Thursday, October 27, 2011

Of once pretty palaces and bells that still chime

A quiet but insistent knock on the door woke him up. The ceiling fan was still creaking like a clipped metronome. The curtains were flapping soundlessly to the beat. It was an old curtain, washed many times over. The sun shone through the outlines of a faded rendering of a tiger roaring mid leap on the calico.

The knock again.

He stepped off the bed.The clock needles said 9:40 or was it 8:40. 9:40. The floor was cooler than it was yesterday. He opened the door.
"Breakfast closing at 10. You want something?", the 15 year old Marathi receptionist,concierge,cook of the Gangaram Hotel, Bhuj asked him.
"Scrambled egg and toast",he said.
"Wanting tea or coffee?"
"Tea. I know the farmers in Vidharbha are in the red, but go easy on the sugar"
"Jee sir", he smiled."Wanting hot water?, Cold day today, one bucket for twenty rupees"
"Ok.Bring it up after my breakfast is done. Will come down in a while"
"Maria madam already there", he said with a smile and walked back down to the kitchen.

Maria Joao was at the table reading the paper framed against the doorway. A gentle drizzle had started sometime not too long before.
"Good morning",she said adjusting her shawl which she had wrapped around her shoulder.
"Morning. Late start?"
"Yes. Will take it easy for the next couple of days.Plan to leave next week to the weaver village"

Maria was from Portugal. A graphic design graduate learning block printing techniques from the local artisans in the villages around Bhuj.
She spoke slowly, rolling her syllables with care.Also, she was pretty.
They had met at the dinner table the night before.An Italian photographer and a tall Dutch woman on a Sabbatical who were there for dinner were not to be seen.
They had talked of Sicily and Sicilians and how Maria's sister had wanted to marry a Sicilian she had met. In the end she decided not to, after meeting the prospective mother-in-law.
He had never been to Sicily. He wanted to go to Sicily.

"What about you?",she asked.
"Yup.Lazy weather day.Plan to go down to the Paraag Mahal a bit later in the day.
"Hmm.. was there with some friends a while ago, but the entrance charges for foreigners is outrageously expensive."
"Any good?"
"Creepy, if anything..",she said after much thought.
"We'll see..", he said, sipping the milky tea.

It was nearly two when he decided to go to the Palace complex. The hotel was right next door to the walls. The air was moist and the streets wet. Every now and then a droplet would land on the back of his neck. He followed the wall until he came to the gate.

A sign pointed to the right "For buy ticket".
A signboard said that the Palace was built in the 1879. Italian Gothic. A functional Bell tower.One of the three functional British era bell towers in the country.

All around were signs of the Great Bhuj quake, which everyone mentioned once in conversations he had had since he was here .Spidery cracks on the facade. A lopsided tower.

The palace was closed till three. The rubble from Bhuj quake had still not been cleared from the complex. It had over the course of the nine years blended into the forlorn, though not entirely depressing surroundings. Pipal trees were starting to take root among the fallen bricks. The bricks were redder than usual because of the rain. A disused well with a pulley lay to one end. A truck load of sand had been carelessly dumped nearby.
A little girl was busy tunneling into the sand with both hands. Each little hand carefully extracting a scoop of sand from either side in tandem.After every scoop she took time to smoothen the walls with her little palms. Every three or four scoops she wiped the sweat from her sandy brow.She paused for the while to check either end. Soon they would meet. She decided to take it one end at time now.

He decided to walk around until someone arrived. Soon someone arrived.
The gatekeeper.

"What time does it open?"
"Check the board. It says three"

The girl had completed her tunnel and after a pat down on the insides stood back to admire her handiwork. She was now deciding on whether to make a new tunnel to the left or the right of the current one.

"Whats inside?", he asked the gatekeeper.
"See for yourself. Just another 20mins to go".

A red sedan which had seen a brighter coat of paint rolled in. Tourists. A newly married couple got off and the man said something terse to the driver.Honeymoon.Both had their shades on. It was cloudy, so the whole world probably looked like an under-exposed photograph to them.
They came down to where he stood and asked the gatekeeper for the tickets.

"Look here.", the gatekeeper said pointing to the signboard.
The wife pulled at the husbands arm as he glared at the man through his shades. They soon found a convenient fallen pillar to take each others' pictures on, with the rubble as the backdrop. Shortly the husband walked over to him and asked if he would be "So kind as to " take their photograph.
He said yes. He took two photographs. One with the shades and one without.

They walked back together to the door. Shortly a man in an old uniform walked down to the desk at the gate with a steel box in hand.
Soon, the palace was open for business. The gatekeeper stared into the rubble with a disturbed expression for a while and then walked to the well to smoke a beedi.

The palace was as Maria had described. The corridors were wet and slippery. The couple was on their way out by the time he entered the main hall. Obviously, the decor and tenor of the place didn't go well with what they had in mind for a honeymoon. He now had the entire palace to himself.
He went into a room with a stuffed tiger whose fur was now starting to get moldy.There was one room which obviously was the bedroom with full length mirrors. The silver coating had worn off in large patches. The furnishing was distinctly European. He walked into the once definitely magnificent durbar hall. More tigers, buffaloes and antelope heads. Two buckets had been placed to catch the water leaking from a damp patch next to the crystal chandelier. Big drops sploshed into the almost full buckets every once in a while. The stained glass windows fresh after the drizzle filled the far end with dewy light. Red.Blue.Yellow.Green.

He loitered around the hall, looking for a good angle to photgraph and gave up after a few attempts. He walked up the stairway to the bell tower.The bells rang every fifteen minutes.One chime for each quarter and then ringing the number for each hour. Soon it would be four. he scrambled up the stairs to be in time. On the roof at one end was the Hamirsar and a cool breeze was blowing in from there. The tower had been hastily patched up and held rather precariously with assorted scaffolding and pillar support. He walked up the claustrophobic spiral stairway and stood above the assortment of bells, ropes and gears.
Sure enough, at four, the gongs rang out, the oiled metal and wood creaked, the ropes were pulled and with a rearrangement of gears to chime out five strokes the next hour, the tower fell silent.
He stood for a while staring into the tiled roofs of the palace watching pigeons dart in and out secret cubbyholes and cracks left open by the quake.
The sun was now out. He wondered if the tunnel still held up with the dampness fast drying away in the western Sun.

He stood there for a long time. Soon he heard footsteps. A balding head popped out of the stairway followed by a girl in her late teens in a dress she would start hating in a while. After another few minutes, a matronly woman of forty panted out of the stairway and she stood against the railing catching her breath. He walked down the stairway and went back to the entrance.

The gatekeeper was still standing by the well.
He walked down to him.
"So how long have you been working here", he asked.
He shrugged and threw his stub into the well and lit another one.
"Longer than I care to remember."
"Is the palace maintained by the ASI?"
"Nope. The trust runs it. The Maharaja's trust"
"They dont seem to be doing much from the looks of it"
"My grandfather was a halwai in the kings kitchen. He used to say that the King had an ugly queen but a lovely palace.He should have seen it now"
"Hmm... There's water leaking in the darbar hall"
"I placed the buckets myself", he said,"The present Maharaja is a mad man. Ego. Britain, France, America had all said they would pay to renovate the palace.But the man wont listen. He says, he will bring the palace to it's rightful place but not with an Englishman's money. Baawala ho gaya hai sala" ..and after a pause "Poori duniya Baawli ho gayi hai" and walked off.

He stood by the well for some time. The red walls were now glowing, the water slowly drying.
He turned to walk down back to the town.

The little girl was nowhere to be seen. All that remained were two tunnels with damp,darker sand on the entrances and a lazy dog sunning himself on the heap.
Another sedan pulled into the gates and passed him, splashing his shoes, riding over a shimmering early evening puddle.

He cursed silently and walked to the gates. "Poori duniya baawli ho gayi hai"

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