I once asked Maharaj Swaroop Singh why his servants touch his feet before speaking to him. "To show respect," he answered with that imperial glint in his eye, "as well they should."
But the desert surrounding the northern Indian city of Jodhpur softens Singh's magisterial edge. Uncle of the maharaja, Singh is now the proud poet of his region's beauty, guiding travelers on jaunts to surrounding areas. Having represented the district in the state assembly years ago, Singh draws on his relationship with peasants to visit hidden villages, enter homes with his tourists as respected guests, and uncover ways of life still cordoned off from outside eyes. In return he helps Jodhpur's crusty peasants with legal and bureaucratic matters.
He bills his tours as safaris. Given Singh's penchant for philosphizing on everything from acupressure to politics, they could also be called Roving Reflections with Swaroop. Certainly with their combination of Swaroopian self-satisfied majesty and the villagers' ancient traditions, the safaris dish up a spicy spread.
Like almost everything else in Jodhpur, scheduling is relaxed. Tours take place whenever Singh is in town minding his Ajit Bhawan Palace Hotel and there are enough participants to warrant the five-hour expedition to the environs of Jodhpur.
In the state of Rajasthan with its turbaned men, wild peacocks, and women with tinkling silver jewelry, Jodhpur borders on the Thar Desert. Years ago when we first met in another city, Singh spoke about Jodhpur's severe drought at the time and his admiration for the sturdy peasants who were battling it. The proud eyes softened. "Jodhpur is my shelter, my food, my everything," he confessed.
His safaris present spectacular sweeps of his beloved land, accessible only by bypassing roads--which this descendant of warrior kings, who drives his jeep as if it were a bold charger, does with glee, massive moustaches fairly bristling.
During our outing the desert changes from the soft golds of early morning to the hard-edged whites of noon. Tiny flowers determinedly thrust through severe earth. Winds blow dust forms into shapes simultaneously scary and beautiful, then subside into the silence.
Antelope crop up frequently. Singh laments the reduced number of animals. There were more, he says, when his family controlled hunting. Now the animals' protection is left to the haphazard politics of a befuddled democratic state.
Singh stops often to chat with passing peasants, making the ritual greeting, "Ram! Ram!" ("God! God!"). He translates the color of the men's turbans--white for farmers, khaki for warriors--and the women's vivid costumes. The shades and styles of each tribe have special significance.
No where do I most sense the difference between my modern world and that of the peasants' than when a tiny girl, maybe six or seven, scampers to our jeep and cuddles next to Singh, the trusted lord of her land. He points out her jewelry. "It means she is married," he says and explains her marriage (which will be uncomsummated until she is older) protects, discouraging males. Catching the feminist glint in my eye, he admonishes me not to be judgmental of a system which has spanned centuries.
I have to admit the desert dwellers' customs seem to work. Over the years with Swaroop's non-stop discourses celebrating everything from the women's fat silver jewelry, which he says stimulates acupressure points to the healing properties of cow dung, I have become a convert to this New Age Indian philosopher. He points out women flattening cow dung into patties for fuel and tells me to notice the absense of rats and sores on the children in the homes with cow dung drying on the walls. He says it is no accident the cow is the sacred animal of India. Its waste has anti-bacterial, cleansing properties "in spite of what your Western doctors will tell you."
Later at another village we sit in a hut drinking tea and eating wafers cooked over a charcoal fire. "What's in the pills doctors give for an upset stomach?" Singh asks. "Charcoal," someone replies.
"Exactly," he proclaims triumphantly. "The villagers figured out centuries ago--without science and modern medicine--to eat these before meals to aid digestion."
As if to make up for their sparse world, people here drape themselves in lush costumes of pure magentas and chartreuses and cobalts intense enough to withstand the desert's hardships.
Every village is different, and Swaroop seems to be intimately connected with each one. Before a stop he advises if it is safe to leave cameras and money unattended. He knows which tribe can be trusted and which should be treated with caution.
We visit a settlement of the untouchable class and another one in which traditional Rajasthani crafts are being revived. Homes are dun-colored, a shade darker than the desert sands. But many of the villagers with their love of psychedelic colors have brightened the drab walls with flamboyant designs.
At one dwelling standing alone in the desert, a pre-adolescent girl in shorts serves us tea while Singh and the father partake of the Rajasthani custom of sharing a little ritual opium. Shorts? In this land where women often cover their faces? My guide airly brushes away my questions. "You are not a stranger here," he responds. "You are my guest, and I am considered part of the family. She doesn't have to cover herself."
Maybe. But shorts in Rajasthan! I still have much to learn about this vast country.
Certainly here people who under most circumstances might run from foreigners are relaxed because they are at ease with Swaroop. In turn, the rather formal, courtly maharaja's uncle loosens up into a lusty, laughing desert chief.
By the end of the tour when we are at the home of a Bishnoi, a tribe with strict ecological standards, I have asked most of my questions. I am content to be silent, bowing to the desert's rhythms. I watch children play for hours a game they have scratched onto the compound's earthen floor. Two men repair the thatched roof of a hut. A pet antelope steals straw from the roof. Outside the winds howl. But here in the courtyard everything is at peace and all of the rest of us as well.