India tends to evoke images of the exotic: a land filled with enchanting people, splendid architecture, spicy foods and an ancient culture. We associate India with the British Raj, lavishly dressed Maharajah’s, intrepid explorers out hunting tigers or riding elephants through the jungle, polo matches and afternoon tea at the palace, bright silk saris and knowledgeable old gurus.
These are the images of India that Western pop-culture loves. And Udaipur, more than any other place on the sub-continent, is probably most responsible for this. At least for me.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
Udaipur is a smallish town in the middle of the North-Western Indian state of Rajasthan. It is built on the shores of a lake, with narrow alleys and flights of stairs leading down a steep hillside to the water. The town boasts three magnificent palaces (still in use today as hotels), one of them built on an island in the lake. There are also two ruined, deserted palaces, the first built on another island, the second on a mountain-top. Scenic views accost you at every turn. Buildings are freshly whitewashed, elegant tiled courtyards shadowed by palm trees. Thoroughfares are crowded with performers, musicians and snake-charmers, all catering to the expectations of tourists.
In short, Udaipur is a splendid and romantic place. It has everything you always imagined you’d find in India. It practically screams out: “hey you – Mr Big Time Hollywood Director – make a film in me”. And indeed, Hollywood has obliged over the years. Most notably, many scenes in one of my favourite Bond movies, “Octopussy”, were filmed in and around Udaipur in the early 1980s.
Back then I was still a kid in primary school, in closeted apartheid-era South Africa, forming my first impressions of the big-wide world “out there”. For me, and I suspect for most others of my era, this film was my first introduction to, and certainly the first moving images I ever saw of, a mysterious, magical, faraway place known as India.
Octopussy taught me many important things about India. It taught me that rich people in India live in luxurious palaces, dress in ornate costumes and are surrounded at all times by gorgeous, scantily-clad women, scheming henchmen, and willing servants. It taught me that in India the streets are crowded with people and choked with traffic, and lined with bustling markets where fakirs and fortune-tellers hold court on every corner. It taught me that in India people eat weird shit, ride elephants, and pop wheelies on rickshaws. And it taught me never to trust anyone in a turban.
Subsequent films have reinforced, again and again, these images of India. Who could forget “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, and its “typical” Indian meal of live snakes, followed by lamb eyeballs floating in soup, roast cockroach on the shell, and chilled monkey-brain for dessert? [Or most recently the Oscar-winning “Slum-dog Millionaire” with its gritty but nonetheless feel-good depiction of slums, the Indian underbelly, and the propensity of everyone in that country to break into impromptu choreographed dance routines].
These movies weren’t necessarily filmed in Udaipur, although others have been (bits of Ghandi, for example). But regardless, so many of my expectations of India can be traced back to Udaipur, and those first impressions, courtesy of Mr. Bond and his cronies. I was thus determined to go there. In Udaipur I expected to find the India I thought I knew – the country of splendour and romance and adventure as made famous by Hollywood, and not the country of poverty and chaos and crowds, as made famous more recently by real life.
Prior to travelling to India, one of my romantic ideas was that I would travel around the sub-continent the “authentic” way. That is, by using buses, trains, rickshaws, and old wooden boats. Flying, I had convinced myself, would be entirely at odds with the whole image of backpacking in India. And so, despite all the hardships we experienced along the way – the epic train voyage from Calcutta to Madras, the endless bus-rides over pot-holed roads, the countless near death experiences in mechanically unsound rickshaws – we had stuck to the “no flying” rule, for months.
The straw that finally broke the travelling camel’s back was when we learned we had two options for getting from Aurangabad to Udaipur, a relatively short distance of 400 kilometres. Option One: a daily Air India flight between the two cities, total travel time, one hour. Or Option Two: a combo of six trains and buses, total travel time, two days.
Perhaps if this had been earlier in our time in India we might have stubbornly condemned ourselves to yet another overland endurance test. But by now we were seasoned travellers. Hadn’t we suffered enough? Hadn’t we already earned our “hard-core backpacker” stripes? And who gives a fuck how we got there, anyway? So, we flew.
In a way, I am glad we did. After months on the ground, India seemed very different when seen from above. The crowds and pollution and mayhem vanished, and instead all that remained was the earth below, stretching out into the distance. From on high it looked a lot like a big, dirty-brown blanket. Up here I got a real sense of how arid and cracked the land of India can be; a vast expanse of utter dryness, broken up here and there by scraggly green fields, or muddy winding rivers. From the plane I could see how haphazard the development of the country has been, and the heat rising up off the surface became almost visible.
Cocooned in the air-conditioned comfort of an airplane cabin – the first air-conditioning we had experienced in quite some time, by the way – I suddenly felt immensely sorry for the billion people down below. It occurred to me that anytime I wanted I could get on another plane and go home, to Bondi Beach and hot and cold seasons and to my comfortable, pollution-free, uncluttered “real life”. But for most of those below me this is an impossible fantasy, no matter how much they may wish it were otherwise. These people would forever be trapped, in the unremitting heat and dust, toiling day in and day out to extract a meagre living from an unfriendly, parched soil.
I sat glued to the window the entire flight to Udaipur that day, lost in my thoughts. One brief hour aloft on the way to Udaipur gave me a whole new perspective on India.
We landed on a bumpy airstrip and came to a halt at two tin shacks. Welcome to Udaipur airport. Hmmm – not quite what I had in mind when I imagined 007 flying into town to save the day. Clearly, some of my long-held ideas about Udaipur – James Bond City – were about to be challenged.
Stepping out of the body of the plane (recall: deliciously air-conditioned) was like stepping into the proverbial oven. It was probably 43 degrees. We hopped in a rickshaw and immediately made our way to the lake, where we checked into the Rang Niwas Palace hotel, right on the shore. It wasn’t really a palace, but rather the former home of a wealthy member of the local Maharajah’s court. The current owners had rather cheekily designated it a “palace”, bait for sucker tourists with no money and yet who still believed a palace experience could be had for $5 a night. Ahem. Obviously, a marketing strategy that worked….
It may not have been a palace, but it was lovely nonetheless. There was a grand tiled courtyard at the centre, with lots of trees and fountains, leading to a sensational terrace boasting drop-dead gorgeous views out across the water, and to the Lake Palace.
If anything is emblematic of Udaipur, it is the Lake Palace, which you really can’t avoid noticing from just about anywhere in Udaipur. It occupies an entire island smack bang in the middle off the lake, and hogs every scenic view by floating there so damned dramatically. Today the palace has been converted into a super-deluxe hotel, widely considered to be one of the finest in India.
Far more importantly though, James had snuck into the Lake Palace, where he had enjoyed the intelligent company of a bevy of models-cum-assassins, bedded the gorgeous Octopussy, killed a few bad guys, and then dashed off to save the world from impending doom.
I am sure you can understand why a visit there thus seemed practically compulsory to me.
So the next afternoon we decided to pop over for a sun-downer. We put on our finest clothes, and looking quite respectable (for a change) we wandered down to the hotel’s private boat launch. There we smiled at the receptionist and sat down in the luxuriously appointed waiting lounge. A small boat which ferries people between the hotel and the mainland arrived about ten minutes after, the receptionist indicated for us to board, and shortly after that we disembarked onto the white marble landing of the Lake Palace Hotel.
We walked up the stairs, through the hotel lobby, past the reception desk, and out to the pool patio, where we seated ourselves in some comfy armchairs at a white-rattan table, and waited for someone to come take our order. I was having a 007 wet-dream.
After waiting for about fifteen minutes, we were approached by a man in a gray safari suit. “Excuse me, what do you want?” he asked rather rudely.
It was so tempting to reply: “Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred”. But instead I smiled politely, and asked to see the menu.
“Are you staying at the hotel?” he responded, eyeing my sandals with obvious disdain.
“No”, I said, “we just came over for a drink, and maybe some dinner”.
The man’s face puckered up in a way that looked like he had just sucked on a lemon marinated in gasoline, and he practically spat at us: “Young man, this hotel is for bona fide guests only. You must leave”.
At this stage in our journey I should have known that there was little point in arguing. But we had dressed up for the occasion, and we only wanted a bloody drink. Plus, this guy was an insulting prick. Really, would Roger Moore have put up with this shit?
So I looked him squarely in the eye: “We came here because some friends staying at our hotel were here yesterday for a drink, and they said this was such a lovely hotel that we should come ourselves”.
“I am sorry”, said the man in the safari suit, “but that is absolutely impossible. It did not happen. This hotel is for guests only. Maybe your friends went to a different hotel”.
Now I was getting a bit annoyed. “Um, how many Lake Palace Hotels are there in Udaipur?” I asked.
“Only one”, answered Mr Safari Suit, clearly not au fait with the concept of sarcasm.
“Well then, this is where they were”, I said cheerily.
Clearly Mr Safari Suit was not one to deviate from the script. “You must leave”, he repeated with a massive scowl on his face.
Seeing we would not get any further with this fellow I asked to see the manager. We waited at our drink-less table for a further fifteen minutes, and finally a smartly dressed Indian man strolled over. He spoke to us in perfect, unaccented English.
“What is the problem?” he enquired politely.
I explained the whole story.
He smiled. “Sir, this hotel is for guests only. You have come here as impostors. I have checked with the receptionist at the boat-lounge, and he tells me that you sat down and did not announce yourself, and so he assumed that you were staying at the hotel”.
What? Did this well-oiled turkey really just use the word “imposters”, as if we were a couple of Vegas scam-artists intent on conning our way into the august Lake Palace Hotel? Still, I held it together, and tried to reason with him: “Since when do you have to announce your entry into a hotel. I have been in many fine hotels all over the world, and they have had no problem with me coming in for a drink”.
“But sir, this is the Lake Palace Hotel”, the manager exhaled, with an extremely serious expression on his face, as if this fact alone would explain everything.
I had been in India long enough to know that any further negotiation with “management” would be a waste of time, achieving nothing other than me losing my temper and most likely being thrown into the lake by security.
We’d already learned that the Darjeeling Gymkhana Club and the Calcutta Country Club have stricter entry criteria than the US Marines fighter-pilot program. I knew from first-hand experience that walking into the Taj Hotel in Bombay in anything less than a double-breasted suit means the doorman is entitled to treat you like a mass-murdering rapist. Getting evicted from the Lake Palace Hotel was just more of the same – yet another example of how Indians remain passionately in love with the rigid rules and entry regulations introduced by the British, never mind that the rest of the world has moved on in the interim. Rules are rules, by God, and if we have them we are going to enforce them…..
Anyway, we left the Lake Palace Hotel peacefully. We never did get that drink, but we had enjoyed forty-five minutes sitting on the terrace for free, so it wasn’t a complete loss.
Once we got back to the boat launch, I decided to confront the receptionist, and asked him why he had let us get on the boat to go to the hotel in the first place. He became very defensive. “You have done wrong, not me. You did not announce yourself, and you should have read this notice”, he protested, pointing to a tiny sign in the corner of the lounge which said: “RIGHT OF ADMISSION RESERVED”.
I tried to explain that in common English parlance the phrase “right of admission reserved” necessarily implied that the person reserving the right of admission would proactively let you know if they wished to exercise that right to your detriment. The receptionist quickly got bored with this unscheduled language lesson, and promptly brought it to an end when he summoned two burly security guards, who frog-marched us to the exit like a pair of jailbirds.
So much then for what is billed as India’s finest hotel. I hope it sinks into the lake.
As you may have figured out by now, in Udaipur you can’t escape the shadow of James Bond, who is everywhere. Every souvenir store offers a plethora of Bond merchandise; every tourist brochure references sites from the film; and every backpacker cafe runs screenings of Octopussy on big screen TVs, three times a day, 365 days of the year.
In our case, during our time in Udaipur we ate dinner most nights at a small tourist cafe called Murya’s. There, at 7:00pm each evening we would take our seats, along with a small band of dedicated Bond fans. We’d order curries and tandoori-pizzas, the movie would start, and we’d engage in tedious analysis of the various locations at which the movie was shot. It sounded like this:
“That was shot just outside. Look, can’t you see the shirt maker’s shop?”
“Nonsense, that’s down the road, I tell you that you’re looking at the scene outside the Babu Hotel.” (This line, for a reason I am unable to explain, is usually delivered by a South African).
“You’re all wrong, that scene wasn’t even filmed in Udaipur, that is in Agra”.
(There may be some truth in this last claim – no matter what Cubby Broccoli’s creative film editors may want you to believe, I can vouch from first-hand experience that the Taj Mahal is not situated across the water from the Lake Palace Hotel, but is in reality about 200 kilometres away, in another Indian state altogether).
“So you’ll agree that we’re now looking at the west facade of the Lake Palace?”
“Only if you’ll accept that they filmed the Monsoon Palace from the east”.
And so on and so on.
Now, if there was one building I most wanted to see in India, it was the Monsoon Palace. Even more so than the Taj Mahal, which is a pretty sad statement on what a Bond-nerd I am, but true. You see, the Monsoon Palace, an imposing structure looking down over Udaipur from the top of a mountain, was the location of the bad guys’ lair in Octopussy. Here evil geniuses ate lamb hearts, paddled in a swimming pool filled with half-naked chicks, plotting and schemed for global domination at the same time. I just had to see the Monsoon Palace up close, and give voice to my inner Bond, so to speak. So what if every guidebook warned me that making the trip up to the Monsoon Palace is a complete waste of time? So what if even usually avaricious Indian rickshaw drivers turned down the fare? After much whining and pleading I finally managed to coax Camilla into accompanying me and a rickshaw driver into taking us there.
The road to the Monsoon Palace winds up the mountain in a series of switchbacks and hairpin curves. It is so steep that our rickshaw, burdened with the weight of three people, overheated half-way. The rickshaw driver lifted up the front seat of the rickshaw to check on the engine, and he was instantly engulfed in thick black smoke pouring out from the overworked two-stroke motor. The air smelled of burning metal, but the rickshaw driver assured us all would be well. We set off twenty minutes later, and despite the smoke, the smell and the frightening noises from the engine, we finally made it to the summit. From there we had to climb a steep flight of stairs, and finally we reached the gates.
What a fucking dump.
The whole place is nowadays little more than a crumbling ruin, covered in graffiti and overflowing with accumulated garbage. Most of it is fenced off, used by the Indian military as a radio transmitter site. The lying cheating scumbags who made Octopussy had cleverly filmed the Monsoon Palace silhouette, but assuming I would never check had then shot the lavish interior scenes on a purpose-built sound-stage. In London.
As if to rub salt into the wound, after less than three minutes there a half-asleep soldier appeared. He ordered us to leave at gunpoint (OK, maybe not at gunpoint, but he did have a pistol in a holster). Apparently the Monsoon Palace is only open to military personnel.
I was almost in tears. I hadn’t felt this disappointed since my pilgrimage to Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, where I discovered that Scaramanger’s Hideaway, supposedly chiselled into the rocky cliffs on a remote island, doesn’t even exist, and there is nothing but solid black stone and a rather wimpy, overcrowded beach on what is nowadays referred to as “James Bond Island”.
Honestly, is nothing sacred in this world anymore?
Like many Indian cities that see a large number of foreign tourists, Udaipur can be divided into two distinct parts. There is the James Bond part, which caters to the visitors, and there is the other part, which does not.
Hotels, cafes, tailors, souvenir hawkers and hustlers all tend to concentrate in clearly demarcated tourist zones, which are usually located within a stone’s throw of the town’s main tourist draw-card. Consequently, many foreigners never leave the tourist zones, which become their entire impression of India – an endless parade of postcard sellers, charlatans, tie-dyed shirts and greasy curries imitating Western imitations of Indian food.
In Udaipur the tourist zone is so overwhelming and wonderful that you can become complacent. Who wouldn’t get seduced by the beautiful lake and its magnificent surroundings? Day after day we had extended our stay there – constantly saying it would be just one more day of luxuriating in our wonderful hotel and wallowing in the sensory overload, two happy little octopussies, living the myth of India.
That is, until we needed to buy stamps [Note: back then in the mid 1990s, email, mobile phones and Skype did not exist. Our primary form of communication with home was hand-written letters and old-fashioned aerograms – remember those? – both of which needed stamps to work]. The hotel’s reception had run out of its stamp supply, and so the guy at the font desk had suggested we visit the central Udaipur Post Office, located less than two kilometres from the hotel, to buy some.
For all intents and purposes, however, the Post Office could just as easily have been on another continent. Or, more to the point, our hotel and the Udaipur tourist zone were on another continent; the Post Office and the rest of Udaipur were firmly grounded in India.
We strolled from our hotel to the Post Office, and along the way we left behind the world of palaces and beautiful lakes and nightly screenings of James Bond films, and suddenly came back to the same old chaotic jumble of dusty streets, jam-packed with rickshaws and ancient buses. There was the usual array of shops and market stalls selling the usual array of fruits and vegetables and spices. The same cows we had seen in Varanasi roamed the streets in Udaipur. There were the same beggars, the same sari draped housewives, the same small roadside temples with smouldering joss sticks, and the same rag-clad children.
Like on the plane flying to Udaipur, I suddenly became acutely aware of just how hard modern-day India can be, once the veneer is stripped away. When you get down to it, most places in India are the same: an overpopulated, seething mass of people, going about their daily lives, simply struggling to survive as a deeply traditional society tries to come to grips with the blessings and curses of the 20th century. Our attempted visits to the Lake Palace Hotel and the Monsoon Palace had shattered my Hollywood-inspired expectations of Udaipur. And now a simple trip to the Udaipur Post Office had shattered any lingering idea I may have had of this being an exotic and special place. There was, in fact, nothing new or special here. Udaipur was just another town in India, and the only thing that set it apart was that it had skillfully hopped onto the James Bond bandwagon.
I was ready to leave. First thing next morning we were on the 4:30am express to Ajmer.
The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time – Snapshots from Rajasthan.