2006 November: Sunday
Next morning I sat in the front garden of Shalendra and Vinod’s home in Gurgaon. Although we still had Malcolm’s talk on GB Shaw and Ann’s talk on Pontius Pilate and Shelley to come over the next two evenings, my shows were over. I relaxed in the slightly chilly morning sun and watched the occupants of a building site across the road preparing for the day. An Indian building site bears a strong resemblance to a British building site – a lot of people looking at work but nobody actually doing any (and I say that as one who has worked on them in my time). The only movement came from the women attending to the needs of the workers. They walked around in bright saris and carrying metal vessels rather like large woks on their heads. A couple of cows strolled round the site inspecting the progress. If I were to be reincarnated as an animal, I would have to insist on being a cow in India or a dog in England.
That evening, we returned as a group to the Habitat Centre for Malcolm’s talk on Shaw. He had a difficult job in that the venue was a prosaic lecture room. It was a real tribute to his acting skills that he managed to invoke the spirit of that dynamic but waspish old Irishman in what was in effect a clinical laboratory. As well as some good laughs, his impersonation of Shaw’s political diatribe against capitalism drew grunts of approval from some elderly members of the audience and what appeared to be a sort of Hindu version of ‘Right on, Power to the People’ from one of them. When his talk was succeeded by some film of the real Shaw, it was extraordinary how closely Malcolm’s accent resembled that of Shaw himself.
2006 November: Monday
The following night, it was Ann’s turn to take on Delhi and talk about her Pontius Pilate and Shelley books. She had been booked to appear in a much larger lecture room than the previous night. However, when we arrived at the appointed time of 6pm, we found that the place was already occupied by about 100 young salesmen. They had been attending a day-long promotional launch of a new brand of biscuit called ‘Milk Biki’, and as we stood at the doorway, it looked as if it was going to be difficult to get them out. I slipped inside the room and approached a man at the back of the auditorium who looked like he might be in charge. I tried to explain but he looked blank: “No, sir, not Pontius Pilate Biki. Milk Biki!”
By 6 30, we managed to stop their by now grossly over-running event, but there was still a lot of their props and promotional material around the place. Ann’s audience were growing restive outside. If we stayed here it became obvious that Ann would have to invoke the shade of Percy Bysshe Shelley against a backdrop of Milk Biki posters. We decided to switch back to Malcolm’s lecture room.
Ann gave a good clear introduction to her main book on Pontius Pilate and paused for questions. She was immediately attacked by a middle-aged woman on the front row, armed with prominent canine teeth and glinting spectacles, who bombarded her with religious questions that revealed a strongly anti-Semitic streak. Sensing action, more people joined in, like bulldogs at a bear.
Ann dealt with it magnificently. It was like watching David Gower facing an Australian pace attack – each ball elegantly turned away to the boundary. The ‘discussion’ though was in danger of turning into a religious free-for-all – a dangerous place for any speaker. Malcolm and I hastily threw in some questions about Shelley and managed to steer the talk to safer ground (mostly, I felt, because the audience were not aware he was an atheist).
On the drive back to Gurgaon, we talked about the differences between authors’ talks and actors’ performances. I admitted to Ann: “your books will be read forever – that’s your reward. But once the show is over – that’s it for an actor. Authors are immortal; actors are mayflies”.
THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
2006 November: Wednesday
Our performance duties over, Ann, Malcolm, and I accepted Vinod’s invitation to do some tourist travelling, specifically round the ‘Golden Triangle’ and then to the Himalayas. She hired a taxi for the duration and with it a driver. He was named Arjun Singh, a small unassuming man with little English but pleasant and helpful. Thankfully he also turned out to be a excellent driver.
In the morning sunshine we drove through Delhi and then out to the south-west. Vinod pointed to the temples along the way and described the various sects to which they belonged. “There are many ways to find God. They all point to the sky.” So far I don’t think anyone’s tried tunnelling?
After an hour of travelling through flat and fertile country, we came across two large pillars topped with crumbling stone lions, one on each side of the road. They marked the entry point to Rajastan, the ‘Land of the Kings’ and home of the Rajputs. Ann remarked that it would be nice if the English counties had something similar and we fell to discussing possible symbols for each county. It was suggested that a giant stone pair of white stilettos might signify Essex.
As we moved south the countryside grew increasingly hilly. In the late afternoon we arrived in the Pink City of Jaipur; the ‘pink’ dating back to 1876, when the maharajah had the whole place painted in that colour to honour a visit by the Prince of Wales. The inhabitants liked it so much that it has remained in that colour. The main city area was quite large with about 2.5 million population and the central area had wide streets with colonnaded shops.
We drew up outside a hotel and Vinod suggested she went in alone to negotiate. If they saw our white faces the tariff would rocket. As we waited, I saw three ponderous elephants approaching down the street, followed by a camel. A horse wearing a sumptuously decorated blanket waited while its owner chatted with friends. Then the owner mounted and galloped down the street past a Texaco petrol station and veering to avoid a motorbike. An extraordinary clash of the centuries.
Vinod emerged to say that she had worked out a cheap deal based on the fact that we were ‘theatre stars’. The hotel owner had admitted that she had never had stars staying before. Presumably we were seen as the harbingers of Hollywood.
The evening was spent at a tourist restaurant nearby which featured Rajastan traditional dancers, and a row between a fellow diner and the waiters. The diner’s bottle of water had arrived with the top already unscrewed – a potentially dangerous trick as the waiters could have simply filled the bottle from the tap and tried to pass it off as mineral water. The altercation grew quite heated. We left at 10pm for the hotel; our driver Arjun wandered off to find a night’s billet for himself.
2006 November: Thursday
I woke at 7am disturbed by a rustling sound nearby. My bed was right next to the window and as I opened my eyes I realised that the sound had come from a family of monkeys sitting on the windowsill about one foot away. The largest one, with her baby clinging to her back, stared back at me and yawned. Rudyard Kipling wrote that ‘the palaces of India are full of eyes’ – I suspect that the same could be said of the whole country.
Although Jaipur was pretty in its own right, it had not prepared me for the sheer beauty of Old Jaipur City. Later in the morning we drove out under the red gateway arch and past a palace set alone in the middle of a dry shallow valley. Vinod said that when the monsoon rain refilled the valley, the top floors of the palace would turn into a wildly romantic building seemingly floating upon the lake.
Driving up into the hills we could see on either side the battlements and turrets of the perimeter city wall stretching over the surrounding hills like a miniature Great Wall of China.
Then on into the knot of winding streets of the old city where at one junction we were caught in a traffic jam caused by an elephant and a Ford Fiesta meeting head on. Above on a hillside, we could see the palace and beyond that, right at the top of the hill, the walls of the Jaigarh Fort.
Arjun drew up in what was possibly the most beautiful car park in the world – the sunlit Amber Palace behind us and Jaipur spread below. A row of elephants stood waiting to carry tourists to the palace entrance. Immediately we stepped from the car we were surrounded by a scrum of touts. It was then that I found myself uttering the unlikely line: “No, I DON’T want to buy a hat! NOR do I want to buy an elephant!!”
Malcolm, on the other hand, did fancy an elephant ride and wondered when they might leave. I glanced at one elephant disappearing towards the palace and replied: “Well, you’ve just missed the 10. 25.”
The Palace itself, built in the 1590s, consisted of large open courtyards, halls supported not by walls but interior pillars that allowed the maximum of cool breezes to ventilate the space, and corridors of cloisters. One corridor had an arched ceiling embedded with small pieces of mirror and inlaid silver. Monkeys scampered everywhere, pausing occasionally to stare below as the elephants delivered another batch of tourists. In one area called the Kali Temple, Vinod said that a goat used to be publicly sacrificed every day until the practice was stopped in 1980.
We left the Palace and drove up to the top of the hill to the Jaigarh Fort, built around the 1720s – another beautiful relic of the old Rajahs. Parts of it had obviously been built for genuine military reasons – the massive gateway and the bare cobbles of barrack squares – but the finest area was a raised square roof garden. We strolled along the narrow walkways of its defensive walls, each about fifty yards long, to reach the ornamental watch turrets at the corners. To one side, stretched the bare baked hills of Rajastan; to the other, the whole of Jaipur spread out below like a hazy patched carpet. I knew it was called the Pink City, but what I hadn’t realised was that the angle of the sun could vary the colour – from darkest crimson to faintest pink depending whether it was noon or dusk. This was romantic India at its height. We were quiet as we left.
I began to realise that I was falling for this extraordinary, bizarre, annoying, comic, inexplicable, exhilarating and gorgeous country. What Dr Johnson had said about London was just as applicable here – those who are tired of India are tired of life.
Jaipur – view of city from the fort