As I stand gazing at the vivid murals inside one of the rooms at Orchha’s grand Raj Mahal, the silence inside is broken by the high-pitched voice of a woman rattling off Orchha’s history to a group of foreign tourists. Within seconds, the group, made up of elderly men and women is inside the room, listening to the woman with rapt attention. Dressed in blue denim trousers, a matching shirt and a red dupatta around her neck, the woman has her well-oiled hair tied up in bun, with red sindoor neatly dotting the centre of the forehead. There’s a red bindi in place too, along with other trappings that Indian women use to proclaim their marital status. A pair of dark sunglasses is smartly tucked in the shirt placket, completing the look.
|Premlata Ray, the only lady guide in Orchha|
In not-so-smooth English, the woman dedicatedly goes on about Orchha and the palace’s history for another 10 minutes, all this while oblivious to my wide eyed stare catching all her gestures. Once she’s done with her monologue, she gives the group a 10 minutes break to take photos and to let them get a feel of the place by themselves. As the group moves away, she takes to one corner of the room, a pre-occupied look settling on her face.
‘Aap guide ho?’, I ask her from across the room, by way of starting a conversation, despite the fact that it looked obvious that she was a guide.
‘Ji,’ she nods, straightening up, and pulling smartly at her long shirt. A small smile lights up her face.
‘Aur bhi lady guides hain yahaan?’ I cross over to her side, an amused happy smile breaking on my lips – amused, for despite her language limitations, and the relative backwardness of the area, this woman was spunky enough to give this profession a shot, and happy because this was the first time I had come across a female guide, in this part of the country.
‘Nahi ji, kareeb 35 guides hain, aur main akeli lady guide hoon,’ she says and puts out her identity card for me to see, her eyes filling up with pride that a stranger was curious about her profession. The laminated card, which she wears around her neck, has all the relevant details a tourist would be interested in before hiring a guide. I read her name – Premlata Ray.
Kab se ho guide aap?,’ I am more interested in her now, the murals and the other highlights of the palace can wait. The motley group of tourists tailing her has already spread across the room with everyone busy inspecting the murals and clicking photos. She’s enjoying the chit-chat, and answers with enthusiasm, ‘Abhi pichle saal se hi shuru kia hai, ek saal ho gyaa ab.’
‘Aapko kaise laga ki yahi kaam karna hai, guide ban-na hai?’ This has turned into an interview of sorts now, but this happens with me all the time. Random people and strangers on the road interest me a lot, they pique my curiosity and I can start a conversation with anyone anywhere. The trick is to be warm and not too intruding. And yes, above all – genuinely curious.
‘Mere pati bhi guide hain. Unko aur doosre guides ko dekh ke laga ki main bhi ye kar sakti hoon. To bas shuru kar dia kuch kitaabein padh ke,’ she answers, adding how she had to first clear a written test to be able to apply for registration.
‘Kaisa lagta hai guide ban kar?’, I ask her, wondering if she’s really happy with her decision, if enough work comes her way, whether her male colleagues help her in the field, and what kind of challenges she faces being the only woman guide in the area.
‘Acha hai. Bahut kuch naya bhi seekhte hain. Par gaanv mein log baatein karte hain – shirt pant pehanti hai, aadmiyon ko shahar ghumati hai. Par hamein koi farak nahi padta. Itni mehangai hai, kamaana bhi to hai, kuch kaam to karna padega,’ she sounds self-assured and determined, indifferent to the character certificates her gaanv wallahs seem to be issuing in her name. Her husband and kids obviously are supportive of her and that reflects in her stance.
‘Didi, aap likogi yahaan ke baare mein? Aap likhoge to aur log ghoomne aayenge yahaan…,’ she says, taking her visiting card out of her bag and offering it to me.
‘Haan…bilkul…aur agli baar aapko guide rakhenge…,’ I smile and wave her goodbye as she signals her group to assemble.
Premlata may not be the best guide out there in Orchha, but now as I sit and reflect on our conversation I only wish more and more tourists give her a chance to prove herself, give her happy ‘guiding’ experiences so that she improvises and betters her craft. The idea that in some obscure corner of our country, a woman is trying to make a difference, is trying to tackle all odds to follow her passion, is inspiring and reassuring and I don’t want her efforts and enthusiasm to fade away. It so fills us all with hope that a positive change is taking place. Slow, yes but definite indeed.
Hope her tribe grows. Hope in the coming times there are more Premlatas guiding curious tourists in our country.
|That’s me with Premlata, outside the imposing Jehangir Mahal|
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