To the PALACE

San­jeev Bhaskar es­capes life with the Ku­mars at Num­ber 42 to at­tend the Ma­haraja of Jodhpur’s birth­day party

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

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