We had to do it. It is a tradition whenever my British pal, Mary comes a-visiting. I was doubtful. Did not want to spend any money, as I had nothing over and above my pocket money, helper salaries and petrol. She insisted we go. I dug deep into my pockets and discovered some old, forgotten notes. We flew, and we arrived in a sunny, welcoming environment, the entry point from Delhi, Jaipur, the Pink City. This was the first time I had conceded to flying to Jaipur, after all, it was down the road on our Highway 8, we could drive and be there in four hours. Of course, it’s always been over five, but it does seem possible when we set out in the wee hours of the morning. We’ve never actually managed to set off early enough. Wise decision it was to Air India it. The National Carrier flew on time, landed with a thump, rather hard, but we reached our little Jai Nivas, in less than four hours from the Gurgaon apartment. It doesn’t get faster than that. However, that’s where the speed stops. The rest of our trip was on slowmo.
The air at Jai Nivas bespoke complete lethargy. The garden, green and sunny, called out invitingly, and gently. We were given masala chai, the best ever, after half an hour of our demanding it. The room was large and airy; food, bland but ample; receptionist’s speech, a drawl. We had been welcomed and had nothing to worry about. We weren’t worried at all, why would we be? Well not yet, was how we felt. The service, in general, slow yet painfully cheerful, and later a visit to the Chameli bazaar, across the wide MI Road, was very laidback, wearing an air that breathed, ‘might be busy downtown, but here, it’s time to sit back and reap the fruits of our labour’. When did they labour? Anyhow, we also caught the drift and floated around, admiring the offerings on display in rather dusty panes. The shopkeepers watched us wanderers cheekily, I hasten to add, and barely moved a whisker to draw our attention. Yet our attention was drawn to this very odd and nonchalant display of apathy toward, what we might have well been, wealthy customers. Perhaps our own demeanour belied any signs of wealth. We weren’t dressed glamourously, nor did our rustic bags give off the perfume of well-stocked wallets.
On rushing back armed with beer, we discovered that our fridge was not working. It took all of an hour and a half of much inspection, followed by rigorous movement, followed by an equally dismal looking contraption that replaced its earlier cousin. It worked nevertheless, and we did enjoy chilled beer that night. Dinner was salty.
The following day, we left our abode at 11, since shops are slated to open around then. The traffic was snarly, and our auto driver was angry. He seemed irate to begin with, and then, another auto driver made the fatal mistake of crossing his path. That was it! He stopped bang in the middle of an overcrowded, dusty and misshapen main road to give an earful to this guy. Since I follow the Hindi spoken there, my ears burnt red from embarrassment, the choice of words were such. I don’t know quite understand why I should have been embarrassed, as my English friend understood none of it, though she sensed the rage. I had to command our auto driver to pipe down and carry on to the bazaar, without further delay. He was quivering with rage and dumped us outside a quilt shop. His nostrils flared like a bull’s, and I tried to imagine the real reason for such a display of uncontained temper. We even discussed it later at the shop. Perhaps the guy did not have too many customers, perhaps he was burdened with a housing loan, maybe he had lost money in a gambling spree, his wife’s cooking may be terrible, or that she was pregnant with their fifth child! Who knew what can get someone going, who knew!
The quilt store, a pretty shop, was divided by price tags, quality and designs. There were three men, and not one was a client. We felt special, by default. A wide array of designs were on display. Jaipuri quilts are very popular, and much in demand. Why was the shop empty? It was already around noon. In the meantime, we just had to point to one, and it was spread out in customary fashion, at our feet, to admire and fondle. An hour later, we were still undecided. Would my cook like this one, or that one? I was at a loss. What I liked, subtle pastels, he definitely would not. His instruction was – “Bhabhi, 4 ya 5 hazaar rupye ki moti razai lana meri maa ke liye, zyaada bhi chalega, kam nahin, gaon mey rehti hain” (Sisterinlaw, do buy a thick quilt for 4 or 5 thousand rupees, for my mother in the village, could cost more, but not less.). Now there was more than the dilemma of the pastels and subtleties, there was the element of the price. These were all around 3 thousand rupees, no more.
I whatsapped my mate at home, and asked him to share the designs, but not before I had discovered the velvet-covered quilts. To my vision they were quite ugly, but soft and thick, one of the cook’s demands. They still did not achieve the 4-5 thousand rupee status. Anyway, I got a response pretty quickly, and as suspected, he loved the velvety ones. The deal was made, and I bought a quilt for the cook’s mom!
No customers appeared, during our hour-long visit. We were served hand and foot by three men- one of whom was the owner. He spoke perfect English for the benefit of my friend Mary. The shop had an impressive display of bedcovers and sheets too, and Mary ended up picking up some of those as well. I am certain the shopkeeper was thrilled at having done brisk business. Yet, I kept wondering why the street, a main one at that, very close to Hawa Mahal, was devoid of tourists. Business seemed really, really slow.
As we emerged, we were accosted by many shopkeepers, all at once, asking us where we were from, and if our interest could be evoked by, bangles, jootis (Jaipuri shoes), kurtas, skirts, balloon trousers, harem pants, jewellery and so on and so forth. After the gentle treatment meted out to us at the quilt showroom, we felt assaulted, and ducked for cover in a nearby jeweler’s shop, that was small and where we were offered Italian espresso. The coffee was fabulous, but the shop owners had lured us with a price that did not hold. We left soon thereafter.
The sun had risen to its zenith, and it had turned pretty warm. As we rushed on, while the rest of the Jaipuri world seemed not bothered with the sun’s movements, we observed people drinking chai, chattering, languorous and lazy, discussing politics. Life seemed to follow an even trail here. Everyone was at ease with the slow pace of a small town, but for us.
We wanted to just be, observe and watch, however every once in a while, we would hear a shopkeeper shout out to us, albeit gently, “Only 100 rupees madam, only 200 rupees,” I did venture into a bangle shop and picked up a dozen, after bargaining it down. Again, we were the only customers. Although it was high season, in my understanding of Rajasthan’s tourism, there were too few tourists around us. It all seemed to have waned, or was it the wrong time of day?
We discovered, quite by chance, a rooftop restaurant, Wind View, rather aptly named. It afforded a wonderful view of the Hawa Mahal, and the ramparts of the Nahargarh fort. We ordered tea in terracotta cups, and joined the slow march of time. The breeze was cool, the tea, piping hot and spicy. We just sat and sipped our tea, quietly observing nibbling monkeys on rooftops, the gorgeous fort and tourists, yes, finally, tourists busy photographing the fort from the terrace of the Hawa Mahal. So there were people, after all, who toured Jaipur, apart from us!
We needed eardrops for Mary, so we stopped by at an Ayurvedic pharmacy.
On asking for these, the gentleman owner kept asking us to repeat our query, “hein, hein, kya chahiye?” Clearly he needed some himself, and we couldn’t keep down our giggles. Finally, we did manage to get across our need, by gesticulating and made ourselves understood.
All the laughing had made us quite hungry, and we undertood the march to the famous Lakshmi Mishthan Bhandar for lunch- which took us all of twenty-five minutes of crawling our way through chaotic traffic- pedestrians were clearly neither favoured nor tended to. There were hawkers, flower-sellers, auto rickshaws, cyclists, motorcyclists, with whom we fought for space on the road to reach a pavement, which was strewn with more vendors. What a crazy town! We had to watch our every step till we arrived at an over-crowded restaurant, but it was well worth it. It was cool, and the waiters were cheerful and served us fast, with excellent Indo-chinese- chilly paneer, veg chowmien and a stuffed onion kulcha for the Britisher! It was delicious, and was wolfed down with gusto! Fresh lime soda washed it all down, and we were two contented women. We did breathe easy indoors, whereas we should’ve been gulping down fresh air outdoors. Needless to say, that was not the case.
Back at Jai Nivas, after a nice shower, we sat out in the green garden, and sipped chilled beer and although we weren’t particularly hungry, we did order some stuffed paranthas for a late dinner, which weren’t half bad.
The quilt for the cook’s mom sat in our room, looking plump and ready to warm the lady up next winter. It had been the prize, and we had definitely had an eventful day, because after lunch, we decided to walk through the gulleys of Jaipur, crisscrossing and meandering along behind the main Johri Bazaar.
The slowness of Jaipur, was not in these gulleys. These were the lanes where business was brisk, yet gentle, and people swarmed. It was bursting with tourists, and locals alike, and we got a real taste of what I would deem the high season that Rajasthan lives during the months of winter. We were amused, yet careful of where we stepped. Pavements are not popular for pedestrians. You just walk. You place your foot where you find place. We were dusty and tired on our return, but the comfy, simple Jai Nivas, is ideal for such evenings. There were many guests, yet we found our place in the garden. Stretching our feet, we read till the natural light faded.
Jaipur is a delightful town, and has gotten busier over the years. One doesn’t tire of it easily, because there is newness in the familiarity of it. I don’t quite know why, but I’ve visited Jaipur a dozen times in the last four, five years, and on every trip, I discover a facet that I hadn’t noticed earlier. People remain warm, and welcoming, which is surprising really. I guess it’s the Rajasthan culture.
I will return again next year, with Mary, or with a bunch of friends, earlier. Another quilt perhaps, for us, or anyone demanding it of me.