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"Doctor of the Stones"

By Diana McLeod

      This adventure took place in Jaipur India, back in the days when they still ran steam engines on Indian Railways. My husband David is a railfan, and riding steam trains is just about his favorite thing to do. He wanted to ride a local train, just for the fun of it.

      We went down to the railway station and bought tickets on a train that ran out to a large village about thirty miles away from the city. After an hour or so in the village, we could catch the return train back. We went out to the station platform to photograph the train. The line of passenger cars was ready, but Dave and I walked down the tracks to see the locomotive, which was not yet attached to the train.

      I'm not really a railfan, but there is something special about steam locomotives. They chuff and pant like impatient horses. The steam brings them alive. The engine crew was hard at work, preparing the locomotive for the journey. When they saw Dave and his camera, they immediately invited him up to climb on board. I also got an invitation. The crew was very friendly. Dave charmed them into letting us ride in the locomotive, all the way out to the little village. The engineer showed me how to blow the whistle, and how to throw the reversing gear to back us up, so that we could attach the locomotive to the train. (Yes, I was driving a passenger train. No, there are no safety rules that are strictly followed in India.)

      The cab of a steam locomotive is a tiny, noisy, and dirty environment, but it is exciting. The two man crew is kept busy. The fireman'’s job is to keep the fire going, and to keep the steam at just the right pressure. It is just like a giant teakettle, which must be kept at a controlled boil all of the time. Dave had a huge grin on his face as the crew drove the engine forward, picking up steam as we left the station. I hung out the side of the locomotive, watching the Rajasthani villages roll by. The few villagers who saw my face were astounded to see a white woman riding the locomotive of their local train.

      When we arrived at our destination, Dave and I were greeted like rock stars. News of our arrival spread throughout the village, and everyone turned out to gawk at us. Foreigners rarely, if ever, go to outlying villages. We were the most exciting thing that anyone in this village had seen in months! Everywhere we went, the crowd ringed us like paparazzi. We hung out with the villagers for a while, attempting to communicate with them without a common language. I brought out my collection of Vermont postcards, and passed them around. The villagers were incredulous when they saw the snow covered scenes. I don'’t think many of them believed that the pictures were real. Most of these desert people had only seen it rain a few times in their entire lives.

      At last, the train was ready to return to the city. It was getting hotter by the minute: well over a hundred degrees, – and I couldn’'t take the heat of the locomotive on top of the desert heat. I asked Dave if we could ride inside the train cars, where it would be cooler. He agreed. We climbed onto one of the regular passenger cars. The car was packed with locals, almost all of them men. This was a local third class train,– the kind that tourists usually avoid. The seats were hard wooden benches. The cars were very old, very dirty, and there were no restrooms. It was going to be a bumpy ride.

      We sat down and found ourselves opposite a very interesting character. Most of the men on the train were all dressed in simple cotton shirts and dhotis (a male sarong that is sometimes worn like a skirt, and sometimes tied like a diaper). This gentleman was outlandishly attired. He was draped in sequined fringed cloak of brilliant green. His turban had some fake “jewels” on it, and a peacock feather decoration. His wrinkled face was a character study in desert-born personality. He could have been a Mogul Prince, or a minor sultan, with his regal hawklike nose and his impressively curled mustaches. He smiled at us and our conversation began.

      He was a self-professed “"Doctor of the Stones." He was a traveling carny man and miracle cure salesman, who went from village to village, peddling stones and their “healing powers”. For a small fee, he would “diagnose” whatever ailed you, and he would prescribe a cure. He showed us some of his stones. He had a small sack of tumbled polished gemstones, mostly quartz, malachite, and lapis, and he explained their healing powers to us. I learned, for example, that malachite was excellent for kidney problems. It was especially auspicious to purchase a “special” malachite with a kidney shaped color pattern on it.

      He kept us entertained for quite some time. But the astounding part of this story was yet to come. The other men in the railroad car crowded tightly around us, listening to our conversation. Every square inch of space near us was soon jammed with people, standing, squatting, or sitting, almost on each other’s' laps. All of them were gawking at us, just like the villagers had done. (Indians have absolutely no notion of what we call “personal space”)

      The “Doctor” leaned in, towards me. "“Do you like stones, Madam?"” he asked.

      “"I enjoy looking at them," I replied offhandedly. “"They are beautiful."” (I did not mention that I was actually in the jewelry business, which might have been dangerous information to reveal under these circumstances. We wanted to be seen as the kind of backpacker tourists who had just enough money to get to India, and not a penny more.)

      Despite my less than enthusiastic response, a murmur went through the crowd. Hands reached into pockets. Little white packets were brought out and opened. Soon, there were dozens of them thrust in my face. Each little paper packet was full of glittering gemstones. I looked around the crowd in amazement.

      Of course! This village was one of the famous gem cutting villages around Jaipur. Jaipur is the world’'s largest gem cutting center. Most of the world’'s gemstones pass through Jaipur on their way to market. Chances are very good that, if you have gemstone jewelry in your home, some of the stones in your jewelry collection were cut and polished in Jaipur. It was, after all, why we were there.

      Almost every one of these guys was a cutter. These fellows were the employees of the big gem dealers in the city. Here’'s how it works: The dealers present the cutters with the rough gemstones. These guys take the rough stones home to their huts, where they spend days carefully cutting them into individual gemstones; faceting them and polishing them. They have few modern tools or equipment, and they employ techniques that are centuries old. This is the craft, passed down from father to son, that the Rajasthanis are so proud of. These cutters were riding the train back into the city, to get paid for their labor at the gem dealers'’ offices and to pick up their next bags of rough material.

      The fruits of their labor were in their hands. I was impressed. I looked around at the little gem papers, and I saw every color of the rainbow. I did not see diamonds, (that trade goes to Mumbai) but I saw everything else.

      “"Madam, look! Rubies!”"

      "“Here are garnets!”"

      "“I have Sri Lankan Sapphires! Very cheap!”"

      “"Moonstones! Citrines!”"

      “"Lovely Peridot from Pakistan!”"

      “"Amethysts from Brazil! Emeralds from Columbia!"”

      There were enough stones on that old third class train that I seriously began to consider a career in train robbery. A dacoit (bandit) with a gun would have made a killing! That dowdy little train probably had more jewels on it than the Orient Express had in its heyday!

      Of course, we couldn't buy any stones on the spot. Flashing money around in such a situation would have been most unwise, and wouldn't have done us any good anyway. You can't inspect and select stones on a moving train! Besides, I would still have to deal with the stones' actual owners, back in Jaipur.

      At last, we arrived back in the fabled "“Pink City”." I thanked the “Doctor” and said goodbye to all the cutters. As I watched them melt into the crowds at the Jaipur station, I wondered if we would soon be haggling with the dealers for the same stones I had just seen.

      Thanks for reading! Diana

P.S. To follow us into the business of buying gemstones in Jaipur, look up the story "Not for the Faint of Heart" in the travel story archive.

Click here to visit the Travel Story Archive and read more of Diana's stories from around the world!