I’m always discovering new things about my beloved India. I wasn’t previously aware, for example, that many Indian people don’t know the actual date on which they were born. Until just three or four years ago, there was no official registration of births, so some children were given notional birthdays. A friend here has his birthday on 4th January. He was the fourth child born to his parents. His siblings’ birthdays are on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January.
Some people have two birthdays – one on the notional or actual date and one on a memorable religious date. My good friend Khuman had one of his birthdays a couple of days ago, on Maha Shivrati (a lunar festival in remembrance of the powerful god Shiva). His actual date of birth is not until ten days or so later. He celebrates both, of course.
Anyhow, back to places I’ve been before that I visited again this week:
While Lajpal, Chotu and I dined at our friend Vijendra’s Vintage Lounge Restaurant and discussed the dubious merits of corruption (some claim to believe there is good corruption as well as bad. I say: corruption is corruption!), a meeting of high-ranking officials was being held at Udaipur’s huge Radisson Hotel to discuss tax reforms throughout India. From our elevated position above Lake Fateh Sagar, we could see the hotel a mile or more away, illuminated brightly and with lasers pointing skywards like searchlights in the night-time darkness.
As we enjoyed a final beer, the meeting seemed to finish as, even this far away, we could hear incredibly loud music and, soon after, we saw the lights of a ministerial motorcade beating a hasty retreat!
Next morning, Lajpal and I also beat a retreat from Udaipur. We headed northwards, sometimes on good roads, sometimes on very poor ones. Parched sand and thorn scrub on either side were familiar sights. Our journey was often delayed near tribal villages by herds of goats and sheep with their shepherds dressed in white with distinctive red turbans. Our destination for the night was his home town of Sadri.
Here, Lajpal has a small house, which he built just a few years ago, primarily for his parents to live in. His postings as a government employee could take him and his wife and daughter to almost anywhere in Rajasthan, but he comes here as frequently as possible. Apart from two comfortable bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, there’s a kitchen and a dining and lounge area. There’s also an independent apartment on the top floor that’s just been let to a professional couple and provides a small income.
It was good to see Ranveer and Gajendra, his father and mother, again. Lajpal’s lovely wife Rajshri and their energetic three-year-old daughter Dhruvi were there too. They’re always so welcoming and we know one another so well that there's no longer any formality. I feel like I'm just another member of their family. Needless to say, I took far too many photos of Dhruvi with her parents and grandparents.
After settling in, we left the ladies to prepare dinner, and took a short excursion to the Ranakpur Dam just a few kilometres away. I spent parts of several previous holidays at the Maharani Bagh Orchard Retreat near the Jain temples of Ranakpur (so many in fact that it felt like coming home each time). However, for some strange reason, I’d never seen the nearby Dam, which is concealed up a track between large trees and colourful shrubs. This new discovery, a high stone dam holding back an expanse of water to supply the increasing needs of the Sadri area, attracts a variety of birds and wildlife. We didn’t spot any crocodiles, although they're known to be there in good numbers. Never before have I seen so many cormorants in one place at a time, however - I guess the lake holds a plentiful supply of fish.
As the sun dropped beneath the hills to the west, a shepherd gathered his small flock of goats and sheep, a young girl in tribal clothes came to view this European stranger, and small flocks of white egrets, long-billed storks, noisy parakeets and unidentifiable birds silhouetted high in the sky made their way to night-time roosts .
We returned to a delicious evening meal prepared by the two ladies. After all these years, I do still find it a little uncomfortable that the men eat alone, served each course by the women of the house. Tonight, Ranveer, Lajpal and I enjoyed dinner seated on comfortable chairs at a table. Gajendra and Rajshri ate theirs afterwards, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor. That’s how it is...
Monday dawned warm and sunny – this weather’s becoming boring: cloudless blue skies from dawn at 7.00a.m. to sunset at 7.00p.m, refreshing mornings and evenings, hot (30C+) by noon... day after day after day. I’d happily be bored with this for a few months each year, away from the cold and gloomy short days of winter that I've come to hate so much in the UK.
Bidding farewell to Ranveer and Gajendra, we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into Lajpal’s little car and retraced our steps three hours southwards, to the hill station of Mount Abu.
Mount Abu is a thriving resort, with palm trees and greenery among huge boulder-like rocks, reached by a good road, 25km or so above the town of Abu Road. Langur Monkeys, revered by Hindus, sit on their backsides like little old men, by the roadside or in the trees, hoping for offerings from passing visitors. The road snakes its way up and around dozens of bends, with much honking of horns so typical of this country, to a height of about 1,200 metres.
The town’s proximity to the ‘dry’ state of Gujarat makes it a popular holiday and weekend place for Gujarati families, who come to enjoy its mild climate, its scenery and its many hotels, restaurants and bars, the latter in particular!
For similar reasons, Lajpal, currently a commercial tax officer specialising in evasion, is stationed at Abu Road. It’s a very convenient location for stopping vehicles entering Rajasthan from Gujarat and checking paperwork to confirm correct state tax payments on the goods they’re carrying (and for fining the vehicle owners if they’ve tried to evade any tax). I find it interesting that there's virtually no corruption involved in this; systems have been made very transparent in this particular government department. In complete contrast, however, the RTO (Regional Transport Office) is renowned for bribery. I witnessed this for myself at a vehicle checkpoint on a major highway that carries many hundreds of heavy lorries. Almost every lorry was brought to a halt in both directions, ostensibly to check licences and vehicle roadworthiness. Not one of them was checked - not a single one! Every driver simply held a 100 or 200 Rupee note out of his window. Every note was eagerly pocketed by uniformed RTO officers. This was just one checkpoint of hundreds around the country. It's alleged publicly that the millions of Rupees collected each and every day find their way up the chain to the very top government minister, percentages being siphoned off by equally corrupt officials along the way.
However, what did I do at Mount Abu this year?
We were only staying for one night, but it proved to be a particularly memorable one. Khuman, Lajpal’s uncle and the Thakur (feudal lord) of the town of Gundoj, was there to greet me on arrival at Akhey Vilas, the small guesthouse run by his youngest son, Shivendra (aka Shibu). Hitesh, a long-term friend, who manages the premises was there too. Unfortunately, Shibu was away in Delhi (he also escorts French tour groups) and his wife Devendra was at her father’s home in Jodhpur. I hope to catch up with both of them later in my travels. Meanwhile, until the sun went down, it was great just to enjoy the views and birds in this simple hotel's grounds.
Khuman had kindly organised a special welcome dinner for me. As night fell, and with it the temperature (down to about 20C, which felt cooler as there was a stiff breeze), the staff collected firewood and lit a brazier. We gathered around it, joined by Devendra’s cousin with her husband, general manager of a local hotel. Course after course arrived, accompanied by whisky supplied by Lajpal. We’d stopped to buy a bottle on the way at an ‘English Wine Shop’ – the shop wasn’t English and didn’t sell wine, English or otherwise, just beer and alcohol; it’s the strange name by which government-controlled liquor shops are known hereabouts.
At the end of our ninth (or was it the tenth?) course of tasty vegetarian and 'non-veg' (i.e. meat) dishes, a huge sponge cake arrived. It was covered in cream, decorated with all sorts of sliced fresh fruit, topped with a brightly burning firework and adorned with a hand-iced plaque saying: ‘HAPPY ARRIVAL. KEEP SIMALING’. It was a very kind thought and kept us ‘simaling’ for quite a while after the delicious cake had been consumed.
Next morning, Lajpal and I took an hour’s pre-breakfast walk around parts of the resort I hadn’t seen before. At 7.30a.m., it was cool and very quiet. Bird calls were almost all we could hear. Very few people were on the streets; those who were swept the dust from one place to another with swishing brooms or cleared yesterday's litter into little piles and set light to it, the pungent smoke swirling skywards and scenting the air all around. I was surprised to find a regiment of Gurkha Rifles here and an enormous Air Force Station too – probably something to do with signals or communications; this is certainly no place for an aircraft runway.
Then, it was back down to Abu Road, bidding farewell to Khuman, who I hope to see again in Jaipur for the Holi festival, if he’s able to get away. We dropped Rajshri and Dhruvi at their apartment, before continuing to Jawai in search of the leopards for which that area is becoming known.