The rain keeps up it’s intermittent pitter-patter as we make our way from Ajmer to Junia. Our hostess & driver for the journey, is a god-loving woman, who insists on driving right upto every temple door en route ( The word fear has been left to all the other drivers to deal with …. swerve/brake in her wake, as she suddenly spots a temple & rushes towards it! ) so that she & all of us along with her, can pay obeisance to the motley lot of deities by the road without getting our hair wet. Vanity trumping piety by just a bit. What it can’t beat is gluttony as we stop & hop across the mud at a dhaba to indulge ourselves in the famous ‘Kachora’ that Nasirabad is so famous for. The best ones I still feel are to be found at the Nasirabad railway station which we would have warm with piping hot tea whenever we would take the train on this route. The train would arrive there right at tea time. But nostalgia has it’s own appetite & so we indulge it with cold kachoras, warm kachoris & guavas from a scruffy looking fruit-seller across the road. The guavas beg to be eaten right away & they turn out to be even more delicious than the Chittorgarh ones, with a hint of tang chasing the crunchy sweetness that only unripened guavas have. So many winters I have sacrificed bits of teeth at the altar of love for this crazy fruit.
The sun & wind chase the dark clouds & a beautiful rainbow towards the east as we follow the tail end of the clouds. I’ve always found winter rain to be utterly romantic.( Can listen to November Rain on loop! ) But lets not be narrow -minded about the definition of romance! It can be a delightful ménage à trois between my stomach & food accompanied by winter rain just there…in the background! We reach Junia, a tiny hamlet off the main grid in the Rajasthan circuit, with a small fort almost obscured by the surrounding houses. The narrow lane that leads to our destination has these houses with miniature haveli-like colourful facades. A turn in the lane ends at the gate of Amar Bagh, with the lake & a flaming sunset beyond. Just in time for a piping hot cuppa ready to be had with the remnants of the kachori-kachora on the patio.
The main house at the Bagh has been lovingly touched up & it still feels like a home away from home. ‘Jal Mahal’, the tiny ‘Lake Palace’ on the lake is as delightful as ever with it’s permanent residents, the old tiger heads & House Martins who come out every evening to put up a cacophonous show over the lake, water or no water. It is quite a sight with the setting sun as a backdrop as we sit on the patio by the lake. The perfect place for morning tea, evening tea, afternoon beer…heck, everything! I could spend my entire time there watching the hours unfold. A tree on one side of the floor provides a canopy with branches stooping so low as if seeking the water that is no longer there in the lake. The perils of progress, check dams nearby, seem to have reduced the water flowing into the lake which is a natural catchment for the extra runoff of the rains.
The next morning & every morning while I’m there we take a stroll in the Bagh, rediscovering old haunts. We go past the tiny Shiv temple, (Where years back I had discovered a small dead bat & wrapping it’s feet around my fingers had proceeded to scare the wits out of the kids around me.) & the magnificent old tamarinds near the ramparts, turn at the stepwell (Where we would hang out along with the pigeons, blowing smoke circles into the air peacefully, safely away from twitching noses..) & the banyan guarding it towards the orchard that gives the place it’s name. I discover another stepwell, this one with an arched entrance to the steps which is even more ornate. We walk back through the orchard of guavas & lime. The latter fruiting & flowering in equal measure giving the whole place the faintest whiff of sharp sweetness. Fresh & tart. Lunch is the most delicious ‘khata’ I’ve had in a while, perfectly thin & tangy ,true to it’s name, the way its done only in Rajasthan. Its turning out to be one gastronomical trip as in the evening while we warm ourselves around the bonfire, mutton is cooked on open fire by the man of the house. The ‘Laal maas’ made by Thakur Kishore Singhji has always been such a treat. The patience & heart with which he spends the hours required to cook it to perfection can be tasted in every bite. He tempers the fieriness for us & we wipe our plates clean leaving no trace of the perfect thick gravy. Poor Russel, the resident golden hunk doesn’t get more than one tiny morsel as reward for all the doleful looks he has been giving all evening patiently.
There is no trace of the clouds that rained down in the night the next morning & it’s blue & clear & we’re like beached whales still digesting a breakfast of more kachoris & khata, a combination I’ve had for the first time, & stuffed ‘mirchi bhajias’ all washed down with coffee. A surprisingly good fusion. Our reverie is broken by the clamour of jangling bells & the bleating of sheep & goats. A big herd is making the most of the dried lake which is like a grassy rolling meadow right now. Sheep can walk across the length of the lake without lifting their heads much like a lawnmower & they keep up the background din through the afternoon, the sounds occasionally blown away by the breeze. In the evening we visit the ‘chattri’ made in honour of the founding father of the clan. Like all warriors of old there are stories of battles & valor, of a heroic death & an exalted legacy to be followed & honoured.
Its blissfully peaceful in the Shiv temple. The silver convertible Herald parked under the massive tamarind is long gone but the peacocks are still there in abundance, as skittish as ever & they scatter as we stroll through the bagh. Adulthood has given a quiet burial to a childhood dream of catching one of them. All the running around in the orchard back then would only culminate in spent energy & nothing more, thankfully. We return from our walk to find chilled beer, some more ‘laal maas’ to be had this time with ‘battis’ made by the gatekeeper. They’ve been made on smoked cow dung ( I know how that sounds but trust me that is as authentic as it gets! ) & then dunked, by the looks of it in a bucket of clarified butter, but by God! they are divine…crunchy on the outside & melt in the mouth inside! I mentally apologize to our home cook whose ‘battis’ I’ve thought till now to be the ultimate but these are a notch above. I request one to be saved for my journey back the next day since I’m stuffed till the gills right then but tomorrow is another day! After that leisurely lunch I want to crash out right there on the patio but manage to crawl into my bed somehow. The breeze has taken a breather that night & we have a bonfire outside the main house. There is some company today from the village, rugged sun kissed faces glowing in the fire light, talking about the produce of the season, local politics & village matters & I struggle to follow the cadences of the local lingo & give up, just soaking in the mellifluousness flowing around the crackling fire.
The last morning dawns cloudy & windy & there is rain en route to Jaipur. We stop for one last feast of roadside pakoras although my ‘batti’ has been duly packed along. I quash my reluctance to have fried roadside food & dig in. They are sassy, as only freshly fried, piping hot pakoras can be with bits of coriander & fennel around the chilli, surprisingly not hot at all. Literally saying ‘don’t be uppity!’ Who would want to leave this idyllic life, food heaven & head to the city?! Even ‘Anokhi’ with it’s inviting cafe, coffee aroma wafting around isn’t enticing enough when one is fully fed up, belly full with the delectable charms of Junia.