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.
Through 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.
After 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!
Hotel 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 hotelpearlpalace.com). 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.
In 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.