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It's hot, dry and dusty when they finally arrive in Jaisalmer. But then, how often is it not?
In the markets a wizened woman of indeterminate age is using a straw broom to aggressively sweep the area in front of her shop. The dust will soon be kicked back by passersby or swept back by her neighbours; requiring her to sweep again and again. She will do the same again tomorrow; and the day after; and the day after that.
Jennifer's mind is elsewhere. She's has dreamt of visiting exotic India ever since a client at the hairdressers told her, with enthralling details, of her adventures here.
They've arrived in the dusty city in the late afternoon, by road from Jodphur. In spite of his preference to visit California again, she's finally persuaded Bruce that he might like India and should try something a bit less conservative.
Below the famous Jaisalmer Fort is a small square that marks the start of the winding road up through the protective elephant-proof gates. In this space motorised trishaws, known as Tuk-tuks, jostle restlessly like milling cattle. They are waiting for tourists, like our travellers, who may hire them tomorrow to see the town or if they are lazy, to mount the steep hill to the Fort.
One or two tourists per vehicle is ideal but some, like those four older Australians earlier today, used just one when they returned from the cloth market and there was only one in sight. But cramming four in is not as bad as transporting the locals who expect a little Tuk-tuk to carry six or more, a couple crammed in beside the driver; and perhaps a goat.
Like much of this area of Rajasthan, the surrounding countryside is desert or semi-desert, dry grasslands interspersed with sand in great dunes. Wild peacocks share the landscape with sheep and goats and the ever present wandering cows of India. On the horizon hundreds of wind turbines turn spasmodically, gleaning whatever energy they can from the fitful afternoon breeze. And across India electricity has been turned off, so that the cacophony of small domestic generators has begun, in daily protest against the uncooperative wind.
For Jennifer this part of India is the most romantic. Before partition Jaisalmer, with its Fort, dominated the millennia old trade route linking India to Central Asia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Africa and the West. Its wealth grew from its position, as a strategic halting point for the camel caravanserai of Indian and Asian merchants, carrying opium, copper, silk, cotton, dates, coffee and all manner of exotic goods, both east and west.
But now the camel trains no longer snake across the dunes. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the relationship between the two new nations has generally been hostile. Now lines of armed soldiers trace these ancient camel paths and a new border severs the ancient trade route.
Military jets from the nearby air force base scream high above patrolling the desert. And the camels carry trekking tourists instead.
Bruce is an accountant. Jennifer finally moved in with him six months ago in Brisbane West, near her salon. But he has been like a 'wet rag' dampening her romantic fancies during the drive here. At one point after reading from his tablet he announced that:
“This is interesting. Exploitative tourism and militarisation has replaced the ancient trade route in the Jaisalmer economy.”
He went on to describe the weapons used by the Indian army, something about NATO ammunition. Jennifer shut him out, trying hard not to listen and to hold on to her belief in the mystery of these ancient lands. Somehow machine guns, rockets and tanks and fat tourists are not romantic.
Now the hired car and driver carries them up the road into the Fort. The driver asks directions to the hotel. Confusion reigns, but the travellers take this in their stride. They have been in India for some time and have come to regard this as normal. Eventually someone is found who can identify the hotel and bags are unloaded and trundled down a lane to the entrance.
Their efforts are immediately rewarded by the spectacular view. Their room is linked to a wall top terrace and sitting areas furnished with attractive cushions. The bedroom is large and well-appointed, hung with rich draperies and in the centre is a large comfortable bed. Subdued lighting, a tasteful modern bathroom and subtle music add to the air of luxury. In a recess in the room stands a four foot high bronze statue of Parvati on a low table.
Jennifer is delighted. This is the true romance and ancient mystery she had come to experience, only slightly contradicted by the wind farms on the horizon.
And in the room Parvati the consort of Shiva, worshiped for her sensuality and primordial creative power. Parvati, the creator of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god and most beloved of Indian deities.
The couple shower off the grime put on a clean change of clothes. They both revel in this welcome luxury as one might plunge into a pool after a day’s toil in a dusty wasteland.
Outside, within the Fort that evening, they wander hand in hand among Jain temples, each emanating sensual mysticism, their outer faces richly decorated with voluptuous intertwined semi-naked bodies. In a discrete niche they kiss, and she forgives him for his lack of romance earlier.
After dinner they decide to go along to the shared terrace in the hotel where other guests are already drinking and chatting under the stars. They are four friends, two older couples from Sydney. They welcome the younger couple, enthusiastically offering them a drink. Jennifer accepts a gin and tonic and Bruce will have a scotch and water. As the night goes on the bottles empty. The young couple protest that they have nothing to share but are told that spirits are cheap in India, unlike the wine.
From the comfort of their wall top eyrie they look out over the floodlit walls adjoining, swooped in the brighter areas by moth hunting black swallows; or are they bats?
As they relax their eyes drift across to the desert horizon and down into the town below. It is a perfect night and almost so beautiful that Jennifer could cry.
Someone recalls the incredible wealth of the Indian princes who built this fort and its palace and so recently ruled these kingdoms. The other Sydney men adds:
“It's hard to believe the wealth of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Around 1920 he wandered into a firm of London architects, apparently on a whim, and ordered the largest private house ever built: Umaid Bhawan Palace."
“Over 340 rooms and galleries were fitted out in gold; silver; precious woods; marbles; and ivory to house both the public galleries used by visitors and for the affairs of State, and the Maharaja’s private zenana (harem). They still have separate entrances for each. You can see the place for miles, it has a huge dome."
Jennifer asks if the present Maharaja still lives there. The man, who is a lawyer or something, confirms that he does.
“But the lives of dynastic Princes fell apart in 1950 when the Dominion of India was created and the new government turned on them. So I suppose that they regret lending their support to Partition. They lost a lot of their hereditary wealth."
“So now, for financial reasons, the latest Maharaja shares his house with the Taj Palace Hotel. The Maharaja has been reduced to a few dozen state rooms where he still lives. And just one wife, because the new government also outlawed polygamy."
"But many wealthy Indian men seem to find a way around that," comments one of the wives.
“He's in a similar position to the Maharaja of Udaipur who also shares his home with an hotel and whose Rolls Royce fleet and collection of European sports cars is much diminished," adds the other man:
“A small museum at the hotel explains that his project was a pre-Keynesian way of using local expenditure to offset the economic impact of the depression that would not occur until a decade later."
"Amazing foresight, comments Bruce.
"This ability to see a decade into the future was no doubt due to his being able to communicate directly with the Gods," explains the man. "In the case of drought and other natural disasters the Maharaja is still prayed to personally by the local people."
One of the wives remarks sarcastically:
“Obviously his god-like wisdom led him to the view that building an enormous personal palace was a far better work creation project than say: clean water and sewerage; the provision of public housing; or building schools and hospitals."
“I suppose,” says the other woman, “that he had no qualms or sense that he was doing anything untoward.”
“Compared to things his ancestors did - and the wealth that they took for themselves - and the way they treated their people - he was acting as a modest and enlightened ruler - embracing the latest science and technology.”
They all agreed that the Princes of Rajasthan were once far more ostentatious. These virtual warlords had travelled from one fortified, gold encrusted, palace to another with retinues of hundreds, their numerous wives and other women carried in palanquins, some of which are still proudly on display.
Someone claimed that their two main concerns had been to fight amongst themselves for wealth; and, collectively as Hindu Princes, to keep the Muslim Mughal Empire, then based at Agra, at bay.
They fell back into silence, each to their own thoughts. More drinks were poured.
In comparison to these past riches, Jennifer realised, the travellers’ present enjoyment of the small luxury of a drink in pleasant circumstances was infinitely less outrageous.
Yet why did their present wellbeing and their general advantages, and their freedom to come and go, make her feel guilty?
Was it the people she had seen sleeping in the street, even on the dirty median strip in the centre of divided roads, or in the piss and lime that skirted almost every public wall? Was it the faces that suddenly appeared, shrunken hands tapping on the window, when the car stopped in traffic? Was it the not yet crawling baby that she had seen, naked and apparently abandoned, in the dirt; or the little girl begging with her child, who pulled aside its swaddling to reveal dreadful burns that had been made down it’s arm, to make her case more pathetic; or the deliberately, and uniformly, maimed beggars? Or perhaps it was the vast areas of primitive housing accessible only on foot, with no services, except in some places, illegal taps from the electricity grid; or people bathing in puddles in the street.
“The wealth of the rich is amazing," she blurts out. "But the poor are so poor I can't help feeling guilty."
One of the older women agreed wholeheartedly and recalled her initial impulse to help in some personal way by buying milk for a baby, only to discover that this was a scam run by the men who ‘ran’ the beggars.
“And then we were followed and harassed by girls with babies for the rest of the day," the other woman says. "The girls even waited across a road, when we had lunch and then attacked us again. They were like seagulls after you feed them once."
“Another day we went to a museum and there was a girl outside attempting to sell trinkets. I looked at her stuff but didn't want anything she had. Then we saw her called over to a car where she was yelled at and slapped by a man for not selling me anything, It's a tough place if you're born poor."
By accident of birth, some Indians have become beggars and some princes she realises.
The Australians' lives have not been those of princes and princesses. But they feel no jealousy, or longing, to have led the life of an Indian prince or one of his wives. They have been even more fortunate. They have education and first world awareness and the freedom to travel and to be themselves.
In Mumbai the Sydneysiders had dined one night in an up-market restaurant frequented by middle class Indians. They said it featured dishes similar to any restaurant in the World. There was no curry. It served haute cuisine dishes that included beef.
“Restaurants like this are thriving because, as well as a few people who are still obscenely wealthy, India has a growing well-off middleclass that outnumbers Australia’s," explains the lawyer fellow. "Many of the younger ones seem happy to eat a beef and for heterosexual couples to hold hands or even kiss in public."
One of the wives says, sounding cross:
“And it's we visitors who feel guilty. Maybe the middleclass should take a little more responsibility for the half billion or more desperately poor, unskilled and illiterate, who are so superstitious that they will murder for a deviation in caste or minor religious infringement, and who form a vast underclass in India.”
So as all travellers must, they each put personal guilt aside and fall back to just enjoying being here. The exotic difference and atmosphere; the new things learnt each day; the satisfaction of surmounting unusual challenges; and at this moment, their mutual company.
Soon it's time for bed.
Returning to their luxurious room, Jennifer and Bruce undress, and naked, slip into the silken robes provided by the hotel. They turn down the lights and lie side-by-side, exhausted and slightly tipsy on the bed.
And then a most unusual thing happens: Parvati comes to life.
Bruce has begun the lovemaking in his usual, annoyingly desultory way. It's been an amazing day though. As Jennifer lies there exhausted, with her eyes closed, she can feel his tentative hand moving across her tummy under her robe, seeking her acquiescence or a rejection.
Suddenly she becomes aware of another body on the bed. An unknown tongue is exploring her labia. Fingers are lightly caressing her breasts in a new erotic way.
She can smell her, it's Parvati. Not the cold bronze that had stood across the room but a warm and scented, voluptuous goddess. She has metamorphosed into a real woman and now enveloping them both in her aroma - her sensual being now flesh and blood.
Jennifer is instantly aroused as never before. Soon darting fingers, wet tongues and hard nipples are touched and brushed. Arms and legs entwine. Fingers probe. Mouths engage. Yonis alternatively rub and merge and feverishly accepting and consuming Bruce's engorged lingam.
Their bodies are re-enacting the scenes depicted on the temples outside. Or are they scenes from the Kama-sutra that they had seen, illustrated in tiles, in that zenana? Passions peak, lull and rise again. When will it stop? When will they finally be sated?
After a lifetime and one last urgency they fall back separately, completely bathed in perspiration.
As she recovers Jennifer opens her eyes. What is Parvati doing? She's wiping down her body, now wet with sweat and their secretions. The volume she has gathered is amazing. It seems to be growing. It's dividing and multiplying. She's growing a baby in her hands, just as she had done to make Ganesha fifteen hundred years ago.
All this time she's not said a word but has sung in that weird Indian way, as she did during the lovemaking. But now in a beautiful Indian accent she's begun to sing for a noble soul, mahatma, to come into her creation and give it life. A soul that had passed from one life to another, advancing through the great wheel, the Mandala, until it had reached this state of bliss. This soul is now ready to enter the body of a new being they had helped make, in the hands of the wife of Shiva.
'Shiva! Oh!' Jennifer suddenly remembers him.
Last time Parvati made a child without telling him, Shiva became infuriated and chopped off its head - before relenting and replacing it with the first animal head he found - that happened to be an elephant. With which of his three visages might he look upon this latest creation? Will he accept this new child benignly as a benefactor or as the destroyer?
With a blinding flash Shiva’s light fills the room. Jennifer sits up with a jolt.
“Jesus that was good!” says Bruce, standing by the switch. “Which one of these is the bloody bathroom light?
“What got into you? You were like an animal. I didn’t know you liked some of that stuff! You must really get off on that sandalwood perfume you bought!”
Jennifer is still in shock and says nothing. He plays with the panel.
“Can you still hear that bloody singing? I turned the music down earlier but how do you suppose we turn it right off?”
“You just woke me up”, says Jennifer peevishly. “I was just dreaming that Parvati had come to life and was reaching for a soul for a new baby she was making”.
“Well that was a bit bloody weird!” says Bruce, who has no soul of his own.
He goes into the bathroom and makes his usual revolting noises, before coming back to bed and falling sound asleep.
Jennifer lies angrily awake, looking at the great lump. Then furious, she yells at his inert body:
“You have no soul!”
After that she turns her back to him, and with her finger tips she tries to recover the shattered dream. “But he was damn good, for a change” she admits as she does her best to recreate her earlier exhilaration. And then, with a little cry, all is forgiven and she falls into a deep satisfied sleep.
The following morning at breakfast, one of the Sydney men asks them how they slept and they reply:
“Very well!” in unison.
"Like a baby," Bruce adds, obviously itching to tell more.
Then the man's wife comes in, sits down and asks exactly the same thing. Is that a sly smile and twinkling eye she detects as they repeat the performance?
Now they politely listen to the man as he holds forth about the butter and milk, and how the Indians hold cows to be sacred but somehow this doesn’t apply to buffalo.
Bruce interrupts him by saying, rather naughtily, that Jennifer had an interesting dream last night. Jennifer has to immediately cut him short, forestalling any in-depth revelations, by explaining that she had dreamt that the statue of Parvati, in their room, had come to life and was singing for a soul, for a new baby she was making.
“Ha!” the Sydney man exclaims. “It’s amazing how almost all religions insist on a life force that is separate to the body.”
“Well,” says Bruce, “without it we couldn’t have everlasting life. Or gods who breathe life into inanimate objects. Maybe it’s a hangover from a primitive belief in the unattached souls of ancestors looking for a body to inhabit. I suppose it goes along with a belief in reincarnation.”
At that point the other Sydney couple appears.
“Talking about religion again?” the wife says.
They explained the conversation. To which her husband responds:
“It’s easy to see how the ancients thought that the spark of life was contained in a man’s seed and went into a fertile woman to produce a child. It was just like a seed going into fertile soil to produce a plant. Apart from being 'fertile' or 'barren' she had no other part in it. It was his child - to do with as he liked.”
He pauses to take a bowl and half fill it with breakfast muesli and top it with milk - buffalo or cow it's hard to tell - before continuing:
“Yet the myth of a separate life force, a spirit breathed in, granted or inherited at each conception, goes on. Particularly here in India."
“Because it allows the possibility that we can go on to inhabit another body in different circumstances,” his friend agrees.
And then as a throwaway, as he points at his empty cup to the waiter:
“After all, it's written in ancient texts, so it must be true.”
Having finished their omelettes the wives have been at the fruit table, chatting about gifts they intend to buy for children, relatives and friends, in the markets. And which of the stalls, that line the road up to the Fort, they might look at.
“So if it comforts those who like to think that their soul might have been born into different circumstances - or might still be - why shouldn’t they believe it?” asks the taller one returning with her fruit plate.
“Yes why shouldn't they dream of being reborn as a prince or princess?" demands her friend close behind.
“That’s all very well. They can believe what they like,” her husband responds. “But ignorance leads people to make bad decisions.”
A second round of coffee has been distributed by the waiter and Jennifer sits silently listening and thinking, as she often does in the salon at home when she's drying someone's hair. Of course, everyone knows that babies started as an already living egg that was fertilised by an already living sperm. If either was dead nothing would happen.
But people so often talk about a new life, giving the impression that life is freshly created in the already living cell that multiplies to become a baby. She had not realised, until she listened to these people talk and thought about it herself just now, that this is obviously nonsense. As the men agreed, creating each life anew at conception is just an ancient myth, that goes back to when people were more ignorant.
So her vision of Parvati was just a dream, brought on by all the erotic images and aromas and sounds in this romantic and exotic place. But it was a wonderful dream, because through it she and Bruce have discovered a new exciting side to each other, that she can barely wait to explore.
Jennifer's very stimulating remembrances are interrupted when the shorter wife renews the wives' attack on their husbands' lack of belief in anything mystical:
“Although you two may think it is ‘ridiculous’ in the ‘light of modern science’, people want to believe their myths. Including, that there but for circumstance, they would have been born later or conceived somewhere else. Even by someone else. They don’t want to hear that they would not exist at all... You two have no souls.”
“That’s funny”, says Bruce, impishly: “That was the last thing Jennifer said to me last night. But she got over it.”
First published: October 2013