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Lal Ghat Guesthouse, Udaipur, India

I stayed at this gaff midway round my trip round Rajasthan in the late 1990s. It was the only point in the trip when I resisted the Indian drivers incessant hotel prescriptions, for which he received a commission that you could hardly begrudge him. I wanted to stay near the lake. Mahinder, the driver, recommended a hotel in another district. This is what I wrote about the Battle of Lal Ghat.

“Finally, after nine hours on the road, we reach Udaipur. Mahinder goes without consultation, as per usual, to his preferred hotel partner. It is situated up a hill, far away from the town and the lake. For the first time in six days I put my foot down and refuse to check-in. It is not so much that the rooms are shabby, which they are, it is just that I cannot bear the thought of being stuck up here away from the town, again.

Despite Mahinders disappointed expression and his warning about the area I want to go to: dirty and smelly; I hold firm. On the journey down to the town, Mahinder stops again at yet another hotel. This one is on the lake, but not in the town. The hotel is posh, but modern. I am now committed to original character and I refuse to even look at a room – very brave.

So Mahinder gives in and drives to the area in the town that I have insisted on: near the Jagdish Temple, the City Palace and on Lake Picholas shores. The dire warnings persist: this bit of the lake is man-made with fetid water that attract very many mosquitoes, many people get a fever (malaria), the streets are narrow and crowded, no vehicle can pass along them etc. etc. I say that, in that case, I will walk. Mahinder says it is up to me, he just knows whats what. He continues that the Rough Guide or whatever book I have consulted in the matter will lead me astray, listing only hotels that are now closed, or under disreputable management. And so on.

Sometimes you have to be very thick-skinned to put up with the Indian way of doing things. I walk down an alley to the Guesthouse. I feel a bit bad because I have cost the driver his commission but he can have a bigger tip at the end of the trip to compensate.”

This is what I dug my heels in so hard for.

Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar is a sacred city in Rajasthan (one of five in India) founded, allegedly, when Brahma dropped a lotus flower in the desert, which then turned into Lake Pushkar. As it is a holy place for Hindus, you aren’t allowed to drink alchohol or eat meat or eggs, but if that sounds exceptionally dull you can always liven things up by ordering a bhang lassi from the under the counter menu in many establishments…

The first time I went to India, and indeed the second, I eschewed all kinds of lassi: a salty or sweet yoghurt drink. Despite being tempted by the hallucinatory properties of the bhang version, Pushkar was an edgy sort of place where tempers flared in the crowded streets and having your wits about you seemed the most advisable course of action to me.

I had ostensibly gone to Pushkar for the camel fair, but being a disorganised person in India gets you absolutely nowhere, or at least nowhere near your intended destination at the appointed hour. Thus it was that I tipped up in Pushkar about a week after the camel fair had finished. On reflection, that probably wasn’t a bad thing, missing as I did such things as the Moustache Competition, the Water Pot race (for women), the Musical Chair race and First, Second and Third Milkings.

In a bhang lassi haze it might have worked I suppose…

A camel chilling in Pushkar

One Pen?

For some reason I said this to one of my students this afternoon. The group on Wednesdays could not possibly devalue their street cred by actually lugging their own biro about with them. Fair enough, I understand entirely. When I was about their age – somewhere between 16-19 – I would not have been caught carrying anything that would not fit in a pocket. All money, make-up, whatever, had to fit in there and that was that. All this pre-dates mobiles of course.

Anyway, where they have no pen, I am required to dish them out weekly, one pen each. They always leave them behind too, for the same reason they never have one in the first place; so the only thing they are costing the tax-payer is a bit of ink, my time and the building overheads. The hope is, with the qualification they get, they will eventually end up tax-payers themselves and can subsidise the next generation of non-pen carrying students.

I have digressed. What I was going to say was that saying “One pen” reminded me of something. Then I remembered it is what the street kids often say to you in India when they are mobbing you for stuff. I told the students this and they thought it was funny. I suppose it is really. They can beg or borrow a biro any time they like; they are of little consequence. In India, like everything, they have value.

I ran out of the one pens I took quick enough when I went to India for the first time. It was in November 1998, a fact I would have not remembered if I had not recently found a travel diary I wrote. I do remember that I ended up doling out sweets too, in the absence of one pens. Once, in the desert state of Rajasthan, a kid pinched me hard on the arm for my trouble. I have always wondered why, but I can’t say I blame him.