In Puri, on the Orissan coast, we met a British writer by the name of Mark Engineer. Among so many things we talked about with him, he responded to an off-hand remark of mine, that “Andy, you’re a tourist, too”. It lodged into my head.
Most of us like to think we’re travellers or some such, but that’s a euphemism – tourist it says on the passport, tourist I am. It is, I feel, impossible to just waltz (or classical dance) into India and become part of it, or even to engage in instant cultural and social exchange. And, in Puri, that gap is really obvious.
Puri was a hangout for the India-seeking hippies in the 70s, and a lot of them have either returned, or have just stayed on. In the backpacker suburb, there are lots of little shops and stalls, selling what the locals believe the tourists will want, in a kind of echo chamber of mass-produced authenticity and spiritual consumerism.
Orissa is intensely religious, visibly and audibly so. Driving through Puri and surrounding towns, there is always a public ceremony, a procession of devotees and musicians, raucous singing and trumpets, clouds of incense (alongside the fumes and traffic and cows and rubbish of course!). Much more so than West Bengal, it seems religion is mingled in with everyday life, as well as the cultural (architecture, craft, music…) – Orissans are deeply connected with their heritage. Of course, in many ways, in the tourist areas, they’re trying to sell it to us, but it persists with its own manic and irrepressible energy.
We stayed at the Hotel Derby, near the beach (which, by the way, is pretty polluted, rubbished and full of people wanting to sell you camel rides or “pearls”, but such a relief for Australian bodies to feel waves!). It’s run by a kind of extended family, all a little bit misfit, genuine, calm, friendly people. One night, we sat around in the evening heat, swatting mosquitoes, while one of the young men who worked there played us his favourite tunes on his mobile phone; and a man in his 40-s who walked the breadth of the town selling samosas and sweets for about 40 rupees a day to feed his family sat with us quietly, trying to communicate with Orissan, broken English and gestures. Two Australians, a Brit, and two French, and two locals, meeting and yet not.
They don’t mention it in the Lonely Planet, but Xanadu, a great little restaurant in Puri, has the most astounding waiters. Boys who are ten at the oldest greet you as you come in, lead you by the hand to your table, “another beer, sir?”, “you come in for breakfast tomorrow?”, all with more swagger and confidence than most adults. At one point, one of them came out with a huge block of ice on his hand. Bemused, we eventually worked out he just wanted to show it to us. Yes, childhood is almost bypassed in India. Almost, not quite. I’ve seen so much world-weariness and stoic strength in the deep faces of children here, it’s unnerving. Then, you also see kids giggling and playing in the dust or in the gutter.
The dogs, too, here stunned us. On our first night, one approached straight away, wagging her tail, asking for food, nudging the backs of our legs in anticipation. Normally in India, the human and dog cultures are separate, parallels. Here, we suspect due to tourism, the dogs expect interaction and feeding, the kind of symbiosis they don’t get elsewhere, relationships which seem almost ancient. They still live such marginal, starving, precarious lives. After a few days, on the road the leads to our hotel, we saw a scrawny pup lying motionless, dead. The flies started to gather. A day and a half later he was gone, taken (we were told) by a government truck.
When I get my next chance, I’ll tell you about the Sun Temple at Konark, and the complexity of Hyderabad…