Our driver, Om (yes we all made the ‘meditation’ joke), recommended a flash visit to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s largest city. Jaipur was famed for its nearby tourist attraction, the Amber Fort: a 16th century palace-cum-battle arena that consisted primarily of pretty wall patterns and a mass of ancient toilets. Its creator, Meenas king Raja Alan Singh Chanda, may have endured an unhealthy set of bowels but at least he enjoyed a pretty picture as he tore out his guts.

This mixture of peculiarity mixed with a sense of aesthetic beauty rather suited the city, which was home to a vast – but unsurprisingly similar – array of jewellery shops and gem cutters. We didn’t know Om well and were suspicious as he parked his taxi in a backstreet car park and ushered us into (what seemed to be) an old man’s back room. The owner met us, welcomed us to his ‘high quality’ establishment and we were taken through a small labyrinth of mysteriously degrading rooms, each veiled in gemmed ornaments: some tacky, some really tacky, and in their defence, some bizarre relics of the imagination, including a monkey god with rubies for teeth and eyes. The old man showed us how the gems were chosen, polished and carved, remarking on the various healing qualities they provided for the body and soul. It turned out he was a psychic too (we’d met three psychics already during our four days in India) and though he didn’t seem to pick up on my disinterest in gems he did offer to read the ‘nature of our chi’, free of charge. I don’t believe in all this spiritual stuff but the bargain hunter in me couldn’t resist. ‘You’, he said, holding my hand in his, ‘are in finance, very mathematically minded and – you’, he continued, taking my girlfriend (Jo)’s hand ‘are a very creative spirit, always making art and inventing.’ Her job is in competitor analysis, mine is as a poet. And we’re both terrible with money.

We left without buying any of the old man’s precious jewels set into pendants, wooden elephants or otherwise. Om drove us around the city for a while and eventually to our homestay, which was owned and run by a charismatic retired couple (him from the military, her having been a housewife but definitely still ‘wearing the trousers’ as she sent him on errands across town). It was getting late and we were getting hungry so we headed out into the night to find something both nourishing and non-lethal. Lacking any sense of direction, we walked out of the main streets of the city and only managed to find one or two places still serving food. One was bustling with locals, burning red tikka chickens wheeling around on a rotisserie, their fragrant spices begging us to enter. We’d grown confident in our iron stomachs and so strolled in, pointed at a few interesting-looking foodstuffs and sat down. What came – I assume – was goat patties with a yoghurt and mint dip, and half a chicken covered in a charred red tikka sauce served with sliced red onion. We ate happily, though cautiously. Jo queried the rawness of her chicken thigh but the ridiculous glutton in me scoffed his down with glee. Nothing can hurt me, I’m immortal; I’m on holiday.

The next day was one of the worst I’ve felt in my life to date. But it started off well enough: it was Christmas day and Om bought us a bouquet of flowers (because, being white and from the UK, we must be Christians . . .) But it was a kind gesture and it warmed us to him. ‘Want to see more forts?’ he asked in earnest. ‘No, we want to see monkeys.’ And if you like monkeys, Jaipur is the place to be . . .

The Jaipur Monkey Temple is home to over 2,000 monkeys who roam freely around a hilltop sanctuary. You can buy a large bag of peanuts from a local seller for around twenty rupees, which the monkeys have been trained to take (using their mouth or hand) from you without aggression. It was a magical world of excitement and joy: babies bounded from the tree tops and into their mothers’ arms, juniors swung across branches and chirped, adults took nuts from you and passed them out to their young. And then the goat and chicken had their revenge.

No-one wants to hear the details. I don’t particularly want to tell them. But being half way up a small mountain surrounded by monkeys repeatedly expressing their love for one another (with no consideration for the less churlish of us), as you gag from both ends in the ridiculous heat of an Indian winter is no way to spend your Christmas day.

We eventually made it back to the homestay, car seat unblemished, and I reminisced about our time so far in Jaipur: a city of beauty and brutality, glittering palaces and ancient wars, of backrooms filled with gemstones, of bustling chicken shacks and burning stomachs, endearing primates more lurid than loving. It was a place of two halves, which did neither without gusto, and as I sat on my porcelain throne, watching small colourful kites lift into the evening sky from the bathroom window, I began to understand Raja Alan Singh Chanda’s appreciation for a mass of toilets and pretty things.

— Russ Jones

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