Here is a city teeming with contrasts — the Jaipur that was, is and is likely to be…
At times, on the bumpy highway from Delhi to Jaipur, the urban sprawl pauses to allow yellow fields of mustard to flow unfettered to your right and left, and the stench of dust and smoke no longer fills your nostrils as the traffic eases.
Sometimes that happens when the dust cloud blotting the horizon dissolves to reveal an orange evening sky that makes up the backdrop of so many of Bollywood's romantic moments, and it seems the earth and sky have come together to orchestrate a peace that drowns the snarl of traffic, drowns even the clamour of your own thoughts, to enter you like cool water dropping on to a parching tongue to spread right through the body.
That a moment so sublime is possible amid a depressing tableau of smoky-grey shacks and trash lying about in jute bags and the sight of everything on the other side of the car window rendered grainy by the dust kicked up by traffic leaves you shaking your head in disbelief.
It comes, therefore, as no surprise to find Jaipur a city teeming with contrasts. Everyone thinks of Jaipur as historic. But it is, by Indian standards, fairly young, founded by the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1727. Its famous pink walls date back to 1876, when the entire city was painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales.
Maybe because of their comparative youth, many of the old buildings survive. The malls and boulevards in the new part of Jaipur come as a shock after the old city and you find yourself looking around, wondering where the vastu shastra or the ancient Indian science of construction went.
The old and new, however, are not mutually exclusive. A sign for a cybercafé can suddenly flash in a bazaar full of artisans working in Jaipur's traditional crafts of metals and marble. And a barbecue can be served in the food court of a mall to the beats of a dholak played in the Rajasthani mode, with all the fingers being utilised in a tabla fingering style, by a folk musician in traditional garb.
The coming of the malls, multiplexes and global brands is, thankfully, not the only change I found in Jaipur since I last visited in the 1990s. Jaleb Chowk, the courtyard next to the Surya Pol or the Sun Gate in the Amber Fort, is now spotlessly clean with plaques everywhere explaining the historical significance of its features. The yellow walls of the fort, which were visibly cracking, now appear distinguished with their wrinkled façade reminiscent of someone who has aged gracefully. The waters of the Manasagar Lake no longer summon the image of an overflowing gutter. Instead, white buoys sway and the image of the Jal Mahal in the centre of the lake rocks gently in the clear water. And the sandstone in the crown of Krishna depicted in the design of the outer wall of the Hawa Mahal could not be brighter.
Local opinion, however, remains divided on the way Jaipur has changed in the last decade. Some like Inder, 56, an artisan who works with marble, worry that the city might end up losing its soul as a generation more interested in hopping on to the technology-driven global bandwagon grows up. For others like Arjun, 17, a Class X11 student at St. Xavier's, Jaipur, is not changing fast enough. He can't wait to graduate and go to college in a “more happening place”.
If I were Arjun's age, I'd probably feel the same way. But now what is “happening” in his lexicon no longer appeals to me. Instead, a tingle of excitement races down my back, right down to the heel, as I walk on the ramparts of the Amber Fort gazing down at the moat.
The air pulsates with bygone stories of jealousies, betrayals and clashes between cultures, as I realise how much of the history of eastern Rajasthan is replete with conflict.
The run-ins between the Rajputs and the Mughals in medieval India are the stuff of popular history, as well as that taught in classrooms. But before the Rajputs, there were the Meenas who ruled this part of Rajasthan. They were routed in the 10th century A.D. And then there were the internecine battles between the various Rajput clans.
“If you want to write, you have to have two main things,” the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell said last year at the Jaipur Literature Festival. “You need to burn to tell the story… to tell it to someone else. There has to be a fire in you to do it.” Contrast and conflict make up the kernel from which imaginative writing comes. And there is enough of both in Jaipur to light a fire in anyone.