For breakfast I am joined by a bus load of French tourists and though they are a particularly talkative lot their conversations are invariably constrained to themselves. Unfortunately I had managed to forget most of my school boy French and my attempts at sounding cordial, by the use of a hearty ‘G’day’, ‘Good Morning’, or even my by now refined ‘Namaste’, fell on vacant ears. The best I got in return were blank stares. My erudite delivery had gained me nothing. Perhaps they were all still smarting over the succession of historical defeats at the hands of the British, and Mr Clive in particular, not least of all those lost battles that saw them finally dispossessed of their footholds in India.
For a second or two I gave thought as to whether the French would have handled the granting of Indian Independence any better, and what impact the influence of French cuisine would have had on the price of a decent roadside thali. I tinkered with thoughts of imparting to a lady of generous proportions at the table next to me, that she and I could claim a kind of common ancestry, as in “I came from a part of Australia that translated from the French as ‘New Gauls of the South’”, and some of my post-Roman Britain Celtic ancestors once had relatives in the French province of Brittany. I could have then impressed her with the fact that thanks solely to Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse’s sluggishness in reaching the east coast of Australia in 1788, Australia lost its opportunity to become ‘Terre Napoleon’ and a land of francophones. New South Wales might have ended up being the Quebec of the Southern Hemisphere. Then I could have impressed her with my knowledge of French explorations of discovery in the southern oceans, in particular those of Nicholas Baudin and Joseph Antoine Bruni D’Entrecasteaux. I had not planned to mention French nuclear tests in the Pacific or the sabotage by French Government agents of the Greenpeace anti-whaling ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’, and the death of a crewman, whilst the vessel was peacefully docked in a New Zealand harbour. And I thought it inadvisable to complain about the inflated cost of tourist accommodation in French occupied Polynesian New Caledonia. But at the worst of moments I coughed, this sending a lumpy cloud of curd mist in her direction. So that ended that, the woman not at all amused, though still managing to remain uncommunicative, and at the sound of my repeated coughing, finding speedy excuse to relocate to a distant location; her friends in fast and disgruntled pursuit. My poor and discourteous reception has turned me off buying croissants ever since.
Bidding a farewell to my desert palace I collected my gear, found solitude amongst the firmly stacked luggage at the rear of the car, and started the first leg of my return journey to Jodhpur. But first I deviated to the Jaisalmer fort for one last time. I had decided I would chance starvation until saved by airline food. In through the First Gate I sauntered, found myself accosted by a gypsy girl who I totally disarmed and confused by asking her if she was married, next successfully interacted without diminishment of my wallet’s contents with three wise sadhus sitting at the entrance to the Second Gate, survived the onslaught of a mixed herd of autobicycles as they propelled themselves through to the Dusshera Chowk, and arrived at the door to the jewellery shop. It was locked.
Fortunately the story of the padlocked jewellery shop had a happy ending, of sorts, but now is not the place to recite it. Some stories are best left to an oral re-enactment, not the bland words of the printed page where no matter how clever the crafting the reader is cursed to be the slave of her or his translation of the event.
In returning past the three wise sadhus the idea did occur to me that I could have taken up a position close by. A distance removed of two or three metres perhaps might not cause obvious offence. I just might have convincingly played the part of the understudy should one of the sadhus need a break. But I had no woad with which I could have adorned my face in cultural empathy, my sombre hat did not match the splendour of their orange turbans, and besides, my time here, was up.
My last memories of Jaisalmer were those of fond regret, and that of two enormous quilted bed sheets on sale at the stall of a street vendor in the fort’s car park. One was all of reds, yellows, browns and gold, and sported the words “Bed Sheet Size, One Wife Ok!” The second was of blue, red, grey and gold, and proclaimed confidently “No Need for Viagra! Magic Bed Sheet.” I was curious as to the size of the data set that had gone into the establishment of the latter’s claim. A sample of inadequate size would be prone to a biased statistical interpretation of the results. Hopefully the experimental trials used lots of people.
The drive to Jodhpur is uneventful. I see no Great Indian Bustards though I do pass six of India’s national birds happily rummaging through a pile of waste left at the roadside. I take more digital images of a group of goats browsing on thorny shrubs at the base of a tall sand hill than I later know what I can do with, I look longingly for antelopes that everyone else in the car spots except me, though I note a marked increase in the number of military vehicles gathering at roadside firing ranges; an observation that none of my companions take any serious interest in. This, a meal at a highway way stop, and an additional stop in a little town of unknown name to purchase a stainless steel metal pot from a man who cannot understand why I would want it, takes up several hours. But sensing the driver is overly tired, I attempt to practice ‘economy of sound’; this being achieved with mixed results.
We arrive at Jodhpur late in the afternoon.
Jodhpur is the ‘Blue City’, this name owing to the vivid and auspicious blue colour with which many of its houses are painted. The city was formerly the seat of a princely state of the same name, and was the capital of the kingdom known as Marwar. Early in its history it was a fief under the Mughal Empire, though enjoying a degree of autonomy in its internal affairs. Like Mewar to the south, Marwar suffered at the hands of the Marathas who quickly supplanted the Mughals as overlords following the decline of the Mughal Empire. Stability was not restored until 1818 when Jodhpur entered into an alliance with the British.
Dominating Jodhpur is the great Mehrangarh fort that sits atop the rocky prominence towering 122 metres above the city. You can’t miss it. The walls are 36 metres high and 21 metres wide. Imprints of cannonballs fired by the attacking armies of Jaipur can be seen on the second of the fort’s gates, but more recently the Mehrangarh fort was the site for the 2011 filming of the last instalment of the Batman movie trilogy, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. The foundation of the fort was laid in 1459 CE on the rocky hill known as Bhaurcheeria, the ‘Mountain of Birds’; and one can only wonder what other plant and animals species of significance once inhabited it for at Hometown similar looking rocky prominences are the refuges of rare plants, reptiles and invertebrates. According to legend, its builder, Rao Jodha (1438-1488), had to displace the hill’s only (human) resident, a hermit called Cheeria Nathji. Forced to move, the hermit cursed Jodha stating the fortress would always suffer a shortage of water. To appease Cheeria Nathji, Rao Jodha had a house built in the fort near the cave where the hermit lived. Nevertheless, droughts continue to occur every three or so years. Mehrangarh translates as ‘Sun deity fort’, the Sun being the chief deity of the ruling Rathore dynasty. Most of the fort that stands today dates from the period of Jaswant Singh (1638-1678). Seven gates give entry. These include the Jayapol, or ‘Victory Gate’, built by Maharaja Man Singh to commemorate victories over Jaipur and Bikaner, and the Fattehpol gate, also meaning ‘victory’ built by Maharaja Ajit Singh to mark the defeat of the Mughals. Immediately to the left of the final gate, the Lohapol, into the main fort complex, are handprints of the ‘ranis’ who, in 1843, immolated themselves on the funeral pyre of their husband Maharaja Man Singh. In the collection of ancient Indian tales known alternatively as the ‘Vetala Panchvimshati’ and the ‘Baital Pachisi’ it is proclaimed that “there is no act so virtuous for a woman to perform as to sacrifice herself on a funeral pyre”. I’d like to think the world has moved on.
Today the Indian Air Force, Indian Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, and the Border Security Force maintain training centres at Jodhpur. Jodhpur airport was constructed mainly as an air force base, and in 1971, in the opening phase of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 it was the target of two Martin B-57 Canberra bombers of the Pakistan Air Force. The B-57 was a twin-engine tactical bomber built in the United States, and was a licensed version of the English Electric Canberra, a first generation light jet bomber. Through the 1950’s it could fly higher than any other bomber and set a world altitude record of 21,430 metres. The aircraft met a replacement requirement set by the British Air Ministry for the de Havilland Mosquito of late World War II fame. Construction of the prototype Canberra began in 1946 and was named after the capital of Australia in January 1950 by Sir George Nelson, Chairman of English Electric, as Australia was the first export costumer. More than 15 countries flew the Canberra, and more than 1,300 aircraft were ultimately built; 48 by the Australian Government Aircraft Factory for the Royal Australian Air Force. The British Royal Air Force retired their last Canberra in 2006, 57 years after the plane’s first flight.
The English Electric Canberra formed the backbone of the Indian Air Force in the bombing and reconnaissance role for many decades, the aircraft not being fully retired until May 2007. In response to Pakistan’s air assault in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Indian Air Force Canberras flew a strategically important attack against the Karachi oil tanks. Thus Canberra bombers flew in the service of both belligerent air forces, in a conflict to which Australia, by virtue of the shared name of a British designed aircraft, found itself having a most strange association; as obscure as it was.
It is sometime around 5 pm. The tour car is parked on the side of one of Jodhpur’s main roads, opposite is the entrance to an official building with a sign identifying it as a customs sub-commissionerate, half a building block behind is parked a dark green coloured police vehicle of some kind, and in my hand a camera is surreptitiously held and whose zoom function I handle with a complete lack of competency. Overhead flies a single Sukhoi Su30MK1 jet fighter, the type distinguished by the canard wings jutting from the fore area of the fuselage. The aircraft makes repeated turns and steep ascents, the pilot appearing to cut off forward thrust and allowing the aircraft to fall silently backwards towards earth. Then he cuts the engines in again. It makes a lot of noise. The Sukhoi repeats a series of banking manoeuvres and engineless, earthwards descends, over and over again. The exhibition lasts minutes more than I remember to keep an accurate record of, and it was all just for me. I cannot begin to guess how much the Indian Government spent on the privilege. I have five photographs to prove it, and if I keep tapping away on the zoom-in function, at the images stored on my computer’s hard drive, I can just make out the canard wings on the otherwise non-descript dark spot off-centred in each photograph.
The Su30MK1 is a bird of prey to be reckoned with. It’s a seriously big beast. Of Russian design but further developed jointly with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and the Indian Air Force, this variant of the basic Su30 ‘Flanker’ is designed for air superiority, ground attack, close air support, and suppression of enemy air defences. Its radar is capable of tracking 15 independent targets simultaneously, has a range with in-flight refuelling of 5,200 kilometres, and at full throttle can cover a distance of 2,450 kilometres in less than an hour. Its ordnance includes the indigenous BrahMos cruise missile. In war games the Su30MK1 out-classed Britain’s front line Eurofighter and France’s Dassault Rafale, and these victories were scored without the Sukhoi turning on its highly classified combat radar.
So far India has ordered over 270 of them.