Jaisalmer to Jodhpur: The Wife is Berating the bus drive under the Trades Descriptions Act, which does not extend to India. The bus ticket clearly states: ‘luxury tourist bus.’– The only part of the description it does fulfil is; it’s a bus. The expression on his face suggests his role is to just drive the bus, not assign semantics to either the transportation vehicles, or journeys. I try levity by suggesting, “Imagine what the ‘economy’ bus is like?’The look on her face suggests she is not imagining it. She soon calms down as we watch goats, sand, sparse scrub trees, and farming pass by. I am amazed how many tractors I spot–not just here but in most of India. I did not expect so many, they are costly items, and it’s a sure sign that even the poorest parts of India are on the rise. I have a close friend I used to teach with from the outskirts of London that went to a grammar school and a red-brick university, who came up to teach in Manchester, why?, I or he, have never worked out. On his second week in the pub, he said to me.
“Manchester’s not anything like I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“Lots of flyovers with cows underneath.”
For those outside the UK, Manchester is the capitol city of the north of England, and after the unrivalled capitol of the world, London, the second biggest generator of wealth in the Britain. As you can imagine I was little dumfounded and amused.
“How did you come to that conclusion?”
“It’s what I’ve seen on the tele.”
“Do you have a dedicated northern flyover/cow channel in the south of England?”
He doesn’t challenge his own skewed image, at least now he knows it to be unfounded. I’m still perplexed. “How many elevated roads did you expect to find in the grim north?”
“A lot more,” he says with complete honesty, whilst laughing. Simon (real name) is a self-effacing beautiful human-being that lets light into people’s lives, and is a constant source of joy. Even now I can think of a dozen anecdotes about him that make me smile, he is not the sort of person you forget, for all the right reasons. My view of Indian tractors is not quite in the same league as his. When I explain my tractor epiphany to the wife, she looks at me and laughs. “And you’re an intelligent person.””But I’m a little surprised by the abundance of advanced agricultural vehicles.” ”You’re also a loon.”
Night bus to Udaipur: Cramped, the beds are supposed to accommodate two people, they would have to be extremely thin, emaciated, or anorexic to enjoy a ‘shared’ night’s sleep in one of these ‘double-bunks’, this not the mode of transport for the obese, or chubby even. It soon turns from scorching to cold heading through the desert. I’m sharing with the boy. We stop in the middle of the night at what looks to be a bank-holiday in a refugee camp. The boy has been moaning about needing the toilet, and after asking the driver, this is probably the reason for the unscheduled stop. He is very reluctant even in his desperate ‘bladder hostility’ state to use the only free toilet at the back of a bustling restaurant we are now parked outside. The restaurant looks that the hygiene inspectors do not even know it exists, no such luck for the flies. He is so desperate he grabs a box of matches and shoots off. His toilet rating system never sleeps, so I’m intrigued to know where this will figure on the 10-point scale.
“How was it then?”
“I never want to think about it ever again in my life-time.” – He is not joking. So obviously I’m intrigued and start asking questions. It is a hole in the ground–holes in the ground, even in France lose the proprietors a lot of points, I cannot tell you exactly, as the criteria is very complicated, both to explain, and not lose concentration as it is being extolled. There is no light, or electricity. He has had to strike matches while taking what has now turned into his constitutional. “Toilet paper?”A tap and a bucket, some parts of others’ cultures, some people can never truly embrace! There is a tap–bonus! So later, more relaxed.
“What grade are you giving it, then?”
“It does not reach the scale, it is off the scale, in a way I never want to think about.”He contemplates negative numbers for his already complicated system, but decides against it. A zero pretty much says it all.
I hold the torch up and enquire why he did not take that with him. As relaxed as he is pretending to be, the look suggests parricide.
We arrive in Udaipur, now in our seventh week of travel, completely blasé about finding accommodation. We settled on a heritage guesthouse on the edge of the lake with a lovely garden, pool and a tortoise that my daughter is besotted by. Even now due to this liaison, she occasionally asks for one. Even when I point out what happens to it when she goes off to Uni, and I’m left preying that it’s not escaped all summer, not been sent in a box to the charity shop, and if not, then the hope it has survived the ridiculous amount of time it ‘sleeps’ in the winter–no thank you. I’ve seen enough Blue Peter as a child to know a tortoise is a shit pet. I compromised and bought her a very realistic stone one. I hide it in the garden and she has to find it, except now she has grown bored of that game, like she would have with the slightly more mobile one.
Udaipur is a beautiful but polluted city, and it is worth the visit just to see the white palace in the middle of Lake Pichola, it is where part of Octopussy was filmed, and at least one of the hotels shows the film every single night! There is the magnificent City Palace and opulent havelis. The next day we all wake up ill, I’m adamant I have a viral infection, the rest have the symptoms of hay fever; it is in fact: pollution-fever, the pollution lays heavy in the air like a medieval stalking miasmas and appears to have nowhere to escape to. The second chemist we try says exactly the same as the first pharmacist, ‘pollution.’I have double whammy: pollution plus Rajasthani man-flu. The one thing my daughter wants to do in the family-democracy-picker, is ride through the streets of the city centre on an elephant. So I’m dispatched with her to do this, you can’t get more conspicuously tourist than a white man and his daughter atop of an adorned pachyderm holding up the traffic in a busy city. I don’t mind spreading disease in my wake. Elephants do not hold the same fascination to your average Indian as they do to the tourist. I remember being in a shoe-shop in Paghwara when one passed outside along the pedestrian pavement, the assistant didn’t even look to see if I was lying, just nodded like she was there to dispatch my medication. Here in Udaipur the elephants are not popular with the shopkeepers as they defecate in quite large quantities and the owners don’t clear it up. The wife does not even get as excited as we all do (see as evidence of her lack of love for Asiatic elephants here: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/6946206-28-a-woman-in-bloom-travails-through-life-sometimes-avoiding-the-p.)
I have some bespoke suits made on the promise they will make any up in future for €100, and post them onto England, and it is only the third fitting of these three days after the first visit that keeps us in Udaipur a day later than we would have stayed, purely due to the pollution and associated moaning. Even with the pollution I like it, some say that Udaipur is the most beautiful city in India. I suspect most of these are Udaipurians (with facemasks), or are one of the many couples that got married there. Liz Hurley got married in the White Palace on the Lake, which in the show-biz world is probably an ex-husband by now, and she will have moved on to a crazy ex-sports-star or a convicted psychopath.
The sleeper to Agra is supposed to be ‘super-delux,’ as we arrive peasants are loading it up with sacks of rice and enough possessions to suggest partition is about to reoccur. The wife is beyond reproach now, but remains quiet. “Imagine what the ‘delux’ bus must be like?”I suggest, the muscles in her face contort into what appears to be a smile. On these occasions I have a simple aphorism, ‘We have nothing to do, and all day to do it.’ (Night in this case.) It’s an aphorism my son appears to have turned into a personal philosophical life-style choice. The bus is three hours late. We arrived in the wee small hours of a Friday morning, and if there is one attraction you may want to visit Agra for, it is likely to be The Taj Mahal, but this opulent mausoleum is shut on Fridays! Except for Muslim prayers, which my son is keen for us to try and blag our heathen selves’ in for a gander, like a set of drunken Mancs trying to get into a Happy Mondays concert. I tell him it isn’t an Arabic brothel, whereby a Hyman decrees the married man a divorce for a few hours while they visit their ‘temporary’ wife, to then divorce them, as they go back to their more permanent wife/wives.
If Agra didn’t have the Taj and The Fort, there would be little incentive to stop here, not when there is so much more bounteous beauty to behold in Hindustan. I get the blame for ‘forbidden Friday’; as I’m the only one in Udaipur bothered to read the guide book, but neglected to read the very small print in the Rough Guide at the very end. Someone has to have the blame, we live in a blame culture, and even with Rajasthani man-flu, I take the ‘with responsibility, comes blame’ blame . We make the best of it and hire a tut-tut driver for the day. I can’t help thinking to myself, this reproach is the exact reason why some humans shun positions of responsibility: and those that don’t probably shouldn’t be allowed any. We start early around the back of the Taj, we get a prospective most tourists never see; across from the river at the rear. We meet another Sunny, his tourist name, an eleven year old boy that can speak perfect English. He has a camel, the kids have photos taken on it,‘We don’t have to pay’for the privilege. We do the uber-tourist compulsion of pretending we are holding up the top of the Taj Mahal in our finger tips. We are in no rush, I have an aphorism for such occasions, and we get chatting to Sunny, not dissimilar to the Sunny we have met in Manali. I can’t help thinking Sunny, both of them, are the sort of people that if given an education and the privilege of some financial backing would be billionaires, but maybe with privilege of those two factors, the urge would not be as great to push themselves? That is the paradox I suppose. Of course we give Sunny enough money so he can pay for the rent of the camel and put some in his own back pocket. We have learnt more from Sunny and the Tut-tut drive of the true India, than we would have done on a hermetically sealed tour of The Taj. I’ve read the guide book, ok, hands up–not very well, but it is better to have (insert your own aphorism here)… We go on a guided tour of the Fort, which is fascinating, if you like the drama of a son locking his father up in a room to observe the monument to his dead wife, oh, and your own mother! This is‘big-character ’pre-Shakespearean without the pox and people urinating next to you at the theatre, good job in this heat.
I tell the wife I’m building a memorial pond in the back garden when we get home, she will be buried at sea, with full humanistic military honours. I have to explain to the kids I’m being a little flippant–their mother has never been in the uniformed services. Unless you count ‘The Samaritans’, just checked, no uniform, just a big brown woolly cardigan.
We complete our world wind tour of Agra, the Tut-tut driver has given us his life story like a TV box set every time we get back on board. He wants our email and home address, and is threatening to come and visit us in England, he will never turn up. He’s affable enough for my liking, but just to be on the safe side the wife gives him a false email address, quite unlike her, but she’s travelled enough to know that we will turn up home, and he just might!
Next time: Mum-Jai Ho.
I write books. You can buy any of them at very reasonable prices here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar