Som, should I buy this haveli? What do you think, Somi? Irritated, I ignored the voice, looking out of the opposite window, blocking out the ruins of yet another grand dwelling that dots the landscape of this desert state.
We had driven barely an hour out of Jaipur and already several such sights were making my travel companion’s — an elderly British lady — heart bleed. In all generosity of spirit, she was offering to buy up random places and restore them. I dearly love this intelligent, fair-minded person who works in several parts of the world on charity missions, including Palestine, and yet her kindly words were making me, to put it mildly, froth at the mouth. For one, I have an ingrained aversion to palaces and their histories, almost always linked to oppression and cruelty. Second, and more pertinently, I am tired of well meaning westerners wanting to restore and conserve our heritage.
This conversation took place a few years ago. Since then, the kindly lady has realised the enormity of conservation politics in India, its intricate, obstinate bureaucracy and an indifferent, almost apathetic, local population, and retreated to her French village where she writes stunningly readable books. I thought of our interaction during a recent visit to the small town of Fatehpur, in northeastern Rajasthan.
The kindly lady has realised the enormity of conservation politics in India, its intricate, obstinate bureaucracy and an indifferent, almost apathetic, local population, and retreated to her French village where she writes stunningly readable books. I thought of our interaction during a recent visit to the small town of Fatehpur, in northeastern Rajasthan.
Dropcap OnFatehpur has, even for a princely state like Rajasthan, an inordinately high number of havelis. Most, as we found out, have no connection at all to kings and their courts but belong to businessmen, especially Marwaris, who for centuries have travelled throughout the farthest corners of the country and their earnings have been channelled back to build these family mansions. But this knowledge was to come later. For starters, like many tourists here, we headed to the recently reconstructed and strangely named Haveli Nadine.
The haveli is a perfect example of Western intervention and grandiose pomposity. Originally called the Nand Lal Devra Haveli, it was bought by a French artist, Nadine La Prince, who promptly rechristened it, redecorated it, and now charges tourists money to view it. A pleasant and clueless young Frenchman, who had the day before been coloured, rather mercilessly, by Holi revellers, gave us a guided tour of the place. I left the place spewing venom and curses at conservation without context.
We walked back towards the car, via a crowded marketplace, and my travel companion stopped at a shop selling utensils. We were looking for brass and copper plates. The shopkeeper, after asking us a few questions, sent us off to his warehouse a few minutes’ walk away.
It was an old, broken down but functional haveli that we were led to. The father and his son welcomed us in to the inner sanctum piled high with utensils: steel, brass and copper. Tea arrived and conversation flowed. This was the old family haveli. Twenty years ago, the family had moved next door to a newly constructed house built keeping the modern lifestyle in mind, the younger son told me. “Who can now go three floors down just to get water? The bathroom too was very far off. My elder brother got married and I was next in line. We had to move.”
Despite the shift, the family decided not to sell off the haveli. Instead, it became the most important part of their life, their go-down. It is from here, the father told me, that the business is conducted. “The shop is just a small part of our business. Everything is managed from here. We spend the entire day within the walls of where my forefathers have lived.”
As we moved from room to room, through cobwebbed corridors to the terraces, and down below into the gigantic backyard, where I saw the biggest cooking pot that I had ever seen, I became aware of the history of the haveli; places where people lived and continue to. Conservation, preservation and other stories are just myths that we tell ourselves; afraid we might lose our past.
Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.