New Year’s Eve found me sitting on the rooftop of the hotel Arya Niwas in Jaipur, smoking a large cigar and watching as boys on adjacent rooftops flew small diamond-shaped kites. They fought pitched battles, trying to bring down each others’ kites by glueing ground glass to the string and attempting to saw through the others. The kites wheeled and bobbed, making a high snapping flutter upon the breeze. Towards midnight other guests drifted up to the rooftop to watch fireworks spread out across the city, distant flares of light in green and gold that burst into cascading showers of colour that glittered in the darkness as they fell. Two Germans who had been standing nearby turned to me on the stroke of midnight and we all solemnly shook hands and wished each other happy new year.
Arya Niwas had its own tour company, and I had asked them to put an itinerary together for me, staying in mid-range hotels on a trip round the state lasting 2 weeks. This was compiled by Mr Rakesh who fairly bubbled over with enthusiasm at the task, waxing lyrical about the many glorious visions and spectacles that lay ahead of me. “Tomorrow you go to Shekhawati – it’s like a huge open-air gallery!” he enthused in a frenzy of head-waggling. Jaisalmer the Golden City, Jodhpur the Blue City, and Udaipur the Lake City (which I misheard as ‘the Black City’) were all on the itinerary, in what promised to be a vibrantly colourful trip. I had already established with Mr Mukesh the driver that my preferred hour of departure in the morning was 9.30am, which felt civilized and yet early enough to make good time, and so it was that the next morning I emerged after breakfast (parathas, ‘omlit’ and lots of sweet, milky tea) to find him waiting by the freshly washed Tata. Destination: Shekhawati, or as Mr Mukesh called it in his Rajasthani accent, ‘Seh-car-vati’. Notes from the drive to Nawalgarh:
A shop called ‘Cat Moss’. Tractor bedecked in tinsel with loudspeakers playing Bollywood hits. Roadworks – women in saris carrying rocks on their heads. Sign – ‘Work in progress for better tomarrow’ [sic]. ‘Explosive Godown’ (a warehouse with inflammable goods). Billboard ads for Sheba underwear ‘with less tension’. Camel carts. The camels’ disdainful plodding gait. Small, round mud huts that look like Africa. Women colourful as birds carrying silver ‘matka’ pots of water on their heads. The Aarg Travel Company. Pillion on a motorcycle wearing a zimmer frame over his shoulders. Police in leather jackets sitting with their backs to the checkpoint, reading newspapers. Disney Academy – Tuition in the English medium. Anisha Boys’ Hotel. Trust in the God. A house painted in mauve and lime green.
“How far to Shekhawati, Mr Mukesh?”
“Not far. Maybe 160km.”
(Strewth, that’s a hundred miles.)
We reached the town of Nawalgarh in mid-afternoon, famed for its painted havelis, or merchants’ houses. Many are in a state of disrepair, on roads that are basically sinking, but they are still inhabited by people. Some have been restored, and the eye wanders over colourful decorations, every wall or surface alive with squirling calligraphy or paintings of gods and goddesses from the vast Hindu pantheon. We stopped for chai in the main square – 5 rupees each – served scalding hot in small glasses. I developed a trick of slurping the tea over my thumb to avoid making contact with the glass, which had undergone a cursory rinse with a tap that dribbled endlessly into a gutter that was choked with effluent. Nice tea though. Mr Mukesh picked up the tab.
Although the days are hot, it is cold at night – down to 4 degrees. People shuffle around wrapped in blankets. The Apni Dhani eco-lodge is full of French people, who express polite amazement that an English person can speak their language, and the dinner that night has something of the atmosphere of a dinner party somewhere in provincial France as we spoon up our dal and curry from banana leaf bowls. My room is a rondavel mud hut with a feeble energy-saving bulb, so I sit out in the main circle and chat to two Indian students of development who are extremely switched on and very interesting company; he comes from Assam in the far east and appears Oriental, she comes from Tamil Nadu in the deep south. At sunset the bougainvillea over my head is alive with the chirping of sparrows. Smells of dust and woodsmoke, a distant cockerel and women’s laughter from the compound as they do the washing up. Nightfall in rural India.