Travelstained and looking increasingly disreputable, we rolled into Jodhpur after a seven hour drive from Jaisalmer. The sun had been on my side of the car all day as we drove east, and by the time we arrived I was glowing nicely. But the hotel proved elusive. I never had any idea from one day to the next what kind of place had been arranged – whether a glorified truck stop or some kind of former palace, and as we headed into increasingly battered-looking suburbs I began to resign myself to a dingy room with cold water bucket shower. This ‘Indian-style’ shower is by far the most water-efficient form of ablution. You fill a large plastic bucket from the tap, tip water over yourself with a small jug, soap up, then sluice off the suds. Nevertheless it’s nice to have a proper shower from time to time. Jaisalmer had promised “hot and cold water – 24 hour!” but sadly that hadn’t been the case.
The Kothi Heritage announced itself in a blaze of whitewashed stonework which rose out of an indifferent side street. I wandered into the reception past a fountain filled with petals, feeling culturally zapped, wide-eyed at the ornate decor: it was like walking into one of those palace museums. Red velvet cushions were placed around a tall hookah waterpipe, and coloured glass in the windows threw kaleidoscopes of sunlight across the floor. Someone wandered up and offered to take my bag. I asked whether I oughtn’t to check in first. ‘Later no problem sir – you must be tired.’ I was presented with a glass of fresh mango juice and a garland of marigolds placed around my neck, so I wandered into the garden and sat down in the shade, ordered a pot of chai, and drawing deeply on a Navy Cut cigarette, marvelled at my good fortune in finding this place. And I was to be here for two nights. Thank goodness for civilization.
The hotel was in fact a family home, with the family still in residence upstairs. They were Jains, and as such were strict vegetarians, with a ban on the eating of foods that grow beneath the ground. This was no problem for me – I had been vegetarian for most of the trip so far, and didn’t miss what is discretely referred to as the ‘non-veg’ option. That night I dined in the cavernous lounge on vegetable biryani, which was delicately spiced. A waiter hovered nearby, and since I was the only diner I was the object of great scrutiny. Eventually, feeling a bit like some exotic species in a zoo, I sent him away with the words “I’ll call if I need you”. He retired to the other side of a curtain, where he hovered some more.
I hit the shops that afternoon, stocking up on Christmas presents. Tie-dyed shirts, silk scarves, dresses for my niece in vibrant Rajasthani colours and a set of kurta pyjama for myself – the traditional long white shirt and tapering trousers. The National Handloom Corporation is one of the few outlets here which offers fixed prices on things, so you bypass the tedious pasttime of bargaining. In the manner of Vietnamese restaurants, however, there are several variations on the name, and it took a couple of attempts to find the right one. When one salesman told me, almost with tears in his eyes, that the quilt he had unfurled across the floor was made exclusively by widows and orphans, I raised a sceptical eyebrow and swiftly left the premises.
The newspaper here has an article about the lengths that parents are going to to get their children into decent schools. Kids are being offered coaching in skills such as deportment, table manners and ‘positive demeanour’ in order to impress interviewers. The local journalistic style is a bouncy, jaunty sort of affair, interspersed with cricketing metaphors. One might find that a bad examination result ‘knocks them for six’. It is of course important to play a straight bat at all times. Female college students, apparently, ‘chirp’. And while I certainly acknowledge that it has been pretty chilly, to read the headline that ‘Policemen brave the elements in temperatures as low as 5 degrees C in devastating Cold Wave’, one would think there had been a tornado. Schools have closed all over the state due to the Cold Wave. Still, it’s nice to know it’s not just the British who are completely incompetent at dealing with a bit of cold weather.
My laundry is returned to me at 10pm smelling of carbolic soap. Small coloured threads have been tied onto each item to label them. After several trips round South-East Asia, where they have a similar practice, some of my clothes have a veritable embroidery of different coloured threads going on. I’m sure I’m supposed to remove them, but I quite like it; I feel a bit like a wandering stupa bedecked with prayer flags.
We visited Ranakpur the next day, a beautiful Jain temple on the way to Udaipur. Being Jain, there is a ban on any leather goods inside the temple. I must admit, I hadn’t realised quite how much of my stuff was leather. I not only remove shoes but also belt, camera bag, money belt, Swiss Army knife case and pen case. Anxious-looking tourists shuffle round in their socks with their trousers falling down, pockets stuffed full of thousands of rupees. My initial foray into the entrance did not go especially well. I had forgotten my Aussie hat in my bag, which is of course made of suede. A sharp-eyed security lady gave me a stern look and wordlessly pointed back down the steps. I reorganised, and had to dispense with my water (‘Kaiser Kwencher’ of all things) and a couple of packets of Navy Cut. Eventually I was acceptably pure and was allowed admittance.
Collonades of ornate pillars and a cool marble floor. People praying in the alcoves. Soft-footed padding of pilgrims. Doves wheeling overhead. At this point I reached into my pocket for my camera and encountered… my wallet. Black, multipocketed, and advertising that it is made of ‘Echtes Leder’. For anyone who doesn’t speak German it is also helpfully accompanied by an image of a spreadeagled animal hide. I was immediately struck with guilt. I was deep within the temple now, and was probably committing a mortal sin, or at least the Jain equivalent thereof. What if my contaminating presence somehow negated all the prayers said that day? What lengths would they have to go to to purify the place? I developed a furtive air of immense guilt, and tried to casually saunter back towards the entrance. A security guard caught my eye, and I immediately looked away, uncomfortably aware of the large chunk of dead Germanic animal nestling in my pocket. Acting nonchalent I regained the entrance steps and strolled down them like a good tourist. The security lady looked me up and down disapprovingly, and said “Leaving already?”
“Oh, yes, sorry… must dash. Very interesting place. Fascinating.” Carrying my sinful cargo I scurried off to the safety of the car park.
Mr Mukesh was deep in conversation with another driver when I arrived, and turned to me and said: “You wanting lunch?” I was. Round the back of the temple was a small canteen, to cater for pilgrims, worshippers and just the generally dispossesed. We paid 25 rupees each for two coupons (£1.00 equals 70 rupees) and took our places on the end of a long bench packed full of people spooning up dal with their bare hands, all dining in silence. A few curious eyes turned to me briefly before getting back to the serious business of eating. A rather sweaty man carrying two buckets in a yoke across his shoulders waddled over and dumped a ladleful of brown liquid into a bowl before me. Another passing figure chucked a couple of puris onto the top – like rather subdued Yorkshire puddings – which I began to nibble tentatively. The sweaty man came back and gave me a spoonful of what looked like potato salad, and as he did so, broke the previous record for ‘service with a smile’, until now held by a loudly sniffing waiter in Jaipur, by giving an earsplitting belch as he flung the stuff onto my tray. He then wandered off scratching himself.
Having finished what was on my tray, which was not too bad really, although definitely in the ‘not spicy’ category, lacking as it did any onion, garlic or chilli, all eyes on the bench turned to a small, wizened figure in a white dhoti carrying a bowl of rice. He was terribly short-sighted, and would shuffle up to someone, push his face toward their tray until it was only a few inches away, in the manner of a myopic tortoise, and then, having established the general direction in which to aim, would fire a spoonful of rice at the blurry shape before him. I ended up with a sizeable amount in my lap, which I picked at in between courses.
Four teenage lads arrived, all with mullet hairdos and the kind of wispy moustaches that only a 15-year-old could carry off. They looked like a wandering 1980s boyband. They gaped at the gora (me) for a bit but then got distracted by trying to avoid the food being flung at them by the servers. Mr Mukesh hoovered up what seemed like scores of puris in the manner of a camel at a waterhole stocking up between distant oases, before loudly belching himself and making for the tap to rinse his hands.