Jaisalmer at dawn. The fortress has disappeared in a chilly cloud of mist. Trucks grind along the road, their airhorns carolling to each other. A compound door opens in the lane below and a group of women come spilling out into the road, all laughing and teasing each other, excitable as schoolgirls escaping a classroom. They crouch down on their haunches round a small fire on the roadside, stretching out their braceleted arms to its warmth, and draw their shawls around themselves.
Sitting in the restaurant at breakfast I felt a nudge on my leg beneath the table. Expecting a dog or similar I looked down to see a boy sweeping the floor with a wet rag. My presence was no obstacle to him – he carefully wiped the rag around my feet and then scuttled away crablike across the floor. Later I commented on this rather incongruous form of cleaning to a German doctor I was sharing a table with. “I too have noticed this,” he said. “They take the dirt so, from one side, and they move it so, to this other side. But still the dirt is there, no? It has only moved.”
Dinner last night was at Monica’s Restaurant, which I had some trepidation about, recalling a 9 hour bus ride in Laos through a jagged limestone landscape, only to end up in Vang Vieng, a town full of restaurants with enormous plasma screens blaring out re-run episodes of ‘Friends’. Fortunately Monica’s Restaurant in Jaisalmer appeared to have no such Friendly connection. In the corner of the room stood a small shrine from which coiled fragrant wafts of agarbathi incense, and some ambient world music chillout was playing softly on the stereo. The only other diners were three uptight young German lads who looked pink and freshly scrubbed in their brand-new trekking gear, each with a Lonely Planet guidebook on the table before them. I ordered a thali, a large silver tray with multiple dishes in bowls upon it and several kinds of bread, which I have to say was very good. 120 rupees for this one, a little under £2.00. Most of the places I go with Mr Mukesh would be half that price.
We headed out to Kuldara, an abandoned village some 30km outside Jaisalmer. Rumour has it that the village was abandoned overnight, although theories vary. Mr Mukesh the romantic gave me the popular version: that the local maharaja had fallen for a village girl who was in love with another man. The maharaja threatened the couple with banishment, whereupon the entire village closed ranks around them, deciding to abandon their homes. In a place where honour killings are commonplace, with young couples sometimes murdered on the orders of village headmen because they are of different caste or religion, this had a suspiciously whitewashed air to it. I later heard a more prosaic explanation – that the local maharaja had demanded an increase in taxes from the villagers, and threatened to evict them if the money was not forthcoming. The villagers decided they would take their chances elsewhere, upped sticks and disappeared. It was an eerie place, silent but for the desert wind which keened and moaned between the buildings.
Heading to Jodhpur we stopped at a roadside chai stall with the usual charpoy string beds, young kids serving the tea. These two were pests, with a hard-eyed acquisitive glitter. After initial curiosity, they began to demand that I give them ‘one pen’, or failing that, 10 rupees. “You bring do chai, I give 10 rupees,” I told them. “Nay chai, nay rupiah.” Eventually the tea arrived, and we sat on the beds while Mr Mukesh explained to them, somewhat to my surprise, that I was a PhD student doing ‘research’ in London. In what subject? All subjects. Politics, mostly, and also some history. I fought to prevent myself from snorting with laughter as he enumerated all manner of academic accolades to which I am not entitled. The boy to my left began fingering my watch – only a cheap Casio that I use for travelling. I showed him the time in London, thinking I might as well add geography to the impressively long list of my specialisms. “You give me,” he said. I’d had enough, told them to ‘hurry up and go away’ in Hindi, stood up and walked back to the car.
We were heading for Osiyan, the site of a famous temple, but finding the place proved far from straightforward. We headed off onto a minor road – a single strip of tarmac wide enough to accommodate one vehicle with dirt verges – passing through increasingly remote scenery. Many of the fields were divided up with dry stone walls, an incongruous sight in this landscape; if you half-closed your eyes you might be in north-west England on a particularly fine day. Mr Mukesh stopped several times to ask directions, and became increasingly jittery as it became clear we were hopelessly lost, driving too fast through villages and playing a game of chicken with oncoming traffic, swerving onto the verge at the last minute. Entering one village at around 80kmh we crashed over a set of speed humps, and he suddenly screamed to a halt and pulled off the road. A crowd of people were walking toward us – farmers in whote dhotis and orange turbans.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Dead body coming,” he replied.
I saw that the crowd were bearing a litter upon which someone lay beneath a sheet. We could hear the wailing women as they went by, and Mr Mukesh pressed his hands together in prayer and bowed his head. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I removed my hat and lowered my eyes until they had passed.
Eventually we found Osiyan, and I walked round the temple, which was imposing. One tip for prospective travellers – avoid white socks. Given the frequency with which you have to remove your shoes, black’s probably the best option. Within seconds of entering the temple a young man with a vaguely snide manner approached me, despite my rather unfriendly gaze.
“Sar? Sar? This carving of Lord Krishna.”
“No guide, thank you.”
“Not guiding, sar. Only showing.”
“Well I want to be left alone.”
Nevertheless, he persisted in following me, helpfully pointing out things such as “this is like Lord Ganesh,” which I couldn’t possibly have worked out for myself, although the trunk and large floppy ears were a bit of a giveaway as to the identity of the elephant-headed god. On leaving he hassled me for a tip, and sulked when I stuck 20 rupees in the temple donation box. He sulked even more when Mr Mukesh saw him, and said (as he later explained to me): “Don’t bother trying to sting him for a tip just because he’s a gora. He doesn’t fall for that stuff.”