In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
‘‘Hey, you want Bond?’’ asked the goofy man, shoving a paper menu into my hand. ‘‘Yes yes… shaky shake but not stirring’’ he continued, directing his charms towards a sniggering Lena. It was the third time in as many minutes that we’d been approached by a restaurant tout championing delicious home-cooked dishes, ice-cold beers and around the clock screenings of the classic James Bond movie Octopussy. In fact, just about every restaurant in town offered up exactly the same deal.
The thirteenth instalment of the 007 film series had been mostly shot on location in Udaipur back in 1983. Director John Glen had made great use of the city’s misty and atmospheric Lake Pichola, while there were also stunning exterior shots of The Monsoon Palace. All in all Udaipur was a beautiful city and the locals were clearly proud of their little place in film history. ‘‘Try our Q salad!’’ said another young hustler through a grin of rotting teeth, before a further hopeful recommended his ‘‘Moneypenny Masala’’, which he described as ‘‘super sexy spicy!’’
In the end we found a rooftop restaurant that boasted gorgeous balcony views of The Monsoon Palace, an ethereal 19th century royal household hovering atop the rocky Aravalli Hills. Settling down with a round of creamy chicken curries and a pitcher of Kingfisher, Allan, Holly, Lena and I watched the movie on a huge projector screen while we ate. I’ve never been much of a Bond fan, but nevertheless it was quite the experience watching the palace scenes, the very same breathtaking views stretching out across the panoramic behind us.
‘‘I hear the island is exclusively for women’’ said Vijay, Bond’s trusty Indian ally. ‘‘Sexual discrimination, I will definitely have to pay a visit’’, quipped Bond. A ripple of laughter cascaded around the restaurant and it was impossible not to join in. And the more Kingfisher we consumed, the funnier it all became. By the time the end credits had begun to roll we’d made a unanimous group decision. Fuelled by the heady combination of alcohol, Bondmania and the considerable magnetism of Udaipur itself, we decided to head out to the palace and see the old joint for ourselves.
Hailing a tuk-tuk, we clunked through the city streets for a bit before coming out into an open road that served as the gateway to our steep ascent. Then we were puffing slowly upwards, our vehicle making heavy work of the climb. I’d just started wondering how Roger Moore would’ve fared if he’d had to give some bad guys the slip in a pathetic machine like this, when we fizzled to a stop around halfway up.
‘‘Uh oh’’ said Holly as we sat waiting for our driver to do or say something. After a brief pause he turned towards us with a silly smile and told us we all needed to get out. ‘‘Please helping push’’ he said without a hint of embarrassment as we all stared back at him with a collection of our most uninspired expressions. ‘‘Just to top of next part’’ he pleaded, ‘‘then everything Ok’’.
And so the five of us, driver included, shoved the sorry thing forward, the fierce afternoon sun beating down on our backs. By the time the road levelled out at the next ridge we were all ripe with sweat, but laughing nonetheless at the absurdity of it all. Hopping back on, I was relieved to see our chariot crank back into life and ever so gradually we crawled to a sluggish finish a kilometre or so later. The driver did not get a tip.
The Monsoon Palace was a grand old structure of white marble, in a state of total disrepair, but with a suitably alluring air of mystery. Peering down from its numerous crumbling balconies, there were magnificent views over the ochre-shrouded Lake Pichola. The city itself looked equally picture perfect, not a trace of movement below as we enjoyed our umpteenth breathtaking Indian sunset. Exiting the complex sometime later, we bumped into a Canadian called James who, as a solo traveler, happily accepted our offer of a shared ride back into town. Since setting foot in Udaipur the poor guy had been pummelled by the locals with endless Bond gags. “James? Ha ha!! Like Bond yes? James Bond!!’’ It hadn’t been funny the first time around and now, after a few days, he was fully prepared to commit murder.
With Udaipur’s unique 007 experiences out of the way, we came to discover a city every bit as bewitching and laid-back as Jaisalmer, another Rajasthani delight that encompassed all the reasons I’d come to India in the first place. And so a series of untroubled days unfurled. We took a boat cruise across the lake to Jagmandir Island, went on a self-guided tour of the city’s art studios where I picked up a framed painting of Lake Pichola. Holly and Lena did some meditation at Jagdish Temple and of course there was meal after long languid meal, which meant further viewings of Octopussy. At some point I could even quote a few scenes by heart, a sure indicator it was time to move on.
One day over breakfast, the girls informed us they were heading northeast to Dehra Dun where orphanage work awaited. It was Holly who broke the news, Lena looking down into her plate, letting her friend do all the dirty work. After a torturous pause where nobody knew what to say, Holly spoke at length about the work they’d be doing, the accommodation they’d been given and the local travelling opportunities. I didn’t hear any of it; I just kept glancing at Lena who wouldn’t look me in the eye.
On the big screen Octopussy’s right hand woman Magda was gazing
up at Bond with an aching look. ‘‘I don’t know how to say goodbye’’ she said. ‘‘Actions speak louder than words’’ replied Bond with a silky wobble of the head. Maybe the suave old dog was right, but real life rarely works out like it does in the movies and the next morning, with minimal fuss, the girls boarded a nine o’clock train to Delhi.
Helping Lena with her bag, there was a clumsy hug, a nervous smile and a perfunctory old ‘‘keep in touch”. We’d had a great time together over the past week, but I’d always known we were on borrowed time. ‘‘Safe travels!’’ shouted Holly, rolling down a window. ‘‘See you later!’’ waved Lena as I responded with a half-heartedly raised hand. There was a rippling wave of metallic clangs as carriage doors closed across the platform like falling dominoes. Then, moments later, it was pulling away and I caught one last glimpse of Lena fishing around for something in her bag. I never saw her again.
‘‘Mumbai?’’ asked Allan cheerfully, the two of us speeding back to the guesthouse in a rickshaw. Once again it was time to be practical; we had to pack up and check out, collect our laundry, pick up our bus tickets. ‘‘Yup…’’ I replied, looking out at the passing traffic, ‘‘Mumbai’’.