Three days of solitude in Blue City

As I stood in front of the Meharangarh Fort in Jodhpur, trying to register its imposing façade, the sun, blanketed by thick black clouds, not far from the tip of the fort, glared at me. I expected the city to be hot on the last August afternoon, but nothing could have prepared me for the Jodhpur sun burning in rage. A few minutes later, I found myself inside the fort, huffing on an undulating incline that never seemed to end. Sweating and panting, I wanted to let out a vacant rant. But I couldn’t, for I knew no one was listening. I glanced around, only to confirm the expected — everyone else had company: girls in school uniforms ambled noiselessly in an unbroken, obedient line; two middle-aged, corpulent men walked together, their little fingers quietly locked in an embrace; a girl, armed with a white, rectangular camera, coaxed her boyfriend to strike a personable pose. My loneliness managed to intrigue me, something that hasn’t happened in a long while. For someone who lives by himself, often eats alone at restaurants, prefers watching films alone, stays till late in the office because an almost empty newsroom feels transformative, I don’t resent my loneliness; I cherish and guard it with fierce fervour. In times of people coercing you to be “connected” all the time, loneliness doesn’t come easy; you have to earn it. In Jodhpur, however, my loneliness acquired a new identity — exploring an unknown city alone.

As I continued walking without any real purpose, I noticed a man sitting in Mehrangarh café, poring over his black notebook. He had come from South Korea on a trip to Rajasthan. In the next few days, he planned to visit two more cities in the state — Jaisalmer and Udaipur. Jodhpur came to be his first stop. What brought him here? “There are two representations of Jodhpur for me: first is the ‘blue city’, that’s how we, Koreans, know the city because a lot of houses are painted blue,” said Seunghyun Lee. “And as the place where that movie, The Dark Knight Rises, was shot.” Lee showed me a picture on his cellphone — a scruffy Christian Bale, looking out in the distance, watched by a Mehrangarh Fort wall in the background. “I want to get a picture clicked there, but I have not been able to find it.” Lee had travelled far to find the familiar in the unknown. What else did he plan to see in Jodhpur? “That’s something I am still trying to find. What else can I see here?”

The Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

The Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

Accustomed to living in a barsaati (essentially, a room on the roof), I found the opulence of the Meharangarh Fort vulgar and amusing. Almost every room in the fort could have passed off as a one-BHK Mumbai flat. Most rooms on the topmost floor of the fort, a part of the fort museum, had specific purposes and names — “Daulat Khana”, “Phool Mahal”, “Takht Vilas” — preserving an assortment of relics: swords, matchlock helmet, palanquins, Marwar paintings.

The world inside the Mehrangarh Fort, and even Jodhpur’s world, is divided into two sets of people: locals and tourists. In Jodhpur, the locals and tourists look and behave so differently that they share nothing in common. The local sees; the tourist examines. The local stops; the tourist pauses. The local captures the present; the tourist captures the past. The local absorbs; the tourist documents. The fascination of these tourists, for me, was much more fascinating than anything Jodhpur had to offer. Chained to their DSLR cameras, most of them moved from one room of the fort to the other, obsessively recording the foreign. Those visitors were so fixated on transferring their present into the future that they couldn’t care less if the present slipped away unlived. Nothing beautiful was spared, all of it, ultimately, got transformed into millions of pixels carefully stacked as separate files. Their anxiety was all the more pleasantly befuddling to me because, before embarking on this trip, I had made a strange promise to myself: of not clicking any pictures. I ended up clicking one. I wanted to understand, for a change, what it meant to just see things, and not proclaim what I saw. I wanted to observe and absorb, not share and forget.

From the terrace of the fort, which must have been used as a fortress, as evidenced by canons in the vicinity, Jodhpur appeared curiously dichotomous. Depending on which side of the terrace you found yourself at, you could either see Jodhpur as a cluster of blue residential blocks, suffocating each other for space, or a vast, sparse brushland sporadically dotted by a few temples.

Solitude and palaces continued to follow me. Ranbanka Palace, the picturesque hotel where I stayed, too, had been meticulously forged out of a palace and, like a diffident wallflower, stood in stark silence. The tourist season in Jodhpur kicks off in October; as a result, the hotel had more staff members than guests. Only six of the 70 hotel rooms were occupied. Soon, my stay in Jodhpur fell into a predictable pattern. Over the next few days, I ticked off touristy items on my checklist — surveying vintage cars in Umaid Bhawan; loitering in the local bazaar; eating pyaaz kachori at the fabled Janta Sweet Home. All these things and places were recommended to me, something without my Jodhpur sojourn would have been incomplete. After getting done with these customary experiences, I could only mutter: “That’s it?”

But my most memorable Jodhpur moment, ironically, wasn’t local; it could have happened anywhere. On the penultimate night in the city, I stood in the centre of the hotel’s baradari (a lush, open area, usually accommodating dining tables, marble fountain, local musicians), holding a dying cigarette in my right hand and a glass containing a truant transparent liquid in the left. I looked upwards; there were no stars in the sky. Shielded by paper-thin clouds, the stars must have been up there; they just chose to not turn up, just like the unclaimed guests of 64 other rooms in the hotel. The usual elements of nature that give you company on nights like these — desultory wind, nocturnal insects, watchful moon — had gone missing as well. The loneliness, which I had chosen for myself before coming here, now felt designed. But that moment — silent, undemanding, content — did exist. It didn’t, however, come wrapped in a package to make me feel something. We often end up trivialising the worth of an experience by suffocating it with binary questions: does it make me feel good or not? That moment resisted such simplifications. I took a final gulp from the glass, and lumbered towards my suite to meet no one. I had my staggering feet for company.

An edited version of this piece was published at The Sunday Guardian
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