One Year Ago – the Om Diaries continue…
When I landed in Delhi I was met by the hotel driver, Sanjay. Quite a character to say the least, he insisted we stop by the motorway for chai and a cigarette (him not me) and he gave me the full rundown of places to go and things to do and not do. My hotel was the ‘Godwin Grand’, located in a great part of the city, easy to explore by day.
I spent the first evening in the hotel bar and grill watching cricket. A parade went by the window, as I looked out at the lights and colours of each passing float, men stopped to look through the window at me and then mercifully became transfixed by the cricket on the big screen. I splashed out the next day and booked a driver and a five day tour, expecting to have the charismatic Sanjay as my guide as he’d hinted that this would be the case, I gave him a hefty tip in anticipation. I never saw him again.
Instead I was in the company of Mahendra, an unassuming man of small stature, round glasses and a selection of linen suits that made him look like he should be on an archaeological dig. He drove me around the Delhi for two days, dropping me off at every temple known to mankind, covering every major religion. It was an education I’d never expected, watching people worship and pray with a mix of ritual solemnity and verve. I got used to roaming these buildings alone, wearing a headscarf and a smile, At lunchtime he would drop me at local places, crowded with families and escort me to a table but he wouldn’t sit and eat with me. The food was always excellent, I paid very little for vegetarian thali, a platter of rice and small vegetable dishes that filled every taste bud with sweet, sour and pungent flavours. Gawping families would attempt conversation and I was asked to hold babies while photographs were taken on more than one occasion.
The drive to Agra took three hours on a dusty motorway that stretched into a muggy horizon. I couldn’t see more than a mile in any direction due to the polluted fog that hung like a blue mist beyond the periphery. Every few seconds we would pass another small building with a narrow funnel chimney that stretched skywards, churning out smoke. Brick kilns. Hundreds of them, dotted about the fields as if some godly hand had scattered stones and each had evolved into a fume spewing factory. We stopped at the Indian equivalent of a service station, hundreds of people gathered to drink tea from tiny clay cups. These cups held a few mouthfuls of rich chai and were returned after their single use to be smashed and recycled.
We arrived on the outskirts of Agra at lunchtime. By three o’clock and in searing 45 degree heat, I saw the Taj Mahal. There weren’t many tourists due to the scorching sun, anyone with any sense would do this between November and February, April is an insane time to visit. Nothing can prepare you for the absolute majesty of the building. The size of it, the intricate detail of the jewelled flowers in the marble, the cool interior of the mausoleum. It is utterly breathtaking. The building was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favourite wife Mumtaz. The modern equivalent cost would be around £900,000,000, it took twenty years and 20,000 artisan workers to complete. A man built this monumental structure out of love, I’d count myself lucky if a man built a bonfire in my honour.
The next day we drove on to Jaipur and I stayed in the sweetest hotel, like the ‘Best Exotic Marigold’ but with more doors and an outdoor pool. I spent three days being guided around by Mahendra and meeting his taxi driving peers every time we stopped at a new destination. This unassuming man had friends everywhere. My first stop was at the Hanuman Temple. I had felt pressured to pay ‘guides’ at every place we visited and by this time, late afternoon on a hot day, I didn’t want to. The young man at the entrance was insistent, “If you want a good experience with monkeys, then I am Ramesh, the man” he pounded his chest with enthusiasm. How could I refuse? The mere mention of monkeys raised my interest. I had to and I’m so glad I did.
We walked around the temple, large photos of Hanuman the monkey God and murals depicting his travels and antics. Pastel coloured stucco buildings were occupied by families who had fallen on hard times, laundry flapping next to shrines and statues. Then we walked up the steps to a bathing pool, full of macaque monkeys, swimming and playing in the afternoon sun. Ramesh told me to stand still and modelled me like a mannequin, holding peanuts in my outstretched hand, raised high above my head. They came. One at a time, then three or four, one carrying a baby, they climbed all over me, stood on my head and preened my curly hair. I never normally seek contact with wild animals as it usually involves some kind of ill treatment. These were free to roam; no harm was done. The sharp smell of wet fur and the musky odour of a feral creature weighted on each arm was extraordinary. The moment was magical.
The next afternoon Mahendra drove me to Amer Fort, a ten minute drive from the city of Jaipur. I refused to ride an elephant up to the entrance. The temperature hovered around 42 degrees centigrade and I felt that imposing the weight of human bodies on the back of any animal was unnecessary. I didn’t feel the need for a ‘Colonial’ experience complete with fanfare upon arrival and a tourist photo opportunity, I walked the steep path instead.
The Fort is an imposing structure, high on a hill above Maota Lake with large, impressive ramparts, gates and cobbled pathways around several courtyards. There’s a strong sense of history, a feeling of other worldliness, when you walk through the palace of Raja Man Singh, see the old doors and imagine life four hundred years ago. Accommodating no less than twelve wives, a room was built for each Queen with a staircase that connected to the King’s bedroom. He could visit each, but they were forbidden to climb the stairs. According to the literature, the women lived together ‘in harmony’ and raised children together. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during those times. Historians have a lovely way of denying the obvious jealous rivalries and petty arguments that must have occurred in that communal courtyard.
On my last evening in Jaipur, Mahendra took me to his favourite restaurant and we finally dined together on a feast of his choosing, curry and side dishes and skewers of rich tandoori chicken, one of only two occasions I had eaten meat in India. The next morning, I regretted my choice but recovered enough to make my way to the airport.
This is the part of the Om diaries is OMnipotent, “having unlimited power”, I know it usually refers to a God but I had to feel empowered enough to make some tough decisions. I needed to make a move away from India. I still had seven weeks to fill with some adventure. My experience in this country had been marred by too much unwanted attention and too little fun, nights in more than nights out and way too much time alone. I can only explain my disappointment if I give you the full picture. As a child, I spent a few years living in Saudi Arabia where Indian films were the backdrop of TV viewing. I loved the vibrancy and colour of Bollywood and the beautiful people it portrayed on screen. I developed a lifelong ‘crush’ and fell in love. When I finally got to have a relationship with India, it was hurtful and bitterly disappointing, my heart was broken by its cruelty and indifference.
I hope that one day I’ll return and share the experience with someone, be more adventurous and less fearful. It is a beautiful country, full of so many wonderful things and I look forward to rekindling our relationship, on my terms.
Next, Thailand, the land of smiles…