So, I’m about half-way through this residency.  It’s reached the stage now where I oscillate between blase and alienated.  A bit like rowing across a huge lake – you get used to the strain and rhythm of rowing, but now and then you look up and realise how big the journey is.  And you run the risk of becoming overly conscious of the task at hand.  Because in my experience, poetry is shy – it comes most often when you’re not approaching it head-on but sideways.  I can’t help now but wonder how much more progress I’ll make.

Anyway, stocktaking is boring.  So, what’s been happening?  I spent a week out of Chennai at Mamallapuram and Pondicherry, both gorgeous, charismatic and laid-back towns in their own way.











Mamallapuram is about 2 hours south of Chennai, on the coast – a small little fishing village that is surrounded by 6th century temples carved out of solid rock and by 21st century tourists.  Which means almost everyone is a stone carver and will offer to sell you something.  It also means there are lots of Ayurvedic businesses.  I had a chat with a practitioner, who told me 99% of his work is with foreigners, and most just come for massage.  A few seek out the more intense and in-depth treatments, but even then he finds that health success varies greatly with “Europeans”.  Apparently, since they’re on holidays, they don’t want to give up things like drinking and smoking (which kind of goes against the whole point of panchakarma…).  He also read my pulse – a fascinating process which felt both highly ephemeral and a little mechanical.  For the record, I am currently predominantly “vata”.











Pondicherry, being a French territory until the 1950s, and currently a Union Territory, means it’s oddly un-Tamil Nadu in many ways.  Apart from the obvious French architectural flourishes, the infrastructure (roads, drains, etc) are a little less ramshackle.  The city itself is noticeably more diverse than Chennai, in terms of culture, religion and cultural background.

On a less picturesque note, I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by Dilip Menon called “The Blindness of Insight”.  Basically, it’s a series of four essays about the central, though often ignored or elided, role of caste in Indian society and literature.

there appears to have been [in the 19th century] an intimate connection between the social criticism of subordinated groups and an anguished and persistent engagement with the emancipatory potential of religious conversion (eg Ambedkar).  Elite groups too turned to a refashioning of tradition (eg Vivekananda), but for them it was easier to find a habitation within the resources of Hinduism…

Menon, to me, reminds us that caste shapes not only social interactions, but is a crucial element in how people experience religion, family, social support structures and health.  There is no monolithic, static experience of these ideas and institutions.  He also implies that marginal people, when they manage to find the resources to seek change, look instinctively to revolution rather than to recuperation.  This has been an illuminating element in my slow, long education in the complexity of this place.

Next week, I hope to meet a doctor who works at a Medical Tourism Agency.  Should be fascinating.  But I’ll leave you with this thought…

time to come home

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).

Kudle Beach, Gokarna
Kudle Beach, Gokarna

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.

Tragically common sight, Gokarna
Tragically common sight, Gokarna

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!)…

religion or…

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…

Sun Temple at Konark
Sun Temple at Konark

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…

seduced by Mirik

Ah, Mirik, no wonder the Indian middle-class flock to you in the winter!  You have seduced me (although I may be a bit easy 😉 )!

Path around Lake Sumendu, Mirik
Path around Lake Sumendu, Mirik

Mirik is a small hill-town of about 15,000 people, about 2,000 metres above sea level.  The older part of town is a gently bustling trading and farming village, but the town now also centres around Lake Sumendu, a man-made lake, surrounded by bamboo, cedar, ferns.  I wandered around the stone and dirt paths that circle the lake and criss-cross the surrounding forest for hours.  The Indian tourists ride horses around its perimeter, glide across the lake on paddle-boats, or (as I found out soon enough) set up picnics on the shore and play filmi (bollywood tunes) loudly and distorted through huge speakers.  Ok, that part doesn’t sound so wonderful, but even that was kind of beautiful.

Mirik, West Bengal
Mirik, West Bengal

The outskirts of Mirik, the steep and the gentle hillsides, are populated by orange orchards, cardamom groves, and plenty of tea plantations.  So, in spite of its tourist appeal, it has none of the tourist vibe of Darjeeling.  Let me give you a few snapshots…

I visited the island shrine to Parvati, and one on a hilltop to Durga.  The island is perhaps ten metres by fifteen, the shrine tiny, reached by a footbridge.  When I went there first, I was entirely alone, so sat on the steps and just absorbed, and wrote, and sat…

The hilltop shrine is actually a complex of shrines, around 6, connected by a circular path, which wound around a banyan tree.  I know next to nothing of the stories of Hinduism, and the images are still hard to access, but at some temples, there is a real sense of the spiritual, perhaps the patina of the years of accumulated devotion.  Both places were deeply moving and beautiful, sublime perhaps.

I have to say, of course, that when I left Mirik and arrived in Siliguri, I soon enough saw a small temple near the river, surrounded by dust and grime and bamboo shacks, immense poverty… and somehow I was reminded of Marx’s infamous quote about opium…  Easy to be “inspired” in a sublime environment…

There is also a huge monastery in Mirik.  On my last day there, I got up at dawn, walked the 15 minute hill road to get there, and on the way, it was the first clear day since I’ve been there, and there the Himalayas were, looming white and majestic on the horizon!  Breathtaking.  I’d been having a touch of the Western guilts, wondering what I was doing here, having my own little experiences, leaving behind empty plastic mineral water bottles, going home… It reminded me that in the midst of a transporting experience, there is no self to agonise over.

I hover outside the prayer hall for a while, a bit aghast at the building itself, an immense five-story crimson and saffron palace almost, intricately yet subtly decorated… but decided I should go in.  Hundreds of monks are at morning prayer.  I slip as quietly and anonymously as a non-robe-wearing, white man can, and sit in a corner.  Waves and currents of chanted prayer, gongs, the sound is like an orchestra, each voice a distinct voice yet disappearing into the whole.  Again, I can only enter the outer perimeter of the significance of what’s happening, so I sit and absorb, and attempt my own version of prayer, chant, meditation, presence.  I leave after maybe 15 minutes, and of course they’re still going…, walk down the hill feeling different yet the same…

I stay at Hotel Ashirvad, a tiny place off the main street.  I couldn’t get through on the phone to book, so was a little nervous.  I was greeted at the door by a 10-year old girl, who when I ask if there’s a room, she leaves, I assume to get the manager.  An 8 year-old boy comes out, shows me upstairs to a tiny single room, says it’s normally 200 rupees, but I can have it for 150, motions me to sit down, relax, then rushes downstairs to carry my huge backpack upstairs!  I meet Dad the manager later, but it’s so uncanny and unnerving to meet a child who is so confident and accustomed to the world of work.  At other times, I’ve been slapped back to reality, when after admiring the humble architecture of a village home, I’ve turned the corner to see a six-year old collecting wood or sweeping the path.  It’s not Australia’s reality, but it’s reality for so much of the world.

The only time in Mirik that I was approached by strangers who wanted something from me was when a group of young Indian men wanted their photo taken with me!  Oh, and I while I was sitting in my room one cool morning, with the window open, a monkey stuck his head in, his fingers gripping the window-sill, his face curious.  I shoo him away, as you do…

I spent Christmas dinner at Jagjeet restaurant, a family of one.  A portly bearded Sikh gent played with a small girl (better than Santa any day!).  She later wandered around the restaurant, running her toy truck across any improvised road she could find, including my leg.  I could weep, with a blur of contentment, yearning, melancholy and joy.

Thankyou Mirik.  A wonderful way to end my time in the West Bengal Hills.  But, Siliguri was about to remind me of another side of India, and bring up tears of a different kind…

undeniable cliches

First, sorry for those pedants out there (myself included) – I couldn’t work out how to insert an accent over the “e” in cliche.

Now, for Darjeeling.  I have probably seen more non-Indians here than everywhere else I’ve been combined.  It’s tourist central – and not just people from overseas, but many Indian middle-class people make the trek up here.  And who could blame them?  A cliche is a cliche because it’s so compelling.  The town is a cluster of homes, shacks, shops and hotels around a steep ridge, around 2000 metres above sea level.  Many centuries ago, it was home to the Buddhist kings, then to the Gurkhas, and in the 19th century a few pasty white people decided they really liked tea (and the strategic and scenic location), so Darjeeling became firmly entrenched as the archetypal hill station of the British Raj.

I stayed at Andy’s.  Of course I did.  It’s actually run by Andy’s very fatherly dad Genesis.  Andy moved from India to marry an Australian woman, in Melbourne, would you believe!  So, I was meant to stay here (who knows, maybe I’ll move to India with Rachael ;)….)!  From the rooftop viewing platform at Andy’s, on a clear day (and they all were, while I was there), you can see the Himalayas, including the breathtaking sight of Khangchendonga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world.  I got up at 5.30am to watch the sun slowly illuminate the peaks, pink-orange sunrise wash to the right, soft wisps of mist rolling across the foothills.  Cameras can’t capture it, but of course we all try.

Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre
Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre

I met some interesting people here, too, the happy compensation for Darjeeling being such a tourist mecca.  I could feel the bunched up words itching to get out of me – finally some conversation!  So, just in case you’re reading this, “Hi!” to Phil the Brit who drinks the local water, Andres (best of luck extending your stay here – your thesis will be much richer and so will you!!), and Kasja!

One of my highlights of Darjeeling was definitely the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, a few k’s from the centre of town.  It was founded in 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, by a handful of refugees.  It’s expanded hugely now, and includes a school, medical clinic, and a variety of workshops, which feed the shop, selling carpets, shawls, jewellery, etc.  A beautiful place.  For the first time since I’ve been here, I decided to turn the line of prayer wheels, walk around them…  I can’t describe it really (yes, I’m a writer, I should be able to, but…).  While I’m still an outsider to so much of the acrued traditions and rites of Buddhism, there’s a kind of resonance in this place – deeply human and open.  And politically aware (unavoidable really)  – the centre includes a moving photographic exhibition and a printing press which was used in the early days for a Tibetan newspaper.

The other highlight was Observatory Hill.  Another well-trodden path, but for a reason.  A monk named Dorje originally lived here (hence, Darjeeling…), and the site is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.  I’m not sure of the whole story (it’s a blog, dammit, I can be slack with my research, I’ll read up later…), but somehow they’ve managed to have a joint temple – you enter the front gate and to your left is a monk, to your right a Hindu priest, sitting side by side.  The hill is covered in prayer flags, swimming in incense, and has many small shrines, including one inside a cave which is both a little eerie and deeply moving.  Since one of the Hindu gods worshipped here is Hanuman, the monkey god (to grosslyl simplify…), the hill is also home to a large number of marauding monkeys (who are very happy to eat offerings presented at shrines!).  I was a little nervous, but they’re more focussed on fighting each other than hassling humans, though I’m told they’re keen on stealing….!

Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags
Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags

I’ll leave it at that for now.  Darjeeling’s pretty amazing, and I’m wondering why I left after only four days.  I guess I just have perennially itchy feet at the moment.  My current challenge is to try to direct my meagre rupees to businesses other than those listed in the Lonely Planet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some fantastic meals in restaurants that the guidebook-bible lists, it’s just that I know that such listings almost guarantees success – there are other amazing places, and to try to find them is part of the adventure.  Oh, but now I’m starting to talk about Kurseong….  which is my next post (plus a rave about the Toy Train!).

Miss you all (apart from those reading this who I don’t know, but maybe I’d miss you too if I knew you…).

the second Switzerland?!

I’ve just left Kalimpong, having spent a week in what one young Indian man told me is “the second Switzerland”.  Leo also said that Kalimpong is Heaven, whereas Kolkata is Hell.  It’s not heaven, but it’s been a huge oasis for me, in spite of a few little scares.

I took a share jeep from Siliguri to Kalimpong – it takes about 3 hours, up steep, potholed mountain roads, with 12 of us in one jeep, hips bumping against hips, legs crammed in.  Deep-vein thrombosis is not a risk on long-haul flights, really, compared to this.  Still, amazing trip!  As we stopped for fuel at the outskirts of Siliguri, the local India Oil servo was preparing for a celebration – the entire place was covered in orange flower garlands, Hindi pop music blared from loudspeakers,  a hundred plastic chairs were lined up in front of a podium – the banner proclaiming welcome to the CEO for the grand opening of an automated service station!  On the share jeep ride, I also saw many roadside shrines, monkeys, cows, more tiny shacks selling paan (of course!) and car-exhaust-stained vegetables.

I am slowly becoming accustomed to poverty, I think.  I expected to be thrown into despair, but I just feel somewhere between stunned, speechless and cold.  In Kalimpong, there is definitely poverty but not to the extent of Kolkata.  I had people say hello, ask me where I’m from, etc but no-one hassle or beg or try to drag me into their store.  Of course, it seems there’s no work in town, so all the local teens are fairly surly and preparing to get out.  I met a few of them, and they wanted to smoke dope and talk about rock music, and who they might marry.  Some things are the same here, some things so different!

My first night here, I found a little restaurant, ordered a great Malai Kofta, and as I was feeding myself,  a small group of about eight men gathered about ten metres away in the darkness.  They started hitting and kicking one man, knocking him to the ground.  A woman was screaming.  It was dark, and cars were passing, so I couldn’t see, but it all stopped soon, and they all seemed to leave.  As I was leaving, I asked what it was about, and was told “oh, they’re just drunk, it’s safe here but…”  After that, I didn’t see any violence or drunkenness, but while it’s certainly a friendly town (I had so many people just smile, say hi, etc), there’s a complex history and a real sense of uncertainty about the future.

I have to say I have at times felt very romantic about the architecture and vehicles of India – there are Vespa-style motorbikes, gracious curved modernist/art-deco houses, signs that are hand-painted (and often misspelt).  So much seems to have come from the first half of the 20th century.  Indian people, from what I can tell, would take the new any day, but this is a subsistence, getting-by economy.

Stickers, posters and murals everywhere declare the demand for an autonomous Gorkhaland.  The West Bengal Hills were taken by the Nepalese Gorkhas in the 18th Century, then by the British in the 19th.  Kalimpong is primarily Nepali, but there is also Indian, Tibetan, and many others.  It’s a real mix of people.  But there seems to be a strong desire for autonomy from the West Bengal State Government.  Conflicts, even killings, have resulted from differences over the degree of autonomy that is acceptable, and the means to achieve it.  While I was there, there was a day long strike.  Women congregated at the Rotary Club-built lookout park, and men around the Police Station, holding placards and flags.  No conflict, just I think a reminder that’s what they want.

Kalimpong is also a mix of religions too – catholic churches, Hindu temples and Buddhist gompas.  I spent a bit of time in the latter two.  The Krishna temple was interesting – a huge, almost gaudy white and pink structure, with a tiny room where devotees prayed, circled the shrine and made offerings.  I have a long way to go before I know anything of substance about Hinduism.  It seems an immensely complex, malleable, ambiguous religion – a religion of stories rather than truths.

The gompas in Kalimpong are beautiful.  As I walked around two of them, I was immediately invited inside.  Interestingly, the gaze the monks gave me was neither welcoming nor unwelcoming, just a quiet constant regard.  At both, I sat in the main hall for a while, but within minutes a young adept would be by my side looking at me mutely.  The halls are explosions of colour, murals of various Buddha incarnations, worn crimson cushions and wood bench tables.  There is a calm in these places, but it is not hyper-spiritual at all.  Young monks play hacky-sack, kids tease the local dogs with sticks (shades of “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…”!), other monks carve and saw wood, building things.

I’ve had such ups and downs here.  I’ve walked the beautiful, busy, lively backstreets, and wept out of loneliness.  I’ve sat in calm awe on the balcony of Deki Lodge (where I stayed – a lovely little Tibetan-run place – the owner is a 60-year-old matronly saleswoman – as I left she showered me with mandarins and biscuits for my trip!).  I’ve also met many lovely people, with a kind of aggressive friendliness – “MP” who gave me a list of local Nepali bands I should track down, Leo and Bakash who took me out for Tea and sat with me at the local park around a makeshift fire, and Charlie an American Buddhist who’s been travelling around India for about 2 years now.  There is no replacement for friends and home.  Homesickness persists, but it is abated, eased, replaced even, by the immense warmth and calm of this place.

Two poets in Kalimpong
Two poets in Kalimpong

PS.  This photo was taken by a precocious local 8-year-old boy, who was fascinated by my camera, took dozens of photos.  I had to pry it out of his hands, even though three of the fingers were missing.