We’re in the desert in the middle of the dry season and we got a rainstorm. Someone knew the British were in town.
It was one hell of a downpour, branches fell, swallows froze in mid-air – thunderbolt and lightning very, very … mildly disconcerting.
This morning the dust is quelled, puddles remain on the red paving stones around the clock tower in Jodhpur, the tread of motorbike tyres have drawn out their long stringy legs. Puddles are evaporating, the blue morning sky sits atop the crenellations of a brooding Mehrangarh fort.
The clock tower, at the intersection of two roads, has dainty sandstone arcades full of shops under awnings, and on their roofs sit small, intricately-carved, domed pavilions.
Sellers’ wares are on carts and sheets on the ground – they smack their wares free of dust and flies with soft cloths. Like everything in Rajasthan, the sellers and their wares are vibrantly coloured, sandals, bangles, bolts of cloth, saris, plastic bowls and plates – all in rainbow-rows.
At the top of the stone steps of the clock tower, the ghantarghar, we’re greeted by Mr Iqbal, a diminutive man of unfailing cheerfulness in a check shirt who is the second of three generations, since the 60s, who looks after the clock mechanism with pride – he ensure its copper pulleys and cogs are well oiled, and the insides of the clock faces are bright and polished with pride.
We stop at a coffee shop in an alcove that affords a 360 degree view of the market. I’ve often found when travelling, slowing things down takes the edge off things and enables me to absorb my environment.
An Indian ‘Hipster’ – black specs, skinny arms and legs, big unruly beard – is cutting his toenails at a table. He thinks this isn’t gross. A young Argentinian couple give up their seats to us, they’re just about to leave for the 300km drive to Jaipur. We chat about Argentina. “Best steak in the world,” he adds. I’ve had many goodbyes from flitting travellers but this is the least probable of them all.
– If you come to Buenos Aires I’m sure you’ll see me.
The woman’s parting shot is more credible – she gives the hipster’s toes, clinging on the table, a look of revulsion.
The cafe owner comes with two plates of buttered Nutella waffles. By the Indian standards of gulab jamun and ras malai this is tame. I sip a double-cupped Americano. In front of us a petite woman – coconut-oil hair, make-up and red bindi – unwraps a cloth bundle that bursts out with colours, old saris of chiffon and cotton spill forth, some plain, some dotted with sparkly sequins.
She works with her husband – a small man, dark trousers, trimmed moustache – folding them in to neat rectangles, patting out the dust and making organised piles from a chaos of crumpled cloth. She lays them out on a groundsheet under an umbrella, ready for trade.
The coffeeshop has been open for 8 months – the owner, Prakash, explains how running such a small enterprise can be fraught with problems.
– In the west, businesses can concern themselves with just revenue and costs – that’s simple, but here it’s more complex.
Occasionally, a big ball of saris arrives and the lady unwraps it slowly. Each sari sells for 50 rupees (£0.8). She places each sale, carefully folded in to a small, black plastic bag.
Do the buyers know that the saris have come from the dead from a barter? Kitchen utensils, ladles, spoons and roti griddles, are given to the bereaved family in return for whole wads of saris.
The cafe owner points in to the alcove of his cafe lined with bookshelves.
-This was once full of night-sleepers who had to be evicted. His face tinges with an inkling of guilt.
-But still, there’s an obligation to look after them. There’s no piped water-supply, in a coffee shop? Can you imagine? The others just siphon off the public pipe, but your foundations have to be proper so we have to bring in our own water. And then there are the cops to pay off so that they can protect you.
The sari seller’s two children sit in the shade of the umbrella. The daughter is about five, and struts around with certain bravado, in green sunglasses looking for someone looking at her, in her nylon brown safari suit. Unlike her Vaselined parents she is shabby, her face is dusty, her hair sun-dried like coconut husk. Her bare-shirted brother has a ground-stare.
One thing I’ve noticed in my travels around the world is how young siblings in developing countries behave with each other. In central Africa I’ve seen young children of 5 years old carry the responsibility for a younger sibling, not just for keeping them from harm but for long conversations, filled with hugs, quiet moments of affection, time for coaching and for heart-to-hearts. Here I see it again – while their parents sell saris under the sun, here in the shade of the clock tower is intimacy, infant to infant conversations, mollycoddling and embraces.
Her brother moves in slow-motion – he finds a cigarette packet and stares at the picture of a cancerous neck. He pinches out from it a piece of foil licks its paper side. Perhaps he finds sweetness there, perhaps he likes the taste of tobacco.
We climb the small winding lanes between blue painted houses up the cliff to the fort.
We spend three hours looking at the maharaja’s sumptuous rooms, his ornate, ivory-inlay swords, gold-plated palanquins and his canon aligned along the crenellated walls.
We had dinner at sunset in Pal Haveli‘s rooftop restaurant, it serves great food and has wonderful views of the lit-up cliff face. A wedding was on that night, fireworks lit up the sky, a distant square resounded with drums, shouting and riotous rejoicing and merrymaking. The sky, cleared of the rainfall, was dotted with stars.
Madan, a big chested, handsome Rajput with a bejewelled earring in each ear, is its restaurant manager, and I ask him if he knew the cricket score. It’s the final day of the third test. The Australians had held out for a draw he said, but why bother with cricket, he was more interested in kabadi .
This is a game, he explained, where a team whilst holding hands, have to touch an opposing player who holds his breath proving it by the incessant and almost meditative chanting of the word Kabbadi, its namesake. Madan claimed he could hold his breath for 5 minutes, next time he’ll teach me and Sarah will be the referee. I suppose with its touching, breath-holding and holding hands, it’s a mix of touch-rugby, snorkelling, ring-a-ring-o-roses. Perhaps a touch of wrestling without the spandex onesies.
We walk quickly through the market square at midnight – now it’s changed to a desolate and eerie bad-land of stray dogs, drifting litter and shadowy characters in the alcoves where we had coffee 12 hours earlier. A crazy tuk-tuk driver revs his vehicle close to us, two kindly passersby threaten to dial 100, and he drives off in to the night.
The puddles have dried to patches of mud, far removed from the rainbow-coloured wares in their morning reflections. Only the amber glow of Mr Iqbal’s clock-tower offers any comfort from the day.