The town of Alwar in India is a couple of hours to the north and west of New Delhi by car. The Alwar Government Museum is found by ascending a series of connecting stairways within the City Palace of Anwar, now used largely as a headquarters for various government agencies. It is easy to get lost when you emerge from the first staircase into an open courtyard about the size of a football field. Seventeen stray dogs are lying in their favorite patches of sun, dead to the world. A million tin canisters are stacked at the far side of the square, left over from World War II maybe. A group of men are filling out documents in an alcove. If you ask them where the museum is, they will point up with one finger while continuing to write at those precious documents. The dogs sleep, the bureaucracy churns out documents, and you go up, up into the higher reaches of the City Palace.
Within the museum you will find: old guns, cardboard models of other buildings in India, stuffed birds shot by an English gentleman in the 19th century, exquisite Persian calligraphy, a model of a human skull mapped out for the study of phrenology, the greatest Mughal miniature portraits in the entire universe, a dusty old tiger, percussion instruments, a wonderfully detailed illustration of a rotund 18th-century European gentleman giving it hard and fast to his lady friend in a garden, pixilated printouts of copies of photographs of paintings of long-forgotten local princes, a machine gun, precious illustrated manuscripts from the late-medieval era, and 35 metal objects. Pictures are not allowed.
When you leave the museum you will wander around the square outside, exploring the tables where scribes for hire are banging away on a phalanx of old typewriters. A young boy will approach you. He is from a poor family and he has something to show you. You follow him up another staircase on the side of the Government Museum building. There, to zero fanfare, is an oasis of sorts tucked into the side of the mountain. A pool covered in bright-green algae is surrounded by delicately carved spires, a marble temple, and pastel apartment-like structures that might have been carved directly out of the rock in which they nestle. The young boy knows all the dates, and all the names. He is telling them to you with the pride of a bright child who knows his stuff. The information clutters up in your brain because you aren’t familiar enough with the history. Princes, warriors, rulers, holy men, and great beauties from the past. All these things and more. A family of monkeys is goofing around along the top of the west wall. Below, the city of Alwar slides away from the hills into the valley below.
As anyone can surely tell you, Alwar was run by the Mughals, the Kachhawaha Rajputs of Jaipur, the Jats of neighboring Bharatpur, the Nikumbha Rajputs, the British as well as the Marathas. Everybody wanted a piece of Alwar and, you suppose, they still do. Later, outside of the city, you’ll read more short stories by that towering, if lately neglected Bengali man-about-town, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was almost, if not quite, big enough to encompass the entirety of that imaginary thing, India. In the evening the mist and smoke comes. The villagers must be lighting a thousand fires. You are reading from Tagore’s poem The Golden Boat:
Why should I not, if I want,
Following my own bent,
Write story after story –
Small lives, humble distress,
Tales of humdrum grief and pain,
Simple, clear straightforwardness;
Of the thousands of tears streaming daily
A few saved from oblivion;
No elaborate description,
Plain steady narration,
No theory or philosophy,
No story quite resolved,
Not ending at the end
Why, indeed, should he not, you will think as the pigeons warble and screw in the night air, as sleep comes over you with its dreams of endless palace corridors filled with a million comatose dogs and legions of clerks chasing the one, most beautiful typewriter in all the world. • 11 March 2010