R and R, the Amish of the East, Opium and blue bulls.
Jaisalmer is as close to Pakistan as you can go without getting shot. One of its problems – just about its only one – is that having expended vast amounts of energy in getting there, you then have to retrace each gruelling step along the same road to get back. Which is what we did, and six and a half hours later were immersed in the cacophony of Jodhpur on our way to Luni, 35 kilometres further on. Luni had leapt out of the pages of the Lonely Planet Guide, because it was described as ‘perfect if you want some respite from the tumult of travelling in India.’ I did.
Pappu dropped me at the gate of Fort Chanwa, which was the place to stay. Actually, from what I could see of the tiny village of Luni, if you weren’t staying in Fort Chanwa, you weren’t staying. Pigeons and parakeets were playing on its battlements. A circular gravel path rotated within its ornate red sandstone walls. It looked a picture. Pappu was less convinced of its merits, however, and left me with a stern warning to be careful. ‘I, Rajasthan,’ he reminded me, meaning that he knew his Rajasthanis and I’d better watch myself with this bunch. In fact, Pappu had let slip that he was from Haryana, just outside the Rajasthan border, but I quite saw that the phrase ‘I, Harayana,’ wouldn’t have had the same dramatic impact. It would have been like President Kennedy going to Berlin and saying ‘Ich bin ein Hamburger.’ But, at the time, I was just pleased to see that he was interpreting his role widely and taking seriously his duty to deliver me back to Delhi in one piece.
I went to my room, dumped my cases and noticed that the room possessed something that might turn out to be a shower. I rotated the tap marked ‘hot’, itself an encouraging sign, and observed carefully what, if anything, would happen. To my great pleasure, water came out. Not only that, but there was enough of it to justify the appellation shower, and the attendant steam gave me to believe it was, as advertised, hot. Giving the quiet smile of the man who knows that good things happen to those who wait, I stepped in. It was bliss.
The Fort had a masseur, and with fond memories of Varanasi flooding back, I put some clothes on and went to see if I might book myself in. Massages took place by the small outdoor swimming pool, I was told, so I walked along there to find it occupied by half a dozen European ladies in deckchairs, reading in a silence so total you could hear a pin drop. This made a change from most places in India where you’d hardly notice a bomb drop. The masseur was waiting, presumably to work on me there. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call private. I didn’t feel I could just lie down in the midst of the matronly presence, almost, as it were, under their feet, so, spotting a small sliver of grass to one side, I edged towards it. The massage man followed me round, and invited me to take off my trousers. In case there was any ambiguity about his intentions, he put both hands on the top of my belt and began to pull gently downwards. This was a bit much.
One of my few remaining conceits is that I am not yet too decrepit to dress myself, or in this case undress, so, as modestly as I could, I stripped to my underpants and lay flat on the grass hoping that the one foot or so of the swimming pool that was above ground would shelter me from the prying eyes of the watching memsahibs. It didn’t, but as the masseur weaved his magic, I soon forgot about all that. I drifted into a state beyond such niceties. Well you do if your flesh is being pummelled. My man was a professional, no doubt about it, but if I was being picky, I would suggest he work on a lighter touch when it came to his pièce de résistance, the final crowd-pleaser, the moment when he captured my full and undivided attention by karate chopping my head – a task he undertook with dedication. Bruce Lee would have applauded. He followed this with clacking noises of the kind that knuckles make when they strike bone (his knuckles, my bone). I gather that the technical term for such a procedure is ‘head massage’. When he had finally exhausted himself in the attempt to reshape my skull, I staggered to my feet and, groggy though I was, dimly perceived that I was perhaps underdressed for the occasion. I smiled at the attendant ladies as nonchalantly as I could – which wasn’t very. Brits, on the whole, find it hard to be completely relaxed in nothing more than Y-fronts and socks. Then I gathered up my belongings and scuttled away.
The rest of the day was spent reading and lounging about but, to redeem myself, I decided to sign up for a village safari starting next morning at seven o’clock. It turned out I was the only one going, so I had the jeep to myself. The hotel manager of the night before, Koshu, was now doubling as tour guide. ‘It snowed four nights ago in Shimla, so it will feel like winter today,’ he announced, standing by the car in a stiff leather jacket, shivering, and beating himself with his arms in an effort to keep warm. I took this to mean we would have a pleasantly roasting day around 25 degrees without a cloud in the sky – which I might say we did. Koshu spoke perfect English, learnt at Mayo College in Ajmer, founded by Lord Mayo, the inventor of salad cream. Mayo College is the Eton of the East and members of Koshu’s high caste Rajput family, he told me, had been educated there for four generations. This was interesting information. I filed it away for when the moment came to decide if a tip would be appropriate.
We drove along a bumpy lane, flat dry countryside on either side, to the house of a Bisnoes family. The Bisnoes are the Amish of the east. They don’t kill things. They don’t eat meat, they don’t cut down trees, they don’t cremate their dead, they don’t smoke and they don’t drink. In fact, they don’t do just about everything. Such were the principles (twenty-nine of them) laid down by their founder Jamboji, born 1551. They regard the antelope as holy and, for this reason, we were able to see Nilgai and Black Buck in the surrounding fields. Otherwise, they would have been someone’s dinner a long time ago. There used to be more Black Buck on the North Indian Plain than any other mammal. I mean large mammal, of course. I daresay there were more mice, but nobody was counting. Apparently, in the 1920s and 30s, cars were reconciled to waiting 20 minutes or more while a vast herd made its way across the road.[i] These days, there are only 3,000 or so in game reserves, plus the odd few lucky enough to live on Bisnoes land.
To say that the Bisnoes live simply would be an understatement. Crofters on Scottish islands live simply. The Bisnoes live in a state of simplicity that goes beyond the normal meaning of the term and, for that matter, beyond words like austere or Spartan. They hardly scratch the surface of the land they inhabit. They survive on milk and vegetables, which they dry and re-hydrate when needed. Their houses are made of thatch and fallen twigs, and the floors of a mixture of clay and dried cow dung. Cow dung is good stuff, by the way. It doesn’t cost much to lay down, it doesn’t smell when dry, it deters insects, and it allows Mrs B to have a new kitchen every two or three years. That’s how often it rains in these parts. The Bisnoes are poorer than church mice, but I tell you what, I’d rather be poor like them, than poor like those in Delhi or Varanasi. At least they have fresh air to breathe, and a range where the deer and the antelope roam.
Our next stop was a farm beyond Bisnoes territory, owned by the Patels. They offered us a cup of tea and, because I had just been thinking that I could murder a good cuppa, I said yes, thank you. Then I realised what I’d done. ‘Oh my God, I’ve now got to find a way of not drinking it.’ It occurred to me how hopeless I would be as an ambassador. I’d be posted to somewhere like Arabia, the sheep’s eyes would be staring up at me from the stew, and I’d have to find the courage to put them in my mouth and swallow. Diplomatic etiquette would then require me to smile and say, ‘How absolutely delicious. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of seconds.’ I couldn’t do it. Here, an innocent cup of tea was making its way towards me, and I was having the heeby-jeebies. Yet I knew that if the water had been properly boiled, and if the cup had been scrubbed as never before, there was a reasonable chance I would survive.
The Patels, in common with every family round about, liked to begin their day with a stiff ingestion of narcotic substances. Mr Patel busied himself in firing up the hookah for the first smoke of the morning and, just in case it were to fall to me one day to do likewise, I paid close attention. I can now tell you that the three elements in a hookah are water (at the bottom of a pipe bowl), lighted charcoal (the next layer up) and locally-grown tobacco (on top). A long tube extends from the bowl to the smokers mouth and breathing in draws the tobacco smoke through the water (hence the glug-glug sound familiar to all hookah users) and along the tube. As for their other narcotic of choice, opium, the Patels preferred to take it in the traditional Rajasthan form, as a drink. Instructions are as follows. Take the sap of poppy, heat until it has become a crystal, grind it, mix it with water, place in palm of hand, and drink. Once the hookah was going to his satisfaction, Mr Patel worked away, as indicated, on his other morning pick-me-up. When all was ready, he said a short prayer to Shiva, and took a swig. He then offered me a palmful. I said ‘no, thank you very much, I couldn’t possibly,’ and wondered to myself which was more lethal, the opium or the grubby water with which it was mixed. Mr P. insisted. I looked at Koshu. He gave me a nod. ‘Call yourself a man,’ the nod said, ‘Drink.’ So I dipped the end of my finger in the opium water and licked it. Let it never be said that I don’t live dangerously.
Opium has always been a common tipple in Rajasthan. A few hundred years ago, the Rajputs were imbibing in large quantities and from an early age. When war came around they habitually went off doped up to the eyeballs. ‘On the day of battle’, reported a seventeenth century traveller, ‘they never fail to double the dose, and this drug so animates, or rather inebriates, them that they rush into the thickest of the combat insensible of danger.’[ii] Koshu confirmed that opium deadened pain. He also added that it was regularly used at weddings, a juxtaposition which opened up a line of enquiry that I didn’t feel I should pursue. What I hadn’t realised, up to this point, was that opium had so much going for it. ‘And’, added Koshu, ‘it’s also a blood clotting agent.’ I made a mental note to get some in for the next time the mother-in-law came round.
Beside Mr P sat another man, sucking the hookah for all his worth, and only putting it down for a quick swallow of the local blood clotting agent. He had half-closed, squinting eyes, greying hair, and a face that looked not so much lived in as overrun by squatters. ‘That man is 40’, said Koshu, ‘but probably won’t live to be more than 45.’ If that, thought I. Similar notions seemed to be percolating through the brain of a vulture perched in a nearby tree who was fixing my narcotic friend with a hungry eye and putting his money on demise sometime that afternoon. The creature must have weighed half as much as I did, and, judging by the look of him, knew dinner when he saw it.
We said our goodbyes, which in the case of Mr P’s companion were particularly heartfelt, and left events to unfold as nature, red in tooth and claw, dictated. We drove on through open country, watching Jungle Babblers and small green Bee Eaters fluttering in the sunshine, and Nilgai grazing. ‘Nil’ means blue, and ‘gai’ cow, but Koshu liked to call them blue bull. Whatever you call them, they deserve respect as befits one of the largest antelopes in the world, that can stand shoulder to shoulder with a good-sized horse, and has horns. Koshu stopped to point out an acacia tree, after which London names its avenues. It was imported from Africa, he said, because it was evergreen, made good burning and didn’t have to be dried. However, animals won’t eat acacia and it is crowding out other trees, like Khajari, which camels like. This, he observed, with a sadness unusual in a young man, is what happens when you tamper with nature. How right he was.
Our morning excursion ended with a visit to a potter where, more interesting than the pots, excellent though they were, was an old bed. It was just lying around, but closer examination revealed that its springs were made from strips of car tyres. You may think this unremarkable, but it illustrates how good the Indians are at recycling. They don’t just throw worn-down rubber onto the scrap heap. They make things with it. At the Patels, we’d seen a collection of old cloths and tailors’ cuttings. Koshu told me that they would be unpicked and the yarn woven into rugs. Nothing in India, he told me, is wasted, and I nodded in agreement. I also made sure that my Kodak Disposable stayed under wraps.
The rest of the day drifted lazily past. I swam, I took showers which probably used up enough hot water to fill the radiators of half of Rajasthan’s camels, and I availed myself of the rather grand alfresco dinner that the hotel had laid out on the Fort lawn. After that, I went to my room to read. I had just hunkered down with my book, when I was treated to the delights of a party of Germans giving it full throttle on the grass outside my door. What is it about German singing? Don’t they have any songs that aren’t hearty? Must they all end in a final triumphal shout that either sounds like Heil, or is Heil? During the brief interludes in which the Hitler Youth was drawing breath, I found myself, despite all my good intentions, listening for the dull thud of a pistol shot being squeezed into the soft tissue at the back of the neck, and the sound of a body being dragged away. Then the bonding session outside my door would resume and, with the thought that good, sweet, gentle Kumbaya might not be so bad after all, I packed my travel bag, closed my ears and went to sleep.
[i] Breedon and Wright, op. cit., p.50.
[ii] Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, AD 1656-1668, trans. Archibald Constable, (Westminster 1891), pp 39-40.