Images of The Orient Express faded quickly as the reality of 1-AC set in for Peter; there would be no turn down service, no fluffed pillows, no bedside lamp, chaise longue, or button-down starched white attendant. Instead he began a forensic examination of our compartment - running an imaginary white gloved finger along every seam and over each surface, his disdain immediate and obvious "...well of course they didn't finish the job properly!" and "...my pillow is just not soft enough, I am definitely going to get a headache". I thought about commenting on the size of his head but refrained.
I attempted to write some notes under the arc of weak light emitted from a single bare bulb on the wall and promptly fell asleep.
Happy-shiny Vikram stood smiling patiently on the platform - all teeth and oily hair - holding a big board with our names emblazoned on it, a beacon of certainty in the storm of colour, light, noise and movement that accompanies a train arrival in India. Barely a man, he was full of nervous energy and anxious to please, for he was our chauffeur / chaperone for the day. Loyal and trusted employee of Professor S. Bhandari - Dean of Jodhpur University, local luminary, master rock blaster and according to local legend "good with dynamite." We seemed to have all bases covered today.
Fortunately he was also on good terms with the Maharaja and we were honoured guests at the Ranbanka Palace (hotel) a beautiful pink stone Rajput castle cum stately home. Art Deco throughout, it oozed a bygone era with dark timber, black and white marble floors, cool mint green colours and hushed lighting - a welcome relief from the heat and intensity percolating outside; it was only 8.30am but already intensely hot.
Pictures of polo players - complete with jodhpurs of course - adorned the walls and upon enquiry we discovered they were family snaps of the Royal Family. Headed by his Highness Gaj Singh II this was allegedly the last remaining Royal Family in all of India. Formed at Independence in 1947, Rajasthan had once been a collection of fierce Rajput warrior states each with a Maharajah - most forming alliances with the invading Mughals from the North West for survival. Reined in by the British they had subsequently been made progressively less relevant by the faltering advances of modern India. A trio of brothers, the elder sat in residence in the stately Edwardian-Mughal splendour of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, directly opposite us on hectares of English gardens and manicured lawns. The other two brothers lived in the secluded wings of our hotel, and there was a melancholy end to the tale as our lovely hostess explained how the Maharajah's only son had fallen from a horse whilst playing polo and was now wheelchair-bound - paralysed and with no progeny.
Showered and shaved and wearing my best desert linens we retired to the verandah overlooking the leafy courtyard for a civilised breakfast, although Peter did fret terribly about the origins of his yoghurt. And the cleanliness theme continued thru breakfast as we reflected upon the challenges of co-habitation and personal hygiene. In hushed tones - like a semi-sober recovering alcoholic - I admitted to being a slothful recidivist...I left the conversation sensing that Peter regarded mess and disorder in much the same way Nature abhors a vacuum. I skipped ahead of him so that I could tidy our room and clean the bathroom before he arrived.
The attentive HS Vikram drove us up the dusty pink approaches hewn from bedrock as we hauled our way up to the base of the Mehrangarh Fort. Built upon a natural rock formation - the highest in all directions to the horizon - the fortress walls rose sheer towards the sky for hundreds of feet. Impregnable.
Atop one wall sat a Persian water wheel that once provided sustenance to the city's inhabitants. Protecting Rajput Maharajas and their families for centuries this fortress had never been breached not its inhabitants captured. Inside, a cobble stone medieval track wended its way up into the citadel; the dark right-angled corners cleverly designed to prevent charging elephants an architectural marvel for Peter. Inside was a labyrinthine collection of courtyards, corridors, state rooms and wonderful stone lattices - each unique, casting dappled light throughout. There were rooms for affairs of state, poetry, music, and of course the Harem. There were numerous exhibits showcasing court life including palanquins, art work, armoury, poetry and jewels, but my favourite was the Lady's gym kit and "boudoir box". Complete with exquisite lacquered dumbbells to "keep the muscles toned" it had a kit box to facilitate the 16 ritual stages of adornment. I listened over and over again to the audio guide as he described how the women would henna their hands and the soles of their feet, apply bees wax to redden their lips, coal (black) to accentuate the eyes, vermillion tikka, gold bracelets and rings (nose and toes), bejewelled amulets and fine chains around their hips and perfumed oil combed into their hair adorned with flowers and the softest silks...this heady stuff left Fifty Shades of Grey for dead.
But this was all very discrete and tasteful, highlighted by the state visit to England in 1925 where observing purdah the Maharani sent the press wild with just a bare ankle visible as she transferred from shrouded palanquin to curtained Rolls Royce...desperate to avoid any publication of such a delicate scene the Maharajah promptly bought every copy of the newspaper that day before making their way back to Rajasthan.
We took a very long lunch at the Maharaja's palace, now partly converted to a seven star resort hotel. Opulent was an understatement and I did feel for Peter as he strode into the grand entrance past the magnificent Rajasthani ceremonial guard, under grand domes, across the gilded marble mirrored halls in just camping pants and t-shirt; poor chap was completely under-dressed! But our money did the talking and we settled into a languid lunch as if we were having lunch at The Ritz or high tea at The Windsor. As the only customers (it was already mid afternoon) we were waited on by a crew of three Rajasthani waiter-wallahs dressed in royal tunics and vivid red turbans, each with long curling waxed moustaches. The head man, sensing our interest talked us through the family history and life in the Palace, although taking our measure he did caution that they only had six bottles of Bombay Gin remaining. "That will do just fine" we said as we surveyed the menu like judges on Master Chef: Royal Sherbet (rose and khuns), "Nagouri Bharwan" - scorched potatoes filled with nuts and khoya flavoured with local Nagouri chillies, and my favourite sounding main course: Farka Pudina and dessert of fried honeycomb on slightly broken wheat halva...I think we had ticked every box for Peter, clearly surpassing his low expectations of me and addressing his rather quixotic pre-lunchtime ultimatum of "I'll go anywhere as long as it is clean!"
We pottered about the adjacent museum and learnt (ironically) how the Maharajah had commissioned a London firm of architects for designing his Palace and how tragically after having all of the Art Deco furniture custom designed and hand made in England that just days from port near Mumbai the ship and all it's precious cargo had been lost at sea. Undeterred he had found a European dandy locally and had him do it all again thus creating the indigenous furniture industry. And the construction itself was a mammoth undertaking with 347 rooms it took over 14 years to build and it kept a massive workforce busy, kept and fed during a period of severe local famine.
Losing Peter - he had returned to the comforts of the hotel-wing - I strolled across the lawns to admire the Maharaja's collection of automobiles: all the way from a vintage Rolls Royce, some beautiful open top American tourers to a late model Mercedes, only to be trapped as a wicked sand storm descended on the place. The sky darkened, eddies of wind blew leaves in tight circles and massive gusts drove dust and debris into my eyes. Big blobs of rain fell from the sky, but it passed as quickly as it had come, clearing the air and lowering the temperature by at least 10 degrees.
Loyal HS Vikram had been waiting patiently for us all afternoon and now drove us back into town where we met Professor Bhandari and toured the local markets before a laser-focused Peter took no prisoners at the local handicraft shops. "I want something in yellow!" ... shop assistant fumbles around ... "I said yellow not orange, that is clearly not yellow!" ... "Why can't they have pictures on these packets!" And finally in exasperation "and why can't they organise these shelves...if this was my shop" and so on. Wonderful stuff. If they hated the British they now had good reason to feel the same about the Greeks.
After retreating to the calm and tranquility of Ranbanka Palace for some fried cottage cheese and two stiff G&Ts on the verandah we plunged into the chaos of the Railway station. Leaving HS Vikram with the biggest tip of his short life we narrowly avoided returning to Delhi as I stumbled onto the wrong train and had almost settled into my little dark cell (bunk) before Peter overheard someone talking about how we would be in Delhi in the morning...