To the PALACE
Sanjeev Bhaskar escapes life with the Kumars at Number 42 to attend the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s birthday party
THE aged plane’s engines scream and the overhead luggage compartments rattle as we finally touch down in Jodhpur, one of the most picturesque cities in the western state of Rajasthan, on this, the last leg of our journey. As we slowly taxi towards Jodhpur’s terminal building, the unmistakable sound of Lionel Richie being played on a Bontempi organ comes back to haunt me. Muzak, Indian style.
Rajasthan, or Land of Kings, has long been considered one of India’s most beautiful and historic states. It is India’s largest, with a population about the size of Britain’s, and I have had occasion to visit it before.
The last time I was in Rajasthan was about seven years ago, though my sense memory of it is not a positive one. I had gone to Jaipur, the capital city, and on my first evening had been taken to a little local restaurant.
Even though I had determined to be a vegetarian for at least a week while in India, I was persuaded to try a chicken biryani: the best in Jaipur, I was told. By 10pm that night I was exploding through every orifice and by midnight I was dry heaving.
I should add that India was in the middle of a heatwave and it was 32C through the night. At 1am the electricity went and there was no air-conditioning and no fan. By 3am I’d decided that my 48 hours in India was more than I could handle and resolved that I would take the first plane back to London so I could die there.
Of course, after another 24 hours encompassing continual doses of rehydration salts and soup, I felt well enough to continue, but the feeling that Rajasthan was more than I could handle had never entirely gone away. This time I’d already been to a variety of outof-the-way places and was older and wiser, so perhaps I would conquer any bug the Land of Kings had to offer.
As the plane manoeuvres to its final stop, I can see numerous empty aircraft bunkers: fighter planes buzz and dart overhead like wasps and here on the runway moustachioed army officers attempt to look busy in the winter sun.
With its proximity to Pakistan, Jodhpur has always been a crucial military base; the town was built around the 15th-century fort that rises from its heart, the last great Indian citadel before the dusty plains of Rajasthan give way to the great Thar Desert.
I’ve come to Jodhpur for several reasons. OK, so it’s a beautiful place to stop on my homeward-bound trajectory and I’m hardly complaining, but also I’ve been invited to the maharaja’s birthday celebrations. I’ve always been intrigued by the maharajas of India but my exposure to them has been largely through movies and literature. They were normally depicted as large, fat men in bejewelled turbans sitting on an oversized set of scales while peasants poured precious gemstones on the opposite tray, hoping it would balance out, else they would be fed to the royal tigers.
More rarely they would be warrior heroes who fought against the mighty Mughal empire. Colonial photographs showed them as British wannabes who posed with visiting British dignitaries, one foot courageously resting on a tiger that had met its end when faced with 20 guns after being chased to exhaustion.
None of the modern images has brought them much dignity and I wonder whether these hereditary leaders are still relevant in 21st-century India.
But before I pass judgment, perhaps I ought to meet one, and this one has been kind enough to send me an invitation card. HRH Raj Rajeshwar Saramad-i-Rajha-iHindustan Maharajadhiraja Maharaja Shri Gaj Singhji II Sahib Bahadur Singh requests the pleasure of . . .
Gosh, what do we sing when we get to ‘‘ Happy birthday dear. . .? At the palace gates, I emerge from my car and am received by a man with a truly magnificent moustache. It extends across most of his face and yet is
not a beard. It is a moustache that would make Dali feel ridiculous, as if he needed the help. No, the palace attendants at Umaid-Bhawan, city residence of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, have moustaches that would make big cats cower.
This particularly well-coiffed chap leads me through an art deco hallway into a circular central lobby of such stupendous opulence that one subconsciously begins to whisper as soon as one enters its embrace. Cool, pale marble reflects brass and candlelight. Stuffed leopards and tigers peer down from the walls, making me feel ever more inadequate.
It’s worth bearing in mind that palaces such as Umaid-Bhawan were built for this very reason: not so much to provide warmth and comfort as to provoke awe and due deference. This particular building, with its art deco tiles and looming staircases, has the distinctively authoritarian air of the 1930s, like an angular and slightly neo-fascist version of Washington’s Capitol building, and is reminiscent of the Lutyens architecture in New Delhi.
Umaid-Bhawan was first commissioned by maharaja Umaid Singh in 1929 and, as was all the rage among Indian princes of the era, he engaged a British architect, H. V. Lanchester, to oversee his grand design. A severe drought at the time had laid waste much of the local workforce and the maharaja brought employment to almost 5000 local builders, whom it took more than 15 years to build the astonishing edifice.
Thirsty work, I would say. There was no concrete or mortar used in constructing the mainframe of the palace, simply a series of interlocking stones. The result is breathtaking. It was the largest private residence in the world at one time but the present maharaja was prescient in turning part of it into a luxury hotel in the 1970s.
I follow the palace attendant across the lobby and, just as my eyes have become accustomed to the vast and subdued atrium, we emerge blinking into the sunlight. About 100 red-carpeted steps below us, a garden party is in full swing. I consider for a moment walking down the red carpet, after all I’ve done it loads of times at movie premieres, but then I’ve never had to contend with pike bearers in London’s Leicester Square.
I decide to walk next to the red carpet, striding wilfully past the hotel’s paying guests, who are confined to the terrace and can only gaze forlornly at the real guests on the lawn below. The sequins of countless saris glint in the blazing winter sun and the waxed handlebars of 100 moustaches twitch as I begin to mingle with Jodhpur’s great, good and just plain lucky.
The brass band strikes up to announce the arrival of their majesties. The music is, like so much in Rajasthan, almost beyond description. The overall barrage of sound is a marriage of the strident brass of a Scottish marching band with the wailing clarinet and pounding bass drum all too familiar to those who have ever attended an Indian wedding.
In any case, the maharaja is clearly taking it all in his stride as he and the maharani sashay down their red carpet, the pike bearers snapping to attention as they pass. The wellwishers down below applaud respectfully but as soon as the royal feet touch the royal lawn, a scrum ensues. Cameras jostle for position in a tangle of limbs, gifts and moustaches.
The king and queen are festooned with flower garlands, which they politely remove and pass to their bearers, only to have them instantly replaced by the next guest who has managed to force their way to the front of the unruly crowd. Guests assemble to present their offerings and the central tenets of Indian road sense are applied: every man for himself, and see a gap and go for it.
I’ve brought flowers but, looking around, 300 other guests have thought the same thing. After being jostled continuously to the back of the queue like the smallest kid at a free icecream sale, I finally decide to go native, stick out my elbows and move forward like a Panzer
Three places in front of me, two men present their beautifully wrapped gift but, rather than merely hand it over, they insist on unwrapping it before the maharaja. I wait for the music to stop so that it can be passed on and someone else can start furiously unwrapping it.
Finally liberated from its sparkling paper prison, what is revealed is a rather crap painting; so lousy, in fact, that my 14-monthold son could have done it. The maharaja nods and smiles appreciatively and accepts it in the spirit in which it was given. If I’d been receiving it, it would have been in a charity shop before the sun had set.
Throughout it all, the royals remain patient and gracious and I get the feeling that they genuinely have love and respect for their subjects. Finally it’s my turn: Your royal highness, may I, on behalf of myself and the crew, present this small token of our gratitude and wish you a happy birthday.’’
Thank you and welcome, lovely to see you,’’ replies the king. And I didn’t get it from duty free either,’’ I blunder. Oh!’’ says the maharani. How wonderful to meet you. I watch you on TV all the time.’’
This has me totally flummoxed. The last thing I expected was to be recognised by people who can trace their family tree back 700 years. Thank you, I’m speechless!’’ I splutter. With a swift glance behind me, I see some in line looking inquiringly at the stranger who the royals are expending their precious time on; others are looking dejectedly at their newly inadequate floral tributes. I move aside, basking in the attention slightly, and the disorganised throng resumes its focus on the birthday boy.
This maharaja is unlike all those caricatured ones I’ve seen in photographs and movies; he’s warm and engaging, with a public-school clipped English accent, and he slips effortlessly into Hindi and Marwari, the local Rajasthani dialect. The celebrations, too, are modest. No elephants, camels or trays of diamonds and rubies here. There’s a buffet, tea and coffee and, most disarmingly, even a birthday cake. It feels very much like a normal family occasion, apart from the awesome backdrop of the imposing palace.
One of the guests, a lady so well endowed that I keep waiting for her to topple over (fortunately, her enormous feet nullify that), tells me that this is his private celebration, the public event contains the pomp and circumstance the people expect; however, she’s reluctant to divulge whether elephants and camels are involved, although the trays of diamonds and rubies are ruled right out.
The guests are an interesting mix: local dignitaries, neighbouring royal princes, business associates and the prince and princess of Jodhpur’s pals. A lucky few seem to be just normal folk who behave like they’ve won a competition. To emphasise the private and modest nature of the celebration, there are even friends of the maharaja from his Oxford University days.
Watching him joke and reminisce with them makes me forget momentarily that he’s the symbolic head of a kingdom. He could be a don or successful businessman simply chatting to his mates. The maharani is an attractive, vivacious lady who introduces me to other guests and asks me how the rest of the cast of The Kumars at No42 are going.
Well, I think they’re fine, I haven’t spoken to Vincent and Indira, who play my parents, since I’ve been in India, but Meera, who plays my grandmother, is very well. I spoke to her last night, actually.’’ Really?’’ asks the maharani. How come?’’
Well, you did know she’s my wife?’’ I ask, sensing a misunderstanding looming. The maharani’s eyes narrow and her brow furrows slightly. You married that old lady?’’ she says, with just a modicum of dignified disgust.
No, no, it’s make-up, it’s a young lady in make-up,’’ a random female voice shouts. There is palpable relief on all sides before the maharani is whisked away to meet some important people. I amleft feeling grateful that she wasn’t hauled away before the awful image in her head was erased. Edited extract from India by Sanjeev Bhaskar (HarperCollins, $49.99)
On a role: The Kumars ’ Sanjeev in character, and
visiting historic Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur
Fort picture: From India by Sanjeev Bhaskar
Spice of life: Stalls in Jodhpur’s Sadar market, beyond the palace gates
tank. The one edge I have over my bouqueted competitors is that my offering is substantially higher than anyone else’s. That’s class, that is.