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Talking Location With author Justine Bothwick – Rajasthan

22nd July 2021

TalkingLocationWith…  Justine Bothwick, author of In the Mirror, A Peacock Danced – RAJASTHAN

We drove into Delhi on a Monday morning in rush-hour. Teeming, traffic-choked highways, ten lanes wide. Underpasses, overpasses, concrete above and below. People spitting, people peeing, and the incessant tooting of car horns. Where have we come? I thought, as I looked out of the car window at this urban nightmare. Is it too late to turn around and catch a flight back home in time for Christmas?

Justine Bothwick

Backstreets of the bazaar in Old Delhi

A thirty-minute snooze at the hotel, however, gave me back a bit of perspective, and anyway, we had a busy itinerary to get through. First stop, Old Delhi and the Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square) where we experienced our first ride in a tuk-tuk, which pitched in terrifying manner through the sea of assorted vehicles that surrounded us. The narrow backstreets of the bazaar needed to be negotiated on foot, however, and we followed our guide past battered shop signs, and bolts of sparkling fabric, enveloped in the smoke of roasting sweet potatoes and the musk of incense. After this assault on the senses, the gracious environment of the Government Buildings in New Delhi, where my grandmother worked during the war, provided a moment of contrast and relief.

Justine Bothwick

Udaipur City Palace

It was my grandmother’s story that had inspired both my book, In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced, and our visit to Rajasthan in December 2015. Frances Gardiner was born in Agra, India, in 1920, daughter of a railway worker. It was a privileged childhood, by all accounts, with a doting ayah, a host of servants around the house, and a boarding school in Simla. Later on, however, she bucked social expectations and married a musician from Goa. Unfortunately it was not a happy marriage, and when India declared independence in 1947, she left her husband and travelled with her three young sons across the globe to start a very different kind of life in Portsmouth.

Almost seventy years later, I made the trip back with my husband, excited to see the place where she had lived and where my father was born – the source of many childhood stories that had taken root in my imagination and grown and blossomed into a new narrative over time.

After our day of sightseeing in the capital city, the rivers of traffic on the road and never-ending stream of humanity on the pavements, the pollution so thick in the air you could taste it, became overwhelming. A jet-lagged fog of tiredness descended on us, along with the mists that hung perpetually over the city. I wouldn’t be sorry to leave.

Driving into Agra the next day, I felt less daunted, and less tired. A large white hog cantered out of a courtyard in front of us. Men drove teams of white donkeys, weaving through lines of honking tuk-tuks and horse drawn carts. Cows crossed the road in front of the car, and a great black bull stared thoughtfully at me as we passed. Ramshackle shops, all hanging electrical wires and beaten-up signs, lined the streets. Then, crossing the Yamuna river, a brilliant patchwork of cloth and silk, laid out to dry on the bare banks, shimmered in the light.

We stayed in The Coral – a family-run bed and breakfast with an enclosed garden where iridescent sunbirds performed acrobatics as they sipped nectar from the blooms of frangipani trees. It was a perfect place to sit with a coffee, and warm up in the midday sun before an afternoon of sightseeing.

My father had returned to India with my grandmother in the eighties. They too had stayed in Agra and gone to the Taj Mahal, as we did that afternoon. Nanny Frances had been less than overwhelmed on that visit, according to my father. ‘I used to wheel you around here in your pram every Sunday. We didn’t have to pay for a bloody ticket back then,’ she’d said. As we entered the gardens the building swam into view through the arch of the gate, then spread out in all its monumental delicacy. We walked besides the channels of water and lush lawns. Drawing closer, as the building’s intricate carvings and inlaid, semi-precious stones became clearer, I pictured my father, bawling in his pram, and my grandmother, a harassed young mother, oblivious to her magnificent surroundings, hoping her child would fall asleep and give her some peace.

Justine Bothwick

Our guide was keen to stick to his schedule – our next appointment was at the Red Fort. As we walked through the impressive entrance, the 16th Century building glowed in the late sun. After we had dutifully listened to the guide’s potted history, we escaped the crowds and explored the furthest courtyards. Here, the delicacy of the carving rendered stone into lace. The red sandstone, variegated and multi-hued, created depth and body. And here, I started to imagine a beginning, a young woman frustrated and alone, calling out for a lost mother. Here, there was the beginning of In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced.

With the image of that young woman still in my mind, we returned to the bed and breakfast. That evening we enjoyed a convivial dinner with the host family and a handful of other guests. There was delicious vegetarian food – sweet pumpkin curry, hot spicy lentils and freshly cooked rotis, all washed down with a glass of Kingfisher lager. After, we sat outside in the courtyard, around a fire pit, talking travels. But when the fire began to die, the cold began to bite, so we retreated to our room and huddled under blankets, and I discovered that happiness is a hot water bottle placed thoughtfully at the bottom of the bed.

Driving out of Agra the next day, the streets were busy with people herding oxen, and the surprising sight of the occasional cart pulled by an enormous camel. As I stared from the window, the Coral homestay started to grow and transform in my mind. It became a home for a father and a motherless daughter, with an ayah, a stable for a horse, and rooms for Cook and his family. My grandmother’s real house no longer exists – even the road of her original address has been obliterated from the map, but that didn’t stop me from building her a new one in my imagination. Now all she needed was a start to her adventures. And our next stop provided just the right inspiration.

We took a train from Bharatpur, and after several hours sitting next to a man who was not shy about farting freely and audibly for most of the journey, we eventually reached Sawai Madhopur, the stop for Ranthambore National Park. It was time for a tiger, or at least, that was what we hoped.

Our jeep picked us up from the beautiful Khem Villas camp and hotel at 6.45 am the next day. We were given thick blankets and – oh heaven, again – a hot water bottle to keep us warm. As we entered the park, langur monkeys draped themselves on the crumbling gates and surveyed us with a lazy gaze. After a short drive we arrived at a small lake where, on a rocky platform, lay a sleeping tigress, surrounded by the body parts of her kill. We were told she would lie there, digesting, for up to seven days. At first I was suspicious. This was too easy. Surely this was a huge stuffed toy, made to keep the tourists happy; then, when her ear twitched I thought, fine, it’s an animatronic stuffed toy. But when she yawned and stretched and rolled over, paws in the air, I was finally convinced. She was definitely real, and very close by.

Justine BothwickAs we drove away, I knew I would put this moment in the book, along with other hints and glints of the incredible wildlife we saw on our visit: sambar deer locking antlers in battle; a glorious golden woodpecker flashing overhead; a crocodile sliding into a waterhole at the camp; the bee eaters whirling above the lake like the children’s paper kites on Christmas day. The place, the people, the natural world and the constructed – the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fit together.

Four more (Peacock themed) Rajasthan highlights:

Jaipur City Palace

First the observatory, with its impressive mix of science and sculpture. An array of enormous instruments for measuring time, the position of the sun, and the stars – all in the name of astrology. The City Palace itself is rich with splendid details. The doors of the entertainment hall are exquisite: four designs for the four seasons. Best of all, of course, the peacock gate, representing autumn and dedicated to Vishnu.

Jodhpur Fort and Mehrangarh Museum

An incredible collection of artefacts housed in a series of breathtakingly decorative rooms and buildings. I especially liked the Maharaja’s romantic bedroom, where he would lie with the choice of his thirty official wives, underneath a carved wooden ceiling punctuated with coloured glass baubles. You can also see where the product of his romantic bedroom antics slept, in the collection of cradles, themselves works of art, many of them decorated with peacocks to rock the royal progeny to sleep.

Udaipur City Palace

Udaipur is the city of the ‘floating’ Taj lake palace, where the water changes from silver and blue to rose and lavender as Surya the sun god charts his way across the sky each day. The city palace houses a museum of old apartments of previous kings and rulers – the carvings and mirrorwork are a delight. Most impressive is Mor Chowk (peacock square) with its series of high-relief, coloured glass peacock mosaics, glittering in blue, green and gold.

Rural Rajasthan – Narlai village

Nestled in the Aravallis, India’s oldest ‘fold’ mountain range, Narlai has temples aplenty (over 300, I was told), a 1000-year-old step well, and stunning views from Narlai hill, which is topped with an enormous white elephant statue. Take a horse trek through the countryside on one of the special Marwari horses (identifiable by their ears, which curve inwards) or a jeep safari at sunrise in search of leopards. While you scan the huge boulders and rocks that dominate this landscape, you’ll also see peacocks everywhere – perched in trees, perched on top of temples, running down the road in front of you, or dancing with tail feathers spread like a bejewelled fan in the first rays of the sun.

(We visited Rajasthan long before the current pandemic. The most recent wave of Covid-19 in India has resulted in a huge, national catastrophe. You can help by donating to one of the many organisations supporting front line medical workers across the country. These include international charities such as UNICEF, Save the Children, and Oxfam India, and on-the-ground organisations such as Mumbai-based Making the Difference, Rapid Response, and the Indian Red Cross Society. I hope we will one day be able to return to this incredible country.)

Justine Bothwick

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