The weather in Rajasthan's Nawalgarh was glorious. The cold was crisp, the sky was clear - blue at daytime, star-spangled at night (the wife asked when we last saw so many stars), and the air so clean that blocked noses and sore throats were cured within a day of reaching.
We got there quite fortuitously. The family argued furiously whether the short holiday to be tagged on to a working trip to Delhi would take us to Himachal, my long-term favourite, or Rajasthan, voted for by the wife. In the end, I was voted out, as is usually the case, and a friend in Jaipur suggested Nawalgarh - as we could then make a circular trip, touching Jaipur on the way back.
What struck the most were the contrasts, or contradictions. Old small-town India with its narrow, not-so-clean lanes is nobody's idea of a pleasant holiday spot. But get into the precincts of the haveli converted into a hotel and the world changes.
The narrow lanes that took us to the couple of havelis - which made up all of the sightseeing we did - underlined the contrasts. The local municipality must have spent what to it was a fortune in paving them with concrete to reap the obvious fruits of durability. But the drains on either side of the lanes were another matter. Drainage across the road widths had not been thought of.
So residents had broken up the concrete surfacing at the joints to dig narrow ditches across the lanes. Over time these had deepened (once the integrity of concrete is broken it tends to crumble easily) to the extent that a mid-sized car had to treat crossing them as hazards, not knowing how deep the puddles in them were.
Perhaps the most powerful contrast was the experience of visiting a haveli-hotel for lunch. The road leading to it was miserable. But as soon as we entered the ornate portals and carefully chose not to look back, we were in another world. Could we not have lunch somewhere in the open, under the sun, and not in the dark dining room, we asked.
What we got was more than what we asked for, lunch under a large translucent tent which almost cocooned us in warmth. The food in the Rajasthani thali was flavoured without being harsh and the lal maas was tender. As we overate I kept wondering how such thoughtless filth and thoughtful elegance could come out of the same milieu.
Nawalgarh is famous for the havelis of the Marwari families who have migrated from there to first Murshidabad and then to British India's premier city, Calcutta (now Kolkata). What I was not aware of was the progress that the Shekhawati region, historically plagued by drought, in which Nawalgarh is situated, has made in agriculture. When I took in the details of the firm footsteps that the Morarka Foundation, funded by the eponymous business house, has taken in organic farming in the region, I took it as an isolated effort.
But the drive to Jaipur revealed green fields on both sides being nurtured by sprinklers. How come, I asked an expert in Jaipur. His reply was that the region's farmers probably used sprinklers more intensively than anywhere else in the country. The undulating land lent itself to sprinkler use as irrigation channels were not appropriate. And sprinklers meant modern farming, in a region whose traditional image was of enterprising people running away from prolonged drought.
Back in Delhi, we were in the middle of fog, gloom and biting cold. The papers said it was snowing heavily in Himachal and tourists were being evacuated. The wife triumphantly declared that thank god we had not gone along with the idea of a Himachal holiday.
As the taxi left Howrah station my eyes began to smart, so polluted was the air. I could not help recall how things were in Nawalgarh and told the wife that since we two as retired people did not have to face the compulsion of living in the polluted air of a city to earn a living, we should go and live somewhere in the country where the air was clear and there were stars in the night sky.
But I met with a firm putdown once again. Living in the country is all very well but what do you do when you need to quickly get to a good hospital or consult a reputed specialist? So that was the final contradiction. You live in a polluted city which makes you ill - so that you are near good doctors and hospitals who can treat your illness!