Asia

Snapshots from Rajasthan – Part I (Travels in India, Chapter 15)

pushkar-lake-at-pushkar-rajasthan-india

Cricket in Pushkar.

We were sitting in a cafe, at a table on the open terrace, looking out over Pushkar, a small town in the middle of the Indian desert-state of Rajasthan, most famous for an annual camel fair that happens each year in November.

[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].

Even without the camels, Pushkar is a lovely, relaxing place, and we had come for some rest and relaxation before our push into the heart of Rajasthan. The town is shaped a bit like a crescent, arranged around the shores of a small lake. Pushkar’s compact scale gives everything a sense of manage-ability and charm that bigger cities in India often seem to sacrifice in the name of size.

Almost every building on the Pushkar lakefront is painted a crisp, clean white. These form a mad jumble of teetering multi-storied constructions, with arches and domes and breezy terraces, and steep steps leading down to the water. The buildings appeared to be crowding the lakefront, each one jostling for a spot on the limited shoreline, pushing and shoving like a line of eager swimmers about to leap into the water. And each building was reflected upside-down in the black, glass-like surface of the lake.

It was the middle of the hot season, and so the water level of the lake was quite low. On the far-side of the lake, where we were sitting, the waterline had ebbed to such a degree that a large patch of lake-floor had been exposed. It had been dried by the sun, creating in effect a large sandy beach by the water. There were people strolling on this impromptu beach, a few families sat picnicking, and a group of young boys hogged the remainder of the area, engaged in an earnest game of cricket.

I wanted to get some close-up photos of Pushkar and its reflection in the water, so I went down to the lake, walked across the sand, and paused to take a few snaps when I reached the waterline. Then I turned and headed back to the cafe terrace, to resume my book and coffee. At that moment one of the boys playing cricket hit the hard red ball in my direction. It rolled along before coming to a stop right at my feet.

Without warning I found myself surrounded by a swarm of ten-year-old boys. They were all jabbering loudly, each trying to outdo the other in their ability to “speak” English. “Hello mister!” “You like Pushkar?” “Welcome in India!” “Where you come from? Germany? America?

No. I am from Australia”, I replied.

Australia!” the boys squealed with glee. “Shane Warne. Mark Taylor. Good batsman. You know cricket?

Once again, by virtue of my mere status as an Australian, it was assumed that I was as fanatical about cricket as the average Indian male. I was far too embarrassed to admit to a group of Indian children that I did not really like cricket, and that I was ignorant of all but the most famous of the Australian team players. So instead, I meekly nodded.

You know cricket!” they all cheered again in unison. I nodded some more.

Umpire – we need umpire”, one young fellow shrieked, and with that I was grabbed by the arm and propelled into the centre of the sand, where a pair of makeshift wickets had been set up. I was immediately positioned behind the non-batting wicket, and thus found myself, quite unexpectedly, in charge of a rowdy, two-hour long cricket match.

Playing-Cricket-Pushkar

At first I was terrified that my evident lack of cricket savvy would quickly reveal itself, and the boys would evict me from the pitch (that’s the technical phrase for a cricket ground, if I recall). I was, however, familiar enough with the rules of the game thanks to compulsory cricket as part of my primary school PE lessons. But in the end it didn’t really matter anyway, because two of the boys, one from each team, attached themselves to me to serve as my advisers-in-chief on all matters rule related.

On the first ball, the batsman whacked the ball so that it rolled along the ground for a long way, almost to the water. My advisers conferred with one another, and then informed me that the ball had passed the designated imaginary boundary of the game, and was thus a “four”. I waved my arm back and forth to indicate a “four”, copying the silly motion of cricket umpires I had seen countless times before on evening news sport highlights. The boys cheered with delight – clearly I knew what I was doing! And with that simple arm movement, my credentials as a suitable umpire were firmly established. Let the games begin.

The next two hours turned out to be two of the most pleasurable I experienced in all of India. The boys played cricket, and I watched them play. Every few minutes I would be called upon to make a decision – was someone out?; was the ball a “wide”?; was that “leg before” (whatever the hell that meant); was that another “four”?

I must confess that my decisions were rather arbitrary, and were more often than not based on which team appealed loudest and longest, or on what my advisers thought, or sometimes even on something as silly as which of the boys had the cutest, most cherubic face. I must have been doing it right though, because once made, my decisions were accepted without any argument.

The little guys were very serious, as if this particular cricket game was the final of the World Cup. Each of the boys adopted the persona of a famous cricketer – “me Alan Border, me Alan Border” – and once adopted, I was required to refer to them exclusively by that name. The boys were animated and excited, and looked to me not only for judicial rulings but for approval of their technique and cricketing ability. I found myself saying things I knew nothing about, like “good bowl”, or “nice shot – just like Brian Lara”, but all of which earned me smiles and laughter.

Eventually, one of the teams won, and I ceremonially handed out a prize to the victors: a chocolate bar I happened to have in my pocket. It was getting dark and I said I would have to leave. There was clapping and cheering and a few of the boys patted me on the back, as if to say: “good job. You’re an alright bloke”. I was also invited to return the next day for the rematch.

As I walked away from the field, feeling all warm and fuzzy, I marvelled at how something as simple as umpiring a children’s cricket game in India gave me a sense of achievement equal to, if not bigger than, say, completing my university degree.

Being a lawyer means you are a nerd with brains, but being respected in sport, even if only as an umpire by a group of kids, means you are a real man.

jodhpur-the-blue-city-in-rajasthan-state-in-india-jodhpur-the-blue-city-in-rajasthan-state-in-india

Melrose Place in Jodhpur.

There is hot, and then there is swelteringly uncomfortably hot, and then there is a Rajasthani summer, which defies all previous expectations of what real heat is.

On the day we decided to go sightseeing in Jodhpur (a place better known for having lent its name to the pants one wears while horse-riding) it was possibly the single hottest day we experienced in India – a nudge over 46 degrees centigrade. Trust me when I say that this is seriously fucking hot. It is a draining, life-sucking heat; the type of heat that, in a matter of seconds, evaporate ponds, scorches exposed skin, and withers away any flower foolish enough to expose itself to the elements.

With hindsight, therefore, a two-hour long, incredibly steep uphill trek to the Jodhpur Fort was possibly not the best possible choice of activities for that day. Especially seeing we chose to do this, like two complete lunatics, between the hours of 11 am and 1pm, a time when even the dogs of Jodhpur tend to stay indoors.

The fort is built on a bluff, perched high above the town, and is the principal attraction of Jodhpur. According to the brochures, “the classic way to get from town to the gates of the fort” (read: “only sucker tourists do this”) is on an elephant, and sure enough a number of scrawny men were on hand to offer us the use of their elephants. We declined their offers, dogmatically opposed on principle to being sucker tourists. Although for once, given the heat, being an idiot tourist would have probably been the right course of action.

Instead our pig-headedness meant that a little while later we found ourselves wandering through the dirty alleyways and bone-dry streets of Jodhpur town, on foot, for over an hour, as we searched for the pathway leading up to the fort. it was utterly infuriating – the streets of Jodhpur were just narrow and higgledy-piggledy enough for us to become totally lost, but just wide and orderly enough so that we were constantly exposed to the ferocious sun, which beat down on us relentlessly.

Still, as we finally ascended toward the fort, we were rewarded for all our suffering by a truly extraordinary view. As far as we could see in every direction the desert landscape was brown, flat and parched beyond any earthly description – we may as well have been on the moon. Apart that is from the town of Jodhpur itself, which was laid out just beneath us, in a sprawling mass of blue.

Blue City - Jodhpur

You see, in Jodhpur almost every home, every shop and every building is painted a bright, refreshing blue. You notice this in the town itself, but the overwhelming nature of the blueness only becomes really evident when looking down on Jodhpur from above. It is an incredible thing to see, and seemed to me a bit like a Salvador Dali painting, in which the colours of the ocean and the island have been surreally swapped.

The fort itself was magnificent, too. We saw a good number of forts in Rajasthan (fort-hopping is one of the region’s main “things to do”), but Jodhpur’s was without doubt the most imposing. It is built of chunky slabs of stone, big and thick. Entry is through a series of formidable iron gates, leading to wide ramparts with lots of old rusting cannons, pointed out over the town and the desert beyond. Anyone trying to attack this fort would have done well to have had their head checked first.

Internally, the fort comprised a series of lavishly decorated rooms and chambers, with ornate carvings, murals, paintings and period ornaments on display. My favourite was a room surrounded on three sides by walls made up of coloured stained-glass panels, so that the room was filled with a marvellous diffused light, soft and warm.

After a few hours of kicking around the fort (and recovering from near sun-stroke) we decided to head back to town. As we were leaving we noticed, however, a crowd gathering in the courtyard, and we decided to investigate. And in this way, for the second time in India, we found ourselves on a film-set (see Chapter 7: My Day as a Bollywood Film Star). Only this time we were not offered roles in the picture, and were relegated to the status of mere onlookers, made to stand in the sunshine behind a metal barricade, and alongside the straining spectator hordes.

A man besides me pointed out two suave looking men, and informed me that they were two of the biggest stars of Indian film, and in reference to one of them, he said: “he is my hero”. Apart from the calibre of the talent, it was pretty clear just from looking around that this was a big-budget Bollywood production. There were hundreds of people milling about, several camera crews, a dolly, a large crane with another camera mounted on it, and the ground was covered by a surfeit of wires, cables, and technical looking gizmos.

The scene being filmed that day was quite simple. An open jeep, filled with seven baddies, would come tearing up the main road, through the fort gate, and skid around the corner before stopping in the courtyard. Each bad guy would be toting an awe-inspiring weapon of death, and would jump from the jeep and immediately open fire. The heroic good guy would return fire, and while remaining entirely unharmed would swiftly kill all seven bad guys, who would die long, lingering deaths as tomato-sauce stains spread over their chests. The hero would then break into an unscheduled song and dance routine to celebrate his victory.

Filming took much, much longer than I would ever have thought possible. The shot of the jeep racing up the main road required several takes, one of which was due to an overzealous bystander leaning too far over the barricades, such that the back of his head came into the shot. The director went bonkers, and the offending bystander barely escaped a lynching by the irate crew. Had there been a sufficiently deep body of water in Jodhpur I am sure that the he would have found himself swimming in it, wearing cement shoes.

Then there were a series of complicated gun battle scenes to be filmed, and a number of close-ups and angle shots. By the time they got to the bit where the baddies were supposed to die in slow-motion Technicolor, we had been standing in the direct sun for over an hour, and had begun to resemble well-fried potato chips.

Now, I often pride myself on my genetic disposition towards the desert. Half of my ancestors, after all, came from Morocco, a place that is known for its sand-dunes and blisteringly hot climate. But I quickly learned that even so, four hours of exposure to the harsh Rajasthan sun was well beyond me, genetic pre-disposition or otherwise. I was thoroughly exhausted, and feeling quite faint, as was Camilla. So we abandoned the film-set (meaning we never did get to see the baddies die, although I have no doubt they did), and leaving a snail-like trail of sweat behind us we stumbled down the pathway, back to Jodhpur town, where we practically collapsed from heat induced fatigue at the feet of our hotel’s manager.

I think he took pity on us, because about fifteen minutes later as we were lying comatose on the bed, there was a knock on the door, and the manager came in wheeling a large metal contraption.

He told us this was an “Aycee”, the Indianised acronym-word for air-conditioning. We had long since learned that Indian’s are deeply fond of making words out of their preferred acronyms, and early on in our time in India, for example, it had taken me several weeks to learn that “Waycee” was India-speak for toilet, a bastardised rendering of the abbreviation “W.C”.

There already was a similar metal contraption in the room, but I had ascertained over the course of several very frustrating hours the previous evening that it most definitely did not work. Evidently the hotel owner knew this too, and had decided that providing us with a working air-conditioning unit was easier than having to explain to the authorities the heat-stroke deaths of the two backpackers in room 12.

The manager plugged the machine in, fiddled with some wires and switches, and then stood back. The machine did nothing. The manager signalled us to wait, and then left the room. About ten minutes later there was another knock on the door. This time a smiling young boy carrying a pail of water entered. He removed a metal panel at the back of the machine, revealing a murky interior, lined with rotting grass and other organic matter. Into this heart of darkness he poured the water.

Now I was deeply suspicious – I mean, how could water, grass and a rusty fan possibly keep us cool? But then the boy flicked the switch and a bona-fide miracle happened: the machine shuddered to life, and deliciously cool air began to emanate from deep within. I don’t think I could have been more impressed if the boy had lifted his arms above his head and caused manna to fall from the heavens.

Our AC was not without its limitations, mind you. It was noisy to the point that it sounded as if we were standing on an airport runway. The sound it mde was not just loud, but terrible and terrifying as well, like what you’d expect to here if you pushed a cat through a grinder. Plus, the machine vibrated so violently that the entire room shook.

None of which bothered us one tiny bit: the air was cold, and that was all that mattered.

Eventually the novelty of cooled air began to wear off, and the noise became a nuisance. At which point Camilla hit upon an exciting solution. The hotel room had come with an old black and white television, which was standing in the corner. We discovered that this antique was in fact working, and moreover was illegally wired in to the hotel owner’s satellite dish. Meaning we were able get ZeeTV, a cable channel ultimately owned by the Fox Network, and the Indian carrier of such fine television as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Seinfeld. After more than two months in India without having seen any television besides sports and 007 movies in Udaipur (see chapter 14: Udaipur, James Bond City) these shows were the television equivalent of being offered the chance to eat caviar in a five-star restaurant. It is not often that I have charitable feelings towards media barons, but at that moment I thought to myself: “God bless you, Mr. Murdoch”.

The plan was simple: if we turned the volume on the telly up full blast, we figured that it would (partially at least) drown out the F-18 air-con unit howling away in the corner. Meaning we could enjoy TV and continue to stay cool, at the same time. So we quickly ordered up some curries from room service, cranked up the volume, and settled in for an overdose of the latest “who’s sleeping with who” melodramas from the US of A.

Just about the only thing wrong with the whole set-up was that the bed beneath us shook, so strong were the vibrations induced by the air-conditioner. But that is juts detail: on the whole, it was a most pleasurable, agreeable evening. And whilst I like to think that this experience didn’t spoil me or affect my relationship with India too profoundly, after Jodhpur I became far more willing to pay extra for hotel rooms where ZeeTV was available. Particularly on a Friday night, when Melrose Place was showing.

rajasthan 1

[Due to the length of the Chapter on Rajasthan, I have split it into two parts, to keep it short enough to read in less than fifteen minutes. I will publish Part II –  Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Jaipur in a couple of weeks].

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