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. Read more of this post