Peter can’t believe how much his daughter sleeps. As much as a teenager, he thinks, maybe more. She’s almost thirty and she curls up and shuts her eyes at every opportunity. ‘I’m going to read my book here for a while,’ she says and he listens for the sound of her gentle snores minutes later. This trip he has taken with her is so far from the one he had imagined, it almost makes him laugh. He needs her to wake up and take charge. He doesn’t know what to do by himself.
He and his daughter are sharing a room in a haveli guest house in the centre of the blue city of Bundi. The room-sharing thing could have been awkward, but his daughter side-steps awkward and goes straight for getting shit done. She enters the room, drops her rucksack, pulls back the heavy, damp-smelling blankets from the bed and pushes apart the two single beds underneath. How did she know? She always knows. She takes out her book, bottle of water, pills and glasses and leaves them on the floor between the beds, her almost-daily nesting ritual. This is what she does whenever they arrive somewhere new.
Peter stands and looks both ways on the narrow street outside the guesthouse. He is alone. The afternoon is hot. His daughter sleeps upstairs and he has decided he must get out; he can’t depend on her. On either side of the street there are open drains with water and waste fermenting in them, which he avoids looking too closely at. He considers the cuts and wounds on his toes, which peek out from his brown leather sandals, exposed to potentially fatal waste just inches away. He starts walking, faster than he needs to but he can’t find a comfortable pace. Slow down, slow down. He’s nervous. A scooter whips past him, avoiding him by just inches, its cartoonish horn coming too late. Others on the street ahead of him move lazily aside and he wonders how long it takes for the fright to be frightened out of you in India. Others don’t seem bothered by the noise and obstacles. There must be some peace here somewhere.
He arrives at a junction—to his left, a hill towards the palace that looks down on the city. To his right, another narrow street whose shops spill out onto it. And cows. They’re quiet and move slowly, unlike just about every other thing. Just over a week into the trip and he has already become accustomed to the cows to the point where he hardly notices them. He starts up the hill, which begins as a gentle incline, but he can feel the strain in his calves almost immediately. The sun covers his back, burns his neck and his bald patch, as though giving him special attention. Guests first.
The trip was her idea, she’d phoned him and said, ‘Come to India, it will be great,’ like it was the easiest thing in the world. She’d been out here for two months already and she’d suggested he come and spend two weeks travelling with her before flying home together. The idea of spending two weeks of quality time with his grown-up daughter was exciting to him. Not many parents get this opportunity, he thought. He was proud of their close relationship. He imagined them camping under the stars, breathing thick tropical air, sharing meals and gestures of gratitude with locals. No language, but understanding nonetheless. Trains and hill stations and mountain air, rocking chairs and four-poster beds. Bare feet, unwashed hair and browned skin.
The hill is steeper than he’d estimated. He stops to take a drink of water and catch his breath. He doubts his resolve for the climb. A skinny man approaches him with a map in his hand. He’s wearing what all the local men seem to wear—a short-sleeved grey shirt, dress trousers and sandals. His stubble is intermittently grey and black and his large dimples form parentheses around a gorge-wide grin. He points to his map.
‘You want to see the palace and fort?’ the man asks, nodding in agreement with himself the whole time. He is truly living the word ‘yes.’
‘No, thanks,’ Peter replies, a reflex. It doesn’t matter. The man will guide him whether he wants to be guided or not. He continues his slow ascent and the guide follows.
‘Sirsirsir, I have great knowledge about the palace and fort. The fort is called Taragarh Fort and Taragarh means “star”.’
Peter wants the company, he can no longer deny this. He takes the map from the guide and examines it. It’s in Hindi but he can see that it’s a floorplan of the palace with each room labeled. He hands it back.
‘Are you from Bundi?’ he asks.
His daughter had a husband once, a man who Peter despised with all the power of a daughter’s father and something more on top of that, something that encompassed his feelings about all the mistakes his daughter had ever made. The Frenchman had not done her any wrong in the end—she left him and they separated before she turned twenty-six. During the following year, Peter’s hair had turned greyer and his face redder. He would watch his daughter curled up on the sofa in the sun room of the house he shared with his second wife, intermittently texting and sleeping. That’s all she wanted to do. He wondered if something had happened when she was sixteen to cause her to stay that age forever.
The guide is from Bundi, yes, and he also works as a driver and does Peter need to drive anywhere tomorrow? Is he going to the airport? No, thank you, Peter says. They are almost at the palace now, having walked past a fort but not bothered with going inside. He has had it up to here with forts. It’s the palace that interests him. They stop outside to look back down on the city. The blue is more dazzling from where he stands than it is when he is in amongst the buildings. You don’t notice the blue when you’re walking around, there’s too much else going on. It has to be seen from a distance. The road out of the city hugs the mess of blue buildings, just about holding them together, and then glides around the mountain on the other side.
Peter feels as though this trip to the palace by himself might be a defining moment in his later life. He arrived at being the person he is when he was approximately thirty-seven years old, a year after meeting his second wife, and has remained steadfastly that way ever since, with little disrupting his mild autumn. He often misses the turbulence of earlier development, the years when things happen that have the power to shape a person, when there’s always something dramatic happening. He has ventured out alone into an Indian city, a blue city, and will feel the full weight of his growth. He can’t wait to tell the story when he gets home.
They enter the palace and he finds the guide to be informative. He could be making it up, of course, but Peter detects a genuine passion in his companion. Something that makes the guide want to drag strangers around this palace instead of driving them places for better money. The palace is a dream, a film set, a place that seems familiar. It reminds him of the time he arrived in Times Square and felt he already knew where to go. This is film-India. He leans on the blonde-stone wall underneath an arch and imagines having his photo taken here with his daughter. He would show it to his wife and his brother and he would say, ‘Just look at this place.’ They would marvel at the foreign familiarity of it all. He snaps pictures for his daughter of the elephant carvings on the walls and the views of the city.
Peter thinks his daughter can be a foolish girl sometimes. She’ll miss this. When she is awake and planning, she is the most assured and confident travel companion he could wish for. She is so good she makes him lazy. He doesn’t think about how to get places or buy train tickets—of course she has that figured out already—and she’ll always make sure they get to the station early so she can smoke cigarettes and he can buy snacks for the journey.
He doesn’t like confrontation, especially with her. She is so good at it. She has had a map to confrontation folded in her breast pocket since she was thirteen and she can walk around it with her eyes closed. His decision not to wake her before leaving their guest house was based on years of experience.
And now she’ll miss this.
Outside, Peter hands the guide 100 rupees, who buries it in his pocket without saying thanks. The heat is losing its resolve as they begin walking back down the hill. This is Peter’s favourite time of day. ‘You want to get a drink?’ he asks the guide. He’s not sure what he’s thinking, it just came out.
‘Yes, sir, come, best chai in Bundi,’ says the guide.
He was imagining something stronger than chai but he feels some momentum gathering in this experience. He follows his guide, who is now walking quite quickly through the busy streets, past the turnoff for the guest house where his daughter sleeps, deeper into the town and into still narrower alleys. He tries to keep track—left, right, left, left, right. Eventually, the guide steps into a doorway, pushing aside a dirty curtain. Peter follows, tripping on the small step up into the room, and puts a hand on his guide’s shoulder to steady himself. His eyes adjust to the dark.
He thinks for less than a moment: he could have just followed this man to his death, or at least his kidnapping followed by his eventual release after months of torture. He does not remember any of the street names that led him here. This thought evaporates as his guide ushers him to a low table in the centre of the room and invites him to sit.
‘My wife makes excellent chai,’ says the guide, kneeling, resting back on his feet and stretching his arms above his head. His shoulders click and bend, appearing to almost pop out of their sockets as he pulls his limbs end from end. Peter introduces himself to the guide’s wife, who is heating water on a small stove. She ushers him away to sit with her husband and wait to be served.
‘You’ve had a long day?’ Peter asks the man.
‘Yes sir,’ the guide says. ‘Drive to airport at five this morning, then again at nine, then guide in the afternoon.’
He wonders if the guide has had a nap between jobs, in the heat of the afternoon. His eyes take inventory of the small room in which he sits cross-legged. There are blue and white tiles on the wall. Not white-white, twenty-cigarettes-a-day white. There’s some outdoor furniture against another wall, bleached-out pink. The rug on which they sit is the texture of steel wool. There is a divan in the corner, just big enough for one person.
The chai is milky and sugary with a hint of masala and it makes him want to close his eyes and rest. It seeps through him like water through soil. The guide asks him questions: Where are you from? England. Do you travel alone? No, with my daughter. You have a wife? Yes, at home. You need to drive somewhere tomorrow or the day after? No, we’re taking the train, but thank you. I’ll take you to the train station? Yes, that would be good.
Peter wants to leave. He has shared tea with this friendly stranger in his home in India. It is a good story but now he is uncomfortable. There are two more cups of chai and an exchange of mobile phone numbers before he can make his escape. He asks for directions and memorises them. The sun has set by the time he arrives back at the guesthouse.
His daughter is still asleep. He closes the door and steps towards the bed, placing his backpack on the floor. He had thought of slamming the door to wake her up, but could not go through with it. He takes a seat and watches her. Waking her for school had been Peter’s job, never his wife’s, and he always felt that this was unfair. It meant his daughter would associate him with her least favourite part of the day. She would yell when he turned on the light and sat on the edge of her bed, telling her as gently as he could that it was time to get up. Later, he employed the family dog’s help, working it into a frenzy and sending it running up the stairs to her bedroom, where it would leap on top of her and she couldn’t help but scream with laughter.
He touches her cheek and discovers it tacky with sweat. She opens her eyes.
‘What time is it?’ she asks, sitting up.
‘Dinner time. What do you fancy for dinner?’ he asks.
‘Indian food,’ she replies. A joke.
He finds himself irritated.
‘Let’s get going then,’ he says. Sleep is heavy in the bedroom.
‘Did you get the internet to work?’ she asks.
‘No,’ he replies.
The next day, his phone rings early in the morning. The guide. He ignores the call, meaning to return it. He never does. Later that night, another call, which he ignores. The following morning, he and his daughter hail a passing cab to the train station outside the guesthouse and share a silent, bumpy journey.