An unfortunate monkey related incident had left me in a predicament. I was on the other side of the world wearing glasses that were scratched beyond use and held together precariously with duct tape.

It was October 2017, and I was escorting a group of tourists around northern India. We had only landed in Delhi two days before, and already we’d made it to the foothills of the Himalayas. Our schedule found us at the Jakhu Temple – a short but hair raising drive from our base in Shimla. It was a bright, sunny morning with perfect, panoramic views. In the distance, the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas stretched for miles, and higgledypiggledy houses clung to the hillsides like coloured boxes stacked one on top the other.

Beware of Thieves

The centrepiece of the temple is an incredible, bright orange statue that stands over 100 feet tall and can be seen for miles around. The monument honours the Monkey God, Hanuman. Monkeys are everywhere at Jakhu and are notorious thieves. Glasses, phones, cameras – anything that isn’t zipped away or held tightly is fair game.

I had visited Jakhu several times without incident, and maybe that had made me complacent. I let my guard down – just for a moment – to unzip my camera case. In a split second, my assailant had jumped onto my head, removed my glasses and was gone. It was an impressive sleight of hand worthy of the Artful Dodger. Now she sat on the roof of the Supervisor’s office, clutching my glasses and staring precociously at her audience below.

In a shocked and semi-myopic state, I wasn’t sure what to do. Fortunately, our Indian guide Aakash was close by and had seen the whole sorry story unfold. Aakash would be our constant companion and guardian angel for the duration of the tour. He was a dapper man who could pull off a tweed jacket with hunting cap, faded jeans and Oxford brogues combo better than any Englishman I knew. He walked towards me, laughing: “I warned you, Mr Steve. Glasses are the monkeys’ favourite thing. You will have to bribe her if you want to get them back.” With that, he beckoned to a man standing on the other side of the Shrine.

The Monkey Whisperer

The man approached us and wished us “Namastay”. “This is the monkey whisperer,” Aakash said playfully. “Give him 100 Rupees, Mr Steve”. I pulled a note from my trouser pocket, squinting to make out its value. Taking my money, the monkey whisperer pulled a handful of popcorn from his jacket pocket and threw it onto the roof of the Supervisor’s office. The monkey lept up, tossing my glasses to the ground with indifference, and devoured the popcorn. This routine appeared very well-rehearsed and probably played out many times each day.

I picked up my glasses and blew the dust away. One of the arms hung limply at an angle, and small scratches covered the lenses. “How much do you pay for glasses like that in England, Mr Steve?” Aakash asked. I told him I had only bought them six months ago and paid over three hundred pounds. “In India you would pay forty dollars at most” he said matter-of-factly. “But these are varifocals, reactor light lenses with anti-glare coating.” I retorted. He nodded, “Yes, forty dollars at most. If you like, I will take you to an optician in Jaipur”. I wasn’t convinced, but for forty dollars it had to be worth a punt.

In The Pink (City)

Ten days later we arrived in the Pink City, although it seemed much longer. We had ridden rickshaws through the streets of Old Delhi, Marvelled at the Taj Mahal and visited more Temples than I care to remember. Jaipur is a delightful place, enjoying the colour and excitement of city life without the insufferable mayhem of Delhi. Our hotel looked directly over Man Sagar lake where the exquisite Jal Mahal Palace appears to float serenely on the calm water.

We started early the next day to drive to the Amber Fort, making the last part of the journey two by two on elephant back. It was another clear day with magnificent views of the barren red mountains around us. From the ramparts, we could see the trail of colourfully painted elephants winding their way steadily up and down. Beyond, on the green river water, beautifully manicured floating gardens promised some relief from the sticky morning heat.

By early afternoon the temperatures had reached the high 30s, and the group were keen for some downtime. We dropped half of them at the bazaar down-town and drove the rest back to the hotel to relax by the pool. Aakash didn’t waste any time. “Come Mr. Steve, let’s go see the optician now”. He whistled sharply and beckoned one of the tuk-tuks waiting on the road. Our driver snaked skillfully between cars and motorbikes and the occasional camel cart. At one point, the traffic almost came to a halt as we merged into one lane to circumnavigate a resting cow.

Aakash’s Cunning Plan

Aakash leaned in to speak to me, shouting to be heard over the constant blasting of horns. “Mr Steve, here is the story we will tell. You are an official from the British Embassy in Delhi and I am your assistant. You have broken your glasses and need to replace them urgently. If we say this, I will get you a very good price. You let me do all the talking please.” I was a little taken aback, but his plan felt a little subversive and oddly exciting.

Eventually, our driver veered to the left, cutting through the oncoming traffic without signal or warning. We drove through one of the old gateways into the city and pulled up abruptly a few hundred feet further on. Aakash jumped effortlessly out of the tuk-tuk and handed the driver 100 Rupees. My descent was somewhat less gracious. The hard seat and lack of suspension had left my back very stiff. As I slowly straightened myself, I realised we were standing smack-bang in the middle of the road with vehicles zipping past on both sides. 

A Fondant Fancy and a Samosa

Behind us was the Golcha cinema. Painted Pepto Bismal pink with white columns and roof turrets it reminded me of a Mr Kipling Fondant Fancy cake. The opposite side of the road was lined with three-storey buildings in more traditional Jaipur salmon pink, with ornate arched doorways. Aakash grabbed my arm, pulling me across the street and into a narrow alleyway. There were optician shops on either side, and we headed directly for one at the far end. Above the door, the sign read:

“BHARGAVA OPTICIANS. Spectacles, Goggles, Computerized Eye Testing”. 

Inside the shop, two men stood behind a counter and welcomed us with broad smiles and the customary “Namastay”. One was older, but they bore a striking resemblance to each other, and I guessed they must be father and son. Aakash started babbling in Hindi, presumably retelling the story we had rehearsed in the tuk-tuk. I had no idea how an official from the Embassy in Delhi might look, but I did my best to impersonate one anyway. Whatever was said seemed to have the desired effect and I was ushered into a room at the rear of the shop. An old air conditioning unit rattled away in the corner, giving a welcome break from the heat outside. “This must be the VIP area.” I thought, taking a seat on a plastic garden chair.

After a minute or two, the younger man appeared with a cup of sweet chai and a plate of samosas. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the food smelled delicious. Leaning forward to help myself, Aakash made a sudden movement to catch my eye and discreetly shook his head. I had learned to trust him on these things and reluctantly backed off. 

No Prescription? No Problem!

The older man came and sat next to me. “Hello sir, I understand you are wanting to buy some glasses but you don’t have your prescription. That is not a problem, sir. We can find it from the lenses you are wearing. May I take them please?” He passed my glasses to his assistant, barking some instructions as he did so. Whatever he said sent the young man scurrying up a rickety wooden ladder which appeared to lead to the attic. Several minutes later, he reappeared carrying a pair of test glasses for me to try.

His father positioned the glasses carefully on my face. “This is to test your prescription, sir. Can you please read the letters on the wall?”. I rattled through the eye chart with ease, right down to the bottom line. After some minor lense adjustments, we agreed the prescription was spot-on. “This is very good sir. Now I will show you our luxury frames”.

I wasn’t sure what classified the frames as “luxury”, but there were plenty to choose from. The two men kept presenting different options, gradually narrowing down my preference for colour, shape and style. I had decided to buy two pairs and eventually settled on a couple of designs I liked.

Express Delivery

The shopkeeper pulled a receipt pad from under the counter and scribbled several lines of Sanskrit. It meant nothing to me, except for the number 4000 at the bottom. Aakash tapped the pad firmly and said something in a displeased tone. The man mumbled and crossed through the original figure, replacing it with 3700.

 “Is that OK Mr Steve?” Aakash asked me “Three thousand seven hundred Rupees for the two pairs”. Three thousand seven hundred Rupees was equal to about £37.00 at the time. I felt a little ashamed at paying so little but confirmed the price was, indeed, OK. The shopkeeper explained that my glasses would be ready by the evening and that would bring them himself to my hotel. At 7.00 pm precisely, he arrived at Reception, and we had an impromptu fitting session in the lobby. 

Three years later on, I still wear those glasses, and they are the best I have ever owned. Sitting here in lockdown uncertainty, I’m not sure when India will be open for visitors again. They have just reported a record rise of 16,000 new COVID cases in the last 24 hours. When it’s safe to do so, however, I will be returning to Jaipur to visit Bhargava Opticians, and this time I will take my prescription with me.

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