An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Delhi, on a second visit, lost a lot of its thrill, as did many places once I’d seen them. I began to wonder if I was the sort of person who always had to be finding fresh woods and pastures new in order to get any satisfaction out of life. Assuming I ever got the opportunity to visit them, would I feel the same about Venice, or Paris, or Athens?
Some people go back year after year to the same place, discovering scope on each occasion for yet more enjoyment. But it seems to me that such people have closed minds and a limited interest in their fellow human beings, whether of the past or present. On the other hand I’ve always wanted to know what lay round the next corner, no matter how taken I was by the picture before my eyes. Because of my wanderlust I have no doubt missed a great deal.
I ought to have made a point of stopping over at Muttra and Agra on the way to Jaipur. But Muttra, as far as I could gather, was nothing but a military station and I was sick and tired of trying to trade with the army, whether regular or territorial. Officers were poorly paid and if they wanted mess dress they brought it with them from England. As for Agra–I had already seen the Taj Mahal and did not wish to spoil the picture of it in my mind’s eye. All too often a second visit to a place one first thought enchanting widens the focus of vision and blurs it.
It wasn’t long therefore before I reach Jaipur. What was there, I wondered, about the atmosphere of a native state which lifts the spirit more than any town or city under the British Raj? Its people, poor as well as rich, are imbued with a far greater zest for life. They undertake their daily tasks with an air of freedom and enjoyment conspicuously absent elsewhere. This is not necessarily a condemnation of British rule, which has its benevolent moments. Rather is it a justification of indirect rule, when domination from abroad there has to be. The historic head, often appointed for religious rather than political reasons, is more acceptable to the masses than a foreigner because he or she is of their own blood and, faith and tradition. The fact that his or her role may be authoritarian, or even downright despotic, never seems to matter to people to the same degree. It was from observations like this that I grew certain that Britain had had its day in India–and this was in 1914, long before Mahatma Gandhi arrived on the scene out of Africa.
For me there is no other city to compare with Jaipur. Its wide streets are instantly appealing–they give the impression there is something of a plan to its layout. What is more, the streets are straight and bisect each other at right-angles. This fact impressed Kipling too, who wrote of them that “many years afterwards, the good people of America builded their towns after this pattern, but knowing nothing of Jai Singh, they took all the credit to themselves”.
Maharajah Jai Singh II was indeed a man born before his time. Two centuries ago he built this city on the plain which stretches out before the ancient fortified palace of Amber. Among its fine buildings the Hall of the Winds is perhaps the most famous. It was intended as a zanana for the palace ladies to watch the passing show of life without being on-show themselves. Nine stories of rosy pink masonry with projecting balconies and latticed windows, it is now a museum piece which attracts visitors owing to its fragile appearance and its remarkable feature of whistling in the wind.
Lack of time, plus the difficulty of finding any conveyance better than a bullock cart, stopped me from ascending the hill to Amber Palace, but I didn’t go short of sights to see. I called on the Maharajah’s staff and was rewarded by a pleasant tour of the city in the company of a personable young man. Educated in England, he didn’t have a lot of money to go shopping in the company of a tourist, but he did the best he could. Then, to my astonishment, he asked if he could photograph me. He took me to his studio and got me to pose at all sorts of angles, promising that when I got back to Bombay I should receive some mounted portraits embellished in his own hand.
He was as good as his word. But when I took delivery of them, my charitable sentiments deserted me and I laughed out loud. He had told me he was keen to encourage business with tourists, but from the evidence before me he hadn’t the slightest hope of being classed as a professional. Apart from the fact that it hadn’t occurred to him to ask me to remove the strap of my own camera, which was slung across my chest, he had taken the liberty of touching up my features, imparting a dusky colour to them which gave me every appearance of being Indian. I forbore to suggest, in my message of gratitude which I sent by return, that he offer caricatures of his sitters, rather than portraits.
It was rash of me to maintain that no other city could compare with Jaipur, for on reflection my next port of call makes me wonder. My first sight of Udaipur, another native state, was at sunrise, and it presented such a vision of beauty as I can never forget. Nature has been profligate in her generosity in gracing the state with a glorious lake–the Pichola–around which (and indeed, in which) fairy-tale palaces have been built. Many people refer to Udaipur as the Venice of India. I consider that designation to be somewhat dismissive. The presence of water is certainly responsible for much of the character of the city, but it boasts palaces and temples to leave one breathless. Exquisitely designed, with intricate carvings, both within and without, with glittering mirrors and chandeliers, peacock mosaics and crystal furniture, their colourful interiors are just a few of the many splendours of Udaipur. Outside the palaces there are cool parks laid out with surpassing artistry: a paradise for a tourist. Yet with all this opulence and beauty on display, unless you’re a guest of the Maharajah, there is only a dak bungalow in which to stay.
…to be continued.