Udaipur: No Lake Palace (ix)

10/17/2008 05:12am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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I have now been two days in Udaipur and have not yet even seen the site that most people come for: the floating Lake Palace, although I did glimpse the lake. I have not had time, as I have been taken up by the urban speed of this city--or rather the people who have picked me up along the way.

I felt it immediately, the aggression, although it was more subtle than I had imagined from my previous trip to Rajasthan. No starving poor children begging in the streets; rather a sense of crafty business circulating the honking streets full of tourist shops. I negotiated in a hard way already from, the train station, for a dollar rickshaw ride, even though the aged driver, hobbling to lead me to his cab, was gentle and frail, and his ambition to beat the competition of a line of waiting rickshaws almost touching. He sweetly showed me his guestbook, where earlier tourists had signed with grateful elegies to his hospitality.

And then I walked up the street that evening, to the Lake Palace, with joyful anticipation to see the lights over the water.

Instead, I saw an eager-faced art dealer sitting at his desk, beyond the open door of his gallery, so I stepped inside.

A strange sight: the young man was sitting smiling, like a child, while an older heavy-set German in an adjoining room was standing before a huge empty canvas on an easel.

"What is it?" I asked the two silent men.

I peeked behind the canvas.


"I am thinking what to paint."

The young man said admiringly: "He paints all day. Come, look at his paintings! He is..." he added with a joyful smile. "My friend."

It turned out the two had spent much time together--both here in Udaipur, where the German visited from time to time--and also in Germany, where the two had hung out one summer.

The German's paintings were like him: grim, smeared with black and red blobs, and messy inchoate streaks of morbid blues.

I left them to take a walk to the palace, but was stopped by the crowds celebrating Krishna's birthday, throwing a man high in the air, where he would then land on the crowd's hands.

Back on the street, I found the German who smiled and said with a welcoming hand: "Come with us to have a drink."

Together we entered the gallery owner's home, a three story clean cheerful abode, where we passed his wife and mother eating on the floor from trays in the kitchen, and then a little boy playing with his bicycle, his eyes dark and gleaming, just like his father's.

Another man sat with his baby, and gave me the baby in my arms, as the mother came in, heavyset and languid in a soft white sari. She bowed with a big warm laugh, and smiled at me as the little baby began to cry.

Our host eagerly told us about his new home he was constructing, and spoke as well of his father, a famed jeweler in town, who had just passed away, who would be able to tell if silver was 9.4 or 9.3., to the exact degree.

"Most everything we sell to tourists is fake," the young man continued with a smile. "You can't trust anyone."

His mother came out into the living room and served as trays of the most delicious meal I have had in India: mixed vegetables, soft white sweet cakes, round coconut balls.

When we finished, the young man, with an eager leap, rose and said: "Let's go!" We were off to have a drink in a hotel.

His wife, of course, remained behind to do the dishes. I had not even spoken to her, as she stayed in the kitchen with the mother-in-law.
"Arranged marriage works wonderfully," said the young man, as we drank beers around a dilapidated pool (me sneaking into the dark water for three laps, while the waiters were away). "Of course not always. My brother, the one with the baby, divorced his first wife. After one month of marriage, he said he could not stand her. And she whispered that she could not stand my brother. And of course, from there, it just got worst."

But for him, the marriage had worked wonderfully.


Muslims and Hindus

The next morning, while en route to the Lake Palace, I ran into the brother who asked me where I had eaten the night before.

"Why with your mother, of course!" I said, surprised--and then asked him to accompany me to the pharmacist to see if the travel agent yesterday had cheated me. The man had offered to buy my bandages for my bruised feet, and returned with a bill of 500 rupees.

In this town, I was constantly aware that I could be cheated: a feeling I had not had anywhere else in India.

"Of course you were cheated," the art gallery owner had told me the night before. "That travel agent is a crook. He is the Mafioso of our town."

The German laughed. "I would like to shoot him in the head."

This young man took me on his motorbike and we sailed to a pharmacist, where I checked the prices. No I had not been cheated.

But the young man was not the brother, it turned out, but another man I had spoken to the evening before in the street, while trying to walk to the Lake Palace.

"I am off to a tailor now," said the man who was not the brother.

"Can I come?" I wanted to fix a suit I had made in Ponducherry, which was too large in the hip.

"Why not come to my shop instead? You can buy fabric and make new clothes."

The Monsoon hit then--as we flew off on his motorbike, pelted by rain, soaked for miles and miles, squinting our eyes at the lake, and I held on tight to his waist, for warmth, my dress wet to my skin, my legs bare as I hooked it up. In one blinding surge of rain, we took refuge at the side of the road by the bodies of two huge big camels, under whose legs it was perfectly dry.

At his shop, I wrapped looms of wool around my body, while this man's staff of fourteen watched and smiled--and the man changed his wet clothes in the back.

Then we sped off into the dry afternoon to have lunch.

At lunch, this new friend "Mike"--a "happy" man, with many friends in town (whom he waved to as we rode)--poured me a rum and coke, and explained he was not Muslim, but Hindu, and that it was indeed the Muslims of the town--of the world--who caused all the problems. Yes, the Muslims were behind the bombings. They were illiterate and mean-spirited and wanted the economy of India to go down.

His placid warm-hearted face turned into hatred and anger as I ate a plate of fried lentil-paste dumplings, prepared by his grinning best friend who opened the restaurant for us, as all others were closed at that hour.

"Don't get me speaking about Muslims," he said.

"So there must be much tension in this town!"

"Enormous! Every day. Every day. Those Muslims are everywhere. Of course, we are not friends with them."

He ordered me more chapathis.

I asked him now if he had children.

He abruptly turned to his best friend sitting at the next table to have a non sequitur conversation.

So he does not want to say, I thought.

Why came out eventually: he had two children, but in Australia. His ex-wife was an Australian, and he had impregnated her once, in her journey to Udaipur, and then when he went to visit his baby in Australia, he had impregnated her a second time.

He had never met his second daughter--now aged seven--until this past year.

"She's cute," he said with a jocular smile. "Looks like me."

He also explained he was happy with his business--a business that went down every time the bombings came and drove the tourists away--and did not want more to life, than this, a simple life, with many friends.

"No new wife?" I said.

He waved his hands. "No, no, why? I am fine as I am."

He had mentioned that he had never finished school, because he liked playing with his friends, and he had had no father, raised by a single mother.

I wondered if it occurred to him that his children also had no father.


Still No Lake Palace

I still have not seen the Lake Palace. Instead, I am sitting on the yellow divan on the balcony of my room in the 19th century palace cum hotel Niwas Ravanas, with absolute silence coming from the road behind the gate.

It is not the same in the day, when the street rushes up with a fight to sell.

"It's terrible what my city has become," said Panbam, my dinner-mate tonight, a man who had been away from Udaipur for 20 years, in France, before returning last month. "People lying constantly to make money. Not only to the tourists. We all lie to each other. It ends up that you do not know who to trust."

I asked then about the bombings--and whether it was true there was still tension between Muslims and Hindus in Rajasthan.

"Not at all," said Panjan's cousin, the restaurant owner, who was also a politician in the town. "Of course, we are not friends, but there is harmony."

Gandhi, however, was worthy of only the owner's disdain. "He had a choice to decide to tell the Muslims to go live in Pakistan, and instead he said those who wished could stay here."

"What--should Gandhi have kicked them out?"

"Yes," the owner said with a tight smile. "Then there wouldn't be the problems today. Look at Kashmir!"

The three of us were drinking scotches at midnight, on Maxim's terrace, overlooking the brightly lit temple, and the conversation now turned to love, both my companions noting that despite the honor of an Indian arranged marriage, after a time, men still had their fun.
"It must be no fun, on the other hand, to be an Indian woman," I noted. At every soiree with Indian men, it was too glaringly obvious that I was the only female in sight. The rest were not allowed out, it seemed, but imprisoned at home in the kitchen.

The cousin winked. "Perhaps so," he said.

The three of us chuckled and chinked glasses of scotch, and then walked out--the last in the restaurant, down the winding stairs to the street, before a family of cows languid in the moonlight.


City Palace and Krishna's Blue Ink

I will remember Udaipur as one constant motorcycle ride, going on for days. If it was not "Mike" picking me up and taking me around town--to his shop----or to stop and have sweet milk cakes at the local "sweet" shop, it was my new friend Martine's husband taking me to a jewelry shop or the gallery boy driving me to an ATM, or the stranger who just now who dropped me off at the Raj Palace restaurant. I was always slipping on and off a seat, pulling up my skirt, to the point that walking has become unfamiliar, as I expect at one point or another a bike to stop and put me on.

It was a contradictory pleasure. I liked that at no point between destination A or destination B would I ever feel alone, but rather "carried" by the city, between the arms of one stranger and another, but as a secret motive for this carriage might (or might not) be money, and as my purse kept emptying, today the sounds of men saying "what's your name" drove my headache to a pitch.

The climax came at the City Palace.

Before the tour even began, I escaped into the air-conditioned overpriced City Palace café, willing to pay l0 dollars for a sandwich, just to be alone, and then braved the visit to the huge five acre City Palace, the largest in Rajasthan, built in the 1600s by the first Maharaja, the last to leave only in l950 (the new democratic government of India allowed him to stay around a few extra years).

Overhearing a chipper guide explaining the dynasty of 20 kings who had built the palace, I asked the German couple he was guiding if they wouldn't mind if I listened along.

The German husband, taken aback, nodded, almost affably; his wife stared.

So I learned about the Maharajas with many wives, the blue tiles imported from England, and the special toilet designed for the last Maharaja who had a car accident and could not walk. Nevertheless, the combination of headache, special rooms for wives so they could not be seen but could look out (a reverse prison) and the jokes of the guide about how difficult wives were (I counted 7 jokes to this effect) made it a relief when the king's quarters came to an end.

As soon as I got out on the street, I ran as fast as I could past the peddlars, rickshaws and guides calling out to me, hugged a wall to avoid a bus with boys screaming out a window, and suddenly found my entire face wet.

I put my hands to my face. Cold liquid poured down: my hands were all blue, smeared in paint.

So was my neck, my clothes, my hair, my face.

The boys had dumped blue ink on me.

Yet as I happened to be before the Miniature School, some kind artists invited me in to use their bathroom to wash myself, offering me a scarf to cover my bare arms, and even showed me some mediocre miniatures (even these fakes)--and then of course the kindliest young man said, with a bow:

"Can I take you somewhere?"

It was an enjoyable moment--a theatrical climax to my mood that day--especially since I did not particularly mind the blue ink which destroyed my shirt, as I happened to be wearing the one item of clothes that I disliked.

My new friend, an amazing French hypnotist named Martine, was delighted for me, later when I told her the anecdote.

"Blue just like Krishna!" she exclaimed. "The god of love!"


Lake Palace

The boat ride on Lake Picchola--around the two islands, Jag Mandir and Jag Niwas (home to the floating Lake Palace)--contrasts dramatically with the ambience of Udaipur itself. Where Udaipur is busy with markets, merchants and shops, the lake is silent and pristine, the view wide on the water, as far as the five acres of City Palace flanking the eastern shore and the opulent sand-colored Oberai Hotel to the west.

I and my three boat-mates, a young American couple and a boy from Utrecht, landed at the Jag Mandir marble palace, the 17th century palace which once inspired Mughul emperor Shah Jahan to build the Taj Mahal and today, with its marble courtyard and elegant fountain, resembles an enormous outdoor bar patio, with men in costume waiting to sell, from a pavilion, expensive fruit drinks and cappuccino.

The marvel is not the palace, however (although the stone elephants guarding the palace are sublime), but the beautiful lady in the bathroom, sensuously dressed in purple sari, with deep black hair to her waist, who held a small rolled white towel between her hands and offered it to me as I washed my hands. When I left, she--with her intensely gentle gaze--offered me yet another towel.

"She was gorgeous," remarked a fellow boat-rider.


To be honest, the reason I had flown to Udaiper was not the lake palace at all. It was to meet Martine, a French hypnotist healer--a flurry of blonde hair, wide open arms and twitches in her smiling cheeks--a woman who promises to "clean" out the past, from ex-lovers to childhood thorns--in five days. An artist named Solange in Ponducherry had recommended her so highly, as the incredible woman who had inspired her to paint light-feathered birds, after two years of depression, that I thought why not fly up north.

Ironically, when I arrived, I learned that after our five (amazing!) days together (yes, she does clean up the past, her blonde hair pulled behind her, her legs crossed, full of theater as she coaches with her musical light voice: her talents extended far beyond the training in France, her meditation past with Krishnamurti), Martine herself was moving south to Ponducherry, from where I had originally come. First to enroll her son in a French high school, and second...... to get away from the aggression of Udaipur.