19.11.2013 - 19.11.2013
We had our first encounter with the Indian postal service in Jaipur. This crazy three hour experience involved being told to go to the Customs Office on the first floor of the post office. In this dusty and largely unmanned place, seemingly the designated area for hibernation, we at last got the attention of a customs officer who viewed us with surprise, asked us what we wanted to post home, and brusquely told us we didn't need to be there when we gave the vague answer "souvenirs". Back downstairs we joined a sluggish queue before someone told us we needed to fill in a form (no instructions provided) and give it and our package to the post office tailor (no, that's not a typo), who would SEW up our parcel in white cotton and seal the corners with hot wax before attaching the form, rolled up into a scroll, to one corner. Maybe the same system has been in place since the days of the British Raj?
Conventional tourist stuff first...
One Jaipur 'sight' is the Jantir Mantir, an archaic astrological/astronomical observatory built by some historical bigwig. Nowadays it's an opaque collection of what looks like pieces of dull public modern art paired with plaques written by someone who knew a lot about astrology and nothing about writing, and further pair-able with a sickening audio guide ("I'm so excited to know so much about astrology!"). Angles and meridians made me glassy-eyed; starsigns did the same to Rich. Avoid!
Our next stop was Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort, the historic seats of the Rajputs (basically, Rajasthani old-time bigwigs). Running low on time we caught a ride up to Jaigarh Fort, the less publicised of the two but the more interesting. Atmospheric and more obviously military than the Palace below, it glowed orange in the setting sun and was infested with langur monkeys, who gambolled boldly alongside visitors.
We walked rather impressive battlements guided by a guy in military dress who looked like he'd been installed there in the days of the Raj (for once our volunteer guide was welcome – few explanatory plaques here) and wandered into an armoury to look at sixteenth-century cannons. Jaigarh Fort houses the largest cannon in the world, which you aren't allowed to photograph as apparently it's still 'confidential military information'. ...Right.
Amber Palace we rushed through, but there's a lot less to it – impressive facades but little atmosphere, and lots of corridors that looked like the setting for some historical drama in which a central character walks towards the camera and is given information by others emerging from doorways either side. What could a guide have said? "This is where the King and Queen used to perambulate", "this is where the King and Queen brushed their teeth" and "these windows provided light to the King and Queen", perhaps. Go to Jaigarh over Amber!
Less conventional tourist stuff – we met ACTUAL Indians! In India, as well!
A smiling guy approached us on the street, pleading with us to come and chat with him about our experiences of India in order to help him with a pHD project. He smiled, bowed and insisted that it would take 10 minutes in the nearest coffee shop. At first Jayni noted down our wooden responses to his request for '10 Good and Bad Things about India'. All our most memorable experiences hadn't been great – the delayed train journey, the food poisoning, the aggressive touts. I said something limp about India being colourful, and felt such a tourist. The conversation progressed from there – it became about what he saw as the need for change in India, the continuing influence of caste, and how far away India is from liberal attitudes towards women. He said that "all Indian women do is eat and watch TV and wait for their husbands". He said he wouldn't marry an Indian woman for this reason, but also described how he'd been about to marry a woman once but had been rejected by her family as a 'dirty Arab'. He said only very wealthy Indians could be liberal, and even they still obeyed caste. He explained how lots of people change their names as a way of disguising caste, and that caste continues to have influence because it allows marriages between people with the same ritiuals, food, ways of speaking... I hadn't appreciated the gulfs between castes could run that deep! He also talked about the filth in Varanasi, and how attitudes to waste disposal would take generations to change. He seemed friendly and reasonable, but we became wary when he wanted to book us a rickshaw and take us shopping, and wriggled away. As much as he might have tried to squeeze some commission out of us at the end, it was a genuinely fascinating encounter.
A night later whilst dodging touts down a crowded market street a voice called after us: "Hello? Excuse me?" A floppy-haired, peaceful-looking guy tapped Rich on the shoulder and asked, without any hint of anger, why tourists did not want to speak to locals. We explained that this was not the case, but that because so many were touts just wanting to sell to us it was easier to ignore everything. He invited us to go and drink chai with him in a tiny place crammed with locals who stared at us in surprise. Nitesh represented another side of India, one rarely seen. One of the most relaxed-looking people I've ever met, appearing half-asleep as he sipped chai, he spoke little and in a considered way about how difficult it is to find the spiritual in India. He described how India was changing, becoming more materialistic. He talked of the value of stillness, of meditation, and explained that he was not a Hindu – "I believe all things mean the same thing". At one point he closed his eyes and chanted "ooommm shanti" at us very slowly (we referred to him afterwards as 'Om Shanti'). I asked him how the sadhu lifestyle is viewed – would his family be happy if he became a sadhu? He said they would understand – they would know that he had an especial sense of the divine.
Imagine the reaction in the UK! "Hey everyone, I'm going to give up all my earthly possessions and wander the world searching for the divine, smoking hash along the way." Less light-heartedly, inwardness is not socially acceptable for many 'Westerners'. I can't imagine the horror being much less if I announced I was going to become a nun. It is not visible, it is not rational, it doesn't lead to worldly success. Yet there is a kind of searching that is unanswered by what UK-European-Western society tells us to do, but is admitted in India. I don't simply mean 'searching for God'. I intend it more generally – searching for a point, for some different understanding of yourself in the world that is not a job or relationship. You're permitted to be 'confused about what you will do' but what you will do is one of those things, not anything else. Sadhus may not find the 'answer', but too many people lose their lives in the doing, and can only apprehend another region where they never hunted, even if there may be nothing to be found. Sometimes in bookshops I know I'm doing that searching when I pick up the ones that refer to meditation or yoga or whatever – and then I know I haven't found what I wanted when I see something about chakras or crystals or mantras, and my brain rebels, and I think: not this, not for me. And I keep searching because I want to find a path, I want to read something galvanising - how easy it would be to find something spectacular, to declare yourself a Zen Buddhist, give that searching a name and a direction! I've veered into religion again here, but religion is only one response.
Om Shanti bought us the chai, and departed without trying to sell us anything. And those two meetings – with a progressive India of the future, materialistic but politically aware, agitated and expressive, and a spiritual one, a meditative one, calm, and increasingly rare – stay with me more than any fort.