On the road again (with Akbar and camels)
I decided to go to Rajasthan[i], so I found a travel agent, Deepak by name, and asked him to sort out a car and driver. I just knew what kind of car would show up. It did. On our way out of Agra, we passed a sign saying ‘Clean, green Agra.’ I would say this for Agra: they were trying. Visitors to the Taj had to park 200 yards away and take an electric bus the rest of the way. A start, certainly, but clean and green? I didn’t think so, particularly after an auto-rickshaw broke wind to the side of us, and dropped a whiffy black one through the car window. Through this fresh cloud, a horse, colourfully decked out in ceremonial trappings, trotted by, on its way to a wedding. I don’t think the bridegroom on board would argue with me if I were to suggest that he had never sat on a saddle before. Well, he wasn’t sitting on it now. He was bouncing off it, like a pinball being whacked. That was until the horse swerved suddenly to sidestep a litter of pigs, and the groom lurched forward, as if he had suddenly remembered an urgent message he had to whisper into his charger’s ear. In this pose, he careered out of view and towards a lifetime of marital bliss – assuming, that is, that the horse was galloping in the right direction.
Once out of town, we stopped at a stall by the side of the road to stock up on bananas. I prided myself that, by now, I had become something of an expert on banana prices, and I conducted the negotiations with the confident air of a man who knows his onions. There was also on display, a knobbly, wrinkled green fruit, about which I made enquiries. The vendor peeled one, washed it in a tin of dubious-looking brown liquid, and handed it to me, obviously expecting me to put it in my mouth. Did I look tired of life? Gastroenteritis was written all over it. I needed a distraction, so I rustled about in my trousers and produced a rupee by way of payment. He wouldn’t take it, but he did give me another knobbly green thing and, by the time I had taken out Andrew’s penknife, peeled it and taken a bite, the fruit seller had forgotten, thank goodness, that his own kind offering was languishing undigested in my pocket. I chewed on my self-peeled version and made appreciative ummming noises. Whatever this fruit was, it was definitely edible. It had a firm white flesh and tasted not unlike coconut. I asked what it was called, and the man muttered something that sounded like ‘Shigarra’, though whether that was its name or merely him practising his Sean Connery impersonation, I couldn’t be sure.
The road was a national highway, genuine two-lanes – one lane going, one coming back – and relatively few pockmarks. We were on our way to the camel fair at Pushkar (Deepak’s recommendation) and, though I didn’t know it at the time, the road would stay wide, tarmaced and generally wholesome for most of the next 9 hours. Even the Ambassador didn’t feel too bad. The seats had been recently upholstered and there was some indication, from the way we glided over indentations, that springs were in place beneath me. I began to have uncharacteristically warm feelings about the old warhorse. The other thing about this particular highway that I should mention is that bears were standing at regular intervals by the roadside. This is something you notice, particularly since their owners did everything short of flinging themselves beneath the wheels of our car to flag us down. What were we expected to do? Come screeching to a halt, just so we could hand over money? I don’t think so. The bears were on two legs, encouraged, if that is the right word, to stand upright by a stick that was either attached to their noses, or sufficiently close to give even the dumbest of animals (which bears are not) the impression that it shortly would be if they didn’t perform. They didn’t look as if they were having too much fun.
Having swerved through bear country without smearing any owners across our bonnet, we made a small diversion to Fatehpur Sikri, which, of all the Moghul monuments, is my favourite. Fatehpur Sikri was, from 1571-85, the one-time capital of the Moghul Empire under its greatest emperor, Akbar. Before 1571, it was nothing except the home of a Muslim Saint. Fourteen fat years later, and along came its Pompeii moment. One day everybody was busily going about their daily business and then, boing, a volcano erupted (or in this case an imperial decision) and everything stopped immediately. It became as deserted as a ghost town in the old west. If tumbleweed were to blow through and an ole timer leaning against an imperial column, were to say, ‘nope, the last stage through here was in, now let me see (scratches scrotum, and spits) ’49’, you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. And that’s not just because spitting and scrotum scratching are big here.
Akbar had a perfectly serviceable capital at Agra, but what he didn’t have, in spite of 300 wives, was an heir. Then, one day, he visited a holy man who lived at Sikri who told him that it would come to pass that he would have three sons. And he did: Salim, who was to become the Emperor Jahangir, Murad and Daniyal. The last two died of drink, as it happens, and Jahangir came within a whisker of following suit – but all that was later. In the immediate glow of fatherhood, while his boys were still downing nothing stronger than milk, Akbar was so impressed by the seer’s prophetic powers that he built a new capital in his honour. Not just any old capital either. One that in its short life was deemed by a traveller from Elizabethan England to be ‘much greater than London’[ii], than, let me remind you, the city of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Drake and Raleigh. On Akbar’s imperial command, everybody had obviously upped sticks and moved.
If your idea of a purpose-built metropolis is Milton Keynes, then you should consider a visit to Fatehpur Sikri. It has palaces, formal courtyards, reflecting pools, harems, tombs and a great mosque, all exquisitely carved out of the local red sandstone, perfectly preserved in the dry heat and with a wonderful view over miles of peaceful farmland. One of the buildings, (the Hujra-I-Anup Talaq if you want to know), has a plaque outside which informed the reader that its ‘geometric and floral designs in red sandstone give the impression of timber decoration.’ They do. They really look like wooden carvings. In fact, since nobody was watching, I went up to one of the columns and tapped it to see if it gave a wooden clunk or a stone clunk. It was stone, definitely. And much of the rest of the place was the same. Gorgeous wooden creations made of sandstone.
The problem with Fatehpur Sikri was that it wasn’t awash with water,[iii] and before long Akbar said goodbye to all those glorious buildings on which so much effort had been lavished, and moved back to Agra (via Lahore). Nevertheless, good things had happened during Fatehpur Sikri’s brief moment in the sun. The Country had become that bit more civilised – less bandits on the road, a decent postal service, less taxes for the peasants, an official frown on child marriages and widow burning (Sati), that sort of thing.[iv] It had also become more tolerant. Akbar let the majority population get on with being Hindu without feeling the need to tax them as unbelievers, to exclude them from the civil service or obliterate their temples. In fact, from his liking for Hindu dress and Hindu wives (including the mother of his sons), to his distaste for orthodox Islam, the Emperor showed every sign of going native. Of all the Muslim rulers of India – even those few, like his son Jahangir, who were decent, tolerant men – only Akbar was passionate about creating a society in which Hindu and Muslim might live and work together in harmony.[v] Had those who came after him followed his lead, the current history of India and Pakistan might have taken a different turn. Who knows.
I wandered across to the splendidly endowed Mosque, in its day the largest in the Moghul Empire,[vi] and found myself attached to a couple of local kids who saw fit to enlighten me as to its exact physical proportions. ‘Mosque 5000 metres high, 28 miles wide and weighs 30,000 tons’, they told me. In return, I handed over my supply of pens and was then besieged by every child in the neighbourhood, anxious for similar largesse. This was my fault. I had broken the first rule, which is never give money, or anything else, on the way in. Wait until you are safely back in your car or, at the very least, within grabbing range of the door handle. So I had a quick dash round, discovered in the course of my circumnavigation that the Mosque had a beehive in it – for which I awarded it a bonus point – and made for the Ambassador with a flotilla of hopeful children in my wake.
Pappu, my driver, was waiting, and a couple of blasts from him was enough to disburse my convoy. ‘Pushkar?’ he enquired. ‘Pushkar,’ I grunted, settling into the back seat. Pappu was from Haryana, I discovered, where his wife and kids lived, but he worked most of the time in Delhi. ‘Work is necessity,’ he said, and I must say there was something about his night black eyes deep in their sockets that gave him the look of a man who had done his share. Probably seen a few things too. He was 5’ 6”, I suppose, lean, probably hungry and altogether spruced up in a smart sweater, neat trousers and slip-on shoes. We proceeded out of Fatehpur Sikri and straight into the back of a flock of sheep. If it had been Rajjan at the wheel, he would have been up their backsides before you could say hill-farmer, but Pappu decided (uncharacteristically as it turned out) to adopt a more conciliatory approach. We waited until the sea parted of its own volition, and then edged through. Pretty soon, we came to a tax station on the Rajasthan border, and while Pappu sorted out the paperwork, I haggled with a necklace seller and his three brothers. The asking price was 1200 rupees each, which was about £17. That felt like a great deal of money for a few camel bones so I bargained with them unflinchingly until the price came down to 300 rupees each. We drove through into Rajasthan with me tucking away my new acquisitions (presents for my womenfolk) and, to my shame, feeling pretty damn smug.
This part of Rajasthan didn’t seem to be short of a bob or two. It was crawling with tractors, for one thing, which is a pretty good indicator of whether the natives have the price of a cup of tea. Two tractors, and an area is rich. Ten, and they could almost be part of the CAP.[vii] On this basis, the area must have been rich beyond the dreams of avarice, although it was not immediately clear why. Probably from selling camel-bone necklaces to tourists. Before long, we came to Bharatpur, which, had I but known at the time, has a wonderful bird sanctuary, the Keoladeo National park. I did wonder though why it had hotels called Nightingale, Pelican, Painted Stork and Racket-tailed Drongo, but before I could draw the sort of conclusions that might have inclined me to say, ‘Hey, Pappu, pull in for a moment and let’s investigate,’ we were on a main trunk road heading west.
The Indian highway is a frightening place. You don’t get the impression that MOT tests are an absolute requirement, or indeed that anybody has ever heard of them. If a vehicle is capable of forward motion, however temporary that may be, then it’s OK for driving. And everything, from bicycles to camels, takes to the road. A jeep, whose best days were by now ancient history, clattered past. I counted 12 people, though there may well have been more. Four were hanging on the outside as the vehicle weaved in and out of traffic. Motor cycles buzzed about like mosquitoes. We passed two lorries head to head by the side of the road, like a pair of bulls that had locked horns. Unless the drivers had leapt free before impact, I imagined that that was that. Pappu took all this as an invitation to put his foot down. I watched the speedo edge past 80km /hr, felt the drum of the engine reverberate in my head, looked out at the pandemonium going on all around, and decided that I would have preferred to be on that runaway bus in Speed. Particularly if Sandra Bullock was at the wheel. Pappu took villages at 65 as a cursory acknowledgement that there were people lining either side of the road. My life flashed before me every half hour or so. There were so many repeats, I might have been watching Inspector Morse. I decided it was time to intervene in this dance of life and death. ‘Pappu’, I said, leaning forward, ‘you have a wife and two children’ (appeal to his sense of responsibility), ‘safety is most important’ (appeal to the universal code of Professional Drivers which I was sure existed), ‘60 Km/hr MAXIMUM’ (tone of command), ‘please’ (inviting him to buy into this new contract). This masterly sentence seemed to do the trick. ‘I driving 10 years, no accident,’ he said, but agreed on the new limit. I could see him itching to let her out, to show me what the old girl could do, but he was aware that my beady eye was on him. 60 km/h it was from then on, except immediately after a break when Pappu’s mind took a while to withdraw from wherever it was it went to in his off-duty moments. Silverstone probably. I was in the back. That’s how it works in India. The customer sits behind. It’s very traditional. It also provides slightly more distance between you and the windscreen should something happen, should the car in front disintegrate into a thousand pieces, or a cow wander into the middle of the road and decide to take a nap. In such small mercies as this, I resolved to take comfort.
We stopped for lunch at a tourist café. Pappu disappeared to get something round the back and I bought three assorted packets to save for later. One was called ‘Cashew’ which I thought, not unreasonably under the circumstances, might be a bag of nuts. It turned out to be a biscuit. The next one was ‘Fruit Bite’, which was also a biscuit, but one that, at the first touch, crumbled into tiny granules, which immediately escaped out of the packet and bedded themselves into the back seat. It was the most unstable biscuit I have ever come across. At the merest hint of contact, it returned immediately to its granular, pre-biscuit form. I did what I could to gather up enough crumbs to make a mouthful, but swiftly came to the conclusion that the bag should be studiously folded up and packed away. You simply couldn’t leave a substance as volatile as this lying around unattended. As for the third packet, ‘Glucos-V’, you had only to prod it to know that something dangerously sticky lurked inside. I left it unopened in case a viscous liquid spurted out onto the seat and glued my trousers to the nodules of fruit bite, thus committing me to walking about with a backside like a hamburger bun with sesame seeds. From now on, lunch would be bananas. You knew where you were with a banana.
We passed through Jaipur without stopping, and pushed further into deepest Rajasthan. Pappu pointed at things that he thought might interest me and accompanied these declaratory gestures with explanations of fluctuating clarity. He knew quite a few words of English, but didn’t always manage to arrange them in a comprehensible order. He would often thicken up his English sentences with what I assumed to be Hindi. We would be driving along and he would fling his arm in the direction of a field and say something like, ‘This Boiten.’ I would ask him to repeat. ‘Boiten, boiten’ he would say, enthusiastically. ‘Ah, yes’, I might reply or, depending on context, an enthusiastic ‘good’, and we would continue onwards, him wondering if he could get away with edging up to 65, and me lost in the sort of inane reverie that overtakes you after you have been in the back of an Ambassador for as long as I had.
The further we went into Rajasthan, the more camels we saw, either being led, or harnessed in front of some sort of mobile container. It takes a while to acclimatise. When you drive up behind a camel cart for the first time, and see its rear end and the back of its head 10 feet above ground, you exclaim out loud, ‘wow, what a huge horse that is’, and then when you pass you, say ‘oh, it’s a camel.’ You utter these very same words the next few times you come up behind one – well, you do if you’re like me, and look at sculpture with your mouth open. After that, you learn to keep your deep thinking to yourself – but you think it just the same.
Just outside Basi, we passed a pull-in where all the camel cart drivers in the area stopped to refuel their animals and discuss the events of the day: prices at the Pushkar fair, fuel economy on the new c200 model, the usual stuff. It was just like any old transport caf in Britain. There was a car park outside, choc-a-bloc with camels and parked carts, with a few drivers asleep in the cab while the rest were inside, presumably tucking into greasy fried egg, curried baked beans, and a luvvly strong cuppa. Hereabouts, Pappu demonstrated why he had gone 10 years without an accident. Quick reactions. We rounded a bend and there trotting towards us was an unattended camel. This, as far as I could gather, was the main Delhi-Bombay highway and, being unused to seeing an animal the size of a large outhouse pootling along a major trunk road on the wrong side of the road, I did have a moment of mild concern. It didn’t have lights for one thing. However, a quick left, right swerve and we were past. It may not surprise you to learn that there is a potato chip, heavily advertised along the roadside in Rajasthan, called ‘Krash’. I’m not kidding.
When we finally reached Pushkar, it was late and the place was heaving. The Pushkar fair – a sort of Motor Show for camels – had finished the day before, but plenty of traders had stayed behind with the understandable purpose of separating tourists from their loose change. I was booked into a camp, one of many as it turned out. Pappu sniffed it out easily enough which is just as well because I certainly wouldn’t have found it on my own – but then, if I’d been driving, I’d never have made it this far. I’d have been embedded in the side of a camel way back. The entrepreneurial fellow who ran the place had kept me some food, thankfully, and having tucked in, I went to investigate my quarters, and to sleep the kind of sleep enjoyed by men who have travelled far.
Let me tell you what camping means to me. It means army camp in Wales – sparse accommodation, inedible food, terrible weather and, at night, the blissful silence of open spaces. The tents at Pushkar had none of these things. The facilities were excellent – I even had my own shower – , the food was good, the weather was perfect, and the tent was pitched, not in the middle of the Rajasthan desert as I had imagined when Deepak was setting the scene, but adjacent to a very main road. I was tired. I went to bed. It was like sleeping in a lay-by off the AI. Lorries rumbled past my tent flap. A generator making papapapap noises like a pneumatic drill filled any small interlude between lorries. I pulled the sheets over my ears and hoped there was enough oxygen in my DIY igloo to survive until morning.
There must have been, because, at 5.30 next morning, I was in a cart, with half-a-dozen fellow campers, heading out across the sands to watch the dawn break over the desert. Traders’ tents, thousands of them, were half visible in the semi-darkness. Camels were beginning to shake themselves to their feet. Men were starting to come to, some lighting fires, others drawing on their first fag, all getting ready for the business of the day: money. The sun rose. I didn’t want to be impressed by this, but I was. It was like a clip from Lawrence of Arabia before the attack on Aqaba. The desert army stirring like a giant square-rigger unfurling its sheets. All it needed was the right music. The vaguely Arabic wailing noises being coughed up by a distant speaker, may have been ethnically authentic, but they weren’t nearly grand enough. Here was the nomad light infantry in all its glory, awakening to greet the new day. It needed something triumphant like the theme music to 2001, A Space Odyssey, or the exultant strains of Cum Rhonda, sung by the massed ranks of Cardiff Arms Park.
I was fondly imagining the boyos in full voice before their usual drubbing by Scotland, a smile playing on my lips, when along came an old man selling stamps. This was curious. ‘Much call for philately in the desert? I asked. He nodded, offered me a cigarette and said something that may have been pertinent to my enquiry had I but been able to translate. He was wearing pyjama trousers and, on top, was sporting the kind of jacket which Scotsmen wear with a kilt – of which he was immensely proud, let me say. We had a pleasant enough chat to the extent you can when you are limited to expressions like ‘good camel cost many rupees? and ‘what price are penny blacks fetching these days?’ After a decent interval, he intimated that an American cigarette would be most welcome. I didn’t have any. I don’t smoke. However, since he’d offered me one of his, and I’d tucked it away ‘for later’, I felt duty bound to go and cadge one for him. Which I did, but only after approaching several American-looking people and promising unlimited free drinks back at our campsite, if they helped me out. This was mainly greeted with unalloyed pity. Their eyes said it all. ‘So early in the day! So desperate! So sad!’ and through their mouths they told me that they didn’t smoke. But in the end I came across a fellow with a scraggy pony-tail and a face etched by formative experiences at Woodstock, and he gave me two. He understood. He knew what dependence meant. I brought them back and handed them over to my philatelist friend like a proud father returning from a morning’s fishing with breakfast. The old fellow was pleased. You could tell he liked American cigarettes. In fact our conversation was put on hold, while he gave himself up to their limitless pleasures, and I found myself gazing into the eyes of a camel which had seen fit to thrust its face between us.
A camel is an extraordinary creature, there’s no doubt about it. Its jaws move sideways for one thing, as opposed to up and down like yours and mine. It must be a dentist’s nightmare. Beyond surgery, I would think. Then there’s its posture, which is terrible. It stands with its rear legs splayed, like a triangle with the apex at the hips. No wonder camels have a hump. On top it has these big brown eyes, long eyelashes and ridiculously coquettish lips. It’s as if someone has been told to design something for a Betty Boop cartoon but somehow hasn’t quite pulled it off. ‘Good try Jenkins, but for heavens sake man, get rid of that ridiculous hump, its neck looks like the U-tube in my lavatory, its ears are far too small and if that thing winks at me, I’ll throw up.’ The whole design is across the line where ‘cute’ ends and ‘grotesque’ begins. It has been said (by the designer of the Mini, Sir Alec Issigonis) that a camel is a horse designed by committee, but this, of course, is quite wrong. No Committee could dream up anything remotely as good as a camel. They’d come up with a horse.
By the time we were back at our camp, I had decided that Pushkar was too commercial and that I wasn’t going to like it. I fall into these moods sometimes. So I spent the morning mooching around the campsite feeling out of sorts and then found myself delivered of one of my mother’s lectures, which mysteriously reappear at moments like these. This was the one about pulling myself together, life is what you make it, and for God’s sake don’t just sit there, do something. So I did. I went into town, where I came once more to the view that the Pushkar Fair is, to my way of thinking, entirely dreadful. Whole acres are devoted to market stalls, which the American women in the camp thought was great. If you like shopping, it was. Where else could these women have such unparalleled opportunity to fulfil their lifetime’s task, which was to beat down a poor bracelet vendor, offering his camel-bone products at an entirely reasonable 300 rupees each, to an indecently low 50 rupees (and then come and tell me about it).
The streets of Pushkar were jam-packed. Mankind, mainly of the tourist variety, was so densely congregated that it was more or less impossible to proceed forward at a speed greater than that at which the multitude was drifting. But I kept trying. You know those irritating people who keep changing lanes on a motorway when the traffic is crawling along at 5 mph. That was me. I dodged in and out. When I saw a space, I leapt through. It was tough work, but I kept at it. I was sweating profusely and then there came to me the discovery which I will now pass on to you. I have given it the name ‘Inner Walking Through Crowded Markets (which has the memorable acronym, IWTCM). In order to walk through crowded markets, pick a point in the distance at which you wish to arrive, close your mind to everything going on around you, focus on the target and let your subconscious mind take over. The effect is remarkable. You are able to walk at speed through the most impenetrable swathes of humanity. Why? Your body finds the gaps, understands the pace at which people are moving and knows when holes will appear. Trust your body. You may think the writer has lost his marbles, but give it a go. You will be amazed. Oh, and the other bonus is that nobody comes up and tries to sell you anything. They see that vacant stare in your eyes, decide you are barking and wave you through.
My destination was the Pushkar lake, which is circular with ghats all around it and a temple on an island in the middle. The Lake is a place of worship and rather splendid. Pilgrims bathing, sun on the water, holy men covered in white ash deep in contemplation. The Hindus used to believe (and perhaps some still do) that the lake was bottomless, but it isn’t. The Emperor, Jahangir, came here for two or three days to shoot water-fowl, and found this mystical belief about bottomlessness alien to his own more scientific temperament – so he had the lake measured, and it was ‘nowhere deeper than 12 cubits.’[viii] I walked round it, trying to absorb whatever spiritual understandings might be in the atmosphere and then caught sight of a temple on a hilltop overlooking the lake. ‘Climb me’, it called, so I thought I would. Could I find the way to the bottom? I could not. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through innumerable wrong back streets and then went back to the car to ask Pappu to give me a lift. It was maddening. I could see the hill above me. I just couldn’t get there. Pappu drove straight to the outskirts of town, and parked. This always happens when I am lost or looking for something. Whoever I ask says something consoling like ‘it’s one street over’, or ‘they’re on the end of your nose.’ Something was bothering Pappu, though. ‘This no good place,’ he told me and, taking a proprietorial interest in my welfare, decided to climb up to the temple with me. I must say I didn’t sense that anything was afoot but, after a while, we passed a group of five or six local women and one of them made a strong-arm grab for the water bottle I was carrying. Pappu gave me a ‘see, I told you so’ look. Then he glanced down the hill at the car. Kids were milling around it. A second emotion clouded his honest visage. Guard me or guard the car? Protect the client or the assets? I watched, with some amusement I’m ashamed to say, as Pappu struggled to penetrate the moral maze. No contest really. ‘Save the Ambassador,’ I cried, pointing dramatically, and off he shot.
I reached the top as the sun was setting. The view of the town and its surroundings was magnificent. An outcrop of hills were strung like sharks’ fins across the flat plain that stretched away into the distance. A camel race, part of the fair, was dimly visible below. Accompanying music was drifting up, and a couple of western Hindus were seated on a rock, cross-legged, gazing into the receding sunlight and thinking deep thoughts. At least, I hope that’s what they were doing. If they were nodding off, they were in trouble. It was a long way down.
That night at the campsite, I joined a number of Americans for dinner. They were on a tour group and loving every moment of Pushkar. Being American, they knew how to shop. One fellow with them, in body if not in spirit, had eaten nothing Indian since arriving. He had lived entirely out of his suitcase on packeted junk food and beer. He had been in the country for two weeks. What would he do when he ran out? Would he risk native food? Would he adopt a new rapid weight loss campaign, known as starvation? He looked as if a bit of the latter wouldn’t do him any harm. Unfortunately, I was never to find out.
… to be continued.
© Michael Tobert
[i] Formerly Rajputana, home of the Rajputs
[ii] Ralph Fitch, from Early Travels in India 1583-1619, ed. William Foster, (Oxford University Press, 1921), pp.17-18.
[iii] Craven, op. cit., p.201.
[iv] Gascoigne, op. cit., p 99, 107-8
[v] Gascoigne, op. cit., pp.81-2.
[vi] Catherine Asher, The New Cambridge History of India I.4, Architecture of Mughal India, (Cambridge University press, 1992), p.54.
[vii] The CAP is the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, a device for giving taxpayers’ money to inefficient Mediterranean farmers so that they can grow rich building butter mountains.
[viii] Alexander Rogers (trans.) and Henry Beveridge (ed.), Memoirs of Jahangir, (Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, 1989) vol.I, p. 255.