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.

view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling
view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling

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…

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…

little victories…

Hello rest-of-the-world!  This post is a little later than I’d planned, due mainly to a one day general strike in Kalimpong.  The strike is to highlight the region’s demand for greater autonomy from West Bengal state government.  Of course, there are many factions and complications, but that’s what I can glean so far.  Kalimpong is a beautiful town of about 50,000 people, perched on a ridge 1500 m above sea level.  For the first time since arriving in India, I need more than one layer of clothing, and I’m seeing trees and flowers (without a patina of pollution!).

More on Kalimpong in my next post.  For now, I want to tell you about Siliguri.  I said last time there are no touts.  That’s not true.  The call in Siliguri is not “Hello, sir!!” but “Darjeeling??!!” – from the endless lines of taxis, jeeps and buses ready to go to where all Westerners around here want to go!  I felt a little smug saying “nai”, one of my few Bangla words, as I had decided to go to Kalimpong first (it’s further east, but just as close).

Speaking of language, that’s been a huge reality check.  It’s true, if all you want to do is buy things, rent a room, eat, take photos, English is fine.  But if you want anything unusual, or if you want a conversation, you’ll need some Bangla, and I’ve certainly been feeling the lack.  So, I worked out how to say hello, no, thankyou, walking and I don’t speak Bangla.  OK, that’s nothing, but it’s a start.  I miss conversation, especially easy, fluid chat.  India, so far, has brought me out of myself but also further in.  It’s definitely a place of paradoxes.

By the way, thankyou Maurice McNamara for giving me Jonathan Harley’s book “Lost in Transmission”.  I was skeptical at first, but it’s a real page-turner, and unexpectedly moving at times.  Harley was ABC’s corrrespondent in New Delhi from the late 90s onwards, and the things he finds amazing and shocking and odd and beautiful are the same things I did.

Anyway, Siliguri’s shops are mostly either chemists or motorbike repair stores.  Hmm, I can’t help thinking they’re related.  The air is clearer than Kolkata, but it’s still filthy.  I’ve had cause to visit a doctor here (no big deal, really…), and the health care system is one step up from third world.  Drugs are plentiful and cheap (for me), but the infrastructure is minimal, sanitation is so-so, and the demand is immense – always queues of coughing and limping people.

From the balcony of my hotel room at Siliguri, I could see a huge makeshift series of stalls – selling books, mostly empty.  Sadly, they weren’t setting up but down – it finished last week!  Ah, timing.  I found a bookstore, and a reasonable translation of Ghalib’s ghazals, though.

As part of wanting to challenge myself, especially with language, I decided to get a haircut.  I asked the waiter at the hotel restaurant what were the Bangla words I should use.  He didn’t understand, so brought the manager, who said he would get someone to take me to a good “Men’s Saloon”!  So, he leads me down a little alley, to “His and Hers”.  We climb a thin concrete stairway, and I bob down to fit my head through the door.  Three brown barber’s chairs, mirrors everywhere, blue wooden panels.  The TV in the corner is on, alternating between “Lagaan” an epic about cricket pre-independance, and VH1 which is playing Eminem.  The young man who cuts my hair is about 5 foot tall and maybe 20 years old.  In broken English (not broken Bangla – I’m nowhere near that), he works out I want my head shaved to the length of my 2 day growth.  He does a great job.  Next, the shave…  which is also spectacular.  I was nervous, I must say.  I’ve never had someone else shave me, not in Australia, let alone India.  It was such an experience – sprayed with water, moisturiser, massaged with a motion somewhere between kneading bread and sensual attentiveness, one close but never too close shave, then the whole procedure over again.  Oh, and in between the two shaves, a small cup of coffee.  We attempt, half successfully, to make small talk, though he doesn’t know what a poet is, and I can’t work out how to explain it.  I go back to the streets of Siliguri beaming, and run into an 18 year-old who asks me where I’m from, asks me about (guess what?) cricket, looks a little confused when I can’t offer much, then asks for my number – he hopes to get into an engineering course, maybe go to Australia one day!  This is West Bengal.  Friendly, aspirational, and bemused at a tall white boy like me.

His'n'Hers Saloon, Siliguri
His'n'Hers Saloon, Siliguri

That same night I find what I like to call the Jain Good Morning Captain.  The Jains are an offshoot from Hinduism who (among other dietary restrictions) don’t eat any meat, so when I see a sign pointing to a Jain restaurant, I’m intrigued.  I go down a dark corridor next to a building which is solely concrete frames, feeling increasingly lost and unsafe.  A man nearby shows me to the lift, which has room for me and the very old lift man.  On the 3rd floor is Jain Jaika Bhojnalaya, an open plan room with maybe 4 tables and about six waiters, who continually fill your plate (it’s all you can eat, just 40 rupees), offer you more daal, bread, pickle, and so on.  The owner swaggers over from the next table, asks how I found them, where I’m from, tells me he has another restaurant in Darjeeling.  He has the air about him somewhere between gangsta hip-hop tough-guy and a gentle Uncle or big brother.  And the place is reassuringly amateur.

Feel subtly ecstatic to have had a haircut and a shave, and to have found a restaurant that’s not in the Lonely Planet that’s so good and human.  So, yes, little victories, but they’re victories nonetheless.

Next blog, the incredible jeep ride from Siliguri to Kalimpong, and some impressions of the town…

Miss you, my friends.  Send me some emails, or post a reply, please.

among the indians

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!