I didn’t file a diary entry for week twelve because I spent most of it wondering which end to put near the toilet (bad shakshuka) and trying to complete an urgent work deadline. Thankfully, both things were finished by the time I left for my trip to Rajasthan last Thursday.
The purpose of the trip was twofold – firstly, to experience the Jaipur Literature Festival, the biggest book show on earth. Apparently over 400,000 people visit it each year, and as it’s free to the general public, it’s one of a kind. I don’t know why, but I thought it was going to be like Frankfurt or Bologna – both international trade book fairs, but of course, the clue is in the name. It’s a book festival, like Edinburgh. But oh, the calibre and diversity of the panels. I realised that I have never been to a book event without working at it and it was so glorious to be a punter. I sat and listened to Madhur Jaffrey, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lemn Sissay, Howard Jacobson, Jung Chang, Lindsey Hilsum among others talk about writing memoir (highly pertinent to me), fiction and the lives of women. Lemn Sissay was a particular highlight – his emotional intensity charges a room and his story (of being stolen from his mother and placed into ‘care’) is heartbreaking.
Jaipur, unexpectedly, reminded me of Bologna. Huge medieval stone buildings the colour of amber and ochre, hot beverages served outdoors on every corner (chai, rather than coffee), scooters whizzing everywhere, people shouting and gesticulating, and of course, a population of people interested in books. All with added cows and monkeys.
On this whole trip I have been waiting to experience this much-vaunted ‘real India’ I’ve been told about, featuring people dying and defecating on the side of the road. I managed a whole week in Rajasthan, including rural areas, without seeing any of that, and I’m more convinced than ever that what people mean by ‘real India’ is ‘really poor India’. I think there’s a kind of slum tourism at work here, among foreign travellers – a competition to see who can do it more cheaply, and more ‘with the locals’. I find it a bit distasteful, to be honest. To flaunt our relative wealth on a ‘novelty’ trip that others have no choice but to experience isn’t my bag. I travelled by low-cost airline (SpiceJet) and by chair-class train. It was all completely ‘normal’, other than the trains, in particular, being a bit old.
Things are allowed to be old here. There isn’t a need to constantly renew everything every three years in a cycle of perceived obsolescence. If an item is functional, it lives on as itself, without even a fresh coat of paint. If an item isn’t functional, it turns into something else – it’s given a different function, eg an empty oil drum becomes a stool outside a chai bar, a saree/sari becomes a curtain or tablecloth. A Delhi resident I met at the fair said she misses the old recycling culture in her city: “Everything has to be new, now,” she said. “We used to re-use everything but now it’s discarded to make way for the new things.”
I could only feel guilty as this is definitely the effect of Western capitalism. Yet again, I was forced to wonder why we need so many new things in the west when the old things were just as good. I even remembered saying to my ex-husband, who loved fixing things and making them last for decades, “Why would you do that when you can just buy a new one?” Oh how I have changed that tune … I’m horrified at how far I bought into capitalism and for so long.
I loved Jaipur, with it’s palaces and forts. And I realised something – I love cities with Islamic architecture. There is a much higher proportion of Muslim residents in Rajasthan and it’s reflected everywhere from the male-oriented chai/coffee culture and the millions of Mughal-made arched doorways and windows, filled with coloured glass and ornate paintings. In the City Palace and the Amber Fort there are miles of cool stone corridors with small windows opening onto incredible vistas. Everywhere there is another archway to walk through and another coloured glass window or mirrored wall to marvel at.
I stayed at a heritage hotel, with unique, individually hand-painted rooms (Pearl Palace Heritage) and hired a Muslim tuk tuk driver from Jaipur City Exploring, Sharukh, who knew the city like the back of his hand. I loved the crazy driving and the beeping. It’s like a dance – everyone makes room for each other and there is no rage. It just sounds like rage, to a Western ear, trained to hear beeping a horn as an expression of frustration. It isn’t in India, it’s simply, ‘I’m here’ or ‘go ahead’. And it’s compulsory to do it, which is why the backs of lorries say, “BLOW HORN OK”. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t mind walking out in front of oncoming traffic so it suits me here – you have to trust or believe that the person will stop or move round you, and there’s a greater likelihood of that here. I also don’t mind dirt and dust. You can’t enjoy being here if you’re addicted to hand sanitiser…
On the advice of numerous friends, I then changed my plan to stay one more night in Jaipur to go to Pushkar, which was on the trainline towards my next destination, Udaipur. It turns out that most people’s delight in it stems from experiences in India twenty or thirty years ago, because now it feels like a Hindu theme park. I did enjoy wandering through the bazaar down to the lakeside ghats but the best bit for me was getting lost at night looking for a way out to a tuk tuk – I came across a temple doing pooja, with all the bells clanging, drums beating and a priest holding candles aloft outside, gesturing across the lake. I later discovered that the cacophony is intended to remove ‘obstacles’, to clear the mind of distractions. The sound is intended to create the om, the sound of the universe, of the sun. Once I knew that, the frequent nighttime poojas in Udaipur soothed me rather than frazzled my nerves.
I caught the train from Ajmer to Udaipur and loved the whole experience. Big brown leather reclining chairs, the chai man going up and down the corridor, someone popping up to sell power boosters for your phone, even Dominos pizzas from a delivery bag. It’s a completely logical pop-up economy and people are entrepreneurial about it. I met young, male entrepreneurs in all three cities, keen to capitalise on the tourist rupee. They work so hard to give you the best experience they can. And then you find out that they sleep in their tuk tuk, a bit like the north Indian guys in Agonda, who sleep on the tables of the restaurants they work in.
Oh, Udaipur. I’m completely smitten by you. To the point where I’m thinking of staying with you for a while, next season. As always in India, someone randomly popped up to tell me to do it – a Brit who lives there for six months every year. He’d travelled everywhere in India since he was seventeen, and he confirmed that Udaipur is the best place to live. “It combines a city with a village feel,” he said. “And everyone is so lovely.” I couldn’t agree more.
Yet again, I was reminded of Italy. I’m not the first person to make the connection between Udaipur and Venice. The city is set next to two lakes, and there are ghats and boats at various points all around Lake Pichola and Fateh Sagar. Sheikh, the young entrepreneur responsible for the awesome Doctor Cafe in the very cool Lal Ghat area, took me on a scooter safari into the hills and farm villages around Udaipur at sunset. This is where he grew up, he said, living a simple life. I clung on as we whizzed around Lake Badi (Tiger Lake) and the surrounding villages, small children waving ‘hello’ wherever we went. Still no defecation on the side of the road (ok a few men were having a pee), just people living in simple houses, without new things. I guess it might be a relatively affluent area, considering its proximity to the city and I probably saw its produce being sold by the women in the lively vegetable and spice bazaar in the city. The women wanted me to give them pens – I’m bringing them next time.
Because there will be a next time. I’ve fallen in love with Udaipur and I’m not done. I’ve seen most of the sights and I want to go back and truly just dwell there. I liked the noise and the clanging of the tuk tuks and pooja bells. I liked the chai society and the namastes (they don’t say it much in Goa and laugh when I say it, like I’m being an affected yogi). I like the medieval buildings that are simply ageing as they are, happily in their natural state. A bit like me, really.
But before you think I’ve romanticised everything about it, the day before the bazaar visit, people in the city centre were beaten with bamboo sticks by the police for protesting against anti-working class laws (I was warned off going near it and saw someone else’s video). Many of the shops were closed and the temples remained quiet. I’m not stupid enough to think that everything is perfect here, but it’s real and it’s open and I love that about it.
See you soon, Udaipur.
(Note: I stayed at the extraordinarily beautiful Little Garden Guest House in Udaipur, run by the incredibly helpful Akshay. Highly recommended.)