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Letter from India: Jaipur to Mumbai

Street scene in Jaipur

By Marc Kristal

On the road to Jaipur, we pass people in huts by the roadside, surrounded by skinny farm animals; inhabited ruins resembling the aftermath of an aerial bombardment; entrepreneurs giving haircuts or selling drinks, chips and chewing tobacco out of corrugated tin boxes on stilts; camels pulling carts loaded with bags of cement, goats clogging the roads, motorcycles zooming through clouds of red dust. When we get stuck in traffic, people come up offering rugs and beads for sale, or simply bang on the windows, palms out, eyes beseeching.

“The real India,” Bhowani says. As we drive, he narrates, pointing out the dhats – stairs leading down to a river – where villagers go to wash, gossip and look for mates, and the Banjaras, Indian gypsies who go from place to place, weaving baskets, doing ironwork, or else busking (the women dancing, the men charming snakes). Bhowani tells us about the BPL (“below poverty line”) card, which guarantees food or money from the government as long as you work; he explains that the women of the desert state of Rajasthan (literally, “land of kings”) wear bright colors because the landscape is monochrome, that many Indians can not get out of poverty because, by tradition, they must pay a great deal for weddings and even more for deaths, that the bud and the leaf make the best quality tea. Mostly mute, entirely mesmerized, we listen, look, and learn.

Jaipur's famous pink architecture


Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, is unique: the brainchild of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, its 16-kilometer historic center, dating from 1727, is India’s first planned city, an axial, nine-block arrangement notable for its broad boulevards, unusual observatory, and delightful Hindu architecture (painted a terra cotta pink in 1876 to celebrate a visit from the Prince of Wales). The Oberoi Rajvilas, accordingly, draws on the Rajput style – to a fault: the hotel is a perfect replica – only much bigger – of Naila Fort, the roughly 150-year-old walled fortress that Oberoi Group head P.R.S. “Biki” Oberoi converted into his personal retreat some years ago.

The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur


Interestingly, the hotel was designed by the same team that created the Amarvilas – the Mumbai firm P.G. Patki Architects, H.L. Lim, a Singapore interior design office, and the Bangkok-based landscape architect William Bensley – and, as at the Amarvilas, craft is king: the gold-leaf wall murals, vegetable dye frescoes, and superbly detailed brass-and-wood doors embed the public spaces with a palpable sense of authenticity, as do such elements as the traditional lime plaster finish on the exterior walls. The design also incorporates two preexisting structures into the plan: an 18th-century Hindu temple and, directly opposite it, beyond the 70-foot-long pool, a former haveli (mansion) of comparable vintage, which houses the hotel’s spa and fitness center.

The Rajvilas proves also to be a land of abundance: with 32 acres of grounds, the hotel offers 54 guest rooms, arranged in small clusters around traditional central courtyards with fountains, fourteen luxurious tents (identical, we are amused to discover, to the ones at Ranthambhore) that, says front office manager Vikas Sawney, “are our most popular room type with honeymooners,” and three villas with private pools and gardens. And while the Amarvilas feels more like a posh way station on a grand tour, the Rajvilas is a destination unto itself, with visitors that spend seven to ten nights enjoying the resort-style amenities and practicing yoga and meditation. Though the hotel arranges sightseeing tours, says Sawhney, “these guests have seen the city and never go out.”

Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur

Last stop, Mumbai

We, however, do go out, and onward, and after a magical night at the Oberoi Udaivilas, a palace-like hotel on the shores of Lake Pichola in Udaipur – not only a place of great and romantic beauty, but one of the world’s most desirable honeymoon spots – we arrive at our final destination: Kipling’s “Mother of Cities,” Mumbai.

“Whatever is created must be destroyed to be born again,” explains our local A&K guide as we tour the caves of Elephanta Island in Mumbai’s harbor, which contain a Hindu temple, carved from a single rock between the 5th and 7th centuries. The same, sadly, might be said of the Oberoi hotel here, which came under terrorist attack in November of 2008. The modern atrium-style hotel on Marine Drive (like South Beach in Miami, a protected Art Deco district), with panoramic views of the Arabian Sea and Mumbai’s skyline, has been completely redesigned; it exudes an air of utter peace, exemplified by the live jazz, played on a red grand piano in the lobby, that sends soothing echoes throughout the vast interior space (only the heavy security at the door reminds one of the property’s unhappy recent history).

The lobby of the Oberoi, Mumbai

That peace proves beneficial, because Mumbai (“everyone still calls it Bombay,” says our droll guide) represents urban life in extremis: here, Mukesh Ambani’s 27-story, billion-dollar home – the most expensive single-family residence in recorded history – overlooks slums so dense and vast that they resemble a kind of ground cover; and every manner of human experience seems to lie between the two. As our tour bus navigates the tumultuous streets, we receive a recitation of arresting statistics: During rush hour, a train pulls into one of the city’s stations every 45 seconds, each loaded with 5000 passengers (three times its capacity), for a total of six million people in two hours. Fifty-two thousand taxis and 100,000 rickshaws roam the streets. Three thousand new cars arrive in Mumbai every day, as do 300 new families. Even Bollywood – which produces three movies a day, an output that would have given night sweats to Louis B. Mayer – is not exempt from frenzy.

Yet as we embrace Bhowani, thank him for his knowledge, perseverance and good humor, and at long last depart for home, the statistic I find most emblematic – not only of Mumbai, but the entire subcontinent – is the 200,000 hot lunches delivered every workday, by the 5000 so-called dabba wallah, to office workers from their homes. Daily, these extraordinary men collect lunch boxes called tiffins from all around the city and – traveling by bicycle, train, and on foot – show up precisely at lunch time, then collect and return them, all by mid-afternoon. Not only have the dabba wallahs been studied at business schools for their punctuality, they make fewer than one mistake in every six to eight million lunches delivered – and earn $80 a month for their efforts.

In Joseph Heller’s 1979 novel Good as Gold, the protagonist wonders how his illiterate, penniless grandmother could have made it from the old country to the new world on her own, when he – wealthy, successful, respected – can’t go from one American city to another without a travel agent. Something akin to this has been scratching at the back of my mind since my arrival, via first-class transit, in India. The country has taught me two things. The first is that, when it comes to survival, people find a way, often with imagination, energy and grace. The other is an old lesson, but seldom so indelibly delivered: Westerner, count thy blessings.

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Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.

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