Time with the family

Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
Trip End Dec 05, 2005

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Thursday 8th September

I stepped back a century today upon arrival in the old town of Bundi, four hours from Pushkar. The motorbikes, autorickshaws and a few young people in jeans are the only sign that the town has, in fact, had contact with the rest of the world in the last few centuries; otherwise, it really doesn't look as if much has changed for generations. The King has moved from his hillside palace to Delhi, leaving monkeys, birds and bats to assume squatters' rights; numerous other palatial and fort-like buildings lie dotted around the town, whilst all the old havelis are still occupied by families: very few have been converted to hotels or apartments.

I'm staying in the haveli of the Parihar family, who have opened four of their rooms to guests, though it's still very much a family residence. My room is the best in the house: a huge bay window with green, textured glass surrounds a raised platform with a day-bed; from the corner of the room, a narrow stone staircase leads onto the roof, from where the view of the hill-top palace is unrivalled. Sashi, the daughter of the family who runs the show, turns 23 today and I've been invited to join family and friends for the celebratory dinner.

Compared to Pushkar, where the local-to-foreigner ratio seemed almost 1:1, there must be fewer than a dozen tourists here. I've been stopped numerous times in the street by people just wanting to shake my hand and welcome me; the shopkeepers, refreshingly, don't tout for business at all and the young men all seem well-behaved (Karien and I were both groped in Pushkar when walking alone: I ran after my "assailant" and punched him on the shoulder; Karien hit hers with a water-bottle and then, in her frenzied state, hit another man nearby for good measure!).

Friday 9th September

Bugs! Never in my life have I seen so many in one place (that being my bedroom). Rajasthani mosquitoes are ruthless mutants, to whom repellent is merely a condiment to spice up their meal. Then there are crickets, moths and the other usual suspects, added to which are the tiniest bugs you'll ever see, crowded in their thousands over walls, bedsheets and sleeping people.

I've fallen asleep to many noises in India: traffic, dogs, cows, shouting men.... But last night brought a new lullaby: fighting pigs. Several times, just as I was dozing off, a blood-curdling squeal would wrench me from my dream-state; I would then peel myself from the ceiling and attempt to doze again as Piggy-Armageddon played out beneath my window.

Sunday 11th September

I've had an interesting time in Bundi, bugs and heat aside. I've done some walking each day, but spend a lot of time in the haveli with the family, trying to keep cool whilst taking in the small-town culture and learning to roll a perfectly round roti.

Sashi's birthday celebration involved quantities of cake and rasgullah, both sickly sweet, BEFORE dinner. India may have a delicious array of its own traditional sweets, but should steer clear of trying to imitate western-style cakes: their version is at least 60% multi-coloured icing, which tastes like unadulterated economy-brand margarine; for those brave enough to gag their way through this, the booby prize in the centre is a bland chunk of sponge cake so dry it could have been baked last century. The rasgullah, an exception to the aforementioned "delicious array', are deep-fried balls of dough dripping with sugar-syrup, unflavoured except for the sugar: they don't taste any better than they sound.

Sashi then cooked a meal for her brothers and their friends, with whom I ate at a table outside; only after we had eaten did the women of the house have their meal in the kitchen. She explained the next day that birthdays are usually a big party, however her aunt died ten days ago and music, singing and celebration in will be forbidden for several weeks.

She loves clothes, make-up and all things girlie, and couldn't wait to rummage through my possessions, calling her tailor immediately upon finding a skirt she liked so he could copy it for her. She's very disappointed that I'm not travelling with a full armoury of make-up, as she wanted to try out all the western products.

A husband has been chosen for her - he lives in nearby Kota - and all her family have met him, but she has yet to see even a photograph of the man. She's amazingly stoic about the pending marriage - I ask all kinds of questions about the wedding plans, where she will live and what she thinks about it: she answers calmly and detachedly, as if her family has just chosen which university she'll attend. She knows he's rich enough to have servants, and suspects she might not have to cook once she's moved into his home. When does she want to start having children? She has no idea - that's up to his parents to decide. What excites her most is that the family is liberal enough to allow their women to wear jeans!

Yesterday afternoon her mother made me some kajal, the black eyeliner worn by women and babies in Rajasthan. This supposedly protects the eyes from dirt, and making it is fairly simple: she put a cotton wick into an oil-burner with some vegetable oil and balanced a metal plate over the lit wick. It took an hour to burn out, after which she mixed a few drops of ghee and ground cardamom seeds with the soot that had accumulated on the plate, and voila - I have a new pot of eyeliner!

Theft from houses is an everyday occurrence here - the perpetrators are in and out in the blink of an eye, and before you can say "monkey", your favourite garment or your next meal is sitting in the top of a tree. Doors must be closed at all times and several large sticks are positioned around the building, because to chase a monkey barehanded could result in serious bite-wounds. One of the boys' shirts was stolen from the bathroom yesterday morning: we had to throw a banana to the monkey in exchange for the shirt, which he'd already torn quite badly. This morning we exchanged a piece of bread for a pair of trousers. For the monkeys, clothes are easier to come by than food, and I suspect they've cottoned on to the ease with which the food-for-clothes barter-system works for them. Despite all the theft, they provide great entertainment - at sunset, as the air becomes cooler, they come out in their hundreds, patrolling the rooftops and performing gravity-defying acrobatics in the trees. Every evening I go up to the roof with the women of the household, where we sit and chat while we watch the show.

I went up to the palace yesterday (armed with a monkey-stick) - it's a grand place with sweeping views over Bundi from latticed balconies and wide terraces, and it stinks to high heaven of bat guano.

This morning we had a proper thunderstorm - the area hasn't seen much rain this monsoon season, so everyone is very pleased about the downpour; the air feels fresher and everything looks a bit cleaner. It hasn't helped the electricity situation though: apart from the state-imposed power cuts every morning and evening (Rajasthan is currently not producing sufficient power to meet demand), we've had several cuts throughout the day as well (this is the second time I'm typing this).

The plan was to leave for Jaipur today, but I'm so enjoying the family vibe and lack of tourist "rush" that I decided to stay one more night - a decision aided by the high wind that picked up last night, blowing away at least some of the heat and bugs and allowing for a more peaceful night's rest.
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