December 1, 1999 | Travel Feature

A Critic’s Passage to India


          TRAVELING STOMACH In this land of startling contrasts, Asia’s number one tourist destination of the year, New York magazine’s “Insatiable Critic,” Gael Greene, takes refuge in a luxurious Oberoi retreat.

          Six weeks leapfrogging about India. My emotions are always churning, whipped by a cascade of color and beauty, the amazing hospitality everywhere, the haunting pain and poverty, filth and frustration.

          Next stop Rajvilas, touted as India’s ultimate spa experience, in Jaipur. I’m wondering if two days there will unjangle our nerves and leave us oozing oil from every pour as our mini cure at Coconut Lagoon in Kerala did a month earlier in the South. By the time the two of us -- me and my guy, photographer Steven Richter -- wheeled into the vast, manicured estate of Rajvilas, I was nurturing serious doubts.

           Not for me this Disneyland of exaggerated luxury, I was grumping, as various emissaries from Reception gathered our belongings and escorted us past gushing fountains, mirror pools, sandstone follies, and architectural prologues worthy of Versailles to the check-in desk. I wanted to be in India, I thought, not in some rich and driven hotelier’s fantasy of an earlier India. The brochure said it all: P.R.S. “Biki” Oberoi himself had fussed over every turret and tile of the $20 million construction -- three years in the building and all brand-new except for an innocuous old house turned into a 7,000-square-foot spa complex and a 250-year-old temple on a small island where a priest still leads twice-daily prayers.

          The horse-drawn carriage was out for repairs (to horse, driver, or buggy I’m not sure.) And there were many apologies as we folded up into a golf cart that scooted over pink sandstone pavement past pool and umbrella lunchers, landscaped bungalows, and VIP villas banked with flowering greenery into the beige of the back 40, Rajvilas’ tent city, a faux desert of cactus and boulder. I was in such a rush to get back to the roiling streets of Jaipur, I barely caught the orientation lecture on the riches of patrician tent-life.

          I remembered Jaipur as a pristine magical place, its palaces and mansions daubed in pink with white piped curlicues. But now, 14 years later, the population had doubled, the pink had turned coral, orange, shocking, rust, sometimes shabby, sometimes brashly fresh. The February sun blazed. I hungered for rubies and emeralds but was too cowardly to make a deal without a mentor. The bazaars were full of teasing smells from frying foods the International Health Center Service warned us not to touch. Relentless street vendors taunted. I dared not caress a length of silk or casually inquire about the price of a miniature without being followed and yammered at for half a block.

          What a blessing to crawl into our hired air-conditioned Ambassador and be whisked the dusty eight kilometers back to never-never land. Now I understood the lure of that cocoon of perfection. What serenity. A freckled Englishman slept under his hat beside the pool where Indian newlyweds played. We hiked to our “desert” lair and escaped into a blast of cool air. Now this excessive luxury is my fantasy, too. Teak floors and furniture, Roman-shaded windows, embroidered canopy roof, claw-foot tub, steam shower, air conditioning, and French doors that open to a private deck. A seriously comfortable mattress and down pillows. Tiny roses tucked into baskets of high-fluff towels.

          En route to the front desk to reserve a movie on laser disc for a lazy night at home after dinner, I pass bougainvillea and jasmine-draped suites clustered around deep lapis and turquoise tiled pools and fountains. Everyone I pass -- gardeners, maids, porters, waiters -- greets me, “Good afternoon, madam.” I tire of responding. Eventually I develop a sort of Prince Charles-like nod. One determined fellow carries a long staff with a flag at the end. His sole assignment: chasing pigeons away. But for me the ultimate dedicated service is provided by the Oberoi dauphin, Biki’s son Vikram, manager here, not trusting anyone but himself to collect my e-mail on his leather-fitted notebook computer.

          Though Oberoi’s marketing mavens make noise about Rajvilas as the world’s next luxury spa, I can’t see a mass movement of Canyon Ranch and Golden Door addicts rushing here to slim down. Rather, I suspect Rajvilas will quickly make its name as an imperative for honeymooners and local voluptuaries as well as travel-bashed tourists longing for an unadulterated comfort zone. Still, it goes without saying the spa is immaculate and discreet, with a lap pool, a Persian waterwheel, the brilliant azure and cobalt tiles of Jaipur, and treatments both contemporary and traditional. There were actually a few Western tourists using the workout machines when Steven reluctantly reported for his massage.

          Poor Steven. He had agreed to sample Indian massage. And he was understandably wary after his Ayurvedic rubdown at Coconut Lagoon, a rustic southern resort arranged like a small village in the backwaters of Kerala that attracts affluent Indians for its two and three-week holistic cures. We basked in the sensuousness off the al fresco shower outside our wooden Tharawad -- a rustic cottage brought from a nearby village and reconstructed “following the ancient rites of carpentry.” We had drifted into a state of nirvana after floating all day in an old rice boat, with its winged wooden shades, observing (and photographing) the water life of the people settled on its narrow spits of land, while a Coconut Lagoon chef cooked our three-course lunch on a single fire.

          Frankly, the last thing Steven needed was a lube job at the spa. But we were definitely interested in the various cures claimed by Ayurveda, an ancient holistic tradition that relies on appropriate diet and the application of herbs and oils to restore the balance of body and spirit. Since we had no time to linger for a series of medicated rice packs to cure aching knees, or for the prescribed 14-day regimen of buttermilk poured on the forehead to cure insomnia, my mate signed up for a simple massage. That turned out to be two men slathering him with oils, seemingly not at all concerned with stressed muscles and joints but only with keeping him from sliding off the table. It took three showers to get the oil out of his hair.

          So he was not exactly eager to risk massage again, even though Rajvilas spa offered Western rites as well as Ayurvedic voodoo. I bribed him with a gift of expensive amber prayer beads. Happily, the woman assigned to Steven’s case has been trained in Swedish massage. Hypnotic strains of desert sounds put him to sleep, but she woke him in time for a shower before dinner. He was more mellow than usual as we joined the dinner crowd on the terrace overlooking a courtyard lit by flaming torches, with dancers stamping away in the distance. Lulled by the isolation and hyper security, I decided to believe the waitress when she told me the ice cubes were made from bottled water and ordered a top-notch Margarita.

          En route to Rajasthan we’d sipped an occasional glass of Indian wine -- red and white, barely drinkable -- so this was a pure jolt of alcohol. Still, I’m sure I was clearheaded enough to appreciate what Australian-born chef Edwin Rosenkranz and his Indian staff have done to lighten Indian food without sacrificing a smart palette of flavor. I was especially impressed by the mixed kebab platter with its green chile pepper like a banner flying above -- moist and flavorful lamb cubes, chicken, ground lamb, vegetables, and paneer (firm cottage cheese) -- served with lentil dal, raita, Indian bread, and chutneys. And he showed off his European skills in the intensity of wonderfully green pea and coriander soup and in the tandoori marinated lamb loin on olive-mashed potatoes with tomato jus. I defied the doctor’s edict against eating any vegetable that has not been cooked or peeled twice for his Caesar -- crisp Romaine with savory croutons and big chunks of tandoori-grilled paneer.

          We might have liked strolling through a night market or braving a shopping street to walk off a few calories en route to bed, but reality was far away, outside the Rajvilas gates. Se we set off for our desert camp, cutting through a garden, past a burbling fountain, running our hands through the cascading water. Then we slipped gratefully into a freshly remade bed -- not too soft, not too hard -- to watch the movie Ganghi with icy bottled water from the fridge and a chocolate bar. Seduced by luxury after all.

Food Arts December 1999.

Patina Restaurant Group