It’s about time I let you know how I’m going poetically. I’ve been away now for about 7-8 weeks. Which I should say has been a rollercoaster – ie, full of ups and downs, and not something you can just stop halfway because you feel you need a little break. At times, it’s been astounding, sublime or just plain odd (see photos in the previous post!). Other times, mundane, difficult or exasperating. Mostly, India gives you the opposite of what you’re expecting, or at the very least it goes off on its own tangents.
I’d planned to write a suite of poems exploring the personal side of the medical tourism industry. And I think I’m getting there. There’s a lot of roughness to the drafts, but I should end up with 20 to 30 poems. It hasn’t worked out how I expected – making contacts in the industry itself has been hard (with a few exceptions) and sometimes the smallest hurdles have felt like great walls. As many wise people have said, channel it all into the poetry. And I have.
The dilemma has been that I’m very aware that the outsider’s perspective is very clouded by the obvious sensory assault – poverty, rubbish, religious ritual, traffic, etc – and a poetry composed of this risks not only cliche but distortion. India is much more complex. Of course, I also don’t want to succumb to the current demand from (a segment of) middle-class India to “not focus on poverty”. There is an incredible (perhaps understandable) sensitivity within India to how the nation is depicted in the rest of the world, a desire to be seen to be transcending its historical shackles. Which to me is all the more reason to focus on the economic disparities, as well as exploring what might be behind this sensitivity. India is a country that has enough maturity, intelligence, wealth and ingenuity to not only handle criticism but to come up with its own solutions. By the way, I think Australia has its own version of this…
I suspect the other tricky thing will be the redrafting – I’m trying to do the bulk of that here, because I know that a lot of the heart of a poem depends on mood, which is difficult to recreate. Of course, I could always recruit a thousand auto-rickshaws and cars to encircle our house honking their horns, but there’s more to India and poetry than that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m typing this in an unnamed intenet cafe in Siliguri, about 575 kilometers from Kolkata. Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri are really one huge trading town for this area – about half a million people. I’ve only been here a few hours but already the atmosphere is very not Kolkata. I haven’t had one “hello, sir!” yet. This is the call you hear as you walk along the street – 9 times out of 10 it’s an invitation to look at their shop, not just a friendly greeting. Siliguri, like most of India, I guess, is still diesel city, but nowhere near as polluted and filthy as Kolkata.
There must be stages to culture shock. First, survival mode – that was my last post. Second, the challenges and little thrills of exploration. Third, the discomfort and criticism. I’m alternating between the 2nd and 3rd. I’ve left Kolkata, partly for some fresher air, but also to take a break from its relentlessness. Lots of beggars, lots of touts, some beautiful people, and some incredible scenes . A few snapshots –
On Tuesday, three schoolgirls (maybe 12 years old) come up to me while I’m taking a drink of water, ask me where I’m from. One says “you have very beautiful eyes!”.
I go to the Indian Museum. Incredible. Huge colonial 2-story building with inner courtyard, it is a museum to museums. Immense rooms filled with dusty display cases – the type-written labels detail every kind of rock, mineral, seed, plant, oil, animal… Life size displays show models of various Indian tribes, moths and butterflies are crucified behind glass, boxfish in formaldehyde, and quite a few watercolours by Tagore.
I am noticed everywhere I go. Mostly, it seems, because I am anglo and wealthy. I retreat to western-style cafes and bookstores (the sort I wouldn’t go to in Melbourne) for solace now and then, but mostly walk the streets, looking (often unsuccessfully) for artistic centres. It makes me wonder about community – it is easier to make connections with the well-off Kolkatans. Class? Language? Both, I think. Class and Language tend to work together; English, the language of the empire.
On my first morning here, I spot a beggar with a heartbreakingly severe spinal curvature. He waddles over to me, his hand out beseechingly. I walk past, a little in shock. I see him the next morning sitting on the footpath (his spot), and give him a few rupees, motioning to my back, nodding. It seems like some kind of connection. The next time I pass the same spot, he is louder and follows me, “hello, friend!”, his hand urging towards me.
I rarely hand out money. I know often the most aggressive are actually just collecting for others. There is a wall of poverty here. I can’t write about it. I’ve seen too many people sleeping on the footpath, men slapping their amputated limb against the road to attract charity, young women holding their baby in their arms while they stare into the restaurant you’re in and make an eating motion with their hand, shoe-shine-wallahs, shave-wallahs, even men with manual typewriters who’ll type for you, barefoot scrawny rickshaw drivers.
Why is it like this? Is it Hinduism? The caste system? Colonialism? Capitalism? Is it in the nature of the mega-city? Is it really inevitable?
A man in his mid-30s approaches me while I’m sipping my espresso in a chain cafe “Barista”. “Good afternoon”, he says, then, “are you a writer?”. We get talking, he introduces me to his wife. He writes novels and “self-management”; she writes poetry and paints. SS Roy and Daisy both also work for Herbalife; SS’s mentor/guru is high up in the company in Sydney. While we sit and chat, SS feeds Daisy cake, in between telling me how lucky he is to have her, how before her he was like the orangutan in the zoo. Daisy asks me about my back, because her daughter’s is starting to curve a little and the doctors want to operate (Daisy wants me to say no). I tell her, maybe not, just keep an eye on her – if it’s not too bad, don’t worry, especially if she’s not in pain. Later, she tells me I am a wonderful human being.
There is so much else I could write, but will leave it at that for now. Just one more thing – Indian bureaucracy is incredible. To get a ticket to New Jalpaiguri, I need to find out the codes and names of the train, fill out a long form, which then gets transferred into a huge ledger, and typed into a very early 90s looking computer by a public servant who manages to seem both friendly and arrogant. There are no 3AC seats left, so I have to cross that out on the form, and write 2AC (more expensive, two tiers of sleeping instead of 3). The 10pm to 8am overnight train from Kolkata was fantastic. In spite of the snoring through the carriage, and albeit curled up in foetal position in my bunk, I got sleep! I woke up to the sight of village farms just outside New JP, and a sense that the next stage of my being among the Indians is ahead of me.
Checked into Hotel Skylark, took a shower, and sat on my little balcony on the 3rd floor overlooking the sportsground and many bookstores! Siliguri for me, I think, will be for regathering strength, a short stop before heading to Kurseong, maybe Mirik, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, who knows…
I miss my partner and my friends. Love to you all. Postcards are coming!