To The Painted Kingdom

March 3rd 2020

“You have to try the Marmalade. It is delicious!” advised Penny. It was. The owner of the haveli confirmed that it was made fresh when needed, and so it tasted.  The coffee was delicious too. As Ken and Margaret joined us Divendra telephoned from some distant corner of India where he was leading a tour, to say that he had organised for someone to turn up to change cash for rupees. The travelling cash-point was already at the gate. No sooner had I put down the telephone than he appeared. We took it in turns to leave our breakfasts and move to a nearby coffee table, where Divendra’s answer to internet banking was counting out rupees. His rates were on a par with the best we’d seen listed. We changed enough to last us for the fortnight until the retail indulgence planned in Udaipur. Job done he departed as he had arrived, on a motorbike, with the pockets of his leather bomber-jacket still bulging.

Sally and Hanley had landed from Abu Dhabi in the very early hours. We were excited at the prospect of seeing them again, especially as we would not have been surprised had they dropped out. Both had endured health challenges during the past year. To add to our doubts of a full team there was the Coronovirus. A mystery virus said to come from animal species not deemed fit for human consumption in western kitchens, that had escaped from a Chinese live animal market. We would not have thought less of them had they called off.  

Chinese tourists were being picked off in isolated cases as far afield as Iran and Milan and over 400 passengers had been shut into their cabins on a cruise ship in Japanese waters – occasioning scant sympathy from those who think cruise ships will destroy Venice faster than it can sink on its own accord into the lagoon. An outbreak in Korea was linked to the obscure ‘Shincheonji Church of Jesus” and only one case had been reported in India – in Kerala over 1600 miles away.  It all seemed far from us and the leafy streets of Hauz Khas with its hassle-free money exchange.  When Hanley and Sally appeared any niggling thoughts of disease evaporated with broad smiles, welcoming whoops and hugs of happiness.

All present and the luggage counted, Geritours 2020 – all but two of us are well into our 70s – set off south west for The Painted Kingdom as the Shekhawati district is called. South of the Punjab; north of Jodhpur and near the Pakistan border it is about 175 miles from Delhi. In 2010, travelling from Dundlod to Bikaner, I had been stuck in traffic in Mandawar. Able to see through the grimey car window, the dust and exhaust fumes, a whole streetful of havelis, with their walls covered in faded frescoes, I had asked to stop for a few minutes to have a look. I had been told we didn’t have the time. It had been tantalising. Now, 10 years on, the dream to return was being realised.

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We left Delhi without seeing any signs of The Turbulence. The bus was the perfect size with enough room for each of us to have a window seat if we wanted one. On an earlier trip Henry had established his place in the middle of the back seat. Although it afforded leg room it gave him the sometimes unenviable view of traffic hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road. Anyone who has not experienced travel on Indian roads would not be able to conjure up nightmares about it.

We shared toffees and mints; caught up on each others’ news; snoozed and asked Narenndra about the crops we passed. Three harvests a year is the norm in this part of India. The bearded wheat was almost fit for the third. Head high mustard, still supporting a few petals, swayed in the windy gusts of the passing traffic; top heavy trailers spilling like middle-aged beer-gut over more than half the road, were pulled by new, gleaming bright red Massey Ferguson tractors, as they transported forage to industrial dairy units.

We had asked about the chickpeas that had been growing in every third field.

“Would you like to visit a chick pea farm? Narrendra asked.

Of course. Our knowledge of chickpeas being limited to the beige grape-shot that needs soaking overnight, we were fascinated to see how it looked up close – seemingly luscious and green.  Monu Singh, our driver pulled to the side of the road and Dasrath, riding shot gun, jumped out and placed a footstool to make it easier for us to climb down onto the verge. Smiling shyly, he offered each of the women his right hand.

It is never clear in these instances whether such stops are pre-arranged, whether the ‘host’ is actually a distant cousin of the guide or driver, but as if by magic there’s always the right person there to welcome us; and made welcome we always are. The farmer appeared as we walked along the track between mustard and chick peas. After the regulatory photograph with him and his brother, who had appeared from a bright pink, single storeyed house a few hundred yards further on, they seemed delighted to describe their farming activities.

Harvest was by hand using a sickle – not a scythe. It must be back breaking. The bearded wheat would be ready to harvest first. They used no chemicals and operated a three course rotation to break the disease cycle. They picked peas for us and opening pods, suggested we try them. A type of gram, with two or three peas to a pod, they were as sweet as any peas pinched from a grandmother’s garden. There is evidence of their having been grown for over 7,500 years and they were mentioned by both Charlemagne and Culpeper.  Historically used medicinally they were thought to increase sperm, milk, (therefore associated with Venus), urine and help to treat kidney stones. More digestible and having a higher nutritional value than beans and soya they are of course used all over the world but nearly 70% of the world’s crop is grown in India and we had been driving through one of India’s chickpea belts.

We were invited to walk on to the farmyard and encouraged to look round. The flag of India fluttered from a distant tree. The farmers’ stunningly beautiful teenage niece, who spoke perfect English, answered our questions. She could not tell us why there was one buffalo,  kept for neither milking nor apparently ploughing, and we didn’t recognise the climbing plant that rampaged over the farmhouse. We were told it cured everything.   We were offered chai.  A Charpoi and plastic chairs were brought from the house. We insisted that the grandmother, sitting on a log nearby, should be given one of them. She seemed pleased.

A perfectly symmetrical, round thatched hut that contained the chaff cut with a terrifyingly sharp, rusty chaff cutter, had been created nearby. Dried gourds, still on the vine, had been draped from the roof’s top-knot. Hens scratched. A cow, tethered to a tree, called to her calf.

The sun started to set and it was time to go. I wondered what this farming family made of a random group of grey haired Caucasians who appeared from nowhere, asked endless questions, drank their chai, clasped their hands warmly and reciprocated smiling eyes in the absence of a common language, and disappeared whence they came.

We reached Fatepur, where we were to stay for three nights, in darkness. The earth streets, designed for camel carts not tourist buses, challenged Monu’s driving skill but he patiently persevered as they narrowed and narrowed. We learned over the next weeks that he knew the dimensions of his bus to within half centimetres. Eventually, stopped by piles of stones and a tree taking up a lot of the narrow road, he asked a shop-keeper the best way. He was directed up a narrow street that involved a tight turn. The shop was on the inside corner of the turn and as Monu edged forward and back, forward and back while Dasrath ran for and aft giving hand signals,  the shopkeeper stood firm with his back to the corner wall, without offering any help at all.

We decided to walk the last few hundred yards and left the guys to extricate the bus now sewn at a diagonal, and our luggage. When we arrived at the haveli all we could see of its facade was rickety scaffolding, then the big studded doors were opened by a jovial ‘gatekeeper’ who welcomed us in. The haveli might be held together by weedy tree limbs, tied by string, but everything was going to be alright.

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