Someone pulls out a tambourine and a group of teenagers, who until now have been sitting quietly on a late-afternoon train coasting through flat, dry, dusty Rajasthan, start singing in Hindi. First softly, then louder and louder until everyone in the carriage is peering over the maroon leather seats – ignoring wobbling cups of chai and foil-packed, snack-size curries – to see what’s going on. One of the girls approaches us – Jasmeet, she’s 16 – and before I know it, she has convinced me and three others from our group to get up and dance. In the middle of the carriage, we follow her lead as she teaches us some Bollywood-style moves: wrists curling and twisting upwards; a hand on the hip, a shake and a turn of the head.
We get talking, and it turns out they’re classmates returning victorious from a singing competition against kids from all over the country. The teens think England is ‘really cool’ and all want to pose for pictures with us. As has been the case in every tourist spot so far, apparently because I’m tall and rather pale, the attention is mostly focused on me – and the kids are queuing up for selfies and lavishing me with compliments. I resist the urge to tell them they’ve made a mistake, that I’m not Taylor Swift, and just go with it.
Then things get more surreal. Jasmeet says to me: ‘You’re so cute, can I pull your cheeks?’ and reaches up to give my face a good squeeze, before grinning and asking if we can hug goodbye before we reach Sawai Madhopur, our stop.
Who knows what Rudyard Kipling would have made of all this. The author – the reason I’m in India, as the first of two mega-budget The Jungle Book remakes comes out this year – travelled across Rajasthan, then known as Rajputana, by train in 1887, and documented his experiences in Letters of Marque.
Today, understandably, he remains a hugely divisive figure in India because of the imperialist ideas that came across in his works. He is also responsible for the romanticised image outsiders have of India as a country of bright colours and vast, ornate palaces. Kipling writes of ‘women clad in raw vermilion, dull red, indigo and sky-blue, saffron and pink and turquoise,’ and describes ’stately’ marble palaces across the region as ‘overwhelmingly rich in candelabra, painted ceilings, gilt mirrors,’ with ‘dainty’ gardens.
After our eventful train ride, we arrive at the 16th century-style Nahargarh Ranthambore hotel, which is more grand fortress than luxury hotel, and will be our base for tiger spotting in Ranthambore National Park. We’re greeted by a young man in a red robe playing a ravanahatha – an ancient bowed violin – and have rose petals scattered over our heads and our foreheads anointed with a smudge of red as we walk through its multifoil arches.
Shere Khan could well have prowled Ranthambore: Kipling wrote much of The Jungle Book with the forests of Rajputana in mind, before settling on Seoni, in what’s now Madhya Pradesh, as the story’s location. While Kipling and his contemporaries would have been more likely to take their rifles hunting for tigers in Rajasthan, the only thing we’ll use for shooting while bombing around the jungle in a big jeep is a long-lens camera.
Ranthambore is meant to be one of the best places in the world to see tigers, but the chances you’ll see one on safari are still fairly slim – about one in four. But we’re lucky: a trail of paw prints and the warning calls of a peacock and some langur monkeys lead us straight to one within 45 minutes. What starts off as an orange blob about 100 metres away lazily pads towards us through the long grass.
The young female stalks through trees, stops to spray against one, then walks across the track towards us, an adrenaline-triggering three metres from the jeep. The beautiful predator settles on the other side of the track, and sits with her back to us for at least 10 minutes, before walking off into the trees, tiger hips and tail swinging nonchalantly.
The road to Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, it turns out, is also a good place for animal spotting. Its wildlife isn’t quite the calibre of that in Ranthambore, but it’s still impressive. We watch two shepherds herding a bleating flock of white sheep along the tarmac with big bamboo sticks; young monkeys scuffling atop high cement walls; numerous camels with their fur shaved into intricate swirls and zig-zag patterns, decorated with colourful bridles, saddles and anklets; the inevitable wandering cows.
We stop on the pale, dusty roadside by a house, painted white and bearing a date marking the day of its owner’s marriage. Outside, two young guys are working on their jugaad – a diesel-powered farm vehicle that’s souped-up with rainbow-tinted paint, a huge speaker and flower-print material in every colour tied onto every available space.
With them are six or seven smiling children and their mothers. The smartphones come out, inevitably, as do the big smiles. And one of the guys hands out some bidis – filterless, string-tied cigarettes wrapped in leaves – before we get back on the road, driving through water-saturated fields of rice and other grains before we hit big, heaving Jaipur.
Then, what we see when we reach one of the city’s main highways is nearly as unexpected as a Bengal tiger: a huge camel pulling a cart filing in with the flow of cars to go around a roundabout.
Jaipur is also known as the Pink City because of the colour of its buildings. Like other Indian cities, it has its share of smells, piled-up rubbish on the roadside and shocking poverty, but also stall upon stall of tasty street food (try puri, deep-fried Indian bread) and beautiful textiles – huge strips of fabric in every colour are hung up all over town to dry in the sun.
Our final stop is the city’s Amber Fort, surrounded by placid, mirror-like water. In Letters of Marque, Kipling is able to wander Jaipur’s empty Amber Fort alone, and with ‘no sound of men or cattle, or grind-stones…nothing but the cooing of the pigeons’. These days the sound of beeping car horns and city chatter is unavoidable up there, and it’s filled with tourists, school groups and teens. But his words about the vast, dazzling palace – with its heavy golden doors, peacock-feather murals and long, arched corridors offering respite from the heat – still stand: ‘If a man desired beauty, there was enough to spare.’
Kipling was born in Mumbai in 1865 and is both loved for his children’s fiction and hated for his imperialist attitudes. Mumbai-based Kipling expert Parvin Mistry says that, as a young journalist, Kipling would ‘dress up as an Indian in order to move in both circles – he went to brothels and opium dens as an Indian, where he otherwise wouldn’t be welcome.’
Kipling was fond of his birthplace, calling it ‘the queen of all [cities]’ in Kim. Plans for a Kipling museum on the site of his childhood home, in the grounds of the Sir JJ School of Art, proved unpopular and were shelved. The original cottage where he was born has since been demolished and rebuilt, but there’s a small bust and plaque. Bustling Crawford Market still houses the fountain designed by Kipling’s father, while St Thomas’ Cathedral is the oldest British-era building standing in Mumbai and is where Kipling was baptised.
‘Locals objected to a Kipling museum because of his imperialism,’ says Mistry. ‘They said he’s racist, and he was so much in favour of British rule – how could we have something that was bad for us? But it’s part of history, invaders come, invaders go, they do good and they do bad. What do you achieve by remembering the bad?’
Cathay Pacific flies to Delhi from Hong Kong 14 times a week and Mumbai 10 times a week