I walk up to the front desk of the Hotel Abhishek in Nasik.
"Do you have any toilet paper," I ask.
"No Madame," the smiling desk clerk says. "You must go to the 'Medicals' store. Medicals' store," he repeats. "Just across the street and down." He points with his index finger in a vague direction outside of the hotel.
I wonder if in Nasik, toilet paper falls into the French category of hygienic paper. Perhaps more medicinal than the normal American viewpoint on the matter.
Rickshaws dart and swerve, motorcycles cut in from everywhere. Four times I take a step forward only to have some motorized vehicle honk and jut in front of me causing me to take a quick little hop backwards. On the fifth try I finally make it to the other side of the street.
Stepping up the tall marble step to the counter of the "Medicals" store (there is no front wall, no door) , I look at the clerk and say "Toilet paper?" an uplift at the end of my voice indicating that it's a question.
"Where can I buy some?" I ask.
"Toy shop. Toy shop. Two buildings down." He points with his index finger. I turn my head to follow its direction.
Stepping down off the steep marble step, I turn left, walk past two buildings, and see a shop featuring lots of brightly colored plastic toys hanging everywhere.
Could this really be the shop allocated to the sale of toilet paper? This further confuses me as to how toilet paper is regarded here. Medicinal? A play thing?
"Do you have any toilet paper?" I ask, feeling a bit foolish inquiring in a toy shop.
The chubby clerk, whose brown short-sleeved shirt is straining at the buttons, revealing snatches of a very hairy belly, stares deeply into my eyes. "Toilet paper," he asks.
I knew this couldn't be the right place to come, but "Yes," I say, having to acknowledge my initial request.
"Toilet paper," he says the words slowly and with deep significance as if pondering a mighty spiritual dilemma.
Not knowing what else to do, I nod and say, "Yes. Toilet paper."
He moves away from the counter and goes to the back of the store. He emerges from the storeroom with a tall bamboo ladder which he leans against an opening in the ceiling, and with his pudgy bare feet slowly climbs rung by rung, finally disappearing into the attic.
He's gone for awhile and then I hear him call out to me: "How many Madame? Just one?"
"Just one," I call up to him.
He lumbers down the ladder and places a tissue-paper wrapped roll of t.p on the counter.
"35 rupees," he says.
I pay the equivalent of 65 cents and head back to my hotel pondering the greater ramifications of this interaction .