Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lighting up

Back to the real India - the pollution-hazed sunshine, streets full of rickshaws, stalls, cows and cow dung, the smell of incense barely masking the whiff of frying samosas and urine, the clamour of horns and bicycle bells, hawkers yells and unsolicited greetings from all and sundry (mostly sundry) as you idle down the street. Actually, this is a slight exaggeration, we never "idle" down the street - this takes years of acclimating, as they say here. There is the joy of discovering other new expressions. My favourites are given in response to a request for directions: "Upside!" "downside!" and, if they're feeling especially perky "backside!"

After a few days in Delhi, letting our senses acclimate, we have been skittling south west through Rajasthan. In Jaipur, the state capital, the preparations for Diwali are in full swing. The bazaars in the old walled town are bedecked with fairy lights, the pavements and roads crawling with shoppers, moving slowly along like ant trails scurrying backwards and forwards. At Diwali, the Festival of Light, it's traditional for everyone to put on new clothes and to clean out the house. The festival also marks the end of harvest time, shopkeepers open up new accounts. It feels like Christmas and New Year rolled into one. Like Christmas, it seems also a festival of shopping too these days, although one cycle rickshaw wallah told us that Diwali is for the rich people, not a festival for the poor. But it is a Hindu festival that everyone here seems to get carried away with. For a country full of temples, mosques and churches, this is still a very material world. Every day we can see people just trying to get by. We read recently that just under half the population survive on 80 rupees a day on average - that's one pound. A kilo of bananas here is 20 rupees. So maybe the cycle rickshaw wallah is right.
We visit Amber Fort nearby, busy with holidaymakers in their new clothes. Rajasthan is littered with forts and palaces like this, set dramatically on hilltops. Before independence the region was a collection of warring kingdoms, rarely invaded by outsiders. Now it's a tourist hotspot, the fort doors all firmly wedged open to the masses. Down in Amber village the streets are scruffy and run down. There's a row of makeshift polythene tents housing a group of families. Children run around half-dressed. The women carry pots to and from the water pump in the centre of the village.

Away from the noise and bright lights of Jaipur, Bundi is an oasis of calm. That is until the evening of Diwali proper, when the narrow lanes echo and boom with fire crackers and bangers and the sky is lit up with fireworks. The womenfolk in this little town open up the doors to their homes and emerge onto the streets carrying trays of oil lamps. Window ledges, roof parapets and door thresholds are dotted with these lamps and the women carry more to the various shrines and temples around the old town. It's a simple but magical effect re-enacting Rama's return to his kingdom after exile, the lights welcoming him back.
Bundi's a peaceful town with the requisite fort and a palace decorated with murals of the life of the raja. The twisting streets below are full of brightly painted crumbling old houses.
Cows wander around, leaving huge mounds of dung that get collected up, dried and used for fuel. Now and again we come across a step well - an elaborately-built structure that enabled people to walk down to the water, rather than just use a bucket. Sadly, most are now full of rubbish and shit and the best, which has been restored, is closed off to prevent it going the way of the others. We experience another theft here, from our guesthouse room. We are shocked, particularly because it occurs right in front of our eyes as we're sat on our bed having a mid-afternoon siesta. The robber is quick and efficient - sneaking in through the balcony door carelessly left open, sticks his head up, grabs the bag on the bed and runs out as we shout out in protest/fright/surprise. The cheeky monkey - stole our last banana.
On our way to to Udaipur we stop off in Chittor. A rickshaw driver offers us a ridiculously cheap too-good-to-be-true price to take us to the budget guesthouse just inside the fort walls. On the way he stops to explain that actually the guesthouse has been closed for four years now and wouldn't we like to stay at a nicer hotel in town? We insist we go to the guesthouse. It does appear to be closed. But we ignore the sad driver, who has lost his hotel commission, and decide to look around the ruined fort's temples, towers and palaces. Then it's down to the bus stand, pick up the last two seats (back seat - a bum deal) on the state-run battle bus to Udaipur.
Ahhhh, Udaipur, the jewel in the crown of Rajasthan - a lake, a palace and a hundred and one hotels all with a roof terrace to capture the view of, er, a hundred and one roof terraces, oh and the Lake Palace Hotel which seems to float on the water. Octopussy was filmed here. You can watch the Bond film any night at any of the hotels - or every night at ours. We're staying at the Hanuman Ghat Hotel. It's cheap and cheerful, but the staff are a right bunch of monkeys. We came here the last time we were in India and it has got a little busier - but then everyone is still enjoying their Diwali holidays. On the lakeside there are ghats, or steps, where local women do their laundry and have a quick wash themselves. From a distance the lake looks very pretty, but close up it's like all still water in India - a fetid dirty pool with green scum on the surface. This may sum India up - looks great if you don't get too close.

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