Travel: Udaipur, India

by Bill Lennox / 24 March, 2016

Udaipur; Kumbalgarh Fort. Photo/Getty Images

An expert trim from an Udaipur barber inspires a second appointment a few years later.

You don’t expect a shop in India to be festooned with pages from the NZ Listener. But one shop in Rajasthan has a double-page spread from a 2012 edition taped up everywhere: there’s a copy on the outside sign, another on the window and yet another on the wall inside. A whole, well-thumbed issue lurks among the Hindi-language magazines.

The shop is Hemant Sen’s Hairdressing and Massage Parlour in the heart of old Udaipur, where I had a defining haircut and beard-trim experience four years ago. I wrote about it in “Hair in Asia”.

Now, after a trip through southern India, I’m back in Udaipur for two weeks. I’ll see more of this fascinating region and catch up with our 2011 tour guide. But first I’ll get a haircut.

Hemant greets me with open arms. He’s bursting to tell me how business has boomed, apparently as a result of the Listener story. Kiwi travellers seek him out and he has taken copies to tourist hotels in the city so tourists beat a path to his tiny parlour, as his visitors’ book confirms.

Bill Lennox with his 2012 Listener article.

His success has been such that he now has a car (he doesn’t drive, but his son does), though it probably helps that Hemant has since won two more national awards for the excellence of his barbering.

So on a Tuesday, when the shop is normally closed, I’m back in his chair, while my partner is treated to a full massage in the wardrobe-sized massage room.

Hemant swings into his work with the style of a winner. He wields scissors with that rapid snick-snick in the air. He insists I need a full shave. He wipes the cutthroat blade clean between strokes with a theatrical flourish.

Then it’s upstairs for a lunch of dahl, ladyfinger curry and chapati. As special guests, we perch by the open window, constantly fanned and watched over by as many as a dozen members of Hemant’s extended family. Some have come in from villages on the outskirts of the city. They’ll eat after we leave.

His father, a retired government official, pops down from his room to greet us. His father was a barber at the Royal Palace.

He bemoans the modern preference for education that leads to jobs that “actually produce nothing … we need young people in the trades”.

Hemant’s daughter arrives home in the uniform of the local tertiary college, where she’s studying to be a beautician. By then, grandfather has returned to his room so we don’t know where he stands on that choice.

We start to make a move but there are two more uniformed arrivals. Students from Shrinath Institute of Nursing are visiting every house in Udaipur. Everyone (including me) has their blood pressure taken and fingers pricked for blood-sugar readings. There are frowns about one of the women and she’s referred to hospital for further checks.

Kumbalgarh Fort. Photo/Getty Images

We’re told this is one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sweeping initiatives, although it’s actually the work of the non-profit Deerghayu Foundation, which is helping to educate Rajasthani communities about lifestyle diseases. But these days any hint of progress in India is attributed to Modi.

Television has non-stop coverage of his New York rock-star appearances. He tells 20,000 enfranchised Indian expats at Madison Square Garden: “If not for you all, there wouldn’t have been an IT revolution.” Uproarious applause. When he returns, Modi launches his Clean India campaign. Udaipur shopkeepers are seen sweeping the road. School toilets are high on his agenda: he’ll make sure they are all being used as toilets, and girls will be catered for.

Later in the week we have two lunches at the home of Pradeep, our 2011 tour guide. We eat the first in his room. His wife and sons are practising their English. Hardik prepares for tomorrow’s test and Shankul stands on the bed to gleefully sing London Bridge Is Falling Down. The second lunch is special, so we eat upstairs – chicken curry prepared by the men, Pradeep and his brother.

Pradeep shows us the tall, narrow building he’s bought. He has opened a silver jewellery shop but knows there are already too many in town – he wants our thoughts on how he can use the asset, preferably to help his wider family.

We’re staying in a self-contained apartment at the Silver Moon Haveli so we can cook for ourselves. The apartments are owned by an Englishwoman, Helena, and her Indian husband, Manu, who has the adjoining Silver Moon jewellery shop. I spend a lot of time in jewellery shops, drinking chai and buying pieces by the gram. We get to know local shopkeepers as we buy spices, rice flour and lentils.

Ranakpur’s Jain Temple. Photo/Getty Images

Pradeep arranges a driver to take us into the mountains. We roam the sprawling and once impregnable Kumbalgarh Fort and the extra­ordinary white marble Jain Temple at Ranakpur, where they worship adherents who have attained enlightenment. We buy vegetables, often under the amused gaze of locals, from roadside stalls where we are often the only white faces.

Helena arranges horse-trekking at Krishna Ranch in a valley behind the Monsoon Palace. For three hours Dinesh and his attentive (and very fit) boys trot us through lanes on strapping marwari horses, with their distinctive inward-curving ears. Bred for battle, they’re tolerant but would clearly rather be out defending Kumbalgarh. We stop for chai in a village and admire paintings on houses where there have been weddings – vivid horses, camels and elephants, for power, love, good luck and fertility.

Back in town, shopping at the ornate Celebration Mall provides a dose of realism after ogling crystal furniture and glass peacocks at the Royal Palace. A cable car climbs to a tiny temple overlooking the city’s man-made lakes. An auto rickshaw takes us to the outlet of the biggest lake – it was almost dry a few weeks ago so everyone wants us to see the gushing waters. That night, it’s Navratri dancing in the streets.

Surprisingly, I leave Udaipur with strong memories of whisky. Pradeep introduced me to the local tipple and we were up late with Manu on our last night – there was “plenty of chapati” so no reason to stop. Indian whisky is as satisfying as a good blended scotch but it’s the rituals that stay with me. Tap a new bottle on your shoulder and elbow and trickle the first drops down the wall for luck. My wallpaper hasn’t been the same since Udaipur.

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