Tag Archives: colours

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 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.

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.



Rioting Colour: Movies and Mayhem on Holi

I’m bombarded by colourful threats and left red-faced; I’m rejected by Bollywood but star in cricket; I meet a pimp and hot chicks, pink drunks and purple pups.

Today was International Women’s Day.  Newspaper articles honoured female Indian leaders and deplored on-going problems.  A recent Hindustan Times survey found 91% of Delhi women have experienced sexual harassment, which Indians euphemistically call Eve-teasing.  Two thirds of women find public transport unsafe, few have complained to police and nearly three-quarters who do have found them unhelpful.

Today was also Holi, the Indian festival of colours that celebrates the start of spring.  Over the last few days street stalls sold vibrant packets of powders and dyes, and all manner of water pistols.  Plastic pipe-and-plungers were built like the bamboo rods I saw in an 18th-century painting of Holi.  “Machine guns” hold 6 litres of ammunition.  Figurines pee spray when pressed.  I read of upper-class parties with swimming pools of coloured water.

holi-colors-marketNewspapers exhorted dye-fighters to purchase safe organic colours, not cheaper industrial dyes – made from nice substances like lead, mercury, asbestos or other toxins – that may permanently stain clothing, damage skin, hinder breathing, cause poisoning or even blindness: that charming glitter comes from powdered glass.  My SpiceJet magazine showed how to make your own eco-friendly colours from natural substances.  Crush black grapes and tomatoes for purple and red, dry and crush Marigold and Jacaranda petals for yellow and blue, mix henna powder with spinach paste for green.  It recommended smearing face and hair with coconut oil or petroleum jelly to protect your skin.  Papers carried big adverts for washing powder.

The Hindustan Times said laws against psychoactive drugs are relaxed at Holi and warned against overdosing on sweets and drinks containing cannabis bhang.  It also warned of eye injury from high-speed balloons: don’t try to clean your eye as contaminated water can cause infection, but just shut it tight and rush to the nearest hospital.  I visited a Toastmasters club the night before Holi and heard more tales of wild intoxication.  One speaker feared the hazardous holiday and planned to stay at home.  After all this build-up, I faced the big day with both anticipation and trepidation.

At my hotel breakfast this morning, two enthusiastic American women had already smeared each other and were keen to initiate others.  I consented and sallied into the fray with reddened hair, cheeks, beard and shirt.  Countless cheerful “happy Holi!” greetings from locals delighted to see a foreigner participating.  Now and then a guy gently topped up my smears with red powder, which I’d read was the most safe and wash-outable.

Everything was closed for the public holiday and the metro didn’t run until the afternoon when most of the action is over, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  An auto-rickshaw driver offered a lift into town at a dirt cheap rate.  As his first customer of the day, he smiled, I’d bring good luck.  I’ve heard this line before and, as I suspected, he took me for a ride all the way to his mate’s emporium.  I refused to enter and endure high-pressure sales tactics, thanked him for the ride, consulted my compass and headed for Connaught Place.  I’d retreated in defeat on my first night (see here) so thought I’d take it back by day.

The circle was almost deserted.  Then a man darted across the road in desperation, dodged oncoming cars and leaped into a moving bus.  “Cut!”  The vehicles reversed a block, and then it all happened again.  The film crew waved me away – the fools didn’t want a skinny kiwi in red sunhat to grace their Bollywood blockbuster, although teenage guys take photos with me everywhere I go: I must be a Hindi Facebook sensation!

I joined the assorted spectators, their clothes blotched in assorted colours.  Another ear cleaner approached, cotton buds stuck in cap, and flourished a note book of references from satisfied customers.  He even had one from NZ.  He was eager to investigate my otological condition – “No touch, just looking!” – but I was having none of that.

holi-colorsOn a corner by my local metro station between drink-vending carts is a tiny mosque you’d almost miss if you blinked.  I popped in after the Bollywood action and 8 Muslim boys befriended me.  They were 10-13 years old and live here to study the Koran.  Good Muslims don’t participate in Holi so they were bored and enjoyed my broken Hindi attempts to chat.  Then I was ushered out to the parking lot behind the Metro, given a bat-shaped plank and placed before a concrete slab with stones balanced on top for bails.  The lads cheered valiantly when I finally hit the tennis ball before it hit my wicket.

My friendliest Hindi experience yet was followed by the worst.  A dozing guy hailed me as I farewelled the lads.  After greeting him I clumsily asked, “Do you have boys and girls?”  Most people are proud of their offspring.  When I asked the rickshaw driver the same question that morning, he had happily enumerated the ages of his kids.  This guy’s response seemed to be different.  I shook my head in puzzlement and he resorted to a visual aid.  Curling one hand into a loose fist, he thrust his other index finger in and out.  It dawned on me that he was offering a youngster for less savoury pursuits than cricket.

I played the dumb foreigner – no comprendo – and escaped to the metro, now open, and sped off to another market for the afternoon.  One courtyard was lined with cages of live chickens and boiling pots of dead ones.  The ground was covered in carcasses, blood, feathers and flies.  I was tired and hungry but scenes like this made me unsure what was safe to eat.  I found a small general store and bought a pack of digestive biscuits and another of chips.  So many of the highs and the lows in India revolve around the stomach and food.  Sometimes I eat like a king, with a bottomless delicious platter for three dollars; sometimes I spend the day in a fascinatingly aromatic market where all visible fodder swarms with flies and I’m forced to fast.  Perhaps that’s appropriate in Lent.

In the market maze I saw statues of Shiva and Krishna.  These gods mostly have blue bodies, which was most fitting for Holi.  I was still coloured red and amiable drunks with pink hair and lurid faces shook my hand.  Bright splotches on the footpath marked the scene of morning bombardments.  The streets were roamed by green and purple dogs.