Our Buying Trip to India 2008

Added over 9 years ago

The quintisential India

In March of this year it was time for us to make our way back to India and once again select a container’s worth of knickknacks, jewellery, collectables and antique furniture for our store.   On this occasion we planned a very tight trip, giving ourselves only two weeks to buy everything we needed from India for the coming retail year.  

So, flying straight into Mumbai after a twelve and a half hour direct flight from Sydney we immediately ran into all the usual accommodation problems faced by anyone wanting a hotel room in Mumbai not personally attached to Donald Trump’s corporate travel account.  In fact on this trip, having much previous experience with the city’s generally dismal hotel situation, we had pre-booked from Sydney via the internet using the indispensible Trip Advisor as our guide.  This however made not the slightest bit of difference because when we arrived at our A$120 a night concrete hovel (at 11:30 pm I might add), we were told that our room had already been given away to a “very sick man”.  Did we want to stay in their sister hotel, the Sea Green?  Not really – we had ample warning of the delights of this particular establishment via Trip Advisor and considered ourselves well and truly warned.  So (and here I am cutting a very long story short) we set off and fully four hours later located a hotel with reasonable AND available rooms for 10,000 Rs a night (A$285), the Hotel Fariyas in downtown Colaba.  The room was tiny and shabby, but given the accommodation crisis in Mumbai frankly we were grateful even for that.  And as it turned out the hotel was lovely, the breakfast fabulous and the staff very friendly and welcoming.

This year we decided that three days in Mumbai would be quite long enough to do all the buying we needed.  Amongst other things we stocked up on some fabulous Bollywood-style jewellery from a family of jewellers we found years ago in one of Mumbai’s many bazaars – they belong to the little known Indian Muslim Dowadi Bordas caste and the ladies of the caste veil with a flowery and frilly bordered double wimple that is almost always worn thrown back over the head, giving them a strange Hindu-Mother Hubbard look.  The jewellery, in a style known as Jadhav (pronounced “jaraow”), is hand crafted from sterling silver and then electroplated with 22-karat gold and set with real emeralds, rubies, pearls and sapphires.  And it is simply beautiful – anyone who puts it on is instantly transformed into an exotic Indian princess straight off the set of a Bollywood extravaganza.  The equivalent in solid gold can be bought from the most exclusive jewellery boutiques of Mumbai, but our version is much more affordable and quite indistinguishable from it’s solid-gold brethren.

The famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (which we can’t actually afford to stay in - think $800 a night and then add taxes), occupies pole position at the Gateway of India in downtown Colaba.  Because it’s on the way to several of our suppliers and occupies an entire city block we spend as much time as possible wandering its’ delightfully air-conditioned corridors - the staff get so used to seeing us that they nod familiarly to us every day just like the paying guests.  And apart from some great (if overpriced) restaurants the hotel has one fabulous feature – an amazing bookstore with an extensive collection of books that are three quarters of the price anywhere else in India and half the price of anywhere else in the world.  The helpful and friendly staff are quite happy to ship selections direct to your home, so we take the opportunity to buy 19 kilos worth of books on such diverse subjects as the shenanigans of Maharajas and Maharanis gone by, vanishing tribes of east India, stories from the life of Ganesh (beloved Indian god of prosperity and success), infamous unsolved murders and the works of Richard Burton (his translation of the Arabian Nights, with all the dirty bits left in).  

Before we leave town we treat ourselves to lunch at the Indigo Deli, a café-style offshoot of one of our favourite Mumbai restaurants, Indigo.  The food is excellent and affordable by international standards and they have a very good tea and coffee menu.  I get to try my first real Blue Mountain coffee – at close to A$10 a cup it’s not inexpensive by anyone’s standards but I’m not going to let a chance like this slip by to try the real Jamaican thing.  

Mumbai is quite a traditional city: Indian women wear saris or salwar chemise and are never seen drinking or smoking in public, but at the Indigo Deli you could be anywhere in the cosmopolitan world.  There is not a single sari in sight; the look favoured by these very fashionable young ladies, or Princess Biriyani’s as I like to call them, is a version of the salwar chemise, a loose sequined top over tight capri pants with jewelled sandals and big sunglasses on top of the head, sipping de rigueur glasses of chardonnay with cigarettes held just so.  Meanwhile their chauffeurs are sweating away downstairs in their uniforms polishing daddy’s car and chasing errant cows and dirty beggars away from the paintwork.  Such is life in India.  

From Mumbai we fly straight up to Jaipur in Rajasthan to continue our buying.  For the first time on one of these trips we’ve booked ourselves into a brand new hotel, the Golden Tulip (very nice and hip with funky lounge music playing in the lobby and elevators), instead of the usual shithole we stay in, the Arya Niwas (yes I know it’s a Jaipur institution but it really is horrible.  My father adores it, which just goes to show how different people’s taste in hotels can be).

Anyhoo.  Jaipur is it’s usual big smelly self – it has more open-air urinals that any other place I’ve ever seen on earth.  If there is money in this city it is well hidden – there is not a luxury car in sight, unlike Mumbai which fairly blazes with them.  Because this time we are staying so far from the central bazaars we catch an autorickshaw into and back from town every morning and evening, which provides each of our drivers with the opportunity to interrogate us without interruption for twenty minutes in typical Indian fashion.  Where are we from?  Where are we going today?  And after that?  And this evening?  And tomorrow? No these places are all terrible.  He knows a good shop/factory/restaurant/market he can take us to, very cheap, much much better prices.  Which hotel are we staying at? No, this is a very bad hotel.  We must check out immediately and come and stay his cousin’s hotel – very cheap, very clean - I shudder at the thought.

In spite of the fact that our hotel is of an international standard and brand new, it is already showing signs of wear, and the standard of service is interesting to say the least.  One morning at breakfast the wrong order is brought out three times, but it’s not this that amazes us, it’s the fact that the chef gets into a yelling match with the waiter over it in full view of the entire restaurant and both finally have to be separated by the manager.  Some things in India just don’t change, no matter how fancy the packaging.

Me and Bagwhan

Within a few days our business in Jaipur is complete and we head to Jodhpur for the final leg of our trip.  We book into our usual hotel, the Ajit Bhawan, and it is just like coming home.  My favourite waiter in the whole world, Bagwhan Singh is here (as he has been for the past 25 years) - I love to see him every time we visit.  He greets me like an old friend, tells me stories of the late Maharaja and his family who are the traditional owners of the Ajit Bahwan and slips me extra mango at breakfast, much to the envy of other hotel guests who no doubt wonder why mango is not on THEIR menu.  

Because it so cool at this time of year (around 30 C) we are able to finish the rest of our buying quickly and painlessly.  For the first time ever we find the pool at the hotel actually too cold to use (normally we visit India in May when the outside temperature is a sweltering 46 C).  What we are really looking forward to this trip is the renowned Hindu Festival of Holi and the mischief that will take place on the main day of the festival, Saturday 22nd March.

On the day we venture out to the Hotel’s enclosed front garden, normally the private domain of the hotel’s royal owners.  The garden is now festooned with brightly coloured bunting, several giant tubs of water and tables groaning under huge metal platters heaped with piles of brightly coloured powder.  Although it is only 10:30 in the morning all of the children, from those belonging to the royal family and staff to those of hotel guests, are in full play mode, running and screaming and squirting each other with giant water pistols.  Some have tanks strapped to their backs and one little fellow’s tank is actually bigger than he is, requiring a larger accomplice to lift it when he runs.  Some are getting stuck into the colours and already resemble multi-coloured popsicles.  A group of American travellers get into the spirit of things by heaping colours onto the kids and all over each other.  Although we’ve put on the white outfits provided for us by the hotel we successfully dodge any colour sent our way and after an hour or so leave the kids to it and retire poolside for some lime soda water and iced guava juice.

Our time by the pool is interrupted by the first real Holi event of the day – a procession of 60 or so men in splendid white uniforms and red silk turbans accompanied by a gloriously blue manifestation of Shiva, three women in bright silk saris, an old Sadu character and rather inexplicably, a guy in a gorilla suit.  They have several huge skin drums and with arms tightly interlocked, proceed around the hotel grounds banging the drums and maintaining an eerie rhythmic triumphant chanting that makes you want to shout and cry at the same time.  They make their way around the hotel grounds in a snaking weaving chain and it is quite obvious that many of the men are very drunk and only standing because they are being held upright by their fellow singers.  We decide it’s time to join the action outside and race off to don white outfits once more.  

When we reach the front grounds we are greeted with an amazing sight.  Hundreds of people are racing about in a scene of joyful chaos. The gorilla is running and jumping at the kids and the men in white are now all the colours of the rainbow, swaying and weaving and singing and drumming.  The Maharaja is standing at the entrance to the residence and anyone who comes near him is pelted with handfuls of colour, including members of his own family and his bodyguard.  I note with amusement that the three “women” I saw earlier dressed in saris are actually huge men.  Children are running in and out of the crowd squealing and spraying anyone they can with their water guns, an official photographer is everywhere snapping pictures, waiters are running backwards and forwards with trays of food trying to dodge the colour clouds, hotel guests are all over the place with their cameras clicking away while guards in army uniforms try to maintain a semblance of sense and order.  Ian heads into the melee to take pictures and is quickly engulfed in a moving tide of colour.  So far I’ve managed to remain absolutely pristine white, and I do this by rather cleverly shadowing a dashing moustachioed army officer step for step – as I know full well that the kids won’t dare douse him, at least not this early in the day.  

Finally the entire royal family moves towards the garden enclosure, which is our cue to follow in.  As the children have been told to leave the waiters alone (they are also dressed in spotless white for the occasion) I team up with my friend Bhagwan, and together we storm the outer garden and gauntlet of kids with intimidating stares, fancy footwork and admonishing arm waving.   We make it to the entrance of the inner garden sanctum…and then I am done for, my entire back blasted with purple.  I step forward into the garden and am greeted by the Maharaja who collects two handfuls of red from the tray at his elbow and grinning, rubs it into my cheeks and hair.  He then selects yellow and green and sprinkles it over my shoulders and back.  It’s a process I’m to see many times that afternoon…everyone who enters the garden sanctum will eventually be doused every shade of the rainbow.

The extent to which colour is used at Holi is astonishing to those not used to the spectacle.  I’m expecting some polite sprinkling but by the end of the day everyone at lunch has been repeatedly pelted and sprayed with powder, often in the back when they’re not looking.  The kids are by now a uniform purple colour – hair, skin, clothing – the lot.  We ask the Maharaja how long it takes for the colour to come out and he replies with a grin that it depends on how many servants you own.

The Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel with nomads in the foreground

Bhang, a drink based on marijuana, is also traditionally served at Holi.  The Maharaja innocently offers Ian his first glass early on, telling him it is “milk based” (I sip much more cautiously having read up on the subject).  By the end of the day we are all pleasantly mellow, snacking, drinking, relaxing and watching the kids continue their relentless war games.  The local guests start to relate some very funny stories of past Holi’s.  One tells us that at the previous year’s festivities he had drunk some very strong bhang and at the end of the day had wandered singing up the hill to retire to his suite at the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel.  He was also covered in colour from head to toe, so rather understandably the hotel staff tried to remove him from the premises.  He had to insist that he was not only a guest of the hotel but a member of the family that owned it.  

At the end of the day one little fellow is taken off by his father the Maharaja to be forcibly washed under the garden hose with the assistance of the gardener, a waiter and two army personnel. His screams can be heard for miles, but as his father remarks to us, it’s not always pretty maids who do the washing in life.  With that we thank our rather fabulous hosts and head off to our own room to wash – and wash, and wash and wash.  Tomorrow we are leaving India to return home.  It’s been a great trip, one of our best.  I can’t wait to get the stock into the shop and onto the floor – we’ve bought some truly amazing things.  And next year I’m definitely planning to return to India in time for Holi…


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