Rajasthan in four cities
My great-grandfather, a feudal landowner in West Bengal, had a troubled marriage with my great-grandmother, who finally left him in 1927 and came to live with her mother in Jaisalmer. Her mother, my great-great-grandmother was one of the few female doctors in the country at the time and was employed with the royal family of Jaisalmer. My grandfather grew up in the royal household but left home one unsettled morning. He left just a note: my heart doesn’t want.
He wanted to be a classical musician. Failure meant that my mother and uncle grew up in dire poverty in the dirty back alleys of the blue city. No one knows what happened to my great-grandfather or the house or the land. I have never seen a photograph, only an image narrated to me by a distant relative: a man on horseback with leather boots and the eyes of a snake.
In Jodhpur stands the magnificent fort of Mehrangarh overlooking the landscape that is half-sand, half-cement. I imagine my mother, as a child, looking up at the structure, hearing stories about queens who have jumped from the fort into the blue city mistaking it for the sea.
Behind Jantar Mantar, an old observatory where ancient time is measured, lives an astrologer who asks me to wear a ring of yellow sapphire. He says he does not understand, he tells my mother to keep me away from foreigners. I remember the man who predicted my future 28 years ago, who died far away in Kyoto in the arms of his moral-immoral love. I also remember my beloved mulberry tree being cut in the summer of 1996, and the crushed ripe mulberries staining the earth like
On M.I. Road is the Indian Coffee House where one can sit for hours surrounded by pistachio walls and cups of cheap but good coffee. On the walls, a Technicolor portrait of Nehru reminds everyone of a disappeared India. Across the street is a liquor shop that sometimes keeps wine from Spain and Cuba. I like to buy deep red wine, blood of a beloved tree from childhood.
One afternoon, a blind man hands a one-rupee coin to a child and walks away. When the child opens his palm, he finds it empty.
Someone on a busy corner asks a young woman what she is doing in Jaipur. She answers, “I do not know what I am doing in this world.”
In the middle of the Pichola lake that is sometimes dry sometimes full stands the incomparable Lake Palace. It’s where 007 found Octopussy and Anthony Bourdain drank a perfect martini composed from Bombay Sapphire on an episode of No Reservations. At a little distance is the Jag Mandir, where I waited for the sun to set while observing my glass of champagne and its many movements on the table in shadow and light. On the streets of the city that afternoon I had seen many unnamed gods and even more unnamed devils, I had seen my feet glimmer in gold sandals like a stranger’s, I had found an old wooden statue of Narasimha and a framed photograph of Indian actress Madhubala and paid perhaps less than I should have. In the palace, I had seen the rooms that Matisse could have painted, I had seen the room reserved for the poet who wrote the history of Mewar, I had seen the royal carpets woven by the empire’s prisoners. I had seen. I was still seeing. I wanted to close my tired eyes.
From the city palace, the ghost of the disabled emperor still gazes at the city from his wheeled sofa. The city’s colour alternates depending on the colour of the stained window.
The secret is that one who goes into the Pichola emerges from the Vltava.
The continuous swirling of Kalbeliya women will induce a strange vertigo that will turn the city gold. Everywhere I will see, I will see only gold and even the people will seem golden in high noon, their eyes will also turn gold like the eyes of the cat snake of the Western Ghats. In the middle of this, I will hear the melancholy sound of the ravanhattha at a distance, and remember the broken heart of the 14th-century princess Mumal.
I will tear a eucalyptus leaf in half and its scent will take me back to the Spartan scene of my childhood in Barmer, punctuated with dim lights of weak bulbs. The vertigo will continue and I will fall unconscious on the gold desert, from where, centuries ago, people had travelled to Europe. When people from the desert first saw the ocean, they called it bori lon pani, big salt water.
I will drown one day in that big salt water. Someday the world will drown in the whirlpool of my dancing gypsy mothers.
Text and Photographs by Saudamini Deo