Cycles of Udaipur by David Brookes

Into the city

Two lovers tilt in the saddle of a glinting motorcycle. Shivlal, brave and stupid without a helmet, is the oldest, the coolest: he has Mariam clinging to him pillion, who even in the downpour looks as beautiful as God made her to be.
Cycles of Udaipur
Cycles of Udaipur by David Brookes
The bike leans beneath them. Moving as one, the lovers lean too, the engine and plastic and metal solid against their bodies, rubber handlebars trembling against Shivlal’s palms as they ride: Ride past farmers’ houses, crumbling and squalid, with faded washing dripping from stolen nylon lines. Ride past rocks and sprays of spiny acacia, filled with the nests of blue bulbul birds. Ride past Goverdhan Sagar, its waters risen to eight feet – nine – in two days of monsoon rain. Its white stone rim, speckled with lichen and betel-juice, is crowded by beige-shirted men and their flabby wives. Clustered under pointed pavilions, the women cluck in agitation at the downpour, rain-darkened saris half-transparent in the humidity. Past a dog stealing paan from a shyster holy-man, gaping as it runs in circles after the unexpected spear of lime. Past old havelis set back from the main road, crouching beneath neem trees and outcrops of red stone. Under thrashing palm branches and stretched arches of lucky plantain leaves. Under the highway sign that says JAIPUR ^ DELHI ^ CHITTORGARH ^ BHILWARA— UDAIPUR * Wheels turning furiously, too fast to see, Mariam and Shivlal ride past gaudy buses stuck all over with spangly tinsel; a long line of serious children going home from the Jain school; the grand old HDFC bank with its fancy ATMs outside like revolving space capsules… They ride into the city. Mariam shouts over the roar of wind. ‘I’m just saying, if you tried it maybe you wouldn’t be so skinny?’ Shivlal replies, ‘Being a vegetarian is not a vanity-choice, girl!’ ‘Meat is meat only. We are all made of it, you know.’ ‘Pig is meat, pork is the meatiest … But you do not eat.’ ‘Pigs are disgusting no-good creatures that eat their own filth!’ ‘Cows are the holiest; if you can never eat a pig then I can never eat a cow—’ ‘But for you it is not religion, it is only pride…’ ‘Religion too, and of course pride! I am proud. I’m more proud than a lion!’ She laughs; he half-turns his head to feel the warmth of her rhythmic breath beside his ear. ‘More proud than a pride all of lions!’ he yells in his spotty English. He feels the warm nuzzle of Mariam’s nose on his neck, the gentle flex of her slender arms around his waist as he leans hard into another corner. He narrowly misses three men in jamas on low chairs playing Bridge under a shop canopy. The geezers waggle their heads in disapproval as three motorcycles roar by, like lions, like a pride of lions. Shivlal and Mariam are at the front, and now just behind them come the rest of the pack. First is Rajkumar on his blue-silver Bajaj Avenger: a lean machine, vibrating with the power of its mighty Kawasaki single cylinder engine, a 200cc cruiser only four years old and purchased from a wheeler-dealer at a bazaar who’d just upgraded to the 220. Rajkumar, who is all elbows and knees on his bike; whose long-fingered hands make him feel like a clumsy monkey; whose brown eyes, he is reliably informed, are the large round eyes of Sisodia royalty. The only helmet he wears is his mop of unruly hair. He could never afford protective biker’s leathers, even if he wanted them: aren’t they just the epitome of not-cool, of over-precaution? Aren’t such things proof of lack of faith? Whatever will happen will happen: the family motto said in trusting mantra by Raj and his younger brother Vansh, who rides two feet behind. They are riding into the new town, which surrounds the higgledy splotch of old town, where the richest are. Between them is a ring of abject poverty, crammed into the steep and twisty gullies of a city built on hills. But even the modern stores are in historic shells, where plaster falls away to reveal mosaic redbrick beneath. Balconies and kiosks jut from upper floors like misaligned jawbones. Rooftops knowingly littered with old pipes, old buckets, remnants of antiquated kitchen appliances, are hemmed in with timeworn stone balustrades. The teenage bikers are slaloming between storekeepers, shoppers in jamas, school kids going home, and papas scuffling home from work before dust turns to sludge on their aching bodies. In this part of the city, the buildings at street level are painted in bright colours to reflect the harsh Indo sun and soothe the soul. It is a patchwork blue of signs offering paan-cola-credit. Above them, the same buildings are rough, unpainted, unsafe. Ivy and crocodile grass smother the cracks and crevices. Their three motorcycles cut through chaos, and five minutes later they are in the quiet belt of poverty. No shops, no stalls, no trundling bicycles or tempos. Here there are no signs but the svastikas on the walls; the symbols on the window shutters; the Devanagari words fingered into the collected dust. People on foot hurry along the sides of the street, hopping over open sewers. The rain is coming down harder again. The pedestrians know to stay close to the walls, side-stepping only for beggars or goats holding up traffic. An animal’s neck-bell clangs, and a fellow with a kettle is calling out ‘chai, chai’, and a rickshaw man drops off his fare then yelps as the cycles snarl past, past-past. The teenagers’ laughter fades into storm-brought darkness. Protected by faith if not carbon fibre, Raj overtakes the two lovers with a yip of glee. Mariam shouts a playful ‘Hey!’ – Shivlal is less impressed. ‘That boy will die in a flaming fireball one day soon.’ Mariam slaps his shoulder for tempting fate. Raj has ridden past the curve of Machala Magra hill, which slips into the serene mirror-reflection of Lake Pichola. He scoots a narrow zig-zag between gaggles of pedestrians. There are yelping Udaipies and their many visiting relatives. There is a handful of off-season tourists with enormous backpacks. There is the pedlar with his giant sack of onions, which Raj nicks with his rear-view mirror at twenty-five miles per hour, spilling five six seven vegetables amongst the cutting wheels of his fellow riders. And he’s in the old town proper now, that tumbledown warren of intersecting lanes that spider out from the main town. The roads are awash with litter and crap and tumbling wheels of marigolds. The dust from the buildings slides invisibly into the dust of the streets, then the wet dust of the slow-moving gutters, all churned under foot and wheel and holy hoof. Riding past dung and sewage, riding past poor and less-poor. Riding past the mad throng of Bapu Bazar Road, that riot of colour and noise and steaming food carts and ‘chaat, bhajji, chaat!’ In the new town there is fine dining and KFC; in the old town there are baskets overflowing with giant green peppers, vivid red carrots, mace-like stalks of ocra that surround solemn-faced women in shawls. They stretch out an arm to conduct business whilst bangles jingle from wrist to elbow. Riding past cows chomping on flowers draped over street altars. Riding under ropey vines of telephone cables, here and there broken by order of gravity. Between gangs of kids with mucky T-shirts and bare legs who play cricket, flocks of them that diverge and rejoin every time a two-wheeler zips by. Through frustrating roadblocks caused by idiots in tempos, cars and vans, too dumb to realise that a cycle is the way to go in Udaipur, a cycle is the best means of navigating all those sharp corners and narrow, clogged streets. ‘Hey badmash, slow it down!’ yells a shop owner out beating dust from his wall hangings. Raj doesn’t even hear. His ears are full of wind, which sighs, and the engine of the Avenger, which roars. He slows to let the others catch up – Shivlal looks mad; Vansh is not far behind, laughing at his brother’s daring skill behind the handlebars. ‘Don’t let us keep you back, brother!’ Raj does not: he heaves the Avenger up into a wheelie, twisting the throttle as though to break his narrow wrist, and then screams away with a lopsided grin like a crescent moon. Riding past clusters of teenagers shopping for saris, giggling girls with diaphanous headscarves and giant twinkling eyes! Slowing for the bigger groups of girls, where he knows he has a better chance of winning a smile … There! A skinny Eve, from the Bhopalpura district he’ll bet, where he and Vansh used to play in the sluggish river. She’s not too pretty, but she’s got a big smile all for him. It shines out beneath her pointed cheekbones and sunken eyes, bindi like a beauty spot right on her hairline. Victorious! Raj, distracted by the girl’s recognition of his roguish nerve, his taboo badness, his downright cheeky audacity, revs the bike and jerks over a deep fissure in the street. His front tyre locks momentarily in the crack, and then the bike skids sideways for a jolting juddering two seconds before he manages – somehow! Thank you God! – to straighten up. He yells for the weary men carrying fifty-kilo parcels of desiccating fruit to move. Startled, they leap to the side without a tomato dropped. Behind is the cow. Almost face on, trotting nonchalantly down the sloping road, mostly skin and bone. Shoulders stuck up like giant horns, ears drooping low, wide muzzle rolling side-to-side as it chews. Bony white legs and knees. Thrashing tail besieged by flies. Raj sees it all too late. The front wheel of the Avenger strikes the cow’s breast bone. The animal’s heavy head knocks Raj sideways out of the saddle. Scything rubber burns through the cow’s hair and hide, producing an acrid stink. The back of the bike rears up and over; the handlebars touch the cow’s shoulder, the plastic wheel guard hits it in one giant eye with a noise like a thunderclap. The bike flies over the cow’s shoulder; the cow is kneeling; the bike, upside-down in the air, lands on the animal’s flank. Instinctively it bucks, kicking one of the metal footpegs with a shitty hoof. Off the bike bounces, skidding with a riotous din across the street, to human screams, and hits a doorstep. The cow also screams. Raj is screaming, too, having landed hard next to the cow. The animal thumps its head down, hitting Raj on his shoulder. Raj, in a blur of adrenaline and shock, rolls away on his side, helped along by the terrified thrust of the cow’s stubby horns. It is kneeling at the front, standing at the back, trembling along the lengths of its body. Then it slumps and falls onto its side, lowing. Near-stillness. Flies settle into the grooves between its ribs. Two more motorcycles slow to an astonished stop a metre from where Raj is lying. Shivlal and Mariam, and Vansh. They gape at the hushed frieze before them until fear takes over and Vansh leaps from his bike to check on Raj. People are shouting. The gang-boy has ridden into a cow! More people are shouting. Anger is a virus in a place like Udaipur, a wildfire. It spreads from person to person in the way that electricity leaps from one piece of metal to another, in furious white arcs. Gangster! Pye-dog teenagers! You bad-biker types! A cow has been injured by a boy on a motorcycle. It won’t lie still, as though lying on broken bone. The bike has slammed hard into the cow’s neck and foreleg. Mostly likely there are fractures, not to mention the seared patch of smoking hide where the wheel has burned. ‘Quickly!’ shouts Shivlal, still on his bike. ‘Come on, before this turns nasty!’ Vansh shakes his older brother by the shoulders. Raj is dizzy, blinking, gaping. He hangs like a limp baby from Vansh’s arms. ‘Brother! Idiot, get up!’ Just a short time before, the street had been full of people who’d barely looked at each other as they sidled along, jostling at the stalls, shoving around the gutters to avoid messy sandals. In a place like Udaipur, every person is alone in a crowd, until something happens. The people have become a mob. The biker has injured the cow! See, its front leg is broken badly. See, blood runs down from under it! Mariam, still seated behind Shivlal on the bike, grips her boyfriend’s arms more tightly. ‘Shiv, we need to get out of here…’ ‘Girlfriend, I’ll protect you.’ A mob will move like water, filling every corner of a space until it is drenched. It flows around the scene of the accident, leaving a small bare circle containing the cow, the biker, his frantic brother. Raj trembles from adrenaline and fear, but he’s on his feet now, supported by Vansh. Why did you do this, don’t you know this is a holy cow? Look what you have done, have you no shame? Have you no respect? You must pay the owner of the cow! I know you boys, you Chatterjee brothers! What, do you think you can race around the city like hoodlums and not face the consequences? Vansh goes up and down on his tiptoes so that he can make eye contact with Shivlal over the shoulders of the jostling onlookers. ‘Go!’ Vansh shouts. ‘Get out of here!’ He shouts to Shivlal, but he is looking at Mariam. He waves, indicating that they should ride on. One bike, two lovers. Leaving behind two brothers and their bikes. They’ll catch up later, whatever happens. ‘Like Hell,’ growls Shivlal, and with his brakes firmly applied he twists the throttle. The rear wheel of his bike makes a shrieking, smoking squeal, burning against the stone. With the front wheel locked the bike barely moves, just fish-tails a bit with its rider leaning forward over the handlebars, elbows jutting out like jug handles, face grim. At the horrendous noise the mob quietens, stiffens, stares. Before Shivlal can stop her, Mariam is off the bike and striding towards her grounded friends, addressing the mob. ‘I will pay for the cow’s treatment, okay? That okay with you so-bad angry people? You know me, come and find me at the haveli, and the black man who let this cow wander unsupervised will get his money!’ She is loud, upright. Her hands are a flurry of gestures: pointing fingers, splaying stars, choppy slice movements. As she leans to support the limping Raj, she wipes one sweaty hand on her jeans, then brushes stray black hair from her eyes where it has fallen loose from her ponytail. But at all times her eyes glare at the crowd in recrimination. The people shrink back before her flashing stare, and the two brothers get Raj’s battered bike back upright. Vansh collects his own and they push their rides through the parting crowd, Mariam striding fiercely after them like a bodyguard, and Shivlal riding slowly behind. The crowd closes in their wake, watching in near silence. Such a shock to see the accident; a worse shock to be kowtowed by a girl. The whitish cow is already being seen to. The teenagers have pushed on, out of sight, deeper into old town and safety. Munir-ki-Haveli At the heart of Udaipur is the leaning Munir-ki-Haveli, the city’s only mansion bearing the moon and star of Islam. It is a multi-storey turret of a building adorned with a thousand and one windows, some as small as a matchbook. Its tallest point, a narrow domed minaret, can only accommodate two people at a time. The minaret affords a view of the entirety of Lake Pichola and its four tiny islands, whose waters lap the buttresses of the subsiding haveli just twenty feet from Gangori Ghat. It is within a stone’s throw of the majestic City Palace. The injured Raj and his brother Vansh enter the haveli first, wheeling their bikes through the double doors into the cool space beyond. Most of the ground floor is a single large room. Mariam’s family home is where she runs her homeless shelter, giving the vagrants of the city a place to find refuge from the heat or cold. A cluster of temporary residents moves aside to let the gang store their bikes in the cubby beneath the stairs. Most of these residents are penniless, but Raj doesn’t bother chaining up his bike: it has a bent wheel, a broken guard, a missing footpeg, a dented engine. Fibreglass is split in numerous places, the blue paint scraped into crosshatched white. Dull silver shows through in places. The bike doesn’t even roll straight when pushed. It is likely written off. He sorrowfully leans it against the wall, where a long-faded mural still shows, barely, the courtship of two youngsters under a plantain tree in the hills. A monkey has stolen their rotis but they haven’t noticed. ‘We’ll get your cycle fixed,’ says Shivlal, securing his own precious ride. ‘I’ll help you get it to Prem’s later, yaar?’ Mariam says, ‘Eat something.’ Raj only shakes his head. ‘I’ll get him a bite,’ Vansh tells her, putting his hand on Raj’s shoulder. Raj mutters, ‘My life is over. This is the end.’ They guide him up the stone stairway. The haveli is thirty feet by twenty, five storeys high not counting the minaret. Each floor has only one room, and they are all brown, dusty, a little cobwebby, a little rotted. The temporary guests, who Vansh calls “the vanara” after the mischievous race of monkey people, can usually be found half-heartedly sweeping up. Because the doors are always open and the wind is always blowing, it’s an endless, thankless task. Mariam is to all of them – despite age, race, whatever – a motherly, saintly figure, and they do their best to repay her kindness. She has not had to buy her own bread or rice for weeks. Raj ascends step by dejected step. The fingers of his right hand slide over the rough faded beauty of centuries-old murals. Between the ground floor and the first floor, the wall is an ancestral family tree. Mariam missed inclusion by one generation – there was no space left. By the time they pass her grandfathers portrait, which is spotted with old mould-stains and bleached by sun and time, Raj is already wiping away tears. ‘We’ll save a little money from the vanara and have enough to pay the cow’s owner in two weeks,’ Mariam promises. ‘Don’t cry; are you a man or a blubbery-boy?’ Raj sniffs, says, ‘It’s totalled. I’ll never afford a new one. I’ll never ride again. Girls will never even look at me.’ ‘Girls never look at you anyway,’ Vansh teases. ‘Get off me, bumchod, I can walk by myself!’ ‘Don’t fall over and ruin your face more.’ But still Vansh climbs the stairs inches behind his big brother, so that if he were to faint and fall he would be caught. * The haveli’s third floor is the gang’s home away from home. The fourth is where Mariam paints, and the group is not allowed to hang out there. The minaret is reserved exclusively for Mariam and Shivlal. Today the gang is given their privacy. The vanara have seen their pale faces, their trembling limbs. Raj rebuked his brother loud enough to be heard by all. The vanara know that something is wrong and have shrunk away, confining themselves to the lowest two floors. They are recipients of charity and have no wish to offend or bother. Raj lies on a table with one arm dangling over the side, the other covering his puffy eyes. Vansh sits on cushions nearby. He draws listlessly in his notebook, but sighs a lot and is clearly distracted. Mariam, also on cushions – the purple and orange silk ones she likes – is giving Shivlal her attention: Shivlal who paces back and forth, thumping the wall and ranting. ‘These stray cattle – they shouldn’t even be in the city streets! Trouble for everyone, mess-makers, garbage-eaters … Sleeping in the roads like all the city is their bed! What’s this, a family gathering, all the lady cows moo-mooing at the intersection? Ride around them, shall we, fine day for a natter, girls! And worse when it rains.’ ‘It’s hardly the cows’ fault, boyfriend.’ ‘You’re right!’ snaps Shivlal, pointing. His wild eyes are round silver pennies in the gloomy room. ‘The bloody owners! Irresponsible, selfish … Abandoning their animals to sleep, starve, dehydrate, die in the streets! And the ones that remain at night get rounded up, okay-kay, for their milking. Illegal, disruptive, reckless – and what are the municipal leaders doing about it? Taking bribes, ignoring the problem, and meanwhile the people of the city are left to deal with the inconvenience, or nearly torn to pieces in the street when they hit one with their two-wheeler, bloody holy bloody senseless cow—’ At the mention of his ruined bike, Raj rolls over on the table to face the wall, hiding his eyes with his oil-stained hand. Vansh puts down his sketchbook. ‘I for one support the manufacture of leather products.’ It is a joke, but Shivlal frowns and clucks. ‘Oh, like you were much help out there, bandaa!’ They all know that it was Shivlal, burning rubber with the sound of screeching banshees, who initially halted the mob’s advance. He could well have saved them all from a lynching. As Vansh goes back to his scribbling, Shivlal takes Mariam out to the stairwell and whispers urgently. ‘That was so dangerous, what you did,’ he tells her. ‘I helped, didn’t I?’ But she knows that she is getting a talking to, and for Shiv and Maz, a talking to is serious, because they take one another seriously. Their deep mutual respect, shared for years, is much envied by all Udaipie girls, even their mothers. ‘You told them who you are,’ he says. ‘They know to come here. You know that as soon as the sun goes down there’ll be someone knocking, asking you to pay up for the cow.’ ‘They wouldn’t have let us go if they thought we couldn’t pay. Isn’t that right? Raj would have worse than a sprained ankle, my God, and maybe you all would have battered cycles? Yes?’ Shivlal wraps his big arms around her and breathes in the jasmine-oil scent of her luxurious hair. She relaxes all the muscles in her body and leans against him, lets him take her weight, however slight, and relishes the security of his embrace, the power of his love that radiates in heat from his face, his heart, his groin, all pressed against her in breath-only quietude. When he pulls away, she is flushed and breathless. ‘I’m sorry I worried you.’ ‘It was the right thing to do. Your quick brain…!’ He touches her, with the tip of a finger, where a bindi might be were she a Hindu too. Shivlal sleeps He sleeps and he dreams. He dreams of the future. In the future, Udaipur is a perfect metropolis. Shivlal Varma stands on the rooftop of a mighty tower that dominates the ultramodern skyline. The city is formed of glass towers that pierce the clouds, and skyscrapers that look like modern art. Temples and historical monuments are safely cocooned in the gargantuan arcologies of the future. The streets are clean enough to eat from. There are no gang wars, no murders or muggings. The people are happy. Mariam is standing beside him, the wind blowing through her long hair. ‘Look at what we accomplished, my husband,’ she cries. ‘Everything is perfect!’ Monsoon Raindrops ‘Lovely jubbly! Fish ‘n’ chips! David Cameron Prime Minister!’ Bindya Chandel is in a speeding tempo with a man whose name, apparently, is Chintamani. But Bindya can’t call him that; she keeps asking him to repeat it, hoping that it will be something different. ‘Chinta-mani?’ she confirms. ‘That’s it! Chintamani!’ Although he talks to Bindya like a tourist, she is not; not really. Born near London, raised near Birmingham, immigrated to her ancestral home of Udaipur at the age of fifteen, she’d come at exactly the wrong time. Too old to completely lose her English accent when speaking Hindi, too young to have yet eradicated all traces of her parent’s Hinglish. And still she’s learning: after long periods of business travel around India she’s picked up many additions to the school-taught nonsense she paid for in Brum – but each time she migrates, like a vagrant bovine, into a new part of the country, the pronunciation or even the whole word changes, and she has to learn it all again. As far as she’s concerned, chintamani is a magical stone that grants people wishes. Bindya grew up in the smoky, useless fantasies of her parents, who had loved such things. Their storytelling was Bindya’s life for the one thousand and one nights of her youth. No longer. Since entering the skinny man’s tempo two hours ago, Bindya has been bombarded with his flawed English: ‘You from England, yes?’ Bindya is full-blood Indian, but she forgives him the assumption based on her accent. ‘English! UK! Great Britain! How you like India? Busy? Lots of people, all around! Very hot! You like spicy food? Curry, daal, pakora…? Not too much, eh? Bad for toilet! Lots of curries in England: jalfrezi, korma, tikka masala … Del Boy and Rodney, naaa! You watch Eastenders on the TV? One day, when I have enough money, I will go live in England too, yes?’ Bindya now recognises Chinamani’s explosive verbal discharges to be a mixture of Western clichés, names of politicians or celebrities, and TV catchphrases that he’s picked up over the years. Chintamani wants to make friends through shared knowledge. She doesn’t want to hurt his feelings by insisting he’s wrong about her nationality: for the last fourteen years she has been nothing if not a Rajput Indian living in Udaipur. She has never considered herself English. The tempo driver recklessly speeds along the busy Udaipur streets as though he’s the only one there. He barely acknowledges the frenzy of vendors, school kids, bazaar browsers; cows, goats, the occasional wild pig; not to mention cars shiny and battered, bicycle rickshaws and the ferocious noisy gangs of motorcyclists. Bindya sweats into her underwear and glances at Chintamani’s reflection in the mirror. The man is world-worn and leathery, missing a couple of teeth, a real scrawny old geezer. He has a worrying habit of taking both his hands off the steering handles when he talks. He seems far too old to be working. But then, this is India, after all: the upside down world, distorted mirror of Britain, land of irreconcilable contradictions. She is recognising landmarks, now. This is her delayed return to Udaipur, home of her parents and twenty-plus generations: the so-called “Venice of India”. Just as her heart promised, she feels her return. Udaipur has a feel to it, as though Chintamani in his speeding little vehicle has punctured a special bubble that only covers this small region of oldest Rajasthan. The frantic kind of peace that could only belong to spiritual, beautiful, artistic Udaipur! ‘Dusty, naaa?’ Bindya finishes brushing tears from her eyes. ‘Let’s go straight to Silawatwari, please.’ ‘Yes, yes – you the boss!’ They stop at the periphery of the usual central gridlock. ‘This road straight to hotel. Down there and that-way the Palace. Down there and that-way-that-way the lake…’ Without the heady currents of wind blowing through the doorless three-wheeler, there is nothing to stop Bindya breathing in clouds of suspended orange dust and grit. Odours of bovine and caprine waste. And, of course, the ubiquitous tooting of horns that is the music of every Indian city, along with drivers’ heckling, vendors’ calling, pedestrians’ goading, moo moo moo, woof ruff yip. The traffic moves, the horns stop, the traffic stops, the horns recommence. At another junction, largely obscured by telephone phones belaboured with advertisement boards, Chintamani points with a crooked brown finger. ‘Down there and that-way is my home.’ The road is a side-street, narrow enough for a bike or maybe an auto-rickshaw, but nothing wider. It is quiet, gloomy, almost barren. A woman in a faded sari that was once turquoise sits expressionless on a stoop, head in hands, narrow forearms bared but for two inches of tarnished copper bangles. Far up the slope is another man in a white kurta carrying four overloaded carrier bags. The gully is otherwise so empty that Bindya can almost hear the slap of the man’s sandals on the cracked earth. ‘Okay.’ She wipes sticky sweat from the back of her neck. Still he talks to her like a tourist; but then she hasn’t tried her usual trick of switching abruptly to Hindi. ‘Small house, big family!’ he tells her. Even from behind, Bindya recognises the Indian head-wiggle she loved since childhood without knowing why. She is struck by the realisation that the boundaries between one Indian’s home and another’s is so often indistinguishable. When three generations live in the same shack, who knows where anybody belongs? Not far away, after inching to the end of the main road and then down a narrow gully, is the Udai Kumbh Amrita Niwas Palace Hotel: “WIFI TOWEL LOVELY STAY”. The gully is just wide enough to admit Chintamani’s tempo, and not too steep by about a single degree. The smoothed paving stones camber to the left, where a chest-high stone wall is crested with purple-flowering bougainvillea and thorny shrubs. To the right, centimetres from Bindya’s elbow (her arm is around her seventy-litre backpack to stop it falling out of the tempo) are the houses of her neighbours. Each one has small round-edged windows with closed shutters, and narrow doors covered with lavishly carved screens. All down the street are examples of the Udaipur characteristic that Bindya loves the most: bright paintings, lovingly maintained, of dancing figures in colourful clothing, adorned with Rajasthani bangles and nose-jewellery; as well as cows; cloud-riding gods with azure skin; trees and giant flowers, all surrounded by Hindu svastikas and ornate Devanagari script. And yet: just beyond the beautiful paintings, the wall’s plaster flakes to expose chipped and smoke-stained stone. A set of pipes extrudes from a gap between two houses, too narrow for a child turned sideways, leaking something dark and gross into a gutter. Chintamani’s tempo comes to a halt and trembles over its growling motor. Immediately the breeze stops and the heat and humidity return. ‘This where you staying, yes?’ ‘Actually,’ says Bindya in Hindi, ‘This is my hotel. I own this.’ If the scrawny Indian is surprised, he doesn’t show it. He jumps off his motorbike-seat, dashes around the hard square canopy of the tempo, and reappears to haul Bindya’s backpack out the other side. Bindya smiles to see the wide, eroded stoop of her hotel. Her expensive ergonomic backpack – which has in recent months been anointed by rain, sludge, mud, whitewash, dirt, raw sewage (she slipped), manure, camel spit, and brightly-coloured water-soluble paint – is plonked unceremoniously beside her in front of the stoop. Bindya turns around, but Chintamani is back behind the handlebars of the chugging auto-rickshaw – ‘Goodbye my English friend!’ – and is suddenly quite gone. In the ensuing quietude a couple of chickens cluck behind the crumbly wall, and Bindya grunts as she heaves her pack up the smooth stone steps of the Udai Kumbh Amrita Niwas Palace Hotel. * The narrow door of the hotel opens into a wide lobby space with dusty marbled floors. A staircase curves up to meet a mezzanine, which is supported by two pillars carved to look like trees. Below the mezzanine is a hallway that leads to a store room and rear terrace. Two men are leaning against the large reception desk, one sipping hot chai, the other smoking. The smoker sees Bindya and hides the bidi-cigarette behind his back. Both men stare but say nothing. From their paint-spotted T-shirt and denims (chai-drinker) and wrinkled stained kurta (smoking man), Bindya guesses that these must be the builder/decorators she hired by phone last week. A small TV is half-tuned to a dramatic Indian soap opera, probably the ever-popular Mere Dil Maein Tumhara Basera Hai. ‘I’m Mrs Chandel,’ she informs them, wishing she’d changed out of her Western clothes before returning to traditional Rajasthan. New Delhi it is not. Bare arms and skinny jeans are far less common here. The two men have little to say. They stare baldly at her until they excuse themselves and start picking up tools. Bindya drags her pack into a corner near the stairwell and then strides down the hallway. The narrow passage smells of fresh paint and sawdust. The plaster is painted azure blue, patchy here and there and touched with aquamarine. It has the feeling of an unfinished fresco. At least someone has been working on the renovations while she’s been away. At the end of the hallway is a small rectangular room where she keeps her 1970s washing machine, half-empty tins of paint, tools and assorted bric-a-brac. Beneath the shelves are buckets, mops and brushes. Nothing changed there, thank god. Stretching across the cluttered space are nylon wires tied to hooks, currently the home of twenty-odd socks and a few white T-shirts. Maybe one of the kids stayed to oversee the workmen after all? Bindya flip-flops back to the lobby. The two builder/decorators are gone. So are the cup and ashtray. The TV screen is blank and mute. She unlocks the top drawer of the reception desk, takes out the registry book and flips it open. Her finger slides down the first ruled page over a disappointingly short list of dates and names. The last entry is two weeks old, and the Australian couple has since checked out. She is grateful that she has her hotel to herself. * She calls Vansh Chatterjee on her mobile. ‘Are you around?’ ‘Bindya-bai! Welcome home! I’m at the haveli. Are you at the hotel?’ ‘Yes. Come over when you’re ready and we’ll catch up, okay?’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She drags her backpack past the tree-pillars, exquisitely carved from marble, and up the carpeted stairs (stamped with dusty boot prints). The mezzanine has eight adjoining guestrooms. She tries the brass knob of the Krishna Room, which is in the centre of the door, and finds it unlocked. The room lights up when she enters. There is an electrical slot on the inside with a plastic keycard in it. It controls the light, the air-con unit strung with strips of sequins, the whirling ceiling fan that’s picking up speed above the bed, the fridge that clunks then hums with renewed life. And it all works! Before she left, the slot had been a hole in the wall with wires poking out like juvenile snakes. The furniture has also been moved in: handmade, carved in swirls and waves from dark mango-wood. The room seems complete now, with its carpet of subtle paisley, and thick curtains. A brass windchime hangs glinting with inset coloured glass, made by Bindya herself. There is a knock at the door. It’s too soon to be Vansh. Uncertain, Bindya opens it. She’s conscious of the hair stuck to her forehead in curls, now drying in the air-conditioned room. She faces the two men from before. One (smoking man) holds out a small cup of tea on a saucer with both hands. He nods. Bindya takes it, says ‘Thank you’, but the men say nothing. The smoker gives her the head wiggle but doesn’t smile. ‘You must be the two workmen that Mariam recommended. If you like you can finish for the day, and we’ll talk in the morning?’ She hasn’t even finished talking before she realises that she’s speaking in English. The smoking man nod-nod-nods, backs away; his friend the chai-drinker has lowered his head and turns to go. ‘Wait, would you—?’ They wouldn’t. The mezzanine is empty. She shuts the door whilst looking into the cup. Bindya is surprised to see the surface of the steaming beverage disturbed by falling droplets. What is this? Maybe it’s the relief of finally stopping after eight hours of travelling: south from the desert surrounding Jaipur, plus the jolting additional jaunt with Chintamani. She’s just desperately happy to have a place to lie down, even if this is a guest room and not her own bed. Maybe it’s the feeling of her skin cooling in the air-con, under that whirling fan with brass-tipped blades? Maybe, maybe. But what is this, really? Tears are falling like monsoon rain from her eyes, fast and hot. What is this? she asks herself. She barely manages to put down the clattering cup and saucer before she drops them. The mute hospitality of the builder/decorators? What is this? What is this? Tears like monsoon raindrops falling on the back of her hand. * She takes a shower. The water is freezing cold, spitting from the showerhead in stops and starts. It’s one of the better showers she’s been in recently, but the tour served its purpose: she now sees like a foreigner, not an Indian. She sees the tiny young cockroach on the toilet cistern, watching her gasp and shiver under the icy cascade. She sees the cracks in the blue tiles, discoloured grout between them, mould in the upper corners of the room near exposed pipes and the broken light fitting. When she frantically twists the shower knob to stem the cold flow, she catches sight of herself in the un-misted mirror. Her long hair is damaged and frizzy from sun exposure. Her eyebrows badly need attention. She’s lost weight: fat and muscle. There’s a colossal Campylobacter colony in her bowels to thank for at least some of her weight loss. Contracted in New Delhi, expelled in Delhi, Panipat, Shima, Amritsar, Jaisalmer, Agra, Jaipur… She towels dry, grateful that cold showers hide puffy eyes, and sits naked in the elegant mango-wood chair. The cup of tea has barely cooled on the desk. A sip takes her back to the first time her parents let her try proper Indian chai, aged four. The tea is dark, spiced with cinnamon and something else, heavy on condensed milk, loaded with sugar, with a thick skin on top that sticks to the lip. Bindya drags her backpack towards the bed, slumps cross-legged under the light woven blankets, and unpacks her much-battered travel journal. She flips past the first half of the journal without looking. She doesn’t want to see her months-old scrawl, which now looks like someone else’s handwriting, or the doodles and sketches, the ticket stubs, receipts, photos and passes that are the collected tokens of the previous six weeks. These are relics of another life, a nomadic life, a fruitless search. When she passes the halfway binding, she picks up her biro and recommences her basic log of location/date/time. Back home at last: Udaipur. In four sips of chai the cup is empty and her scratching nib has nothing more to transcribe. She can’t get past the basics today. Then there’s another knock at the door. She’s forgotten that she asked Vansh to come over. Leaping out of bed, she squeaks into her jeans and hauls a rumpled kameez from her backpack, the kind that extends way below the waist and has buttons only at the nape of the neck. She ties her wet hair into a bun before opening the door to Vansh. ‘Amma-bai! So good to see you!’ The fourteen-year-old leaps up to hang from her neck, making her grunt. He knows that with Bindya he can get away with friendly Western greetings. Besides, to her he is only a little boy, even if Indian children are men at puberty. She lets him jabber about everything that’s happened in the last few weeks: the hard work that’s been put into converting the youth shelter into a hotel in Bindya’s absence; the pretty Australian woman who stayed there, outrageously dressed, and who took a hundred photos of the murals around the Krishna Room; and news of the latest two-wheelers about to be put on display in the new town showrooms. ‘Oh, and Raj ran into a cow and totally wrecked his bike!’ Bindya stops rubbing her hair with a towel. ‘He what?’ ‘Don’t worry, it is all paid for and taken care of. It happened yesterday.’ ‘If it happened yesterday I’m sure it isn’t all paid for and taken care of! Where is that scoundrel Rajkumar?’ ‘Amma-bai, please!’ Vansh pulls on her arm to stop her storming out. ‘He is very upset, has not moved all day; he will be sorting it all out very soon, okay? Please, the haveli is full of people and he will be ashamed if you make a scene.’ ‘Me make a scene?’ Bindya catches herself and concedes. Where the Chatterjee brothers are concerned, she can trust one to be honest about the other. If Raj is upset about the cow, or more likely the bike, then she can wait until morning to see him. ‘Alright – he’s no longer my responsibility anyway, right, Master Vansh?’ ‘Please, what will be happening now there is no youth shelter for us to stay in?’ ‘Haven’t we been through this? Don’t pretend to be tearful!’ Vansh’s face splits into a grin. Bindya is well aware of how grown up the boy is for his age – and how sly he can be when it comes to protecting his brother, or getting his way. He well knows that she has been converting the charitable shelter into a tourist hotel for the last three months, even if the development has slowed considerably during her recent absence. He takes her through the touch-ups that Mariam has made to the Krishna Room murals. Bindya absorbs herself in the exquisitely hand-painted scenes that adorn all four walls. ‘The two of you have done brilliantly, Vansh,’ Bindya says warmly. For years she has been impressed with their artistic skills: Vansh masterful with a pencil, Mariam devastating with paint. In working together they have helped Bindya fulfil her dream of a room like this in a hotel of her very own. He says, ‘We’ve all been coming to keep an eye on the workers. They finished the main staircase, and brought all the furniture except for what needs to go in the Rama Room. And that one still needs a door and a sink for the bathroom. But, are you sure the bathrooms should not have hoses?’ ‘Tourists don’t like to use the hose; it’s too strange for them. They use toilet paper and then wash their hands,’ she explains. ‘The girl from Australia asked for more paper every day! Maybe she was sick?’ ‘Perhaps – but one of the things I learned in Delhi is that the customer is always right, so if the lady wants a hundred rolls of paper, she must get it! Even if it seems ridiculous to us.’ Vansh takes a moment to absorb this, biting his thumbnail as he looks at the Hindi inscription painstakingly inked onto the door of the narrow wardrobe. Bindya knows that she did well to leave the Chatterjee brothers to watch over this important work. She used to feel bad that the shelter was no longer there to look after the children. But now the nearby Munir-ki-Haveli has become the new place of charity, under the keen business eye of Mariam Munir, whilst the hotel is growing into what will hopefully be a profitable business. She can’t rely on her other job at the City Palace forever. When the time comes for Vansh to head out, he has one last surprise for her. Leaving the door open he stands outside and pushes the doorbell. A strange sound fills the room – squeaky, tremulous, more artificial than natural: EK-EK-ek-ek-ek… ‘A gecko!’ Bindya laughs, clapping her hands. ‘The tourists will like?’ Vansh asks hopefully. ‘Oh, I’m sure! Thank you. If you wish, tomorrow we can talk about finishing the murals for the Rama Room, and then your grand artistic contribution will be complete!’ With a beaming smile Vansh takes his leave; the door swings closed; Bindya is left to contemplate all that she is lucky to have, all that is yet to come, and all that she has lost.


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