My husband, Ravi, and I see three kids getting set up for a game of cricket in front of the City Palace in Alwar, Rajasthan. Tempted as we are to watch the game, we hurry past mindful of a half hour deadline to return to the rest of the group: our daughter Sharanya, friend Deepak, his wife Archana and their daughter Lakshita. They’ve refused to join us on a mission to explore the surrounds of City Palace on account of the heat.
Ravi and I reach an ancient reservoir behind the palace. A boat parts the bright green surface of the stagnant water as two men enthusiastically pump its pedals, moving towards one of the many domed pavilions, where a couple is having a moment. I look through my camera, only to find all colors washed out from the harsh light. Nevertheless, I take a few shots and we begin walking back. Half way through, we see Deepak gesturing for us to come over to where he stands with the kids we saw earlier.
I first notice the one with twinkly eyes and a military haircut, named Sachin. Harish, the youngest, but with a face beyond his years, tries to hide behind him while Anil, the eldest boy, a teenager with combed back hair, looks on with large, earnest eyes. Deepak, spokesman for the moment, asks if I would like to see a fawn. “Are you kidding me?” I ask, wondering aloud how on earth is a herd of deer going to appear in a city milieu.
The kids start talking all at once, telling me that a doe has indeed birthed close by. The pitch works; our group of six is soon lined up for a private tour. Sachin, Anil, and Harish race ahead falling back when they realize we’re not as quick.
A man filling a bucket at a hand pump and an old man in a turban smoking an Indian pipe called a ‘chillum’, briefly glance at our group and go back to minding their business. Squirrels bounce off trees and chirping birds fly away, startled by our footsteps, as we approach a walkway lined with trees. The boys stop at a bridge. Our eyes adjust to the relative darkness of the thicket below and we see a head through a gap in the bushes, then another. Sensing a group of humans gawking at them, the deer soon shuffle away, crunching fallen leaves and snapping dry twigs.
“Would you like to see Krishna Kund?” Sachin says.
“How much time will it take to get there?” I inquire, not keen on a long walk in the sweltering heat just to see a pond, referred to as ‘Kund’ in Hindi.
Ten minutes, he replies, and I assume twenty to thirty minutes, knowing from past experience that sense of time and distance outside larger cities is quite vague. A quick consult with the gang later, we’re following Sachin up a staircase alongside a hill. Trees and scraggly, yellowing plants lend some color to the gray hill that seems like a heap of overlapping, obliquely set tiles. Snaking ramparts and turrets of Bala Quila, a 16th-century fort, come closer as we climb the seemingly never-ending, broad steps, sipping water and sidling up to any shade we can find.
Somewhere along the way, Harish points out a small water tank, offering us a chance to cool off with a swim. The absence of an extra set of clothes means that is out of the question, but I welcome the opportunity for a photo break while the rest of the gang carries on. I ask the kids to pose. A few coy smiles and ‘you firsts’ later, the kids run their fingers through their hair, put their arms around each other and flash victory signs.
“Should we go for a swim?” asks Sachin.
Anil reminds him of a mother who wouldn’t be very pleased if he went home in wet clothes. Meanwhile, Harish has stripped off everything but his underwear and jumped into the green water. I take shots of him splashing around and soon notice the wistful look in Sachin’s eyes.
Sure enough, he takes off his red checked shirt and blue jeans, lays them in a neat pile, and says “I’ll jump and you take my photo.”
Just as Sachin cannonballs into the water, giggling Harish jumps right in front of him. I look at Sachin, wondering how he’ll react to his photo op being stolen, but he just chuckles and both of them join hands to do the next cannonball together. Water splashes all over and I instinctively shield my camera. They have to do it again, this time with me standing at a safe distance.
When I join the others, they’ve already seen the ‘kund’ or pond. I pass through a little maze to reach a viewing gallery. The water below is choked with weeds and a small dam stands in front of me. The boys don’t know much about the dam except that it has been there for as long as they or their folks remember.
“I’m hungry,” says Harish all of a sudden, bringing us to the realization that it’s around 2.30 pm and nobody has had lunch.
We decide to head back. Knowing they will make much better time without us, we bid a quick and fond farewell to the kids. I fish in my bag for chocolates, but it yields no result, so the men offer them some money to buy sweets. They refuse.
Pride at having shown us places of their own, ones we wouldn’t have been privy to otherwise, seems like enough of a reward to Anil, Sachin, and Harish.