Despite having lived in Delhi for over a year and a half all told, I have seen precious little of neighboring Rajasthan, aside from two trips to Jaipur. The first time round I took in the sights of the Pink City from a hospital bed while my family had fun exploring, while the second foray was dedicated to attending Jaipur’s prestigious literature festival, allowing no time to explore the city itself. So I was delighted when a weekend excursion to Udaipur was proposed by friends; I felt I could start to fill a gaping hole in my travel-map of North India.
Following an overnight train – during which I communed with a friendly aunty over a bag of almonds I had brought for the journey – the first two days were spent with my friends seeing the city’s famed array of sights and sampling Rajasthani cuisine. I have found throughout my travels in India that the best and most satisfying food is sometimes that which is neither overly-complicated nor necessarily served in the most salubrious of surroundings. Talking to fellow Indophiles, I know I am not the only one to hold this belief.
And so it was in Udaipur; a lunchtime stroll north of the City Palace took us to one such place, a dhaba (road-side canteen), perhaps slightly worn around the edges but welcoming enough, where we enjoyed a Rajasthani classic: kachori, fried discs with a filling of lentils, potato or onion and, of course, spices, accompanied by a rich tamarind chutney. In the midday heat, a few kachori, washed down with my poison of choice (chai, if you’re interested), were more than enough to sate my appetite until evening. I came back again before I left and, over one final round of kachori, managed to successfully summon up enough of my meager Hindi to convey my appreciation to the proprietor, a trivial yet still satisfying achievement in my mind; while visiting the Jagdish Temple the day before I had confidently informed a purveyor of Udaipur’s famous miniature paintings that his work was delicious, but sadly not for me.
Eager to take in some of the local culture however, I spent an evening in the elegant eighteenth-century courtyard of Bagore-ki-Haveli, one of the city’s historic mansions, enjoying performances from across the spectrum of traditional Rajasthani culture. The show began with a dance by women from the Gujjar tribe, whose type of dance – used for felicitous occasions – had gained recent viral fame thanks to a video of two Gujjar women singing and dancing buoyantly in the incongruous setting of the Delhi Metro. Despite the familiarity, it was still a wonderful experience seeing it in person. With the Mewari sitting dance, it was difficult to decide what should command one’s full attention: the fluid swaying back and forth of the dancers, or their deftness in playing a pair of small cymbals simultaneously.
Despite the artful guile of each performer, the most enthusiastic applause of the evening was undoubtedly reserved for a woman who slowly yet surely danced while balancing an eventual total of eleven water gourds on her head, and briefly treading delicately on shards of glass. The acclaim of the audience only increased when the master of ceremonies revealed her age afterwards: 70 years!
Unlike my hard-working friends, I was lucky enough to have an extra day in Udaipur before having to make tracks back to Delhi in the late afternoon. As such, I decided to embrace my inner flâneur and take an unhurried walk through Udaipur’s neighborhoods, ostensibly to visit Sahelion ki Bari, or the ‘Courtyard of the Maidens’. From what I had heard, its tranquil setting of fountains and gardens seemed a fitting destination for a day of leisure. That day was in fact meant to be a ‘day of rage’, or shutdown, in cities across India as a protest by opposition parties against the recent demonetization measures. In reality, as I stepped out of my hostel mid-morning, Udaipur seemed calm and distinctly unperturbed – calm being a relative concept in India of course!
As I roamed, my eyes guiding me down alleyways, towards well-maintained havelis and into the thrum of markets, I was offered a road-side shave, a massage, a smoke, coconut juice, spices…women adorned in the ubiquitous yet dazzling panoply of Rajasthani colors diligently weaved reed baskets in the heat; tourists pawed the leather bags hanging from shops, as the proprietors – very much in business – looked eagerly on; locals offered a hasty prayer as they walked past road-corner shrines. In wanton oblivion to the lofty words of the politicians in Delhi, life was assuredly carrying on.
Turning around a bend in the road, I saw up ahead a rickshaw clatter into another, a sharp exchange of words follow, and the inevitable audience hastily assemble as motorbikes formed an increasingly lengthy queue of blazing horns. A policeman, sporting a fine black beret, spiritedly yet inconsequentially blew his whistle. An elderly man, his beard luridly streaked with henna, walked insouciantly through the commotion, only briefly glancing sideways before shuffling on.
In the end, I never reached my intended destination; I didn’t really mind. In India, there is so much joy, amusement and profundity to be found in the everyday, the mundane, if only you take a moment to pause and watch. ‘People-watching’ is an inexact, somewhat clumsy term for this method of traveling – as if one were going on a human safari. I’ve yet to think of a better name for this fine art, but I’ll let you know someday.
On the train back, I thought about my wanderings that day, as well as my immediate surroundings. For me, taking the train in India is like entering a library…but that’s a thought for another time.