There is a constant eb and flow of guests into the Palace hotel. Something I watch quietly each morning, from my veranda with tea. In this stillness, I recall an essay I’d written years earlier: ‘Happiness and How to Avoid It’ in which I argued that the real purpose of life ‘should be just to hang around.’ I’d also concluded that ‘life is meaningless for a reason.’ I sip tea, perplexed.
There are in total six traditionally dressed waiters in the palace, due to castism, all answering to the name of Mr Singh. For some reason many Indian men, including several of the Mr Singh’s, have developed a penchant for dying their hair ginger, something that would be seen as counter-productive by the British. Calling out “Mr Singh” in the palace, can occasionally lead to an upsetting ginger stampede. But for now, my pleasant, red-haired smiling accomplice, Mr Singh, pours out more tea.
Patricia, a large Australian yoga instructor, born well before decimalisation, is also a regular visitor to the hotel. She practices yoga on the roof with her groups. ‘Yogic Pat – the Housewife’s Choice’ as she’s marketed, speaks with a pronounced Australian accent where the intonation is always that of a question; rising in pitch at the end; even when she is providing an answer. She consistently gives the impression she’s never quite sure. She’s brash too, between staring at her mobile screen and ordering waiters, and on the face of it, she seems to yoga what Gordon Ramsey is to delicate speech.
Each morning ‘she’ and her followers, march by the breakfast room, all with yoga mats rolled proudly under their arms, as if they are going silently to war. Physiques of all sizes, it makes me wonder why yoga pants are so tight. A thought that does not go well with my warmed milked cornflakes (a legacy of the British). A friend of mine and former Miss Nepal, is also yoga instructor but always wears loose fitting cotton. If one is allowed to feel pity for any fabric, it has to be lycra.
Around an hour or so later, ‘breakfastees’ look upwards to hear an Australian version of the ‘om’ emanating through the ceiling. This first, primeval sound of life, the essence of beginning, of existence itself, comes out in uncertain terms, rising at least two octaves at the end. Minutes later they emerge, some dishevelled, but all with a look on their faces as if they deserve some kind of sanctified yogic respect for their efforts. But I digress.
The only other, longer terms guest is the elderly Mr Hampshire; in terms of human beings – quite a rare find. A plain-clothes undercover eccentric, he came originally from one of those grey London suburbs where they still point at aeroplanes.
He strolls around with blazer and cravate, like something of the Major from Faulty Towers. What he’s really doing out here I don’t quite know, he doesn’t make much noise aside from whistling with his hands behind his back. Each day he lunches or enjoys afternoon tea at the nearby five-star Rambagh Palace with a mysterious Madame Boux, a French woman, also in her twilight years, who’s composing a book on Mogul architecture. Occasionally, they ‘sherry’ at the adjacent polo club. Apart from these snippets, I know nothing at all.
Today, I’m to visit our own spiritual leader – a tall Romanian monk renamed Sky, at an ashram a couple of miles away. He leads our retired groups if anyone is interested in life from the spiritual side and does a good all-round job, calming even the most scattered of minds. He even sends his own rickshaw driver, a spiritual follower called Ramesh to pick me up. The rickshaw comes decorated with images of Hindu gods and Yogics, and a set of sparkling crimson beads dangling from a rear-view mirror he never uses.
‘Mindfulness is just another word for meditation’ Ramesh tells me, as he sucks on his Embassy Regal. ‘But you can do it everywhere, focus on the moment, it’s important, especially in this traffic.’
Back at the palace, it’s pleasing to wander passed the pool into the old drawing room. There’s a photograph of Prince Charles and Diana there, as well as a young smiling Richard Branson, almost beardless, pre-airline and pre-false teeth, flying kites from the roof.
In the evenings, there’s nothing like a Gin and Tonic in an old armchair, surrounded by rich family history, even if it’s not your own. The hand painted walls and chandeliers, ceremonial swords, groupings of collectables from London to Shanghai; paintings of Grandfathers in their regalia, as well as photographs, probably taken by Brownies (the Brownies too, on display), all entice and give comfort.
‘It’s not the same as it was years ago’ Twinkle, the Maharaja’s charming wife tells me, as she sits alongside. ‘The streets are dirtier and the government do nothing to help.’ She emphasises this with a wriggle of her head; the charming way Indians do.
‘And the Muslims are allowed to have umpteen wives.’ Janu calls out as he joins us. ‘But the Hindu’s just one. What kind of country is this? Bring back the Britishers, I’d say.’
After some thoughtful hesitation, in which Janu looks up at an oil painting of a distant Maharaja, he continues.
‘I blame the schools. Modern day India.’ he mutters dismally. ‘Every day they come out of the school gates pointing and shouting, none of them can string a decent sentence together. All they can do is point and grunt.’
‘Oh you can’t blame the teachers.’ I counter.
‘They are the teachers!’ he sighs, before thoughtfully continuing. ‘In the great words of Edward Smith, Captain of the Titanic, as the ship tilted 45 degrees. It’s simply not on.’
Like most Maharaja families, who own beautiful hidden homes in all parts of the country, including cousins and relatives – both distant and close, there’s a fondness for the British and the British way of doing things, particularly after Gandhi took away many privileges.
And so, this is how life ticks along, nicely, here in the palace. Next February, our group of retired hopefuls will come out here to join me, and live this unusual Exotic Marigold experience, at least for a short while.
This morning, I gaze into the sunshine, across the manicured lawns, the building’s porticos and marbled floors, as people wearing bright colours walk into, and out of, my eyes. A gardener snips quietly, contently at a hedgerow – inside his own meditation. There’s a feeling of burrowing joy in the solar plexus – an appeal, I hope next years’ visitors will feel too.
Outside the walls, in a bedazzling kaleidoscope of colour, the general hoi poloi go about their daily chores; people, animals, traffic, all convene in sublime Indian chaos. This simple, complicated, scene reminds me of the movie ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’ When the actor Tom Wilkinson is asked by a distressed Penelope Wilton, “What do you possibly see in this country?’ He thoughtfully replies, “the light, the colours, the smiles, it teaches me something.”
You may want to join me out here, in my Exotic Marigold Hotel, and be taught something too.
Steve Carver will be hosting the Exotic Marigold experience next February. For information please visit: www.angelholidays.co.uk