The silver-surfer traveller is on the rise in India. They’re young at heart and thirsty for the type of thrills only India is able to offer. The author of this article takes his septuagenarian mother in search of a secret Jaipur. By Simon Clays
It can be every expat‘s worst dilemma: the parental visit to India. From whatever far flung rock on the planet we crawled out of, they will, eventually, crawl to us. It’s a must. India is a unique mystique—it’s an enigma of a place whatever media spin your home nation cooks up—a juxtaposition of daily impossibilities; misfortune and fortunes all searing under a melting pot of jugaad.
This is my mother’s fourth visit, and I’m a little anxious. The first time she came to Delhi was over a decade ago: the classic Golden Triangle Tour was more than enough to enamour her. The second: Mussoorie and the exquisite views of the Nanda Devi peak. Perfect.
Last time: the plains of Punjab. Not so successful, but largely because of a big, fat wedding raging on until the wee hours. Hey, our biological interlopers do insist on jetting in at the very peak of the nation’s nuptial overdose. Without fail.
I’m British. An adopted son of India. So, in typical British fashion, I capitulate. My mother arrives, and I have booked nothing. Dallied with Corbett National Park and safari on the lower slopes of Uttarakhand state. Too cold. Paced the front room about a soirée to Goa and guaranteed sunshine. Too busy. Over a beer, and the fact that it’s my wife’s home town, Chennai and Puducherry get the nod. But too far.
The simple truth is that they’re all fabulous options. India has them in spades. A bloody great garden shed crammed full of the damn things, in fact. But, whether my mother likes it or not, no matter how many gin and tonics tell her different, time has marched on, and she’s now a fully paid up member of the silver surfer generation. Wanderlust with a walking stick. A samosa-loving septuagenarian.
We’re getting nowhere, so I decide to test the waters with a trip to Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. My mother hasn’t seen it for some time, and definitely not since the Aga Khan Foundation started restoring it to its former glory. It’s a marvel—the granddaddy of Agra’s Taj Mahal, and worth a visit, whether you’re a Dilliwala or just in town for a break.
My litmus test is going the right side of good until we reach the outer ramparts of the tomb. They’re deemed unsurmountable. I think it’s psychological. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t happening. We decamp to the serenity of the Imperial Hotel’s lawn garden for drinks (another must do for any visitor to Delhi). The drink helps and I zone out into the sunshine and a conversation being had by a silver-haired couple next to us. They’re chattering about a hotel in Jaipur. Heritage. Used extensively in a recent movie. A movie about old folk, sick of life in the UK, who up sticks to India in search of purpose. In just five words, I have my solution—The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (BEMGH)!
A quick Google search later, I find that the property used to shoot a great many of the key scenes in both movies, is just 15 km outside of Jaipur. All the big names stayed there: Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judy Dench, Richard Gere, Bill Nighy, and a host of other British character actors that truly resonate with the mother. And, me, if I’m honest. It’s a deal. Done. What’s more, Castle Kanota where BEMGH was largely shot, is twinned with a superb, little heritage property I already love in Jaipur, Narain Niwas Palace.
At 7 the next morning, our Ola cab arrives outside my house in South Delhi, and we are off: two nights in Jaipur at the Narain Niwas Palace and a further night at Castle Kanota. The perfect heritage break with not a dodgy step to negotiate. Best of all, the Jaipur Highway is now safe, fast, and littered with clean, decent places to stop and graze. We did it in a little above four hours with a pit-stop. Narain Niwas Palace is situated in the very heart of Jaipur. I think, possibly, it is its heart; a throwback to sepia, forgotten times intensified with a lick of paint and modern amenities. Every wall tells a thousand stories. Every photograph etched with Rajasthan’s rich history. The palace was lovingly built by the thakur, a Rajasthani royal, of Kanota, General Amar Singhji in 1928. There was no privy purse involved here. Every brick and beam was paid for by one man’s endeavours, travelling the world in service of the British Army. In fact, a man who was one of the first four Indians, to be honoured with the rank of Commissioned Officer by the British.
We check in, and decamp to Narain Niwas’ rear garden to enjoy the sunshine and the peacocks that swagger by the pool. We could lounge here all day, drinking in the blue skies, but we need to make treks to the City Palace and do the tourist thing. Fortunately, it’s not even a five-minute ride from the hotel. Five minutes more, we’re wandering around the riches of the Maharaja of Jaipur’s palace. My mother is as fascinated by his private residences as she is by the fact that the palace holds the world’s two largest solid silver objects. These are urns melded from coins. At 345 kg per urn, that’s a lot of small change.
In the evening, we dine early at Narain Niwas’ Italian restaurant, Bar Palladio, that straddles the side of the property, in what was the Colonel’s bar, back when I first frequented the place. It’s a gorgeous spot, dripping with Rajasthani heritage and fine Italian sauces. My mother enjoys the experience immensely, and, as much as she delights in Indian cuisine, something sans masala hits the spot.
The next day, we fritter away the morning in the dappled sunshine of the palace grounds before taking an Uber up to Amber Fort. Mother had been here a decade back, but the sight of this mighty fortress, nonetheless, is still impressive to her. Its sandstone palaces stand timeless in their majesty. We’re engulfed in its beauty when one of the most surreal things to ever happen to me, in my 12 years in India, occurs. I hear a roar, turn thinking it’s a bull elephant having a fit on the main road. It’s not. It’s a lime green Lamborghini negotiating the sea of life that is the Amber Fort drop-off point. Another Lamborghini follows. Then another. In the end, I count 20, all in convoy. Lamborghinis, elephants, auto rickshaws, and a throbbing, pointing crowd. Mother’s mouth is ajar.
Incredible India has proved just that: lightening rarely, if ever, strikes twice, in this marvellous paradox. I think Raja Man Singh I, builder of Amber Fort, would have found these Italian super cars a worthy addition to his considerable army.
The next day we rise early and rattle the 15 km to Castle Kanota. It’s nestled on the edge of the Agra Highway, just the other side of the toll. From the roadside, you’d never know it existed. Cross through its forted front gate and you’re transported into two worlds—Hollywood and history. Once settled, Mother and I meet the property’s owner, Pratap Singh, who has most kindly offered to show us around. It’s beautiful, but it’s also familiar. Fans of the films will instantly recognise the Rajput columns of the Viceroy Club. The grounds where protagonist, Sonny Kapoor, finally weds his true love, Sunaina. The Viceroy Club bar signage still sits resplendent in the hotel’s courtyard. Like a thousand other grinning tourists, obvious photo opportunities abound.
If that’s the ‘got the t-shirt’ moment of the fort, then the other gem, but no less interesting, is the museum dedicated to Amar Singh (builder of Narain Niwas), his life, and his 44 years spent on the daily scribbling of his diary. It’s the longest recorded diary kept in the history of mankind, so it really is an insight into how the well-heeled Indian royals lived at the cusp of the 20th century. A throwback in time, and an hour is spent unravelling the life of a man whose dedication was to the military and whose passion was the written word, polo, and culinary understanding. Amar Singh was also quite partial to his tobacco pipes, many of which are on display. As are his library, polo attire, writing desk, dress uniforms, and of course, those precious hand-written accounts of daily life. Pratap tells me there are plans to expand the museum to include a fleet of buggies and carriages, and countless photographs, records, and other memorabilia.
We part with promises to return, then unwind in the waning afternoon, with drinks. There is no bar to speak of; it simply comes to you. Each of the 23 suites are all individually furnished with original pieces, adding to the old-world charm and splendour.
It’s quiet now. The sun is sinking over the yard arm. A cockerel crows. I hear a horse whinny somewhere off in the distance. I smile at mother. She’s no Maggie Smith in the acting department, but this place is for real. So is my gin and tonic. I take a last sip, content that Kanota Fort really is the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A best kept secret until now. Exotic in the extreme, to my mother. And as for the marigolds, I’m no gardener, but I suspect that the fort is about set to take bloom.