This is what the old palmist tells me. Shuffling to a dim office in a former Indian palace, Mr. Sharma sets out his calipers, his magnifying glass, his tiny Casio computer, and then shuts his eyes. He meditates briefly while he explores my palm with his hands. He palpates my Mount of Venus, massages my knuckles, strokes my thumb with his own narrow fingers, and proceeds to predict what all fortune-tellers do: a long life, provisional happiness, a few ups, some downs. He also issues the usual warning about small boats on large bodies of water. Then he pauses and slumps in his chair. "There is one thing missing," he says. I notice I'm holding my breath. "You must learn," he goes on, his pursed expression sending me rocketing in memory back to the principal's office, "you must learn to exercise more willpower and say no." Even as I nod agreement, I'm thinking to myself, Sorry, pal. Not anytime soon.
There's a reason. I'm in India hauling three suitcases, a backpack, and a carry-on duffel. All but one are empty. The express purpose of this visit is to make a contribution, in my small way, to 60 uninterrupted centuries of subcontinental trade. During a two-week journey from New Delhi through Rajasthan, I'll acquire bolts of silk, Rajasthani quilts, bowls of moss agate, wooden toys, mercury-glass balls, South Indian ikat, objects of both silver and gold. It's the Wretched Excess World Tour. By the time I return to New York, the indispensable temple lamps I've been lugging since Udaipur will have given me the look of a baby smuggler. There are no babies in my backpack. There's also not an inch to spare. Even as Mr. Sharma's words ring in my ears, they are being drowned out by the voice of another prognosticator. "Success," the American motivational guru Dale Carnegie said somewhere, "is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get."
It's shameless, but I do— want what I get, that is. My itinerary on this visit is the standard Rajasthan tourist circuit from Jaipur to Jodhpur to Udaipur. It's my fourth trip to India since 1995, so I'll be skimping on the historic forts and palaces, and passing up an enchanting overnight train ride to the resplendent walled city of Jaisalmer. This is not because I dislike ancient places or camel treks to post-atomic deserts, but I can make only one concession to high culture: a return to the 15th-century Jain temple complex at Ranakpur. Beyond that, I'm here to get and spend.
And I have a confederate. My friend Holly Brubach, former style editor for the New York Times Magazine, is on her first visit to India. She is even more adept than I am at finding excuses to shop. (Not, as it turns out, that she needs any.) If further inducement were required to throw money around, we're provided with it at a dinner party given by friends in New Delhi. "The treasures, my dear!" says G.V., slouching indolently on a daybed in his apartment. G.V. is one of those intricately networked people whose sources of both information and income are never entirely clear. "Not to be believed," he says of a famous jewelry shop in Jaipur that is owned by the cousin of a brother of a friend. For reasons that escape me, Jaipur itself is a city that many consider a beautiful place. It's true that it lays claim to a famous maharajah, a famous astronomical observatory, a famous fort where a Rajput's treasure was so deviously concealed that even Indira Gandhi—that archenemy of the princely castes—couldn't get at it. But Jaipur is also grotesquely overcrowded and filthy even by urban India's standards.
What recommends it?A residence turned nicely grungy grand hotel (the Rambagh Palace), where the maharajah spent his boyhood and where the descendants of the family's peacocks still stalk and screech around the lawns; a nearby town where hand-block-printed cloth is produced; and a three-story jewelry shop on Mirza Ismail Street that's been in the same family since the days when, as G.V. puts it, "maharajahs collected taxes, my dear, instead of having to pay them." We arrive and make straight for Gem Palace. Opened in 1852, it is now run by three brothers and two cousins, scions of a Jain family named Kasliwal. As you step into its darkness from the street glare, a clerk darts frantically from room to room flipping light switches. You begin to make out glass cases filled with heavily worked silver and old jade and heaps of semiprecious gemstones. All the gold on the trays is of the 22-karat variety that Indians consider an absolute minimum. "Check out the front first," Michael Aram, a designer friend in Delhi, has advised. "Then ask to be shown the back room. That's where the good stuff is kept."
The good stuff, we soon discover, includes 16th-century chessmen with diamond eyes, black South Sea pearls strung on platinum filament, 16th-century enamel birds used for sipping saffron liqueur. Above the shop is a private museum that the Kasliwals, who apparently view themselves as mini-moguls, have spent the past 10 years constructing. The museum floors are of inlaid marble. The walls—finished with jaggery and vegetable pigments—are buffed to a brilliant shine. The inset mirror work puts one in mind of men blinding themselves at their labors. "It wasn't easy finding people to do it," Sanjay Kasliwal says needlessly, before conducting us to the fabled back room, where he settles cross-legged at a low table and gets down to brass tacks.
As it happens, I know what Holly's after. The hyper-worldly Kasliwals seem to operate on some kind of Jaipur/Milan nexus. The necklace she desires is a torsade of rubies that was designed by Louis G. Scialanga, one of Giorgio Armani's pals. Such a purchase would require a private income her parents apparently forgot to arrange, and so instead she asks to see some cabochon ametrines. Being a shrewd salesman, Kasliwal also asks whether madam would care to look at the amethysts, citrines, and essonites. Madam would. As someone who considers the postponement of pleasure a sin, Holly soon finds herself placing an order for necklaces in each color, at differing lengths, and asking if they can possibly be strung in time to be on the morning plane to Jodhpur. "No problem," says Kasliwal, delicately reaching for Holly's credit card as a wallah rushes the rocks to a back room. "You can pick them up tonight."
And so it is that Holly appears the following evening in the Trophy Bar of Jodhpur's Umaid Bhawan Palace wearing her new citrines over a chartreuse Romeo Gigli blouse. She is easily the loveliest woman at the bar. She is also the only one. An Albert Speer-esque pile erected in the middle of nowhere, Umaid Bhawan is the sort of place where you can imagine Charles Addams repairing for a rest cure. The walls of the bar are hung with snarling tigers and sullen wildebeests and snapping crocodiles, all long dead and stuffed. There's a molting black bear at the door holding a drinks tray. An obscene floor lamp has been fashioned from an elephant's trunk.
We've been asked to cocktails by the hotel's resident manager, a man with an ascot and an accent suggestive of loose bridgework. Within minutes he is regaling us with the wonder that was ancient Hindustan and the wonder that is modern Indian managerial technique. "I always hire illiterate workers," he is saying, "because when you educate the people, they lose something of themselves." Summoning a presumably illiterate waiter, I request a much-needed vodka. Holly orders white wine. When the waiter replies that there is no wine, she changes her order to Campari and soda, of which there is also none. "A sherry, then?" she asks. The waiter counters with Dubonnet. "You know what?" she says flatly. "I'll have a beer."
It occurs to me that Umaid Bhawan Palace is the kind of time-warped colossus that tends to put brochure writers into a lather: 347 rooms, 2 million donkey-loads of earth imported for the garden, 3,000 men and women slaving for 13 years (1930-1943) to construct what one historian deliriously refers to as the "grandest monument to Keynesian economics" in India. Central to this supposition is the delusion that the palace was commissioned as a "work relief" program for a region suffering one of Rajasthan's periodic droughts. And I am Marie of Romania.
The hotel is now run by a grandson of Maharajah Umaid Singh. This 52-year-old scion lives, somewhat more modestly than his forebears, in the former zenana (women's quarters) with his wife and their dogs, Tia and Pepsi. My suite is in the onetime men's wing, and looks out over a garden of bougainvillea as well as a marble cenotaph dedicated to the late rajmata. From here you can see directly to Mehrangarh Fort, which rises in jagged profile above the blue-painted city.
The fort itself is reason enough to visit this little-traveled place. It was erected in the 15th century on a red sandstone outcrop called Bhakurcheeria, or Mountain of Birds, and is by far my favorite among the rock piles of Rajasthan. There are numerous reasons for this, but I will confine myself to the following: tucked beneath Mehrangarh's ramparts are a rare miniature of court ladies playing cutthroat polo, a small museum devoted to the turban, and an embroidered camp tent made for Shah Jahan in the 17th century and kept under wraps until Jackie O. came to lunch.
There's hardly another cause to come here if you're not doing business with the Indian air force, or if you're not one of the international dealers who descend on Jodhpur to scavenge for antiquities. Jodhpur is famous as the insiders' source for stone carvings, jalee screens, filigreed doors, Thanjavur glass paintings, sepia portraits, bone daggers, old rugs. There is little in the way of venerable objects that cannot be obtained in one of the shops strung along dusty Umaid Bhawan Palace Road. What isn't authentically antique can be taken out back and whacked around with a length of bicycle chain.
Bolting from the hotel in a hired taxi one morning, Holly and I make the rounds. Our plan is to be back before sunstroke hour, 11 o'clock. Holly picks up a hand-colored photograph of a silly-whiskered princeling. At Kohinoor Glass Art I pay $30 for a pair of temple lamps that I happen to know cost $1,800 on 57th Street in New York. Between the two of us we manage to acquire a silvered mirror ring once used by women in purdah for over-the-shoulder surveillance, a handheld Jain traveling temple, a heap of mercury-glass Christmas ornaments destined to set off airport alarms, and a dozen small boxes to contain the saffron we plan to bring back as cheap-but-thoughtful gifts for friends. It's not until we return to the hotel, have lunch, and wander idly to the small row of shops in a basement arcade that we encounter a collection of realistically modeled phalluses of a type rarely seen outside the marital aids section of porno stores. These are not latex, however, but ivory.
"You couldn't?" says Holly, as I gingerly hoist a whopper we later christen the Liam Neeson. "I mean, you wouldn't?"
"Smuggling ivory is serious jail time," I reply.
"You know, I'm not entirely sure what these things are meant for," adds Holly.
"Actually, madam, these are décor items," notes the obliging shopkeeper.