I’m writing this on my last afternoon in Malda. Thank the gods. Well, Malda’s been interesting enough, but for this tall white boy, five days is a little too much.
I’ve been feeling a little flat recently. India seems to have lost some of its sheen (or, its grime seems to be prominent!). I shouldn’t be surprised of course – I assume after a few weeks, the adrenalin wanes, the novelty becomes a little more everyday; and also, I went from the exquisite air and scenery of Mirik to the cacophany and hustle of Siliguri and now Malda.
Before I tell you about Malda, I have to mention my new friend Jay. While I was waiting for the bus out of Siliguri, fending off precocious begging children (“biscuit??”) and my own sense of bewilderment and sadness, Jay came up and sat down next to me to chat. He’s an English teacher from a town on the border of West Bengal and Assam, a lovely young gentleman – he gave me a few names of Bengali novelists and I gave him my little chapbook. A beautiful human relief in the midst…
Malda is a town of about 150,000 I think. At first it seemed like it consisted entirely of the highway, dotted with mechanics and roaring with trucks and buses. A few steps off the main road proved me wrong. It’s the market centre for the region. An immense rabbit-warren of 4 sq.m shops selling fabrics and jewellery and rice, undercover stalls for produce and spices, and numerous laneways covered in dusty blue plastic sheets on which are carefully arranged a bounty of fruit and veg. I’ve not been up early or late enough to see this place completely empty. They sell by candlelight, flourescent light hanging from poles, and in the full sun. There are even street-side butchers for chickens and goats.
Almost every eatery is a dhaba, those roadside snack stores that are one step up from a tent – canvas or bamboo walls, portable gas burner, flies – often fantastic food, but I’m not always confident…
My main reason for stopping at Malda was to explore some ruins nearby. Apparently in the 13th to 16th centuries, Bengal was quite a centre for Islam. Pandua, north of Malda, is home to Adina Masjid, the 3rd largest mosque in the world (or so I’m told). It is indeed vast and majestically beautiful – the stone courtyard is about a hundred metres by a hundred metres. A few kilometres from Adina is the Eklakhi Mausoleum, a stunning domed building housing the body of Sikander Shah. Here’s where I got a call from Australia – great to hear your voices, Schnig, Norman, Annika and Katie!
South of Malda is Gaur (pronounced a bit like gore) – the area around the village contains four mosques from various eras, most around the 15th century. Incredibly powerful places and that sober, muscular, austere yet ornate architecture you might expect.
I have at times felt like India has only one tense – a swirling, churning, irresistable, repetitive present. But seeing these places has reminded me that it has a past – a complex past that still reverberates into today. Which implies, to me, a future…
Another thing about this excursion I should mention is that the roads to get there are incredibly bad – more potholes than road. The Ambassador taxi you get (thanks Raj, you drive a hard bargain but a fine car) will be surprisingly comfortable though (those old seats, I guess). It’s a full day’s trip, so cost me a fair bit, because I went solo, couldn’t find anyone else at my hotel to join me. Still, worth it.
The other thing I must mention about Malda is that at times I feel like a movie star. Everywhere I go, people turn and stare and turn around again and look, even on bicycles as trucks hurtle past them. I must have caused a few accidents at least! And as I walk past, men yell out from across the street – “hey! what is your name!” or “where are you from!!”. At those breathtaking structures, sobering historical ruins, groups of Indian men would gather round and want their photo taken with me. Apparently, I’m of much more interest. On my bad days, it irritates the hell out of me. Mostly, it’s absurd and hilarious and just vaguely irritating. I’m not sure if this is universal, but for me at least it’s impossible to travel to India and lose myself. Mirrors of all kinds are everywhere.
Since Malda is pretty quiet, I’ve been reading a bit (Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss”, modern Indian poetry in English, just starting Borges), and watching some television. Now, TV is pretty astounding as well, in a kind of depressing way. I’ve seen advertisements for skin whitener and back braces for pre-teens, some lurid 70’s disco Bollywood scenes, intriguing debates on terrorism, soap operas with the same framing and close-ups as the West, and after a few weeks in India, to see a woman in revealing swimwear is actually kind of shocking. When I have more time and brain, I’ll ruminate about India’s particular version of patriarchy or conservatism or whatever is the right word.