Bundi was where the difficulty of understanding India truly dawned on me.
I’d arrived late at night on a train from Udaipur. The station was miles from town, too far to walk in the dark. Rickshaw drivers swarmed me as I left the train, all eager to secure my business. After negotiating hard, I thought I’d done pretty well. Later I discovered that I’d paid ten times the local price.
The rickshaw dropped me near my guesthouse, on a dusty street devoid of people but full of life. Two cows slept on the road, beside piles of trash that were being devoured by goats. Huddling in a doorway was a dog with a litter of puppies, the newborns sucking the life from their skinny mother.
The room I’d booked was in an old haveli, an ornate Indian townhouse. The exterior was yellow stone, and I entered through a wooden gate which opened onto a central courtyard. A spiral staircase took me to the second floor, where a narrow corridor led to my room. In the morning I woke and looked out the twin windows at Bundi’s lake. Not bad for $4 a night.
I couldn’t resist going down to the lake. From afar it looked beautiful, but up close the water was a putrid green. Layers of waste floated on the surface, looking a submerged brain. It was revolting, yet nobody seemed to care.
Least of all were the teenage boys who approached me and wanted their photos taken. Desperately. After taking twenty pictures, I’d been forced to say, “enough!” as one of them started unbuttoning his shirt.
I wasn’t that sort of photographer, plus I was more interested in Bundi Palace than doing an unpaid modelling shoot. Rudyard Kipling once said that Bundi Palace was “the work of goblins rather than men.” It was easy to see why.
The palace seemed to have been hewn from a single rock, the boxy shape defying nature’s laws with its precise lines. I ventured inside, wandering its dark halls that were now home to roosting bats — a better tenant than the bloodsucking royals who’d owned it.
From the palace I could see across all of Bundi, this little desert town. Blue houses stretched into the distance, their colour showing that they belonged to a member of the Brahmin caste. On each corner seemed to be a Hindu temple, their tall spires screaming for attention.
One of the best things about travelling in India was the food, and in Bundi I tried a Rajasthan specialty called dal baati churma. This was dal served with hard wheat-balls. This dish could be cooked fast and in large quantities, making it ideal for feeding soldiers in times of war. Whether this was the dish’s origin or not, it fit the narrative of Rajasthan as the “Land of Kings”.
I ate it at a small restaurant, attracted by the cheap prices on the sign outside. “Times are hard,” the chef told me, “the cost of materials at the market is going up. This meal I serve you now, I make no profit, but I hope you will leave and tell others to come here.”
This was a peek backstage that you often don’t get as a tourist. The meal was delicious too. But later that evening, as I was vomiting in my room, I wondered whether prices were the only thing affecting the chef’s business.
Bundi’s other drawcard were the stepwells scattered around the town. These architectural wonders had been dug to provide reliable groundwater in this parched region. But their interiors were dry when I visited; their bottoms depressingly littered with garbage. Piped water meant that these symmetrical marvels were now obsolete — but this seemed a poor reason to let them fall into disrepair.
Outside the Raniji ki Baori stepwell was a small market, its narrow paths teeming with strange fruits for sale. It felt like I was watching a scene that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. But then I noticed a small concession to the present — a row of guys selling SIM cards for mobile phones.
A man then offered me a cup of tea. I tried to pay, but he refused my money, insisting that I have it for free. It was a touching finish to my relatively ordinary time in Bundi. But this reprieve was necessary. The craziest days of my travels in India were about to begin.