I am at a trinket shop in Udaipur looking for souvenirs to buy for family and friends back home in Mumbai. When I see a some quirky earrings in the shape of various animals and birds — elephants, dolphins, peacocks, butterflies, swans, deer, etc. — I decide to buy some of them for my niece.
As I set aside the ones I want to buy, I ask the shopkeeper, “Do you have camel earrings?”
“Look at these elephant ones, Madam. They will bring good luck and strength. These birds are so delicate, they will look beautiful. And the deer earrings, they are unique, Madam. Nowhere else will you find them in Udaipur. And this butterfly ones…
“I am buying a pair of all these. But I would also like to buy a pair of camel earrings. Do you have them?” I ask again.
“Um… yes,” he says, pulling out a pair from under the counter. “Why do you want to buy camel earrings anyway?”
“Because I like camels,” I say.
“You like camels?” the shopkeeper asks incredulously. “They are smelly, stubborn, and quite ugly. What is there to like in camels?”
“Oh there is plenty to like. You see, there is something about camels,” I smile.
It was about 10.30 in the morning and vehicles were depositing tourists outside Bikaner’s Junagarh Fort. As I walked up to the Fort’s entrance, I overheard these comments:
“This is a fort? Isn’t a fort supposed to be, like, on a hill?”
“This is no fort. It looks more like a walled palace.”
“And why is it called Junagarh Fort? Junagadh is in Gujarat. Shouldn’t this be called Bikaner Fort or something?”
“Are you sure we are at the right place? Is this the only fort in Bikaner?
Now, if I had also been deposited outside the Fort in question like these people and was seeing the Fort for the first time, it is quite possible that I might have asked some of the questions myself. But since I had the opportunity to see the Fort from my hotel terrace the previous evening (see photo below), I knew that though it was not on a hill, it was a proper fort alright with a moat and all other fortifications befitting one.
I could also see Bikaner’s flat landscape from the terrace, which indicated that the builders of the fort had no choice in the terrain. And, yes, I could also see that this was the only fort around. The only answer that the view of the Junagarh Fort from the hotel terrace did not give was why it was called so.
I hoped that a tour of the Fort complex would answer questions for all of us.
“This is your room, Madam,” said the hotel attendant as he opened the door and switched on the lights.
And I saw red. Literally.
“This is a very nice room, Madam,” beamed the attendant. “Don’t you like it?
“It’s too red, ” I said in a dazed voice taking in the red walls, red carpet, and furnishings shimmering away in different shades of red .
The attendant said soothingly, “This room is one of a kind, Madam. No other room is like this. In fact, all rooms are one of a kind. I promise that by the time you leave the hotel, you will love the room.”
He was right. By the time I left after 2 days and 2 nights at the hotel, I was not only in love with my red room, I was also in love with the hotel this room was a part of — the Bhairon Vilas Palace.
Yesterday my boss walked into my room to find me staring out of my office window, apparently lost in my own thoughts. He waited a while before clearing his throat and saying, “Thinking about that Rajasthan Trip of yours again?” My sheepish smile confirmed his guess that I had indeed been thinking my recent 11-day trip to Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh, Chittorgarh and Udaipur.
It has been 2 weeks since I returned to Mumbai, but you are still in my mind during all my waking and sleeping hours. The bright blue skies, starlit nights, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and peacock calls are something that I sorely miss. It was a trip that challenged and reiterated in equal measure my notions of who and what you are. It was also a trip that delighted, surprised, awed, and sometimes saddened me.
Do you know that my visit generated 1,752 photographs? That 90 percent of the photographs have been deleted is testimony to my photography skills, and not due to any fault of yours. How clearly I remember the first of the many photographs I clicked: the arid yellow landscape, green shrubs, the bright blue skies and a woman clad in bright-coloured clothes.
Bikaner Railway Station was the first of the many surprises you sprung up on me. Are you sure that it was not a sprawling haveli once-upon-a-time, which then got converted to a railway station? When I posted a picture of the railway station on my Facebook timeline, many people did not believe that it was a railway station !
Ahem… Would I like a few signed copies…? 😉 Once I had conferred with Raghav and Rahul, my #TSBC co-founders, I sent a DM to Gitanjali accepting her offer. She, in turn, sent me the email address of Suraj ‘Eskay’ Sriram, her father and author of the book giveaway, to work out the formalities involved. And a few emails later we were set.
I am embarrassed to admit now that, at that time, I had not heard of the book or the author. A quick online search revealed that Indira Gandhi: The Final Chapter (Niyogi Books, 2011, pp.176) was a glimpse of the Indian political and social scene through Eskay’s cartoons and illustrations, during the last few years of Indira Gandhi’s political regime. I also asked my older brothers and Amma if they had heard of Eskay. To which I received an immediate “Of course !” followed by a “Why do you ask?” When I gave them the background details, I was told by all of them that I don’t read enough ! 😦
But I digress from the main topic of this post: Meeting “Eskay”, which happened last Saturday in Pune. And what a meeting it was !
In a fenced enclosure outside the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (formerly known as Victoria & Albert Museum) at the Jijamata Udyaan (formerly known as Victoria Garden) in Mumbai, is an Elephant. Not a flesh and blood elephant, mind you, but a stone elephant with a long and interesting history to share.
Carved in the 6th century from a single piece of rock at one of the many entrances to the island known as Gharpuri, the Elephant saw many a king come and go for over a 1000 years. Then one day, in early 16th century, the Elephant saw the first European colonisers — the Portuguese — to the region. The Portuguese were so awed by him that they promptly named the Gharpuri after him — the Elephanta Island, a name it has been known as since then.
When the Portuguese relinquished their rights over the region to the British 150 years later, the Elephant was witness to this as well. The new colonisers were also impressed and awed with him. In fact, the English were so impressed with the Elephant, that they wanted to take him home to England. But this was no easy task and it took them nearly 200 years to put their wish in action.
On a sunny day in 1864, a crane was brought to the Island to lift the Elephant from his rocky home and transport him to ship that would then take him to a new home at a museum in England. This was no easy task and the local people and the English Officers directing this operation watched with bated breath as the crane huffed and puffed, and finally managed to lift the Elephant.
And as the arm of the crane swung around with its elephantine cargo, disaster struck. The crane snapped sending the Elephant crashing down and breaking him into pieces.