In a corridor inside the heart of the palace stands our host, Maharaj Narendra Singh, the maharaja's father, clad in a black cotton jacket, starched white trousers and a matching tar-black moustache. The Maharaja himself, Padmanabh Singh, is 15 and away in an exclusive boarding school. Heir to the formerly independent Rajasthani city, he no longer rules his desert dominions from the City Palace, like his predecessors did until 1947 when India became independent.
Long gone are the days of the tiger hunts but the royal pedigree still turns heads in India. It's so important, in fact, that I have to be especially dolled up for the occasion. Off goes my streetsy-chic couture and on slips a gorgeous green silk sari that I have privately fitted in my lavish room at The Oberoi Rajvilas, with its lush 32-acre gardens where peacocks roam around. Good thing the sari is fitted for me, because I never would be able to figure out the knotty logistics of draping myself in it.
So wrapped in fine silk, a bindi — a dot of red placed between my brows, which hides the sixth chakra, the seat of concealed wisdom — off I go to hobnob with royalty amidst ornate mirror work, extravagant floral decorations, sumptuous carpets and screened balconies. The lone man in our group of writers has on a turban, a tickled look on his face.
Outside the Palace Walls
Just a couple of hours earlier, in the same city (but another world), I watched a cow chew a pile of pungent trash smack in the middle of the street. A deformed beggar parked on the pavement. A pair of emaciated-looking sadhus, wandering monks, chanted listlessly in a temple we visited atop a building. Lice-infested street children sat curbside.
But I wasn't there to see any of that. From the moment our plane touched down in Delhi and we quickly hid from midday heat into an air-conditioned van with ample space, bottled water and hand sanitizers passed around, I knew I'd get a one-sided look at India.
In place was a silent agreement I'd wear proverbial purple shades for the duration of the journey. I'd see the "Incredible India" touted by the country's tourism board. I'd gape at the country through a lens of luxury. These were the unwritten rules of the game.
But I cheated.
I stole small moments to take off my filtered glasses and, suddenly, I'd see the stark naked truth of India. One thing is to hear stories of how India assaults all your senses. Another is to have all your senses assaulted. I'd smell the stench of shit, see the ailing flesh of beggars, watch the disease-carrying flies on freshly fried samosas…
But I wasn't there to write about India's fabled filth and bleak social injustices. No investigative journalist on a mission to uncover truths hidden from the public eye, I was here to tell tales dressed in pink.
It is India's storied bling I'd report on.
That mission takes me to the top of an elephant named Rangmala in Dera Amer, a camp in the foothills of the Aravali Range just outside Jaipur, swinging an extra-long mallet at an extra-big ball, which I can hardly see under the hugeness of the slobbering mammoth who keeps on showering me in stinky elephant spit.
The mahout grabs my mallet, clearly annoyed at my ineptitude and determined to help me hit the ball, as my fellow team members cheer me on: "Go, Anja!" The first couple of times I try to be kind to the mahout and remove his helping hand, gently.
Next time my turn comes around and I try to catch sight of the ball, the mahout reaches for my mallet yet again.
My kindness then dissipates and I hiss at the mahout: "Can you please just let me do it myself?"
I suddenly feel horrible, like an unkind tourist. Perhaps it's all this royal treatment that gives me attitude, I comfort myself.
The next day it's back to the streets of Jaipur, my mind still on elephant polo. It's like an elephant in the room (pun intended). Except the small fraction of India's upper classes, money-wielding tourists and junket-taking writers, who else in the country would dish out thousands of dollars to hop atop the giant and swing a mallet at a rubber ball?
For the entire time, we are shuttled, chaperoned and sheltered from "real" India. We whizz past street scenes that back home would surely stop us in our tracks. Here, we just look away.
The only real-deal thrill comes while crossing a busy intersection in Jaipur one hot sunny afternoon. But then again, reality's relative on the subcontinent.
This thought plagued me as I traveled from north to south, a book shadowing my journey: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, a harsh but hilarious account of India's jarring social disparities as seen through the eyes of a village boy turned chauffeur turned murderer turned entrepreneur. Adiga writes, "India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness…"
Back stateside, everyone is eager to get my first impressions: "How was India?"
Since leaving her native Croatia in 1993, New York-based Anja Mutić aka EverTheNomad (www.everthenomad.com) has crisscrossed the globe on assignment. She has lived, worked and traveled on all the continents, except Antarctica. Anja has authored more than a dozen guidebooks and written articles for an array of print and online publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, Departures, National Geographic Traveler, BBC Travel and New York Magazine. She's currently working on a memoir about the recent journey through her lost country, Yugoslavia, which fell apart more than twenty years ago.
A Passage Back to India by Anne Cushman
Into the Heart of India's Punjab by Joel Carillet
Hell, Heaven, and Home in Kathmandu by Jeff Greenwald
Uses for Dirty Underwear by Edward Readicker-Henderson
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