Our over night train to Mysore is a two hour bus ride away in Gadag. Well actually our tickets are for Hospete, but that’s a familiar four hour journey. We can pay the difference on the train, can’t we?

We had had a taste of minor celebritydom in Badami – requests for selfies only causing a small disagreement amongst us over who was the chief draw. The OPPO Selfie Expert, a two hundred pound smartphone, is advertised on billboards everywhere we go; selfie taking as a defining leisure activity evident in all of the places we’ve been. We gather it’s a big thing here, and that we’re the exotics that add some colour. As we walked into Gadag in search of food and a few wasted hours we were again asked to grin inanely into the cameras of strangers whilst huddled together amongst new found friends. I like to think I did it well. The ‘from where are you coming’ and ‘what is your name’ formalities are nearly always observed, and it seems a small if curious price to pay for the privilege of tramping through someone else’s country. It would be easy to be critical of the desire to have evidence that places you at the scene – at a cliff edge, in front of the Taj Mahal, hanging with Tash, Nick and Wilkie – but it’s really only a matter of taste and technology. It’s funny, embarrassing, sometimes irritating, occasionally properly baffling.

Being in a country with a population of over a billion people, I seem to be noticing more the occasional pernicious tendency that my brain has to articulate some half baked thoughts that start with the word ‘They’. It’s a sure sign that I’m about to say something vague about a massive group of people on the basis of a brief meeting with one of their number. So I wheel back, what is it I really want to say? Is my speculation an equivalent to the selfie, a kind of pontificating self-aggrandisment – flimsy evidence of having been somewhere and met the Other? It’s often a sign that I’m tired, a little stretched, in the badlands of my comfort zone, and rarely the beginning of a worthwhile utterance.

Lodgings c1970

Waiting on the platform we encounter an interesting character. He is probably my age, wearing quite grubby clothes, with a warm, slightly eccentric manner. After the prelude of ‘from where are you coming’, he hits us with Milton “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” Shakespeare and Wordsworth also featured, as did the Bible. ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ fitted in there somewhere. After a while he looked at me and said, ‘ you think I am poor’. He reached into his pocket and produced a massive wodge of two thousand rupee notes  (£25). I told him to please put it away, worried that ill intent might spy an opportunity. His reply: ‘You cannot serve two masters’.

We were there a couple of hours, as one often is, waiting, caught up in the minor eddies and swirls and lulls of human activity, and he bobbed back into our waters a few times, trains came and went, he clearly wasn’t going anywhere, we talked some more, he dropped these perfectly rehearsed nuggets of English into our laps, people knew him, and he’d take out his cash look at it, put it away, and cast a quote at my feet. I wanted to know more of his story, but I wasn’t going to get it.

An outing to the zoo

The train comes, we have the usual dash for our carriage, immune to the flicked hands and pointing chins from station staff that are meant to tell us where our 2AC (1AC, 2AC, 3AC, Sleeper) coach will stop – these are long trains. But we’re on, see that a couple of gentlemen are sprawled comfortably on the seats we’ve booked for two stops hence, so retire to an empty compartment and ready our negotiating skills for the inspector.

‘Tsk, tsk,tsk.’ Whenever I read this, I always think, I know what you mean, but does it really sound like that? But this was the sound the inspector made as I explained why we didn’t have a valid ticket for this part of the journey. I was struck by the clarity of the enunciated letters, at the same time as thinking, this is not a good sign, this is not irony, this is not a cartoon.

‘But you have no valid ticket. And minimum fare is seven hundred rupees. Per person. And then there is penalty.’ He sat beside me and showed me his chart of fares. I’d worked out the difference to be about six hundred rupees, for the three of us. At this point the diplomat in me retired. ‘We’ll move down to sleeper class then’. Tash, knowing more, tried to shut me up, apologised for our ignorance of ticket booking procedures. I carried on harrumphing and expostulating.

Palace statuary

He stood up saying ‘wait,wait’, and walked away.

Our ticket took effect about an hour later, an hour I spent anticipating his return, with his ‘tsk,tsk’ and his penalty fares. We moved down to our reserved berths, lounging gentlemen gone, and established ourselves more comfortably. This was an overnight train. I still harboured my anxieties. A new inspector appeared, checked our tickets, moved on, saying nothing.

It was only twelve hours later as we disembarked in Mysore that I could let go of the fear of some mighty fine being dropped onto my lap, and I realised that I had probably been invited to take part in a not so elaborate game of authority and rule breaker, to which ‘tsk,tsk’ was the prelude. And I had failed, somewhat sadly, to pick the ball up and run.

Our first outing into the streets of Mysore took in the amazing market, its aisles and alleyways filled with flowers, petals, garlands, fruit, vegetables, spices, oils, perfumes, incense,  a whole avenue only selling bananas, fantastic hardware stalls. You’d look at a stall holder nestled into a landscape of produce, and think, ‘how did you get in there? How do you get out?’ A young man with good English quizzed us about a type of pumpkin, and then asked if we knew how incense was made. He led us to Uncle’s shop, an olfactory dreamland filled with wonderully coloured and shaped potion bottles, where he expertly demonstrated – ‘I can make six hundred in an hour, ah, but the ladies they make one thousand’ -before encouraging Wilkie to have a go. Then Uncle began to sell, but I can only tell this much, much later, with hindsight. We might have bought London Bridge had he offered it, he was so relaxed and delightful. We left some time later with a few items, completely charmed.

About that bridge…

We made several attempts to visit the famous palace. Our first, after circumnavigating the perimeter of the grounds and walking down the long driveway, ended in failure when we were directed back the way we’d come to an entrance at the rear. Our second, an evening outing to see a sound and light spectacular, and to see the postcard image of the palace lit at night, ‘No not here, south entrance’, an auto dash thence, ‘No not tonight’, another disappointment.
Eventually, we, along with a thousand others, paid our fees, left our shoes at a counter, politely declined the guides, and wandered through the absurd early twentieth century opulence of Royal India. The current incumbent lives in an adjoining property, a separate ticket will gain you access there, but this privilege we refused. He can reputedly be seen, some days, sitting at a window, like a character in a fairytale. Certainly, the story of his ascendency, adopted into succession by the childless King and Queen, the curse of barrenness that’s stricken the royal household for two hundred years, and the current queen’s pregnancy, all seem to create a marvellous voyeuristic tension amongst many Mysoreans. The building, for all its incredible workmanship, was devoid of life. We retrieved our shoes and left.

Throne room at the palace

Our hotel, close enough to the centre, was opposite an old palace, now hosting a mix of art and the slightly tatty overflow from other royal residences. The building was, in places, collapsing. Chunks of plaster missing, timbers exposed, daylight percolating into the interior gloom. The staff ushered us through, some stunning hand painted wallpaper, some beautiful paintings unfortunately roped off at a great distance, a dusty assortment of old games in a glass cabinet, a random collection of battered brass instruments looking like they’d been retrieved from a battle. As we left each room the sound of doors being locked and bolted followed us, until pursued from the last into the tree shaded courtyard, the staff overtook us as they hurried to leave. In spite of the unofficial early closing, the desperate air of the staff and the crumbling grandeur, this was somewhere to like.

There were a number of signs elaborating the desperate need for funds, and some evidence of works begun, but strangely no mention of the role of the current King and the allocation of monies from his three billion dollar fund. It was one of the attractions of Mysore that there were some surviving older buildings, delapidated and overgrown as they often were, but still relevant in their surroundings. It is also India’s cleanest city.  We were only there for three days, but could have easily spent longer.

Black swan green!