The grand City Palace stands resplendent at the center of Jaipur’s historical quarter behind striking walls and seven towering gateways. Outside of these illustrious fortifications, modern development sprawls out in every direction as more and more people move from the surrounding areas in search of working opportunities and a supposed “better life”. The grass, however, isn’t always greener, as I would soon find out.
Having arrived in the bustling city after sundown, I managed to find a relatively cheap place to stay for 300 rupees (about £3.50 or $5.50 USD) a night. With a double bed, private bathroom and central location, it was a steal for the price and although I could have found cheaper (you can always find cheaper in India) – the added comfort was worth the extra cash. I’d spent the previous day gazing upon the majestic white spires of the Taj Mahal and after a laborious 150 mile trip from Agra, a good night’s sleep was needed. Awaking the next morning refreshed, I caught a motorized rickshaw into town and decided to start my day exploring the park just south of the city palace.
Skirting the edge of the impressive Central Museum, I found myself walking in the grassy parklands of the Ram Niwas Gardens. Strolling across a large sun-scorched field, I was approached by a group of kids asking if I would like to join them in their cricket game. The sight of a pale-skinned Brit wanting to get involved was a source of great amusement for the group of eight, and they happily gave me a bat. The next half hour was spent being bowled to by the group whilst I tried (and mostly failed) to hit the well-worn balls as far as possible. By this time, the sun had assumed a powerful position in the blue sky above and I didn’t last long under its fearsome glare, deciding to retreat to the shade of the markets, leaving the young chaps to their game.
There had clearly been some recent celebrations in the old city, as silver tinsel had been hung above the streets in a latticed framework. These patterns caught the sun’s rays to cast rectangular shadows on the dusty tarmac below, mirroring the geometrically precise grid-plan of streets that connect the Pink City together. I walked along the avenues, occasionally cutting through various bazaars until I was stopped outside one of the markets by a young lad who introduced himself as Rabi. After running through the regulatory, ‘What is your name...Where are you from?’ questioning that all foreigners are subject to, the conversation shifted to Jaipur.
“What are you doing today?” asked the inquisitive young fellow. “Do you enjoy your time in my city?”
“Yes! It’s very beautiful thank you,” was my guarded reply. “I’ve been enjoying a walk, but I need to head back to my hostel now. It was nice to meet you Rabi.” I succumbed to the sad, but often necessary, Western philosophy that talking to all strangers should be avoided.
“Well then,” said Rabi, ignoring my transparent ruse. “Will you join me for a cup of chai then? I know of a good chai wallah whose stand is just around the corner. You haven’t tasted chai until you’ve tasted Jaipur chai, Mr. Alex!”
Living in the Western world, it is deemed rather odd to approach a total stranger in the street and strike up a conversation but the more time I spent in India, the more I realized how much curiosity dictates everyday social interactions, especially when strange red-headed foreigners like myself are involved. Making a quick on-the-spot judgment call, I decided to join him for a drink, and I'm grateful I did because the rest of that afternoon led to one of the most amazing experiences of the entire eight-month trip. And it happened on the sixth day!
Sat down at the nearby chai stall sipping cups of the sweet tea, I soon learned that my newly acquired friend was studying technical engineering at Jaipur University. It was a Sunday, however, which meant he had a day off from his studies. Rabi told me that in addition to attending university, he made frequent visits to the slums just outside of town to play music with the kids and that he’d been heading there when he came across me.
As the conversation progressed, I started to warm up to Rabi as I told him more about the trip and my life back in England. To my total surprise, as if he had been assessing me during our conversation, I was suddenly asked to tag along with him on his music trip to the slums which I subsequently accepted, seeing a wonderful opportunity before me. In hindsight, I may have been a bit foolish to be so trusting of a complete stranger but I had a good feeling about Rabi and decided to take a measured step into the unknown. Naive maybe, but by the end of my trip, I realized that these leaps of faith offer up the best experiences and this was certainly the case that day.
We drained the last measures of sweet masala chai from our cracked porcelain cups and headed onto a main road in search of a rickshaw that would ferry us out of the city. Hopping into the back of one of the iconic three-wheeled taxis, we were soon bustling out of the city at breakneck speed. With the warm breeze whipping through the open-sided carriage, potholed tarmac roads gradually gave way to dusty pathways as we ventured into the Jaipur slums.
My arrival in the slums seemed to cause quite a stir as within five minutes of walking through the winding alleyways, I had a trail of about 15-20 kids following me. In a moment of sensory overload, tiny hands grabbed my shirt and shorts, while excited shouting filled the air and all I could do was let the river of children carry me further into the unknown.
When I arrived in India, I had been shocked by some of the sights I came across on the streets of Delhi, however the things I saw in those slums that day will stay with me forever. On both sides of the uneven stony path, dilapidated huts supporting flimsy corrugated-iron roofs stood side by side, like sardines packed into a giant aluminum can. Trying to take it all in, pigs scuttled between my legs as we passed donkeys hitched to wooden posts and rusted metal gates that connected many other pathways to the central highway I was careering down.
From dark doorways, curious eyes stared out from the shadows as the procession passed on by.
“I’m not so sure about this Rabi. Where are we going?” I said, looking towards the only recognizable face in the crowd. A seed of doubt had been planted in my brain and for the first time since meeting my new acquaintance, I felt nervous about the position I had knowingly put myself in.
“Do not worry Mr. Alex,” was Rabi’s confident reply. “We are nearly there!”
Stopping the procession briefly, my teenage guide drew my attention to a big gap between two shacks which had the appearance of a landfill site. Dotting the mountain of rubbish, I could see little kids, who could not have been older than five or six, clambering to its summit collecting plastic bottles in large sacks while pigs foraged for food at its base.
“The community here wants to remove this dirt and build a school for the children!” Rabi informed me. “But we must raise funds before that can be possible. We want to teach the kids English, math, and other basic lessons. Education is important.”
I had told him earlier over our cups of chai that I had studied English Literature at University and he joked that when the school was built, I should come back to be the professor of English.
After the ‘lesson’, Rabi took me to meet a friend of his who actually lived in the slums. Dragging myself away from the children - who objected strongly to my departure - we took a few turns in the labyrinth of alleyways until reaching the house of the Puppet Master (A.K.A. Vijay). This amazing character had done a great deal of traveling with his puppets and had visited many festivals around India, proudly displaying them wherever he went. Sitting down on the floor of his living room, which also served as a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, numerous wooden dolls, some incredibly complex in their design, were suspended from nails that had been driven into the walls of the hut.
Being kindly offered some roti (a type of naan bread) with various accompaniments, this eccentric puppet man and his wife welcomed me into their home and treated their English guest with a most generous hospitality. There was, however, a rather sinister moment when Rabi left to go outside and Vijay leaned over to me.
“Mr. Alex, Rabi is a bad man,” Vijay whispered. “Do not trust him; he is wanting to hurt you.” Before sitting back down, letting his words fulfill their ominous inflection in the silence that followed.
A moment later Rabi came back in and Vijay looked over with an expression so stern; it is forever seared into my memory. Sat in the middle of a potentially dangerous predicament, amidst the maze of the Jaipur slums with no obvious escape route, my nerves surged up as a rip current of dread pulled me in, like a swimmer who suddenly realizes he has been dragged too far from the shore. Rather disconcertingly, Rabi then came back in before departing as quickly as he had entered.
“Vijay, what are you saying to me?” I asked, my voice cracking. “Rabi seems like a really nice guy, what is happening here?”
The Puppet Master merely stared back at me revealing nothing in his expressionless eyes. Floundering in uncertainty, terrible thoughts raced through my head as I cursed my foolishness for putting myself in this position. As Rabi re-entered the hut, however, the disturbing grimace broke into a magnificent smile which illuminated the darkness that had fallen upon the hut. They both laughed at each other leaving me in a state of total confusion as I tried to figure out what my next move would be.
Vijay acknowledged the younger man with a nod, walked over and gave me a firm hug. “We have just tested you Mr. Alex,” he said, leaning back but retaining the embrace. “You have passed, you are a good man and you are welcome in my home!”
It then dawned on me that a rather rudimentary test had been conducted to see what kind of person I was, whether I was worthy of their trust, and thankfully I passed because I had not insulted Rabi behind his back. In their eyes, I too was a stranger of course, and this had been their simplistic but effective way of gauging my character. Having ‘proved’ myself, everyone became much friendlier as we were joined by more of Vijay’s friends who brandished a box of beers and a small bottle of whiskey. I was treated to a puppet show by some of Vijay’s children and enjoyed learning about life in the slums while the Puppet Master gazed upon the group as he played his accordion in the corner.
I had no idea what time it was at this point, lost in time and space, but a few hours must have passed by the time I bid farewell to Rabi and Vijay, intoxicated by both the alcohol and the experience. As the sun painted its final strokes across the early evening sky, I left the Jaipur slums in a disconnected daze, my head spinning from the dream I had walked through all afternoon.
(Main photo by Trey Ratcliff)
Alex Saunders is an English Literature graduate who took off to see the world. After three continents, twelve countries, eighty six blog posts and two hundred and forty seven days of traveling through sun-scorched deserts, humid jungles, squalid slums and windswept valleys on a variety of buses, bikes, cars, trains and planes, I find myself back home in the UK, looking to the future but missing the road. http://alexsaunderswriting.blogspot.co.uk