Raju longed for the days when his beloved city breathed clean, crisp air of the isolated desert. When the tranquility in his neighborhood was so serene that pidgeons cooed and bobbed around the cobbled streets of Jaipur and cows grazed in peace. He remembered relaxing on the old, rickety bench by the fountain in the town’s square, watching birds flutter their wings and sprinkle water everywhere. Exhausted travellers took long naps, under the banyan tree, it’s shade providing relief from the hot, stifling heat of the desert. The skies clear enough to see the stars at night.
He remembered his grandfather retelling stories about Jai Singh, the second. The Maharaja who had painted the houses pink to welcome King Edward the 5th. the Emperor of India in 1876. It was a gem, then, with its palaces, formidable forts and the Shish Mahal with its multi- coloured mirrors, that sparkled and glittered in the sunshine. But over the years, the city had gained popularity and flourished beyond his grandfather’s imagination.
Jaipur was now the largest city of the Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s attraction had not diminished over the years. It’s forts, palaces,monuments, museums, foods and shopping centres attracted tourists from all over the world. It’s houses and streets are still painted pink - hence the name- The Pink City.
Raju leaned out from the balcony of the old Haveli and stared at the busy street below. The constant cacophony of rickshaws, groaning camels and pesky hawkers clinking their rusty bowls, irritated him. He could feel a major headache throbbing in his skull. The aroma of fresh coffee and sizzling kachoris drifted towards him from the restaurants around the corner. Raju peered into the courtyard to see if anyone was around but except for a grazing cow, it was isolated. He closed the ornate, wooden door of his room and locked it with the heavy padlock. Then he limped down the narrow stairs, holding tightly to the old, rustic rails for support. He emerged into the busy street, blinking momentarily at the harsh sun and then ambled towards the India Coffee House.
He paused to chat with the Rajasthani women dressed in vibrant colours of red and yellow dupattas covering their heads, their oily hair parted in the middle to show off the bright, red bindis on their foreheads. They wore heavy, silver jewellery, necklaces and earrings that extended their earlobes and bangles that crushed their delicate wrists. Squatting on the roadside behind a crumpled pink wall, they laughed and smoked their bidis, beckoning Raju to buy something. A variety of vegetables, cauliflower, tomatoes, onions, green chillies and round mini cabbages were displayed on the pavement. Raju nodded, smiled and tried to maneuver through the piles of red chillies and lemons.
He stopped to pick up a fresh plate of kachoris with coriander chutney before reaching the coffee house. It was his favourite breakfast with a steaming cup of milky Madras coffee. He would have left the city but his love for its variety of cuisine, its abundant thalis, mouth watering Pani puris, Dahi Vadas and the famous fire paan grounded him. He never grew tired of the quaint, little pink houses with delicate designs of flowers on the doors or the blue, peacock arch with its intricate motifs of vibrant colours.
From where he sat, he could get a glimpse of the Hawa Maha- the palace of wind- with its lattice frames. The front of the palace is shaped like the crown of Lord Krishna, 953 jharokas-little windows-designed for the benefit of the women of the royal palace, who lived as prisoners, their beauty veiled in heavy purdahs. They were able to peep through the slits and view the festivities on the street, without having to mingle with the common people.
The hypnotizing music from the snake charmer’s flute floated towards Raju. He presented a spectacular sight. Seated cross- legged on a dirty carpet, his head swathed in black and yellow turban and wearing a red and white dhoti. His princely, grey moustache quivered as he played a melodious tune on his flute. The cobra, coiled in the wicker basket, swayed to its rhythm, hypnotizing the tourists as its sensuous body moved to an fro. The tourists gaped with horror and secret pleasure, in awe of the snake charmer’s courage, for he was so close that the cobra could have easily licked his face.
But Raju felt nothing but contempt for the man. Instead his heart went out to helpless snake, whose fangs were crushed and mouth sewn. It would soon die of starvation and the unscrupulous man will discard it like a tattered rope, replacing it with another. Raju seethed with anger and frustration, overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. His heart welled up with sorrow at the plight of these helpless creature, the sordid conditions in which they survived.
Especially the majestic elephants, the pride of the maharajas. Their trunks painted with multi-coloured designs, a thick, red rug thrown on their backs, on which tourists travelled on howdahs, pounding the cobbled streets to the impressive forts on the hill. Elephants should be allowed to roam free in the jungle not chained to slavery to appease the greedy appetites of mankind.
The Pink City was swarming with tourists and the government welcomed them with open arms, for they brought in substantial revenue. But Raju was not impressed by the splendour, for it created noise pollution, garbage and chaos in the city. He longed for the quiet streets where cows grazed in peace amongst the locals relaxing under the banyan tree, beneath the chirping of the birds. But it had disappeared overnight.
Food that spilled over from garbage bins attracted rats and monkeys. They came in droves from the monkey temple- the Hunuman shrine, among other shrines embedded in the crook of the hills. The red-haired monkeys, the Lungars, were the most cunning and dangerous of them all, snatching food or cameras from the tourists. Now the brazen animals had lost their fear of the humans and had dared to enter the city. Swinging on telephone cables, like trapeze artists, they could raid any kitchen left unattended. Housewives complained and despaired when lunches disappeared or babies milk bottles were left empty. They ran after them with sticks but the lungars mocked and disappeared in the forest.
One such monkey had taken a liking to Raju and was in the habit of visiting him during lunchtime. He would swing on the thick, coiled wires and land on the edge of the balcony. Raju tried many tactics to get rid off the him. He barred his windows with thick, rusty chains to prevent the pest from snatching his cell phone, mistaking it for a sandwich. He would leave rotten bananas on the balcony in the hope that that the smell would drive him away.
One day, he appeared early morning and tapped on Raju’s window. He had brought gifts- a baseball cap, sunglasses and a packet of Marlboro Gold. He laid them on the floor, gifts to redeem his previous uncouth behaviour. He sat in the corner, like a child punished and watched him with his dark, intelligent eyes, waiting for the verdict.
Raju surrendered. A truce was proclaimed and peace descended on them. He looked forward to his visits. The monkey would massage his itchy scalp with his deft fingers and pick and clean his skimpy hair. Soon after their friendship flourished and cemented over the years. Raju had found a loyal companion in his old age. He couldn’t imagine leaving the city and abandoning his dear friend.