Before I booked my trip to India, I didn’t really know too much about where I was going. The British colonial past had not been included as part of my compulsory history education at school and so any preconception I had of India pretty much came from my father’s collection of National Geographic magazines and the Disney version of The Jungle Book. Eighteen years old and travelling alone I decided to spend the first part of my gap year in Rajasthan, one month planned for travelling this vast state and one month working on a charity project in Jaipur.
Whilst in Jaipur, I was accommodated at a home stay by the charity, being catered for by the most beautiful Indian family. The father worked on important business away from home. The mother, who stayed at home to look after the children, found the time amongst her busy schedule to volunteer at the local school. The Grandfather of the family could be found sat, with a somewhat composed and reserved manner at the end of the table sipping his tea and the room would always fall silent when he decided to tell a story or share his wisdom. The family hired two maids and two cooks, who had their own living space at the bottom of the house. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner, but were always provided with freshly made tea and cakes in-between meals on the weekend. With no television or computers in the house, evening entertainment was provided either by the children performing something they had learned at school that week, or by one of Grandfather’s tales from the days of the Empire.
During my stay in Jaipur, I became rather taken with the British influence still apparent in contemporary India. I began to wonder how cultural influence could become so embedded in a country. The very city in which I was in, the Pink City of Rajasthan, had been painted this welcoming color for the arrival of King Edward. And centuries later, I find myself sat overlooking this hospitably blushing city drinking tea and discussing the weather with a retired Doctor who was trained by the British during colonization. Yet there was more to this nostalgic noticing of architectural connections or societal similarities, which I could not communicate back home. Somehow, amidst the beautifully preserved traditionalism of India, I perceived and picked up on small, subtle glimpses of my own cultural heritage. There seemed to be an understanding, an interpretive grasp of Britain and Britishness. I wanted to phone home and tell of these elusive traits, yet I found it so hard to articulate examples. It was more than the teapots and the roundabouts. For I came to realize that Britain’s trait of drinking tea was in fact an example of India’s influence on Britain, and the Indians didn’t really seem to want to apply the same rules to roundabout traffic as we do. And then one day, something happened which appeared to capture my observations in the most extraordinary manner.
Each day, I would wake early to have breakfast before setting off to work for the charity, and usually I would have around half an hour spare to sit with the Grandfather and talk. The Grandfather was a remarkable character. Wearing rounded spectacles and often fashioning the ‘Kurta’, a white shirt spun from Indian cotton, he seemed to carry an enlightening presence. During the time I spent living in Jaipur at the home stay, I formed a good rapport with him and learned a lot about his past. He told of stories like riding across the Rajasthani desert on camel back for days whilst on leave from work, so he could go home to propose to his wife. One morning, whilst he was trying to teach me Hindi as we sat in the living room, the Grandfather, who was looking startled and yet somewhat attentive, suddenly jumped to his feet.
“Quickly!” He shouted.
A little bewildered by this, I sat watching as the elderly man started making his way to every window in the room, locking up the shutters.
“Quickly you fool!” He shouted, “…We must work fast!”
Something had suddenly possessed the old man to act like a senile, mad professor in a science lab, pacing to and fro the window shutters in a confident yet slightly distressed silence. Still perplexed, and not getting any meaningful response from questioning the matter I decided to copy the Grandfather and accompanied him by adopting this rather frenzied custom, frantically running through the house shutting every door and every window. After every window and every door was shut, I sat at the top of the stairs confusingly happy at my accomplishment. The Grandfather, who was a little further behind in what appeared to be the “who can shut the most windows and doors competition”, slowly made his way up the stairs muttering “dhan'yavāda!” (Thank you, Thank you!). As he got to the top of the stairs, he pulled one of the windows ajar and raised his hand telling me to wait. We both stood in a surreal silence, peering through a tiny gap in the shutters looking out over the streets of Jaipur. Then……out of the blue……it started raining monkeys. Huge packs….. entire swarms of monkeys leaped onto the open roof of the house, pulling apart the bins, rubbish and houseplants as they went. Scattering litter onto the street below, they descended onto the balconies and window ledges, making every attempt possible to get into the house. The noise made shudders through the top floor as they leaped from other buildings onto the homestay. The maids and chefs quickly appeared from the kitchen, running up the stairs clattering pots and pans and shouting what I can only imagine to be curse words in Hindi. Dissatisfied with their appetite not having been fed, the monkeys grouped together and leaped onto the next house, leaving a trail of noise and destruction behind them. I turned and looked to the Grandfather for some sort of explanation, slightly astonished and overwhelmed at the surreal circumstance of what had just happened. Peering over the top of his glasses; the elderly man finally said something.
“You must realize,” he said.
“…. They’re sly old fellows.”
Christopher Griffiths is a final year student (in 2011) of Journalism at Cardiff University. He has a passion for journalism, photography and film and has travelled two years extensively in Northern India and South East Asia.
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