Look at all the Fish!


Thankfully, given our excesses of the night before, the train didn’t pull into our next stop, Jaisalmer, until 9.30 in the morning. Unfortunately, this didn’t deter Nikesh from waking me at 6:30, but it did allow me the pleasure of taking my breakfast in bed and then going back to sleep.

When I next awoke, several hours later, I was very much refreshed and back in the land of the living. A warm shower and a pot of tea later, and I was ready to join the rest of my travelling companions on the platform.

“It’s hot,” said Mick. “It’s too dammed hot. I don’t like it.”

I resisted the temptation to point out that it is always hot in Rajasthan, and instead directed his attention to the ubiquitous welcoming committee.

“Look, they even have a couple of camels this time. Maybe it’s your lucky day. You’ve always wanted a threesome, and they have very pretty eyes.”

The curt reply told me all I needed to know about his thoughts on the subject. He even declined to have his Bindi refreshed.

Onboard the coach, our guide for the day introduced himself as the Mayor of Jaisalmer. I can’t remember his real name, probably Ravi, but for our purposes, I will refer to him as Mayor Pete.

“Jaisalmer is named in honour of Rawal Jaisal, who founded the town in 1156 CE,” Mayor Pete began.

“That’s wrong,” Mick whispered in my ear. “The Mughals didn’t come to Rajasthan until the 1600s.”

“Rawal was a ruler of the Bhatti people who came from Pakistan.”

“Wrong again,” Mick insisted on informing me. “Pakistan was not created until 1947 following partition.”

“Shhh!” hushed Sheila from the seat behind us. Mick looked a bit put-out but thereafter held his silence as Mayor Pete continued.

“Jaisalmer means Hill Fort, and it is known as “The Golden City” as many of the temples and palaces are built from the local yellow sandstone. The fort itself stands on a ridge above the town and is the site of seven finely sculptured Jain temples. If you are here at sunset, it is a magnificent spectacle as the buildings change from yellow to gold.”

“I myself am a Jain. Jainism is the oldest religion in the world, and we can trace our origins all the way back to the founder, Rishabhanatha, who lived millions of years ago and was over 1,000 ft tall. Rishabhanatha taught mankind to use fire and gave them the gift of knowledge.”

This time it was Ravi who vigorously shook his head from side to side, while Mick barely suppressed a snort. I was tempted to wind-up Mick with a “proof of aliens” joke but was distracted by thoughts of Tolkien, Morgoth, Sauron and the ancient mythology of Middle Earth. That got me thinking about China, which also called itself Middle Earth, The Wheel of Life, and similarities between origin mythologies around the world. I had just finished formulating a theory to explain the timescales when our coach pulled into the town.

Our first stop was the shore of the beautiful Gadisar Lake to view the nearby temples and museum. While Mayor Pete told us how this artificial lake was built by Rawal Jaisal to provide a constant water supply, Ravi was more interested in pointing out the schools of fish swimming close to the quays. I think he was already feeling hungry!

Next, Mayor Pete led us through the narrow ancient streets of the old town to the Haveli district. A Haveli is simply a large house occupied by a wealthy family, usually of the merchant class. In Jaisalmer, the larger ones are more like small palaces or museums and often open to the public.

While Mayor Pete led our party inside a particularly splendid one, Ravi went off to find a shop with a telephone. In India at that time, outside of the major cities, telecoms were almost non-existent, but every town had at least one public telephone. Ravi had now gone several days without being able to indulge his mobile phone addiction and, like ET, was desperate to “Phone Home,” for news.

While we waited in the town square for Ravi to return from his fix, we were treated to an ad hoc performance of local music by a group of small urchins on homemade Elektra instruments. An Elektra is just a wooden pole with a single string and a couple of frets. It was very amateurish, but still entertaining and the miniature buskers went away with a basket full of takings from the tourists. Tonight, they would eat.

A quick tour of the city and the fort later and it was back to the POW for lunch. As always, there was far too much food, but at least it was a buffet, so I was able to unobtrusively slip away for my preferred style of luncheon in the bar where Ravi and Mick joined me sometime later.

The schedule for the afternoon was a camel ride through the desert followed by an evening of cultural entertainment at a nomadic camp. I was already suffering from both the heat and the pre-cursors of a full-blown virus that would hit me later in the week, so didn’t fancy going. I turned to Ash, the bar manager.

“I am not going on the ride this evening Ajay. Will the bar be open?”

“Very sorry sir, but it will not. All the staff will be on the excursion.”

“Oh well. One night sober will be good for me.”

“No, no, sir. That must not be allowed. We will bring the bar to you.”

Just Good Friends

Before they left for their trip to the camp, I had Mick and Ravi pose beside the train in their garlands. Just for fun, I insisted they hold hands like the palace guards and skip along the length of the platform. We thought it was hilarious, but the locals must have thought they were crazy. The remnants of Mick’s yellow Bindi probably didn’t help.

After everyone had left, I returned to my cabin and lay down on the luxurious sofa to study the book on the Mughals that Mick had kindly, or, more likely, perversely, loaned me. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but I knew that Mick would insist on testing me later.

I had only just started when the familiar tap, tap, tapping alerted me to visitors. Puzzled as to who it could be, I opened the door and, Lo and Behold, a train of half a dozen porters had turned up carrying crates full of all manner of wines, spirits, and beers. They even brought buckets of ice and plenty of mixers. Ajay had certainly meant it when he said the bar would come to me!

Mick and Ravi arrived back at the POW at around 10.30 pm. They claimed that they wanted to show me the video of the camel ride and cultural evening. But I knew that all they really wanted was another drink and that I had the only open bar on the train.

I must admit, though, that the video was quite entertaining. The coach had taken them deep into the desert to meet a train of camels at what I suppose would be called an oasis. There they had mounted their beasts and been led on an uncomfortable hour-long ride across the dunes to a temporary camp.

I bet I get the lanky one

Judging from the video, they had very much enjoyed the cultural evening of dancing and traditional music, but they had enjoyed the food and drinks even more. Mick even got up to join in the dancing at one point. Ravi said that he would have gone up too, but the other guests on their table had left some food and he couldn’t let that go to waste.

As we savoured our nightcaps, we discussed the events of the day.

“What did you think of Mayor Pete,” asked Ravi.

“Ok, but he didn’t know his history,” responded Mick. “Mughals in India in the 12th Century, my arse.”

“Actually, he didn’t say they were. He just said that Rawal Jaisal was a Bhatti. They were here a long time before the Mughals.”

Mick pondered on this a moment, before going on.

“Ok, I will give you that, but what about saying they came from Pakistan? Pakistan did not exist before 1947 when the British partitioned British India between the Muslims in the North and the Hindus in the South. It was all down to that royal parasite, Mountbatten, in preparation for independence in 1948.”

“Really,” put in Ravi feigning interest while I made an excuse to top up our drinks.

“Yes, really, sunshine. He was meant to keep it all together but went against his instructions. Typical arrogant German!”

“I thought he was British.”

“Shows what you know. He was German like all the British Royal family. His grandmother was Queen Victoria, and his grandfather was Prince Albert, another Kraut.”

“The Queen’s not German,” tried Ravi.

“She’s not British either. Until 1917 the family name was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. They only changed it because of World War 1. It was a clear effort to mislead the public.”

Realising that Mick was about to embark on an anti-royal rant, I tried to change the subject.

“Well, if it wasn’t called Pakistan, what was it called?”

“Ah, that’s interesting. Pakistan is a wholly made-up name. It comes from Punjab, Afghani, Kashmir, Sind, and the ‘istan from Baluchistan. They were the Muslim provinces of pre-partition India that made up the new country.”

“But what about Bangladesh? That was part of Pakistan at partition, even if it is on the other side of the sub-continent? Why wasn’t the country called Pakibanistan,” I teased, knowing it would set him off?

As Mick launched into a long-winded diatribe about the Muslim majority areas of east Bengal having been named East Pakistan, I settled back into my comfy chair and switched off.

Eventually, the two of them left in the early hours, and as they wobbled down the corridor, I could still hear Mick’s voice lecturing Ravi about the history of his own native country. As I said, Mick always knows best, even when he doesn’t.

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