Rumblings in my Exotic Marigold Hotel
Jaipur is the capital city of the desert state of Rajasthan, the most populated desert on earth. Former Radio 4 presenter Steve Carver has set up a Real Exotic Marigold experience where, like the BBC series and movies, retirees can come to India to see what retirement would bring.
I live at least part of my life, in what’s known as the music room, a detached, over-elaborate octagonal building, complete with verandas, chandeliers and my small temple outside – set beyond the lawns and facing my own Indian palace, the Bissau, in the old part of the Pink city.
In the beginning 300 years ago, my room was a place to keep chickens; far different from the rich artwork on the walls and ceilings, the multitude of garish colours and sparkling inset mirrors, that I gaze at today. At night-time with light bulbs and candles reflected, it resembles something of a glorious Hindu firework display.
Outside my Enfield Bullet motorcycle is parked, a bike that has played a big part in my life. Originally built by the British in Redditch and now by the Indians in Madras, its reliability is often questioned – if there’s no oil leak, there is no oil in it.
But this temperamental, unreliable 1950’s designed bike is loveable too. For my first Radio 4 programme, I was packed off to India, with no more radio experience than half an hours’ teaching on a recording machine, to tell the story of it. Since then I’ve taken the bike throughout the India, circling the country’s entire coast line and driving up into the high Himalaya. As a legacy to the British, they drive on the left here; quite often.
But back to the task at hand, and things are now taking shape for our group of English retirees who will come here to live – to experience life in an old Indian Palace, at least for a little bit. The owner Janu, a cousin of the Maharaja of Jaipur, has assured me we’ll give them ‘Chamber Rooms;’ some come even with their own internal stone sculpted water fountains.
I’ve known Janu the ‘Maharaja,’ his wife ‘Twinkle’ and their son ‘Chuckles’ for years (the Indian upper classes like to give their families nicknames), and feel very much part of the family.
They live on the roof of the Palace in separate apartments, partly to allow Janu to increase his display of English collectables, from china figurines, busks of British monarchs (most long vandalised and removed from the streets of India since independence), and partly, like most royals, to give space in their relationship, indeed one wonders if the English queen probably lives in the same way.
The current family preoccupation is the son Chuckles, who is about to embark on his second arranged marriage; his divorce, always a bone of contention between Janu and Twinkle – who was more instrumental in arranging the marriage.
‘His wife was a gold digger!’ Junu tells me.
And since the unsavoury divorce settlement, she’d posted unkind comments about Chuckle’s supposed bedroom antics on Facebook.
‘I’ll go to the very top if I have to. To get the comments removed’ Janu tells me. ‘Even Zuckerberg himself. Anal is not a verb.’
There are other apartments at high elevation too. One belonging to Janu’s younger, lesser inherited brother who, like many of his kind, has an abundance of free time and spends most of it carrying a constantly replenished glass of wine (in the Keith Floyd tradition) or breeding Alsatians in the family’s outlying farm. Due to his expanding frame he’s now given to wearing a cape and top hat. The former, he castes wildly over his shoulder as if he’s about to enter heavy winds. Meanwhile, his quiet, thoughtful wife constantly reads Shakespeare on the roof, during sips of chamomile tea.
I have a real fondness for the entire family, who have taken me into their inner circle. There’s a kindness here; a giving, that doesn’t have to prove anything. It reminds me of the current Lord and Lady Carnavon who I once travelled to Egypt with, to retrace the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. They too, were honest, eloquent and kind.
Chuckles often plays cricket on the lawn with his pals, whilst Twinkle looks after proceedings with other well-to-do housewives. There’s a constant flow of polished visitors, some come in Rolls Royce’s, and I’m regularly invited to events. Lavish weddings, particularly in wedding season (February to April) are harmonious, spectacular 5-day occasions, resplendent with decorated elephants and fortresses, fine-dining, colour and dancing. Janu’s even offered to find me an Indian wife.
‘They’ll be a woman waiting for you out on the lawn’ he said one day to me, as if it was some kind of pleasant surprise. I imagined her flat out, perhaps face down but did not want to say anything.
The meeting was pleasant and cordial, but didn’t blossom romantically. It reminded me of a similar situation in Nepal, where I lived for 8 years. A Nepalese porter arranged a mountain girl to be brought down to me in Kathmandu “as soon as possible.”
‘She’ll come from a good family’ he assured me. ‘She won’t speak English, which will avoid debate or confrontation, and she’ll come with a reasonable dowry of farm life.’
Chaperoned by two Sherpas who also didn’t say very much, my meeting with the mountain girl was indeed silent, after-which she returned the three days by mule.