It was easy, sipping chai on the roof of the Hotel Fifu while overlooking the ancient city of Jaisalmer, to see why British civil servants posted to India so often “went native”. Hearing the call to prayer as the sun set over the crumbling city fort reminded me of a time long since past, of Silk Road traders and camel caravans that had once dotted the nearby Great Thar Desert.
I had spent the previous evening in the desert, having ridden in on a camel still gaudily decorated from the recent Holi festival. Before me lay very little except continually moving dunes. My guide informed me that on the horizon lay another country, a place he described as the enemy, which in India can mean only one place. Pakistan. All I could see on the horizon were more dunes, but as I squinted they did begin to look a bit more menacing than the ones I was already on.
After dismounting, the camel wrangler-cum-guide quickly made one of the greatest substances known to man, proper Indian chai. Far more addictive than any recreational drug, masala chai has always been a firm favourite of mine and has already ejected other more expensive souvenirs for priority space in my luggage. As I sat on the sand near our camels and by my guide, who stared angrily at the border with Pakistan, the true significance of what surrounded us hit me. For too many, the history of India is isolated to the, in the grand scheme of things, recent past. Whether it is Gandhi, the Raj or even the Mughals, these are but drops in the great lake that is the heritage of India.
A few days before, I had visited a shop in Jaisalmer recommended by a friend in Mumbai. The store sold shoes, and had been there for more than eight hundred years. While we celebrate the same anniversary of the Magna Carta, one family simply continues to make and repair shoes as it has been for almost a millennium. Despite rampaging empires, religions, and angry Maharajahs, these cobblers continue to practice their craft undeterred.
Jaisalmer, in the northern reaches of the state of Rajasthan, remains gloriously untouched. Reachable only by bus and train, the civilian airport sits empty and as a result has been co-opted by the Indian Air Force and their fighter jets. As a result, peaceful mornings are often disrupted by the low thundering passes of Sukhoi ground attack aircraft. However, it presents an interesting contrast against the fort in the centre of town, the former protective bosom of the local region, now superseded by India’s nearest equivalent to Top Gun.
Surrounded on all sides by the Thar Desert, the city does present an Old World atmosphere, untouched by colonialism. The only visible traces of a British presence exist in the railway and telegraph lines, the lifeblood of a Raj run by surprisingly few. As a result, Jaisalmer is exceedingly popular with French tourists, who according to my hotel’s proprietor come for a more exotic version of Algeria. The presence of the French is so significant that that he learned French, and has taught his staff useful phrases in the language, an odd sight outside of the former French enclaves in southern India.
I had planned to stay a night in the desert, out on the dunes with the night sky lulling me to sleep. Unfortunately I instead joined one of the world’s most elite clubs – those who have been rained on in a desert – which in the end is a far more interesting anecdote anyway.