After Hampi, aware we were fast running out of time, we decided we needed one last town, before the bustle of Bangalore and the madness of Kolkata. A new friend had recommended Gokarna, so we tooka train to Hubli, then jumped on a local bus to Gokarna. Or actually to a nearby town, changed buses, then Gorkarna. The whole day took about twelve hours. Incredibly rocky roads, a soviet era bus with absolutely no suspension and a cowboy for a driver. During the drive, we were doubting our decision and rubbing our necks. But, as is often the case in India, it’s not the journey, it’s the destination that counts!
Gokarna (or Gokarn as most signs seem to say) is a small beachside town in Karnataka. We didn’t know until we arrived, but a major festival was just beginning – huge chariots (2 storeys high) waited on the main street – after we left, they would be pulled along the main street, pelted with bananas, carrying gods. As the festival got into full swing, we were kind of glad to miss the crescendo – it was getting more and more crowded and hectic, and it kind of didn’t feel like our place. I still feel odd entering temples – I don’t share the belief (especially now!), so I feel a little like a trespasser (albeit welcomed).
Gokarna, too, is on the threshold of irreversible tourist-led chnange. The beaches to the south of town are quickly becoming populated by guest houses, restaurants selling pizzas and pancakes and beer, women in bikinis facing the sunset doing yoga gyrations, young hopeful local boys selling necklaces… Not surprising, really – the intimate little coves are idyllic, the water (for India) crisp and blue-ish, the countryside green and pulsing with life. The Goa of the future? Still, the town itself has an incredibly strong and independant energy – a tangible spiritual intent, will, hope. Even the sadhus seem genuine. So, there may be hope for Gokarn. Time will tell.
My last India post will be soon. As I write now, it’s my last day here. The relentless, smog-hazed Kolkata sun is setting, the internet cafe is crowded, another thali calls from Park Street somewhere. My flight leaves in about 15 hours. Rachael is already on her way home, via Thailand. I miss her, the home we share, my friends, the drought and fire ravaged place that is deep inside me. Next post will be Bangalore and some reflections, maybe even some photos (yes, 21st century slide night!)…
In Hampi, Rachael and I decided it would be a good idea to rent bicycles for a day, ride to a nearby village and back. For reasons which will soon become apparent, on the way back, Rachael said the day was “a bit traumatic but interesting”. That has now become our unofficial new tourism slogan for India. I can see the advertisements now. Incredible India just doesn’t capture it. The other slogan we accidentally came up with is, “it gets hot and everything smells of poo”, but that’s got even less chance of getting up.
Anyway, Hampi. We took an overnight bus from Hyderabad, ironically named a “sleeper bus”. Someone must have slept, because there was snoring, but we didn’t really. Still, fascinating to see the arid, red-earthed Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka countryside up close, even in a daze. We stop at village chai stalls under moonlight – men smoke and drink chai, throw their plastic cups on the road, half the bus pisses next to it, stray dogs wander around us, sniffing.
Approaching Hampi is jaw-dropping. Impossibly balanced arrangements of boulders rise up from the hills, hugging clusters of temples from around the 15th century, surrounded by vast fields of rice and coconut palms. In a way, the terrain reminds me of the outback, but its also somehow tropical and lush. Not surprising that temples are built, as responses to the place itself – very human attempts to concretise something hinted at in stone. A guide we had at Konark quoted Tagore saying “the language of stones defeats the language of men”, referring to the Sun Temple, but here it is entirely accurate. A few photos for proof…
So, partly because of the torpor-inducing heat, but mostly because of its seductive and haunting beauty, we stayed in Hampi for about a week. Just to mention – if you’re planning on going, I’d recommend staying on the other side of the river – it’s quieter and less touristy, though in Hampi, it’s all a bit touristy. It captures perfectlly the dilemma of tourism – a beautiful place draws people who can afford to come, the locals in their desperate poverty flock to sell souvenirs and rickshaw tours and familiar food, and the whole dynamic can feel unavoidably tainted. On our bike ride, as soon as we arrived, we had children run up to us, begging to be given pens or bags for school, or chocolate. A reflex action.
If you stay on the other side, avoid Mowgli. Stay somewhere more intimate and personal, less of a business, if you know what I mean. If you feel you want the manic energy of the bazaar side, I’d recommend Vishnu Guest House. Beautiful people, simple basic clean rooms, and almost quiet!
Hampi was very nice to us. We met some lovely fellow travellers, people we had real affinities with. We took way too many photos. But who could blame us? Boulders created by sheer erosion, shaped in ways modernist sculptors would be jealous of. Ochre earth, vivid greens, the sounds of frogs, and the sight of kingfishers, cows, oxen, and humans in all their ragged, absurd behaviours. So many little stories…
There are cities, then there are Indian cities. They’re different, not just in degree but type. Having spent my entire adult life living in Melbourne, I thought the city was in my bones. I’d become accustomed to an anonymity ruptured only by physical distinctiveness. I’ve been in crowds, blurred into them. But when it reaches the level of mega-city, something happens to the air – not just pollution, but the cultural air – your own existence becomes trivial, or perhaps just irrelevant.
I had high hopes of Hyderabad. Despite knowing that India dashes all expectations, I’d thought I’d just turn up to this city not much bigger than Melbourne, and slip seamlessly into an Islamic-infused cultural sea. I’d imagined qawwali, poetry, books, universities, making connections. It didn’t take long to hit the wall – urine rivers on the street, families begging, smog, traffic cacophany, shopping malls, greedy auto-rickshaw drivers… Now, it’s true that Hyderabad is actually a relatively friendly place – I got plenty of unprompted greetings and smiles from strangers, and there is something a little more laidback in the air. But a city is a city, especially an Indian city. You need someone to show you around.
Speaking of that, sadly (through practicalities and bad timing) we missed making contact with friends of a friend here, by only a day! So, feeling our throats becoming sore with pollution, we bought a ticket to Hampi, and decided to do a whirlwind tour of the city, at least scratch the surface, in a kitsch bus-tour way.
We get picked up from our hotel at 9am in a small white sedan – three women are already in the back, and two men in the front. We squeeze in. I’m half-laughing, half-sinking, thinking this is going to be our transport for the whole day. We then pull up to a mini-bus, with no spare seats – Rachael and I are standing, swaying, almost falling in the aisles, hunched over because the roof is so low. They then pull over, we all pile out, and the guide points down the road, saying “temple!…”. Somehow our group seems to know where to go, snaking towards the back of a group of shack stalls on the roadside, then slowly up a hill. First stop, the Birla Mandir temple on Kalabahad (Black Mountain)! At this stage, my sinking is converting into laughter – India is a ride you can’t get off or steer – you just have to go with it. Luckily, the bus we get back on has just enough seats for us all.
Over the course of the day, we visit this white marbled complex of temples and shrines, Chowmahalla Palace (an astoundingly graceful and obscenely wealthy and manicured palace from the nizams of the 18th century, full of incredible exhibitions of weapons, photos, furniture…), the Nehru Zoological Park, the Andhra Pradesh State Museum (which includes an intriguing collection of miniature paintings and centuries-old Islamic manuscripts), a “Car Museum” (!!) which Rachael and I don’t go into. We also hurtle past various monuments in the bus, our guide shouting through distorted speakers at first in a language we think is Hindi but is actually a densely-accented English, then in Hindi. Each stop we make is ruthlessly, militarily timed – about 30 to 40 minutes at each place – the guide hurrying us through rooms, at one point saying “if you are late, you are the losers!”.
At lunch break, 3pm by now, we are monumentally exhausted, pardon the pun, so decide to leave the tour (missing Golconda Fort but gladly missing the anticipated traffic jams). Our first and last.
The next day, we wander through the winding, intimate backstreets around the old quarter, the Laad Bazaar area. In spite of the saddening sense that Hyderabad’s poverty is intensified in this primarily Muslim quarter, it is a seductive place – graceful, fading buildings, communal family courtyards, oxen resting in laneways, footpaths covered with all kinds of goods for sale. Again, difficult to access, another reminder this is not my home, but fascinating and raggedly beautiful.
There’s so much more to say, little scenes to recall, but I feel like my time in India is slipping away, and I want this blog to catch up with my body, which is in Karnataka. So, next up, while my last week here disappears, I’ll try to write about gruelling bus trips, the ruins and boulders of Hampi, the precarious calm of Gokarna…
It is difficult to describe the Sun Temple in Konark. I am sure there are historians, academics, and other blogging tourists who can evoke it much more vividly than I can now. My other excuse is it’s mid-30s centigrade in a stuffy internet cafe in Gokarn. Still…
Imagine an immense (over 200 ft high) chariot built from sandstone – stone horses pulling the stone wheeled vehicle of a god. Each stone containing intricately carved expressions of the cultural life of 13th century Orissan life – almost every permutation of sexual, social, agricultural relations you can imagine. And it is often ambigious whether the scenes are descriptive or somehow prescriptive or warnings. The entire architecture of the Temple is also designed as an elaboration and expression of astronomical and medical knowledge and historical record – the sun rising through the central entrance pillars, elephants on the side crushing “Muslim” enemies, scenes of birth and sickness and ageing. In that sense, the Temple reminds me that Hinduism is as much social system as religious, or that the religious perhaps stems inextricably from the social. Powerful, primal human forces and institutions are given personality, made into gods.
We were, in spite of the usual withering heat, lucky on our trip. Not only were we greeted as we left our bus by an actual official and very professional and informative guide (I can’t remember his name, but he’s number 20 on the list out the front!), but we happened to pick the day of a significant pilgrimage. The entrance fee was waived, but also there were a lot of people there – shaven heads of people from nearby villages mingled with the sunglasses-clad whiteys like us, and the Indian tourists. The Sun Temple deserves that most overused word “awe-some” – standing in the presence of such embodied, accumulated energy, sensing the cultural investment and power of it, is an astounding experience. Again, difficult to access as a non-Hindu, but with the distance of history and monument, almost convincing.
I’ll try to post some photos up soon. Next up, though, Hyderabad…
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…
Bhubaneswar is the capital of Orissa, and is known as the city of temples – there were once thousands; now only a fraction remain, but that’s still a lot. After a 7 hour train trip from Kolkata, arriving in Bhubaneswar was pretty much what I expected – hectic knots of traffic, noise, fumes, that melange of industry and poverty I’ve become almost used to. So, after one night, Rachael and I decided to just spend one good day there, then move on.
So, of course, we had to see a few temples. From our hotel to the closest group of temples was about 2 kms, but a long long way, swerving and ducking and ignoring touts and dust. Every second man has a cycle rickshaw and wants to take you around. We rejected quite a few, until we stopped for a breather, looking lost, and a gentle, scrawny, bespectacled, middle-aged man pulled over. He kept insisting he’d show us where to go, no charge, no money, he knew Bhubaneswar. So, we turned to each other with the same thought in mind – he seems like a genuine soul, let’s give him a few rupees, let his wiry undernourished body carry our able bodies around. Yes, that strange combination of feeling guilty and supportive at the same time.
Orissan temple architecture is astoundingly complex, dense, detailed work. The two buildings we saw are sandstone structures from the 7th and 11th century (correct me…); quite small, pyramid-like in shape, each square inch adorned with figures, scenes, animals, gods, and so on. Astonishing. We were shown around the first by a young man, who seemed quite devout, knew quite a bit about it’s history and significance. He was also quite a fan of Ricky Ponting, and really wanted Australian coins (seems to be a phenomenon here…).
The second temple was our encounter with the other religion here. Our self-appointed guide, I could probably sum up, was a sweaty man. He spent most of his time pointing out the kama sutra scenes, asking if we knew what a lingum was, directing all his energy and talk towards Rachael, ignoring me. He just kept talking and talking, sweating and leering. Eek. After quite a while, our rickshaw guy waiting patiently, we decided to go, and our guide kept wanting money, more money, no that’s each not for both of us, oh but I’m giving you a discoutn, etc. We were tired, just wanted to go back to our hotel and take a shower, so gave him the 1,000 rupees he asked for, regretting it almost instantly. The religion of ancient India, and the religion of money…
Our rickshaw man (wish I knew his name) asked what we paid, so we told him, and he said “he doesn’t work, I work!”, kept proudly cycling us along with the sweat of his brow. We asked if he’d been doing it a long time, and from what I could make out, he’d only started recently – he used to work in the public service for the government, but got laid off. We watched his sweaty back, his cracked and dusty sandalled feet, his straining limbs. Heartbreaking. We offered him water, he wouldn’t take it. At one stage, as the road was getting harder, the sun hotter, he stopped, got off the bike, and pulled us along. We wanted to get out, but kept feeling it was better to just pay him well. In the end, we got out a block before our hotel, while he protested he could take us all the way.
We paid him the same as our guide. Placing two large notes in his thin hands, we looked into his eyes, and he seemed really grateful, not just for the money, I think, but that there’d been some genuine human encounter. I could almost weep now, remembering him. Rachael and I just hope he used the money to take a day off, yet somehow I doubt it.
You encounter so much poverty and subsistence in India, you can almost get used to it. You become hard. I become hard, that is. You have to. But when it’s a real person, with a story, a life, struggling, who gazes into your eyes and is generous and proud, it puts a little crack in your armour.
It feels a little odd writing this now – I’ve been away from the blog for a while, so now I have to do a big update, talk about places I’ve left behind “long ago”. India is nothing if not time travel, though – Ambassador taxis, foot-pedal sewing machines and mobile phones, crumbling infrastructure, homes built into ancient ruins – indeed, the collision of different times.
So, about two weeks back we were in Lava, a tiny hill town not far from Kalimpong. Again, a gorgeous place – the small village of farmers and monks is dwarfed by the surrounding forest, and for most of the day is swathed in thick fog, waves of it rushing across the town in the morning and mid afternoon.
Being habitual Westerners, we’d forgotten that they might not have ATMs, so arrived with very little cash, just enough for two nights accommodation, plus cheap meals. We soon realised what poverty was, of course, when we went for our first meal – soup that was really just hot water with shards of vegetable and packet noodles. Lava exists on what little grows on tiny plots.
A beautiful place – we walked around the forest, such a powerful and independent presence, not a place that can belong to anyone, a spirituality loose of any language. But, as usual, a place of confounding contradictions – a huge, still expanding monastery, next to precarious poverty, shacks and destitution.
The trip back to Kalimpong was incredible. A 90 minute bus tripo along winding, thin, potholed mountain roads, packed to the rafters with yawning schoolgirls, old men spitting paan out the windows, tough weathered old women swaying with the bus as it honked its way down the hill, Hindi pop blaring optimistically through the fog.
This whole post won’t be about mucus and tremblings and edgy bellies, don’t worry. I just like the anagramatic irony of being sick in Sikkim. I had a dreadful head cold in Darjeeling, which I of course passed onto my partner Rachael. It hit her in Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital, and it’s most popular entry point), so we laid low there for a few days, saw as many of its sights as health and energy would allow. Both fine now, just the occassional flare-up of spiritual ennui.
Gangtok is, like many of West Bengal’s hill towns, a jumble of multi-coloured concrete block buildings crammed onto the line of a breathtaking ridge, steep drops of mountain on all sides. What stood out immediately was the relative wealth – Sikkim joined India only in the 1970s, and since then has been courted by the Centre with tax concessions and infrastructure. Consequently, there is much less visible poverty, actual footpaths next to some roads, lots more cars and industry, and (due perhaps to one of its biggest industries, liquor) high rates of alcoholism. We didn’t see drunkenness, but on the day when all the shops were shut (Tuesday!), the only places open were drugstores/chemists and liquor stores. By the way, for my beer afficionado friends, pretty much everything in the north east is 8% lagers – strong, dense, sometimes honey-sweet, but fairly unmemorable. Kingfisher is still the king.
And, in our brief few days, the best food in Gangtok is at Taste of Tibet, on the south edge of Mahatma Gandhi Marg. Fantastic thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and spinach momos (dumplings), and very popular with the local monks and families.
Enough about my epicurean belly. The real highlight of Gangtok for me was our first day – we took the cable car ride from the hilltop over the centre of town, to the Institute of Tibetology. An amazing, vertiginous, giddy view. Sprawling buildings, gracious dramatic hills, huge strands of bamboo and patches of rice fields built into the hills. Gorgeous.
The Institute holds a rather large collection of Buddhist artefacts – devotional paintings, coins (from a country that doesn’t quite exist, tragically), yellowed and weathered manuscripts on paper and palm-leaf from around the 12th century. And, strikingly, bowls made from human skulls, and trumpets made from thigh bones. To remind the user of the transience of life. Nothing like that would happen in the West, I feel. The closest we would get to such a visceral treatment of the body is either symbolic (like the “body and blood of Christ”) or in transgressive art. The building is certainly worth spending a few hours in.
On that note, Rachael and I are both reading a book called “The Monk and the Philosopher”, a conversation between Matthieu Ricard, a French scientist turned monk, and his philosopher father. Fascinating on an interpersonal level (dad always seems to want to remind his son of what he was like when he was young!), but mainly it’s been interesting to ponder Buddhism as we experience it close-up. I can’t say I understand it more. Probably less, in fact. In it’s indigenous context (well, more indigenous than in Australia), there is so much accumulated ritual, symbolism, extravagant visual imagery, which is very hard to access without fully immersing yourself in study. One of the owners of Holumba Haven (an almost unnervingly calm collection of cottages in an orchid nursery in Kalimpong, where we stayed one night, on our way back to Kolkata from Gangtok), a beautiful, talkative, eccentric, intelligent man, said monasteries aren’t churches, they’re more like boarding schools. Useful metaphor, I think.
On the note of accommodation, if you can afford 1000 rupees a night, plus 250 per meal, Holumba is worth it – it’s very calm, yet gently sociable. Talk to the pea-hens, too – they’re a bit crotchety, but really lovely ladies. And, in Gangtok, we stayed at Mintokling Guest House – very helpful and professional managers, fantastic view of the Himalayas from the room when the sky clears, average food, and since the last Lonely Planet was published, the price has gone way up to pay for renovations (which I sense has taken some of the character from the place – not as intimate or homely as we’d hoped). Still, again, a good place to recover, rest, put shallow roots down, explore. You certainly need that in India, we’ve found. It’s exhausting, overwhelming – you need to take small steps sometimes, make little journeys.
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged – we’ve been doing so much travel these last few days, and internet access and time has been a bit scarce. There’s much more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Next time – transport (jeeps, autorickshaws, trains, cycle-rickshaws), religion (temples and money), dense fog in the humble hill-town of Lava, and yes the beach in Puri!!!… If I can fit it all in… 😉
Rachael and I keep talking, often joking, about “the real India”. The one that isn’t on the tourism advertisements, all brilliant colours, clean air and precocious healthy children. Apart from the mundane, grimy reality, the main gap between imaginary India and real India is cultural. We are outsiders. So, quickly enough, you learn that entering the core of India is pretty much impossible. It’s more a question of getting closer, approaching through suspicions, feelings, assumptions. And you learn the most, I think, from chatting with other people.
We met a fascinating travel agent on our train trip from Kolkata to Siliguri (New Jalpaiguri to be precise). While keeping up a steady stream of salesman-speak, telling us how Australians were his favourite people (hmm…), he seemed to be genuinely taking us under his well-fed, middle-class wing. He reminded us that India’s population is growing at the size of Australia every year! At that rate, and with the extent of corruption and already existing poverty, it’s hard to imagine what this country will look like in the future. The government and the people have a herculean task ahead of them. Anyway, as it turns out, our train companion, as friendly as he seemed, disappeared soon after suggesting we get a taxi together. Oh well. Unpredictability is part of the fabric here. So, Rachael and I wound our way through mercenary taxi touts and train-station homeless children tapping us on the arm, to find our way to the share taxi stop at Siliguri, where we finally start to leave the energy of Kolkata behind.
Ill health has reared its ugly mucus-smeared head. Nothing serious, luckily. I thought it was the leftovers of Kolkata pollution throat, but it was a potent little head cold. I hit the worst of it – my nose becoming a river – in Darjeeling, which took the sheen off the place – and now (here in Sikkim) Rachael’s enduring it. Still, the immense beauty of the hills penetrates pretty much anything.
We stayed at Andy’s Guest House again. A simple place, Andy’s has a library stocked by fellow travellers, a fantastically friendly couple running the place (thanks Genesis for your shawl that morning I got up early to watch Khangchendzonga light up), and one of the best views in town from its rooftop viewing platform. Cold, but worth it.
On our second day, the strikes began again. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the West Bengal Hills is still in the throes of the Gorkhaland movement, demands for more autonomy (or independance). There had been violence surrounding two opposing marches in a town on the plains, so there was a sudden decision to shut Darjeeling down in solidarity. Feeling sick and vulnerable, I just wanted somewhere to eat. You realise, of course, that this is not your place. Tourism is huge in this area, but really, it is someone else’s home, with all the cultural, political, economic, social complexities and complications. So, we spend the next two days living off oranges and biscuits, but also managed to find two intriguing places to eat and socialise.
We found a hotel near ours that looked like it would have meals. They didn’t but, almost whispering, they said they would ring their caterer and he might make us a meal. While we waited for our order, the young assistant manager of the hotel, who looked late teens or early twenties, told us how he’d been studying marketing, is keen to try to save money so he can go overseas eventually (knowing it may take a decade or so), believes the gods will give you what you dream of if you keep asking.
The night after, we decided to approach the imposing black gates of the Elgin Hotel. A sober, colonial institution, they do “high tea”. Of course, the cakes were a little stale, the sandwiches bland, and it cost a thousand rupees, but the tea was great, and we met the owners of three other Elgin Hotels in India. A wonderfully down-to-earth yet also managerial, somewhat elevated couple, they regaled us with eye-opening tales of the underbelly of the Hills. Violence from police and Gorkhaland supporters was endemic in the 1980s; lax or non-existent building regulations leading to houses sliding down hillsides; corrupt government officials; monks acting in defiantly unenlightened ways… Fascinating to get a glimpse into India we only suspected before. Not being Bengali in background, they both had the insight of outsiders. The impacts of colonialism, the caste system, government ineffectiveness, patriarchy, all seem to converge in India in depressingly potent effect.
While in Darjeeling, we didn’t just wander aimlessly hoping for the strikes (and my running nose) to end. As it was for me when I was here a few weeks ago, one highlight was the breathtaking, expansive walk to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre on the outskirts of town. This time, apart from browsing their store, we saw inside the carpet weaving workshop. They were on a break, so we strolled around brilliant carpets and the resting tools with the patina of work and attention. Something about it made me want to weep. Beautiful and honest and rich and simple.
I also wanted to visit Observatory Hill again. Strangely, it was pretty much empty – no tour guides, hardly any priests or monks, no beggars on the walk up the hill, not even a single monkey! I’d built it up as being pretty intense (see my earlier blog entry), but as usual, India does what you least expect. A really palpable sense of the passionate devotion of people is here – webs of prayer flags, cave shrines, so much colour and sincerity embedded in the built environment. And, in what’s becoming strangely, almost humourously common, we get asked where we’re from, then immediately offered grass!
The strike broke for a few hours, so we took the opportunity to head to Gangtok, Sikkim. More about that next time – the majestic Teesta River, our smooth driver, the surprises of Gangtok…
I’ve been back in Kolkata for over a week now. I came back to meet my partner Rachael, who arrived here on Friday night (2 days ago). I am in a different city. Well, I’m seeing it differently, at least.
I have developed a slightly thicker skin, I think, callouses over my soul, so to speak. You have to. Walk past just one family home of cardboard and plastic on the footpath, just one eyeless beggar, or be followed by a man whose pleading, broken mantra is “no money, no food”, would be enough, but it’s day after day, image after image, body after body. In the face of it, your mind, soul, conscience goes into cramp. And you get tougher. And you mourn your own toughness, because you like to think of yourself as compassionate and able even to make some kind of difference. India, especially the big cities, is bewildering. It even makes you feel your own feelings of grief or neurosis or self-esteem are a bit of an indulgence.
While I feel tougher, I’ve also opened up so much. Being with Rachael here, we’re of course talking voraciously and with awe and shock, so I’m being reminded of all my initial (and still continuing but held at bay) feelings about Kolkata. Little brief weepings are unavoidable and useful.
It’s wonderful she’s here. Someone who I can talk with at an intimate, passionate, fluid level, my dear partner who I feel such simpatico with.
It’s still a big effort doing anything, going anywhere, but I feel this visit, I’ve done so much more, because I’m starting to become vaguely aclimtaised, accustomed.
A few days ago I went to the Indian Botanical Gardens, then back again with Rachael yesterday. It was created in the late 18th century, and includes a monumentally huge Banyan tree. The tree feels more like a little forest – a whole colony of aerial roots, tendril-like but also elephantine and web-like – such energy and persistence. It’s over 250 years old, supposedly almost a kilometre in circumferance; the main branch was infected by a fungus and was removed in the 1920s, but of course it persists. It’s in India, after all.
The garden itself is of course strewn with rubbish, the trees are covered with a film of pollution, but to me it is a real oasis – families picnicking, kids playing, couples kissing on ancient concrete seats. We also saw a small group of huge monkeys, nonchalantly sitting in the shade, waiting to be fed bananas from children who were much less unnerved by them than I was!
While I think of it, I’d like to put in a little advertisement for Earthcare Books – a tiny but so full store of environmental, feminist, political, spiritual books run by a very cluey and stylish woman. It’s on Middleton Street, behind the Drive Inn (great outdoor restaurant-cum-used car dealership!!).
And, we finally found The Indian Coffee House. I won’t write about it. Just immerse yourself in this photo…
Oh, and why skin as a title? Well, it’s not just because mine is thicker but because it’s very very pale. Here in India, for the well-off, skin whitening products are very popular, which is so disturbing on many levels, but above all, for most people, white skin is a curiosity. Rachael and I are both getting that clinical examination/stare, and for once (for me) it’s usually not about my spinal curvature but about my skin. For her, it has that added layer of being a woman. And this is very much a man’s world. Men are not even bothered by the fact I’m with her, they will keep staring, sometimes quite openly ogling. It’s not easy to cope with, and impossible to do anything about, really. It just is. In my vulnerable moments, it breaks my heart, angers and upsets me. But so often you just have to get on with it. India is non-negotiable.
One more thing – I went to the National Library here, the biggest in India. The librarian I met really opened up when I asked him if they follow Ranganathan! No, they use Dewey combined with AACR! Getting a book is a very laborious, but pleasurably antiquated, process – card catalogue, request slips, duplicate copies thereof… Beautiful buildings (really a colony of libraries, departments, not just one building), still ambience, and millions of books in dozens of languages. Gorgeous. I was exhausted getting there, though, so didn’t stay long.
Rachael and I leave for Darjeeling on Tuesday night. I can’t wait.