Alice and her parents were far from their home in America taking a sight-seeing tour of India after which Alice planned to stay on to do a surgery rotation at an Indian hospital in Bangalore. When they arrived at their Udaipur hotel a uniformed hotel porter met their car. He carried a huge parasol. The lining was deep pink and its top decorated with sequins, lace, and gold and silver thread. The decorations swirled around in a miasma of color. Somehow its decorated magnificence reminded her father of Indian trucks on which no square inch escapes adornment; while it gave Alice’s mother a chuckle as she thought of the Quangle Wangle’s hat:
“With ribbons and bibbons on every side,
And bells, and buttons, and loops, and lace”.
The hotel entrance began with a white loggia topped by three domes. After passing through this impressive structure you came upon a broad, vehicle-free terrace of highly polished marble. Along the side opposite the hotel structure was a decorated guardrail peacefully overlooking Lake Pichola and Udaipur’s famed lake palaces; the white Jag Niwas, where parts of the James Bond movie ‘Octopussy’ were filmed; and the Jag Mandir.
Instead of walking directly to the hotel lobby, Alice and her parents strolled over to the lake-side of the terrace and paused to look at the lake. The mirror-like surface of the water reflected the magnificence of the two island palaces, effectively doubling their impact. The landscape beyond was shrouded in a hot haze. It was a magnificent view.
Alice was drawn to the Jag Mandir which served as a refuge for Prince Khurram, while he rebelled against his father. This was because Alice had already visited Agra and knew that Prince Khurram went on to become Shah Jahan. Not only was Shah Jahan the famed builder of the Taj Mahal he was also one of the greatest of the Muslim Mughal emperors. Under his rule the kingdom thrived and arts flourished. Alice found his story romantic and even asked herself whether such love, without an arranged marriage, would, one day, be hers.
Prince Khurram was betrothed to Arjumand (meaning princess) Banu Begum in 1607 when he was 15 and she 14. They were married five years later. Although she was not his first or only wife he is reported to have adored her above all others. She responded with equal love and was always at his side. He changed her name to Mumtaz Mahal which means “Jewel, or chosen one, of the Palace.” Throughout their nineteen happy years of partnership they were inseparable. She bore him 14 children and died in childbirth with the fourteenth. After her death Shah Jahan mourned and spent the next twenty years building the Taj Mahal as her mausoleum. Ironically this great and gifted man, who spent part of his youth in banishment, was destined to spend the end of his life under house arrest ordered by his son. His prison abode was an ornately decorated suite of rooms overlooking the Taj Mahal.
While Alice stood and gazed over the landscape the porter kept to his post and held his parasol over her. When he slightly shifted his stance she turned from the lake and looked at him. The sun was behind him causing her to squint against its brilliance. The effect was that she imagined the porter as an enticing blend of Prince Khurram and her boyfriend Lewis. His porter’s hat became a bejeweled turban and his uniform, white robes. She smiled at him tossing her head back so that her blond hair sparkled in the sun. Instead of avoiding eye contact he met her gaze and, even though his mouth didn’t smile, his eyes did. She blushed and noticed that his golden skinned hand, which held the parasol, was trembling. Had the spell of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s love infected the terrace across the span of four hundred years? Perhaps the surrounding haze-shrouded hills combined with the beauty of the lake had captured their love for eternity. Perhaps Udaipur captured it more effectively than the Taj Mahal where serenity, love and beauty is bombarded by tourists. If it had, Alice’s parents broke the spell by calling her out of her reverie. Quietly the three made their way into the hotel.
That evening Alice and her parents took a boat tour on Lake Pichola. The evening was pleasantly warm and the lake surface like reflective polished glass. They viewed the City Palace on the shore and the two island palaces from the water before stopping at a third island to enjoy its gardens in the cool of the evening. On the farthest shore you could see a flock of water birds rising and landing on the waters. Peace reigned.
Despite the beauty of the evening Alice was clearly unhappy. Her mother sent her dad to get some refreshments so that she could attempt to cheer her up.
“What’s the matter, dear?” she asked as they sat at a table under a flowering tree. “I know that the hotel has internet, and I’m sure that you used it. So, is it something to do with Lewis?”
Alice shook her head and looked at her mother. She turned towards the view to hide her moist eyes. Her mother gently patted her hand, “Cheer up, dear, we are in a beautiful place, shrouded with romance. Tell me your problem – sharing always helps.”
After a long pause Alice spoke, “It’s been several days – no e-mail nothing. So, I e-mailed his friend Charles. The e-mail works all right, Charles responded in a flash. He says that Lewis has taken a two week vacation. Doesn’t know where he has gone. Mom, a surprise two week vacation and he didn’t say a thing to me. It doesn’t make sense. What can be going on?”
“There, there, dear,” her mother squeezed her hand, “I’m sure that there is a simple explanation. Perhaps he had to go home or something – perhaps there is an emergency, perhaps his computer is down – it’s happened before!”
“But, a two week vacation?”
“Look, you got this from Charles, and we know that he isn’t the most reliable, don’t we? I’m sure that there is a simple explanation. Our trip is almost over so I urge you to enjoy yourself and put Lewis out of your mind for a few days.” Alice’s mother smiled weakly as her husband approached them carrying a tray of drinks. The refreshments seemed to cheer Alice up and by the time that they had finished their drinks she was putting on a good act. She even smiled weakly and declared herself ready for the gardens.
A young man approached them, obviously taken with Alice. They fleetingly wondered if he was the previously parasol-holding hotel porter; none of them were sure as he looked so different, out of uniform, in an immaculate open necked white shirt and pants. They momentarily accepted his interest and had him snap photographs of them silhouetted in front of the lake. After they had thanked him, in a form of dismissal, he trailed behind them while they ambled through the lotus ponds and rose beds.
The following day they took their time and so it was almost noon before they were ready to depart and stood at the hotel entrance surveying the sun-bathed terrace. Again, a porter, armed with decorated parasol, sprang from seemingly nowhere, so that when Alice stepped outside into the sun she was shielded from its intensity. She ambled over to the guardrail on the lake-side and breathed deeply as she marveled at the view of Lake Pichola. While she was mesmerized by the view, absorbing its beauty and romance she sub-consciously heard someone approach them. Then the parasol quivered. Alice turned and looked at the hand holding the parasol above her head. It had changed; it was not the original golden skinned hand of yesterday, but a larger white skinned hand. It was a hand that she thought that she recognized. Could it be the hand that she thought that it was? She turned away from the view and looked up at the holder of the parasol. She exclaimed,
“It’s you! How did you get here?”
“It’s a long story, Alice. I missed you so. I had to come.” He smiled down at her, now embarrassed by the parasol and wondering how he could get rid of it so that he could embrace her.
“Is everything OK?” she asked when she sensed his embarrassment.
“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “I had to come. I came to ask you a very important question.”
© Copyright January 2015, Jane Stansfeld.