“Many Indians unHonesty. But my India great.” – Mr Mukesh, 2nd January 2011
Winter in a desert town. When the sun disappears around 6pm the chill gets into your bones. Bikaner is a baked mud-brick town with hotels that look like fortresses, decorated with red ochre battlements and crenellations. Wide open streets and a sense that on the outskirts of town lies a great nothingness – we are on the edge of the Thar Desert. I appear to be the only guest at the Palace View Hotel, which one might reasonably assume to have a view of the palace, although one would be wrong in that regard.
A tour of the fort, which was imposing, if rather battered. Dusty mementoes and faded photos of fresh-faced Sahibs out from England posing with freshly slaughtered tigers. They peer out of an opaque sepia fog in the photographs which thickens a little more each year, until one day they will fade into obscurity completely. One of the maharaja’s toys in the garage is a biplane.
People mostly speak a rudimentary form of English, but sometimes none, so I have to try out my extremely basic Hindi. As a language it appears to have few of the flowery politenesses with which we bedeck English. If I say to Mr Mukesh: “Can we stop at some point so I can buy some cigarettes?” he will smile, nod, and keep driving indefinitely. If I instead announce “Stop here!” he will immediately do so. Something like “Would you mind passing the salt” would become more of a metaphysical question on the nature of free will. The chap who comes to collect my tea things is puzzled by the absence of a cup, which I had left on a table where it had already been removed. I tell him: “I left the cup over there but another waiter took it.” He does a cartoon parody of terminal confusion, knitting his brows and scratching his head. “Cup gone before already” I tell him, and understanding spreads across his face like a shaft of sunlight emerging from stormclouds, he beams and waggles his head happily.
The hotel owner is a mine of information about local history. Dressed in a beret and a khaki anorak, with a blunt, military-style moustache, he emanates soldierly efficiency. But when I question him he replies wistfully that no, he was never a soldier, although his great-grandfather led an elephant charge once against the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
The television, which seems to show nothing but cricket, Sikhs in enormous turbans singing interminable songs, and raunchy Bollywood dancing in strobe-lit nightclubs where it is always raining, emits a long, drawn-out farting noise when I turn it off. Terribly appropriate somehow.
I breakfasted alone on toast and omlit in a dessicated dining room of faded gentility, waited on by a solitary ancient retainer who had a disconcerting habit of sighing loudly to himself periodically, as if suffering from some terrible depression. Still, he was better than the waiter yesterday who deposited my tea in front of me with a loud gurgling sniff, shortly before shambling over to the gutter and embarking on a course of painful-sounding hoickings and flobbings.
We stopped at a roadside truck stop for chai, sitting on charpoy string beds. A man squatted at the end of one and soaped himself all over before sluicing away the grime with a plastic jug. Three young boys were running the place, none of them at school. The teacher, they explained, seldom bothered to turn up, and when he did he usually fell asleep. It was a government school, and apparently not an unusual scenario. The place is covered with newly constructed private schools, as well as universities that look like building sites (here, in this howling wilderness, of all places). Government schools pay reasonably well, but the whole system is so corrupt that inspectors are paid off to give favourable reports. Either that or teachers are well connected, with a relative who is a ‘big man’, and are therefore unsackable. As we talked, a man roared off into the distance on a brand new Honda Hero motorbike, and one of the boys tilted his head at the departing dustcloud. “There goes the teacher”, he announced.