Heroes, villains and exquisite India

We made an early start. Pappu appeared at 7.15, and greeted me with a bright and breezy, ‘You well, Sir? Sleep good? You looking dog parking?’ ‘Yes, thank you,’ I said, and off we went.

I felt well rested, the day was warm and the road smooth. I anticipated an easy day with a pleasant tour of the Jain temples at Ranakpur to break up the journey. I even started to hum a little ditty or two, and Pappu catching me at it, gave me an indulgent smile in the rear-view mirror. I had always wondered what Pappu thought mirrors were for, since he never used them for routine matters, like overtaking – he just blew his horn, as did every other driver on the road, and pulled out. Now I knew. They were for keeping an eye on his passengers.

There are three things about short cuts that are worth bearing in mind. Firstly, don’t attempt them without a good map in front of you. Second, never take suggestions about short cuts from a man you hardly know. Third, and this I would emphasise most forcefully, never take shortcuts in India, particularly if you are driving an Ambassador. I have learnt these things the hard way. Pappu, it transpired, had made friends with a fellow driver the evening before who had said to him that, if he were to leave the main road shortly after Pali and take the road to Desuri, it would cut ten kilometres off the journey. Not having a road map against which to check this advice – he never used one, preferring when lost to summon a passer-by and shout at him till he surrendered the information – Pappu decided to take the recommendation in good faith. So we turned off.

I had an inkling that something might be awry when the road disappeared. It had transmogrified into a strip of earth, down which Pappu was happily ploughing his lonely furrow. ‘No problem,’ he assured me, and indeed we did rediscover tarmac at a sort of village interchange. Pappu rolled down the window, yelled something at a passing straw carrier ­– presumably as to which was the road to Desuri – and pressed on.

Now I had with me the Lonely Planet Travel Atlas for India. It contained 100 pages of maps, 50 pages of indexes, and was as comprehensive as they come. I decided to involve myself in the proceedings. I asked, with increasing terseness, the name of each village we passed through – the names were in Hindi, which I couldn’t read – and noted that none of these were large enough to merit an entry on any of my charts. However, from what scraps of information I could gather, I deduced that, if we were going to Ranakpur, we didn’t want to go to Desuri anyway, and that we seemed to be travelling down a road marked by an ultra-fine blue line. This was not promising. The two-lane Delhi-Bombay highway merited three well-spaced red lines, so by the time the cartographers got down to using thin blue, it was out of a desire to denote that only those who were barking mad, or enjoyed a lifetime of careless rambling among lost villages, should go anywhere near. Besides all this, the shaking up that occurs when an Ambassador is required to negotiate ploughed fields was not doing my insides any good. In a word, I was not happy.

After an hour, Pappu had interrogated everyone he had passed at least once, well, everyone that is who came into the category of acceptable people for Pappu to cross-question. Speaking personally, my instinct is to seek directions from middle-aged, well-dressed ladies. I have always found them the epitome of reliability. Pappu’s preferred group included people who liked to sleep half-naked by the roadside, or hang around street corners looking dangerous. I wondered several times why he passed over just about everyone who might have been to school – and then it dawned on me. Caste. Pappu probably couldn’t (or wouldn’t) approach higher castes. A cat could not look at a king. That was my guess.

When, by some miracle, we made it to Desuri, I decided to give Ranakpur a miss and take the road that joined the national highway to Udaipur (our ultimate destination). The highway would be boring and flat, but boring and flat was what I needed just then. To reach it, however, meant that we first had to negotiate a road with enough bends to have made a corkscrew preen: but at least it was a road, and at least we knew where we were going. Not only that, the views were delightful – one moment, jungley, with monkeys scampering across the road, and the next the kind of country where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza might once have tilted at windmills. We crossed bridges over deep gorges where the trees from the valley below grew so tall that their tops were at road level, and we climbed up into the bare rock hills.

We stopped for a leg stretch before hitting the highway. I needed one. My back was stiff and my stomach rebellious. I climbed up a steep slope of dried earth and continued along a gentler incline to where a dry stone wall was meandering without any obvious purpose. I felt it was a kindred spirit. A goat was being tended by a goatherd wearing what looked like, and probably was, a plastic raincoat. This was surprising given that the temperature was hot enough to cook a one-minute omelette, but it may be that the herdsman had listened to the same weather forecast as Koshu and was expecting a cold snap imminently. Either that, or he just liked plastic.

From my wall, I could see across the valley, listen to the leaves rustling like dried paper, watch as four bullocks walked in single file to who knows where, and spot, a few fields away, an Indian, with his turban as pillow, stretched out in the sun. It was a beautiful and tranquil sight and somewhere deep down, and a distance away from my perturbating stomach, I felt a stab of gratitude to Pappu, whose cartographic misadventures had inadvertently brought me to this spot.

We were speeding down towards Udaipur, when, reading Lonely Planet, I noticed that the site of the famous battle of Haldighati, where Maharana[i] Pratap had resisted the Moghul army, was what looked like five minutes diversion from the main road. Actually, it turned out to be 15km of hairpins and, when we finally arrived, the only thing to be seen was a small museum and a touching memorial to Pratap’s gallant horse, Chetak.  It read like this: “Here fell dead on June 21st 1576, Chetak, the daring and devoted horse of Maharana Pratap. In spite of being badly wounded, Chetak saved his master in his critical hour by carrying him from Rakta-Talai to the other end of Haldi-Ghati, jumping across the nearby stream. To cherish the loyalty and sacrifice of Chetak, this memorial was raised.”

Pappu knew the story of Pratap and Chetak. It was obviously taught in Rajasthan schools and, unless Pappu was in the habit of sneaking across the state line in search of schooling (which I couldn’t imagine somehow), in Haryana also. It may well have been taught across the length and breadth of India. Maharana Pratap was, after all, one of the great Hindu heroes of medieval India.[ii] He lived at a time when most of the princes of Rajasthan had succumbed to Akbar’s charm offensive. The great houses of Amber (Jaipur), Mawar (Jodhpur), Bikaner and Jaiselmer had been wooed and won – seduced by invitations to provide daughters for the imperial harem, lured by the prospect of high office and encouraged by Akbar’s genuine tolerance of Hindus. Rajput armies had become the backbone of the Moghul Empire. Man Singh of Amber, now related by marriage to the Emperor, was Akbar’s most trusted general. Maharana Pratap of Mewar (Udaipur), with his tribal allies the Bhils, stood alone.

At Haldighati, Pratap held the high ground, Man Singh the plain below. On the morning of the 21st, in the scorching heat, Pratap saddled his faithful charger and attacked. His surge would have broken through had not Man Singh held the Moghul lines. The two Rajputs found themselves face to face. Pratap hurled his spear, without effect, while Chetak placed his forelegs on Man Singh’s elephant. This was brave, given the relative size of the two animals. It was also foolish. The General’s pachyderm carried a sword in its trunk[iii]. Pictures painted of the battle show blood spurting from the horse’s leg like wine out of a broken bottle. Nonetheless, fatally severed though he was, Chetak bore his master to safety. From then on, Pratap donned his Che Guevara headband and got his teeth into the job in hand. He stayed in the hills, cut supply lines and harried the Moghuls to such effect that, by the time he died in January 1597, he was once again master of Mewar.[iv] But more than that, he had put a match to the fire of insurrection across Rajasthan, and neither Akbar then, nor Aurangzeb overseeing the last throes of the Moghul Empire a hundred years later, was able to put it out.

We left Haldighati on the road we had come in on, driving cross-country to Udaipur, and after another 50 kilometres of hairpins, potholes and the temple-throbbing drone of the Ambassador, I had had enough. When we ground to a halt outside the hotel, I fell out and kissed the ground, just more pleased than I could say to be back on a surface that didn’t move. ‘You good feeling sir?’ enquired Pappu, who seemed as fresh or un-fresh as when he started. Pappu was in the right profession. Anyone who could go through a day we’d had and still be smiling, would be wasted doing anything else.

The hotel was exactly what was required. An ersatz, middle of the range American-style, bare necessities room, with a TV and clean sheets. Ideal for the vegetative state I now intended to adopt. Beneath the windows was a lake, covered in a green slime but, even so, capable of supporting life. So I deduced from the intermittent bubbles rising to the surface – unless Pappu had slipped on leaving and was saying goodbye. By the shore of the lake was rich pasture – paper bags, cardboard boxes, bottles, polythene wrappers, styro-foam – and I found it warming to think that soon a lowing herd of cattle would wind its way down to the water’s edge for a late supper.

I woke up next morning to discover that my body had welded itself into the shape of a T-square, more or less matching the contours of its new habitat – the back seat of the Ambassador. I could see the way my body was thinking and took my hat off, metaphorically speaking, to its survival instinct. However, it didn’t half make it difficult to shut the door of the lift, without ending up with a head compressed to the width of a slice of processed cheese. And, while we are on the subject, why are elevators only made for vertical people? The horizontally challenged need to use them too, you know.

I did two things that morning. I acquired the number of a local travel agent from the hotel and asked them to book me on a flight to Jaipur the following day. Pappu would have to drive there on his own. Yes, I know, wimpish or what, but I still wished to continue to enjoy the simple pleasures of life – like standing. I needed time to heal. Then I had a massage, at the end of which I was able to straighten to within 20 degees of vertical. I was ready to see the sights.

My first impressions were quite wrong. Udaipur is spotless, the cleanest city so far. Now I realise I am in danger of sounding like my mother, but doesn’t it make a difference! It’s amazing what a wash behind the ears and clean underpants each morning can achieve. While the city slumbers, its streets are swept (and there is a caste to do it), and rubbish taken to a dump 15 kilometres away. People use dustbins. Veneration of the paper bag underfoot as an indispensable food source has been replaced by the religion of cleanliness. Hats off to you, Udaipur. Heavens, I am turning into my mother.

There is the usual traffic chaos of course. 200,000 people live in Udaipur and most of them are on the roads at any given time. I don’t mean that most of them are driving, but that they are, quite literally, on the road. Let me give you a not untypical example, in fact an example that might be repeated any day in any Indian city. On our way to see the famous City Palace, Pappu stopped at a major junction at which a policeman was casually directing traffic. At least, I think that is what he was doing. Indian policemen, unlike French gendarmes, are not forever blowing their whistles and manically waving their arms in the air. They do not overheat. A few laconic waves and, as the cavalcade in front of them advances, they watch the ensuing havoc with kharmic detachment. It is all very splendid really.

A few yards ahead of us, amongst the queue of contraptions waiting for some indication that they should proceed, stood three young women dressed in bright cotton. They were chatting. As the assorted flotsam of cars, scooters, cyclists and an elephant carrying firewood and swishing its tail lazily from side to side, advanced, so did they. They walked in animated conversation as cars charged past them and scooters cut in ahead. The fact that death’s bony fingers were tugging at the hems of their saris didn’t seem to bother them in the slightest. They were road users, taking their rightful place along with everybody else.

I couldn’t help noticing that the stalls in mineral-rich, tourist-rich Udaipur were at the early stage of evolving into shops. They were like those prehistoric fish with tiny little legs, which had no idea that someday soon they’d be running around on dry land and eating Diplodocus. One of the kiosks had sprouted glass fronts and window displays, and I just wanted to tell Pappu to pull over while I burst through the door, hugged the owner around the waist, and informed him that one day he would become a huge department store, and be taken over by an Egyptian. I did get as far as asking Pappu to stop, and I did go in, but as to the precise content of the next fifty years, my lips remained sealed. Best to let such matters unfold in their own good time. I bought a travel bag instead. It had copious quantities of zips and a compartment at the bottom that could be unzipped to give another four inches of space. All this for 120 rupees (Under £2). Not bad, I thought. Not quite as good value as my knife, but not bad.

I had a good old snoop round the City Palace, and a splendid jumble of ornate state rooms, courtyards, terraces and narrow, windy staircases it was too. Some of the rooms were devoted to the life and times of my old friend, Pratap. This wasn’t surprising. He was to Udaipur what Robin Hood was to Nottingham. There was the Great Man’s armour in all its glory, standing upright as if still occupied. It was a grand sight, though I’d like to know what temperature his chain-mail and helmet reached on that Midsummer’s day at Haldighati. Sizzling, I’d say. Anybody brushing up against the metal-coated Pratap was probably scorched to death. Still, should he have fancied a bite of lunch during his retreat from the battlefield, he’d have known where to find a frying pan.

Beneath the City Palace is Lake Pichola, which of all the sites of Udaipur is the one to see. It is man-made and enormous, built by Pratap’s father, the founder of Udaipur, the much-reviled Maharana Udai Singh II (1540-1572). History has been unkind to Udai because he let his former capital, Chittor, be destroyed with all hands on deck, women and children included, while he swanned off to a safe hide-out in the hills. This wasn’t considered proper behaviour for a Rajput but, be that as it may, he sure knew about lake construction. I wandered down to a landing quay, looked out and thought to myself, ‘I’m in Venice.’ A second later, a party of French deposited themselves alongside and a woman declared, ‘c’est comme Venise, alors.’ It was official. The Venice of the East. What better thing to do, therefore, than to take a boat on the lagoon.

So I sat down and waited for one to arrive, whiling the time away by soaking up some rays, and musing on the incredible story of Udai and his nurse. It’s a moral tale, with a wee sting in it. Udai was six years old when an attempt was made on his life. No need to go into the whys and wherefores: just imagine the assassin striding purposefully towards the young prince’s bedroom, knife in hand. The faithful and quick-witted nurse, guessing what was afoot, spirited the boy away in a fruit basket, but then, having done so, realised that she had still had one small difficulty to overcome. How was she going to explain the absence of her charge? With the heaviest of heavy hearts (or so I presume), she put her own son in the royal crib. When the hit man appeared and inquired after his target, she ‘pointed to the cradle, and beheld the murderous steel buried in the heart of her babe.’ She sacrificed her son out of loyalty, and the boy she had saved grew up to abandon Chittor and its 40,000 inhabitants. ‘Well had it been for Mewar’, continued the chronicler, ‘had the poniard fulfilled its intention, and had the annals never recorded the name of Udai Singh in the catalogue of her princes.’[v]

The boat-trip was sheer delight. True, the delightfulness didn’t fully kick in until we had moved out of the oily smear left behind by outboard engines – solar powered boats, next time fellas, please – but once we had, the water was delightful: clear as a bell that was only slightly cracked, and pebble-dashed by drops of sunlight. People still fished in it, I was told, and crocodiles, shy creatures though they are, bask.

We circled around the Lake Palace hotel, once the summer retreat of the maharanas, and put in at the sixteenth century Jag Mandir. If you had to pick one place to make you appreciate how conspicuously opulent this country had been, and why the world’s traders and profiteers came to India to stuff their pockets, this little hideaway palace would be it. Eight stone elephants guarded its entrance. Rubies, onyx, jasper, cornelian and jade had once decorated the massive stone slabs of the walls. It had courtyards, pavilions, landscaped gardens and pools. And for what?  Somewhere to put up a few deckchairs and maybe read a book or two away from the hurly-burly. It was magnificently OTT, the most sumptuous bathing hut in the world, splendid enough even for Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jehan, to spend a few months here whilst trying to keep out of reach of his Dad, Jahangir. I didn’t blame him. I could have stayed on too, except that I didn’t have my trunks with me and the boat was ready to return. We made our way back across the lagoon and towards the City Palace. As we approached, its walls seemed the colour of peachy flesh, mottled by grey streaks of age and interrupted by the arched eyebrows of a hundred windows. Udaipur, let me tell you, is something else.

That evening, I finally worked out how to encourage a restaurant to serve up the sort of curry that takes your head off. You have to ask. Most of the meals I’d had so far had barely induced a bead of perspiration, which was like going to a horror movie and not ending up underneath your seat. Cooks in these parts don’t seem to have realized that the British have one of the most spice-hardened palates in the world, largely due to the fact that they have a curry house on every street corner. I have a friend who has eaten Indian four times a week for as long as I have known him. His preferred restaurant has awarded him his own special table, and they positively squeak with pleasure every time his measured tread is heard approaching their establishment. Chicken Vindaloo, extra spicy, has long since overtaken roast beef as Britain’s favourite dish. The Brits like it hot, as in sweating all over, jackets off, sleeves rolled up, Kingfishers all round waiter, hot. And for the first time in India, this is what I got. It knocked me backwards so fast, I found myself sitting at the next table. Best meal so far it was, and after having downed twice my usual dosage, I sat back, patted my stomach and emitted a contented belch.

Pappu set off next morning for Jaipur, while I wandered around the old city until check-out time, an awkward four hours before I had to leave for the airport. I decided to treat myself to lunch at the Lake Palace Hotel. A long, vastly overindulgent, session would be just the thing to while away an hour or two, or perhaps three if I lingered inexcusably over coffee. Except that, en route, my stomach started to give off warning signals that could not be ignored, and I had to settle for minestrone and a cup of tea, price 130 rupees (under £2). For this I had a table that looked out over the exquisite Lake Pichola, to the ghats and the back of the City palace. I was in India’s answer to the Gritti Palace in Venice, overlooking the grand lagoon, only a hundred times cheaper. Food, I find, tastes infinitely better when it’s a bargain.

I spun my soup out for an hour, which was as long as decency would allow, and then wandered around the hotel. It was one of those old rambling places where no one notices you – no head-porter with eyes that drill into the back of your head as you act casually, pretending to be a resident who knows exactly where the lavatories are. I found a quiet alcove miles from the main entrance with an open window over the water and a view to the Jag Mandir. I pulled up a chair, faced the sun, shut my eyes and, whilst a couple of sparrows frolicked on top of a gas lamp and crapped onto an antique sofa, settled down for an extremely well-deserved post-prandial nap.

Then I caught the boat back, jumped in a taxi, swung past Chetak Circle and departed the fair city from Pratap airport, where else.


[i] Maharana means ‘great warrior’. It’s one up on Maharaja, ‘great ruler’.

[ii] R.C. Majumdar, (general editor), The History and Culture of the Indian People: vol. VII, The Moghul Empire, (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1984), p.339.

[iii] It sounds fanciful, but its true, apparently – though don’t ask me how you train an elephant to fence.

[iv] R.C.Majumdar, op. cit., p.336-340.

[v] Tod’s Annals, op. cit., volume 1, p. 368.