Emptying clocks of their time
FOR someone like me born in the middle of the 1900s, half a century of discovering India in hundreds of journeys seems not so bad a start to retrospect and observe the changing attitudes in travel. Of these 50 years, the last 25 have also been spent discovering new destinations and then developing them – largely through the restoration of ruins into tourism and leisure destinations – the ‘non- hotel’ Neemrana Hotels. This adds another lens to observe the changing perspective.
When we were children, our parents were certainly less stressed (though evidently no less entrepreneurial) than what we seem to have become, attempting a micro compressing of many lives into just this one. Perhaps we would like to believe we know better than the Indians of antiquity that there is no tomorrow, that our plans cannot be deferred into after lives. Or were our parents just more considerate, spending one or even two months with us on leisurely holidays and where discovery, adventure and exposure were as much part of our curriculum as was daily homework?
In reality, our parents ran through their days and their lives much to the same clockwork of 24 hours. Microwave ovens haven’t yet replaced help in our kitchens nor made a day twice as long. But we still hope to empty the clocks of their time and dream up days without ticking – only it now costs the same league of people some 300 or 500 dollars per day in the Maldives! And the digital deconstruction/reconstruction of numbers in the clocks somehow brings more urgency to each second.
At the level of national, internal pilgrim travel, there has perhaps been the least change. When a family, or even an entire little village, set out to link their legends with the destinations that connect them, this still remains the be-all and the end-all of the mission. Bus, train, legwork – all must converge on the destination itself. Comfort still takes a last row, as do clean beds, toilets and food. Survival through this holy pilgrimage and the penance before the sin washing/retribution or benediction from ancestors is a much larger reward which eventually awaits such travellers. Though even in this segment, the changes and improvements which India has seen as a developing nation are substantial: smoother roads, better and more frequent transport, more hygienically packaged foods, and even cheap hotels which provide more than what the fend-for-yourself serais once did.
But it is at the level of the up-market Indians searching destinations and discovery – where holiday, leisure, family exposure and education also count – that there have been both qualitative and quantitative changes. Statistics about India are always impressive for the sheer scale of numbers which their image brings to mind, but they can also be moulded to suit one’s story. So while we can evoke the thought of the worlds’ second largest population, moving on a rail and road system which is among the largest and most complex in this planet, to more destinations than a continent can conjure up – a certain haphazardness must remain in this imagery. Within this incoherent picture, a most amazing network of flights and trains links with the roads to carry Indians with a certain degree of safety and efficiency, wherever they want to go. Perhaps much can be said in praise of how our India continues to constantly modernize itself without even a silent fuss.
For foreigners, the truth about our complex nation, as Jon and Rumer Godden pointed out, is that whatever is said about India and its exact opposite are both true. Generalisations, therefore, carry a ring of inaccuracy. The India lovers who come to seek ‘India as it is’, arrive with an all-forgiving immunity. Sometimes, their admiration for our imperfections can be worrying. For such travellers the ongoing film of Eternal India runs on, unabridged and uncensored. But for those seeking their aseptic Disneyland of Maharajas’ palaces, veiled beauties and turbaned men oozing virility, no amount of staging a show can conceal the real India. And at every airport, railway station and traffic light they suffer as they observe and remind themselves how India carries on a parallel life in the medieval and modern times without giving its citizens any imbalances of a time warp.
However, living out this past century, the urban Indian citizens’ travel and leisure attitudes have changed with their clockworks. Many more people first drive themselves crazy working through the week, almost to the brink of the weekend, and then need to drive themselves out of this cluttered cabin syndrome to face a blank sky, to unclutter the forehead, forget their city and remember their planet and universe. The cliché of the weekend was invented by the same modern man who rolled the wheels of the industrial revolution to bring efficacy and efficiency to his calendar which once rolled out its days and months on and on just as the undulating green hills.
Now that long breaks are not possible, urban Indians – just as much as citizens in the other cities of the world – need to take short, more frequent breaks. In the last 10 years since we opened Neemrana Fort Palace, the roads and cars have improved considerably. Whereas it was once not easy to fill one easily motorable destination, it is now equally difficult to find a single room in our seven ‘non-hotel’ hotels. Whereas the percentage of foreign tourist has not increased proportionately, many more young, upwardly mobile Indians enjoy the peace and quiet we try and create. The most recent mobile phone revolution now gives many young stressed executives more opportunity to de-stress (partially I imagine) by travelling out with their work, even on weekends. But the mobile takes the liberty of travelling with them – not so much as a mistress or secretary but as a connectivity noose, an obligation for their high salaries, an oxygen-like necessity for their answerability. ‘I can afford the weekend but I can’t afford the luxury of spending it without my mobile,’ seems to sum up the paradox.
The passion with which began the first Neemrana ‘non-hotel’ progressed as a chain reaction because of the continued momentum of the response. But it is still not a chain, in the sense of standardizing the product to a level of indifference. It has taught others, who often spend more to achieve lesser client satisfaction, that the evolved, modern Indian seeks the ‘real’ rather than its ethnic or multinational parody. Coke may be the real thing, in another context. But to the modern, integrated Indian at the end of his colonized complexes, sucking sugarcane sticks in a greenfield is certainly more real than any cola.
What is changing, but hasn’t quite changed is the government’s attitude. Rather than facilitate the tourism sector to empty its clocks of the time still squandered in bureaucratic clearances and appeasement, the government continues to work at keeping them busy with uncreative manhours.
The apathy and indifference of a series of governments to tourism has put it on the lowest rung. Everyone has trampled on it, as if its prioritization would appease only the rich. Even when tourism has long been accepted as the world’s largest and fastest growing industry – one which creates more jobs per rupee invested than any other industry, and among different social strata – the government still doles out electricity and water for tourism as a personal favour only to the well-connected. Building roads to heritage zones, undertaking priority development in such villages where tourists, travellers, opinion makers and the international press and media go, has also remained off the needed agenda. Is it small wonder then that our tourism status is 46th in the world (0.5% of global tourism traffic)? We have slipped from the fourth to seventh place in Asia – below Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, even Korea. And India gets a mere 2.5 million tourists while China, with its restricted destinations gets 25 million. India has 5.6% of GDP from tourism vs. the world average of 11.7%, 5.8% of employment vs. 8.2% worldwide.
But wherever government lapses and vacuums existed, the private sector filled the gaps. Today, the best airlines are not run by the government; the best highways are becoming toll roads tendered internationally and funded by the World Bank or by corporates with a right to recover their costs; and some of the best properties which were run by the public sector have gone to seed. So what are the lessons? By now, everyone knows them by heart. But action is still slow. The Madhya Pradesh government tried to tender out its small, sick units and got no effective bids. The U.P. government now wants to give out its badly-run tourist structures on a joint-running basis. But have they really learnt their lesson? Does private sector want to enter into joint relationships with the government? It does not need much guessing to get at the answers.
Take public transport beyond the cities. When villagers want to commute faster than their legs, camels or bullock carts can take them, what are the other options that exist? Now, in many parts of Rajasthan, tourists are amused to see diesel pump-sets mounted on wooden crates linked to axles and wheels to carry lorryloads of villagers. But these are illegal. As is much of the alcohol served in Rajasthan because the licence fee is Rs 700,000 per year – a forbidding figure to recover in 12 months! And for imported booze you still need an import licence, a clearing licence, a moving licence and a serving licence for a bar. But again, for each occasion you party in the garden, you further need an occasional licence! Because the jaded Serai Act of the early 19th century only allows one to drink within the confines of the serai.
So we hobble along, uphill all the way, the private sector carrying the weight of the public. Two steps forward then one backward.
From a land colonised by a monarchy, India suddenly found itself functioning as a euphoric democracy. But the psyche remained colonised for much longer, and in the smaller places the feudal mentality still lingers on. Nehru’s slumbering socialism has since then paid a heavy price in a top-heavy administration. Our anarchic democracy lumbers on without accountability for the actions of its neo-rulers who are supposedly voted in to serve the people.
The whole scenario is somewhat like a circus, owned by a childless couple – the government and bureaucracy – who live together in a marriage of convenience. An orphan, whom they caretake in a perverse ‘Daily you must touch our feet and acknowledge us as your parents’, plays the midget-clown watched daily under spotlights by the whole world. All the other performers must pay to perform, but they are essentially interlopers – always guilty, forever suspect – unless they constantly prove themselves otherwise.
In its privileged role as the favourite adopted orphan, the private sector must face up to its responsibility and feed the other performers too. This includes the young and virile parents forever feigning a helpless agedness without any pension. Where do they have the pots and pans, the cooks and hearths to take on a billion mouths? But they make sure they penalise their orphan when he feeds them so.
Each performance is a double-edged sword enjoyed by the rowdy, voting populace, who clap and pull down the star performers, laugh at the beginners. The media has no allegiances anyway, it plays a double-faced role.
In this midget-clown role Neemrana attempted the most impossible of tricks. It bought twenty corpses from as many generations since 1464 AD. Lining them before an inattentive audience, one by one it put life into them. Nobody noticed or clapped. The distracted, adoptive parents were meanwhile busy, not nurturing many other orphans. But when the corpses, now alive, were noticed by the world, the foster parents – the government and bureaucracy of Rajasthan – began showing an interest, even owning up their awakened past.
We suddenly got a notice to pay ‘conversion charges’ for converting our home (like the Maharajas) into a commercial property. But only snakes, bats and bees had lived in the Neemrana ruins when we acquired it after its being on the market for forty years. Is the reward for restoring India’s heritage only penalties?
Now politicians have demonstrated their interest publicly to grab this running heritage hotel by their sudden discovery that of all the unrestored ruins, only Neemrana is a national and historic treasure. No policy is yet formulated on the ruined treasures which continue to crumble.
So we are always on a tightrope, under the spotlight in the arena. They’re watching us without a helping hand. Half-way, they’ll shake the rope, ‘Let’s see if they can still balance.’ The more we do, the more difficult they’ll keep making it for us. And should we make it to the other end, despite the harassment, they’ll be there to greet us with electric shocks. Just to send us back, keep us dangling mid-air at their mercy.
India, its sights and destinations have been waiting and I think that they still have an indefinite period of waiting before our current attitudes and lack of infrastructure which block all avenues of progress are made ready. These must precede the act of positive travel and tourism itself. There does seem a trend towards change. But one never knows if this is not just the eternal insuppressible optimism within, which is the raison d’etre of those who really know, that tourism is our ‘hope sector’ for bailing out India from all its debts.