a loud buzz on the outside loudspeaker. Some static, then out pops a plummy Oxford accent: 'I greet you from Madras with the news that India is now 200 for 4 wickets.This means they are just 80 runs behind the Pakistan total of 280. As I speak, Qasim [of Pakistan] is coming in to bowl to a field with one slip, a backward short leg, a short mid on, an extra cover, a deep square leg and a silly point. Gavaskar [of India] waits for him. Taps his foot. . . . I must say Gavaskar may look ungainly but technically is very sound." To an Ameircan, such a conversation must seem nonsense. But to one who was raised in the British Commonwealth, it is a pleasant reminder of one of the tangible legacies of the British Empire. Cricket is played everywhere in India -- in parks, in backyards, and even in the middle of city streets in Bombay on Sundays.

The recent cricket series between India and Pakistan is one of the more hopeful signs of cooperation between the two neighbors who have become agitated over each other again in the wake of the Afghanistan crisis.

But contact continues. Pakistan Airways flies in regularly. An Indian student says of his trip to Pakistan to watch some cricket recently. "They made us most welcome."

Out-of-sight gold prices are putting gold jewerly beyond the reach of millions of Indians who had previously found it accessible for thousands of years. Gold has always had a special mystique for Indian women. Even the most humble peasant woman has scrimped and saved to adorn her arms, her fingers, her ears, and her nose with gold jewerly.

In a country too poor for social security, gold represents investment in savings, social security, life insurance, and security in widowhood all rolled in one. The gold mystique is so pervasive in India that no respectable Indian wedding would be without gold wedding presents.

The fascination with gold extends to fine filigree craftsmanship. This year India expects to export $10 million in gold jewelry.

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While gold prices are up, some food prices in India have come down, a significant development in a country where food takes up as much as 80 percent of the family budget.

The feeling here about the nose dive in prices is that Big Brother, or rather Big Sister Indira Gandhi, has got her beady eye fixed on profiteers and black marketeers. The prices mysteriously came down almost as soon as word was out that Mrs. Gandhi had won.

During her state of emergency she cracked down on these elements, a move that was credited with stabilizing prices. It is one of the potent reasons Indian electors favored Mrs. Gandhi this time around.

Among the most splendid and unexpected surprises to the visitor to India are not the numbers of elephants and camels used as beasts of burden, but the flocks of wild peacocks.

During the day, and especially at dusk, the brilliant plumage of dozens of peacocks shimmers against the dull earth and dusty trees.

Indian photojournalist T. S. Nagarajan says he once went to do a feature on a wizened old man with thick spectacles ("a photographer's delight" he said) who had the knack of calling peacocks to him. Mr. Nagarajan said the sight of peacocks in flight was a "cinematic experience."

Peacocks are said to be attracted to humans, and even in a dense city like New Delhi, with a population exceeding 5 million, the peacocks will fly in and hop down on city backyards.

Peacocks, not surprisingly, are the national bird of India. But they are also the birds of monarchs. The Mogul empire, when it overlorded India, had a peacock throne. Subsequently it was taken to Iran, where the Shah maintained it.

Ancient village tradition dictates very strict courtship. Any outward sign of affection, such as holding hands, is taboo. In arranged marriages the groom often will not know what his bride-to-be looks like until that critical moment during the wedding ceremony when the veil is lifted.

Urbanization necessarily brings adaptiations. The matrimonial columns of a prominent Sunday newspaper in Bombay indicate how much those ancient customs have changed.

One sample: "Cultured, well-connected, and affluent Jain parent seek suitable match for their only son. The boy is highly educated, tall, attractive, and has his own assets."

Still another sign of the times: Many of these advertisements say, "Caste no bar."


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