Jaipur Literature Festival Blog Post ‘Meet Me in Jaipur’



By Julie Al-Zoubi

26 Nov, 2015

Inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat,Pray,Love and Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel By Julie Al-Zoubi 54 years old, British

Me too. I wanted to ‘go someplace where I can marvel at something.’ I admired and resented Elizabeth Gilbert in equal measures. She was young, beautiful and adventurous. I was past my prime and hadn’t marvelled at anything for as long as I could remember.

I yearned to don a salwar kameez and fuse into India’s kaleidoscope of colour, become intoxicated by the heady scent of sandalwood and star in a Bollywood blockbuster; but ladies of a certain age don’t just take off to India, or so my nearest and dearest kept advising me. Deterred by dire warnings of rape, murder and Delhi belly, my dream slumbered but never died.

In 2012, Deborah Moggach’s novel ‘These Foolish things’ was re-born as ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,’ and Moggach’s colourful bag of eccentric old folk became the unlikely stars of the film version. The retired Brits were outsourced to India, enticed by the promise of excitement and adventure, bags of respect, better weather and a lower cost of living. My dream was rekindled and stoked by a relentless inner voice warning ‘it’s now or never’. The internet is a powerful tool for bridging gaps (even for us oldies) and faster than you could say ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ I had purchased a ticket and was on my way to India.

Armed with a bucket list, rape alarm (a gift from a well meaning friend), bags of enthusiasm and an open mind, I arrived in Delhi. I was prepared for a battle with culture shock that thankfully never arrived. I immediately felt at home amid the noise, chaos and cows. I unburdened myself of all advice to ‘be careful’. I had come to India to live. I intended to smoke beedis, wear bindis, twirl with Sufis, bathe in the Ganges, spend my birthday at the Taj Mahal and stay well away from my comfort zone.

I wasn’t seeking romance, though I fell in love with at least a hundred handsome, moustached men in Rajasthan. I was a woman on a mission; to discover everything that India could teach me. I wanted to learn all there was to know about tantric sex, (though I didn’t try it), the fastest route to nirvana and the least painful form of yoga. I wanted to read books about India and novels by Indian authors, and most importantly I needed to get to the bottom of the sacred cow and delve a little deeper into the mysterious phrase, ‘cow is like mother.’

Every morning I awoke with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning and leapt eagerly from whatever bed I was in, to immerse myself in every moment of whatever India would throw at me. An elation too immense to contain was almost bursting from my heart. I didn’t feel at all like myself; then I realised this was me revelling in the life I was meant to be living. I had been revitalised in the place where I belonged. India is indeed the ideal place for eccentric old ladies.

At dawn on my 50th birthday, I took a rib-rattling rickshaw ride to the Taj Mahal and arrived to find it shrouded in dense mist. As I waited for the mist to clear, the words of Rabindranath Tagore reverberated in my mind as the full splendour of Shah Jahan’s monument of love for Mumtaz was ethereally revealed: ‘Only let this one tear-drop, this Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever.’ The sheer magnificence of Jahan’s love token took my breath away, and my gratitude for being given this moment brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

I was certain that nothing could topple the Taj Mahal as the highlight of my trip but India lavished many more gifts on me. I rode elephants to exotic temples, met the Dali Lama, and got hugged by Kerala’s revered hugging saint Amma. I even had a proposal of marriage complete with the promise of becoming a goddess in a Hindu family. Somewhere along the way I developed an addiction to masala chai.

I will confess to having a thing for sadhus and babas but was left speechless and blushing by a Naga Baba’s demonstration of the Shiva Lingam. Suffice to say it involved a penis and a metal rod. I hiked through a jungle in Goa like a woman possessed, in search of a reported naked didgeridoo-playing baba who lived in a tree. I eventually found him, though this was no mean feat. He didn’t play the didgeridoo but he kindly invited me to stay the night. In the tree. I will try most things once and whilst in India I slept in everything from palaces and pigsties to mud huts but sleeping in a tree with a strange naked baba exceeded even my limits of living life to the full and trying everything once.

I am eternally grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert for inspiring me and Deborah Moggach for motivating me to swop my comfy slippers for a bindi and embark on my life changing adventure to India. I was blessed to meet remarkable people who welcomed me, nourished my soul and truly made me feel like a maharani. My trip to India was a gift to myself and it’s the greatest gift I ever gave myself.

I am ecstatic that I will be returning to India in 2016. The highlight will be attending the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival and hobnobbing with award-winning writers and Nobel laureates, and attending the Festival Ball. I feel like Cinderella.

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