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A short story about Jaisalmer in India
Jo was having curry for breakfast again. It was the third day running. The naan bread squashed like dry dough between her fingertips as she pinched it together to pick up the peas and paneer cheese that squeaked a little between her teeth. Strangely, at home on Manchester’s curry mile everything except for the coconut korma was too spicy but here in India, she found her taste buds tantalised, but not eye-wateringly so. As she wiped up the curry from her plate with the bread, she took in the morning view. All around was the dawn-time glow of the Golden City, Jaisalmer of Rajasthan, the region spanning the top northwest tip of this huge, hot, upside-down pyramid.
“What are you plans for today then, love?” asked her dad, peeking over the pages of his newspaper. How could he read the newspaper in this low light, Jo wondered. And why would he want to? Just doom and more doom.
“Dunno,” shrugged Jo. She’d not been too pleased at being dragged along on another of her dad’s work trips. But she did find herself warming to this romantic Rajasthani realm of fairy-tale fortresses and mysterious mythologies.
“The haveli owner suggested his daughter would take you out for a tour of the town,” said her dad, trying to sound as if it was no big deal that Jo would have to spend yet another day with a total stranger. The haveli was where they were staying. She was eating her curry breakfast on its rectangular roof terrace with a view over the dusty square, sandstone buildings, solid sandcastles in a desert land. The burnt orange ball of blaze was rising on the horizon, its light spreading like butter across the buildings. The rays tickled the tips of the sandstone and made it glimmer a glittery gold. Jo guessed this was how Jaisalmer got its name as the golden city, continuing the colour theme alongside its neighbouring pink city of Jaipur and blue city of Jodhpur. They’d already visited both to inform her dad’s latest book on India’s history.
The haveli was their home for the week, and Jo thought it might be India’s answer to Narnia. She heaved open the heavy wooden, chocolate-block doors and stepped into her room. Her feet were shoeless again and the smooth, earthy floor reminded her she wasn’t in the snow-covered land of the Snow Queen. She was in an ancient palace of painted patterns on walls framing windows of wood without glass. Once the mansion of merchants and dating back centuries, the haveli hotel truly was a work of art. Whose art, Jo would never know but she was grateful to whomever had added the strawberry red swishes and powder blue flowers behind her bed. In each stone alcove, a small frame was fitted with a different God to greet each guest. Amongst all the faces, it was the brilliant blue face of Krishna that spoke to her most. Said to be the eighth avatar of Vishnu, Krishna appeared playful and child-like. The God of compassion, love and protection, his life was taken by a hunter’s arrow to the foot, his own Achille’s heel. Dripping in gold, bejewelled bands around arms and a carefully crafted crown in black diamond hair, Krishna’s dark opal eyes were on Jo as his fingers bent round the bansuri, a fine, thin flute. Jo imagined the music, the bhangra folklore beats she’d heard bouncing out of taxis. Every sound, smell and image was transportive, taking her deep into the pages of a Passage to India, lost in the lines of an exotic, elephant-filled, diamond drop land of maharajas, mangoes and masala.
She was brushing her hair with eyes on the carved elephant in the corner of the room when a knock came on her door.
“Hello, pleased to meet you,” said a girl, holding out her hand to shake Jo’s with the usual Indian formality she’d come to expect. “I’m Ravi,” she said. When Jo didn’t respond Ravi thought she’d better explain. “The hotel owner’s daughter, madam. Your dad said you’d like to take a tour?” Jo’s hesitation wasn’t through not knowing who the girl was. It was what the girl was wearing on her feet that had Jo distracted. There before her was a beautiful Indian princess, fit for this fairy-tale land. Her brown-black hair fell down to her hips where her deep pink saree circled her body. Henna curled round her hands like painted purple lace. A ruby-red bindi balanced between her deep brown eyes and a tiny sparkle pierced her nose. She was every bit a perfect picture for the haveli’s walls. Except for her feet. Protruding from the soft saree swirls were two big, black boots. The laces were strangling her tiny ankles. Ravi noticed where Jo’s eyes were fixed.
“Oh, these!” she said, pointing to her boots. “They’re for the bike,” she explained. “Come on, you’ll see!”
Jo hurried behind the black-booted pink princess as she moved throughout the haveli’s halls, down through its cool courtyards and out into the street. As soon as the girls emerged from the building, the heat hit them in the face with a force Jo felt sure she’d never get used to. Sweat beads began to build instantly on her forehead, clinging to her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.
Jo wondered where they were going but she soon received her answer as Ravi stopped to lift up some shutters on an old shop front. She lifted it just high enough for the two girls to shuffle underneath. In the dusty dark, Jo could make out a mechanic’s workshop. Every corner was piled high with metal pieces, paint pots overflowing with nuts and bolts, old engines lying part dissected on tables and bike bits buried in boxes. When Jo was told she was getting a tour of the town, she had to admit, this was not quite what she’d expected.
“We just need to get my bike,” Ravi explained. In the far corner, she pulled at a dust sheet in a magician-like way to reveal a contraption the likes of which Jo had never seen before. It was a motorbike but on the back was a huge, glass-like panel. “It’s solar-powered,” explained Ravi. “I’m not like those other idiots,” she explained, waving her arms and gesturing towards the street, her words coated with contempt for their carelessness. “Chugging through the streets, pouring out their pollution. It’ll be liked Delhi before we know it. One big smoke cloud. You can’t even see the sun there!”
Ravi was right. Jo had noticed that in Delhi. The air was choked and she’d always felt relief to return to the hotel to breathe again. She moved over to the bike to get a closer look through the gloom. “This is amazing,” she said, truly impressed by the engineering of the bike before her, and what it could mean for the planet if every bike looked like this one. “Where did you get it?”
“I made it,” shrugged Ravi. “I like to tinker around, you know. Use things nobody else has a use for.” Well, Jo had heard they were resourceful here but this was something else. Ravi handed Jo a helmet and asked, “Shall we go then?”
Next thing she knew, they were zigzagging through inhabitants of a jostling Jaisalmer. The haveli was forged into the fort, built by Raja Rawal Jaisal in 1156 from whom the town had taken its name. The dry mud-like maze of crumbly oatmeal-coloured walls were high enough to leave the streets looking like shadowy, labyrinthine lanes. No sundrops were squeezing through to the sand on those floors. Each blind corner turned revealed another bookish surprise, from giddy goats headbutting their horns to camels carrying loads that didn’t look so light. Monkeys swung tip to tail in a chain around the walls, waiting to whip up another prize from the next unsuspecting westerner. Back home, vehicles stopped for lollipop ladies and zebra-less zebra crossings. Here, they had to halt to let an enormous elephant plod past, its eyes shadowed with pink painted flowers. Under the ancient archway the bike bustled into the bazaar, an assault on the senses in every way. Rainbow sarees danced in the foreground, green, blue, yellow, pink and purple with sandaled feet, henna hands and long hair wrapped in plaits. Sacks of spices slumped against stalls, pouring out their precious powders of red, black, orange and brown. The smell of turmeric, cumin and cardamom mixed like magic in the air and with the whip of an invisible wand, the aromas arrived all at once. Jo couldn’t understand the rapid rhythms coming from the mouths on the market but she assumed they were haggling, rupees rotating like Russian roulette between fingertips. Her ears, eyes and nose were thrust full of sounds, sights and smells as their careful carriage ambled onwards.
Ravi’s bike didn’t move like other motorbikes. It was nowhere near as fast. But it sure did feel good not to be spewing out smoke all over this spectacular scene. Jo assumed they’d be headed for Gadisar Lake. The reservoir, created the same time as the fort, was one of the tourist hotspots, with cameras clicking thousands of photos every year, capturing the mirrored mirage in the middle of the Thar desert. Jo had read it was where the birds bathed before returning to decorate the dome of the monument mid-water. Boats bobbed while tourists smiled for selfies. Sanskrit inscribed shrines surrounded the shores as the water was seen as a gift from the Gods. But the girls were not going in the direction of the lake. Instead, the fort was falling into the background as they headed out, into the vast sea of sand dunes. After the frantic furore and frenzy of the thriving fort, the desert was silent and static. Just sand as far as the eye could see. Jo imagined the bike as a boat, a tiny speck in a never-ending wash of waves. Sea or sand – the sensation was the same. A certain feeling of freedom wrapped up in a thin layer of fear. Where were they going?
Not another being was in sight as the bike rumbled onwards, driving deeper into the desert and further and further from the fort and civilisation. Jo clung tightly to Ravi as slowly, the outline of a building began to appear in the haze. It was like she’d seen in the movies, where the characters go mad, imagining an oasis in the depths of the desert. Seeing the palm trees swaying in the breeze as the picture ripples in the roaring heat and sweat drops drip from the person’s forehead. Jo was that character. Was she imagining the picture before her? Was it wishful thinking to relieve her from the monotony and motionlessness of the sands? She was reassured that she hadn’t lost her mind when Ravi finally brought the bike to a stop and declared they’d arrived at their destination.
“This for me is the real jewel of Jaisalmer,” stated Ravi, motioning towards the building breaking up the brushed sand backdrop. There was nobody else there, which felt worryingly weird in a country with a population of 1.38 billion. There was silence except for a delicate desert breeze that made Jo feel slightly uneasy. “All the westerners flock to that lake but this is the real man-made marvel,” announced Ravi. She was referring to the Jain Temple that seemed to have sprung from the sand in front of them. It was set against a rugged hillside with sporadic spots of green grass that had clearly been beaten and mostly swallowed by the sand. The temple had its own little lake and tiny turrets, red-striped and circus-like. The entrance way was imposing and the detail of the images etched into the stone left Jo wondering whether her eyes could ever possibly take it all in. Every centimetre revealed a different picture, pattern or portrait, crafted with such careful care and attention. Jo questioned how such a wealth of delicate detail was even possible. The girls left their shoes at the entrance, black boots beside tired trainers. The cold stone floors of the temple were for bare feet only.
Inside was like treasure chest inside treasure chest, a Russian doll of rooms within rooms. Scratched into stone were hundreds of heads of Gods, entangled in endless arms and legs lined up in rows around cavernous corridors punctuated by light let in through perfectly precise petals of flowers carved into wooden walls. A crowned crocodile, or was it an elephant, poked out its head from the pillar, enticing Jo to put her fingers between its teeth. The temple was silently alive with the skills of its sculptors, talents long since returned to the sand and locked into the souls of their owners.
After the temple, Ravi spent the rest of the day showing Jo her very own personalised parade of the paradise she got to call home. She took Jo to the school where she often went during breaktimes to share with the girls snippets of her engineering secrets. They ate a cheap but luxurious lunch in a restaurant inside the fort’s walls that was hidden from the everyday eye. There she tasted the most magnificent mango lassi and finished with masala chai that melted in her mouth like molten gold. Ravi handed Jo the motorbike keys and let her try her own hand at the handlebars. Jo felt honoured, happy but a little hesitant as she kangarooed the contraption over the sand mounds. In innocent chit-chat they discovered their shared fears for the planet. They were both activists, angels hoping to help in this age of mass destruction. They both had boyish nicknames, Jo short for Joanna and Ravi short for Raveena, meaning the beauty of the sun in Hindi. They both loved listening to rock music and dancing until they dropped. And when time allowed, they went on adventures through words on pages, taking trips to other places through footsteps made only in their minds.
After a dizzying day of discovery, laughter, adventure and mysteries unravelled of this magical desert land, the girls stopped to drink in the dusk from a sandstone ledge overlooking the fort. The saffron sun was slipping low in the sky, and Jo wished she could capture the picture like the multi-coloured sand paintings piled into bottles and sold to tourists. Ravi’s grand tour had been a day to remember and Jo decided she’d need to treasure these moments more that her dad had helped to happen. Two girls, separated by continents and cultures had struck up a friendship Jo felt would last long after she left from that place. Ravi’s smile shone with the warmth and wealth of her great, golden city and Jo knew she’d found the real jewel of Jaisalmer. She was sitting right beside her.
The description of Jaisalmer was inspired by a trip I took with my best friend in 2007. India was a shock in every way, and to this day I say that it is both the worst and the best place I have ever been. I dream of returning one day. Here are some of the photos from our trip and from inside the haveli - hopefully you can recognise some of the things I described.