1st Letter from India

November 2012

The Rolls, being made of English ash, shrank as we crossed the Gujerat Plains. So did Jan and I. It was quite hot. Further north, in Rajasthan, the rough rural roads of the Thar desert rattled the screws out of their sockets and the nuts off their bolts. Parts fell off. Staying here, in a fort from the battlements of which we look down on the Thar desert through the haze characteristic of northern India, both we and the Rolls have recuperated.

Alsisar is a small town on the silk route, with narrow lanes and forgotten palaces built by merchants and Rajputs in the C17th and C18th. Their descendants moved to the cities after independence in 1947, and chowkidars sleep in the sun keeping desultory watch over the faded grandeur within, pillared rooms with broken frescoes and courtyards of giant flagstones unsettled by neem trees and monsoon rains. Alsisar Haveli, frescoes brought back to life and castle walls rebuilt, dominates the town, and the wind from the desert flowed agreeably through our bedroom windows.

One of the Chowkidars, by one of those agreeable chances that life on the road confers, was a Rolls Royce mechanic. His name is Prabhu. He is 75 and has one word of English. I mentioned to the Raja of Alsisar, with whom we dined a couple of nights ago, that the Rolls had developed a bad cough in the mornings. Prabhu, he said, was the man. He used to look after his grandfather’s Rolls 40 years ago. Prabhu appeared, smelled the exhaust fumes, changed a spark plug, adjusted the carboretter and we went for a test drive.

His word of English came into play: “ SPEED”, he shouted. I sped. At 55 mph we raced down a strip of tarmac barely wider than the Rolls. Flocks of goats parted like the Red Sea for the Israelites, bullocks pulling carts looked up in alarm, Camels sniffed resentfully. Armed with the Raja’s implicit authority and the loudest hooter in Rajasthan, I became Toad of Toad Hall during his brief moment as King of the Road. The cough improved, but is not cured.

The next stop was the carpenter of Alsisar, who repairs bullock carts and restores ancient howdahs. He refitted the door lock in new timber with my spare piece of English ash. The blacksmith forged a new bracket for the windscreen. Locals gathered, marsala chai was drunk out of grubby glasses, passing camels looked down their arrogant noses at the scene, old men came to speak of old cars they had known, cartwheels were admired and the finer points of their construction noted. I purchased a sharp rajasthani saw with a fine carved handle. Oliver, my Canadian godson and film-maker, filmed the scene.

Oliver joined us about a fortnight ago and is popular addition to the crew. He balances precariously on the spare wheel on the wing, filming apparatus in hand, inspiring the now widespread belief that we are making the next Bollywood Epic. This enhances our status considerably. His good looks and open charm provide an agreeable contrast to the unlikely sight of what Jan described – much to my annoyance – as an elderly English couple driving an elderly English motor car across an ancient land.

We have travelled 1700 miles since we left the Royal Bombay Yacht Club before dawn a month ago, after extracting the Rolls from the babus at customs. No less than 35 signatures were required to release it, lending a whole new meaning to the notion of bureaucracy. We opened the container and gasped at the heat and humidity generated by a month sailing over tropical oceans. She started 1 st time, and we sped into Bombay through monsoon rains and flash floods.

The following morning she failed, as the Rolls Instruction Manual delicately puts it, to proceed at all. This was rather discouraging. I coaxed her back to life with a little help from the West India AA and called a good friend and fellow member of the RREC. He introduced me to Anand Swadi. Anand is 85 and has been working on vintage motors for most of that time. We told him of our plan to drive to Assam. “Piece of cake”, he said. “ I had an English couple here a few years back. They drove here from London in an old Rolls no problem. He was 75 and had one leg and she was 10 years older – and you”, he said with an engaging flourish, turning to Jan, “are young and beautiful”.

The journey north through Gujerat was not easy. We were mobbed in a traffic jam in Surat. I was alarmed. Jan was cool. I reflected that some other wives might have called the expedition a day at that point. Not long afterwards the radiator reached boiling point. This an extremely bad idea for ancient motors. The traffic moved at just that moment. To say I was relieved is an understatement. We reached the hotel after dark – night-driving in India is not for those of a nervous disposition – to discover that Gujerat is a dry state and a vegetarian one at that.

This was redeemed on both counts on our arrival in Rajasthan. We stayed with old friends in a fine house on a hill, commissioned tin trunks to fit the roof rack and kurtas of fine linen to fit ourselves, and drank gin and tonic as we gazed at the Monsoon Palace on the far mountain top and looked down on the famous Lake Palace below.

From there we headed north to the Thar Desert. News of our coming went before us. Mobile phone images of the Rolls – of which vast numbers are taken daily, usually with the phone-owner leaning nonchalantly and proprietorially on the front wing – arrived before we did. Rolls Royces were the vehicle of choice for maharajas in the pre-war era, and Jan and I are now known in these parts as the British Maharaja and Maharani.

There is a widespread belief that we are connected to most of the Rajas and Maharajas in Rajasthan. This is only partly true. Much in the style of Paddy Leigh Fermor, who strolled from Dunkirk to Constantinople in the 1930’s staying with a succession of princesses, we are introduced by one Raja to the next. What the Rajas think, not to mention the uniformed servants, who flank the palace gates as we arrive, is another question.

The Rolls arrives at castle gates brown with the dust of the desert, its occupants dishevelled and in dire need of a gin and tonic (“not available Sir. Limesoda OK?” as often as not). Jan, suntanned and be-turbanned in an olive green head-scarf, looks like Gertrude Bell; I in a pink bandana, grubby white shirt and shorts, and a youthful Oliver in white shirt, dark glasses, cool jeans tied with quality rope and camera on shoulder, passes for Marlon Brando in his prime.

The caste system remains central to life in rural India. We accompanied one of the Rajas we stayed with in his jeep to the Hindu temple built by his forebears; villagers bowed to him as drove through his domain. His family, he told us over dinner on the battlements, had conquered this land 400 years ago. Although the Rajputs were stripped of their status as rulers after independence, he remains active in doing for his people what the government authorities fail to do. Men came before him with legal problems on both mornings we were there: a son had been kidnapped and murdered and the police failed to deal with it, a dispute over camel grazing rights which the law was inadequate to deal with.

The Barefoot College at Tilonya, where we stayed the night, provided another perspective. There the caste system is suspended, women have an equal voice to men, and intermediate technology is taught within the traditional framework of village life. The qualification for attending is that you have no qualifications. You have to be illiterate. It was founded by Bunker Roy 30 years ago and thrives in stone houses built by the British as a TB hospital on the edge of the desert, where graves of British nurses speak eloquently of dedicated lives. We dined with Bunker. His TED talk attracted 4 million hits; after hearing him talk and seeing what he has achieved we were not surprised.

We have a support car, generously lent by friends in Udaipur. This is invaluable for several reasons. Our driver seeks directions when we get lost, which happens regularly there being virtually no signposts; Oliver stands on the front seat facing backwards towards us when he is filming mode; it enables friends to join us – currently Sue and Hugo Ashton, who joined us in the north of Rajasthan and whose sense of humour and adventurous spirit has enhanced the journey.

Most importantly, having a rescue car immediately to hand has a distinctly beneficial effect on our peace of mind, much enhanced by our 2 drivers. Muhktiyar, for the first 3 weeks and now Binesh, have cherished the Rolls as if it was their own. I came down late one night to find Muhktiyar supervising a team of people washing and polishing the Rolls in a splendidly proprietorial style.

Rajasthan is a land of peacocks. Looking over my laptop in the Diggi Palace in Jaipur as I conclude this letter, I can see four of them strutting across the lawn. The sun has just surfaced and the air is cool with the approach of winter. This journey is well-timed, for the Rolls engine now runs at about 55C, thus allaying my abiding fear of over-heating.

Tomorrow we head east towards Kathmandu, a journey of about 1000 miles some of which is on the Grand Trunk Road. It will take us through Uttar Pradesh, said by Rajasthanis to be the wild west of India where the rule of law does not run and Rollses, we have been warned, disappear in the night. Jan and I take a relaxed view of these rumours, but they add a slight edge to the journey. We are planning this section carefully.

Bharatpur, Rajasthan, November 7 2012