Category Archives: Jaipur

Clowning Beggars, Mapping Scams and Moral Hazards

I navigate nameless Indian streets, bump into pushy opportunists and well-schooled brats, survey a circus of histrionic scams, and contemplate cardiac disease.

Most Delhi streets had big green labels in Hindi and English.  Outside the capital, I’ve found street signs are often in local scripts, if there are signs at all.  To make things worse many roads have been officially renamed since British days to memorialise Indian independence heroes or politicians.  On my Bangalore map, for example, Fort Rd became Rajaram Mohanroy Rd, and Residency Rd is now FM Cariappa Rd (FM = Field Marshal).  Some streets are now called by either name, or abbreviated for a third possibility again.  This makes navigation difficult for hapless foreigners like your humble correspondent, especially when few rickshaw-wallahs speak English.

Crossing the road was also harder in Jaipur, with no underpasses like in Delhi and the most animals I’ve seen.  As well as the usual Indian civic farmyard, camels plodded along pulling carts, while monkeys scampered around refuse and rooftops.  Traffic density is extreme, on both right and wrong sides of the road if not the footpath, so you need to look in all directions at all times.  When a fleeting gap in the flood at last appears, a rickshaw driver swoops in to block your way with a hopeful grin – “No!  Go away!  Move!”

camels-jaipurLacking 360-degree vision, I once stepped from behind a stationary rickshaw and collided with a pedestrian.  I apologised, and got safely across the road with the usual sigh of relief.  Then I felt a tug at my arm: the angry face of the guy I’d hit.  Scruffy-looking and obviously unhurt, seizing the opportunity when he saw I was foreign.  I repeated, “Maaf kijiye, sorry!”  He said “very offended, sorry no”, holding out his hand to demand money.  A shopkeeper told him to get lost, and I scampered while they argued.

It was my most unpleasant encounter so far, though beggars can also be difficult.  Some sit quietly by temple, church or railway entrances.  There are elderly women with wrinkled grandmotherly faces and gentle courteous pleading.  But the kids may follow you with hungry persistence.  Offering food is a recommended approach and beggars often welcomed a slice of bread on my first trip to Bangalore.  Several times up here, however, my bread rolls or bananas have been scornfully rejected with cries of “money money!”  The little brats have been schooled.  With a group clustered around me, I feel quite vulnerable.  Should all those little hands launch a coordinated attack, it’d be hard to defend my pockets, and I’ve been told many beggars work for “mafia”.  Most locals just tell them to scram, sometimes even on my behalf.

jaipur-pepsi-camelIn New Delhi’s Connaught Place, a boy collared me, with agonized face and voice weakened by hunger, miming his need for food by putting his hand in his mouth.  Older than usual, and unusually pushy, he seemed almost melodramatic.  When he finally gave up following, I heard, loud and clear, in perfectly articulated English, “F you F-ing man”.  Two passing women tittered, enjoying the performance.  Not for nothing is the ring road called Connaught Circus: foreign clowns provide good sport.

I’ve yet to witness the shoe-poo scam.  Many a tourist, I’ve read, spots a tidy worm of excrement on their foot just as a shoeshine man providentially shows up to clean it off.  Of course he or his mate has just planted it.  I guess my cracked sneakers or old sandals aren’t polishable enough for them to bother, or I looked too poor.

The Hotel Pearl Palace produced a pink booklet “Jaipur for Aliens” which advises its customers, “The Hotel is not responsible for the persistent auto-rickshaws standing in the street.  They are not contracted with the Hotel” – despite what they may claim.  It goes on to warn against over-friendly strangers: “They might harm you financially by gaining your confidence”.  There are various gem scams, some run by bogus palmists and astrologers who may even give correct predictions, before selling you costly stones at bargain rates to cure your ills.  You’ll get home to find, if they arrive at all, you’ve bought pretty pieces of glass.

Peter Colaco Bangalore CoverIn his book of memories, Bangalore: a Century of Tales from City and Cantonment (2003) Peter Colaco recalled “performing artists of the road”.  In the days before heavy motor vehicle traffic, he once found a man unconscious on the street, frothing at the mouth, apparently collapsed from starvation.  Indignant at the lack of neighbourhood charity – passers-by just walked on – Colaco dragged the unfortunate to safety on the footpath, heard his tale of woe, and gave him money for a meal.  A few weeks later he happened upon the same man spread-eagled on another street.  This time he sat on a stone bench and waited for the comedy when someone else took pity:

As soon as the good Samaritan was out of sight, he wriggled back to the middle of the road and re-assumed his carefully arranged pose, of a man who has accidentally collapsed.  For the first time I became aware of Beggary as a Performing Art.

Then, Colaco remembers, there was Cycle Lamp Charlie.  A soft-spoken gent would approach with evident embarrassment.  Could you spare a rupee or two?  Someone had stolen the kerosene from his bicycle lamp and he had to cycle home.  The streets were dark, the police ruthless in prosecuting those without a light.  And there was a charismatic couple of crippled lepers who pushed each other around in a cart and asked for money when it was broken – now one couldn’t walk, now the other.  Colaco concludes:

You know that beggary is a social evil, that you should not give in.  You know you should give to developmental organisations.  Beggars know you have a streak of guilt, they can work on it with the precision of a micro-surgeon.  You know that you are being conned, but you give, often with a smile.

I must be less compassionate than him.  I find it easy to refuse and am disturbed to notice that I have similar psychological reactions to begging street children and stray dogs: dislike, apprehension and avoidance.

Before I came here I heard of experienced India travellers who recommend you never give money to beggars.  I heard of one woman who did and was mobbed by mendicants.  Surrounded and terrified, she was rescued by a policeman.  Some Indian friends say they do give a few coins to the elderly or crippled, those clearly in need.

Maybe locals could judge, but how can I tell who is genuine?  Blanket refusal seemed the safest policy, confirmed by stories of fake or criminal scans like those above, and has been my position until recently.

But I’ve reflected some more.  Hard and fast ethical rules can be a convenient excuse to avoid responsibility for one’s own actions and evade the effort of growing in wisdom yourself, to oversimplify real-life issues so you look at a needy individual face and see only generic cynical statistics.  I’ve decided I will sometimes give a coin or two, when a begger is visibly in need but doesn’t melodramatically market his plight or attack like a slick-talking salesmen, when I’m away from tourist sites that are likely monopolised by professional fraudsters, and the supplicant seems to be safely alone.

Sometimes, maybe often, I’ll get it wrong and my rupees will only fatten the master of a begging gang.  But I’ve come to realise there is a far greater risk if I consistently ignore the misery I see: growing hard of heart.  I don’t want my soul to shrivel and lose compassion out of fear of being deceived, to end up refusing those I could have slightly helped, or to end up rebuffing, for example, the many friendly kids who run up with winning smiles and ask me to take their photo.  A few belligerently demand “photo money”, but most are innocently delighted to see themselves posing on my camera screen and then happily wave goodbye.  They often ask to see coins or stamps and I wish I’d brought such tokens of New Zealand to show them.

On one rickshaw ride home, I passed a woman cooking on a traffic island, her pot over a little fire between bricks.  Then I realized with a start that she wasn’t a hawker selling meals: that was her kitchen, outside a tarpaulin that housed her offspring.  I think it’s important, having witnessed poverty and distress, that we in some way respond with more than a little loose change.  As in 2007, I’ve determined when I return home to donate to groups like Tear Fund and The Leprosy Mission, the sort of developmental organisations that Colaco mentions, who work in places like India and will spend their resources far more wisely than I could.


Astronomical Playgrounds, Aladdin’s Fort and Sculpting God

I fight off vendors and mark off the heavens, gear up for war and assault a fort, find Aladdin’s silken cave and survey the birthplace of gods.

Delhi, Agra and Jaipur form the tourist “Golden Triangle” so it’s not surprising that in Jaipur I saw many ambulant copies of Lonely Planet, and was more harassed by touts than anywhere else I’ve been.   Walking down the Old City’s main bazaar on my first night brought a constant barrage of “hello… sir!” from guys enticing me into their stalls. Pointy leather shoes and psychedelic sandals, sparkling bangles and gems, orange patterned cushions and rainbow curtains embroidered with flowers, peacocks, elephants.  I could smell the perfume samples dabbed on my wrist whenever I wiped my brow all day.  One hawker chased me down the block jangling his Rajasthani puppets in my face, and I practised saying “I don’t like shopping” in Hindi to several rickshaw drivers detouring to a mate’s emporium.

In the midst of the hubbub, there are impressive sights here.  One palace housed the world’s biggest silver jars, made from 14000 melted coins, 1.6 m tall, weighing 345 kg.  Not trusting English water, the Raja used them to transport 5091 litres from the holy Ganges River when he attended King Edward’s Coronation in 1902.  A metal lattice ball was filled with fire for the Emperor Akbar to play polo at night.  I had a vision of bejewelled courtiers pursuing a flaming orb like a scene from Harry Potter.  In the armoury were punching daggers designed to pierce armour, sometimes with two pistols attached, or scissoring double blades to slice up your intestines for bonus damage inside.

As well as a warrior – as such weaponry attests – Jaipur’s founder was an astronomer.  At first glance, the Jantar Mantar or “instrument of calculation” resembled a park of abstract sculptures or a giant quirky playground, with staircases leading to nowhere and sweeping curves like deformed slides.  It is now a World Heritage site.  There are hemisphere domes and pits that you get right inside to read star angles and elevations on finely graded scales.  A 90 foot high right-angled wedge forms a huge sundial.  The shadow moves several metres per hour, making it accurate to a few seconds.  Smaller versions are oriented to the 12 zodiac constellations.  In India, astrology still determines dates for weddings, business ventures or political meetings, and planetariums seem very popular.

jaipur-jantar-mantarThe city is surrounded by scrubby hills dotted with old defences and my Jaipur highlight was a daytrip out to Amber Fort.  Elephants with painted trunks carried tourists up the chunky cobbled road to a lemon-coloured palace which was interesting but over-crowded.  I hiked half an hour up the hill above to Jaigarh fortress.  They say it was never captured.  At one end was the world’s largest wheeled canon.  It has a 20 foot barrel, takes 100 kg of gun powder for a single shot, and can drive a cannonball up to 35 km.

I wound my way through dull stone passageways and dusty courtyards, stumbled on a sort of Punch and Judy puppet show, then turned another corner into bright sun and beheld a summit paradise.  I was at a verdant walled garden with symmetrical canals and manicured shrubs.  You could see for miles from its shady corner turrets.  Battlements snaked across the hills like the Great Wall of China, with goats herded between them.  All the courtyards of the palace were laid out below, next to a square island garden in the lake.  Just in front of me two squirrels chased each other, leaping along the wall’s crenellations.  No horns or fumes, no beggars or Americans.  Alone on top of the world, I felt lord of all I surveyed and my spirit soared.

jaipur-fabric-luxuryEven in the city centre, it’s surprisingly easy to escape the tourists and touts.  Just step off the main drag into the network of alleys, and see what you can find!  A lane of pharmaceuticals, crates full of medicines; then electrical and whiteware goods on the pavements.  I could look around as long as I liked, and no one tried to sell me a fridge!  One metre wide woks of hot milk.  Metres of fabric were being drawn out from steaming cauldrons of dye like from a magician’s hat.  Rickshaw repair stalls strewed pumps and parts and wrenches across the path.  In narrow sari shops, their walls stacked with folded fabrics, male assistants pulled down sample after sample, throwing them like silken ribbons through the air to settle slowly before veiled customers until the floor was thick with cloth of every colour.  Their gold and silver threads littered in the hot lights like an Aladdin’s Cave.  Another vender dozed on a thick bed of jumbled fabric, a Maharaja of luxuriant colour.  Further on I heard drumming, followed it around a corner or two, and found women sitting outside a small temple where two of them danced out the divine romance of Lord Krishna and cowgirl Radha.  And then I found the street of idols.

Electric grinders were spewing white dust and artisans in headscarves were chiselling by hand, with unpolished sculptures ranked behind them, metal files jumbled at their feet, and raw blocks of marble on the step outside.  A room of cheerful young chaps, perhaps apprentices, were sanding and smoothing, water splashing from their buckets as their statues began to shine.  One craftsman was colouring a goddess with a fine brush, painting on a golden bangle.  Most of the statues were Hindu deities like the elephant god Ganesh, the sacred bull of Shiva, monkey god Hanuman with an unfinished featureless snout, or multi-armed warrior goddess Durga astride her lion.  I also saw a Buddha, a small bust of Gandhi, a solemn turbaned ruler.  When he learnt I was Christian, one sculptor proudly told me he’d made a crucifix, standing with arms outstretched to show me.

jaipur-idol-makersWhat a contrast between these rows of dusty statues handled by grubby artisans and their gleaming future in temples.  There these gods will be offered plates of coconuts, fruits, sweets and rice; they’ll be washed in milk and clothed every day by the priests.  The nose jewel of a goddess may even be removed before the temple is closed at night, so it doesn’t rub her divine consort when they make love!

I wondered what their work meant to these men.  Just a job to put chapattis on the table, or a noble calling of craftsmanship, or a lifestyle of loving worship?  In Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), William Dalrymple speaks to a maker of bronze idols in south India, learning that the statue becomes alive and divine when its eyes are carved with a gold chisel, and finding one answer to my question:

“Our workshop should be like a temple,” Srikanda said.  “Every second is holy.  Some people think that what we do is an art, but we think of it mainly as an act of devotion.  For us art and religion are one: only when there is prayer can the artist make a perfect sculpture…. as we work we think only of God, saying the appropriate mantras as we carve and model.”


Maroon Seats and the Pink City: by Train to Jaipur

I wake up the station, witness squalor and splendour, and try to find words that aren’t too dull; I scale a city wall, see monkeys in mansions, and paint the town pink.

Yesterday I rose before 5am in Delhi, munched a muesli bar, and woke up the guy at reception who was slumbering on a couch to unlock the hotel door.  It was cool and dark outside.  I slipped out the gate without waking the guard in his blanket.  There was little traffic but an empty auto-rickshaw soon passed, driver likewise blanket-wrapped, and whisked me to Delhi Central for my 6am train.

Rows of flames flickered on the kerb outside the station – a dawn rite?  Inside, families were sleeping among their luggage and stacks of newspapers.  Shops were opening for the day.  A “book cum chemist” stall, diverse snack and drink vendors.  Signs gave official rates for porters, who carried one or two or three cases on heads wound with cloth coils.  I grabbed a 5 rupee coffee and headed for my platform.  Electronic signboards in English and Hindi make it easy, as do passenger printouts taped by the carriage doors, and I was reassured to see my name after the booking headaches in February (see here).  We’ve all seen those photos of Indian trains covered in people, but no one was hanging from the roof here.

I had an AC chair car with maroon leather seats, luggage racks, fold-down trays and complimentary papers like in a plane, but with far more leg-room (than economy class anyway), and also more grime and dust.  Waiters brought a brown thermos of boiling water with a “tea kit” and a choice of veg or non-veg breakfast.  Toilets drop onto the tracks, which must be the most fertile strips of land in India though lined by litter thrown from windows.

As I had requested online, a window seat for the view.  I followed the journey 260 km south-west to Jaipur with my phone’s GPS: cruising speed was about 100 km/hr.  In the cities, slums often line the rails.  Ripped tarpaulins stretched over cylinder frames, tightly-packed brick or concrete or corrugated iron constructions, some with rough bamboo ladders up to a second storey.  Very shabby, but in some places there was a TV dish on each rubble-strewn roof.  Women were washing clothes, pumping water or carrying jars and buckets on their heads.  Men were dozing, urinating, or kicking motorbikes into life.  Infants were playing in the dust by the tracks beneath colourful lines of washing and walls often covered in advertising.  One had “Happy Diwali” scrawled in English.

train-to-jaipur-viewThrough the smudged amber-tinted glass, the countryside had the soft hue of a sepia photo or impressionist painting.  A boy leading three buffalos.  Lush crops, rich soil, flashes of saffron or magenta from workers in the fields.  Harvesting with sickles, threshing grain, tying stalks into bundles that are stood leaning together in wigwams.  It reminded me of Millet’s paintings like The Gleaners (see Wikipedia).  Replace the drab 19th-century peasants’ clothing with vibrant saris, and you’ll get the idea!

Hamlets of thatched huts clustered around hand water pumps.  Cows, goats, hens, pigs wallowed in a bog.  Cow dung lay drying in the sun like pizzas, then was stacked into walls or igloo-like structures, ready for use as fuel.  Many half-built or half-collapsed brick buildings.  Distant mosque minarets or temples; under some trees the green tomb of a Muslim saint, or a cubic Hindu shrine with bright pointed roof.  The occasional scarecrow or water tower or cell phone antenna.  Motorbikes swarmed at level crossing barriers.

jaipur-motorbikeAfter four hours I arrived in Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, which means the Land of Kings: they claimed to be descended from the sun and the moon.  Rajasthan is India’s most oversaturated state.  Flaming women in red-orange saris sparkle with glass beads; men in Technicolor turbans flaunt flamboyant moustaches.  The museum said turbans vary by region, caste or season and can be up to 6 metres long.  They make good ropes to draw water from a well, and in war are placed in surrender at the victor’s feet; their forceful removal is the ultimate humiliation.  One gardener was in dirty white clothing and a fluorescent pink turban.

As I try to depict India, I realise how colorifically challenged my lexicon is.  I struggle for language that’s bright enough.  The chromophobic and colour-prejudiced Le Corbusier, architect of a dull designed city in north India, wouldn’t have cared to capture it anyway.  He thought colour was suited merely “to simple races, peasants and savages”.  I side with Victorian essayist John Ruskin, who championed the swirling sunsets of William Turner and said “the purist and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most”.  India is the place for people like that, the perfect field for a Ph.D. in colour psychology or colorology.  Jaipur will drive your colorimeter right off the scale.  I love it!

jaipur-sandalsHotel Pearl Palace was the most attractive and colourful place I’ve stayed at, and one of the cheapest (if you are bedding down in Jaipur see  Paintings and sculptures are everywhere; a fresco of Indian scenes hung above my harlequin Rajasthani bedspread that shone with miniature mirrors.  Its breezy peacock-themed restaurant on the roof overlooked an old fort, but my favourite eatery in town was Ganesh, a little vegetarian restaurant perched atop the old city wall where you could watch the cook rolling dough, stirring dhal and frying chillies from your table.  Some boys showed me the narrow staircase up.

In 1727 warrior-king Jai Singh laid out Jaipur on a square grid pattern according to scriptural principles, making it India’s first planned city.  The architecture mixes Hindu and Muslim styles, and its Hindu Rajas had a delicate relationship with their Muslim overlords.  A Moghul emperor heard of a palatial reception hall that outclassed his own, so in resentment dispatched troops to destroy it.  The soldiers found a large but drab auditorium, decided reports had been exaggerated, and left it intact.  The citizens had temporarily plastered over its sculptures.

jaipur-umbrellasIn 1876 Jaipur was painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales, and the Old City has been kept the same colour ever since.  I saw shops named “Pink City Fireworks” and “Pinky Saree Centre”.  As in Delhi, I was stirred by the sense of fallen greatness.  Men in shabby grey trousers and lacklustre shirts ride motorbikes through the engraved archways and pillared courtyards of mansions.  A little boy peeped from a square window that close-cropped his head; his sister leaned over a blackened balcony rail beneath delicately carved flowers; a monkey leapt up to a drain pipe.

The main streets are lined with faded pink facades with rows of balustrades and broken grills, once richly ornate and still glorious in the setting sun.  Most impressive is the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds.  It is the icon of Jaipur, a five-storey pink honey-comb of delicate stone grills, white floral motifs, gold-spiked cupolas and small shutters over 953 windows.  It was built for the ladies of the ruler’s harem to observe street life below without being seen themselves.  Cooled by breezes on the top, I enjoyed doing the same.