23rd January 2010

India. There’s nowhere like it.

I have ended up in Calcutta after travelling around the country for almost two months either side of a 5 week break in Nepal. The last 20 minutes of my life have featured a combination of slippery garbage, a puddle of cow urine and the whole lower half of my body. I am most displeased about this.

Other than that, I feel tremendous. I am rested. My clothes are clean. Even my stools are perky and firm. I have eaten about 3 apples a day in India - seriously keeping that doctor away. God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

It has been ten years since my last visit but India has lost none of its fascination. There are new signs of economic prosperity, like the spick & span business district in Mumbai, but the country still remains the undisputed world leader in the production of limbless beggars and religious murder by fist-pumping mobs.

Most of the essential features – the fascinating and impenetrable religious customs, wonderful food, psychotic driving, endemic corruption and charming locals – are all much as I remember them. It’s not for everyone but people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

I had forgotten quite how filthy India is. I shouldn’t get too sanctimonious, my trip has a carbon footprint like Godzilla, but the pollution is really getting out of hand. The air is a pestilent mix of dust and traffic fumes, garbage spills artfully out of the mouths of alleys and the streets smell like the septic tank in a rendering plant. At one point I think I saw a rat fleeing to the river holding a perfumed handkerchief to its nose.

This is going to take a while to write up, so I have negotiated a price for a bottomless cappuccino at the Spanish Café in Sudder Street. You may be interested to know that I am listening to Michael Bolton. Yes, that's right.

Jim Corbet National Park
This is the place to see tigers in India. It has a large population of around 300 tigers and little in the way of tall grass for them to hide in. Amazingly, they used to offer Safaris on foot there until a tourist was eaten in 1985. I stayed at Dikhala, a camp in the heart of the reserve. It is protected by electric fencing, which in true Indian style has several large holes in it. I was pretty jumpy after reading Corbett’s "The Tiger Roars" and decided to have a word with the camp manager about this issue.

I wander into his office. “Hi there, I just wanted to ask you about the small matter of the holes in the electric fence.”
“Ah yes, we should really get around to fixing those. We did have one of the camp staff taken.”
“Er, really? How many years ago was that?”
“Oh no” says he, “It was last week. The tiger took him from one of the guest huts.”
“You mean like my guest hut?”

Early next morning, after a patchy night’s sleep, I managed to persuade the warden to let me drive around by myself. I was several kilometres from camp when I realized that I had a severe Indian toilet emergency. Two choices presented themselves: soil myself in the car or head out on foot into the jungle. The first option was unthinkable to a Wykehamist like myself. “Ah well,” thinks I. “It's a fair cop, I've had a good life.” To make a long story short, I came out of it shaken but alive. I was as terrified as a very small nun at a penguin shoot, to borrow a phrase. Great national park though.

Poverty in India
I don’t want to turn this into a dreary chronicle of the daily miseries you witness when traveling in India and I am wary of trying to summarise what there is no way of summarising. Some comment is needed though.

According to the World Bank, 30% of the country is technically poor with an average per capita income of $0.28 per day. The main source of the problem is predictable - too many people. There are a billion Indians, so it is hardly surprising that some of them are starving. Seeing how we have an obesity epidemic in the West, the solution virtually suggests itself.

The cliche is that the poor multitudes in India are desperate, hungry and miserable. The counter-cliche is that they have very little but are happy and that it is the materially rich, spiritually poor Westerners who need to change. Strangely, it is the counter-cliche that is most widely believed by travellers.

Poor Indians have a kind of primary socialism which has nothing to do with politics but is about everyone mucking in together, embodied by everyone sharing food and people handing infants to total strangers through the windows of buses.

It is the old that I feel most sorry for. Being poor in India is no cake-walk but you can get by. The problem comes when you get sick - there is absolutely no safety net. The kids are usually ok. Pound called them "the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor". Also, at least until they reach a certain age, children mostly have someone that takes care of them. The old often have nobody.

Most heartbreaking was a frail and toothless old man in Calcutta who wept as he was kicked and beaten by a shopkeeper. He stood there unsteadily, tears streaming down his face and over his trembling chin. I saw him again the next morning curled up half naked on the pavement with his head on a doorstep. It is obvious that he needs help but nobody is there to help him. I gave him a blanket but I fear his future holds nothing but hunger, loneliness, ill health and unanswered prayers. If there’s any pity left unallocated in the world, send it over to him.

I will try to bear him in mind when I consider my own problems: falling battery life on my iShuffle, a new scratch on the paintwork of my car and a sore toe. I guess there’s is a valuable lesson here for all of us: stop bloody complaining, you don’t know how easy you’ve got it.

I’m not sure how to finish this section. It’s not a story with an ending, it’s just the way things are. Poverty is part of the deal in India. If you have some extra to give, then give. If you don't, don't.

Indians and the Caste System
A traveller in India will find the Indians amazingly friendly and helpful. This is partly because they are naturally agreeable and partly because they think all tourists are minted. There is also a third factor that is not immediately apparent. As a white-skinned European, you are automatically near the top of their rigid social hierarchy. You can go to all the places denied to ordinary Indians, you get better service and are guided to the front of queues everywhere. Locals get a kick in the teeth.

I am often struck by the rudeness and indifference that wealthy Indians show to the poor. Naturally enough, they are desensitized by constant exposure to suffering, but there is another issue. In England, people will generally admit that there's a fine line between themselves and the man they're crossing the street to avoid. In India, belief in karma and the caste system allows those at the top of society to believe that they deserve to be there and absolves them from caring about those at the bottom. It is also the reason for the relentless grovelling and butt-kissing that is mandatory at all levels of Indian society.

The social structure in India is a baffling blend of the caste system, the bureaucratic paternalism of the Chinese and judicial elements imposed by the British during the long centuries of their ascendancy. As a fundamentally anti-egalitarian system, the caste structure sits uneasily atop the British the legal system. This has led to a resurgence of so-called Hindu nationalism, a movement defined by pervasive antipathy to Muslims, lower castes and left wing politics in general. To a certain extent a Hindu nationalist is just a person who thinks society is working just fine as it is. In other words, a conservative.

The devil is in the application, but in spirit Sikhism is a wonderfully humane and egalitarian religion. It was created as a reaction against the caste system. The heart of Sikhism is the Golden Temple of Amritsar, my favourite building in India.

I arrived late in the afternoon and was struck by the wonderfully serene atmosphere. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful devotional singing that is kept up day and night by a rolling foursome of priests. Magnificent bearded and turbaned old Sikhs were bathing in the sacred pool and the warm tones of the temple could be seen through the early evening mist.

I ended up staying a few days there, hanging around the temple and occasionally helping with the washing up. You can eat and sleep there for free - the canteen feeds more than 70,000 people a day. All of the work is done by volunteers and the food is paid for by donations. A great place.

It is not difficult to understand why Rajastan is so overrun with tourists. I spent nearly a month travelling there and thoroughly enjoyed it. To me, Udaipur was the highlight. The City Palace is the finest in the country and the view over the lake to the Palace at sunset is sublime. The city has a very agreeable relaxed vibe and any number of superb restaurants.

Rajastanis are very photogenic, especially the men, who start proudly twirling their moustaches if you ask them to pose.

I spent quite a bit of time wandering around villages in Rajastan, occasionally staying with local families and taking the pulse of country life. This a diptych of a girl I chatted to in a village near Pushkar. Both parents dead and poor as a church mouse, but she just radiates good-natured innocence. This is the kind of face that restores your faith in humanity.

Jodhpur, the blue city, is fantastic. The deep blue colour with which the locals paint their houses supposedly acts as a natural mosquito repellent. I am not convinced. The Meherangarh, which dominates the city, is one of the most impressive castles in the world. “They hear as the gods on Olympus from its walls” said Huxley.

Jaisalmer, which is heavily hyped by the guidebooks, I found rather disappointing. There are some stunning old Havelis but the fort is so-so compared to the Meherangarh and the whole place is a giant tourist trap. I arrived at the train station at five in the morning to find a shrieking horde of touts being held back by police. Every house has signs outside such as - "Hello dear tourist, I can help you" and "No need for Viagra - magic bedsheets for sale".

Travellers all do the obligatory desert camel safari. It was fun to be back on a camel but ultimately the “desert” is just some scrubland dotted with occasional dunes. It is absolutely nothing like the true desert experience of the inner Sahara.

In The News
I was twice in the papers in India. The first was during Pushkar Fair, when I anchored the foreign team in the human pyramid competition. Although we were narrowly beaten by the locals, we were the first tourist team ever to succeed in smashing the pot. A proud moment.

The second was this rather unfortunate case of mistaken identity.

Being accused of a crime one hasn't committed is a terrible feeling. I am the OJ Simpson of Calcutta. Armed police dragged me out of a restaurant and down to the station, where an amazing number of reporters and photographers were gathered.

I spent a solid six hours shifting my bony arse around on a wooden stool and answering identical questions asked by each of three different departments that wanted the credit for my arrest. When they finally established my innocence, each of these became equally keen to assure everyone that they were not in the slightest bit involved. I have rarely been this bored. At one point I engaged the prisoner in the holding cell in a lengthy conversation about his case. He made an impassioned defence of his innocence, mostly in Hindi, which was rather wasted on me.

Eventually the doors open and a short fat man strides into the room. A hush descends - it is the great deputy commisioner himself. Perhaps now my questions will be answered. He is the proud owner of an inflated sense of his own importance and a huge nose. He wheezes through this monster proboscis like a steam-powered clock and proceeds to give me the "desperate times require desperate measures" speech at tedious length in a bellowing one-tone delivery. “I’m afraid that we will not be able to repair the damage to your car, and unfortunately your binoculars seem to have gone missing.” I whiten my knuckles as I grip the edge of the desk. “Why you little...”.

I take a second to savour the purifying rapture of red-hot fury washing through my system, then accept the inevitable and try to get out of there as quickly as possible. This meant completing numerous fantastically boring yet legally requisite forms, after which I finally received with my car keys and an admission of vague responsibility from the powers that be.

Even then, they wouldn’t let me go. Exactly as would happen in the UK, they were very concerned about me talking to the press, lest they come off as incompetent. The great man muttered an order to the semi-comatose junior officer behind him. Like a sleeping puppet jerked to life by the twitch of a thread, he jumped up and rushed out to confront the army of chattering gargoyles waiting in front of the building. “There are even more of them”, he gasped on his return. This is how it must have felt during the siege of Krishnapur. They ended up forcing me to wear a ludicrous disguise and climb over the back wall of the station to escape.

I considered drafting an eviscerating letter to the British consulate, but in the final count there isn’t that much to be upset about. The locals are justifiably paranoid about Pakistani vehicles and stuff disappearing in police hands is par for the course in India. Also, the local police inspectors were exceptionally kind and helped me with a number of unrelated issues that were clearly not their job. Per aspera ad astra.

You get the full range of travellers in India. Student backpackers, package tourists, yoga enthusiasts and a wide variety of new-age hippy types. A survey I have been conducting suggests that if you rabbit on incessantly about universal energy, I will rudely tell you to shut up. The French, as usual, beswarm the whole place - the temples echo to the ring of their nasal vowel sounds. Not many Germans, strangely.

I won’t deny how much I enjoy disliking young people, but I find myself more in sympathy with the clueless gap-year students than the self-important veterans, who spend their time speaking crappy Hindi to Indians that speak perfect English, looking down their noses at first timers and arguing amongst themselves about who has been to the most irrelevant crevice in the country. Their dreary, whining number is legion.

The point is that no matter how slavishly the gappers follow the Lonely Planet itinerary or how often they eat westernised food the locals wouldn’t touch, India will never be a sterile Disneyland experience. They can’t fail to be educated and enriched by the experience. Some of them are barely smarter than a programmable microwave but they are full of enthusiasm, looking to see the world and get laid. Good luck to them.

There is a new kind of yuppie “traveller” who flies into India and takes a taxi straight from the airport to a $1000 a week Yoga retreat. When I was at the airport in Delhi I saw a likely candidate tottering along towing a wheely suitcase, no doubt terrified that her fake boobs might explode at 40,000 feet. Burbury handbag, knee-high boots over jeans, oversized sunglasses - well done young lady, that’s the full hat-trick of fashion disasters.

Indian Food
There is no way I can do it justice in this post but the food here is awesome. As usual in Asia, the best way to get a feel for it is by eating standing up in the street. There are endless stalls selling bhajas, byrianis, samosas, dosas, utthapams and so on. It is totally different to the English-style Indian food I am used to at home but excellent.

Quote from Something I’m Reading
"The congressional elections are upon us. Will we be, as the Republicans desire, a nation of wealthy heavily-armed white men, befouling the air and water in a ceaseless quest for profits, beholden to no laws but those of our lord and savior Jesus Christ? Or shall we instead embrace the Democrats' vision of a namby-pamby quasi-Socialist Republic with an all-homosexual army flamboyantly defending a citizenry suckling at the foul teat of government welfare?"
Stephen Colbert

Best Moments

  • Visiting Bodhgaya, the birthplace of the Buddha.

  • The City Palace, Udaipur.

  • I met the guy who decides what qualifies as English for Websters dictionary. His job is to determine whether a word - like “noob” for example - qualifies for inclusion. Fact for you: The differences between American and British spellings are down to one man, Webster, who thought his way was more logical. Didn’t know that, eh?

  • The toy train in Darjeeling.

  • Watching the bathing masses during the eclipse in Varanasi.

  • Yoga class in Pushkar. This is without doubt the least effective martial art I have ever tried. Their so-called “master” tried to phase me with some outlandish fighting stances but I attacked with the ferocity of a charging lion and it took me less than twenty seconds to kick his head in.

  • The Taj Mahal.

  • Pushkar Fair.

  • Corbett National Park.

  • The Victoria Memorial. A highly impressive marble wedding cake of a building. This would no doubt be one of India's most celebrated but for its unfortunate colonial associations.

  • Camel trekking near Jaisalmer.

  • Volunteering at the Golden Temple.

  • Varanasi. Taking a rowing boat out on the Ganges at dawn is something everyone should experience. The crowds of the faithful come down to the river to bathe. The surface of the water is a broad arabesque of colours, with belts of bright green and swirling clouds of orange flower petals. Fading into the distance is a line of reddish temple domes, dimly seen in the half light. Magical.

  • Kumortuli in Calcutta. The largest potter's town in the country.

    Worst Moments

  • Endless train delays due to fog, on two occasions more than 13 hours.

  • Dealing with Indian customs, Calcutta. "The transaction of business in the east always involves an immense waste of time, and as orientals attach no value whatsoever to their time, the European will often find his patience sorely tried.” Never a truer word spoken. Getting the car shipped to Bangkok proved to be a Herculean task. I won’t inflict the entire story on you but suffice to say I was forced to cancel my trip to Haridwar and return to Calcutta just because Indian customs were unable to locate the engine number. We’re talking about professional customs people here. Ah yes, Lord, this is how you remind me to hate bureaucrats. These people are cretins, I remind myself, but they are only the last link in a cretinous chain reaching all the way up.

  • I borrowed a blanket for a train journey from a kind man in Delhi and promised to return it. I did not return it. I am a louse and a backbiting snake.

  • Driving in India. The driving here is actually no worse than elsewhere in Asia but the distances are huge and you can never go faster than about 20 miles an hour - the roads are too bad and the visibility is too poor. You can never relax and look out of the window because at any moment a child or cow could wander into the middle of the road in front of you.

  • Having my fortune told by an old woman in Varanasi. Not sure how I got roped into this. She combined several different methodologies into an incoherent mess, taking a look at my hand, dealing out some cards and muttering a load of crap about astral planes for about five minutes while I checked out two French chicks. Utter waste of time.

  • Shoe shopping in India. Occasionally life teaches you the truth of the old adage - you get what you pay for. I went to a shoe shop and was so happy to find Indian “Converse” trainers for four quid that I bought 3 pairs. For the record, children, if a guy in the street tries to sell you a Rolex for a tenner, he’s actually selling you a plastic dog turd.

  • Guide to dealing with Indian bureaucracy: 1) You arrive at the office. There are no signs of any kind; 2) You fight your way through an army of other petitioners, all waving forms and shouting the interminable explanations of the orient; 3) You are totally ignored by the skin-coloured robots that work there; 4) You finally get what you want by offering bribes to anyone behind a desk.

    The news is even more depressing than usual. The Haitians, who seem to combine every undesirable national characteristic, have been hit with a major earthquake. As well as dealing with recurring food shortages, the world’s highest murder rate and a crazed voodoo police force, they can’t even rely on their houses staying where they originally put them.

    The stock market continues to recover. The broker emails I get every morning are chock-full of the same inadvisable overconfidence they had in the first half of 2007.

    I will not comment on the deteriorating news out of Pakistan or the misfortunes that have befallen our noble War on Terror. Say not the struggle naught availeth you godless worms, lest you play into the hands of the lord of demons, Bin Laden himself.

    Tomorrow I fly to Bangkok to join a friend from home. I have had a great time here, despite the inevitable frustrations. If you come to India, expect to have your patience pushed to its elastic limit. It’s all part of the experience, just breathe into a paper bag and count to ten.

    I am back in my hotel room. The rain is tapping on the leaves outside and the fall of light from my window reveals a homeless family in the alley below. It’s surprisingly cold here, unseasonably so, the locals tell me. Not really comparable to the impenetrable darkness and horizontal rain of the English winter, but still. I find myself strangely sad to leave. Perhaps more so than for any of the other countries I have visited.

    Nothing left to do but try to absorb as much as possible of West Bengal in the time that remains. I shall pass this way but once.