22 January 2020


Bharatpur to Bundi, Friday 13 December 2019

During my last night at Bharatpur a storm had blown through: thunder, lightning, heavy rain, gusts of wind. Perhaps that has something to do with the dense mist that so severely restricts the visibility, the world fading out of existence within a few hundred metres, at times less. But there’s still much to catch attention. A jackal in the dim grey light trots beside a field of yellow-flowering mustard before slipping between the rows as the train roars past. A hoopoe on a fence post, silhouetted against the mist yet easily identified by its crest and long, thin, slightly curved bill. Doves keep pace with the train; a crow caws from a telegraph pole with such intensity it looks as if it must topple off its perch; skinny pigs forage on the sidings just outside Sawai Madhopur, the gateway town for Ranthambhore National Park, where, in 2006 I had my first and so far only sighting of a tiger in the wild.
Around 9.30, not long after leaving Sawai Madhopur, the light begins to brighten and the fog thins, yet, even when enough sunlight breaks through to make a distant building luminous, the sky remains dense grey and hazy. I don’t know how this is possible, how a bright sky strong enough to cast distinct shadows can remain so hazy, so choked with, … with what? Smoke? Mist? A combination of both?
  At Kota, some clues: rubbish fires, stinking and smouldering with at most a few weak flames, throw continuous plumes of smoke into the air of the streets. Kota itself has all the characteristics of a smallish Indian town: the noise, the apparently anarchic bedlam of traffic that somehow works; the mixture of Hindi and English on the shop signs; the smells that range from noxious to highly perfumed; the dirt and filth and litter; the startling, vibrant colours; the bodged constructions; people abjectly destitute and people opulently affluent; and no doubt every kind of personality from irredeemable sinner to saint, with no way to tell the difference until you’re on the receiving end of the scam or the act of astonishing kindness.
  My driver’s in the middle somewhere, possibly closer to the saint end than the other. I really don’t know, but he seems honest, and his fare to the bus station isn’t exorbitant. He thought carefully before quoting me 1200 rupees to take me all the way to Bundi, and while I’m sure he included a tourist tax, I doubt it was outrageous. On the other hand, Deepak drove me all the way from Kathgodam to Naini Tal for just 500.
  He drops me at a bus that right now is leaving for Bundi. He thanks me genuinely, and for just thirty-five rupees I sit in the back of a bus with no functional suspension the whole 30 kilometres or so to Bundi. An 80/- rickshaw ride drops me at the Kasera Paradise, and my time in Bundi has begun.

Bundi, Saturday 14 December 2019

At the rooftop restaurant (Morgan’s Place) yesterday, the only other customer was finishing his lunch. He struck up a conversation. He’d been in Bundi a week already and was planning to go to Sri Lanka, where he’d heard he could find excellent surfing. He told me about the special chai he’d had with some friends at a place down the road.
  ‘At first we didn’t understand,’ he said, ‘and just had normal chai. It was OK. Then we found out we had to ask for “special” chai.’
  He smiled at the memory and said, ’It worked. We got high.’
  I couldn’t understand his accent well enough to know how to find the special chai seller, but I imagined the location would become apparent eventually if I had any interest in getting high, and, if I didn’t find it, I doubted I’d miss out on an important aspect of Bundi’s character. The place had enough charm for me.
  Yuval was from Israel and had no onward ticket so no definite departure date from India. He asked me if I played chess.
  ‘I know how to play it,’ I said, ‘but I’m no good at it.’
  He, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the game and had taught some of his friends how to play.
  ‘Now they’re better than me,’ he said. ‘They studied hard, and most of the time they beat me.’
  We talked about the rise of the artificial intelligences and I asked if he knew how to play Go.
  ‘The Chinese game? No. I know it’s complicated, though.’
  I told him I’d heard that the world champion Go player had recently stopped playing because the machines were now superior — it was impossible to win against the new algorithms. Neither Yuval nor I could understand why someone would give up the game they loved just because they couldn’t beat an AI.
  ‘Playing a computer’s different from playing a person,’ I said.
  Yuval nodded and said, ‘Even when my friends beat me most of the time, sometimes they make a mistake and I win.’ He shrugged and added, ‘But machines, they don’t make mistakes.’
  I suggested playing sophisticated programs could help you learn — you could study what they’d done to beat you and learn from that.
  He agreed, saying, ‘Sometimes I learn things when my friends beat me.’
  He explained how he still played his friends back in Israel even while he was here in India, using an app.
  ‘All we need is an Internet connection.’
  His enthusiasm for chess was endearing, but I still wasn’t about to relent and offer to play him, even though the game would be brief and the outcome inevitable. I hadn’t played a game of chess for decades, was never serious about it, and knew little more than the rules. I could hardly remember the standard opening moves — was it the King’s or the Queen’s pawn I should move? I suppose I could have let Yuval teach me, but I was keen to get out and explore Bundi again, or at least wander aimlessly, and I wondered how well I’d remember my way around.

Quite well, as it turned out. What I didn’t expect was that Bundi would remember me. Khalid, the young shawl-seller just up the road from where I’d stayed last time, recognised me. So too did Jerry from the Tom and Jerry restaurant. I think the knife-sharpener did also, although I didn’t stop to chat — we just exchanged big grins and waves as I walked past.
   Khalid remembered I’d been here at the same time as Rainer. He and Rainer used to talk for hours over chai, he said, and he wondered if I had Rainer’s email address. I asked him how business was.      He wobbled his head.
  ‘The tourists, not many. It’s difficult. Numbers are down.’
  I told him I didn’t understand why tourism in Bundi had decreased.
  ‘I tell people to visit Bundi,’ I said. ‘Bundi’s great. I like it here. It has a good feel, and the people are friendly and welcoming.’
  I was telling the truth; my experience of Bundi has been mostly wonderful. Yesterday evening I’d ended up talking with tailor Faisal Khan. During the conversation he said he was a Mohammedan.
  ‘You’re Muslim?’
  ‘Asalaam alaikum.’
  He broke into a great smile, said ‘Wa alaikum asalaam,’ and held out his hand for me to shake.
  He sympathised over the Christchurch mosque shootings and shook his head sadly.
  ‘It was awful, horrible,’ I said, ‘but one good thing that came out of it was that it drew people together in a good way.’
  ‘Your … president,’ he said, and hesitated, not quite sure what to say.
  ‘Jacinda Ardern. Our Prime Minister?’
  ‘Yes,’ he said, and he sounded enthusiastic again. ‘She is very good …’
  He seemed to be searching for a way to express his approval.
  ‘She set a great example.’
  ‘For the world,’ Faisal said.
  I thought how lucky we’d been to have had the right leader at that awful time, and how her actions had resonated with someone even here in Bundi, in India, where usually the only awareness of New Zealand would be of its cricket team. Every Indian cricket fan — which is to say almost everyone — knew of Kane Williamson and held him in huge regard, and he was a reliable fallback if a conversation ever started to falter.
  I very much enjoyed talking with Faisal, and the feeling was mutual. He asked where I was staying.
  ‘The Kasera Paradise.’
  Next time in Bundi you stay at my house,’ he said. ‘You stay with my family.’
  I photographed him, and as I walked away I thought, Bundi is truly a great place.

This morning as I walked slowly around the lake, a man holding a baby gradually wandered closer. I paused and looked at him and smiled, and he smiled in return. I knew what he wanted.
  ‘Photo?’ I said, raising the camera.
  He nodded and held his baby up in his arms. The little human looked at me, unsure what was going on, or maybe unable to work out what the strange-looking man was, but the father was smiling. I made two photographs and showed them to him on the LCD screen. I wished I could send him the photos, but he appeared to know no English and the chances of finding him again to give him a print were impossibly small. I hoped I’d be able to find somewhere to get prints of Faisal and the other tailor and some of the others I’d photographed, or would photograph, before I left.

Bundi, Sunday 15 December 2019

Babblers arrive at the rooftop restaurant, apparently wanting to share my breakfast. They’re such endearing birds, with their fierce, crazed looks and nervous energy, that I’m almost tempted but I know better. On the other hand, perhaps I’d be safer abandoning it to them — I’ve ordered the fruit salad, muesli, curd, and honey, and it turns out to be mostly chunks of assorted fruit including green grapes and sliced strawberry which appear to have been washed — but in what? I hope the restaurant’s conscious enough of its reputation to have used boiled or filtered water for the washing, but it’s too late to turn back now. I’ll avoid it in future, but for now it’s delicious — a welcome change from a diet of Indian food and occasional pizza.
  I had chai at the dhaba on the second corner on the way to the market. Good chai, much better than the mouth-burning, ginger-heavy chai prepared for me yesterday by the aggressively friendly woman who grossly overcharged me for tea and paratha. I won’t be going back. No doubt she’ll be put out when she sees me at Krishna chai, directly across the road — excellent chai, according to the manager of the Kasera Paradise and the elderly Israeli woman, who arrived together at Jerry’s last night. I learned a lot from the conversation with them.
  This morning, though, I drink chai made by an elderly man at an ancient stall and share the seating with a family of three. The man asks where I’m from, and his wife asks me something in Hindi.
  ‘Hindi tona tona,’ I say, holding my thumb and index finger a millimetre or two apart. Everyone laughs.
  ‘Little, little,’ the woman says, with a lovely smile.
  I’m pleased to know I’ve at least got that right. The teenage daughter offers me the biscuits they’re dunking. I love these small moments.

After buying a ticket for the fort and palace, I’m immediately accosted by a man who dispenses advice at high speed.
  ‘Visit the fort first,’ he says, tugging at his shirt and explaining it will be very hot later.
  He describes his services as a guide, but I neither need nor want a guide and manage to escape easily, although not before he’s given me a stick to scare off monkeys. It proves to be an inconvenience rather than useful, and I wonder later whether he’ll try charging me for it. But, when I eventually return in the early afternoon, he’s gone, and I leave the stick on the bench from where he picked it up.

  The fort’s a labyrinth badly overgrown with thorn. In 2006 I could at least see the approximate layout of the complex, but now it’s difficult to explore in any methodical fashion. I wander not quite randomly, remembering only some step wells and the old abandoned temple at the far end. The rest is just an impression of familiarity, of a place abandoned, turned over to ghosts and goblins and the decay of time. I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and his accounts of unspeakable cruelty, of horrifically imaginative ways to torture and debase one’s enemies, make me wonder what horrors might have been perpetrated here. Maybe the deterioration of this place into ruins and its colonisation by thorn and birds and other animals isn’t such a bad thing. Nature as redeemer, or at least an aid to forgetting.

  The birds won’t cooperate, though. The warblers stay hidden, revealing themselves only in glimpses impossible to photograph; the nervous Indian robins hide in the thickets; a purple sunbird poses beautifully until the instant before I press the shutter button. But my perseverance is finally rewarded when, as I wait quietly on my way down for an Indian robin to reappear, a partridge-like bird, nervous and jumpy, dashes across the path and fossicks warily among the scrub on the edge of the path. I think it’s a Black francolin but later identify it as a Painted spurfowl. I follow it carefully for a few minutes and manage a few acceptable photos.

  Before visiting the palace, I return my monkey-scaring stick to the wall from where the garrulous dispenser of advice had collected it. He’s nowhere to be seen, but at the main gate a man asks for a photo of me with him and his friend. I’m happy to oblige: at least he asked. I’ve often noticed surreptitious videoing and wonder why I’m so fascinating. Surely I’m not that strange and peculiar? Later, in the palace, another, older man asks for a photo. His wife photographs us; he puts his arm around me, so I drape mine over his shoulders. He thanks me and asks me my name and where I’m from. How many Instagram and facebook photos of me have been posted during my last three visits to India? On my first visit, in 2006-7, selfies weren’t even a thing: the first iphone was barely a year old.

I have one more day in India and start the journey back to Aotearoa/NZ the day after. Where has the time gone?

1.  The chai wallah cooking milk to make some kind of sweet.
2.  Dogs adapting to their environment (note the macaque, too).
3.  Faisal.
4.  Father and child.
5.  In the old fort.
6.  Palace guard and guide.
7.  The bigger of these two boys asked for a photo. The smaller, blind in one eye, took his lead from his friend but didn't quite know the pose. I wonder what their lives will bring, and wish them well.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor


Anonymous said...

I loved reading every word of this post. I felt like I was there, walking those streets, seeing the birds, sniffing the air, wondering and wandering, meeting our fellow humans. Thank you for writing this down and letting us see it all through your eyes. Have a safe journey home, Pete.

Zhoen said...

The aromas of a place linger forever.

Ruahines said...

Kia Ora Pete...as Robin states above. Kia Ora. Safe travels back to Aotearoa e hoa.


pohanginapete said...

Robin, thank you so much for the very generous comment — I'm delighted it transported you 🙂

Zhoen, I'm often struck by how a smell can bring back such vivid memories.

Kia ora Robb. The journey back was long but relatively comfortable. It's taking a while to get over the jet-lag, though.