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Notes from Jodhpur: Bring on the blues

Dining at his rooftop restaurant overlooking the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, you have to work hard not to fall under the spell of the multi-faceted Bablu

Published: Feb 23, 2017 06:34:51 AM IST
Updated: Mar 28, 2017 03:02:44 PM IST

The Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur rises almost organically from the hill
Image: Pikoso.kz / Shutterstock

It’s not as blue as I thought it’d be,” I say to Doris as we look out at the city of Jodhpur spread out in front of us from the terrace of our hotel. “It’s not quite Mykonos, is it?” she replies with a laugh, reminding me of my observation when we were looking at pictures of the ‘blue city’ online.

The magnificent Mehrangarh Fort, which appears to rise almost organically from the hill, looms on one side, while Umaid Bhawan Palace, now a hotel, sits regally at some distance. The rooftop has a few tables, some chairs, a filthy, stained sink and a small, red refrigerator the inside of which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since the day it was bought. Doris pulls back a makeshift cloth curtain next to the refrigerator to reveal a small, grubby kitchen.

The hotel, we find, is essentially a homestay. The owners live on the ground floor while the upper floors have rooms to let. As we make our way down to our room, we meet a man going up, carrying bananas, coffee sachets and a mug. We mumble hellos.

Jodhpur is not a place people usually linger in. They pass through it on their way to and from various cities in Rajasthan. Think cities like Udaipur, which boasts beautiful palaces, or Jaisalmer, with the lure of the sands of the Thar. Jodhpur is wonderfully blue, of course, the reason behind its blueness perhaps that the lime wash inhibits the growth of insects and termites. And it has its wonderful fort. So considering we were on a leisurely trip, we had booked two days here.

Our room, with bright pink and blue walls, is clean enough and while I take a shower, Doris heads out for a walk to get her bearings. But it is possibly just pure luck that she finds her way back, because each time we negotiate our way out of this tiny Mehron Ka Chowk, the square where our hotel is located, to go anywhere—whether it is Sardar Bazaar, the city’s main market, or the fort or the coffee shop by one of the magnificent gates that fringe the old city—we walk round and round through the maze of streets and side streets, go up and down slopes to ascertain our position with reference to the fort, and every single time return by a different route.

When we are both ready, we head out for the Clock Tower, a century-old landmark, to check out the streets radiating from it. The market is colourful and crowded, the lanes narrow. Two-wheelers honk incessantly and after a couple of hours of constantly jumping out of their way, and of the steady assault on the ears, we ask for directions—to the nearest beer shop. There is one on Nai Sarak, the new road, across from the bazaar gate that opens to a wide road lined with shops selling everything from teas to curry powders to spices. A bottle of beer each stashed in our backpacks, we head back for our hotel rooftop.

The man we had met in the morning is already there, drinking beer, and we exchange pleasantries. He’s been here since a week, but is still quaffing the beer provided by the hotel because he has not been able to bring himself to venture out to find anything better. We offer him some of ours and he asks for directions to the shop.

Bablu, a partner at the hotel, comes up and takes our dinner order, which the family that runs the hotel will prepare in their kitchen. The rooftop is an oasis of calm amidst the chaotic city where scooters and bikes weave around and kids trail you saying ‘hello, hello’. A bright pinpoint of light hangs in the sky over the subtly lit fort and we ask Bablu what it is. “A star,” he replies confidently. It looks too big and close to be a star, and sinks behind the fort after an hour. Which is when loud Bollywood music begins to thump out from across the town. We turn to look at him for an explanation. It is the wedding season, says Bablu, and the music is from a party. “They have party for one week,” he says. We retire soon after dinner, hoping the party will not go on till late. The plan is to head out to the fort early morning.

As we eat breakfast on the verandah the next day, a young girl, another guest, tells us she arrived the day before, went straight to the fort and is now leaving for Jaisalmer. Almost on cue, Bablu arrives and tells us he has made all the arrangements for her and offers to do the same for us.

The Clock Tower, a century-old landmark, is a popular tourist attraction
Image: Alexander Mazurkevich / Shutterstock.com

We want our bus plans to Jaisalmer to be flexible so we make excuses and decline. We quickly head out before he reappears and find our way to the fort, a 10-minute walk up the side of the mountain on a kaccha (dirt) path rather than the five-km long motorable road. The audio guides they hand us at the entrance are excellent and we go from one exhibit to the next as kids run around and several guides explain things to their groups. We look down beautiful jharokhas (enclosed overhanging balconies)—fascinated by the fact that no two are alike; also that they were crafted to provide a downward view, but not upward. This was so that women could look down unobserved—into the courtyards and the city beyond. Out at the southern edge of the fort, the temple of Chamunda Devi provides farther and bluer views.

When we return to our hotel, having lost our way in the maze again so that the 10-minute walk turned into a 45-minute one, we find Bablu waiting. “I go with you, show you city,” he says. “I take these girls yesterday. Behind fort. We walk eight kilometres. They so tired, I give massage. Eight hundred rupees an hour.” But we want to explore on our own, we tell him, and add laughing, “So that’s your modus operandi. Make people walk until they are tired, then offer massages.”

We are to leave the next day and he asks us our next destination. He can arrange for accommodation. Anywhere. Across the country. Doris asks him about Chennai, where she is to go after we finish with Rajasthan and Varanasi. “You go south, I give. You go Jaisalmer, I give. You go anywhere, I give good hotel,” he says, promising to give us some phone numbers later. “You run out of money anywhere in India, person will come in 30 minutes to give you money,” he adds. It is mildly reassuring that wherever you travel in India, Bablu will ensure you have a bed to sleep in.

We leave again, braving the chaos of the bazaar with its cornucopia of colours, smells and noise, politely referred to as “stimuli” by the man who didn’t know where to get the beer. When we return in the evening, we find he has actually gone out and found the liquor shop, and stocked up, too.

The ‘star’ is right where it was the previous day and under the surreal light of a green lamp on the rooftop, we sit and talk as it disappears again.

“It must be a satellite spying on the city,” says the man, a Canadian, who is in India, for the warmth, the weather and who knows why else. He is going to travel as long as his visa lets him, staying put at places with a good Wi-Fi connection so he can continue running his internet business.

Bablu joins us again. “I drink one beer, at 5 in the evening every day,” he says, sprawled in a chair between our tables. We ask what we should have for dinner. “Kair sangri khaya (have you eaten kair sangri)?” he asks. It is a vegetable that grows in the summer and is pickled and kept, he tells us. We ask for rotis to go with it. He continues sitting. The Canadian asks about his biryani. Bablu finally gets up and disappears downstairs.

We have been discussing going to Pushkar, where the largest camel and livestock fair is held every year, and Bablu, who has returned, tells us how some tourists bought a camel there, but didn’t know how to look after it. He is also trying to get Doris to take him back with her to Belgium. “I cook for you, I clean, do laundry, I do everything,” he says. “And we buy a camel and you look after it,” she says jokingly. “I camel!” he replies, as he takes calls on his phone, multi-tasking. “Girls, they call, recharge over, can you put 100 rupees,” he mutters, explaining the calls and the problems he faces. “But I calling, they give missed call, saying at night can talk, dad sleeping. So how money get over? After 500 rupees I say okay, bye bye.”

I ask him about Pakistan, about 250 km away, and the border. “Pakistan mein kya hai (what is in Pakistan?),” he says. His grandmother lived there and he has visited her about three times. “It’s good here,” he says. Then why go to Belgium? “Everything easy there. Here you want girlfriend, you need five things. First you need motorcycle, then hotels, clothes, phone, cosmetics. In abroad is easy.”

“Not really,” chips in the Canadian. “You need a 20,000 dollar car, good restaurants… if you want a girl…”

Turns out Bablu is married and has three kids. He doesn’t look over 27-28. He was married at 13, he says, and his eldest child is 10. He disappears again and brings us the spicy kair sangri. Today’s order, floating in oil, has been delivered quickly and we realise why. It is actually a pickle masquerading as a vegetable dish that has made its way from a jar to the bowl. “Is that why you recommended it?” I ask. “Of course,” he replies matter-of-factly.

He again offers to book our tickets to Jaisalmer and puts us in touch with a hotel. He also gives us the business card of a person who runs a desert safari. We have already booked a room but he insists his hotel will send us a rickshaw and we should at least go check it out.

The next morning we pay our bills and try to sneak away quietly but Bablu arrives and calls us a rickshaw, issues instructions to the driver. When we arrive at the bus stand, the driver buys us our bus tickets and makes a call. The bus number has been given to people in Jaisalmer, and our names. We appreciate his help, but feel that despite our resistance we have walked into Bablu’s web of hotels and tourism and will never be able to escape.

The bus is a sleeper and men in turbans and women in colourful saris, who look straight out of postcards and calendars, get in and out. The driver hurtles his way through the journey honking incessantly even as Bollywood music from the ’80s blares through the speakers. It is impossible to have any conversation so we look out of the window as the landscape turns increasingly sparse and desert-y.

Instead of the five-and-a-half hours it is scheduled to take, the bus rolls into the beautiful sandstone city half-an-hour early. A rickshaw from the hotel we have booked a room at is already waiting for us even as Yogi, with beautiful kohl-lined eyes, rides up on a motorcycle to receive us, to take over, perhaps, where Bablu left off.

We’ve given Bablu the slip, we say to each other smiling. But somehow, there is no joy in this small triumph and the smiles are half-hearted.

(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2017 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)