Downton Abby, Indian-Style!
For 99.9% of Indians, long-distance travel means a train journey. While the trains are efficient and generally run on time, they leave a lot to be desired in terms of amenities.
With the recent airline woes in India, the only expedient way to get from Udaipur to Jaipur currently is by train. We board at 6 AM anticipating a romantic ride through the countryside. We pass our first-class cabin several times before realizing that indeed what we were looking at was going to be home for the next 7 hours: four bare bunks, two small grimy windows, dusty floor, blinking overhead light, no heat. I shall never complain about the Acela again.
We manage the journey just fine and alight at the Jaipur rail station. Picture this: a swarm of young men surround us the moment we exit, each trying to get us to his cab or hotel. We move as a single unwieldy pack towards the parking lot as I call the driver sent by our Taj hotel. Just as the clamor is reaching fever pitch, through an opening I spy a black Jaguar slowly rolling up to us. Out steps a driver in a long black coat and a beautiful red turban with a sweeping tail. With him is a slight young man in a fey uniform. We step into our beautiful chariot and the young man introduces himself as our personal butler. Ah, Cinderella, so this is how you felt after the magic wand waved over you.
Rambagh Palace, now a Taj property and once the home of the fabled Maharaja Jai Man Singh and his wife, Gaytri Devi, boasts that “Guests relive the royal lifestyle at Rambagh”. We have a late lunch on the sweeping terrace, with flowers all around and peacocks and chipmunks sharing the space. Our room is exquisitely appointed and reluctantly we tear ourselves away to explore Jaipur. I’m surprised to find it much cleaner and orderly than my last visit 20 years ago. The old city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the international monies has paid for massive restoration of the old havelis and the original terra cotta color. The buildings gleam though one is forced to look away and down while negotiating the broken sidewalks.
It is during our next and last lunch as we linger on that magnificent terrace that I notice the effort required to maintain the opulent lifestyle. A man stands in the inner courtyard, periodically making a loud noise with a flag and stick to shoo away the pigeons–which must count in the Top Ten of Thankless Jobs. A woman walks bent from her waist, picking out pigeon feathers from the terrace grass. A sweeper moves forward on his haunches. The sheer number of wait staff, gardeners, security and drivers is overwhelming.
Whether in post-Edwardian England, pre-Civil War South or today’s India, the enormous disparity in wealth and a rigid class structure create the conditions where a few can live royally, supported by the labor of many. I’m glad to have experienced the regal treatment on this 7-day magical journey, and equally glad to return to my more plebeian routine. Though a personal butler..ah well, that’ll have to be in another lifetime.
This article was first published on Magic Bus.