Highway 8 connects Delhi and Mumbai and is part of the modern highway system that is being built in India. It’s a 4-lane highway with a median. As we drove along, I casually remarked to the guide about how much I was impressed by their new road. About 15 seconds after that perceptive comment, we passed a white panel truck heading in the opposite direction, going out of town. The only problem was that this truck was not on the other side of the median where it should have been; it was on our side, weaving through head-on traffic like a scene from some Hollywood action flick. Shortly thereafter, we passed an elephant ambling along in the left hand lane. The guide gave us a shrug, and said “best not to notice these things.” Going from point A to B in India is always an adventure—you never know what you’ll see—but the organized chaos of the road system is still anything but modern.
We weaved through the old Udaipur’s medieval maze of alleys and finally reached our destination, a well-guarded boat dock, where we boarded a small launch to take us to our hotel, the amazing Taj Lake Palace Hotel. It’s a gleaming, white marble, 3-story palace that covers entirely a 4-acre island and seems to float on the lake like a huge party barge. If you’ve ever seen the James Bond movie, Octopussy, you know what I mean. (Most of the film was shot in Udaipur.) The Lake Palace was built by the ruling Maharana of the Mewar dynasty in 1743-45 as a pleasure palace for the royal family.
That evening, we were to be the dinner guests of a local family and learn some of the secrets of Indian cuisine in the process. We didn’t know what to expect, but Madeleine, wanting to make a good impression, decided to dress up a little bit for dinner. So, dressed in her medium heels, above-the-knees skirt, tank top, and new scarf draped over her shoulders, Madeleine looked beautiful as we set off with our guide, Manoj, for a short walk through the markets of old Udaipur to pick up some vegetables for the dinner. As usual, we were the only tourists in sight; but we were used to that. Once we plunged into the noisy fray of the market, however, we immediately noticed that something was wrong. As Madeleine sashayed her way through the busy market, sidestepping trash and puddles, strategically pausing to avoid collisions with motor scooters, bicycles, cows, and vendors pushing carts, the mood of the market changed. The noise level dropped perceptibly. All activity and commerce in the shops ceased. Clusters of women, dressed head to toe in colorful saris, turned their heads in unison, clutched their children to their breasts, and stared at Madeleine with jaws agape. Men on motor scooters rode past her, their heads on swivels, then surreptitiously turned around and followed behind her like rats following the Pied Piper. It was if the inhabitants of a crowded jungle had just detected a tiger in their midst. Madeleine held her head high, ignored the disdain of the women and the approval of the men, calmly picked out some eggplant and okra from a street vendor, carefully assessed the quality of the vegetables by their color and firmness, and confidently strode through the rest of the market to our awaiting car. Now, that’s Udaipur style.
On the way to dinner we drove through a section of town, a roadside along a local lake, where we saw evidence that Udaipur’s ultra-conservatism may be melting, just a little. In a country where 80% of all marriages are still arranged by the parents without meaningful input from the bride and groom, encounters between girls and boys are highly regulated. Now that many girls and boys see each other more frequently in high school and college, parents are starting to loosen up some. The lakeside dive, for example, had become a parent-approved hangout where young people could talk and mingle with members of the opposite sex for a few hours in the evening.
We enjoyed a memorable home-cooked dinner that evening at Devra, the home of major Durgdas and his wife, Ms. Jyodi Jasol. The stone house was well situated on a hill to the west of Udaipur, affording a great view of the city lights and the thousands of huge fruit bats that streamed overhead on their way to their nightly feeding. The lady of the house is an expert cook and showed Madeleine how to make curry and masala and whipped up an amazing feast in no time, using a kitchen that, by western standards, would be considered minimalist. She also explained some of the fine points of the philosophy of Indian cuisine and how it compares to the dietary habits of Americans. Suffice it to say that she has a dim view of how and what we eat. We also had a very interesting conversation with the Major, an ex-military man of regal bearing, about the complicated issues surrounding the large Muslim minority in India (250 million and rising fast) and the need for the 2 largest democracies in the world to work together to solve the world’s problems. We also met the couple’s 14-year-old daughter and Ms. Jasol’s father, a lively man with an upturned Rajputhan-style mustache who had been the curator of the museum at Mehrangarh Fort (which we had toured in Jodhpur) for 27 years. Aside from a multitude of pesky mosquitoes that singled out Madeleine, the evening was a success.