Fear and Loathing in Jaipur – a short story from India.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
Jaipur had sounded great on paper. ‘‘The pink city!’’ ‘‘The shopping capital of Rajasthan!’’ ‘‘A lively, colourful metropolis!’’ Add to that a royal palace and a historical fort crowning its surrounding hills. Hence the question of whether or not to pay Jaipur a visit had seemed like a no-brainer. And yet, so far our stay hadn’t been great at all. It had been… less than great. In fact, the whole thing had been a bit of a nightmare.
Allan and I sat in a state of grumpy, near-silence eating a late dinner at a restaurant near our guesthouse. Picking at a mediocre plate of samosas and dhal, I impatiently flagged down a passing waiter. ‘‘Two Kingfishers’’ I said, swatting away a persistent mosquito. ‘‘No wait…. fuck it, make that four”.
A few tables away a dreadlocked Australian adorned in a network of misadvised tattoos held court over a couple of Swedish girls. Both of whom looked as if they’d arrived in Jaipur straight from a My Little Pony commercial. Wooing them both with tales of macho heroism, Aussie guy droned on and on. Each anecdote more sensational and unlikely than the last. He’d lived in a remote forest cave for three nights. He’d ducked under the legs of an advancing black bear. Listening to his tall tales with a sense of growing distaste, it struck me that this guy was Jaipur in human form. Confident, brash and alluring… but ultimately full of shit.
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur , a short story from India.
We’d had a torrid time with the local taxi drivers at the train station. These guys were a whole different breed of dishonest, as they simply refused to take us where we wanted to go! In the end it took over an hour to find someone who would play ball. And even then the leech in question charged us a horribly inflated fare for the privilege.
Having finally pulled up at The Evergreen Guest House, we were further dismayed to discover there had been an almighty cock up. Somehow the place had been overbooked and we’d drawn the short straws. Subsequently, the receptionist offered nothing more than a nervous laugh and a shrug of his scrawny shoulders. So we had little choice than to head back out into the pink city and patch together some kind of plan B. Flipping through his guidebook, Allan identified a couple of places within walking distance. But what followed was a depressing, two hour excursion of fruitless door-knocking.
The first hostel was full, the second joint was closed and the third place was now a florist! “Red roses, sir?” grinned the boy behind the counter. Stumbling upon another guesthouse, the little old woman who appeared took one look at my dishevelled form and promptly shut the door in my face! Turning away, I caught sight of myself in a nearby car window and actually empathised with the poor woman. If I’d been her, I wouldn’t have let me in either.
It was now approaching midnight. Trudging aimlessly down yet another nameless street, Allan came to a resigned stop, dropping down onto the curb with a deep sigh. I was just about to join him when I spotted a sign on the other side of the road, partly obscured by the drooping branch of a tree.
The Ashiyana Guesthouse.
Crossing the road for a closer look, we were not hopeful. The entire building was dark and silent, no sign of life within. With nothing to lose, I rapped loudly on the door, but there was no response. Allan tried peering through the windows, but they were covered in an impenetrable coat of sinister brown-green grime. I’d already turned my attention back to the road when the door creaked open and an old man poked his face out, the chain rattling against the latch.
‘‘No Israelis!” he bellowed and then slammed the door shut again. ‘‘Hey!’’ I called back impatiently, ‘‘we’re not Israelis! Please, open up!’’ ‘‘Go now, police coming!” he shot back. “We’re not Israelis” I pleaded, my tiredness really beginning to take its toll. “I can prove it! Passports… we have passports, I can show you!!!”
Upon the man’s insistence, we fed our passports through the letterbox and waited. A few nervy minutes later the door swung open and he beckoned us inside with a hostile glare. Leading the way through a dark, dank corridor, the old man brought us into a cluttered room where he presented us with a curry-stained guestbook.
“I don’t like Israelis!” he growled, as we filled out the forms. “One time Israelis come… big trouble for Mahatma”. Leading us up to a morose twin room on the grey, rooftop courtyard, Mahatma grunted as he handed me the keys. Clearing his throat, he proceeded to run through a list of regulations, which included “No drugs’!’ ‘‘No beers!’’ and ‘‘No womens!’’ Furthermore, and above all else, definitely ‘‘No Israelis!”
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur, a short story from India.
The next morning, buoyed by a mammoth sleep and a reasonable breakfast at a nearby bakery, we headed out into The Pink City to sample its supposed delights. Mapping out a walking route, Allan and I set off for The Hawa Mahal, an 18th century royal residence. A place where, back in the day, the ladies of the house would watch city processions from the safety of its sandstone towers.
Things started off fairly well. Encircled by a fortified wall and following a grid system, Jaipur proved an easy enough place to navigate. But the heat soon became stifling, the traffic horrendous. Moreover, as a visual spectacle, I found the city a dreary, run-down old place. Passing street after featureless street, I lost count of the interchangeable tailors, teahouses and office blocks. ‘‘Where’s the pink?’’ asked Allan. I did not know.
“Aha movie star!!!” came a voice from behind me. Then a heavy hand ran playfully through my hair. Pulling away, I span round to see a podgy teenager dressed in branded sportswear and a back-to-front baseball cap. “How are you? Come with me, we can be friends!” Standing uncomfortably close, he let out a hearty laugh, rubbing his open palms down the sides of my shorts. Unsure whether to take this as a clumsy sexual advance, or an attempt to locate my wallet (and wanting to be the recipient of neither), I mumbled my excuses and tried to move away. But my escape was blocked by a second, older man.
“Why are you so rude?” he asked, with a stony glare. Unlike his accomplice, this guy was softly spoken, his voice carrying a threatening lilt. He was tall, well built, smartly dressed in shirt and trousers and clutched a mobile phone in his sweaty hand. He also had the menacing air of a drug baron or pimp. “My brother is just being friendly. You westerners come to our country, but you don’t want to be friends with us’’.
“All we want is to make friends. Practice our English and share our culture. But you don’t give us a chance!”
Taken aback, but trying to stay composed, I explained that we had an appointment and didn’t have time to stop and talk. Beside me Allan nodded in agreement with a helpful shake of the map. Staring somewhere beyond me as he spoke, the man’s tone quickly took an impatient turn. “All we want is to make friends. Practice our English and share our culture. But you don’t give us a chance! Come, have tea with us and we will talk”.
Appraising him as he spoke, I got the feeling I was listening to a very smooth operator. There was no trace of a smile as he offered this so called friendship from behind a pair of dispassionate eyes. All the while I couldn’t help but notice that the English he seemed so keen to practice was excellent. Possibly the best I’d heard from a local throughout my travels in the country.
“We have a diamond shop by Ajmer Gate, I can take you there”.
After a fidgety silence Allan responded, treading carefully as he spoke. “It’s really nice to meet you. But we’re running late and…” “Come with me for just one hour” came the interruption, while over his shoulder baseball cap nodded with a sly grin. “We have a diamond shop by Ajmer Gate, I can take you there. You can see many beautiful things”.
And there it was. Assuming we were just two dopes who’d rolled into town on the last rickshaw, he’d finally showed his hand. ‘‘No thank you’’ I said and instinctively we both turned on our heels and walked off. Giving immediate chase, cold eyes tried tempting us with the promise of a ride in his ‘‘nice car’’. In the meantime his sidekick mentioned ‘‘cookies’’ to go with the tea. As we quickened our pace, they recognised the game was up. Therefore, all that was left was verbal abuse.
“You walk away from me?!? you walk away from ME!?!?” For a moment I wondered whether things might turn violent. But after a hairy minute or so we finally lost them, crossing a busy road at just the right time. Which left them stranded behind a set of traffic lights. Looking back from across the street, I caught sight of cold eyes speaking to someone on his phone. And for a chilling instant I wondered just how much he was capable of.
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur, a short story from India.
A little shaken by the experience, Allan and I endeavoured to resume our route to Hawa Mahal. But we couldn’t progress more than fifty yards without being accosted by more slippery fraudsters proposing friendship via a shop. Scams and tricks against foreigners were common in India, but Jaipur’s conmen were far more cunning than those we’d come across in Delhi and Agra.
In order to give the bloodsuckers a wide berth, we decided to veer off the main roads, marking out a new course through some quieter side streets. By the time we were closing in on our destination, I had descended into a foul mood. Ahead an old man sat begging, cross-legged on the pavement. His bony arms extended out towards me, hands cupped together, eyes vacant. Looking away, I felt dizzy from the overpowering smell of concrete, vehicle fumes and cow shit.
“Why had we come to this miserable place? Where were Jaipur’s pink bits? What time was the next train out?”
When at long last we arrived at Hawa Mahal, I was in a wholly unappreciative mood and found the entire experience profoundly underwhelming. Its facade was undeniably striking, but inside there was nothing but poorly maintained ruins. At this point I wanted nothing more than to just go back to the guesthouse and sleep.
Even catching a rickshaw home proved unnecessarily difficult. A few minutes into our journey it became obvious that our chauffeur had no idea where he was going. After what seemed like a hundred wrong turns (the only thing missing was the Benny Hill Show music), we felt mightily relieved to get back to Ashiyana. Even if the only thing that greeted us there was Mahatma’s grimacing face. A little later however, in a gesture that almost moved me to tears, he brought a complimentary pot of tea up to the rooftop and even agreed to pose for a photograph! It was a touching and unexpected end to a challenging day.
The remainder of our stay was largely spent in the area local to our guesthouse. In the day there was reading and napping on the rooftop. At night we sampled a few nearby restaurants. Before moving on, Allan and I resolved to give Jaipur another chance with a hike up to Nahargarh, a ruined fort nestled within The Aravalli Hills. Climbing a zigzagging two kilometre footpath, we slowly wound our way up. Along the way we didn’t meet a single tourist. In fact, the only person we came across was a weathered old woman resting silently on a wall. As still as a statue, a gnarled cane clasped in her skeletal hand.
“Namaste!” I called out with a friendly wave. Shaken from her daydreaming, she blinked heavily, attempting to pick me out with her hollow eyes. Then, quite abruptly, she burst into a furious fit of cursing. She shook her stick at me, rolls of thick saliva flying out of her wrinkled mouth. So vitriolic was her response I just moved on quietly, eyes to the ground. Keen to make my latest escape.
At the top we were hardly surprised to find that Nahargarh was closed. This was Jaipur after all! Luckily, the magnificent views over the city more than made up for it. So we flopped out for a while and took in the panorama in awed silence. ‘‘Amazing!’’ breathed Allan, gazing down at the frozen landscape below. It was like a peaceful, alternate reality Jaipur. One that fleetingly reduced the frenzy of the previous days to little more than a hallucination. ‘‘Not bad at all…’’ I said, mesmerised, as the sun began dipping into the hills. “Still isn’t pink though’’.
‘Fear and Loathing in Jaipur’ is the sixth part of my short story series Incidents In India.
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