Local artist Shastri Maharaj has been painting for over 30 years. In 2011 he received an orientation grant from the Indian Government which enabled him to experience the life, culture and history of India first hand. The following is an account of his experiences and perceptions based upon his travels through parts of India over the three-month period, October 20, 2011 to January 19, 2012. Part one of this article appeared in the Sunday Express (Sunday Mix, pages 1 and 3) on May 27.
The Train – Delhi to Jaipur
The rush to get into the train was a mind blower. I was starting to freak and panic. There was no way I could handle that pushing and tugging in and out at the same time and with two pieces of luggage. It was a mad rush, an ocean of people. I was too old for that.. The coach I had to board was A1 and none of the coaches were written A1, only S1, S2 ..
My determination to board had me doing the maths. Walking away from the S1...I saw less people entering the train and then I saw B on the coach. Yes, A was the next coach. Quickly, like an athlete I, agilely climbed onto the steps of the train into the A1 compartment and found my seat 33 LB. Yes, I kept checking my ticket to validate that I was in the right seat.
It was a two-tier compartment with a glass window on one side. There were double-decker bunk beds on either side that were perpendicular to the window . Number 33 was one of the lower bunks. I could not have gotten a more comfortable and commanding view from the train . The other side of the aisle also had a double-decker bunk with a glass window at the side of the lower bunk bed. This bunk was parallel to the side of the train. All the beds were covered in red-leather upholstery. On each bed was a heavy, woollen, red blanket
In no time at all I was settled into my own bunk. Knapsack and small suitcase were easily tucked away under the bunk. Slowly, they came, the passengers, in groups, filling the two lower bunks seemingly hesitant to venture to the upper three bunks. They were a family consisting of grand parents, parents and two toddlers. The toddlers were the centre of attention for the duration of the entire trip. Once comfortably settled in, the gang brought out the food.
The grandparents had to be in their seventies. The woman must have been quite beautiful in her younger days. Her face was well proportioned: small nose, very fair and incredibly wrinkled. She had golden-coloured green eyes. Her clothing was distinctly ethnic and she laughed and smiled a lot. Her husband was tall with a large paunch, balding short, grey hair, fair as well. He too had that kind of coloured eyes. He reminded me of a relative I know in Felicity, Ramesh. His clothing consisted of a white kurtah outfit and a sleeveless grey jacket. There was an aura of contentment and ease which I could discern in the old man. He too smiled a lot. His movements were slow, but there was no slumbering; he walked erect with his head held high. He sat cross-legged throughout most of the journey.
The patter, chatter and the noise brought about by the antics of the young tots reminded me of how it would have been when I was a toddler. Spending many a time at my nanny and nanna's house in Fyzabad came to mind. They probably kept plodding me along for amusement. Show nanna, do this, jump, sing. It was precious, to be in the company of strangers who did not let my presence in any way deter their activities on the train. When it was necessary, one or two persons would sit on my bunk. There never was the notion of manners or etiquette. I assume it was an Indian thing, a natural thing to function in the way they did in such quarters. There seemed to be an understanding and a taking for granted that intrusion into ones space was acceptable as long as you were not personal.
This encounter definitely was an exercise in tolerance but more so one of discovering the what, the extent by which I questioned whether my space, my bunker for the paid ride signified? It was indeed awkward. I did not have a previous social register as frame of reference. The experience on the train was a first time. Such intimacy was new to me and it was operating on the novel.
Surprisingly, Jaipur's railway station appeared as busy as the one in Delhi. It was 9.30 in the night and there were a lot of people moving to and fro, some were sleeping, huddled together covered with blankets. Outside the station was a flurry of rickshaws with a swarm of drivers approaching me for the ride to the hotel Satkar. The bidding started at 100r and ended up at 30r to the hotel.
The hotel was unassuming, off the main thoroughfare. It was a small, compact four-storey building consisting of a clever use of space. The receptionist Kapil Sharma was also the owner. There was a sign on the outside wall with his name indicating that he was an advocate of the court. Kapil was curious to meet this Mr Shastri.
Shastri is a title associated with academia. My entire name he said, was a classic name, it was a name of the past. It would be difficult to find someone in India at this time with such a name. I took the liberty to inform him that I was a Bramhin either by birth or boat.
The story is that the indentured labourers came to Trinidad from Bihar India to work the sugar plantations seeking a better life. A new life meant, a new start with possibly a new name. Of course, it was the arduous task for the white Englishman to translate or understand the Hindustani/ Bhojpuri that was spoken for purposes of identification. Many a name was misinterpreted, misspelt and distorted to sound less Indian.
The room was tiny, maybe ten feet by ten feet. There was a small bathroom with toilet, sink and a shower with hot water. On top of a three-foot tall wooden cabinet was a small television with cable connection. Two separate outlets for charging electronic items were positioned on opposite walls. The king-sized bed was spread out under a ceiling fan. There were no windows. A small table, wall mirror, a clothes hanger, wardrobe and a chair completed my royal suite.
A month in Delhi did not prepare me for what I experienced while travelling by auto rickshaw through Old Jaipur, the pink city. Traffic congestion, numerous lanes with anything that could move going literally in all directions were rampant from street to street to traffic islands. There was noise, horn blowing, sirens, roaring engine motors, bicycles, endless pedestrians, cows, water buffaloes, camels, dogs and never ending miles of pink painted shops. Vehicles crammed with people one on top of the other, three passengers to one motor bike. I made a good choice to hire a rickshaw for the day. Going it alone would have been a nightmare. It would have taken way too long by foot or bus to get from one place to another. After all, I was only spending one day and two nights in Jaipur. It was said that the Rajah of Jaipur in earlier times liked pink.
Nothing that I have seen or experienced in my limited travels have ever come close to what I experienced at the Amber Fort. It was simply amazing to realise that a wall traversing up and across hilltops was built around this majestic fort that towered into the heavens. The fort was characterised by typical classical Indian architecture. Domes and arches were very much part of the structures.
The commanding view of the valley below that unfolded with each ascending step generated the concept of power, authority and control that provided the military advantage in times of war.. It would be very easy to imagine the fortification that was possible in the earlier times at this fort. It was clear, the wide thick walls were built for defense Almost at any given wall were gun windows and vantage points. Even the moat that surrounded the main entrance with its impressive watery reflection of the fort was clearly a defined and useful impediment to be used to the advantage of the fort people.
Of course, one could not help but notice the multitude of visitors to the fort and the bombardment of hucksters that waited at every given opportunity to pedal their merchandise. India in my book gets a hundred percent for exploiting the visitor by maximising and monopolising on the momentum generated by such grandeur and spectacle. Indeed and proudly so, India has seen it fit to celebrate and showcase with dignity its rich and lavish history.
Article continues on Tuesday