Thursday 15th March 2007: Delhi

My last night in India. I am spending it in a real dive that is little more than a bed with four walls round it, across a dirty little corridor from a grotty bathroom. The one advantage it has is a window that looks straight out on to the Jama Masjid (“Friday Mosque”), Shah Jahan’s Delhi masterpiece. It is my favourite building in Delhi, possibly India: a wonderful sense of space and proportion; a glorious central scalloped arch flanked either side by two smaller ones; three great onion domes, towering striped minarets and an overall richness and warmth in its pink Agra sandstone. It is still a living mosque with a community of its own, as well as numerous pilgrims and tourists both domestic and international.
   The area around the mosque is essentially a Muslim ghetto and is old-fashioned in a way quite unlike the quaint, pastoral charm of Bhavnagar or Junagadh. It is dirty and seedy and destitute. Full of destitutes, in fact, including many nutcases and sad men with desolate, seen-too-much eyes. In the day it is packed with bicycle-rickshaws, chaiwallahs, butchers, car-part vendors and teems with humanity. At night all this is here, but the pavements fill with the flotsam and jetsam of a city that lures the extremely poor from at least three countries. Many of these are Bangladeshi migrants, sleeping rough under tatty blankets. If the concerned Europeans I have spoken to are to be believed, this is actually a very dangerous part of the city at night, notorious for its muggings. I have experienced no such problems and have had the more positive experience of feasting on kebabs and rich Mughlai cuisine – both from street stalls and from a revered eatery called Karim’s. Outside this area radiate bazaars, wide arteries and clogged narrow capillaries, selling the usual wares: saris, silver, paper, shoes, mechanical parts, text books, sweets, chai, paan.


Old Delhi
Credit: www.psychologytoday.com

   Immediately to the south is New Delhi, the starkest possible contrast. It is a Raj-era creation of grand avenues lined with trees and whitewashed bungalows, now sprouting concrete blocks - government offices, shops, and hotels. Particularly impressive is Rajpath, which leads from India Gate to the magnificent Viceroy’s palace (now the President’s palace) and twin secretariats – a superbly laid out mass of Greek columns and chhatris (cupolas). Nearby Connaught Place, three concentric circles of roads, is full of fancy shops and restaurants. It is full of the achingly stylish and beautiful jeunesse dorée of Delhi who strut around in designer shades talking refined English into their minuscule mobiles.
   Beyond this my mental map becomes blurry. South Delhi is a network of highways enclosed by trees, suddenly spurting into a fly-over to reveal the life below: sometimes outrageous villas in a millionaires’ enclave, sometimes the dust roads and tarpaulin roofs of a shanty town.

*

A surprisingly efficient metro system links much of Central Delhi, and the orderly queues of people waiting outside the sliding doors are an unlikely contrast to the Circle Line. New in town on my first night I made the mistake of trying to hire a bicycle rickshaw to take me to Connaught Place from the Old Town.
   “400 rupees,” quoted the driver, a wiry little man with a humorous face. I laughed derisively and walked off.
   “Arre saab, three-sixty. Good price for you.”
   “Fifty,” I said flatly.
   “Arre saab, three-fifty. Last price.”
   “Fifty.”
   “Three-fifty - very good price.”
   “Fifty.”
   “Three hundred, OK? Good price for you.”
   “OK, one hundred,” I said, knowing he’d got me. He shrugged and made as if to move away. My turn to panic.
   “OK, one-fifty - absolute maximum.”
   “Two-fifty, saab. Business problem coming.”
   “One-fifty.”
   “Two-fifty last price,” he pleaded.
   “One-fifty.”
   “Two hundred.”
   “Thik hai, chale.”
As soon as I got in I knew it was a mistake. Adrift in a current of traffic, the flimsy contraption lurched precariously and I felt exposed to the vagaries of the road. Then the driver got lost. He pulled over dramatically and made a “wait here” gesture while he scurried across the tide of traffic without apparent concern for life or limb.
   It was ten minutes before he reappeared with another rickshaw driver in tow. He told me in Hindi and sign language that Driver Number Two would take me the rest of the way. OK, I said, but I would only pay each driver Rs100. “Arre saab!” they both chorused, and described at length the difficulty of the road, the distance we had to travel, the business overheads they faced. Unmoved, I restated my position. They conferred angrily amongst themselves, gesticulating frequently, until Driver Number Two set off with a violent clatter. “Thik hai, saab, chale,” said Driver Number One, and we resumed our hair-raising journey.
   On one of the radials leading into Connaught Place the driver pulled abruptly to the side. In his Hindi-sign language hybrid he intimated that he was not allowed to take his vehicle any further, so I should get out here. It was a short walk to where I planned to spend the evening, so I shrugged acquiescent and handed over Rs 200. He took it with a pained expression. “Aur do sau” (two hundred more) he asked, doubling the fare in a tone that suggested that I’d been insensitive not to do it myself.
   “This is ridiculous!” I snapped in a disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells voice. “We agreed two hundred, you got lost and wasted twenty minutes and now you drop me sooner than I asked. I’m certainly not going to give you anymore.”
   Cue torrent abuse. I put my hands up and with a “Bas bas bas” marched across the road. The torrent grew hysterical - I didn’t understand it, but imagine he touched on my lineage, my perceived anatomical deficiencies and my presumed sexual proclivities. In a frenzy he slammed down his rickshaw and charged after me, and the fun began. Somehow we had ended up on either side of a long railing that separated the road from the pavement. I ran pavement side and he kept apace road-side, screaming his unpaid fare like an obsessive mantra. At this point my position struck me: there was no-one else on the road, the railing was about to give out and, for all I knew, the driver might have a knife. I plunged into my wallet, tore out Rs 200 and thrust it at him. He grabbed it and swore, storming in the direction of his rickshaw. I was too much of a coward not to wait until he was a safe distance away before shouting back the strongest Hindi swearword I know: "Motherfucker!”



Near Connaught Place
Credit: Wikipedia (user Lokantha)

*

And that’s just it: Delhi makes me happy, yes, but it also makes me angry. Maybe it is the impression people give of knowing exactly my place in the tourist hierarchy that riles me. Maybe it is the strange knack the Punjabi touts have of making you feel deficient for not wanting their services. Or maybe it is just the effect of a large uncaring city after the warmth of small-town Gujarat. Whatever it is, in the last few days I have exchanged needless heated words with a taxi driver, a fortune-teller, an internet cafe proprietor and a ticket tout. Both Delhi and I seem to be in a constant state of simmering. Two of these exchanges were in Paharganj, Delhi’s backpacker Mecca, a seamy place that I only visited at night to use the internet. Fruit stalls and budget guest houses are everywhere, and offers (mostly of Kashmiri provenance) come at you from dark alleyways - “You smoke hash, friend? Wanna stay in a houseboat in a beautiful place? Like girls, brother?”. It amused me to see the metro equivalent of Hari and his crowd. Many Delhites, I understand, regard this place as the pits, and would not venture here on any account.
   Of Delhites themselves I have had mixed experiences. I spent Monday evening in an East Delhi flat with Abhishek Aggrawal, a friend I made on the train, and his kind parents. Father and son are gentle intellectuals and the mother is quiet but warm. If the father was perhaps inclined to talk too much about his fertiliser business, he made up for it with his articulate love of music, and it was a delightful surprise to be given a CD of ghazals by Ghulam Ali when I left. I had not expected this kind of hospitality, or - in the best sense of the word - simplicity in Delhi, and it touched me.
   I had a very different sort of encounter the next day in the south of Delhi. I first came across Aatish Sharma last week on a gay dating website and, having hardly excelled myself so far in that direction, I agreed to meet him when I came Delhi. Disappointment Number 1 came as soon as I plucked up the courage to give him a call. Rather than having what I call an SDA (“Sexy Delhi Accent”) he turned out to speak fluent Canadian! Overlooking this misfortune, I trundled down south to a neighbourhood called Saket, where I met Aatish in a shopping complex called PVR.
   He was a little more nondescript in person than in his photographs, and launched immediately into a long description of a job offer he had recently received which, pausing only to ask if I wanted lunch (I did), he merged seamlessly into his coming out story (rather too dull to be repeated here). We went to a soulless fast food joint serving a choice of “Business” or “Executive” thali. A television screen above the counter was showing a news story involving a bald old man in a suit. Aatish nudged me:
   “See that guy up there on the TV?”
   “Yes.” Not my type, I was about to add.
   “I slept with him.”
   “Oh.” Cue bemused laughter (on my part) and an over-long anecdote (on his) about how a chance meeting at a media conference in Bangalore had led inexorably to sex in a penthouse suite.
   A tactful change of topic on my part led on to an interesting conversation about pre-Mughal Delhi and the expansion that had taken place after Partition, to accommodate “our Pakistani brothers” (it took me a while to understand that he was referring to the Hindus and Sikhs who had flocked to Delhi from the Punjab in 1948). All too quickly, via a lengthy and one-sided speculation on the nature of the malfunctioning lock on the toilet door, we returned to choice morsels of Aatish’s personal life: a story about a Swedish fuck-buddy whose car he had accidentally crashed after visiting a pizzeria in Pune; an anecdotal appraisal of the major cruising spots in South Delhi; and a description of the precise circumstances building up to his getting laid on his last trip to Bombay. As we left the restaurant, it suddenly seemed to occur to him that he might risk asking me a question.
   “So did you ‘meet’ anyone here in India yet?”
  I told him the story of an unfortunately brief meet up with a diamond merchant in Udaipur (after waiting for him for 20 minutes by Hathipol he had proceeded to drive me for two minutes away from my intended direction before speeding off to work. We never met again).
  “Oh, so did he have poppers on him or something?”
  What part of my amusingly-related tale had given Aatish the impression that the guy had been brandishing recreational alkyl nitrates, I didn’t dare to ask. By this stage it was pelting with rain, and all rickshaw fares were automatically doubled. Aatish suggested coffee somewhere and I muttered something about needing to get on, and dove into a rickshaw feeling that, whatever the sum, a fare that put some distance between me and Delhi’s most tedious lothario would be money well spent.
  
*

I actually returned to this area the next day to visit the most famous of Delhi’s earlier incarnations, the great minar of Qutb-ud-din, one of the earliest Muslim rulers of Delhi. The Qutb Minar complex, as it is known, is actually full of interesting architecture from different periods of Delhi’s history, and of the eponymous minar’s five storeys, only the bottom one was built by Sultan Qutb-ud-din himself in the late twelfth century, the remainder being the work of his descendants. The later Sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji (the selfsame who masterminded the first sack of Chittor) tried his hand at tower-building himself, but only succeeded in out-circumferencing Qutb, as the unfinished Ala Minar, while of admirable girth, is only twenty-seven metres high.


Qutb Minar
Credit: http://lifestyle.iloveindia.com

    Delhi’s two most famous forts are both from the Mughal era. I visited Purana Qila (Old Fort) on my first full day in Delhi. It was built in part by Humayun, son of the first Mughal Babur, and in part by Ser Shah, an Afghan ruler who briefly interrupted Humayun’s rule in the 1540’s. It looks similar to other early Mughal work I have seen, although the domes are squashed and hemispherical without a hint of “onion”. The more famous Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) was, as I had anticipated, a bit of a disappointment, and the fact that I had expected this allowed me to have a very interesting time, learning more about Shah Jahan’s architectural oeuvre. Most impressive for me were the outer walls, and mighty Lahore gate. Safdarjung’s tomb, in New Delhi, from the decaying years of Mughal rule I found attractive and somewhat Taj-like, if less sublime and more “chocolate box”. In William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns (my Delhi bible), he sees in it all the excessive hedonism and debauchery of the Mughal twilight. If I had not read this already I think that that aspect of the place would have entirely passed me by, and even having read it I feel I am not acutely sensitive enough to the language of Indian architecture to really do this idea justice.

*

Meanwhile, the rituals of departure are gradually being observed. I went to the Air India office to reconfirm my flights today and was required to wait an hour for the two minute transaction. As I was waiting, I struck up conversation with the man on the seat next to me. He was called Mirwaiz, and was waiting to reconfirm a flight to one of the Emirates where he worked for a family business. A Delhite born and bred, and about my age, he shocked me by insisting that he had never been into Old Delhi.  An odd reminder of Prakash and his never having visited old Udaipur. 
  He mentioned a wife in Canada, and I initially assumed he meant a Delhi girl who was working abroad. I turned out to be quite wrong.
   “No man, Lisa’s from Canada only. She lived there all her life.”
   “So did you meet her in India?”
   “No way! She’s never been in India. She’s planning to come for a visit later this year.”
   “So where did you meet? In Dubai? In Canada?”
   “No, no. Actually we have met each other on the internet only.”
   “You mean you haven’t met her in real life?”
  He laughed. “Never! Basically it’s an internet romance. We met on a dating site and we just... clicked, yaar. Lisa is my soul mate. Like me she had a tough family life and has not many friends. And like me she has been unlucky in love. So we wrote so many messages to each other. Daily messages. Actually multiple messages every day. And we would exchange gifts - so many gifts I would send her.”
   I didn’t like to ask how much she had reciprocated in the gift-sending department. “And shaadi? Marriage?”
   “Ha ha - you are knowing some Hindi words. Well, Jon, it happened like this: we love each other so much we decided to marriage, but practically it was not convenient for her to come to Dubai. So we  performed the Islamic marriage ceremony over the internet with webcam.”
   “That’s amazing! I’ve never heard of this happening before!”
    He thrust his hand into mine and shook it vigorously. “Actually I think it’s rare. Very rare.”
   “And when are you going to meet?”
  “At the moment it is not possible for me to go to Canada - money problems. So she will come to India quite soon. It’s really difficult for her. She is always telling ‘I miss you so much, Mirwaiz’ and it’s the same on my side. I’m truly excited for her visit.”
   “I bet you are! Are you nervous at all about meeting her in real life?”
   “Of course!” he said, smiling. “But I must be strong, for her sake. Actually, you know, I’ve never had any girlfriend before. I’m still a virgin.”
   There didn’t seem much of an answer to this, so I asked if there had been any difficulty with his family.
   “My parents are happy for me to marry the girl I love, but my brothers are really angry that I’m marrying a non-Muslim. They don’t speak to me now except on businesses. But I don’t care because I’m going to set up my own business, so I can have my independence with Lisa. You know, all I care about in this world is my happiness with Lisa.”

*

And so, I fear, it is time to bring this enterprise to a close. I had hoped to finish off with a synthesis of all my thoughts of India, given six months’ experience, but I shall abandon that in favour of fizzling quietly out. I have tried to write as much as I could in this journal about my thoughts, reactions and understanding of this country and inevitably so much remains unwritten. I have had a wonderful six months and, because it has necessarily involved a whole shift in perception and reaction, and a change in what one could call “personal norms”, it feels quite genuinely like a little lifetime.
    I have arranged to spend tomorrow with Nina Dayal, a college friend from Cambridge who is working here in the Tata Energy Research Institute. I will be glad of the company, as I would probably feel flat and devastated otherwise, despite the tremendous excitement.
   As for India - I will come back, of course! Only the most extreme life circumstances could prevent this. I have recently taken to saying that the desire I have to visit other countries is only equal to the desire I have to visit other Indian states. I cannot predict whether in the cold light of Britain’s temperate climate I shall feel otherwise. In any case, I shall continue to devour literature and articles about India and, given the enormously exciting economic climate, India-watching is going to be a fascinating hobby in the coming decades. How it will have changed by 2020 is hard to imagine.
   Unlike with my South Indian friends of 2003, I am determined to make a strong effort to keep in touch with some of the wonderful people I have met here. I have no doubt the Europeans will be easy – I am sure to meet Ellen and Anna and others back in England, and it would be a great pleasure to meet Zelda again. Out of the Indians, I sincerely hope to keep in touch with a few IRMAns and a few Udaipuris. I have already been corresponding with Prakash and have had a few e-mails from Madhu as well as Lalita and Arun. If I ever visit Udaipur again, and I very much hope to as I am beginning to miss the place badly, then I will make every possible effort to visit Maal, as the change there will perhaps be the most readable and obvious. I will also try and seek old friends – from Vikas Samiti and from the tourist-ville crowd, as well as Prakash, Shiv, Abbas and the Khandelwals to see what has happened to them [31]. As my writing has become almost illegible with tiredness, and as I hate long goodbyes in any case, I shall herewith pronounce this mishmash of Indian experiences finished. In the words of Dr Nirmal Khandelwal: Bas, bas, bas.




*

[Continued on Friday 16th March]: No, that won’t quite do, will it? Here I am, in the no-man’s land called Indira Gandhi International Airport, with only the slimmest claim to actually still being in India. After a final breakfast overlooking the Jama Masjid, I spent today as expected with my friend Nina. We went to Humayun’s tomb, a terrifically solid and beautiful early Mughal masterpiece. Smooth, un-perforated arches without the scalloping tendencies of later Mughal work, a wonderful interplay of blue stone, an awesome squat dome and an overall pyramidal structure all combine to make this an immensely noble building. We both passed off as Indians so as to avoid paying the foreigners’ rate to get in – Nina in any case fully Punjabi in origin, and me masquerading as a Kashmiri.
Humayun's tomb
Credit: http://indiapicks.com

    We had a fat Punjabi buffet lunch in one of South Delhi’s innumerable upmarket shopping enclaves and then walked up Rajpath, discussing India and Cambridge in equal measure. In the hope of hearing qawwali (Sufi devotional singing), we headed south to the shrine of mediaeval saint Nizamuddin, now immortalised as the name of Delhi’s major southbound train station. None was to be heard, but it was interesting to see the friendly village character of the neighbourhood, where Nizamuddin famously commented “Delhi is still far” on hearing of the approach of Ala-ud-din Khalji. The Anglo-Indian writer Ruskin Bond turned this phrase on its head in his intriguing novella Delhi is Not Far.
    I later went alone to the Lotus Temple, Delhi’s Baha’i temple, in the far south of the city. By the time I reached it, the lotus-shaped temple itself was closed, but I was able to stroll around the gardens and up to a Hindu temple on a little hill to admire the setting sun over South Delhi – the Qutb Minar in one direction, Humayun’s tomb in another, both far, far away – marvelling at the fact that I would be in England tomorrow. There is a Krishna Consciousness temple nearby, which suggests that the more esoteric religions bunch together. Sun down, I returned to South Extension Part II, the well-heeled residential-cum-shopping district where Nina shares a flat with another TERI worker called Nithu. I met Nithu briefly, ascertaining that she, unlike Aatish Sharma, had an SDA , my new acronym for the infinitely sophisticated, slightly whining upper-middle class North Indian accent that has become my favourite in the world. But then, the myriad of different flavours of Indian English accents is yet another fascinating piece of diversity to be found in the country.
    Nina and I went out for drinks and fast food in a couple of nearby bars and then on to a chaiwallah for my final chai. We chatted in Hindi to two guys, both from Jharkand (a relatively new state that used to be the southern portion of Bihar) and both working in the classified matrimonial ad business. Apparently putting “Caste no Bar” on your advert entitles you to a 25% discount, due to Samajik (social work). Perhaps this is perceived as a way of breaking down caste barriers and is therefore encouraged?
    Coming back to Nina’s flat in the late evening we waited for a friend of hers, Deepti, from Hyderabad via America and now working for a sexual health awareness organisation. As she was also bound for the airport we shared a taxi, bidding our farewells to Nina and Delhi. Having had a very jet-setting background, she was a wonderfully competent helper at the airport and, with her brash American accent and engaging sense of humour, a great companion until she had to head off to her flight for New York.

*

And that brings me to where I am now: 3.20am in Delhi’s grim departure hall, desperately trying to pretend it is 9.45pm, a few hours before bed-time! To my left are three slightly grumpy-looking security personnel in olive-green uniforms clutching guns. The middle one is chewing paan. Two small, meek-looking men in shirts and ties are about ten metres in front of me, operating a bag-wrapping service, currently negotiating with a neurotic-looking American. Just in front is an old man in a grey-green kurta pyjama and turban, while to my right is a dark-skinned young man wearing a purple jumper. Everywhere queues and trollies. And now the meek men have come over to help the neurotic lady again who, judging by her accent is central European rather than American. Not long to go now, thank goodness…
Footnotes:


[31] I am happy to report that, with the exception of Arun, I have since met everybody mentioned in that paragraph again.

Saturday 10th March 2007: Kutch

I’ve managed to avoid writing about Kutch for a whole week, but now I’m on a 28-hour train journey to Delhi, I really have no excuse to continue doing so. At six nights, I stayed in Bhuj  (Kutch’s main town) longer than anywhere else on my post-Udaipur travels, and it was a peaceful, but interesting, place to spend my penultimate week. My first reaction, however, was one of disappointment, as I realised that my hotel, the City Guest House, was full of foreigners, indicating that Kutch wasn’t quite as off the beaten track as I’d imagined. I tried to force myself to acknowledge that I had absolutely no right to resent other people doing exactly what I was doing, but it was not until a few days later when I made friends and even went on some trips with said foreigners that I cheerfully accepted their presence.
    The evening I arrived (3/3) was the first day of Holi and all over Bhuj dung-fuelled fires were being lit, and people would process round them. I understand that this is also a prime time for newly-weds to “reaffirm their vows”. The next day was Holi proper, and after being outside for half an hour I concluded that, since everything was shut and my face and clothes were already covered with brightly coloured powder, there was no real option but to join in the fun.
    The earliest revellers were little kids armed with bags of coloured powder (pink and green apparently the most popular colours) or spray tubes. They had no compunction in running up to me and smothering my face, hair or t-shirt, generally with a cheeky “Happy Holi”. Later, teenagers and adults joined in – gangs of monstrously-coloured boys on motorbikes, gaggles of girls, some giggling, some cross, older men with a streak of pink on their forehead or a hint of green in their hair, matronly figures with long pleated hair stained with colour. I fell in with a party of boys and men and joined their group for a time before it was suggested we go back to a room belonging to one of them, Ritesh Goswami, for drinks. Drinks involved fairly serious quantities of rum and things got slightly out of hand when some of the party starting muttering about 1947, while brandishing a cricket bat a little ominously, if vaguely. Some of the less drunk companions told me it would be best if I left. Ritesh gave me his contact details so that we could meet again. I spent much of the rest of the afternoon sitting in the shade and drinking water, at one point accepting a lift with some prison officers, with whom I drank tea outside a crowded shack, hoping that they would not discern the illegal liquor in my breath.


Holi
Credit: imovies4u.com

    A slightly tired normality was restored the next day, and I was able to explore Bhuj in a less exotic fashion. As a town I found it consistently confusing and never really developed a mental map, which is odd, as I think in reality it has a fairly simple layout. Much of the town’s original buildings were damaged in the notorious 2001 earthquake, so it is a curious mixture of modern houses, piles of rubble and an old-fashioned street plan.
    The biggest draws, in my opinion, are the large artificial lake (Hamirsar Kund) and the palaces of the Maharaos of Kutch, a Jadeja Rajput clan who ruled Kutch as a princely state until 1948. Of the former I shall say nothing except that, sitting by it on my first evening I was surprised by an immensely long flight of bats. The most striking of the palaces is called the Prag Mahal and is a huge, somewhat Indo-Gothic monstrosity with a peculiar resemblance to Keble College, in Oxford. It is red brick, with plenty of little yellow columns and a sloping-roof façade at the front and a huge clock tower. Inside, it is equally extraordinary and impressive, with an imposing staircase and plaster panelling painted to look like wood, adding to the Oxbridge effect. What is clear throughout the palace, but most of all in the surreal Durbar Hall, is a love of Greek classical structures, most notably Corinthian pillars. The Durbar hall has a bare expanse of dusty floor, only interrupted by a handful of musty old chairs that have obviously seen better decades. I would describe the decor as “Helleno-kitsch”, with Corinthian pillars aplenty, grey-and-white miniatures depicting Greek myths and a team of gold-skirted Adonis figures holding up scrolls midway up the wall. Add to this a few family portraits and numerous stuffed animals all round the room, and you have the eerie scene, eeriness intensified by the today’s durbar of a hundred pigeons whose throbbing calls are magnified by the acoustic to an unearthly degree.
    The older palace, the Aina Mahal, has a beautifully intricate, earthquake-damaged exterior, and also bows to European influence in the form of numerous small portraits of European ladies and Rococo mirrors. Alongside these hang miniature portraits of Mughal emperors, who are given Mongoloid features (which they presumably would have had). It was in the palace compound that I met Janine, a Canadian girl of about my age who told me she wanted to hire a taxi to explore some Kutchi villages. She had already found one companion and was now looking for a third. With some initial misgivings I agreed to join them, as I was also interested in exploring villages, and a shared taxi seemed to be the most convenient and economical way of doing this. We met for lunch at Janine’s hotel, the Annapurna, to finalise matters. The third member of our party turned out to be a Swiss guy called Marc who had already been in Bhuj a week.
    And so it was that the next day we set off in a charming old Ambassador, with a cheerful driver whose name eludes me, north from Bhuj towards the Great Rann, the seasonal water body that separates Kutch from Sindh, in Pakistan. After an hour or so of driving we reached a village called Dhorda, which our driver told us was inhabited solely by a Muslim community called the Mutwa. These Mutwa spoke Sindhi, which is actually very similar to Kutchi, the dialect spoken throughout Kutch, and were famous for their mudwork decorated with little circular mirrors, used to adorn the inner walls of their houses. At first my heart sank as we were ushered into a beautifully clean, round mud house painted white on the outside and full of handicrafts, the sina qua non of the textbook Kutch experience. Surely this was a showpiece, I thought, noting the extraordinary display of crockery – cups, glasses, teapots – neatly arranged on a shelf that ran round the top of the inside wall, just underneath the conical roof. And, yes, I believe it was a showpiece of sorts, but on inspecting other houses – houses that we weren’t shown immediately, and perhaps were not really expected to show an interest in – it became apparent that they all followed a similar plan: round building, neat display on the shelf below the ceiling, maybe some mirrored mudwork. The women were wonderful, in bright tops with mirrorwork, colourful skirts and headscarfs and copious bangles
    Janine and I had a reasonably intelligible conversation in Hindi with a woman called Bopli. She showed us a book by a Hyderabadi author about Muslim women in India, which had a chapter devoted to her! Later on Janine told us that she had talked to a girl who had told her how her grandfather had encouraged her to use contraceptives, very rare in villages like these, and was as a consequence ostracised by the rest of the women in the village. I asked a man where the nearest school was, and he turned out to be the government-appointed teacher, a pleasant, self-effacing man from Bhuj who spoke a little English. He walked with Marc and me to the very nearby school, a collection of pre-fabricated huts, and later joined us as he needed to get to Bhuj that day.
    Dhorda is close to the Great Rann of Kutch, the famous salt desert that separates Kutch from Pakistan, flooding in the monsoon to leave Kutch an island. We were, naturally, keen to visit said Rann although there was some difficulty in our getting permission to do so. Marc name-dropped the owner of the Annapurna Hotel, who owns a bromine plant nearby, and the connection worked its magic, allowing us to hop in a jeep driven by a man amusingly called Abdul Kalam (the name of the President of India). Our own driver came with us, as he had never been to the Rann before and was eager to see it.
    Although it was not the pure white plain that I was expecting, the Great Rann was still satisfyingly otherworldly, an endless expanse of brown mud, interrupted in part by large artificial pools of liquid, some greenish, some reddish (perhaps bromide). The edges of these pools were embedded with salt structures shaped like coral, but the colour of snow. Looking towards the horizon, the brownness of the mud was lost in the whiteness of the salt, so the apparently limitless stretch of land looked a little like a vast beach with an advancing breaker which remained strangely stationary. The only features that broke up this landscape were a number of abandoned jeeps, transmuted by a mirage so that they appeared to float a few feet above the surface. The jeep we had come in, nearby and unquestionably earthbound, nevertheless looked eerily like something out of a film.
    Later, back in our own jeep, we headed onto to a second village, Hodka, and third, Bhirendiara. Both of these were occupied by Harijans, which in this case referred specifically to the Meghwal or Marwada, a caste of Rajasthani origins. The women were notable for their heavy silver neck rings, worn even by small girls, as well as equally colourful clothes and at least as many bangles as the Mutwa. In both villages, as in Dhorda, there seemed to be a set procedure for welcoming visitors, ushering them into certain houses and displaying endless beautiful handicrafts – wall-hangings, door hangings, cholis (women’s  tops) and other items of clothing. In Hodka, the man we talked to told us how he’d been to Japan, Germany and other countries to sell Hodka embroideries in craft fairs. This seemed surprising at first, although on rational reflection it is perhaps not very surprising. Kutch has long been internationally famous for its handicrafts, and with scores of NGOs helping to set up cooperatives and marketing schemes and state government-run emporia and facilitating sales in the big cities, especially Ahmedabad, Delhi and Bombay, selling abroad is a logical next step. And who better to sell them than somebody from the village where they were made? All the same, hearing that this man had been to Europe struck me in the same way that hearing of the four Maalians working in
Kuwait had done!

Meghwal women, Hodka
Credit:www.wunrn.com 

    It was only in the third village, Bhirendiara, that I felt able to establish any real connection. This was with the brothers Arjun and Naran who took me to visit the reasonably well-stocked village shop, apparently maintained by daily trips to Bhuj. They explained that none of the villages have any arable land, and so rice, maize, wheat etc. are brought from Bhuj on weekly trips. Cows and buffalo are kept,
however, for milk. The brothers introduced me to a friend of theirs, Dana, who at my request sang a guttural Kutchi folk song that, to my ears, could have just as well come from Surinam or the Gambia.
     On the way back we dropped the friendly teacher back at his home in Bhuj, and his two wives prepared a wonderful rice dish and delicious appalam, which have the texture, but not taste, of prawn crackers. I met up with Janine and Marc the next day but one for a trip to Mandvi, a port in the south of Kutch. This is a predominantly Muslim town, with a tradition of shipbuilding that still continues. We were able to see huge ships being constructed out of large wooden beams using pulleys made of chains. We were even able to clamber inside these great unfinished cathedrals of the sea and up onto the decks-to be – tremendous fun! All the ships seemed to be bound for Dubai initially and then on to ply the East African coast, although we couldn’t understand what their cargo was going to be. We also had a delightful swim at a long sandy beach lined, not unattractively, with wind turbines and visited the Vijay Vilas palace, current residence of the Maharao’s family. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Janine and Marc as we had assumed we would meet again, but didn’t.

Vijay Vilas Palace
Credit: holidayiq.com

    Apart from these two, I did most of my socialising in Bhuj with the crowd I had spent Holi with. Ritesh (23) belongs to a family of priests and himself does odd jobs in his family’s temple. He spoke almost no English, but we managed to converse easily in Hindi. His friend Ashok worked in a mudwork boutique, which I spent a fair bit of time in watching the progress of a panel of Krishna and his gopis commissioned by the owner of a soon-to-open Bhuj hotel. He was, like Ritesh, a very likeable character and, I think, rather more intelligent. At any rate he was a great conversationalist (we spoke in a melange of English and Hindi) and he told me some interesting things. In an echo of Prakash, he derided the current Maharao (a figurehead of course – real power was lost in 1948, just like in all the other princely states) as a “nonsense man”, although conceded that the last active Maharao had been a good ruler, despite having had both a Kutchi wife and an English wife.
    Ashok also told me about the earthquake, which enabled me to understand a little better quite what a devastating event it was. When the quaking started, people had no idea what was going on, and many in their panic thought Pakistan was finally invading! After the night of horrors, people emerged from their houses, or wherever they had been hiding, to be confronted with rubble and bodies everywhere (10% of the population killed according to the Lonely Planet). His own house collapsed completely. Many people thought that that was it for Bhuj and that they would have to leave and start again somewhere else. As it was, many women left and stayed with their families in villages, while their men stayed in tents for the next six months, while aid poured in from around the world – hourly planes arriving in Bhuj airport for a time.
    Somehow, then, people managed to rebuild their lives physically and mentally. Ashok told me that Bhuj enormously expanded in size in this process and much of the outer part of Bhuj was built at this time. His own family had gone to relatives in Ahmedabad immediately after the quake and came back at some point afterwards. He thanks God that nobody in his family was killed, although he lost some friends. It is still difficult to imagine the reality of all this, still less the reality of ongoing human-manufactured crises such as in Afghanistan and North Korea. The earthquake still looms large in people’s mentalities, not least as a measure of time and change. A lot of sentences in Ritesh and Ashok’s conversation began “After the earthquake…”
    As well as having a meal with Ritesh, and drinking again with him and a friend (apparently alcohol in Bhuj has to be bought from the military at extortionate black market prices) we also went on a trip of our own – Ritesh, Ashok and I, on one small motorbike. We drove out to Mundra, another small port, described rather cryptically as the “Paris of Kutch”. The road out winds it way through alluringly barren hills and plains, covered only with acacica, save for the occasional brilliant flash of orange. This was the kakra tree which, judging by its leaves and flowers, belongs to the pea family. The flowers, called kesura, are crushed in water to produce an orange liquid in which people bathe their skin to reduce infection. After lunch in the rather bland and distinctly un-Parisian Mundra, we went to Ashok’s family’s farmhouse, very much in the “back of beyond”. There was a field of wheat, a field of soya (much of which found its way to Greece, the family told me) and a field of cotton, as well as a rubber tree and a tree called the umra, the wood of which is used for the Brahmin yagna ceremony, where a fire is fed all night with ghee and other comestibles. From here we visited the sea, firstly at a desolate, grey beach next to some salt pans. “This is a very out of station place”, said Ashok “And you are most certainly the first firangi to have come here”. I could not share his conviction here, although it is a tempting thought to have gone where no white man went before. Ashok told me that there was a notorious madrassa near here, a breeding ground for “high profile terrorists”.
    We then headed off down the coast to an extraordinary temporary Muslim fishing village. This was a great colony of shacks, each of which had a private wooden fence on which rows of fish were hung to dry. The ground was also covered with drying fish and prawns. The beach here was a long strip of grey sand, with a brown sea filled with medium-sized boats. Most of the children here were intrigued and terrified in equal measure by my appearance, suggesting an unfamiliarity with white faces.         
    Ashok and Ritesh not only helped me purchase a train ticket, but came to the station to see me off this morning, their last minute appearance a tonic after a more than usually stressful Indian station experience. Their hospitality and friendliness have been overwhelming, even by Indian standards, and I am conscious that as I approach the City, I am unlikely to find such friendliness again before I leave India.
    Another amusing experience in Bhuj cannot be let slip. There is a Rama temple by the lake that I passed on numerous occasions. Once, on hearing chanting, I decided to go in and listen, the intention being to sit quietly in the corner, observing but unobserved. This was not to be – on one side of the hall was a group of women and on the other a solitary priest, engaging the women in a call-and-response routine accompanied by a little jangling cymbal. No doubt welcoming the chance to address
the gender imbalance, the priest beckoned me over and invited me to join in, firstly with his chanting, and then with the cymbal-jangling. Slowly, he eased the microphone towards me, so that I became the lead singer on the male side. He leant over: “You must now try and avoid taking meat and hard drinks” he murmured, which I thought was a bit thick given the brevity of our acquaintance. I muttered something non-committal and focussed my full attention on the task in hand.
     “I will now proceed to my home to take some refreshment for some time,” he told me firmly. “You will please remain.” He got up and left the temple. Panic enveloped me – would I remain trapped in this place, chanting for the rest of my life? Luckily an old woman entered and, seeing my plight, took pity and came and joined my side. After a tactful pause I eased myself gracefully out of my new role and hurried as unhurriedly as possible out of the temple.
    A word about my fellow travellers at the City Guest House, and then I shall be done. Many of them were French, including a jolly, sunburnt lady called Celine, whose daughter was working in a Jaipur NGO, and a young woman who was half-Malagasy. There was another French guy, a little older than me, who had been to Madagascar, so we all talked Madagascar one evening, even singing some Malagasy pop songs the three of us knew. There was Alan, a friendly early-thirties hippie from Bristol, who was interesting and good fun, although was given to long introspective rambling at times. Jackie was a vigorous middle-aged Englishwoman with a very Oxford bass voice. Somehow she and I failed to hit it off, which is a shame as she seemed like a marvellous character, full of ideas and opinions, many of which were no doubt rather loopy.
    The most intriguing group was an odd trio - two guys and a girl - who I had initially taken to be French. It turned out that the guys, dreadlocked pot-smoking and rather difficult to engage in conversation, were Parsis from Bombay who now lived in Germany! One of them was married to the girl, who I am reasonably certain was French, or perhaps Swiss. Perhaps, as a community who have produced a gay pop star (Freddie Mercury) and a famous conductor (Zubin Mehta) being a Parsi lends itself more easily to phenomena such as hippiedom than other Indian groups do?
    And so I’ll put Bhuj, and myself, to bed. I had a wonderful time and only wish I could have stayed longer to explore the village culture in more depth. There are interesting Jat communities, whose women wear huge nose rings. Some German researchers have speculated on Germanic origins of the Jats, a theory which Marc and I mocked ad naseam! Also intriguing are the Rabari, who wear black and may have Iranian origins. Although I saw both Jat and Rabari women in Bhuj, my only serious attempt to find out more, a visit to a town called Anjar, was an abysmal failure. If I ever return to Kutch, I can try and pursue these goals further. However, I am glad to have visited Kutch at this time, as I have a suspicion it may become the next backpacker destination, especially in the likely event that alcohol is legalised in Gujarat. And in any case, capitalism, globalisation and neo-liberalism are edging in. There is already a planned town in the south called Gandhidham which has attracted wealthy investors from all over India. After an endless journey through northwest India, and an endless procession of snack-vendors, book-sellers, chaiwallahs, drunken Nepalis and eunuchs, I shall arrive in Delhi, something I am greatly looking forward to.

Friday 2nd March 2007: Porbandar and Rajkot

Before discussing the last couple of days, I think it would not be amiss to round up some recent events in the Indian newspapers. The economy is still booming – there isn’t much evidence of this at ground level in Saurashtra, but every day in the papers you read about foreign investors, Indian takeovers of foreign companies (e.g. Corus, by Tata) and endless new flash housing estates, shopping complexes, flyovers…
    One particular manifestation of this is the profusion of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) springing up at the moment. These are areas that the government sells to corporations at a low price, so that the corporations can conduct their business there while pledging to develop the area’s infrastructure and public services. Supposedly, the system provides employment, development and promotes economic growth. Unfortunately, however, the initial acquisition of land by the government often takes the form of seizure from unwilling landholders (generally poor rural farmers). They are paid a handsome compensation for loss of land, but I don’t believe their livelihoods are considered beyond this point. The Vandana Shiva crowd certainly posit that, overall, jobs and livelihoods are lost through this kind of “liberalisation”, and one writer, Sulabha Brahman, questions the ethics of paying a large all-in-one sum to a Below Poverty Line farmer who is not used to such ready money. Perhaps this is an unnecessarily patronising viewpoint, but it strikes me as likely, or least plausible, that a farmer in this position will squander the money away – drinks included – and then, landless, face a much direr poverty than before. I remember pointing this out to Prakash, who rather pooh-poohed the idea on the grounds that it is not the responsibility of the government or of corporations to regulate how “peasants” spend their money. I feel that takes a sternly one-sided point of view, akin to viewing financial capital as the sole indicator of wealth.
    Speculation aside, one recent and ongoing controversy is Tata Motors’ attempt to establish an SEZ in Singur, West Bengal. The full facts are not at my fingertips, but the essence is this: The CPI(M) [29] party of West Bengal, under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, seized land – or at least threatens to seize land – in Singur, without full consent from land owners, in order that Tata could open a factory to launch their new car, the Tata Nano, bringing huge profit to Bengal. Virulent objections have been  raised all over Bengal. Villagers demonstrated outside the site of the proposed motor plant, and Mamata Banerjee, leader of Trinamool Congress (the main opposition party in West Bengal) threatened a “fast until death” which has only recently been aborted (fasts and hunger strikes, often miraculously called off at the last minute, are still a tool of protest in India). As yet the situation has not been resolved, but it looks quite likely that Tata Motors is going to pull out. [30]

*

 After the previous entry, I left my bags in the storeroom of the Junagadh hotel and spent the next two days flitting around with just an overnight bag. Initially I visited the temple of Somnath, which dates from the dawn of time, although has undergone successive re-incarnations after a series of destructions by Muslim marauders such as Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb. The current avatar, built in 1950 at Sardar Patel’s instigation, underwhelmed me and I found the nearby town of Vervel distinctly unappealing, so I fled to Porbandar.
    My overall impression of the place was unremittingly favourable, despite it being by no stretch of the imagination a beauty spot. It is a port, and the whole town is bounded by a long, dirty beach that is used for excretion rather than recreation. At one end of this is a large harbour set round a long creek. It is more colourful than anything on Diu, with lots of medium-sized boats gay with flags, plenty of maritime bustle and, of course, a pervading smell of fish. The town itself is quite grid-like, with some quiet, tree-lined boulevards, some jam-packed shopping streets and some gently grubby backstreets full of the usual activity – sedentary parents and grandparents, scampering children and the ubiquitous cart-pushing men wailing their wares.
    Porbandar is famous above all as Gandhi’s birthplace and this was therefore on top of the agenda of “things to see and do”. I duly saw and did it yesterday morning. There is a clean, uninspiring Kirthi Mandir next door to the house of the Mahatmagenesis, and a museum upstairs with lots of interesting photographs of Gandhi’s life, including some scenes of his 1931 visit to Europe. The house itself is kept clean and spartan, and the actual birthplace is marked with a swastika (the original Hindu way round, of course). The house is quite large, which fits in with my knowledge of the Gandhis being a comfortably-off Bania (merchant) family. To my great surprise, the place was not overrun with tourists, save a handful of NRIs and local families. Doubtless there are sometimes school trips and possibly tailor-made “Gandhi Trail” package tours, but they were not in evidence yesterday.
   Unable to find an English copy of the Story of My Experiments with Truth in the bookshop, I bought another of Gandhi’s autobiographies, Satyagraha in South Africa. So far, what I have read has been very interesting, and reveals Gandhi as a keen observer of life around him, which is not something I had expected.
    I spent the rest of the day exploring, reasonably confident, as ever, that some god would provide adventures and entertainment. The way people dress is worth a comment – men, as seems to be typical all over Saurashtra, wear a white garment similar to a kurta, with pyjamas that taper down into tight breeches. Turbans are also white, and rather squatter than those of Rajasthan or Punjab. Women wear interesting tops that have embroidered breast-pouches that look like heavy bras worn on the outside. This is accompanied by a skirt and a head shawl. In reality, of course, the majority of the men wear shirts and trousers, and many women wear saris, salwar kameez or jeans and t-shirts, but it is the sizable traditionally-dressed minority who stay in the memory.
    Nimbu paani is plentiful in Porbandar, as in the rest of Saurashtra, and chai is deliciously flavoured with cardamom and served in chunky mugs which the drinkers pour out onto saucers to cool it down. In fact, chai in Saurashtra is often poured to overflowing so your first sip is already waiting for you in the saucer.
    Adventure of a sort was provided when I walked down a sandy street full of elegant neo-classical buildings with Corinthian columns. I was so struck by this apparent incongruity that I asked a man, running a small stall, how old they were. He called his father, an old man with very good English, who informed me they had been built in 1942 at the behest of Udai Singh (!) the Rana of Porbandar, an architect with evident leanings towards the Hellenic. Apparently, the Rana commissioned a number of buildings around the town in a variety of styles. Later on I saw his former palace, a folorn mansion by the beach, the garden covered in sand. The style was a little classical, although I’m not sure which Rana actually built it.

 The Rana's palace
(Credit: www.vii.in) 

    The stallholders’ father invited me in for tea, made deliciously by his beautiful daughter-in-law and we discussed various topics. He told me about a scene in the film Gandhi which is set on the beach at Porbandar, where Gandhi conceives the idea of the Salt March. This I remember clearly, although what I don’t remember is that Gandhi talks about a temple in Porbandar where one line of the Bhagavad Gita and one line of the Koran are read daily. My friend told me that the temple referred to was the Pranaami Temple, which is still operational, and visited by both Hindus and Muslims.
    Bidding him a slightly hasty farewell and thank you, I set off in hot pursuit of the Pranaami Temple and, with frequent stops to ask people for directions, found it quickly in a backstreet next to a building site. The pujari was just going in himself and so I attached myself to him. Several leading questions later, my excitement ebbed when I realised that, today at least, the temple is a fairly conventional Krishna temple. From his rapid fire Hindi-Gujarati, I understood that there was still a copy of the Koran in the temple, but it wasn’t read any more. I freely confess I was disappointed, as I had grown rather attached to the idea of an ecumenical Pranaami Temple in the half hour or so since I had first heard of it.
   There was a different Krishna temple nearby, so I visited this and chatted briefly to an English-speaking man sitting outside. He didn’t know much about the Pranaami Temple except that the “headquarters” are near Jamnagar, and that this is possibly where the Gita/Koran readings take place. He also told me that the Pranaamis, rather than greeting each other formally with “Namaste”, say “Pranaam”.  There seem to be an awful lot of Krishna sects in Gujarat, and I am constantly seeing pictures of the Shri Nathji idol from the temple of Nathdwara, 40km from Udaipur on the Jodhpur road (beyond Delwara).

*

Porbandar is also famous for its high concentration of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), and many people I spoke to had a cousin in Leicester, others in Dubai. I met two sets of Leicester NRIs from a nearby village (Ranawa? Rawala?) where, apparently, every family has at least one member abroad, mostly in Leicester. Most pleasing of all was the boy I met who told me his friend worked in a cutlery shop in Luanda! The man sitting next to me on the bus leaving Porbandar turned out to live near Gatwick Airport, and I asked him why this area in particular has produced so many NRIs. “Well, they all want money, innit?” he said, not really throwing much light on the matter. I guess a lot of ithas to do with links being established – one person goes out, strikes gold (as it were) and tells all the family and friends that they must come out for a better life. Exactly the same situation as that of the villagers in Udaipur district heading off to work in Kuwait. Many of the Leicester Porbandarites came to England around 30 years ago via a generation or two in Kenya or Uganda, leaving those countries after they gained their independence. Funny to think of these well-worn routes: Porbandar – Nairobi – Leicester, or Junagadh – Mombasa – Southall…

*

Today has been a bit of a washout – I simply haven’t been in the mood for India. It happens, and I have no doubt it will pass by tomorrow, but it does mean my impressions of Rajkot have been uninspiring and fairly limited. I had a bit of a mental crisis yesterday about the “giving money to beggars problem”. It deserves more time and thought than I can give it now.  Suffice to say that it is a problem, and something I have brushed under the carpet with stock arguments for a long time, to my shame. It has also involved me being unpleasant to people, which is something I am not proud of, even in the most irritatingly persistent cases. I hate the complacent firmness with which many people tell you that mustn’t give money to beggars. Some people, myself included, qualify this by adding that, as giving money may actually thrust people ever downwards in a cycle of dependence and uselessness, it is better to give money to NGOs who address root causes. But if, like me, one does not get round to giving the money to the NGOs, then this argument stinks of hypocrisy and is probably more heartless that the misguided ministration of the immediate fix of a few coins that all of us like to absolve our consciences with.
    What prompted yesterday’s dilemma was a small, relatively healthy-looking boy with a shaved head, a metal bar and a dog. He explained to me that the building I was looking at was the Rana of Porbandar’s former palace and then asked for some money. I said no at first, but he persisted, telling me again and again that he needed to buy vegetables and that he was a crabhu admi, a nothing of man, whose family was all dead. I gave him a measly two rupees, and then, at his insistence, Rs 30 in notes that were torn and worthless. This was not an unusual interchange – scarcely a day goes by without at least one person asking me for money, and whether I give it or not is largely down to whim on my part.
   What marked this incident out was the degree to which the boy’s spirit seemed crushed by his circumstances. His face was totally blank. There was no ghost of a smile, let alone a laugh, on his face, which is rare in India, even for the most destitute-looking beggars. He called his dog “Friend”, and claimed not to have any others. I didn’t know what to do with him, what to think about him. He appeared reasonably well-fed and he even indicated that he had a job of sorts, although this apparently didn’t pay him enough. In the end, I decided to give him companionship. We walked together to the bus stop, where I had some difficulty extracting myself from him and, feeling every inch like a miserable, narrow-minded bastard, I had to tell him that enough was enough, God bless and goodbye. He left, waving almost cheerily behind him, perhaps feeling that any distraction from the tedious, gruelling monotony of his life was welcome, even a brief conversation with a mad Englishman.
    I suppose it was because he was such a doubtful case that he raised the spectres of the multitude of unequivocal destitutes that I never gave money to, and those to whom I had given some and then promptly forgotten about. Such as the utter shambles of an old man on a road in Junagadh, face spattered with vomit, inching tortuously along the side of the road supporting himself by the wall, going up to get a cup of tea with my Rs 5 that I gave to him for no other reason than that I couldn’t bear the spectacle he presented and panicked at the idea of doing absolutely nothing Of course I daydreamed about doing something magnanimous to help him – but what? – and of course I didn’t have the gumption to do anything at all but stare, in horrified, voyeuristic guilt.
   In total contrast were the two charming young men lying on the pavement in Rajkot today who chatted to me while the wife of one of them came across the road from where she had been cooking to join in the fun. All they wanted was maasti – fun, a chat. There are a surprising number of people whose only wish seems to be to greet and be greeted. It is probably a way to maintain a bit of dignity while feeling a bit of warmth.
    Having given something of the juice and colour of the “beggar question” and largely avoided the substance, I shall leave it there for tonight. On to Kutch tomorrow, the far western portion of Gujarat.

Footnotes:

[29] Communist Party of India (Marxist)

[30] The debate dragged on for well over a year after this, and high profile figures such as Arundhati Roy (author of The God of Small Things) became involved. Finally, in October 2008, Tata announced that they would formally withdraw from Singur and relocate their plant to a site in Gujarat. Ironically, this announcement was greeted by protests in Singur by those residents who had supported the Tata Motors plant in Singur in the hope that it would lead to job creation.

Wednesday 28th February 2007: Junagadh

The next day (yesterday) I forced myself out of bed at 6am so I could start climbing a mountain before dawn. This was Mount Girnar, a holy mountain in the same mould as Shatrunjaya in Palitana, although with Hindu, as well as Jain temples. Like Shatrunjaya it is a slog. More of a slog, in fact, as there are 7,000 steps. It is not often one has the chance to chant, gleefully, “90 down, 6,910 to go!” Despite this, I found the experience vastly more rewarding than Palitana.


Mount Girnar

   The beginning, in the dawn light, was magical. The initial steps, that lead through a teak forest, are entirely lined with small temples and associated souvenir stalls, which thin out slowly and eventually disappear. Emerging from the teak forest at around the 2,000-step mark, I had the first spectacular views of the surrounding hills catching the earliest rays of sunlight. At 8.30, after about 3,500 steps, I reached the first cluster of Jain temples. There was something so thrilling to be at such a height, wandering around temples so early in the morning. The oldest temple, Neminath, is about 800 years old according to the guidebook, and to my inexpert eye this seems perfectly plausible, although the guard at the entrance tried to fob me off with a date of around 2,500 years ago! I responded with a good-natured, but firm homily about the beauty of truth, although I really wanted to shake him and say, “Do you really believe that rubbish?” Ungrounded in any sense of history or architecture as he may well have been, he probably did believe it, or at least did not attach any particular importance to the date of the temple’s construction, therefore allowing himself a flexible approach.
   By this time the sun was high enough in the sky to light up pretty much everything and it was getting hotter. I made regular purchases of nimbu paani, a deliciously refreshing mixture of lemon, water, sugary syrup and some salt, to which I have become addicted. The path was also getting crowded, mostly with devotees from nearby towns, but also quite a number of Rajasthani villagers. The stock greeting between pilgrims was “Jai Shri Ram”, but I also heard “Jai Girnarji” and sometimes used that myself. My enjoyment of the climb was enhanced by a number of sightings of Egyptian Vultures circling far overhead.
   As I reached the first Hindu temple, a rather sweet-smelling and kitsch affair called Amba Mata that seemed crude and cluttered compared to the spacious Jain temples of marble, I began to wonder what motivates these people to make the arduous climb. A pilgrimage or a picnic? I suppose the jovial party atmosphere is a way of softening the challenge of the climb, although at the same I suppose the whole experience ties in with the very Indian notion that work is worship, and pushing oneself is virtuous in itself. I met a slightly crazed man in Palitana who claimed to have been climbing up and down the hill without food or water for 48 hours as a way of worshipping his god. I told him I didn’t think much of his god’s morals, and as if to illustrate the point he tried to grope me on the bus journey back to Bhavnagar!
    Amba Mata is at the top a first peak, which leads on to two more peaks. The second peak is topped by the temple of Gorokhnath, which is simply a concrete cube. One of the pujaris at Gorokhnath has been up there for five years without coming down. “Don’t you ever have the urge to go down?” I asked in my pidgin Hindi.
    “What’s down there?” he asked in mock indignation.
    “Duniya” [the world]
     His reply was to the effect that this, here, was his world.
   The third peak was an extraordinary towering cone of huge boulders. Even up here the steps, which were built in the late 19th Century and are perhaps Girnar’s greatest miracle, managed to penetrate, leading up to the Dat Tatraya temple. This is a corrugated shack with a Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva idol. A Marwadi villager, whose party I had fallen in with, looked around him outside the temple and told me that on seeing this view “Kavitha ata hai” [poetry comes to him].


Marwadi Pilgrims

    Interestingly, while most of Girnar’s stallholders, pujaris and temple guards sleep up in the hills, two boys running a stall at the bottom of the third peak told me that they come up and down daily. And on my own descent – a fiercely hot, draining experience – I encountered them on their way down, as if to prove their point: a two-hour walk to and from work every day!
    Once down, I spent a fairly non-descript afternoon, which involved chatting to a Canadian called Alex who was staying in my hotel. We had a stroll round the town and met a peculiar NRI from Denmark in a juice bar. I met up with Shyam and some of his friends for some contraband Kingfisher later in the evening. Nobody spoke much English and we didn’t have a great deal in common, they being steel construction workers or waiters, so the beer provided a bright spot in an otherwise indifferent social gathering. Shyam himself is extraordinarily self-assured for an 18-year old and is affluent in a brash sort of way. I enjoyed his company on the three times we met, but I don’t think we’d have much more to say to each other if we met again.

Monday 26th February 2007: Junagadh

After a day and a half in Junagadh, I can say without reservation that on first impressions it is one of the loveliest places I have been to on this trip. Of course, I cannot judge it on the same plane as Udaipur and neither can I quite rank it with Jodhpur, but for sheer charm, beauty, friendliness and historic interest, I can easily put it right near the top of the list. I arrived yesterday, from Diu, and checked into my hotel, the Madhuvanti, which, while as budget as the others I have stayed in (Rs 150 per night) is far pleasanter, with a clean, spacious, marble-floored room that looks out onto an open courtyard. The staff are a breath of delightful fresh air after the morose staff of the Jay Shankar in Diu town. I had lunch in a cheap thali joint across the road from the hotel and made the acquaintance of the owner’s son, Shyam, who took me for a ride on his motorbike up to a nearby damn where we fed fish with peanuts. We spoke mainly in Hindi but got on well enough nonetheless, and he invited me to come out with his friends that evening.

Junagadh

   I spent the afternoon wandering around the central, older part of the town, which has lots of beautiful buildings dating from the time when Junagadh was ruled by a series of Nawabs – breakaway Muslim rulers from the Mughal Empire – as an independent Princely State. The streets have the same timeless feel as Bhavnagar and people are even friendlier – everybody seems desperate to know “What is your name?”, “Which place from you?”, “You countries?” and beckon you over from afar for a chat. A large part of the town is Muslim-dominated and it was here, in a little room behind an egg stall, that I saw a boy murdering chickens. This was grotesquely fascinating rather than horrifying, and certainly not enough to turn me away from the path of carnivory. After a very spicy paneer chilly and butter naan for supper, I joined Shyam and his friends. We set off on bikes to a spot slightly out of town where they smoked, and I entertained them as best I could. It reminded me a very little of nights by Fateh Sagar – although we were sans lake, sans chai and, naturally, sans Shiv, Prakash, Vishal et al. – and made me rather nostalgic for Udaipur. But, evening chill aside, it was good harmless fun (aside from the passive smoking) and we’ve arranged to meet for “hard drinks” tomorrow night. I regard drinking contraband as an essential part of the “Gujarat Experience”!
   Today I’ve been mainly alone and rather guidebookish and cultural. Now I’m faced with a choice: do I try to summarise what I’ve learnt about Junagadhi history, or drop it in, piecemeal, as I go along? As I am not a historian, and this is no historical essay, I feel I have no right but to opt for the latter. My first visit was to Uperkot Fort, which, according to the Lonely Planet, is believed to have been originally built by Chandragupta Maurya in 319BC but then extended many times. The Maurya Empire certainly extended to this part of Gujarat, so there is no immediate reason to disparage this theory. In its current state the fort is an exotic place, because either side of the outer walls is a jungle-like growth, making it seem millennia old, although these walls, in the generic North Indian castellated style, are probably not more than 500 – 800 years old at a guess.


Uperkot Fort

   I spent a leisurely morning wandering round the fort, which proved rewarding. There is a defunct Jama Masjid built out of Hindu temple materials, with Hindu-style pillars, Islamic-style pointed arches and three octagonal roof openings. It was built in the 15th Century, during which time I suppose Junagadh was part of the Ahmedabad Sultanate. Another set of relics from this time are some Turkish cannons. They are chiefly interesting because they were left on Diu by the defeated Turkish army whom Bahadur Shah of Gujarat hired in 1538 to fight off the Portuguese (whom he himself had employed three years earlier when he sacked Chittor!) How they ended up here I am not altogether sure.
   The gems of the Uperkot collection for me were the two magnificent step wells. Navghan Kuvo, the first I visited, was named after Ra’ Navghan, the Hindu ruler of Junagadh from 1025-44 [26]. It is suspected – and I should admit here that most of my knowledge comes from the Gujarat Tourist Department boards outside each monument – it is suspected that Ra’ Navghan only added the forecourt to a much earlier structure. Whatever the truth of this, or otherwise, the well itself is terrifyingly deep, maybe 80m or so, and is surrounded by a dark stone staircase, leading right down to the dank, garbage-filled bottom. Down there, I reflected wryly, if nervously, that it would be a perfect place for thieves to lurk, perhaps in cahoots with the nimbu paani seller at the top, who could advance slowly down after an unsuspecting tourist, leaving him trapped, many metres underground! Less unnerving, but with a drama of its own, is Adi Chadi, a well reached by a straight diagonal staircase sandwiched in a narrow gorge. It is much lighter at the bottom and may be even older than Navghan Kuvo.


Navghan Kuvo

    One relic of the Maurya/Buddhist period is the complex of second century caves, although at Rs 100 for foreigner entry, I decided to give them a miss. Outside the fort I did visit the Ashokan edicts, which are one of Junagadh’s prize draws. The great Emperor Ashoka, who ruled the Maurya empire at its peak in the 3rd Century BC, is said to have converted to Buddhism as a reaction to the shock he felt after realising the full carnage he had unleashed while fighting the Kalingas in Orissa. To celebrate
his new moral outlook he erected stupas and rock-carved edicts all over his empire and Junagadh has a large boulder sprinkled with inscriptions in Pali [27], first noted by James Tod (of Udaipur fame) in 1822 and translated several years later by James Prinsep.
   These edicts mainly deal with morality, which (amongst other virtues) covers vegetarianism, respect to one’s parents, generosity to friends and kindness to Brahmins. Ashoka, who refers to himself as Devanampuja Das Raja, also mentions that he makes “morality tours”, not “pleasure tours” (I guess my trip to India is a bit of both) and that he desires fame only as a means of spreading morality (10th edict). In the 13th edict he describes the slaughter of the Kalingas. The Pali script is not joined up and looks faintly child-like. There are also some Sanskrit inscriptions by later Mauryas, including Skandagupta (5th Century AD) who is mainly preoccupied with lake management and the appointment of a governor for the region. He comes across as rather self-congratulatory.
    A world away from this are the mausolea of the Nawabs. These Nawabs belonged to an Afghan community called the Babi. At some point (I assume in the late 16th Century, judging by Ahmedabadi history) the Mughals would have taken control of the region from the Ahmedabad Sultanate, although there seems to be no obvious architectural legacy from this time. As the empire disintegrated in the 18th Century, the vassal administrators took advantage, and in 1748 Mohammad Bahadur Sher Khan declared himself the first Nawab of Junagadh. There is one collection of tombs, rather tasteful, in which the earlier Nawabs are buried. Like so many things in India, these “dead monuments” still support living tradition and there appear to be several functioning dargahs (Sufi shrines) here. The sixth, seventh and eighth Nawabs are all buried in an Indo-Islamic-Gothic monstrosity of pillars and bubbling domes, started by the sixth Nawab (Mahobat Khanji II) in 1878 and completed by the seventh (Bahadur Khanji II) in 1892. It is a perfect expression of decadence in architecture. Next to this is the almost-as-opulent tomb of a former Prime Minister of Junagadh State, Sheik Bahauddin (in power 1891-96). He apparently built a Bahauddin College in Junagadh, although I haven’t seen it.

"Decadence in architecture": the Nawab Khanjis' Mausoleum

   A visit to the Durbar Hall museum put some flesh on the lives of the Nawabs. Here, the original Durbar Hall has been recreated with the usual extravagances – chandeliers from all over Europe, silver paan-boxes and portraits galore. The last Nawab, Mahobat Khanji III (ruled 1911-47) tried to bring Junagadh into Pakistan, but was outvoted by the Hindu majority in his state. I assume his descendents (if indeed there are any alive today) still live in Pakistan [28]. Interestingly, much of the rest of Saurashtra was ruled by different Rajput clans before Independence. A number of these Princely States were ruled by branches of the Jhalla clan, who lorded it over Devigarh!
  Like Anand, and I believe most towns in Gujarat, Junagadh has a Swaminarayan temple. It is colourful, with a marble floor and outside I saw a saddhu on a mobile phone – this is modern India, after all! There is a modest Indo-Saracenic pile of a Swaminarayan college on the outskirts of town which I passed on a pleasant sunset walk, before paneer fried rice for supper at a Hotel Sagar.

Footnotes:

[26] I later found out that Ra’ Navghan was part of the Chudasama dynasty that ruled “Sorath”, a kingdom that included Junagadh, Porbandar and the surrounding area, between 875 and 1472, although in the latter stages as a vassal of the Ahmedabad Sultanate.

[27] Pali is an Indo-Aryan prakrit (vernacular language) that has survived principally as the literary language of the earliest Buddhist writings. Its relation to living languages of the first centuries BC is not entirely clear.

[28] I have subsequently read that the last dewan (Prime Minister) of Junagadh, Shah Nawaz Bhutto, left for Sindh in Pakistan after setting in motion the troubled accession of Junagadh into independent India. His son was the much more famous Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, one time President and also Prime Minister of Pakistan, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party and father of Benazir Bhutto.

Saturday 24th February 2007: Diu

Bliss. Sitting on the roof terrace in my hotel in Diu, the formerly Portuguese-controlled island now part of Daman and Diu Union Territory, sipping Kingfisher. Not being part of Gandhi’s Gujarat, despite its extreme proximity, hard drinks flow freely, or least cheaply and abundantly, from the non-proverbial bottle! However, I am leaving tomorrow, and while I will come away with a positive overall impression, I cannot hide the fact that Diu hasn’t quite lived up to my expectations.



Diu

    I wasn’t expecting it to be a paradise, and it certainly isn’t one. Rather, it is a friendly, calm and comfortably well-off seeming island with a number of interesting features. Cheap, abundantly-flowing alcohol for one, including beer and Goan port. Beaches for another. Nothing spectacular when compared to the beaches I’ve seen in Kerala and Karnataka, but beaches nonetheless. But sandy
beaches always lead me to wonder whether the irritation of wet sandy feet after a dip are ever entirely compensated for by the pleasures of the swim itself! Give me shingle any day.
   Aside from this, Diu certainly has a good dose of historical and cultural interest. It was a Portuguese colony from the 1530’s to 1961 when it was “liberated” through “Operation Vijay”, bringing it into the Indian Union, alongside a strip of mainland in East Gujarat called Daman, with which it forms Daman and Diu Union Territory, ruled directly from Delhi [24]. A few civilians and a few Marwari soldiers, the latter immortalised in a Martyr’s Garden, were killed in the liberation process. There is a certain Portuguese legacy, most obviously detectable in the form of architecture. The big Portuguese fort in Diu town is quite unlike Rajput and Maratha forts, being uglier and dotted with ruined Catholic chapels. There are also a number of large, white-washed Catholic churches across the island. As far as I can tell, only one – St Paul’s, which has an elegant façade – is in operation, with services in English rather than Portuguese.

São Tomé

  There is still an Indo-Portuguese community, some of whom speak Portuguese. Different people have told me different things – 25 families with 200 individuals, 30 families, 300 individuals… One old man, Captain Fulbaria, who runs a seashell museum, bristled when I asked him whether he was Portuguese. “No! I’m Hindu! No Gujarati converted here – not like in Goa.” This seems to corroborate my impression that there is a fairly tight, if not exclusive, correlation in Diu between Portuguese descent and Catholicism. Many of these people, tentatively identifiable by paler, slightly atypical faces, live in an area called Firangiwada or foreigners’ quarter, a quiet and apparently prosperous part of Diu town. There is very nice little restaurant in this area called O’Coqueiro where the Indo-Portuguese owner Kailash (Hindu? Catholic? The name is as Hindu as they come!) makes glorious iced coffee and even better pasta. Real, Italian pasta with tuna, olives and garlic, dowsed in olive oil! I visited his place twice and would have liked to get to know him better – oh dear! Is this going to be the constant traveller’s refrain? Transient, unfinished friendships and acquaintanceships?
   On another occasion I was driven out of slight loneliness (more on which in due course) to drink port in a local bar and attempted to make conversation with the drunken wreck of a man next to me. The only glimmer of interest in the conversation occurred when he pointed at his glass and mumbled “Cerveja” (the Portuguese word for beer).
    Other confusions: somebody told me that 99% of Diu’s residents have Portuguese citizenship, but I couldn’t find out any more about that. Somebody else told me that 60% of Diu was living in Lisbon or London, but what does that mean exactly? 60% of the people alive today who were born in Diu are now living in London or Lisbon? I scarcely imagine his meaning was that precise! A third man I met, whose family was ancestrally from Fudan, a village outside Diu town, told me he was born in Mozambique and had moved to Fudan after Mozambique gained independence from the Portuguese and subsequently moved to Lisbon, and finally to London where he now lives! I think he was totally Indian, if anybody in Diu can be said to be “totally Indian” and whether that label has any meaning. It is interesting how you can find “East African Indians” in former British colonies (e.g. Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), Portuguese colonies (e.g. Mozambique) and French colonies (e.g. Madagascar).
    My bungling attempts at amateur anthropology have been, as usual, only partially successful and I had a wonderful self-parody of a dream a few nights back. I was in some Indian town, ringing the doorbells of houses along a street which I had been informed belonged to Jewish families but were rented out to Jain families. Desperate to find out more about these communities, I pretended I was researching for a book and, as a result, got into all sorts of nightmarish difficulties.
    In reality there is another group that interests me on Diu, a community called the Siddis. The Lonely Planet story, which I think is plausible, is that they are a hangover from the Indian-African trade that took place along the Gujarati coastline. As well as Indian populations establishing themselves along the East African coast, a side effect of this trade was the African population that remained in Saurashtra, evolving into a Muslim Dalit caste called the Siddis. In any case, the Siddis I encountered had all the hallmark Negroid features including fuzzy hair and a very African face structure. Their skin doesn’t seem to be any darker than that of darker-skinned Indians.
   I made friends with a Siddi called Nawaz, who ran a fast food stall and we chatted on various topics before I asked him about his ancestry. At this point a friend of his butted in with a “Let me explain”. This was Jamshed Turner, a pleasant old tour guide from Ahmedabad. We sat and talked for a long time, but I’m afraid I shall only relate what he told me about the Siddis. He claimed that it was the Nawab of Junagadh, suddenly anxious to protect the Asiatic lions of Sasan Gir, who shipped over tribesmen from Kenya to act as guardians, thereby creating the Siddi caste. I would imagine the grain of truth in this story is that there was a Kenyan population already present in Saurashtra and the Nawab employed members of this community for his conservation measures [25]. 
   Nawaz told me that some of the elder generation still speak Swahili amongst themselves (I imagine Nawaz’ first language would have been Gujarati or possibly Urdu) and that certain religious rituals are conducted in Swahili. The next day I witnessed a procession of thirty or forty Siddis, although there was not enough chanting for me comment on the language. I went back to Nawaz’ stall last night and he reproached me for not having come to visit him since the first time. I was a little touched and regretted not having got to know him better – not as an anthropological specimen, but a friend.
   Which brings me back to loneliness. I admit that there have been times on Diu when I’ve felt lonely, which even led me to question travelling alone as my favoured method. I had hoped for more, both in terms of making Diuian friends and perhaps especially meeting Indian tourists and students. I have no doubt I could have had my pick of conversations with other foreign tourists, but I had little interest in that, and I doubt whether it would have assuaged the loneliness at all, as this was born out of a continued yearning for new and varied Indian company. Apart from the obvious fact that, when alone in a touristy area among groups of other travellers, there is quite a strong psychological pressure to feel like a loner, the residents of Diu don’t seem especially friendly. I can’t quite put a finger on it, but there seemed a slight coolness about most of the people I passed. Old men and women would nod uninterestedly, younger people might not greet at all and it was only the young children, running after you and screaming “What is you name?” that showed any real curiosity. I wondered whether people were too used to tourists, and this was probably the case, although it was interesting to note that nowhere in Diu town has there developed a “tourist-ville” culture. The tacky, boozy stretch by the sea-front seems more geared towards hungry (and thirsty) Indian tourists and the only feature in common with other traveller hangouts is prevalence of Nepali waiters in the restaurants. As it happens, I did go out drinking with Gujarati tourists last night. These new friends were a faction from a large party of Christians from Ahmedabad on a church weekend away. A funny sort of church weekend away, if you ask me…

*

Little more needs to be said about Diu town itself. There is a road that cuts a swath through the oldest section of the town, and it is here that I like to think the profoundest, if least tangible, influence of Portuguese culture could be felt. Quiet shady streets, little grocer’s shops, a posh glass-fronted jeweller’s and women in dresses conspired to conjure up a memory of France or Italy. But…but… is this really something different from the other Mediterranean-like parts of old Indian towns? Old Udaipur for example, or parts of Ahmedabad or Jodhpur? In my mind there is such a blurring between “Indian atmosphere” and “Mediterranean atmosphere” – the superficial parts at least – that I can’t make any claim with certainty. And yet I feel that there really is more than the usual touch of the “warm south” in this part of town, which ironically is mostly populated by Gujarati-speaking Hindus and Muslims!
   The island in general is attractive, with palms and whistling pines – Indian Ocean staples – galore, although there is a big, soullessly empty highway that leads from one end to the other. This road passes through Fudan and Malala, peaceful and seemingly affluent villages, each with their own school, past superb Nagoa beach, haunt of the Indian package tourists, culminating in Vanakbara. This is a much friendlier, less well-developed fishing village with a pervading smell of fish. I met some amiable fishermen and climbed onto their trawler for a bit before doing the rounds of the chai-stalls.
   Interesting as all this was, I have to return to the first points I mentioned – the beach and the bottle – as the highlights of Diu. Alongside, of course, delicious fresh prawns, shark and tuna!



Footnotes:



[24] India has several Union Territories that are not part of any state, but ruled directly by Central Government via an administrator. These include Pondicherry, a former French outpost in Tamil Nadu; Chandigarh, the planned city that functions as the capital of both Punjab and Haryana; and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands way out in the Indian Ocean.



[25] The very next day, during my journey from Diu to Junagadh, I encountered a Deputy Conservator of Forests from Sasan Gir, who was, without any shadow of a doubt, a Siddi! He muttered something about the Nawab of Junagadh in 1820, which was interesting in light of Jamshed Turner’s story.

Tuesday 20th February 2007: IRMA and Bhavnagar

Skipping lightly over my last morning in Ahmedabad, save to say I spent most of it in a grotty but amusing shopping complex buying a few necessities, next in line for relation is my visit to IRMA. The only way of getting there was on a crowded local bus which broke down halfway through the journey, forcing all the passengers to relocate to another crowded local bus. We passed through the unappealing-looking town of Nadiad, in the middle of its Shivratri celebrations, which featured the longest and most varied religious procession I have ever seen.
   Arriving in Anand, after a little confusion in trying to contact Arun, I got a rickshaw direct to the college gates, where I was greeted by Arun and Lalita. We went into the extremely peaceful and pleasant modern campus – all tasteful concrete, spartan lawns and palm trees – and joined Deepak and others for some tea. It was lovely to see them again and they were all jubilant at having finished their exams, scarcely a quarter of an hour before my arrival.

Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA)

Although Lalita had initially suggested a visit to a restaurant where we could get a “superfluity of Gujarati food”, in the end we joined the entire year group for a trip to an extremely swish cinema to see Eklavia, the latest Amitabh Bachchan hit. As a film it was nothing particularly special, although my enjoyment was enhanced a little by Lalita’s  running translation. However, I did enjoy it for the simple, surprising reason that it was filmed in Devigarh! There were a number of shots of a souped-up Delwara, the hillside “improved” by a series of non-existent chhatris (cupolas) that I guess were constructed out of polystyrene, or something similar, rather than simply computer graphics. That notwithstanding, it was very bizarre to see a place I had only recently left with such mixed feelings towards paraded in front of the nation on screen!
   Later on, Jatra, the post-exam “fest” (to borrow from hip Indian-journalese) began in earnest, with a run round the campus led by a student carrying a burning torch. This culminated at a grassy mound, where there followed a series of talks from several teacher-alumni, mainly about what a marvellous time Jatra was, how one should enjoy it to the full, maybe break a few rules creatively and, most importantly of all, never, never sleep. This was followed by “Grind”, the college disco, just outside the canteen. I joined in with alacrity, and got to meet a few more IRMAns, before heading to bed at two in the morning.

 "Grind"

   The next few days were a feast of organised and highly competitive fun, a world away from the kind of post-exam celebrations I have been brought up on. IRMA has nine blocks (A – I) and every event was in the form of a competition between the blocks, ultimately leading to an overall Jatra winner. I was staying in I-block, but as I assumed the role of Arun’s guest I was claimed by F-Block and, to an extent, C- Block, Lalita’s block. In reality, I maintained a strict impartiality and didn’t actually participate in any of the competitions and in fact acted as one of the judges for two events – “Mock Rock” and a fashion parade. Mock Rock required blocks to act out the role of a rock band to the backdrop of a Western rock song (lyrics required to be in English). No instruments were allowed, so everything had to be represented by props – amusingly-shaped polystyrene guitars, buckets covered with cloths as drums, some quite impressive cardboard keyboards and some hilarious microphones. Best of all was the sight of Manish, a second-year from Bangalore and a truly nice guy, mouthing into the silver foil-wrapped end of a long pole that bobbed up and down behind him during his energetic head-banging routine.
   The panel consisted of me and two of the professors, one of whom, a Tamil, was a veteran of many Jatras as both teacher and a student and consequently liable to preface his remarks with “In our day we used to...”. We had to judge on various criteria, including overall look, props, choreography and co-ordination. D-Block won hands down. Out of the nine entries, seven featured Death Metal music, which is perhaps a disturbing reflection on the tastes of the cream of India’s youth. One was called “Highway to Hell” and charted a course “from addiction, through destitution to eventual death” which sounds terribly funny in a posh Indian accent…
   The fashion show was equally entertaining, involving Brazilian carnivals, “Colours of the Rainbow”, a piece called “Death and Addiction” and plenty of others. “There is always some element of doubt” whispered the Tamil professor to me, “as to whether this is a fashion parade or a dressing-up contest!”. It started not long after 9pm and after several rounds and many cups of tea brought obligingly for the panel, wound up at 1.20am! Other events included a controversial tug-of-war, which almost turned into a real war due to some confusion between F-Block and I-Block, and “Mock Press”. This latter had the most highly charged atmosphere of all. Each block had to provide a celebrity and a three-person press panel. The press panel of one block interviewed another block’s celebrity and overall the blocks were judged according to various criteria, of which the chief seemed to be the amount by which their celebrity could make the audience rock with laughter.
   Celebrities included Bal Thackeray, the founder and chief of the right-wing Maharashtrian Shiv Sena party; Himesh Reshamiya, a singer famous for his nasal tone (replicated by his impersonator tightly holding his nose and singing the opening of one of Reshamiya’s hits); a Bollywood star whose name I forget; and two versions of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the ex-Chief Minister of Bihar, always considered a buffoon, but now revered as a saviour in his new incarnation as Railways Minister (and recently caught in a controversy after his parents-in-law were fined for not having railway tickets). Throughout the performances the audience shrieked with laughter and cheered and even, in the case of one poor impersonator of Jayalalitha, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, started jeering “Boring! Boring!” There seems to be a distinct lack of basic respect in some situations that I’ve noticed all over India which is at odds with the extremely deferential, hero-worshipping sort of respect that is so common in
other situations. I cannot really imagine this sort of dressing down happening at a similar event in an equivalent university in England (and we’re talking top end here – maybe Oxbridge or one of the London colleges). Far more likely would be an embarrassed silence. In this case, apart from the questions being uninteresting, and the girl not being a very good actress (and perhaps not very popular?) the problem was probably due to the fact that most of the audience was North Indian, and
apt to view the South almost as a separate country and was probably unfamiliar with the politics and culture being sent up in this act.
   Most successful of all the acts was an A-Blocker called Priti, who parodied Rabri Devi, Lalu Prasad’s illiterate wife, who became a puppet Chief Minister of Bihar for some time. Although I couldn’t follow anything she said, her imitation was clearly excellent, because everything she said brought the house down – “She’s too good!” the girl next to me shrieked. Of course I’d have loved to have had the linguistic and cultural wherewithal to really understand this, but the atmosphere alone was exhilarating. After the acts were finished and the judging done, Priti was asked to give an encore, so she came up, made some more (evidently spot on) Rabrisms, and then asked for her husband to join her. “Which one?” everybody screamed as both the Mock-Lalus came up onto the stage. “Kaun banega Rabri-pati?”  (Who’s going to be Rabri’s husband?) somebody asked, in a rather clever play on “Kaun banega crorepati?” , the Indian version of “Who wants to be a millionaire?”.
    Although Arun acted as my principle host, and I was often introduced as his friend, I spent a lot of time with Lalita as well. I really wish I had time to get to know her a lot better, as she is one those rare individuals who don’t fit in any of one’s preconceived ideas of human types. She seems to come from another mould altogether from the “traditional” young Indian women I have met and, although aspects of her character reminded me in weak, unspecific way of certain friends in England, she cannot be glibly be explained away as “Westernised”. She is not conventionally beautiful, far less so “pretty” in the familiar Indian shy, serene or sophisticated models, but she is ebulliently alive – humorous but often a little cross, or at least vigorous, about something. When I think about her, I can’t honestly remember a time when she seemed entirely at peace and relaxed, although she gives off a sense of being comfortable with her own body that is attractive in its own highly original way. This manifests itself particularly in an unusual degree of tactility with her friends of the opposite sex, including me. We would often sit with our arms around each other which, common enough in an Indian male-male or female-female context, is extremely unusual (as far as I have observed) between boys and girls who are no more than friends. In Lalita’s case, the friends she seems to attract and surround herself with tend to be male. There were several IRMAn guys who I suspected fleetingly must have been her boyfriend given the closeness apparent between them, although I later learnt that this was not the case. I was glad to see that, away from the context of Udaipur, her friendship with Arun still seems to be one of the strongest of all. She also has a close, and I suspect volatile, friendship with the delightful Manish, a long-haired, proudly South Indian, second year from Bangalore who, despite looking like a model environmental activist, told me he wanted to work in a multi-national in Bombay or Delhi once he graduated from IRMA.
  I would have liked to have seen more of Deepak and Dhanwant, but I managed at least one reasonably long conversation with each. I paid a visit of homage to Karan’s room on the first evening, although he is too clever not to have realised that this was more out of a sense of duty than a genuine desire to spend much time with him. Away from the irritations of daily life with him, I wanted to try once more to like him, but ended up coming away with more of a sense of pity. He seems unhappy, and the others told me that he keeps himself to himself. They claim that everybody tries hard to include him, but it is not hard to see that he induces the same feelings in others as he does in me, and once they set in, it is difficult to override them and pay anything more than lip service to this idea of inclusion. I remembered how he told me in Kojawara that he had never formed the kind of friendships in IRMA that he had in his beloved hometown of Dehra Dun, accusing the IRMAns of immaturity. He assured me that my visit had had “some lifting effect” on his mood, but I find that very difficult to take seriously.
   Of the new IRMAns I met, most notable were Manish, who I have already mentioned and Pandikumar, Arun’s neighbour, a bubbly, likeable 20-year old who was the youngest student on the campus. Also Anjali, a lovely Keralite who roped me into judging the fashion show, and who Lalita insisted was trying to “woo me to get chocolates from London” [23]. All three were part of a relatively small brigade of South Indians, who, while all part of different friendship circles, seemed to have a strong sense of community among them. One morning Manish and I breakfasted on dosa from the canteen together, and he explained how it had taken collective action by the students from Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to get South Indian food served a few times a week.
    Broadly speaking, almost all the students at IRMA came from the predictable well-off middle class backgrounds and spoke near-fluent English as well as Hindi (and in many cases, at least one local language as well). All seemed to have laptops on which they watched DVDs and listened to downloaded music. Campus dress seemed to be t-shirts (often an IRMA t-shirt) and jeans, with the occasional skirt or salwar kameez for the girls. I spotted a bottle of wine in one of the girl’s rooms (“Even we girls must let our hair down at times” explained Anjali with a smirk) suggesting that campus
life, in many respects, is reasonably similar around the world.
   A number of the people I met were from Gurgaon and the more I hear about the place, the more it intrigues me. Until recently it was a little more than a village just outside Delhi, but in the last ten or fifteen years it has attracted the kind of investment possible in the newly trade-liberalised-post-1991-economic-reform India and has mushroomed into a sort of barometer of India’s economic climate. Not least it has overtaken Bangalore as the “Call Centre Capital” of India, and there is even a book by a Chetan Bhagat called One Night @ the Call Centre about the night God calls a call centre in Gurgaon. More interesting than its feeble plot is the world it portrays – young, modern and thoroughly urban Delhites with relationship issues, divorced parents and depression, who drink alcopops and go clubbing but still eat dal fry and quarrel with guilt-tripping aunts in the bathroom queue about family and marriage.
   One suitably trendy Gurgaonite I spoke to – spiky hair and expensive clothes – referred to it as a “township”, which in India means a planned town, so generally the luxurious opposite of the Soweto-style townships of South Africa. Apart from affluent apartments, Gurgaon apparently abounds in multiplex cinemas, stylish restaurants and clubs, so that these days Delhites are going to Gurgaon and nearby Noida for their nightlife rather than vice versa. This is bolstered by the fact that Gurgaon is in Haryana state, where drinking laws are more relaxed than in Delhi Union Territory. Multiplexes – whatever they are exactly – seem to be another indicator of economic growth, on a par with fly-overs. If a city has multiplexes and fly-overs, then it is on the way up. Ludhiana, in Punjab, is apparently brimming with multiplexes and according to a prospective IRMAn I spoke to (up for interview, and enjoying Jatra in the process) it is well on the road to becoming India’s next metro city! This is largely due to the money coming in from the vast Ludhiani NRI (Non-Resident Indian) population in Canada.

 "Organised and highly competitive fun"

*

Leaving Anand and the privileged campus life of IRMA with a slight pang of sadness, I travelled on to Bhavnagar, in Saurashtra, the main belly of Gujarat. The prime motive for visiting Bhavnagar was to see the nearby town of Palitana, which boasts a hill in its vicinity, Shatrunjaya, that drips with Jain temples. Getting up the hill was a slog in the heat of the day, but just about worth it for the temples, which collectively form one of the holiest sights of Jainism. I looked at the wood rather than the trees since, while there were some impressive individual specimens, the real magic of the place is the impression it gives as a whole. The day wasn’t very clear and the views were not as spectacular as they might have been, although the endless flatlands around Palitana, receding into the haze, were quite something.

 Palitana

   Bhavnagar itself I found grimy and dispiriting at first, but warmed to considerably after a little time. The old town is far dirtier than Udaipur or Jodhpur, but underneath the grubbiness are attractive houses, many with wooden balconies. There is an immediately obvious “locked-in-time” feeling in the smaller streets and even in the few bigger roads, which, unlike Ahmedabad’s Relief Road, do not bring modernity into the heart of the old town.
   During my stay I grew partial to a beverage called “Chilled Boost”, a preparation of ice, milk, sugar and a powdered caffeine-based drink called Boost that I bought in a little shack presided over by an affable Muslim who seemed to regard his wares with considerable affection. Thus boosted, I made several forays into the life and thoughts of the town. Two features seem especially noteworthy. Firstly, the preponderance of supari (betel-nut) cutters, sitting outside their shops with big metal slicers that looked like they meant business, speedily converting a shiny betel-nut into a pile of slivers. While I assume this practice is not restricted to Bhavnagar, I can truthfully say I have never seen it before. Secondly, the Hindu iconography I saw on some temples had clearly been borrowed from European church sculpture, including a figure with angel wings, and a Durga that looked suspiciously similar to the Virgin Mary. I would be fascinated to find out more about this tradition.
   Modern Bhavnagar seems scarcely more connected with the world than the old town – such cyber-cafes, concrete blocks and fancy restaurants as there appearing rather lost in the prevailing atmosphere of parochiality.

*

A couple of news items from the last few days are worth discussing briefly. A few days back, the Samjhauta Express, a train running from Delhi to Lahore was set alight, gutting two carriages and leaving a number of people dead. Most of the people on the train were poor Muslim families who couldn’t afford the flight or the more expensive cross-border bus. They were either Pakistanis coming back from visiting family in India, or Indians going out to visit family in Pakistan. The fact that they were poor and Muslim has been made much of by the press, and a lot has been brought to light on the terrible condition of the train and the ordeal these families had to undergo to get onto the train in the first place.
   Current opinion is that this was a terrorist act, undermining the “Indo-Pak” peace process, perhaps specifically triggered by the Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri’s visit to India which began yesterday. Nobody is sure whether this is the work of Islamic extremists or Hindu extremists or any other groups, although so far the peace process doesn’t seem to have been affected greatly. Kasuri’s visit is still going on and the Samjhauta express is still running, albeit with heightened security. We’ll
see what happens in the next few weeks. So far, I’m not sure how far the incident has made its way into the international press.
   Other news headlines concern the deteriorating political situation in Uttar Pradesh under Mulayam Singh Yadav, with murmurs of the possible imposition of President’s Rule. There are even suggestions of splitting the state, such as the rather Dilipish “To Reform UP, Trifurcate it”. Another amusing headline about a very sad incident in today’s paper reads: “26-year old had died on the spot after another ST bus ran over her, absconding driver was latter nabbed”.

Footnotes:

[23] Everybody was very taken by the fact that I was shortly returning to England to work in a chocolate shop.