As Time Goes By

July 7, 2009

 

the samrat yantra

the samrat yantra

 

I know it is hard to believe, but sometimes you find peace in the busiest, dirtiest, shabbiest places.

Yesterday I had one of these days. With the painters still in the house (they are now officially my roommates), the maid moaning over her cut finger (she broke a glass), my bank screwing up transfers, the factory getting mixed up in samples and my landlord desperately trying to get involved in the painting process, I was really at my wits end.

I had to pick up stones in the old city and so I hopped, in the mellowing heat of sunset, onto my little auto-rickshaw. It was a bumpy ride, I was pissed off, I was stressed out, I was tired.

I climbed up the windy stairs – and really one day I will take a picture of this fabulously scary alley – and reached the tiny little office where I have sat for hours, probably days. 

It was too late for me to go through all the packets of stones. There wasn’t enough light any more, and I was too giddy. To look at stones, you need peace. I told the man to write down all the weights and let me look at them at home in the morning light. While he wrote, I sat back and looked out. 

It was sunset and the sky was turning tangerine, the old city’s color. The street was busy, but it was this time of the day when things come to a halt and everyone sits down for a cup of chai. It was hot, but with the hint of a breeze. 

I looked over the roofs and then I saw, right in front of me, behind the Palace of Winds, the graceful silhouette of the samrat yantra. This giant sundial built by Jai Singh II in the 18th century as part of his astronomical observatory (Jantar Mantar), is said to be the world’s largest. It has been giving the accurate time for nearly two hundred years and if you visit the observatory you can indeed see its shadow move.

How come I had never noticed it? I spend so much time in this tiny office, how come I had never noticed Jai Singh’s sundial, tall and mysterious, a few hundred yards away?

The samrat yantra, I promise, winked at me. Time goes by fast enough, he said, don’t forget.

Finally

July 3, 2009

rain

 

A couple of years ago, my friend Kasha took me to Rambagh for lunch. It was her birthday, she was getting married soon, and leaving India for Mauritius. It was the month of March, and the airy verandah at Rambagh Palace was completely empty, but for us.

Suddenly, with no warning and not a hint of a cloud, the skies broke into a loud, thunderous, spectacular rain. We were transfixed. From the verandah, it looked like a liquid silver curtain separated us from the rest of the world. A dozen waiters were hovering around us and we drank our cocktails, feeling dizzy but not knowing from what: the sight, the vodka, the smell or the goodbyes.

I have been dreaming of a rainy lunch at Rambagh for the past month. It’s been so hot. There was nothing to do but work and hide, and no small mercy from the skies. It was unbearable, the kind of weather that plays with your nerves and roasts your mind.

Now the monsoon has arrived and from all across the city, you can hear a faint whisper of relief. The showers, spectacular, are watched in awe. The smell is intoxicating and the birds, singing again.

Sadly, it  means that the mango season is almost over. But it also means we are going to go out again, swim in the rain, wander in the bazaar.

And go to Rambagh for lunch.

city palace

The other day I paid a visit to Jaipur’s Police headquarters. I had to register myself at the Foreigners Registration Office which is under the supervision of the District Superintendant of Police.

The DSP’s office is in the City Palace’s compound, up a flight of old, high marble stairs. His Personal Assistant, who has notably kept his post through the change of government, assigned a minion the trifling task of escorting me through the various steps of my registration and off I went, flanked by a policeman, expecting excruciationg hours of form filling and questioning.

I was quite nervous. I absolutely needed the registration papers, but I also knew how tricky these people could be. They could ask me all sorts of questions, and request all sorts of papers I didn’t have.

I was made to fill a form in 4 exemplars. As I started writing my father’s eye color and the way I acquired my present nationality, the officer in front of me jumped off his seat, letting out frightfully loud cries of joy. I froze.

“Have I done something wrong Sir?”

“No, no! But you are a leftie! Ha! How wonderful!”

“Are you a leftie too Sir?”

“Yes!” he said with the broadest smile this side of the Nile.

“Oh, well then you know we are smarter, it’s been scientifically proven!”, I beamed back.

“Yes!” he kept smiling.

“And better tennis players!”

He stopped smiling.

“I don’t play tennis.”,  he said, suddenly grave.

“Oh I don’t blame you…I much prefer…cricket…” I mumbled.

That seemed to please him. I kept filling the form.

One question left me clueless: “Name of vessel on which you have arrived in India“. I decided the Virgin Atlantic flight VS 300 would do.

My leftie friend then proceeded to check my documents. He wanted 6 ID pictures. I only had 4, I said, horrified.

“Oh it’s ok it’s ok. Four is ok.”

I was starting to like my stint at the Police headquarters.

He then asked me to follow him.

As we walked out, I asked:

“Are you taking me for questioning now?”

He laughed.

“No no, no questioning.”

He ushered me into a plush air-conditioned office where sat a very chic man wearing gold-trimmed spectacles. His boss, obviously.

He looked at my papers for a quarter of a second. My friend said I was sent here by the DSP. He nodded. Off we went.

Back in my pals office, it was then time for them to fill their forms. For half an hour, they scribbled information a million sheets of paper. There was much use of carbon paper. Yes, carbon paper.

It was kind of boring, so I decided to interview them to pass the time. Discreetly, you know.

“Do you keep criminals here?”

They found this really funny. I really didn’t. I knew old palaces had underground cells that were still used.

“No. Criminals are in police stations.”

“But this is a police station!”

“No, this is Police Headquarters.”

“Well then you should have the really really really bad criminals here.”

They chuckled.

“Bad criminals are in jail.”

“And where is the jail?”

“On Agra road. Maybe you want to go see it?”

“Oh no, no, not at all Sir!”.

I gave up on my carceral inquiries. Better stick to cricket.

Soon they had finished my registration and handed over the papers to me.

“This was really painless, I exclaimed, what a nice office. I shall bring my friends here to do their registration.”

“You can, but for your friends it will take three days.”

“But….then why did it take half an hour for me? Did you give me VIP treatment?”

“No, not VIP. VVVVVVVIP. We had orders.”

Turned out, this highly civilized treatment had been arranged by my landlord (aka Papa-ji for those of you not familiar with this formidable figure in my life), who seems to know everyone in the terrifying world of bureaucracy.

I wonder if he could get me a driving license.

Raat ki Rani

April 29, 2009

 

raat ki rani

My favorite Indian flower is raat ki rani: queen of the night. Its scientific name is Cestrum Nocturnum.

Its flowers, small and white, open up only at night, and only for a few weeks – at the beginning and the end of summer.

Its smell is unlike anything else. Heady but subtle, fresh but sensual, feminine, exotic, mysterious, intoxicating.

If you ever walk by a bush of raat ki rani, you stop in your tracks. A bit like in the Axe ads. It smells like jasmine, but with something else. Or, should I say, something less. It’s lighter, sweeter, more delicate. It’s deadlier too.

There was one outside the first place I lived in, here in Jaipur. Then I moved, and just like I missed being woken up by peacocks, I missed the heady scent of raat ki rani. Until I moved into this new flat. My building looks rather dull – a new construction in typical Indian tastelessness. But outside, creeping over the wall from the neighbour’s lush garden, is a bush of raat ki rani

My friend Ruby, lovely blonde African girl, put some in my hair when she and her mum stayed with me. And my auto-rickshaw, knowing I love it, is adamant he will get me pots and pots of raat ki rani for my balcony.

Then truly, my evenings would be pure bliss: sunset on Moti Dungri and the scent of raat ki rani.

Hello! Jaipur

April 24, 2009

serena-and-dan

You won’t believe me.

Serena and Dan are in Jaipur.

Serena and Dan.

In my vital space. In the Pink City.

I haven’t seen them. Yet. But my friend P. did. She didn’t only see them. She hung out with them.

She told me this last night, the very moment she walked into the dinner party, knowing I am a fan.

I jumped at her, shaking her violently, barking at the top of my voice: “OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD WHAT DOES SHE LOOK LIKE ARE HER BOOBS FAKE HOW IS HER HAIR DOES SHE HAVE HAIR I MEAN THIS CRAAAAAAAZY MANE OF HAIR DOES SHE SMILE DOES SHE BREATHE IS SHE FOR REAL WHO DID HER BOOBS????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Poor P. tried to disengage herself from my hysterical grip.

She tried to say hi to our hosts, and ask them how they were. She tried to congratulate the person whose birthday we were celebrating.

I certainly did not let this happen.

“SHE IS FINE WE DON’T CARE TELL ME PLEASE TELL ME!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Oh well, I had to struggle to get some information, but I sure did.

Oh, yes.

P. probably won’t take my calls anymore. She thinks I am mentally unstable.

But she spoke. Here is what she told me:

Serena wore a hippie skirt and flip flops.

Heat and Dust

April 20, 2009

heat and dust

Summers in Jaipur are merciless.

To survive under heat-duress, a few minor adjustments are necessary.

First of all, of course, there is the miraculous, over-priced and ever-humming air-conditioning. As much as I hate the sight and noise of these, they are essential. They keep us alive, especially at night, when the heat populates your sleep with angry arctic creatures.

Then, because you can’t spend your day in a refrigerated environment, you learn how to dress for the sweat. That’s where going native comes in handy.

You learn to appreciate your body temperature. Because everything around you is hotter. Including the bedsheets.

I have five showers a day – so much for the eco-warrior in me. They don’t make much of a difference, but it’s psychological.

There is a proverb in Rajasthan that says something like “in the summer, even the dust rises to welcome you”. And indeed, there is dust, thick, immobile, all-pervasive dust: everywhere. It creeps into the house through every millimeter, storms in in a split second and gives everyone, everything, the sleepy look of a Saharan nomad.

Couples fight, servants disappear, children whine and parks are deserted: in a hush, summer has descended.

There are, however, a few good sides to the sweltering heat.

The first and foremost is: mangoes. I could live on a mango-diet. Crates and crates of these sunset-colored delights are my idea of heaven. They come with the heat and go before the rains.

Then there is swimming. Early morning swims in the summer are pure bliss. There is nobody in the hotels, courtesy the heat. Only the peacocks keep me company, sashaying around the pool while I do my laps.

Because, yes, Jaipur is empty during the summer, and yes, I thoroughly enjoy it. We have the city to ourselves, it’s a time to catch up with places we have surrendered to tourists during the long bitter winter months.

The Gods have gone to sleep too, after Holi, so there are but very few weddings – no traffic jams, no blaring music, no party frenzy.

I love the summer in India. It’s a tough season, but strange and slow and calm. No, the real killer is the monsoon: it’s just as hot, but damp and dull.

Hell.

Give me  heat and dust.

Blue Shoes in the Pink City

February 12, 2009

Johari Bazar

It had to happen one day.

I keep claiming that our prettiest clothes should be worn every day, and not kept for some “occasion”. After all, isn’t life the greatest occasion? Shouldn’t we celebrate every day?

Yesterday I went to the bazaar. To the jewellers’ lane, at dusk, when the narrow street is bursting with men and bikes. I was wearing flare blue jeans, a blue cardigan. And my electric blue Sergio Rossi flats. An utterly inappropriate outfit. If you add the oversized gold-trimmed leather handbag, you get the picture: I looked like I was a pathetic candidate to “Who wants to be Serena van der Woodsen”, only I was walking down a pretty atmospheric but nevertheless dusty, dirty  lane of Jaipur’s old city, at the time when the sun sets and the girls get locked in.

I had not planned to go to the old city. I went out for V.’s wedding-dress fitting and to pick up some dry-cleaning. Yes, I wear Sergio Rossis to pick up the dry cleaning and may I just ask: why not? I believe that life is a feast. I think that if you make an effort, life will make one too.

Now do you understand why I gave up philosophy?

Right. So does my Marxist college professor.

I really needed to pick up some jewellery tools: scale, tweezers, ring-sizer, etc. You only find these tools in the bazaar.

The jewellers’ lane, Gopalji ka Rasta, if you care to visit it, is not too bad. It’s a little congested and strictly male-populated, but it’s not scary.

Far down the lane, I finally found the tool shop. One of these tiny little spaces where guys sit on the floor. I was invited to sit down. But for this, I had to remove my shoes.

I bit my lip, overcome by a dilemma.

If I didn’t remove my shoes, I’d have to keep standing with the men at the entrance of the shop. They’d get curious, I’d get irritated, there would be some sort of scene. Now if I did remove my shoes, would there soon be a polyester-sari-clad Indian woman shopping for vegetables in electric blue Sergio Rossis? Because hey, that would be pushing my sense a humour a little far.

No, I thought, nobody was going to grab my shoes. Have faith, darling.

I went about buying my tools. It was fun. I got this stone-grabber that looks like a head-massage thing. I got a real scale. I drew the line at a Rs 20,000 gold tester. But maybe one day.

When I left, it was getting dark.

My tools packed in newspapers, I walked through the sea of bikes and men and honking cars pushing their way through the mess.

My pretty blue shoes, I thought. Well done. You surely have seen the world.

Rajasthan is one of the last places in India where segregation still happens at an upper-class level.

Segregation.

Before I moved to India, I had only heard this word in reference to  South Africa’s apartheid system. Here, it just means women on one side, men on the other one. Which doesn’t bother me in principle.

The problem is, the booze is on the men’s side.

And if you think of lighting a cigarette among the women, you might as well announce  that you are a cross-dressing stripper. Just. Not. Done.

Mind you, it’s not like there is a curtain or anything. It is natural and unspoken. On one side  you have a sea of colorful saris, on the other one, the turbanned heads.

Choose your camp.

But beware of the consequences.

As an unmarried white girl, I know that the women spontanuously pity me. I live alone. I work. I earn my own money. Disgraceful. Worst sin of all, I am unmarried : nobody is accountable for my behaviour, and my total lack of morals is on constant public display.

And it’s not the husbands who’ll disagree. We are eye-candies and the subject of eager teasing. Where we see innocent small talk, they foresee wild extra-marital sex. And please remember: our opinion doesn’t matter. As a man once told me here when I pointed out that my 18-year old houseguests might not succumb to the tantalizing temptation of sleeping with him – maybe something to do with his short size, balding forehead, protruding belly and married status – he, very pissed off with me indeed, replied:

“But you haven’t got it. It’s got nothing to do with being attractive.”

“Oh dear, but what was I thinking, of course not. What is it about then?”

“It’s about convincing them.”

Of course, I thought, of course.

 

Natural Born Killers

December 17, 2008

warrior

Pride is to Rajputs what Manolo Blahniks are to Imelda Marcos. Their most prized possession.

Rajputs are a ruling caste of royal warriors and landowners. Their ancestral home is Rajasthan, formerly known as Rajputana. But you also find large communities of Rajputs in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. However, the largest concentration of them in a big city is probably in Jaipur, where I am lucky to live. I have a lot of Rajput friends and I never tire of asking them about their history. Dumbfounded by their utter confidence in their natural superiority, I have read a bit about their history, which is, indeed, pretty martial.

The Rajput warriors superiority on the battle field is still boasted about today by their great-great-great-grandsons, whose idea of re-enacting it usually involves an air rifle and a pigeon. Their ancestors did leave a mark as natural born warriors, but any contemporary western-educated historian would, I think, question their s0-called war-genius. It is commonly admitted that an exceptional warrior stands out by his intelligence of the battlefield and the clever use he makes of his troops and the equipment at his disposal. I am no historian, but I guess if we follow this criterion, Gengis Khan was probably the greatest warrior of all times, with Alexander, Cesar and Napoleon not far behind.

Now, the Rajput way to fight a war was quite different : they would wear their lucky saffron-colored tunics (because everyone knows luck plays a big role on the battle field), drink a gallon of bhang or any other opium-laced beverage and, stoned out of their heads, would throw themselves, on their galloping Marwari horses, against the enemy lines. They must have been a pretty scary sight. And they did some serious damage. They were extraordinarily reckless, an they were feared because they had no fear. But extraordinary warriors?

However, that doesn’t stop the Rajput community to constantly refer to their illustrious war skills. I even heard a man fight with his American business partner and tell him to lay off because he was “a Rajput, and (he) fought wars”. No kidding.

I was researching the other day about Chittorgarh, the biggest fort in Asia, located in southern Rajasthan. All the articles I read say that Chittorgarh is an impregnable fortress, the emblem of Rajput’s superiority and bravery at war. It has, they say, been sacked three times, but never defeated. I was confused. How can a fortress be sacked if it hasn’t been defeated first? Well, apparently, “defeat” doesn’t exist in Rajput vocabulary. Whenever Chittorgarh lost, instead of surrendering, they’d commit jauhar. Jauhar means mass-suicide. It is often mistaken with sati, the traditional self-immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. But jauhar is very different, mainly because it involves many, many more people. In the sixteenth century, when the Sultan of Gujarat took Chittorgarh, no less than 13,000 women and 32,000 men committed suicide. Putting it back in the context, the dwellers of the fort, had they surrendered, would no doubt have been raped, tortured, murdered. Quite understandably, they’d rather die.

However, this is not the point. What I found extraordinary is the fact that nowhere have I managed to read that Chittorgarh had been defeated. 45,000 people died of their own hands, but don’t worry proud Rajput, you did not lose.

Strangely, questioning their history is off-limits. It is actually quite funny. If I said what I just wrote to pretty much any Rajput, I swear he’d actually smash my head against the nearest wall.

I guess it is because their past is all they have. They aren’t a community known for their entrepreneurial skills, or academic prowess. They hardly is any Rajput in the bureaucracy, and they aren’t intellectuals either. They usually live off their family palace, which they have converted in a hotel.

Rajput dinner parties are, like everything in Rajasthan, segregated. Men on one side, women on the other. Rajput women’s favorite topic of conversation is, of course, who was, is, or will be getting married to whom. Saris come second, Louis Vuitton handbags, third. So like me you’ll probably think forget it, I can’t bear this, let’s talk to the guys. They might be a tidy bit wasted, but at least they are entertaining.

Well if you do get bored, here are a few tested lines who will never fail to spice up the table talk:

Is it true that Rajputs have actually never won a war?

Probable answers: a string of abuses and what the hell do I know about war, have you French people not lost to, ahem, you know, what was this German fellow’s name?

I think Indian men should all see a shrink.

Experienced reactions: they all choke on their lal maas, threatening to turn the dinner into a jauhar, and, once they have recovered, explain me at length how shrinks, you know, are doctors for mentally unstable people, which, I say, is precisely what I meant.

Since all the Rajput rulers gave their daughters away to marry Mughal princes and kings, does this mean you guys have Muslim cousins?

One man dies of an instant heart attack, three vomit and the last one plants his fork into my heart.

Streetstyle in Johari Bazar

December 9, 2008

Jaipur’s old city is world famous. Tourists rush there en masse as soon as they set foot in town. Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds, has had its pretty pink face featured in probably more magazines than Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell put together.

It is indeed a lovely old city, especially when compared to the dirty windy lanes of many Indian old towns. The broad avenues set in a geometrical pattern are courtesy Jai Singh, who planned and founded Jaipur in 1727. In hindi, -pur means “city” so Jaipur was conveniently named after its founder, just like Jodhpur was named after Rao Jodha and Udaipur after Udai Singh.

Jaipur’s walled city must have been a delight in the eighteenth century with its wide streets and pretty arcades. Less than three hundred years later, traffic has turned it into total chaos.

Saturday, I even went on a scouting trip to Johari Bazaar

I thought I’d show you my absolute favorite spot. To me it is simply perfection.

img_0480

The white mattressed floor of the anteroom, the low off-white desk, the arched wall and the dangling bare bulbs, the faded blue with a hint of green, the cream-colored cupboards and the big white cushions: it is shabby, vintage, delicate and sexy at the same time.

I love love love it.

And then the utter beauty of the office itself, where the two diamond dealers, barefeet and clad in kurta-pyjamas, are reading the papers as if nothing else mattered. They probably have thousands of carats worth of diamonds to discuss, offices in Hong Kong, Cape Town and Antwerp… But right now they are ensconced in the local papers: business can wait.