The following two pieces (written for publication) recount recent travels in the desert country of northwest India — a mystifying and exotic a landscape as is possible on this planet. The following piece was published on 3 May 2015. A pdf of the published page can be downloaded here.
When Pratap Singh, the younger son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, took his team of seasoned Indian and British Polo players to visit Queen Victoria during her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, most English onlookers were enthralled by the skill of the players. But even more were intrigued by the unique attire worn by these strange, tanned men from half a world away.
At Ranelagh, one young Englishwoman turned to her fiancé, a cavalry officer, to ask about the curious long pants the “foreigners” sported — tapering creations with duck-like flaps along the thighs. They may have looked funny, yet the public found the pants so practical for horse-riding that Savile Row quickly popularized a British version known appropriately as “jodhpurs.”
That may have been 118 years ago, during the city’s prime, when it forged its reputation on the strength of its attire and polo laurels, but there remains something special about this dusty provincial town, hewn out of the southern sands of the Thar Desert, irrigated and made green and given enough character to proclaim its uniqueness from the rest of that great arid state known as Rajasthan.
No, it has nothing to do with the sound of a Soviet-era MiG-27 fighter-bomber roaring up into the blinding, white sky (Indian Fighter Command is based here), or the blue-coloured homes scattered throughout the city or even the vibrant beauty of the local architecture. It is something more elemental, which, in this city of 1.2 million, is impossible to gauge from mere maps thousands of kilometres away.
It is a veritable small town by Indian standards — and like any small town anywhere is reasonably friendly. I should reasonably, because not all small towns are equally friendly. A cynic could say that this is a friendliness contingent on the fatness of one’s wallet. After all, Jodhpur survives on the kindness of strangers. And certainly, many are out to make a buck. Touts and tour-guides wait everywhere. Even quaintly dressed Rajput women with their brightly patterned dupattas and embroidered blouses hasten in their step whenever firangs appear, their hands out, eager not to miss out. It is difficult to think of another place with such displays of exquisitely beautiful sadness.
In the old market area, under the shadow of Merangarh Fort, the poverty is sometimes so glaring that I am reminded that this is still India, where the most gut-wrenching of indigence shares space with the most fabulous displays of wealth. But life is more colored than black and white. Looking beneath the sometimes shallow displays of greeting, one sees the spark and glimmer of true Rajasthani warmth, a quick cordiality and a shy, endearing pleasure, be it from a fat merchant in the old bazaar or a pretty Rajput girl waiting to use the ATM.
The city grows on you. Even the fort, which towers like a forbidding citadel above the city, seems to call out a welcome.
Set 120 metres on a hill once known as the “mountain of birds,” the place is thronged by taxi drivers, tourists, and a solitary schemer offering rides on an obviously bored camel which yawns and squirms in the dry, blistering heat. From these lofty heights, the “Blue City” comes to life.
In previous centuries, the Brahmins of Jodhpur painted their homes blue to separate themselves from the rest of the castes in a version of color-coded apartheid. Today, blue is a more fashionable choice for the masses. I ask why, and a taxi driver resting under the shade of a Khejri tree tells me that the residents believe the color blue keeps mosquitoes away. I tell him that scientific evidence shows that blue actually attracts mosquitoes.
“No,” he says, smiling broadly, shaking his head. “What does science know?”
At the fort’s entrance, the ticketing officer looks up at me suspiciously. “Where from?” he asks, convinced he should charge me the “foreign” rate.
“Bangalore,” I say, my accent not helping.
He glares at me. “Identification, please.”
I bristle. As if my word isn’t enough. I show him my passport — smiling as his suspicion dissolves into grudging sourness and as he passes me a ticket with the “Indian” admission fee of Rs 40.
The fort opens up into a broad, stone-cobbled courtyard bordered by massive ramparts. It all looks pleasant now, with a small café set along the side with its crowd of western tourists. But in its heyday, this would have been first line of defense, the killing ground. Heaven help those invading armies of antiquity.
The fort is layered like an elaborate cake. The higher one goes, the more resplendent the palaces. In one, I find a Frenchman sketching the figure of a semi-naked statue on a Moleskine pad. While I observe his technique I am reminded that objects of extraordinary everyday exoticism we take for granted acquire a mythic quality for someone who has never seen them before. In our quest to modernise, we have started to forget the old, the good that was given us, seeing it as irrelevant.
“First time in India,” the Frenchman tells me genially. “By the way, where can I get more of these sketchpads?”
“Try the internet,” I tell him, aware that I have stupidly upset the delicate aura of yore by introducing tech-speak.
Across the horizon from the fort is the massive, solitary visage of the Umaid Bhawan palace, standing like some grey, forbidding monastery. Although partly an overpriced hotel and still a residence for surviving royals, the palace — which was finished only in 1942 — is really a temple to a man after my own heart. The youthful Maharaja Umaid Singh may have built a credible collection of cars in his lifetime, but it’s really his career as a pilot that I’ve come to investigate. Inside a small museum devoted to the man who lived life as best he could and went to death in 1947 at the age of 44, I count off the models of aircraft he flew: deHavilland Dragon Rapide, Tiger Moth, Curtis Jenny…
As I step back out into the brilliant sunlight and look out at the panoramic view of the sprawling airfield that he and the Royal Air Force built three kilometers away, I feel that abrupt sensation of traveling through time to an age that is now ancient history. Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye once lamented the existence of phonies and all the phony things people do. But there was nothing phony here. The problem with Jodhpur is that it was a place built from the heart, by people who felt deeply.
I say this is a problem because as I traveled west out of the city, and as the last of Jodhpur devolved into the empty scrub of desert, I began to feel the lack as I slipped out of its mystical embrace. I no longer belonged to it.
Your correspondent, strutting about at the Palace, definitely not in introspective mode. Certainly, I wasn’t thinking about Holden Caulfield.
The following piece was published on 9 August 2015. A pdf of the published page can be downloaded here