In the five years since I had been coming to India I had been resolute not to give in to tourist brochure fantasies—no "eternal India" for me. No ashrams, no Taj Mahal. I would see the real, real India. I would visit the hippist art galleries rather than the holiest temples. Contemporary India. Now, in a country where shrines outnumber showrooms a million to one the absurdity of this conceit is obvious, but leaving aside the hope for any "real" India at all, I finally gave into the lure of the old, if not the ancient. I was standing before the grand Tripolia gate, at the entrance to the royal palace at Udaipur, struggling through throngs of hawkers and forcing myself against the sea to stand still a minute -- hoping for a whiff of an older epoch so little like my own. This was too much to ask for from the already too-redolent street.
Inside was another story. The palace was a gargantuan collection of tiny corridors and precious gem-studded chambers, monumental from the surrounding town but almost claustrophobic from any given room within. I was a prisoner to my intoxication. And claustrophobia is not always a bad thing. The rooms of the palace were claustrophobic in the way that a fantasy might be for a thirteen-year-old just discovering the powers of her own imagination. In fact, the place looked a bit like the fantasy of a thirteen year-old -- if that thirteen year-old was Scheherazade. Each room was studded with mirrors and gems and miniature stained-glass windows, like a series of jewelry boxes turned inside out. This wasn't ancient India and it wasn't contemporary India. This was storybook India, not eternal but seemingly out of time altogether.
There was something so quintessentially Indian about the fantasies this palace inspired in me. But what fantasies had inspired its construction? Once I settled into the splendor, I began to notice it was rife with European details. Full halls lined with clearly continental decorative tiles, and chandeliers fit for Versailles glittering in the gloom. This exotic wonderland was not altogether exotic after all.
There is much to disparage in V. S. Naipal's writings on India, however, I was reminded of a rather perspicacious if provocative passage on the relationship between Britain and India in his first book on the country of his ancestry, "An Area of Darkness." He wrote:
The business executive in Calcutta, explaining why he feels he might join the army to fight the Chinese, begins solemnly, 'I feel I am defending my right-- my right to--' and ends hurriedly with a self-deprecating laugh, 'play a game of golf when I want to.' Almost the last true Englishmen, Malcom Muggeridge wrote some time ago, are Indians. It is a statement that has a point only because it recognizes the English 'character' as a creation of fantasy. (214)
In this palace, perhaps more than anywhere else, I felt aware of the "fantasy" that was India even at its heart. If the foreignness of India was instrumental in the formation of what it was to be "English," then it seems that the notion of Europe was just as instrumental to what it meant to be Indian -- at least, what it meant to the rulers of this palace.
-- Sophia Powers
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