After departing Bundi on a rickshaw ride through sheets of wafer-bodied midges, I board a clanking train for Udaipur, a city famed as one of the most beautiful in Rajasthan. But before I reach my destination, I have a stopover in Chittorgarh. Built on a mighty plateau, the Chittor fort rises over the metropolis, largely (unlike Udaipur) untouched by Western tourism.
Leaving bags at the station, I join a tuktuk driver for a guided tour, before returning for the connecting train to Udaipur.
After an unexplained (and likely inexplicable) delay, the loco sidles into Udaipur late into the night. Eventually I’m sprawled out on my bed in a guesthouse on the shores of Lake Pichola, the windows curiously barred shut. Arriving in such places at such hours is often like an unexpected one-night stand: one does not know who or what one will wake beside, until one does. In fact, more than a few travellers had warned that Udaipur was not so special after all, a trap for tours and honeymooners.
Yet as the sun rose over Lake Pichola, I could see why Udaipur was indeed the stuff of legend. Glittering lake watched over by a soaring Rajput palace, it was a place of light.
That said, much of Udaipur – around the lake, at least – had long congealed into a concentrated tourist hub. The extent to which this sullied one’s ability to enjoy a stay in Udaipur depends on how willingly one surrenders to the city’s charms: the palace and the lake. And I surrendered willingly.
I wandered in a fantasy that had displaced the world for just a moment, except for that dream of India projected from the palace and Pichola’s liquid splendour.
Even the city’s own self-referential effort to destroy its charms with endless tat, and guesthouses that played Octopussy on endless loop – what Gitmo of the mind is this? – could not take that away from me.
The dream lingered as sunset cast the city red, then mauve, then shrouded her in black, until finally I withdrew again, content that I had seen the Udaipur of dreams.