The Negev desert leaves you feeling very clean, its sun-scorched space filled with a light bright enough to bleach your bones. The desert floor is crisscrossed by ancient trails clearly visible from my vantage point on top of the Ramon Ridge. Here, in the Fourth Century BC, Nabatean camel caravans carried perfumes and frankincense and bitumen from the deserts of southern Arabia to the Mediterranean ports. A paved road stretched across the desert from Gaza to Petra in Jordan, the Nabatean capital. Among their gods was the moon deity Hubal, worshipped at the Kaaba in Mecca.
The rocks here teem with ammonite and other fossils. Humans have come and gone in this desert for fifty thousand years. You can see the ruins of a fort high on a promontory, and in the valley there are giant cisterns, their water now an ancient memory. Today the tracks are trod by wild onagers, along with Israeli hikers out for a scorching wilderness experience and the odd SUV packed with camera-toting tourists.
Israel is mostly the Negev. As you travel the narrowing triangle from Bersheeva — where Abraham, a mercenary for the King of Sodom, came and pitched his tent — to Eilat, the glittering resort on the Dead Sea, you come across mile upon mile of barbed wire, enclosing military camps, prisons, and firing ranges. There are army trucks, even tanks, on the road, and F-16’s screaming across the desert sky – all part of the modern Israeli state created by grit and determination and the help of our American tax dollars.
On the road to Bersheeva, you come across clusters of Bedouin shanties constructed out of rocks, cardboard, and garbage bags. A little boy runs after a pair of straggly goats, slapping them with his stick; a woman in a dusty scarf and flowing dress sits astride a donkey. These nomads once eked out a living navigating across the desert, guided by the sun and stars and the stories of their ancestors. Today they have been forced to yield their way of life to the military camps. Like other nomads, they are disparaged as thieves – car thieves, according to my Israeli driver Yossi. I did see a battered sedan at one of these camps, with an old man hard at work on the engine. As he worked there all alone with the garbage bags flapping in the wind, it was obvious he was just repairing his vehicle.
Yossi waves his hands a lot while driving. He gives me a breakdown of Jewish dietary restrictions. Live food is exemplified by milk from kosher animals. Dead food includes food from cloven-footed, cud-chewing animals. Fish must have scales and fins, so that shark and shrimp are forbidden, with a few shellfish falling in between. Other creatures aren’t kosher, especially the pig, which Islam also abhors. Live food and dead food cannot be mixed – they create an imbalance in the system.
I tell him that in India we have all kinds of food sects, from vegetarian Jains who stay away from tubers, to worshippers of Kali who were rumored to feed on corpses. He raises an eyebrow. I add that there are also cosmopolitan couples who snack on foie gras in their Bombay flats. Our chatter about food habits and preferences makes me wonder about food in the ancient world, with the traditional Chinese as well as the Indian Ayurvedic systems being based on a theory of humors similar to that of Hippocrates and Galen.
Bersheeva is very much a frontier town, with a large and dusty bus-station and grimy shops run by Russian money changers. Bersheeva is only 50 miles from Jerusalem, and it is the first stop for tourists heading south into the desert. As I watch disheveled backpackers and haggard Palestinians getting on to buses, the microscopic scale of the country becomes clear. Bethlehem is just 7 miles from Jerusalem. The northernmost city, Haifa, is just 140 miles from Eilat, the southernmost. How could such a tiny country be such a powder-keg for world conflict?
From Bersheeva I take the bus to Nevatim, to visit a settlement of Indian Jews from Cochin. As the bus stirs up clouds of dust along the sides of the road, I nibble on cool sandwiches that have come wrapped in moist cloth napkins. My hosts of the previous night have packed me a delicious lunch, along with fruits and water for the journey. As my teeth sink into grainy brown bread and fresh lettuce, soft cheese, and tomatoes, I am grateful to them, and to most of the Jews I have encountered along the way. They are a people of unmistakable warmth to their friends, lively and disputatious, the women languid and dark-haired, moving with an easy Mediterranean grace.
As for their enemies, it’s back to Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament breathing down ruin and devastation. Long before that, according to Karen Armstrong there was El, the Canaanite High God, and Al-Lah, the high god of the ancient Arabic pantheon, in the days when the people living here were still poly-theistic. I mull over these ancient superstitions as I pass the groves where Abraham might have camped. Gnarled fig trees, olive groves, a canyon here, a rugged mound of rocks there, all ancient places seared by the sun.
The Jews of India are a multifarious tribe. When lighter-skinned European and Middle Eastern Jewish settlers arrived in Kerala in the eighteenth century, they quickly adopted a caste system, with the White Jews being distinguished from the ancient natives, the Black Jews, both of which communities lorded it over the Meshuhrarim, who were freed slaves. In addition to the Cochinis, there are the ancient Bene Israel from the Konkan coast (who had their own color bar), the Baghdadis of Bombay, dating back to the 1800s, as well as several more recent twentieth-century converts from Christianity. The latter include the Bene Menashe, consisting of Kuki and Mizo formerly headhunting tribes from northeastern India who had been — astonishingly — accepted by Israel in 2005 as being truly of the ilk, leading to protests by Indian evangelical churches about mass conversions to Judaism. In contrast, a band of self-declared Telegu Jews, the Bene Ephraim, have been ignored by the Israeli rabbinical authorities. Given this diversity just among Indian Jews, perhaps the term ‘Jew’ is today as uninformative as to particulars as the term ‘Latino’. Or ‘Indian’, for that matter.
The Nevatim Jews, like many others arriving in Israel, were immediately plunked down in the desert with the goal of making the arid land “bloom”. And, like others far from home, their first impulse was to build a place of worship. Rachel, a helpful young lady in Nevatim, explains that their synagogue is an exact replica of the one in Cochin, from where they had carried away various ritual objects.
Rachel shows me copies of two engraved plates from the Eighth Century, which stated that the local satrap, the Chera ruler King Bhaskara Ravivarman II, was granting dominion over the Jews of Malabar to one Joseph Rabban, giving him the right to various lands, tolls, and a palanquin, among other items. Next to them, on a wall plaque, it said a man without a past had no present and no future.
“We had eight synagogues in Cochin,” Rachel says. “We had coconut palms, banana and papaya trees, beautiful beaches. Here there was nothing but desert and terrible dry heat. With no servants, nobody to help us.”
“It must have been hard.”
She nods. “My mother had never worked, she had only kept house, with the help of servants. Now she had to become a manual laborer, digging and planting. She nearly broke her back.”
“How did you manage to prosper?” There are plenty of trees and shrubs, date palms, nicely paved roads, a park – it seemed like a pleasant place to live.
“I’ll show you,” Rachel says. She picks up her Uzi, and takes me for a tour of the settlement.
Soon we are inside a cool, air-conditioned building. Around me is a buzzing bloom of bright, bulbous flowers, in every color under the sun.
“Tulips,” she explains. “For the world market. My father and his relatives decided early on to get into export.”
It is a story of enterprise and determination, the same combination that had made them masters of the spice trade in Cochin.
“Don’t you all miss Kerala?”
“How can we forget it?”
It turns out she is a fan of all things Indian, including Malayalam movies and cricket. She has all the blind enthusiasm expatriates have for the new India, and she would love it if India became a superpower.
“I admire everything India has accomplished,” she says. “And I love Mumbai.”
I scrutinize her Uzi, its ugly black contours leaning quietly against her gorgeous hips. She has completed her military service, and is very familiar with the use of weapons. It seems so incongruous to imagine this charming young woman as a sniper, firing at Palestinians for sport or self-defense.
Rachel introduces me to some of her friends, all of them well-proportioned and in the very flush of youth. They seem like young people everywhere, baring their bellies and wearing tight jeans, and giggling and talking very fast, except that they all carry Uzis.
“In case of terrorist attack”, a girl says. There is an ever-present danger.
I try explaining that many other countries have experienced terrorism, independence movements, and the like, but we didn’t walk around sporting submachine guns, but they merely shake their heads. Obviously, I am not a Jew, and would never understand.
On the way to Jerusalem, I stop at a dagger shop in Bethlehem, close to the Church of the Nativity, where I run into four young Palestinian Christians. They do the one thing that people in many parts of the East do when greeting an Indian – they wiggle their hips, pretending they’re dancing in a Bollywood movie. We end up lunching together. We enter a huge, deserted restaurant. As we nibble on olives, I learn that the owner is away in prison; he’s a member of the PLO. Have I been to the camps, they ask, thinking I’m a journalist. It will really wake me up to see what is going on. No, I say, I’m here on holiday.
The waiter serves us a gigantic fish, grilled to perfection. We tear at it with our fingers, scattering bones all over the tablecloth. Meanwhile, we talk about the folly of war, the terror of occupation, and the plight of Christians. I secretly fondle my dagger, which has large glass pieces for what should be semi-precious stones. We drink an enormous quantity of beer.
Masada and the Dead Sea
The Roman-build fortress of Masada is a place of ritual pilgrimage, commemorating the deaths of 960 Jewish rebel holdouts in the face of a siege by the Romans. Rather than being taken alive, the rebels committed suicide, after first killing their wives and children. It is sad that this tragic episode should be taken as a symbol of the ideals of the Jewish state. An archaeologist from Ben-Gurion University is at hand, talking about recent discoveries about life during the siege. The view from the hilltop is breathtaking, including as it does the remains of the victorious Roman camp, its magnificent outlines preserved permanently in the desert.
From Masada I travel down to the Dead Sea for a ritual immersion in its saline waters. It feels hot and strangely uncomfortable, and afterwards, my skin tingles. I have to skip deftly across the burning sand to the shower rooms. The heat is intense, and as the vendors nearby call out to me, their voices floating away in the warm breeze, I am suddenly glad, at home in Asia.
Jerusalem is an atmospheric walled city with four distinct quarters, Christian, Armenian, Jewish, and Moslem. It is a city that moves at a slow place; after centuries of almost continuous strife, she can afford to take her time.
I stroll down the Via Dolorosa past the Church of Flagellation, where it joins the street called the Mujahidin. There are as many churches here, it seems, as in the Christian quarter. The Moslem quarter has more butcher shops. I pass many Americans, some of them in orthodox garb. On the hills above, I can see fine mansions being erected, bulldozers crunching up what remains of ancient homes. I am reminded of a fragment of a poem by Yehuda Amichai:
Laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
The white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
The towel of a man who is my enemy,
To wipe off the sweat of his brow.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, they are giving a guided tour, explaining to Poles and Italians about where Jesus is. All the business about relics, Jesus’ shroud, Buddha’s teeth, not to mention the stoning of devils, the feigned drinking of blood – quite fascinating, but aren’t we supposed to be past all that silliness? But isn’t this what humans are really like — still throbbing with ancient feelings?
The Dome of the Rock is under repair, as it must have been so many times since it was first built in 691 AD over the site of the temple of King Solomon. As in India, there are nutcases who want to rebuild ancient temples that have been overrun by mosques. They seem to have forgotten the words of Rabbi Hillel, who formulated the Golden Rule of Judaism: Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you.
My Arab guide stops short at the Wailing Wall, part of Herod’s Temple. He spits, cursing the Jews. The tour stops here – if I want to touch the Wall, I must go with a Jewish guide. After a bit of bargaining about his fee, I leave him, passing an Orthodox Jew shouting agitatedly in the language known as Brooklynish into his mobile phone, in between stealthy puffs of a cigarette. At the Wall, I am touched by the sight of people tucking in prayers.
Israel’s conflict is everyone’s; I am an outsider, but as opinionated as the ones forced to live in this mess. My anger turns to the Anglos – perhaps, instead of taxing us American taxpayers, we should really turn back the clock and ask for reparations from the British? After all, it is they who have sown the seeds of all this ugliness, and not just here, we Indians and Pakistanis are also beneficiaries of their scheming. But it’s rude to point fingers, and I, still bearing vestiges of anglophilia, am writing in this language only because of them.
At other times, seeing the hardworking falafel vendors, the ice-cream carts and baristas and the like whom I patronize, I can’t help but weep for these talented people, praying for them to be allowed to go along with their business without troubling anyone. That is what all of us want, but the settlements continue and the occupation goes on and the F-16’s keep screaming over the desert, and the so-called terrorism doesn’t stop.
On my last day in Jerusalem, I pause for a leisurely breakfast in the Germany colony. There are old stone bungalows here, and I can hear the delightful sounds of people, mainly women, going about their chores, getting their houses ready. Everything is clean, spacious, and relaxed. I order hot bages, which I eat with cheese, Arab cheese called tabne. Add to that capsicum, cucumber, tomato, and olives.
In the cafés around me, young men with their sunglasses raised are casually meeting for a coffee, swinging a few deals over their mobiles. Perhaps later they will saunter down to the office for a bit – ça va aller, why to exert too much! Life is relaxed, until the next attack. A dazzling beauty sits down next to me, tucking her uzi safely between her knees. Earlier, in a cool house built around a courtyard, Nurit, in her silver anklets, had spoken of her hiking adventures all over India. It was what she did after military service, spending her money seeing the world. She loved India most of all, she said, fingering my necklace. She had taught me a few handy words — bevakasha for please, sherootim for the bathroom to wash up in, chaver for the friend I will remain.
I depart for the airport before dawn, as I always seem to be doing, whether in Barcelona, Colombo, Paris, or Venice, the hour when cities are at their cleanest, when the early risers prepare for yet another day. The shuttle bus has one other group, a Greek family. A mother, her daughter and grandson son from the island of Rhodes in the Aegean, are on their way back after saying prayers for their departed paterfamilias. The old lady has white hair, tucked into a dark bonnet, and the daughter has a large beauty spot on her cheek. They finger their rosaries, smile briefly at me, and then return to their devotions.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
THE TIVOLI GARDENS
by Inderjeet Mani
[Note: I have changed the names of two of the characters. Unfortunately, ‘Bunty’ is no longer with us (another suicide). However, ‘Mona’ is still alive.]
It was a little after ten on a Sunday morning when the doorbell rang twice. I drew back the curtains to be greeted by rain over the Sussex downs. Slipping on my jeans, I shuffled downstairs and opened the door.
“Oh, it’s you”, I said quietly.
“Dolente dolore”, said Bunty.
I was tempted to close the door in his face. However, he was already quite drenched, and under his rimless glasses his eyes had a suitably mournful look. A battered suitcase stood by his side. I let him in.
Bunty was not supposed to be standing there in the village of Falmer, Sussex. I had expected him to be in Hampstead, living with his psychoanalyst uncle and aunt. In fact, he was not even supposed to be there – he really should have been in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, sitting up on the terrace of his parents’ house, drinking Chivas Regal and watching the dust come in over the city.
Dolente Dolore. It was Dante’s bell, echoing somberly through the pages of Under The Volcano. The Consul had just been shot.
“Christ”, he remarked, puzzled, “this a dingy way to die..“ A bell spoke out. Dolente…..dolore. It was raining softly. Shapes hovered by him, holding his hand, perhaps still trying to pick his pockets, or to help, or merely curious……Then a face shone out of the gloom, a mask of compassion. It was the old fiddler, stooping over him. “Companero-” he began. Then he had vanished.
Bunty liked to invoke this bell of hell as a kind of password among friends. I had first met him at college in Delhi. He had dropped out after the first year, but continued to hang around the campus. The senior students taunted him with repetitions of his curious greeting. Thus the tragic world of Dante, reflected through the drunken apocalyptic vision of Malcolm Lowry in Mexico, had reemerged in India as a coarse vulgarity on the lips of fools.
Bunty had trouble adjusting to the land of his birth. His Westernized upbringing had left him confused, unable to appreciate the pulse of India. He felt overwhelmed by the crowds, by the dust rising up on the horizon. They seemed to have a purpose, the people of India, as they shuffled by on the streets, struggling to survive – whereas he seemed to have nowhere to go. There he was, in the wrong place at the wrong time, born into a backward country well past its prime, with everyone else apparently too busy to care very much for him and his rather vague literary aspirations. After a couple of years up on the terrace, he decided to leave.
He managed to talk his parents into sending him away to America. He joined a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, but quit after a semester, pocketing the remainder of his tuition money. He blew it all in a couple of glorious days at the Waldorf. He told me it was the happiest time of his life. When the money ran out he allowed himself to be gracefully deported home.
After another two years sitting up on the terrace of his parents’ house, sipping Chivas and watching the dust come in over the city, he pleaded for a last chance in the West. He reminded them about his literary aspirations. He wanted to live in New York, just for a while so he could get his bearings and make the contacts necessary to publish his stuff. This time his parents sent him to London, to stay with his uncle and aunt.
The aunt and uncle were an unusual couple: orthodox Freudians, and proper Punjabis, alternating between a clipped BBC English and bursts of their lusty native tongue. The husband puffed at a pipe and pored over antiques, the wife was thin and beautiful, wore costume jewelry, and told me that she was often mistaken for a Spanish dancer. In their living room Bunty was introduced to the likes of Stephen Spender and Lucian Freud, as well as an aging and embittered Polish sculptress who took him for long walks in the Kenwood Gardens. He spent the days in the art galleries and the nights locked in his room upstairs overlooking the Vale of Health. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and claimed to be polishing up his novel.
One day the analysts broke into his room and found an assortment of whisky, rum and gin bottles on the desk. Bunty was very still and quiet, as he often became when roaring drunk. He could not recall what he had said, but the next morning he found a note on the kitchen table asking him to pack his bags. After a day’s delay he had decided to pay me a visit.
“Pretend I’m not here”, he told me, calmly lighting up a Gauloise. “I’ll crash on the floor. When you come back in the evening we can get together, maybe go out for a drink.”
“I’m supposed to be studying”, I reminded him. “Psychopathology.” I nodded towards several somber studies of mental illness that lay unopened on my desk.
He began to talk about old times in Delhi. Akhmal, the former student leader, who had been sent by the Communist Party to Moscow to study Marxism-Leninism, was now a lecturer in political philosophy at Nehru University; Ashraf, the Kashmiri poet, travelled the deserts of Rajasthan selling drugs for a pharmaceutical company; and then there was Nutty, who after a brief period as an astrologer in Benares, had apparently run out of options and gone and hanged himself. Dolente Dolore.
Bunty took off his glasses. I told him I was sorry about Nutty. Then we went out for a drink. He drank seven whiskies, becoming very quiet after the seventh, his eyes glazed over into a Buddha-like tranquility.
We went out drinking every evening for a fortnight. In the pubs Bunty would sit quietly, enveloped in a haze of Gauloise smoke, at times so withdrawn that I suspected he might be on the threshold of an important visionary experience. But on the way back he would brighten up, stepping with renewed vigor through the Sussex woods, and he would talk. He told me he was tired of the West, he needed to return and rediscover India. There were places of tremendous beauty and simplicity, like the deserts of Rajasthan, where he had traveled with Ashraf and Nutty.
“Rajasthan is incredible, filled with such elemental beauty. It’s a peculiar light which filters in through the dust, you feel as if you’re looking at the sky through some kind of emulsion. Women go barefoot on the cracked earth, walking miles to draw water from a well. They seem so tragic, those women of rural India, their shrouded forms convey a terrible sadness.”
He became quiet, as if that terrible sadness was about to descend on us. We walked for a while through the damp woods, far from the world of heat and dust, hearing the wind sighing in the branches, and recalling the sights and sounds of the land we had left behind.
“It’s a strange place, everyone seems calm and dazed and hungry. Even the camels. We spent a night near Ajmer, sleeping in a small village. When I woke up I really felt there was nothing out there, nothing for anyone. I came away with the sense of the terrible beauty and hopelessness of existence.”
We talked about the landscapes of rural India. He mentioned that he planned to write a novel set in Rajasthan, inspired in part by the descriptions of Algerian landscapes he had come across in Camus.
“Camus didn’t believe in freedom or hope, but he believed that we have a duty to step forward, to revolt in the face of death. This is the equivalent, for him, of the spiritual impulse towards life. He was dead against suicide. Suicide directly violates this human duty.”
He paused near an old Sussex ash tree. Wraith-like figures seemed to hover in the distance. He turned quickly towards me, and his well-built body seemed suddenly possessed with a strange energy.
“You know, Nutty loved Camus. It was something of a shock when he went out and did what he did.”
Having said this, he turned, opened his fly and calmly urinated against the ash tree. A stream of whiskies came spurting out.
At the end of a month I took stock of things. We had talked a bit. We had talked about the beauty of rural India, about exile, about the search for roots and the understanding of man’s ultimate place in nature. In fact, I had done little else. And I had been smoking two packs of Gauloises a day. It seemed some sort of action was called for.
Meanwhile Bunty seemed in the pink of health. He talked incessantly about India, the deserts of Rajasthan, but also the Himalayas and Kashmir. He praised the smells of India, extolled its dusty roads. He would go back, travel, finish his book…..Just then the term came to an end and summer came to England.
On a summer’s day, in rustic Sussex, I had the urge to rid my mind of extraneous things, to stretch out in the sunlight and read and doze and daydream and watch girls in calico skirts going barefoot on the grass. To lie by a bank where the wild thyme blows, with a hey a ho and a hey nonino. But this vision of a lazy hazy self-indulgent English summer was somewhat marred by the presence of Bunty. Wherever I went, Bunty tagged along, indulging in idle chatter. I began to wonder about his travel plans.
“Let’s go to Amsterdam”, Bunty told me one day, chewing on a blade of grass.
We were up on the Sussex Downs gazing at a herd of cattle. Blackbirds circled in the sky above us, and a small tractor wheezed about in the valley below. A curious drowsiness filled the air.
“Amsterdam”, I said, for lack of any other appropriate response.
“I may as well tell you, I’ve bought a ticket back to India, from Amsterdam. After all, I can’t impose on you forever, can I?”
He offered me a freshly lit Gauloise.
“But first we need to stop over in Copenhagen”, he added.
“A friend of Dad’s lives there – in a country estate. Last time he visited India he said he’d be glad to have me.”
“Bunty, I can’t really come. I’ve got to ..study. I have …my own life. Remember, I’m now on the straight and narrow… ”
“But you must. You don’t know how much I value your company. And I thought you liked traveling. You once called yourself the lightheaded traveler. Listen, you’ve got to come along – I can’t travel alone.”
I was tempted to let him hoof it alone. I found the Sussex Downs very soothing. But Amsterdam was difficult to resist – it seemed like a city very congenial to my personality. And the Danish estate tickled my curiosity. Perhaps a change would do me good – people always worked better after a vacation. The lazy hazy English summer could wait – in any case, sooner or later, it was sure to rain, and Britain would once again turn into the dull, dreary place it essentially was.
“When do you want to leave?”
“How about tomorrow?”, he asked, a broad grin spreading across his face.
I packed my old orange rucksack, and he picked up his suitcase, and soon we were on a train to London. At Victoria station we ran into Ian and Mitou. Ian had recently graduated from Sussex, and was training to be an art auctioneer at Sotheby’s. Mitou was French, wore indigo eye-shadow and was very cute. As luck would have it, they were heading off to Cologne later that week in a multicolored VW Beetle, and they very kindly offered us a ride.
We spent the rest of the day standing in line obtaining visas from rude officials. In the evening we strolled through a gray and desultory Bloomsbury, eventually finding ourselves near Fitzroy Square, a region of lesser embassies, hospitals and student residences. There we came across a sign offering Hot Indian Meals, with an Indian flag waving boldly above it.
“That flag says it all”, said Bunty rhapsodically. “Nothing like being back among our people.”
I followed him hesitantly into the building. It turned out to be a rather dingy Indian boarding house. It was the kind of place found in every Western capital, a dismal but affordable hostel catering to the needs of immigrants and students anxious to remain among their own kind, places that come filled with patriotic mementos, serving to remind exiles of the glories of their homeland. Above the foyer was yet another Indian tricolor, along with garlanded photographs of eminent personalities, Nehru, Gandhi, and the like. There was also an injunction engraved in stone, urging the Indian visitor to remain proud of his own land even as he walked among conquerors, to hold his head up high before the white man. It was something of an anachronism in the present day and age, but it no doubt echoed the silent humiliations endured by legions of dark-skinned students from a once self-assured civilization as they tried hard to retain their dignity in the white man’s land. Today, underneath this welcoming sign, serious-looking Indians and Bangladeshis hurried by, most of them apparently thrifty students and budding chartered accountants.
The dining hall was a busy place, full of natives devoutly gulping down their food, its kitchen reverberating with the shouts of Malayali cooks. The meals were hot, as advertised. Bunty ate with great gusto, his fingers plunging in, deftly stripping flesh from bone. We were well into our third helping of a fiery egg curry when I discovered a bespectacled girl staring at us. She looked away hurriedly. When she got up to fetch coffee I noticed she was unusually short, dressed in bell bottoms, with immense eyes and an intense, frank gaze. After she had finished she licked her fingers and started to light a cigarette, and Bunty slid his matchbox across. We sat together gupping, joking, chatting lightly of this and that. Her name was either Mona or Chitra, I’ve forgotten which. She was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
The talk drifted to Delhi, where she had taken a degree in History. She loved the Delhi scene, she said, but hated being incarcerated in the Miranda House women’s hostel. High fences, barbed wire, and an alert watchman who had to be bribed. After more of this kind of talk I began to feel I was back in a campus coffee shop in Delhi. I was no longer in England; I could smell the dust of the Indian road, the autorickshaw-exhaust fumes tickling my nostrils. The food and tricolor and Indian English accents had done their trick, awakening intense olfactory memories. Meanwhile I noticed the shouts of the Malayali chefs growing louder, as if to affirm this new ethnocentric balance.
Eventually the place started closing up. It was time for Bunty’s evening whiskies, and he suggested an outing to a pub. Mona’s eyes lit up like twin electric bulbs.
“I have a bottle of wine in my room.”
“Just one?”, asked Bunty, doubtfully.
“Actually, there are two.”
We walked out and bought cigarettes and then returned to her room. It was a tiny little garret, with just enough room for a bed and a desk and an oversize poster of Joan Baez. Bunty and I sat on the floor. Mona rattled on about things Bunty and I had cared little for, inter-college dramatics, debating, quiz competitions. She seemed to hark back repeatedly to a rather insipid region of the past, and as she chattered on she brought back more olfactory memories but also impressions of a faraway, somewhat suffocating world, dedicated to the noble pursuit of excelling at the unimportant.
When the two bottles were gone we went out to get more. After another bottle Bunty was silently blowing smoke rings. Mona/Chitra put on a Hindusthani film song, and a shrill mezzo-soprano voice began a plaintive melody of unrequited love. Mona sat cross-legged on the bed, humming along. In a pause between songs she told me that she hated her life. I didn’t respond, and she started humming again. The room had started to swirl around me. Bunty stared at me with glassy eyes. He began to recite poetry. After a while he lapsed into French. It was a poem called the Jinx, with something about biting the golden lemon of the bitter ideal.
Forever hoping to meet the sea,
They traveled without bread or sticks or bowls
Biting the golden lemon of the bitter ideal.
He went on to mention something ominous about the Jinx itself.
No, degraded and dwelling in deserts without a well,
They run beneath the leash of an ill-tempered monarch, the Jinx,
Whose outrageous laughter lays them low.
He gave a sinister laugh, cracking an imaginary whip. Around midnight Chitra took out a bottle of capsules and swallowed three bright green ones.
“I’ve got to take these,” she said, defensively. “I’m a manic depressive.”
She shrugged her shoulders, blowing at the embers of her cigarette. The cassette played on, claiming that in a deep valley in Kashmir, a lamp was burning somewhere, and that somewhere nearby a heart was on fire. Kashmir had a number of deeply romantic valleys, and something like that was clearly possible.
Mania can be infectious. I asked Mona for a capsule and washed it down with red wine.
“Are you an insomniac?”, I asked her.
“No, just a manic depressive. I’ve been that way since childhood, ya.”
I tried hard to imagine such a curse on one’s childhood. I had been melancholy, but never mad. My heart went out to her. I sat next to her and hugged her, and she started to sob.
Bunty walked out for some fresh air. Later I found him studying himself in the bathroom mirror. I tried vomiting, without success. The lithium did not go well with red wine. When I came back Mona/Chitra was fast asleep. She looked sweet and innocent, a short little bell bottomed goddess curled in the foetal position.
We staggered out into the London night. Drunks glided past, and a few stars glittered meaninglessly. We wound our way towards Soho. A tired-looking harlot beckoned, and through the window of an all-night Chinese laundry clothes turned endlessly. We strolled down Charing Cross Road, passing a Trafalgar Square emptied at last of pigeons and tourists, and then walked beside the river for a while. Towards dawn we sat quietly by the Tower Bridge, looking over at the grim citadel where so many great souls were forced to part with their heads. The West was a desolate place, and I wondered once more what I was doing there. It occurred to me that I had spent much of my life walking or sitting by rivers.
After several hours of silent contemplation, we walked back along a turgid Thames to Victoria Station, where we recovered our stuff from an aptly named left luggage locker. Then we caught the first train to Ian’s home at Harrow-on-the-Hill.
Ian’s father painted for a living, and his paintings were all over the house, even in the toilet. He painted giant, faceless figures in drab overalls, workers in some nightmarish factory town. His mother also painted, mostly still lives with wilted flowers. Despite their morbid paintings, however, the Hendersons were perfect hosts. There are few pleasures more rewarding than a quiet dinner with civilized people, followed by a sound sleep in a freshly made bed. Cultural distinctions fade away, and one understands the basic needs of all humanity. The next morning, when Mrs. Henderson handed us sandwiches for the way, I felt like kissing her dimpled cheeks.
The road to Cologne passed through Belgium. It was raining in Belgium. For the most part the road was narrow and ran straight as an arrow through dull, gabadine-colored farmland, with the occasional cyclist or truck brushing past in the rain. The Europeans sat in front, the Indians in the back. The sandwiches, wrapped in moist napkins, went quickly. The Rolling Stones provided a dreary musical accompaniment. It was altogether an uneventful journey. They dropped us right under the cathedral at Cologne, and we immediately sat down on a bench to plan our next move.
“It’s great to be back on the Continent”, said Bunty, stretching his arms. Above him, magnificent iron spires stretched out into the soggy sky.
I looked at him warily.
On the train from Cologne to Copenhagen I wondered about Mona/Chitra. We had little in common, apart from a shared experience of an Indian campus and an interest in psychopathology. I wondered what would become of her, whether I would ever meet her again, whether she would successfully battle her mania, or whether she would end up, Dolente Dolore, like Nutty. Like the thousands of other incidental acquaintances of one’s life, I did not expect to cross her path again; I expected that she would become just another face, associated with a bundle of remote and not particularly meaningful memories.
As I was sitting musing about Mona, I discovered that Bunty had vanished. Looking out, I found that the train had stopped, and a body of gray water was moving around us. People were walking back and forth beside the train. I soon discovered that the train had been loaded onto a ferry, bound for the Danish island of Lolland.
There was a cafe on board the ferry, and I found Bunty there in a haze of Gauloises, reading aloud to the deck from Camus’s L’Etranger, a triumphant look on his face. A few Danish teenagers sat gaping at him, and a waiter hovered nervously nearby. I ordered an outrageously priced coffee and a Danish pastry, known to the Danes as Viennese Bread. The sky was shapeless, a spongy gray mass that pressed upon the ocean. It was cold and starting to drizzle. Bunty continued to read aloud, absorbed in his little game. A gull sat on an adjacent table. After a while I returned to my compartment.
An hour later we passed a number of fishing boats and arrived at the Danish port of Rodby. In spite of the drizzle men in thick sweaters were sitting by the water fishing. Others were unloading the day’s catch from small boats. Gulls screamed overhead. Life seemed to be continuing as it always had, at times purposeful, more often purposeless. The train resumed its course, gathering speed, grateful to be back in its natural element. Then the Danish border police, the Rigspolitiet, came on board checking passports.
Bunty was nowhere in sight, and I wondered if he had fallen overboard. He had cultivated the habit of reading while walking – perhaps he had ventured too far on the deck? What would I tell his uncle and aunt? Before leaving London, I had phoned them.
“Take him under your wing”, his uncle had advised me. “Bunty has become very cynical. He needs to move among responsible role models, among forward-looking young men of his own generation.”
Later that day an officer of the Rigspolitiet came back.
“We haf fount a friend of yours”.
“Bunty? Where is he?”
“In Germany. In prison.” He studied my face carefully. “He fas tryink to get into Germany. No passporten, no money. But he mentioned your name.”
A few minutes later he was joined by a colleague, apparently a senior officer of some sort. The other passengers were requested to vacate the compartment. Each one eyed me disgustedly before leaving. The officers made themselves comfortable, after first making sure that the door was tightly closed.
“You’re unter arrest”, said Herr S., the senior officer, smiling brightly.
Thus it was that I was taken prisoner soon after my arrival in Denmark. It had been quite a while since I had been in a cell of any kind, and I did not look forward to it. I protested weakly, but my captors were firm. I wondered what Bunty had really been up to. Why would he return to Germany? Perhaps he had been caught smuggling. The friend of his father’s, with the big estate……it was possible that the friend was under investigation.
“How much money haf you kott? And how lonk fill you stay in Dan-mark?” enquired Herr S., his eyes small and hard.
“About a hundred pounds – we had hoped to stay a month.”
Herr S. snorted derisively.
“One hundred pounden. Hotel in Kopenhavn kost thirty pounden. For fun night. Where fill you stay?”
“With a friend of Bunty’s. A country estate outside Copenhagen.”
“Does not metter”, said his junior, Herr J.. “You plan to kom to worken in Dan-mark, yaw?”
“Yaw, yaw”, said Herr S., nodding approvingly. Apparently Herr J.’s intuitions lined up with his own.
It was useless to argue. The Rigspolitiet merely shook their heads, grinning with the imbecilic conviction of people who know they are not fooled easily. Perhaps they were given an extra bonus for catching illegal immigrants. They told me about a group of Sri Lankans who had recently been arrested in Rodby. There had been a period of incarceration followed by a hearing, and then they were deported home. I felt sorry for the Sri Lankans, knowing the circumstances which must have driven them to forsake their lush tropical homeland.
Just then I noticed Bunty’s passport, forgotten by the window sill. As symbols of national identity, passports usually unlock a world of pompous and fairly ridiculous bureaucracy. This one seemed touching and quaint, with its slightly cracked blue cardboard cover and its cheap paper imprinted proudly with the Emperor Ashoka’s Lion Emblem and Buddha’s Wheel of Law, insignia dating back to the third and fifth century B.C. respectively. The passport was full of various solemn injunctions; it requested and required in the name of the President of the Republic of India that the bearer be allowed to pass freely without let or hindrance and that he be offered every assistance and protection of which he might stand in need. I read this intriguing request and requirement aloud to my captors.
Herr J.’s plump fingers snatched the passport out of my grasp, and he spent the next few minutes studying its contents.
“Yaw, does not metter”, said Herr J., with a smile.
It was a long ride to Copenhagen. The policemen did not let me out of their sight, even waiting patiently outside the toilet for me. I found myself growing fond of them. They were quite devoted. I asked for a cup of coffee, and they brought me one. I asked for a cigarette, but they shook their heads, their plump fingers lighting up their own.
“Fifteen kroners a packet”, said Herr J. ominously. “You fill need forken many days to buy fun. And ferry bad for you.”
The Danish countryside sped by, a series of low green hills and tiny little cottages with neat hedgerows. A herd of speckled cows gazed down from a verdant hillside, uncomprehending of human tragedy, and a child waved gaily to us. The rails rattled on below.
The station at Copenhagen was very clean and bright, with flower-filled window-boxes everywhere. I was kept locked in a little room at the railway police office. Around sunset Herr J. fetched me a glass of milk. The milk was delicious, sweet and creamy. I handed the empty glass back to him, wiping my lips with my sleeve. I remembered the speckled cows and felt infinitely grateful. I spent the night huddled on a bunk, using my rucksack for a pillow. Trains came and went in the distance. The next morning my captors and I tried calling the Indian Embassy, but no one cared to answer.
I waited for the hearing. Around noon, there was a knock on the door, and Bunty arrived. He greeted me effusively. I was not particularly glad to see him.
“Awfully sorry, my dear boy. A terrible mistake. I had just finished with L’Etranger and gotten back on the train, only to find it was another train, imagine, two trains, on the same boat, and this one, believe it or not, went back to Germany! To make matters worse, it was chock full of football hooligans returning home from a match in Rodby.”
The two-train story was a little hard to swallow. I told Bunty something to that effect, and it looked like an argument was brewing.
“At least you fill haf some kompany”, said Herr S., rather jovially, leaving the cell.
Bunty grabbed him by the sleeve.
“Do not as yet leave us, I beg you – I need to call Herr Ericsson, Chief of Security for Copenhagen!”
At the mention of the name, Herr S. stiffened. Apparently Ericsson was a friend of Bunty’s father, who was now revealed as a man with vast international connections. After a call to Ericsson and much yaw-yawing, our passports were returned to us and we were set free, after profuse apologies.
Outside the station a beautiful day was in progress. The squares were filled with flowers, and the healthy-looking citizens of Copenhagen walked about in clogs with pleasant smiles on their faces. The sky was a deep northern blue, the cobblestones clattered under our feet, and it felt good to be on the road again.
Copenhagen was then a lively, modern city, with a more distinctly cosmopolitan flavour than other Scandinavian capitals, but also less picturesque, lacking the forested northern beauty of Stockholm or the rustic innocence of Oslo. In contrast to the dull and drunken Swedes and the somber Norwegians, the ham-loving Danes seemed colorful and garrulous, exulting in their guttural tongue, their speech sounding to the uninitiated rather like fishermen gargling with mouthfuls of herrings.
Copenhagen was also, as I had long suspected, the porn capital of the world. No matter where we ventured, we were accosted by naked women offering themselves, on billboards, on bus-stops, in ads for toilet paper. The Danes seemed fascinated by the sight of women shaving themselves, by naked flesh in its various shapes and sizes, by flesh-coloured penile appendages. As I strolled through Christianshavn and Kobmagergade, overtaken by lithe, long haired blondes on foot and on bicycles, and later in cafes under the shadow of church spires, watching them talking to plump cigar-smoking men in dark glasses, it was hard not to imagine they were all in the X-rated movie business.
But pornography was not really uppermost on my mind. In fact, for the first time since setting out, I felt free. After our recent ordeal it was hard not to indulge ourselves. By the time we had bought cigarettes and indulged Bunty by purchasing a Danish edition of Kierkegaard and feasting on a sumptuous smorgasbord, we were down to eighty pounds. A trip to the Langelinie Promenade to see the Little Mermaid, set us back even further. The Mermaid herself seemed innocent, a half-caste child gazing longingly towards the city, unaware of the tragedy that awaited her. Afterwards we wandered down the cobbled lanes of the university, and Bunty insisted on visiting various antique bookshops. A chess match was in progress in the square, under a bronze bust of Niels Bohr.
We watched for a while, smoking more cigarettes and drinking more beer. On the chessboard the pawns went on in their sluggish, expendable way, while the castle-shaped elephants stood in the wings, waiting for the opponent to grow weak. The knights mounted quick cavalry attacks, while each king watched idly from a safe distance. Beyond the chessboard, the sidewalk cafes seemed to care little for the world of military strategy. Everyone was listening to the Eagles belting out a song about the Hotel California. And American tourists were all around.
“Hi, baby, wanna come for a walk?”
The baby being addressed was about twenty one and very pretty. She looked up from the chess match.
“Oh, it’s you, Frankie. Sure, why not?”
The next day began on a somber note. We had spent the night wandering among rowdy beer halls in the Nyhavn district, and now, our energies spent, our throats still burning from draughts of fiery aquavit, we longed for the rest that all travellers seek. After breakfast we counted our money, and found we had just about enough left for a fun night in an inexpensive hotel. It was therefore with some trepidation that I urged Bunty to call Dr. G.. He returned from the phone booth with a perplexed look.
“It’s very odd. He doesn’t seem that keen, somehow. Anyway, he’ll meet us at the train.”
I looked once more at Bunty. Why had I followed him here? We got onto a suburban train and set out in the warm sunshine for the country estate of Tulipanhavn. The tickets left us with only a few odd pounds in our pockets. The countryside was predictably quaint and tidily pretty, and after a long and dull journey we found ourselves on the tiny platform of Tulipanhavn station. Dr. G. was there to meet us. He was a tall, rather gangly Indian in a checked suit, with a two-day old stubble on his chin and a harassed look. I toyed with the idea of returning to the train, but it was too late. Bunty was already at his side, vigorously shaking the man’s hand and introducing me with great aplomb.
“You must be very tired”, Dr. G. said, surveying our scruffy faces. He looked at us nervously. “How long are you visiting Denmark for?”
Bunty and I exchanged glances.
“We haven’t decided”, I said quickly.
His car was waiting at the station. It was a small noisy Lada with red plastic seats.
“Cars are highly expensive in Dan-mark”, said Dr. G.. “We have to make do with Russian ones.”
In all fairness, the suburb of Tulipanhavn had its own charms. It was completely self-contained – it came with a brightly painted ultra-modern supermarket, a day-care center for all those Danish working mothers, many of whom appeared to be unmarried, as well as a post office, a primary school, and a number of futuristic eggshell-shaped bus-stops. People seemed well-dressed and content. The women had blonde hair and blue eyes and wore tight clothing. They had firm bodies but dull eyes.
Dr. G.’s house was a small two-bedroomer. He had built it himself, he told us, things being highly expensive in Dan-mark. On the second day, Dr. G. sat us down on the imitation-leather sofa and offered to cut a deal with us.
“You boys can stay”, he said magnanimously. “Until your money comes in, of course.”
He lit up a cigarette, without offering us one.
“But, my dear fellows, you will have to work. Otherwise your minds will rot.”
And work we did. In the mornings we weeded and watered his little garden plot. I mastered the art of pruning rose bushes. And mowing the lawn and plucking strawberries. In a few days my hands were covered with callouses. Bunty seemed not to mind in the least. He performed his gardening chores with the intense concentration of some medieval monk conducting genetic experiments. He was even more withdrawn than before, muttering about golden lemons and repeating lines from Camus. We spoke to not a soul – the telephone never rang – as we worked diligently on in the weak northern sunlight.
In the afternoons we had a brief respite. We listened to Radio Luxembourg for an hour and smoked the one and only cigarette we had for the day. Then we took our showers, making sure afterwards to polish and dry every single tile in the bathroom. Dr. G. usually inspected the day’s work as soon as he came home. If there were traces of anything on the tiles, soap scum, mildew, loose hairs or whatever, we had to start all over again.
“The idle mind”, said Dr. G., wagging his finger at us, “is the devil’s workshop.”
In the evenings, after cooking his dinner, we made tea for him. He had very strict instructions about this. It was to be prepared in the North Indian style, Brooke Bond Red Label tea leaves cooked with milk and sugar. Tea was to be served to him in a specially glazed Royal Porcelain cup. Under no circumstances were we to substitute another cup, nor were we to rinse the cup with a detergent of any kind. He pointed to a rich layer of ochre-coloured sediment along the inside surface.
“I like the taste”, he said with an odd laugh. “It grows on you.”
The evening tea ritual must have been the high point of his life. He had recently been divorced from his Danish wife, and given his circumscribed social world he must have been lonely. It may not have been that bad for him to come home to a favorite cup of tea, with two able young men completely at his beck and call.
It was a difficult period in my life. Dr. G. was a most unworthy host. Unfortunately I had not enough money to return. I had wired my bank in England for more, and they in turn were waiting for a monthly check from home. Until that arrived, I had nowhere to go.
Bunty, on the other hand, had a few weeks to kill before leaving Europe for good. I suppose he could have departed earlier, but he may not have cared to do so – returning home meant a further loss of freedom for him, since he would then be finally at the mercy of his parents – which meant that he would end up sitting up on the terrace of his parents’ house in New Delhi, drinking Chivas, and watching the dust come in over the city.
Oddly enough, Bunty didn’t seem that unhappy in his Copenhagen estate: he went on with his chores, seemingly at peace with himself. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him – here was a man who was completely and utterly divorced from his roots. Unsure of his place in the modern world, he had turned his lonely life into an elaborate farce. I wished something would turn up to give his life meaning – a love affair, an awakening to the sheer joy, however ephemeral, of being alive. But he seemed set in his ways, content with other people’s discoveries, in his case the visions of Camus and company. He talked now and then about a novel, but I never saw him write a word.
I did not so much mind my transformation to the status of an ordinary household servant – for my foolhardy adventurousness I certainly deserved a fate like that. It simply reinforced the intermittent feeling of ridiculousness that seemed to characterize my life in those days. But it was the brief period of promotion to Dr. G.’s companion and confidante every evening which I resented. He came in every evening looking worn out and irritable, eager for his cup of tea. After a noisy susurrus of a sip, he would begin by telling us his favorite stories. There were really only two of them. Both of them ended with a bang.
One had to do with him hunting in the Tehri Garhwal hills of northern India. Once, in the evening twilight, he saw a spectacular sambhar standing on a clifftop, silhouetted against the sunset. He painfully climbed the cliff, continuing to climb while darkness fell. Eventually he reached the top, to find the deer still standing there. Looking him straight in the eye, it advanced towards him. He had never seen such an expression in an animal’s face. The first shot missed. The second shot caught the buck in between the eyes, and it went crashing down into the forest. He tried in vain to find the body. It was the finest sambhar he had ever hunted.
The other story was closer to home. In daily life Dr. G. was, despite his highly frugal existence, the Chief Engineer of the Copenhagen Electric Company. He told us how one of his men had gone down to the power unit one day to deal with a circuit fault. The worker forgot to put on the warning light indicating that he was in there, and just as he was touching a 40,000 volt line, someone threw the switch.
Dr. G. pointed to the wall, his hand lightly tracing the surface.
“Five fingers”, he said, “that’s all that was left of Svensen”.
“You mean his fingers themselves were not burnt – everything else was?”, Bunty asked, feigning interest.
“No”, said Dr. G., shaking his head, shuddering afresh at the terrible memory of the accident. “Only five finger marks. Just like this.”
He dipped his fingers in the ash tray and ran them lightly against the wall, leaving the smudges there for an instant before carefully wiping them off with a napkin. It was interesting to think of this primitive handprint, not on some cave wall but in the heart of a modern power station.
Each evening, we heard the tale of Svensen. Dr. G. was clearly obsessed. I began to wonder if he had not some more critical role in the event – perhaps he had been the one who had flipped the switch? But by the end of our stay the repetitions had taken their toll. We found ourselves caring little for Svensen and his fiery fate; it was now of no more consequence than the fate of a lighted cigarette.
Midway through our stay, Dr. G. invited a friend over for dinner. A fellow Indian, naturally; a Mr. Mehta, an engineer who had arrived with him years earlier. Mr. Mehta arrived with his Danish wife, who sported a smart crew-cut. Mr. Mehta was dressed in a velvet jacket and smoked a pipe and spoke with a thick Danish accent. He hated Dan-mark, yet he had spent twenty-five years there and had married a Danish woman. And from the looks of it, his wife was not particularly fond of India.
“I went there once”, she told me. “It was disgustingly dirty. But I loved the temples. And those sculptures at Khajuraho!”
She rolled her eyes in mock admiration, as if to acknowledge the impossibility of ever rivaling the sexual feats of those figures frozen in stone.
“But Dan-mark is not for young men like you.”, Mehta told us, smiling. “Not even Eng-land. After your studies you should go to Amerika.”
He pronounced the word as if it was some magical incantation. I had a sudden vision of myself on board a ship for the fabled Amerika, standing on deck looking out for a new land, determined to find my fortune. It seemed quite amusing at the time. Like Bunty and his password, our visitor was assuming a shared world, in which everyone was after the same thing. In fact, a few years later I would be standing on the windy coast of Maine looking out over the sea to Europe. I would travel up and down North America, admiring from a safe distance the madcap culture of the New World.
One Friday, near the end of our stay, Dr. G. arrived home very early, around noon.
“Get dressed”, he told us brusquely. “We’re going out.”
I shrugged, and put on my sneakers. A prisoner does not really care where he is being taken, unless there is the possibility of escape; the prospect of a drive to the ultra-modern supermarket was utterly unexciting. But it soon became clear that we were heading in a different direction. Towards Copenhagen. In fact, to the Tivoli Gardens.
The Tivoli Gardens of Copenhagen are more than an amusement park. They possess a certain youthful innocence, appropriate for a place where the leisured fairs of the old world first met the monstrous mechanical wizardry of the new. In spite of an instinctive distrust for contrived pleasures, I found myself attracted to something there. It wasn’t the rattle and clang of the big rides, nor the quiet marksmanship of rifles and rings and hoops. Nor was it the sight of distorting mirrors or of townfolk pathetically disguised in period costumes, nor the whistles of tiny trains that chugged along past cleverly conceived scenery, nor the bombastic marching bands accompanying endless processions of exhausted toy soldiers; nor was it the sticky sweetness of candy floss or the foaming tankards in singalong taverns, nor even the fountains and pagodas and fairy palaces and fireworks that lit up the stage and sky. It was something else, something closer to the heart of human experience, a sensation of lightheaded satiety which can only be experienced if you lie on a slope under a pine tree and hear the wind and watch the long lines of people shuffling towards the attractions, the children riding high on strong shoulders, the women with bright lipstick glowing with ice cream, the couples and families and solitary visitors shuffling on like refugees towards a horizon filled with the turning of giant wheels.
It was at the Tivoli Gardens that we discovered Dr. G.’s secret: he was in love. A beautiful middle-aged woman with green eyes, very shy and sweet, at the same time rather elegant, much as I imagined Lee Remick to be. Her name was Katerina. We left them holding hands in the candlelight. The next day we found him changed. Flushed with his prize, he began to overflow with kindness. But we could not avail of this new hospitality. Bunty’s flight to Asia was getting ready in Amsterdam. There was no sign of my bank draft, and so, the next night, Bunty managed to coax a reuctant loan out of him, and we at last packed our things and set off after a firm farewell.
Before leaving Denmark we stopped once more at the Tivoli Gardens. It started to rain soon after we got there. A girl came by with a flyer, her hair and T-shirt completely drenched. She was young, sixteen, maybe seventeen, and beautiful, her moist hair the colour of fresh corn, her eyes a deep piercing blue, innocence written all over her dripping face. She held a soggy newspaper over her head, and said her name was Debra and that she was from L.A.., and that she was a child of God.
There was nothing we could do but follow her, our hearts beating faster at every step. She took us down to a little house by a canal in Christianshavn, and there we met the other children.
The Children of God began with the Twenty Third Psalm. They were assembled in a little sitting-room with a bustling fireplace and an atmosphere of feverish sexuality. The Lord is my shepherd, they chanted, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. I was at a loss for words, so Debra snuggled up and shared her book with me, her child’s finger innocently pointing out the text. I looked into her trusting eyes as her tender lips uttered words which were at once simple and powerful.
“I will be your shepherd”, Bunty whispered to Debra around midnight. They disappeared into another room, and I was left to recite the Lord’s Prayer with a group of elderly and apparently neurotic Danish men. When we left an hour later I didn’t bother to ask Bunty what happened, but I noticed Debra bidding him a neutral, unsentimental farewell.
Amsterdam was another world, of quiet water and sleek shadows. We walked by the canals and stood on bridges eating bread and cheese. Boats with waving tourists bobbed gently by like bathtub toys. We sat and smoked in shady corners where the light fell obliquely on the houses of the old Dutch burghers. In the dappled light these rather stolid buildings, reflected in the gently lapping water, assumed graceful, fluid proportions, creating the illusion of a marvelous, parallel world.
Later, we dropped in on the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum, and then walked into the Dam Square. It was an international bazaar. Nigerian pushers tried to sell us dope, and there we met Anurag, a friend of Bunty’s from Delhi who had turned smuggler. He was living with a German woman junkie in the Hague, and had come down to Amsterdam to supplement his income.
“I’ll show you around the dives, man”, said Anurag.
But we were both tired of this kind of talk, and bade Anurag farewell.
Instead we wandered into the red light district, admiring the poise of young Indonesian whores seated quietly by telephones in shop windows. Their colleagues called out to us, inviting us in. I met an American art student who claimed to be supporting herself by playing part-time hooker. Or perhaps she was an American hooker claiming to be an art student. It didn’t really matter.
Eventually I saw Bunty off at the station, bound for Schiphol Airport. The whistle blew, and he climbed up, dragging his suitcase with him.
“Dolente dolore”, he whispered softly.
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The Night People of Old Delhi
by I. M. Shankar (1954-86)
[I fished this out of my old traveling companion’s papers. Contact me for more details on this amazing writer and dear friend who left us far too early.]
When you visit Gaston’s you should come by way of Chandini Chowk, the street of jewellers and silversmiths, once reportedly the richest street in the world.
By day Chandini Chowk is one immense, heaving juggernaut of humanity. Men struggle with pushcarts, hauling reams of paper and newsprint to Nayi Sarak, the stationery bazaar; others go mysteriously by, weighed down with blocks of salted ice or balancing caged birds on beams. Among the pavement vendors you can find boys in skull-caps peddling Victorian porn, alongside clutches of chickens and goats being readied for the butcher’s knife. Holy men linger near the fruit juice stalls, jewelers and sweet merchants play cards, panhandlers and pickpockets study their prospective patrons, and men surrounded by swarms of dizzy flies scratch themselves or pray as taxis and rickshaws desperately honk their way through the narrow street.
Meanwhile Gaston’s, at the west end of Chandini Chowk, is just another quiet Old Delhi street, not unduly crowded, its few stores calmly dispensing merchandise, with a couple of pavement dwellers huddled beside their belongings and a few tired men yawning and stretching themselves. Brothels tend to wake up late, and by day they are ordinary places, busy with the chores of cooking, cleaning, and preparing bodies and souls for the night.
The calm of evening, around half-past six or so, is a suitable time to set out. Chandini Chowk has quietened down, the hubbub of the day is over; the fragrance of fried parathas lingers in the air, tinged with auto exhaust. The crowds still hang about, but people are more relaxed; a man carries a bird with a broken wing to the Jain Bird Hospital, and an old mullah gazes reverently at the inscriptions in front of the house of Ghalib, the city’s illustrious poet. The Sikhs are in full form as they emerge from the Sisganj Sikh Temple, adjusting their turbans and searching thoughtfully for their shoes and slippers.
A little thoughtfulness is not out of place here, for Chandini Chowk is a street rich in memories. Sisganj was erected on the very spot where the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. Further down you pass a forlorn police station marking the site where British residents exchanged pleasantries while watching the mutineers of 1857 being hanged. Near Jama Masjid, the magnificent Friday Mosque, lies a warren of smaller streets where the sinister Nadir Shah, invading from Persia, bared his sword and announced the beginning of a massacre, eliminating nearly a hundred thousand men, women, and children in a single afternoon.
Gaston’s is best visited on a full stomach. For dinner, I would recommend Kareem’s or Jawahar’s, the most succulent of Old Delhi’s meat houses. They’re both around the corner from Jama Masjid, and you can feel the presence of the mosque close by, of crowds entering and emerging. A plate of well-skewered shish kebabs laden with spices and herbs followed by a piping hot murgh masala, and you’re ready for action. After dinner there are several other distractions possible, a tobacco- and cement-laden pan from a storekeeper sitting in a tiny store surrounded by mirrors, or a soothing cup of hot buffalo milk served in a small clay pot which is simply dropped to the ground when empty.
Of course, dropping something does not mean that it ends there. The street is littered with shards of glistening pottery, lying there in the dust like relics from some long-lost civilization. A horde of other creatures rush to lap up what’s left – ants, a few aggressive cockroaches and beetles, stray dogs and even a bandicoot or two hurry past your feet to scavenge those last few drops. And there are other creatures too, eyes which watch you hopefully, legs which hurry beside you. “Paisa sahib, ek paisa sahib!” – a little beggar boy or girl or perhaps even a blind woman may accost you as you stroll away.
A breeze comes in, lifting your spirits. As you walk on there will be faces you recognize, film stars gazing down from the billboards, as well as foreign residents like Vera the Czech junkie standing there resplendent in blue eye-shadow and velvet jeans, looking desperately for a fix, or Tom, a blind, blond American stumbling by with his stick on his nightly excursion from his semi-permanent room at the tiny Hotel Metropole. But tonight there’s no time to stop for chitchat. After a brisk walk, you arrive at Ajmeri Gate, the southwestern gate of the old city. Right next to it a rather desolate street beckons. Inscribed on a slogan-scarred yellow wall, beside a faded family planning billboard, is its new Hindu name, Shraddhanand Marg, a street named in honor of a Hindu saint. You have reached Gaston’s, formerly Sir Garstin Bastian Road, known to high and low as GeeBee Road.
At this point there is a further transformation in the surroundings. The sewers become invisible, releasing only a faint odor, stray dogs turn into pairs of glistening eyes, and people walk by possessed by night thoughts. The road seems to reel with its load of ancient houses with tiny staircases, above which you hear a mysterious jingling. In the lamplight the houses look dilapidated, with those ubiquitous walls of crumbling cream which characterize eighteenth and nineteenth-century dwellings in the heart of every Indian city. But there are crowds gathering at the foot of those steep staircases, and in the verandahs above girls with flowers in their hair lean out into the night, calling, giggling, suggesting the prospect of a happily transplanted houri heaven.
Although Gaston’s is of Victorian vintage, Chandini Chowk itself goes back to the reign of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj. Poets and prostitutes have plied their trade in this quarter for a good four hundred years. These days, however, things are somewhat more tense than before, owing to terrorist violence and police raids. You need to keep cool, but don’t whistle in the dark – pimps will be watching you from every corner, some huddled together sniggering or smoking dope, others catching your eye with a jaded, vacant look. You will also see a few look-alike blue-jeaned foreign tourists, chattering and pointing with vicarious pleasure.
You pass swiftly by these tourists and touts and stride up the staircase towards the source of all the excitement and commotion. A door opens onto a brightly lit room with walls of faded green plaster, and then you are suddenly surrounded by cocktail chatter. There are crowds of bright faces around, groups of bell-bottomed youths with Elvis hairdos, as well as several heavy-duty bouncers. People greet each other fondly, smiling at the colleague from work who sits calmly sipping tea with the ladies. They have the jaunty confidence of those who know they are here just for a visit, and that when the night is over they will be back in the world outside. There’s Himmat Singh, clutching a beer-bottle; he’s grumbling as usual about his day as a clerk in the Home Ministry. And there’s Sanjay Sharan, inhaling deep from his joint after a long day at Lintas, the ad agency. Also present are visitors from the Delhi University Student’s Union, along with a number of B. Com. degree aspirants from Dyal Singh College, young men so hard up that a mere look from a girl on the University Special bus will be enough to send them scurrying to their hostel rooms to play with themselves.
The girls enter one by one, with a slight flourish. There is a moment of silence followed by clapping and appreciative comments as each freshly made up young woman demurely takes her place. A woman’s eyes meet yours briefly – perhaps it is Razia, or Helen, or even Mumtaz herself! The musicians nod their heads and slowly begin their work. The rhythms pick up pace, and then an older woman smiles and starts to sing, in the ululating voice affected by playback singers. The dancers are gentle, inviting sympathy; hennaed feet patter away and then advance with a jingle, limber bodies clad in thin saris move smoothly in circular patterns across the floor. Their faces are ghostly, densely powdered; their breasts usually small under tight-fitting blouses; their waists are bare, the sari worn low, riding right above the pubis. The girls come together, then drift apart, patterns form, then disperse, fingers reach out in supplication, and then withdraw. The music casts a spell upon the senses, inviting the soul towards liberation; the sitar speaks of loneliness and delicacy; variations follow, each more insistent, gently provocative. Heard melodies are sweet, unheard ones even sweeter. You are aroused, joyfully awakened into a region of sweetness and light. The ego is to be discarded, the beautiful is present right here, must be surrendered to, ecstasy is possible, even in sordid settings.
Once you leave the dancing girls you are among the boudoirs, little windowless cubicles furnished modestly with a bed, a small dressing table or mirror, and a pitcher of cool water. Beyond lie the living quarters, a jumble of rooms and annexes filled with unseen voices. The verandah looks out into a courtyard; from the building opposite the kohl-rimmed eyes of children peer through dimly lit window slats at the visitor. Down below, old women are squatting in the dust, intermittently conversing or fanning charcoal fires. There are several stores on the premises, a tea-shop, a panwallah, and a man selling polyester fabrics under a tube-light, all of them fairly busy with customers. You can hear a buzzing from the crowd at the foot of the staircase; it is as if you have wandered into some nightly feast or celebration. From upstairs, the building seems to lean dangerously to one side, suggesting the possibility of being permanently trapped inside an overcrowded ark.
The protocols involved in visiting Gaston’s houses are simple. In the entertainment phase Anuradha in her purple salwar kameez will bat her eyelids, make as if to perch on your lap; Rehana, short-haired and gamine with enormous gold earrings, will stroke your cheek softly and whirl away; and the resplendently bangled and bejeweled Helen will stare at you with languid eyes, stylishly blowing clouds of smoke into your face. You move away coughing, wondering how much longer the farce will go on; but there are others who get their kicks from this sort of thing. In the audience you can find men unused to social intercourse with women, whose interactions with the opposite sex may have been limited to quiet discourse with female relatives. Any brazenness in a woman tends to overexcite these young men, and they soon find themselves exploring uncharted waters, reaching out for jeweled fingers, feeling their way awkwardly, like hesitant ballroom dancers, towards a dupatta or waist. The girl spins away, laughing a cold and mocking laugh. But soon, money is offered, and depending on the girl and the customer’s appearance, an offer might be clinched on the spot. Under the harsh scrutiny of pimps, there is rarely much bargaining.
After the payment is made – which the girl immediately pockets, tucking it into her bodice or waistband – she takes the man’s hand and leads him away; the victim follows, rather sheepishly. Watching her colleague disappear with a well-heeled young man, a girl who has been rejected in the selection process may pout a little, as if slighted, and make a few scatological comments; but soon she too has her turn and whisks away some other lad. All evening they come and go, these couples, paired smoothly together in the dancing rooms, and then wandering off to bed with the foolish fondling gestures of honeymooners.
The women come from all over, drawn from the poor across India. There are those who have been kidnapped, sold by their parents, bartered by their husbands; there are runaways and street children. Some are born to it, suckled here at Gaston’s and then groomed by their own mothers for the profession. Their education starts early – the little ones begin dance lessons almost as soon as they can walk, learning the languid, salaaming style of the dancers of the courts. By the age of seven or eight the most promising ones have already been singled out by the music tutor for voice training, and by the onset of puberty they will have begun earning their keep.
However, in some of the cheaper brothels all the training in classical arts goes to waste: the younger, poorer clientele come in clamoring for disco tunes and topless belly dancing, and the classically trained dancer may end up groveling grotesquely on the floor beside an empty bottle of Vat 69, with their younger sisters emulating them with rambunctious little twists of their hips. These el cheapo joints are easily identified, for their most common musical emanations are familiar songs from the Bombay film Pakeezah, a monumental tear-jerker about the life of a courtesan, memorable for its flowery Urdu dialog and a richly orchestrated repertoire of film songs and lamentations, the most popular of which, “Inhee Logon Ne” has become something of an anthem for prostitutes throughout India.
Like the world outside, the brothel life can be quite orderly, even monotonous. There are arguments now and then, and a pimp may occasionally thrash one of his whores; but there is little desire to break free, to change one’s destiny or to exert any influence over the world outside; there are no violent possibilities for bloodshed and escape. There is instead a sense of tremendous lethargy and inertia, a fatalism rooted in historical experience. There is a sense that the brothel is the real world, from which there is no escape in this lifetime. The activities of the household, the rituals of life in the old city – these are the things which seem important, rather than professional or material success. The brothel lives remind one of the lives of the aged, each day filled with exactly the same events as the one previous, quiet lives led in the shadows.
What fantasies pour through the minds of customer and whore as they copulate restlessly in those dimly lit boudoirs? In a land where sexual needs are usually denied and the very existence of the body challenged, the body’s secrets become precious indeed. In their act of coming together the woman’s body remains essentially mysterious, sheltering secret crevices and inviolate altars; the man’s, more palpable, is still sensed through some distant pre-conscious haze. Between the male’s grunting and heaving and the female’s listless waiting lies a gulf that is bridged only in the deepest unconscious.
Mumtaz was from Hyderabad. When she was eight her father died, after which she was taken away by an uncle, who kept her as a slave and sleeping partner. Thrashed regularly, she ran away at ten to the railway station and traveled ticketless to Delhi, clutching a piece of paper with the address of an aunt in Old Delhi. As luck would have it, the old lady lived in Gaston’s, and couldn’t believe her good fortune, for Mumtaz was already an extraordinary beauty. After her education she was reserved for the most favored customers, taking on no more than three or four a night.
She was very sensitive and gentle, a woman who breathed softly, helping me into position, and when afterwards under the dim electric bulb I would kiss her fervently on the neck, she would laugh, as if she understood me perfectly. Her body was perfumed with delicate scents, her skin laved with special unguents; her breath smelt of cinnamon, betel-nut and cloves, and her skin was soft, maternal, milk-like. Her presence in a room caused people to become quiet, almost embarrassed by her beauty, not sure where to look. Her eyes, heavily ringed with kohl and powder, seemed to glisten with a kind of hurt silence. If she had fallen into the hands of the right people, she could have become a film star, the heart-throb of millions, but she was quite content with her lot, singing her songs in a sad child’s falsetto.
Plastered against a woman’s flesh, pressed close by gentle fingers, the men of this dusty city become softer, almost childlike. But once outside, satiated but perhaps not fully satisfied, they return to their vulgar selves. When you emerge, there are men who come up to you and earnestly inquire how it has gone. “Kaisi Bhaiti?” – “How did she sit?” – is a frequently asked question, suggesting that the entire event is merely a matter of posture and fitting, reducible to details of mechanical adjustment. Some come out drenched in obscenities, laughing nervously and gathering their fingers in a circle, apparently hoping with this mystical sign to win recognition and approval. There are those who exit in something of a narcissistic trance, humming love songs, combing their hair, seeing themselves as irresistible Don Juans. Others, particularly the more bombastic university youth, come out bragging, or complaining ridiculously about having to wear condoms or about breasts not being bared on demand. You can see men staggering out struggling with guilt at various levels, married men with loyal wives and hungry mouths to feed, and first-timers from good families who worry about not having taken enough precautions, who, tormented by hypochondria and post-coital depression, head out as soon as possible to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
The night walk back afterwards can be rather stimulating. I still recall the sight of a fat businessman and his whore laughing innocently as they traveled down Chandini Chowk at 2 a.m. in the back of a cycle rickshaw. These are the lucky ones, girls who get taken out for a night on the town, occasionally even to some party among the nouveau riche in South Delhi. There are a few other stragglers, men returning from their haunts and the late night movie shows, a few pushers beckoning from the shadows, a couple of drunken youths walking home smoking beedis and bellowing film songs. People stop to refresh themselves at an all-night pan shop, or at the odd tea stall where you can buy buns filled with hot butter. A watchman stands guard outside the Jhaveri Jewelery Co., and in the Jama Masjid nearby a few night people are getting ready to sleep. Others are managing outside on the pavement, settling into cardboard boxes or inside giant tubes. The breeze comes in on nights like these, carrying the scent of the honeysuckle extravagantly named Queen of the Night, a smell which reminds one of the mysterious scents of a woman’s hair and skin, overlaid with the baby scent of Lakme Talc; a fragrance which mingles with the odor of horse dung and the earlier noted traces of auto exhaust and fried food that have accumulated during the day.
The sitar’s chords cut the night
Strange music from the minarets
The sad sleep in their hovels
A whore-filled rickshaw sways homeward.
White curds, broken
On the pavement, piss and pan
A few bones outside Kareem’s
Meat House, a broken bottle
A strong dog scurries away.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
MEN AND WOMEN OF MYSORE
by Inderjeet Mani
We arrived at the State Bus Stop in Mysore around eleven in the morning. It was rather a pleasant place, with travelers spread out everywhere waiting patiently on steel trunks or lolling about on rolls of bedding. Well-oiled men lounged about, carrying plastic handbag-like briefcases, smoking, spitting pan, or simply resting near sacks of flour. A family was seated in a circle, consuming a modest meal out of a tiffin box. Porters scurried back and forth, climbing up the buses like limber monkeys. A few monkeys were also present, gathered in small groups, chewing half-heartedly on discarded orange peels.
Rao was in a hurry. I followed him quickly, passing the imposing yellow walls of a public toilet and then a series of ancient buildings propped up on slender columns. I could smell fresh ground coffee. In the passageways well-built men in turbans sat sipping coffee and reading newspapers and picking their noses. Each wore shiny black shoes, without socks, and sported a stylish umbrella or cane. These men were probably officials, shopkeepers, men of property, taking time away from the heavy responsibilities of office. Despite their senior positions, their faces looked innocent and peaceful as they savored the sublime pleasures of morning papers and chicory-rich coffee.
The sockless men were followed by rows of neatly dressed young fellows banging away at ancient typewriters. These were professional letter writers, and their customers stood respectfully nearby. Some had apparently come without drafts of any kind. The typists listened carefully to each person’s problem, and then after a moment’s deliberation quickly drafted whatever seemed appropriate, refusing to entertain objections or suggestions.
Mysore, once an ancient capital, retains the charm of a small town. It is just small enough for the sense of imminent chaos not to matter.
Elsewhere the twentieth century creates a great heaving in the cities and towns of modern India. On the roads buses belching black smoke swerve into your path, with young men in bell-bottoms dangling on the footboard. In the midst of all the commotion, lighter vehicles such as cycles and overloaded scooters suddenly tumble to the ground. Animals appear unexpectedly, cows and dogs as well as drunken autorickshaw drivers honking like maddened geese. The pavements overflow with the homeless, refugees from the hunger of the countryside. Slums appear at the slightest provocation, and gutters glisten with mysterious refuse. In the homes of citizens there are water shortages and power outages. In the banks and government offices unruly crowds lunge towards the counters while dangerous-looking clerks dawdle over mountains of files. Life expectancy remains low, and things continue in a state of happy chaos; you sense the imminent breakdown of transportation and communications systems. Nevertheless, the residents seem to retain a marvelous grip on their sanity, apparently oblivious to the chaos swirling about them. When they are done with their day’s work they head cheerfully home and watch their ancient epic the Mahabharata on TV.
Mysore, by contrast, retains the peacefulness of an earlier era, a small, neat town, replete with broad avenues, fountains and parks. The streets are clean, and quiet except during rush hour. Water and electricity are plentiful, coming across irrigated fields from the Krishnarajasagar Dam. There is not much commercial construction except on industrial estates outside the city, and residences tend to be old and unassuming. In spite of the heat you are not called upon to smell your neighbor’s sweat. It is a city of rose gardens and flower shows. The Maharaja is said to be very keen on flowers. He has two palaces in Mysore. There is a national research center for the study of nutrition, and a very fine university library. It was also the home of the writer R. K. Narayan. And the local udipi restaurants are famed throughout the land.
The eating houses of Mysore are serious places. You enter to find a large dining hall with rows and rows of long tables crammed together. Except for the occasional clatter of a plate, silence is the golden rule. There is no lounging about, you are expected to take the nearest seat and get down to business.
Within seconds, your place setting arrives; it consists simply of an empty stainless steel thali onto which a passing waiter liberally squirts water. Soon after that a little fellow comes by with an apparatus consisting of a glistening stainless steel stand with four vessels. He briskly plucks out several fluffy white idlis, each quickly anointed with a tiny dollop of ghee and then sitting steaming quietly on the plate beside a patch of aromatic coconut chutney; surrounding the idlis are a circle of steel bowls containing the watery southern soup sambhar, several overcooked vegetables and a fiery pickle or two. A few minutes into the meal, reinforcements appear, in the form of gigantic stuffed paper masala dosais, the texture crisp, golden-brown, filled with a meal of crackling lightly fried potatoes, green chillies, and spices. Later another youth downloads a few more dishes from his four-container stand, a slightly different bubbling sambhar, a little vegetable curry, some coconut and mint chutney, a dash of chilli powder and oil, a “sweetmeat”, and so forth, all of which take their place on the plate like actors on the stage, and then are seen no more. Within a few minutes someone else arrives, with another variety of stuffed pancakes called oothappams, and the ritual is repeated. Following that someone drops by with a small rice bucket, and a new course begins.
It is a moderately-priced, all you can really eat affair. The waiters do not bother to talk – they simply plunk food down on your plate. There are no wasted words, none of the cunning prevaricating grace of French waiters. There is also no possibility of refusing any of the food. If you wave away an offering the waiter will be greatly offended, and your neighbor might inquire whether you are feeling unwell. You are forced to make room for more on your plate, and this requires eating almost continuously. There are no dishes to pass politely around, and as everyone else is busy eating, there is no conversation whatsoever, except for grunts of acquiescence as more food appears.
As you struggle on, the initial arousal of flavorful food gives way to a sense of weary, flaccid determination. You feel as if you are in the belly of some large factory. Despite the silence the room is filled with a buzz of intense activity, an uproar of culinary excess, and close to your ears you hear the labored breathing and belching of men who go out to battle. Here eating has become elemental, animalistic, returning to its origins as a complex bodily function, an animal need associated with the simple delights of satiation and relief. You become aware of the rapid patterns of chewing and swallowing, of sucking and slurping. Most of the eating is done with the fingers, and there are numerous displays of skill involving the tossing of rice balls into open mouths or the slurping or squirting of large quantities of semi-liquid food from a flattened palm. A meal of this kind could take up to three hours, ending only when the eater rises wearily to his feet and struggles to the washroom. After a vigorous gargle and tooth-scrub and a few sharp eructations, he staggers out in a daze into the street.
After a lunch along the lines described above, a puttering auto rickshaw bore us unerringly to the Bishnapur section of town, driving us over an unpaved street into a courtyard with a white gate and a few run-down houses, each graced by an intricate kolam drawing by the gate. As we got down, two little boys armed with sticks ran past, chasing after a puppy. A swarthy middle-aged man with a half-tucked shirt and crumpled trousers came running out of one of the houses.
“This is my brother Bala”, said Rao, an arm around the man’s shoulder. “Bala’s the topper in our family – one of Mysore’s outstanding criminal lawyers”.
Bala, who was his cousin and not his brother, grinned good-naturedly.
“My brother likes to exaggerate. I was admitted to the Mysore Bar a while back, but no gainful employment so far. But hey, welcome to Mysore, boss!”
As he shook my hand, he gave me a quick conspiratorial wink. After a few minutes’ polite chitchat, we were ushered into the house. It was clean and dark inside, with two small rooms, one of which served as a kitchen and social area, the other being a store-room which doubled as a bedroom. I followed the cousins up onto the roof. In the corner, between the water-tank and the toilet, I found a small hot room with a verandah overlooking the courtyard. A tall, nervous man rose up from the bed, his hair unkempt.
“This is my brother Chandra”, said the attorney. “He is running one printing business.”
“Not much business, I say”, said the printer apologetically, running his hand through his hair. “Only a few hours in the morning.”
He pointed to an outhouse in the courtyard, indicating his printing press. He shuddered as he spoke. I wondered what sort of illness he had.
Beedis were lit, and I took the opportunity to stroll out across the roof. A sea of other houses stretched before me, and in the one next door a young woman in a pink blouse and petticoat was hanging up her washing. She was facing me, her eyes averted, a clothespin between her lips, her supple body stretching towards the clothesline. Her face was shy but beautiful. Sensing my stare, she hurried away, her chores unfinished.
Back in the verandah Rao and his cousins were discussing career prospects. To put it bluntly, given the Indian situation it didn’t seem like the cousins had any. Nevertheless, they seemed to be managing, discharging the days of their lives with a cheerful spirit. Bala seemed an intelligent and articulate sort, a careful reader of books and newspapers. I wondered why Rao didn’t follow local custom and make his cousins vice presidents of his company.
Rao was in the statue business. He operated out of a rather plush office in Bangalore, with wood paneled walls, cut glass ash-trays, gold lighters, leather sofas, an ivory chess set, and a shining liquor cabinet well-stocked with Glenfiddich and Johnny Walker. His office had the kind of glitzy decor popular among smugglers and people in business for the first time, but it drew a lot of customers. They came to him because they wanted gods and goddesses.
“A deity with special powers”, he had explained, “from a particular temple. A businessman in Bombay wants the Goddess Meenakshi from the Madurai temple. Or even someone in Beverly Hills desperate for a Lord Venkateswara from Tirupathi. That’s where I come in. They need it – and I supply it. Replicas, of course, but created by artisans who are the last of a dying tradition.”
He had shown me a glossy catalog with gods of different shapes and size, quaint, homely characters like Ganesha or Saraswati, as well as malevolent, bloodthirsty Durgas, each durably-constructed but at the same time rather plain, shorn of their power. Then he had opened another cabinet, and there, sitting in shining splendor, next to a bottle of Glenfiddich, was a short goddess from the Sun Temple at Konarak. He stroked her shoulders thoughtfully.
An errand-boy appeared out of the blue, to be promptly sent off to fetch a few savories. He returned with paper cones filled with peanuts and the crunchy roasted lentils known as black gram. The paper in the cones had been recycled from school exercise books, and as I munched on the gram I was reminded of the recycled fate of Uncle Ramanna’s books. I sat there sweating, intermittently crunching the black gram and examining fragments of chemical formulae..A few flies buzzed busily about. Across the courtyard nothing was happening. The printing shed stood idle. Then a stray dog came and urinated against the white gate, dissolving the intricate kolam drawing. After a while the dog ambled off, following the trail of another mongrel, leaving the courtyard empty once again. A courtyard empty and desolate, and yet somehow waiting, sure of its place in the scheme of things.
“Guru, things are pretty quiet at this time of the year”, said Bala, apparently reading my mind.
He was leaning over the parapet, watching the young woman in the pink blouse and petticoat, who was now drawing water from a well. Her movements were slow and languid, as if she had all the time in the world.
“You must come during Dussehra”, Bala continued, offering me a Ganesh Beedi. “The Maharaja leads the procession in a golden howdah. Silver coaches, horses, camels, wrestlers, palanquins, quite a bit of local color…And then there’s the Palace – have you seen the Palace, boss?“
I had seen the palace. I had come to Mysore a few years earlier and stayed at the summer palace at Chamundi Hill, which had been converted into a five-star hotel. Afterwards I paid a visit to the game sanctuary at Bandipur. It was the honeymoon season and the rest-house was crowded with couples armed with video cameras. We drove into the jungle, where our jeep was charged by a wild elephant. As the driver sped back in reverse, the honeymooners giggled and took photographs. Afterwards I watched the local elephants being bathed and fed balls of baked millet. Their keeper was a tribal who had grown up in the jungle and worked as a beater for the Maharaja. He took me to a tea stall where he introduced me to his relatives. I spent a whole morning sitting there learning about the India of shikar and kheddah, while a cool jungle breeze rustled the canvas flaps.
From Bandipur I had driven to Srirangapatnam, home to the famed warrior Tipu Sultan, in whose dungeons the graffiti of imprisoned British soldiers could still be seen. Srirangapatnam sits on a small island on the Kaveri, and a few miles downstream I had come across one of the most beautiful temples on earth. The temple itself was rather modest, by 12th century standards, but at its steps, lapped at by the river, was a timeless pastoral scene. Two women with their pots and a cow sitting quietly in the shade of a peepul tree. It was very hot indeed, and the women, as well as the cow, sat perfectly still. Then, after a long while, one of the women got up and went down to the water, dipping her pot in the muddy Kaveri. As she stood there bending to dip her pot at the water’s edge, her dusty white sari lapped by the river’s slow current, she seemed like a figure returning from some ancient and mystical river culture, timeless, elemental, indescribably beautiful.
The woman in the pink blouse and petticoat had returned inside. Bala and I talked for a while about books. I asked him what he was reading these days and he showed me a soiled third-hand copy of Swann’s Way. He was having trouble with the names – he pronounced Proust to rhyme with ‘joust’ – but he was nevertheless able to venture out into the French writer’s world. He became quite animated talking about Western authors, glad to have found someone who could understand such things. Eventually, however, after a little more chitchat about this or that book, the conversation in Mysore ground to a halt, the heat grew more intense, and everyone fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours later. The cousins looked at me with a blank expression. A kind of happy but otherwise hopeless boredom seemed to be the driving force here. I was reminded of the many times I had been in a similar state, waiting in the dry dust of India for something to happen, longing for some distraction, a little something to light in the chillum, a little madness to break out of the heat. At times it seemed that to be Indian one had to learn a certain kind of patience, to sit without longing as people did under trees, at verandahs and street corners, perfectly motionless, neither watching nor thinking nor waiting, neither anxious nor elated nor blissful, the mind neither relaxed nor somnolent nor active, but simply waiting for time to pass.
Rao suggested dinner at the Hotel Royale. In my honor, he added, noticing his cousins’ polite silence. The attorney owned a decrepit Lambretta scooter, and we mounted thereon, all four of us. After whizzing through the back streets we arrived on a broad avenue filled with a parade of other scooters, each mounted by clusters of men and women with shirt tails and bell bottoms billowing in the breeze.
The only other patron at the Hotel Royale was a local businessman in dark glasses, eating noisily at a table heaped with the finest examples of Mughlai cuisine. Now and then he interrupted his labors to slug down glasses of Kingfisher beer. We sat under a wall-panel painted with mildly erotic Rajput miniatures. Rao ordered Chicken a la Kiev for Bala, and a Frenchy Fried Chicken for Chandra. The brothers seemed uncomfortable in five-star surroundings.
Rao opened four tall bottles of soapy Kingfisher Lager.
“To the Goddess Durga”, he said with a grin.
Chandra drank deep, and then looked as if he was about to faint. Rao started to talk about statues, and temple architecture. Eventually, he came to the Sun temple at Konarak. Teeming with thousands of writhing figures in every conceivable posture, throbbing with ecstatic solar energy – by the time the food arrived, our conversation had grown quite animated. I heard Rao prattle on about the orgiastic traditions at Khajuraho. I told him about a friend who was studying the art of metalwork in ancient India, in particular the manufacture of penile prostheses. The cousins smiled politely. They ate with the stealthy intensity of vegetarians on their night off. After my lunchtime exertions I had no further appetite for food and made do with beer. Chandra’s hand began to shake. Bala became very quiet, lost in his own thoughts. The sun set, and sitars began to play in the background. Stars appeared through the tinted window, and I caught a glimpse of a crescent moon gliding briefly behind a cloud.
We finished dinner and stepped out, a little unsteady on our feet. None of us was in a fit state to drive, so we left the Lambretta at the Royale. The night air was dense with honeysuckle, and palms swayed gently in the breeze. In the distance, the lights of the palace hotel at Chamundi Hill glowed softly. The streets seemed to glisten in the moonlight. Men were gathering outside the movie theaters for the late night show. The breeze came up, brushing the backs of my hands, calling, whispering, murmuring sweet nothings. Houses appeared, then a temple, then a neighborhood with low houses separated by small gullies and an open gutter. Children ran out across our path. Chandra started to walk faster. The clouds moved briskly, once more hiding the moon, and then we were in complete darkness. We walked, and walked. People passed by, some with flashlights, some greeting each other briefly, sometimes with a snicker or two. The neighborhood became cleaner, there were a few more lights, and music. Most of the residents were asleep, but here and there we saw a woman standing in a lighted doorway, her hands on her hips. Before I could utter a word in protest, the attorney put an arm on my shoulder and guided me in.
I entered a small house with an earthen floor. We sat across a rickety table with a kerosene lamp. The manager was speaking Kannada, and the attorney had to translate. A bevy of pale powdered women appeared from behind a curtain. They were not beautiful, and they looked very tired, but they had the good natured smiles of people who entertain for a living. I was given the first choice, then the attorney, and finally the printer, who seemed to be gaining new reserves of energy every minute. Rao declined them all, a scandalized look on his face. He was a deeply religious fellow, with three white horizontal streaks of burnt cowdung on his forehead, marking him out as a disciple of Shiva.
We retired to the room behind the curtain. Soft music was playing somewhere. I was introduced to Vandamma. She was very friendly, even sympathetic, with bright white teeth, a healthy guffawing laugh, a small powdered belly and a round rump. Wads of billed were tucked into the folds of her sari.
She asked me where I was from, and I lied, telling her my only living relatives had retired many years earlier to Bangalore.
“Oh, I’m from Bangalore too! Which part?”, she asked, growing interested.
“In the cantonment. Near the lake. Not far from Brigade Road.”
She laughed, showing a row of healthy white teeth.
“Near the lake”, she mimicked. “Well, we’re from the city.”
She spoke with tremendous cosmopolitan pride. I found her snobbery rather touching.
We staggered home well after midnight, the printer resuming his former ghostly demeanour. We sat up for a while quietly smoking on the roof, preoccupied with private memories, and then it grew very late, and the night birds became silent. The crescent moon seemed paler. The night sky flickered briefly, busy with activities of its own. Bala, who turned out to be rather keen on astronomy, pointed to Jupiter, and then far beyond, indicating two pale smears to the south that represented the Magellanic Clouds, seventy five thousand light years away from Mysore, and then north again towards the region of the gently winking lights of the Andromeda Nebula, a good two million light years further. Beyond, across a sea of darkness, lay numerous invisible galaxies, some long since dead, others as yet unborn.
“Quite a view, boss”, said Bala, a quiet excitement in his voice. “Many of those stars you see are no longer there.”
“Mind boggling”, I said. My voice sounded strange and isolated, up on the roof in Mysore.
He nodded quickly, and stubbed out his beedi.
“Yes, it takes you into the past, to the beginning – back to the Big Bang, in fact. Guru, you’ve heard about the work of the Nobelists Penzias and Wilson?”
Seeing our puzzled faces, he launched into a quick overview of Big Bang Theory.
From his account of it, the nuts and bolts of Big Bang theory seemed fairly straightforward. Once upon a time there was this cosmic egg, very dense, extremely hot. Nothing before that, period. And then there was a mighty explosion, a big bang, and things flew apart. The theory is based on various observations which indicate that the universe is expanding uniformly, with faraway objects receding faster, in accordance with Hubble’s Law, by which v = Ho.d, v being velocity of recession of a galaxy and d the distance to the galaxy, and Ho being Hubble’s Constant.
The scene during and immediately after the explosion was quite different from the pictures we’ve had handed down to us, no white-bearded God reaching out that final inexorable finger. This great happening had more the primitive flavor of a vast and terribly violent electrical storm, beginning at time zero. All sorts of exotic creatures were born in this first moment’s foaming frenzy – in the first four microseconds, the Charmed and Strange Quarks, and in the first five seconds Electrons and Positrons. Then came the Boson – the only particle named after an Indian. All this was supposed to have happened a good twenty thousand million years ago. The era of elementary particles lasted a long, long time. It would take a million years before even the first hydrogen molecules could form.
If you listen hard enough, you can apparently still hear the bang. In the 1970’s the theory was confirmed by the discovery by Penzias and Wilson, while fooling around with microwave antennae, of a uniform background radiation, almost certainly emanating from the Bang.
“That’s all there is to it, boss”, said Bala satisfiedly.
In the light of those revelations in the Mysore night, the night sky seemed very vast indeed, a vastness which had waxed enormously out of that single moment. Out of that moment of birth tumbled everything which ever existed, my own self as well as particles, stars, amoeba, and the souls of all who had lived and died. They were all my kith and kin, children contained within the same time envelope. I was connected to them all, to the most fleeting acquaintances, to unwashed faces spotted in the street, to Vandamma’s bright smile, to wisps of chemical formulae and to fragments from the Perennial Philosophy, to the Big Bang and to life’s little bangs, to the unsung men of Mysore whose thoughts, big and small, floated inconsequentially out into the darkness.
The big bang. What began as an unseemingly loud trumpet blast was clearly a thing of the utmost beauty and significance.
“The Big Bang”, I said once again.
Bala was standing up now, rocking gently back and forth.
“The Big Question is how it will all end.”, he suggested, humming quietly.
“Some questions are best left unanswered”, said I.
Just then the printer Chandra came to life.
“The answer is there in our scriptures ….”, he began timidly. “They tell of a period of being…. that is Matter, and period of non-being, that is Cosmic Energy. There is Expansion, then Contraction, then Expansion again, then Contraction, forever and ever!”
He laughed, a weak ha-ha-ha which degenerated quickly into a fit of coughing.
“There is the time of man”, said Rao contentedly, lighting up the last stub of his Wills Navy Cut. “There is the time of man and the time of God, but every journey is on the same immense ocean.”
“How very true”, I said, with a sigh. At that late hour everyday observations took on a tone of intense profundity. And on that note we decided to sleep, right there on the terrace under the stars.
“Time to take your meals, boss”, said the attorney, gently.
I looked up and found that it was bright daylight.
As I was washing myself I noticed a priest noisily intoning his prayers near a banana tree in the courtyard of the house next door. It was the house of the woman with the pink blouse and petticoat. The priest was armed with a brass pot. A crow sat perched on an electric wire watching his ancient rituals and ablutions, cawing noisily. I could hear kitchen vessels being scraped.
I descended to the main room downstairs, where breakfast was being served. The printer excused himself and hurried away, muttering something about working on a newsletter. I saw him through the window at work in the little shed, bravely turning a wheel of some kind.
“You boys were out late, I suppose?”, enquired Bala’s mother, as she ladled large helpings of vegetable curry onto our thalis.
The “boys” looked at each other.
“We did go out”, I said quietly. “But the food wasn’t that great.”
The mother wagged her finger at us.
“Now, now, I know what you boys were up to.”
She pointed to Rao, who grinned nervously.
“Whenever Rao visits, he takes them out for Non-Veg”, she said, her voice gently accusing. A note of disgust had started to creep in. “Mutton and Chicken…and Beef! How much beef did you eat?”
The sins of the flesh were quite different for her. Like Vandamma’s quaint snobbery, I found the old lady’s confidence in her understanding of men rather touching.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Toasting the Todas: A Vacation among Tribals
‘Off the beaten track’ — if only! Years of travel have made me long for exotic spots, places at the edge of the wilderness, where one might find a few creature comforts along with a chance to discover something new about human nature. Can such longings ever be satisfied? I found the answer recently, on a trip to the Nilgiri Mountains of southern India.
I went there with only the vaguest of expectations — glorious days hiking in verdant meadows at above 8,000 feet, and long nights by the fireplace, Kingfisher beer at hand, falling asleep over books of ancient travels that would wend their way into my dreams. It did not quite turn out as planned. An encounter with a tribal people resulted in one of the most memorable trips in recent years.
I arrived in Ooty in early January, fresh from a foray in Sri Lanka. Ooty, the British contraction for Udhagamandalam, is a hill-station set on a high plateau amid spectacular mountain ranges. To get there, I took a bus from the city of Mysore, a ‘Deluxe Coach’ that teetered to one side as it bumped along through the dry jungle of the Bandipur and Mudumalai game sanctuaries. The trip was not without its rewards; at one point, as the driver stopped to pay toll, a young Nilgiri Langur (Trachypithecus johnii) leaped onto the steering wheel, its dark eyes alert and shining, its spiky white mane giving it a strangely punk look. People feverishly snapped pictures, but then the driver swatted at it with a film magazine, and the disappointed creature bounded out of the window into the forest.
As the bus began its climb up into the Western Ghats, wheezing and bumping up along the hairpin bends, the forest gave way to grand escarpments rising out of the shimmering plain, their sides clothed in a mantle of evergreen forests. The furrowed slopes of tea-estates started to appear, and then close-ups of women plucking tea, and small vegetable farms with men standing in the fading sunlight tending their carrot patches. In the tiny villages perched on the edge of the terraced hillsides, barefoot children ran alongside the bus, waving their cricket bats at us. We passed young women walking carefully in flashy slippers, baskets of produce perched delicately on their heads, and young men holding hands and waving.
From the Ooty bus-stand, an auto-rickshaw took me across a rather tentative road to my hotel, the Regency Villas. The hotel sits on Fern Hill, the estate of the Summer Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. The cottages, all painted in pink, are refurbished hunting lodges from the days of the Raj. The walls come adorned with faded photographs of Mysore royalty gathering on the premises in Victorian times, posing next to slain lions and Englishmen in solar topees. I fell asleep wondering which visitor had slept in my creaky cot a hundred or more years earlier.
The Nilgiris, I knew, were home to a number of hill tribes, including the Todas, who, I had been informed, practiced polyandry, and also the Kurumbas, who were sorcerers. To find out more, I caught a bus to the Tribal Research Center, on the road to Mount Palada.
At the Center, I found a number of model huts, sparse but carefully maintained, along with a few tawdry stuffed birds, spears, and hundreds of botanical specimens in small labeled bottles, presumably the sorcerer’s materia medica. The Director, Dr. Jakka Parthasarthy, apologized for the poor condition of his museum, a result of a lack of government funding. He told me that polyandry among the Toda was rare these days, and that their practice of infanticide and the ritual deflowering of maidens were long extinct.
“If you’re interested in the Todas, you really should visit Vasamalli,” he said. “You’ll find her in Kash mand.”
Kash mand was a mand, a little Toda hamlet of huts and one-room houses, along with a well and a tethered long-horned buffalo. It sat quietly, this ancient hamlet, behind the forbidding wall of the vacation home of Vinod Mallya, the plutocrat responsible for Kingfisher Beer and now Kingfisher Airlines.
Mrs. Vasamalli, a middle-aged lady in a white sari, was lighting little clay lamps outside her tiny residence as a gesture of farewell to the sun.
She explained that the word “Toda” was derived from the word “Tud” in the Toda language, meaning “sacred tree”.
“Our culture is based on a reverence for nature,” she said. “No hunting, no internecine warfare. We are a pastoral people, who have traditionally survived by dairy farming, thanks to the buffalo.”
“How many Todas are left?”
“About fourteen hundred. Maybe a few hundred in five years. Unless you count the ones who are inter-marrying.” She shook her head. “But those ones don’t follow the clan customs.”
A young man walked in. He was tall, with a smooth, angular face, and a look of refinement and quiet dignity.
“This is my eldest son Ponnian,” she said.
As they spoke to each other in Toda, I heard a variety of wet sibilant sounds and tongue-twisting ‘r’s, spoken with an almost recitative formality.
“He’s sweaty because he’s come straight from the golf course,” she said, ruffling his hair.
She explained that Ponnian had started out as a caddy several years earlier at the Ooty Golf Club at Wenlock Downs. He was now a scratch golfer, given free clubs and access to a trainer, and was now by far the best player in the southern region.
Ponnian had recently graduated from college. He told me he was hoping his degree, golfing skills and other athletic achievements (he was also a marathoner) would help him get a job in the Army.
“Would you like to come with us for a festival tomorrow?” Mrs. Vasamalli asked. “It’s the salt-water ceremony, for the buffalos.”
We set out around eight in the morning, driving in a Mahindra Jeep towards Emerald. The road circled lazily around a tea-estate, swung through valleys speckled with yellow gorse, and then climbed up through a region of dense eucalyptus groves.
“This is just great!” I said, inhaling the scent of eucalyptus through the open window.
“The eucalyptus trees are a menace,” Ponnian said. “Australian imports, first brought by the British. Everyone, the Forest Department as well as the estate owners, has been planting them like crazy ever since. They drain the subsoil, and have made most of our sacred streams run dry.”
“Our dairy temples have to be built near streams,” Mrs. Vasamalli explained, as the jeep stopped for us to don the brilliantly-patterned, hand-woven shawls that were required for the ceremony. “It’s only if we perform our rituals properly that we can go to Amunawdr.”
“Where is that?” I asked.
“Further west, do you see it?” Ponnian said. “It is a sin for a Toda to point to any of our sacred peaks.”
I spotted a massive peak, tinged with blue shadows, with two smaller siblings nestling on each side. Between them, valleys shimmered into the distance.
“The souls of the buffalo go into one valley, those of humans into the other,” Mrs. Vasamalli said quietly.
“We don’t have the right to visit most of our sacred places,” Ponnian said.
The road ended at the bottom of a hill, and we had to trek up the last mile, climbing a steep and grassy slope. At the top was a mand consisting of a row of eight tiny brick houses, built above a brook. I could see an ancient barrel-vaulted dairy temple below, made of bamboo and mountain grass. It was an extremely modest structure, but Ponnian had told me how, to keep them in good repair, he and his mates had walked fifty miles to find the increasingly rare variety of mountain grass.
A long line of Todas could be seen descending the slope towards a pond below, followed by two herds of buffalos guided by young Todas. Ponnian explained that the Todas had come from far and wide for the ceremony. Though it was a working day, there 5
were nearly a hundred of them in their shawls, lean and tall, striding purposefully towards the pond.
The buffalos drank greedily. After they were done, each of the Todas cupped his hand in the water, and poured it into his mouth.
Outside the mand, a crowd of small children came running out in their Sunday best, followed by a crowd of rather striking Toda women, all with striking looks and long tresses. One of them sat down to get her hair braided.
“Wait, he’s taking your picture,” Mrs. Vasamalli giggled. “In your nightdress!”
The men meanwhile gathered by the dairy temple, in front of a bare-chested priest. After a short ceremony, they drank freshly churned buffalo buttermilk, served by the priest in small leaf cups. One of the men brought it over. It tasted pretty good, but then I am fond of buttermilk.
The men began dancing, a slow rotation with much banging of staves and cries of the sacred syllable “Ho”. As they danced, a pair of gorgeous flycatchers flitting above them, the Todas seemed to be part of an ancient pattern, one with the trees and mountains and the eternal sky. Meanwhile, the women had started their own dance, with Mrs. Vasamalli leading the way, singing a playful song that invited a dear but reluctant buffalo to come and drink. I tapped my feet but did not join in, for I was guzzling on wild honey, fresh off the comb. Before shoving a slab of the sticky mess into my mouth, I was instructed to place a dollop of honey on my forehead, as a mark of respect to the bee.
The dancing went on for several hours, and was followed by a lavish vegetarian feast, served to me inside one of the houses, which, I noticed, was spotlessly clean. I ate heartily, grateful to the women who, I knew, had to fetch water all the way from a stream.
After the meal, the men sat under the trees, smoking and conversing of tribal matters, while the women stayed inside and caught up on family gossip. A child came up to me and taught me the basics of counting in Toda.
There are many other enjoyable things to do in Ooty, including visiting the Botanical Gardens, which even in winter boasts a marvelous collection of hundreds of rare orchids. Outside the Botanical Gardens, I ran into another threatened culture at the Tibetan market, run by refugees from the giant settlement of Kushalnagar, in the Indian state of Karnataka. I had a wonderful time drinking tea with them and talking about the Dalai Lama, who had honored Kushalnagar with a visit a few weeks earlier. Other activities I recommend include trekking, visiting the old British graveyard in St. Stephen’s Church, browsing the Victorian fiction in the cavernous Nilgiri Library, and dining on fine Indian and international cuisine at the Savoy Hotel and the Holiday Inn. And if you happen to go there, like I did, in the winter, to hike in verdant meadows and to read a tale of faraway travel by the fireplace, a Kingfisher or warm brandy in hand, please do give a thought to the Todas, who have been trying ever so hard to preserve their natural way of life amid the hubbub of modern India.
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by Inderjeet Mani
On a summer’s day, in Oxford, England. I walk by the river, leaving behind the towers of Christ Church and its cathedral. A small flotilla of punts lists lazily downstream, while a pair of smart punks swing briskly by on the grass. Pale women in calico skirts stretch out on the green. The grass is soft, slightly muddy; beyond lie rich green fields, and in the distance the spires of country churches rise solemnly into a sky flecked with a few wispy clouds. The light is soft, full of quiet exuberance, staining the stones of Christ Church with a dull gold. I fling off my shoes and lie back on the grass. A flock of starlings suddenly sweeps overhead, leaving behind an empty expanse of delicate blue. Sky, grass, more grass, river, sky…..I lie back, the green banks inviting the eructation of summer thoughts.
From the river I hear the helpless cry of an inept punter. Two otherwise pretty women are sitting back on their haunches laughing uproariously, their teeth flashing in the sunlight. By the Folly Bridge pink-skinned boys and girls sweat and puff at the oars like galley slaves, while their trainers bark at them from bicycles. A turnstile away a cricket match is in progress. Another flock of starlings flutters overhead, and then a crowd of gaily-clad tourists drifts by, pointing, clicking cameras, chattering excitedly in Japanese and French and Italian.
“Why have you come back?”, a Pakistani taxi driver asked me earlier.
He murmured something obscene in Urdu. “There’s nothing here for people like us.”
The very first time I visited, the light by the river seemed full of poetry and innocence. It was a glorious summer afternoon when I arrived at Oxford, and the men getting down from the train wore elegant summer suits and hats and the women long frilled dresses. I followed them down to the colleges, where they stripped off their pinstriped jackets and relaxed elegantly by the water. A few punters went drifting by hunched on their punts like silent gondoliers. The light fell gently on the grass, casting long shadows; the colleges with their ancient towers hung discretely in the background, their cold stones suffused with quiet light. I heard a few ploppings (of ducks) and a few quiet observations (by civilized, smartly dressed people). It was a dust-free world of sweetness and light, and rather like being on another planet.
Later I strolled into St. John’s College, to visit someone from St. Stephen’s who had won or wangled a Rhodes Scholarship. I found him in an ancient room overlooking the quad, sinking his teeth into a slice of freshly buttered toast. He seemed to have some difficulty remembering me – a common reaction – but he was very polite.
“I’m a bit busy with exams”, he told me after half an hour. “But you must come again and visit.”
I have been invited to tea by the Pakistani taxi-driver, a thin bald man with a dark scar on his forehead. In a modest little council house his daughters serve pakoras and tea. He watches them proudly as they settle into their knitting, two quiet girls in spectacles with ruggedly working-class British accents. Their mother, a shy wispy woman in salwar kameez, sits in the shadows, murmuring nervously in Urdu to her children. A soccer match dutifully unfurls on the telly.
“It’s much better here”, says the driver. “Even though I pine for home. But even there, nothing matters, only money.” He rubs his fingers together scornfully.
I inquire politely about his origins. He explains that his family owned a tea-shop in a side-street in Karachi. He had grown up in the streets, had been a prolific gambler in his youth, knew how to handle a knife. Then the police goons came after him, so he was forced to disappear, eventually wangling his way to England.
“One thing about these damn Englishers. If you work hard, they’ll leave you alone”, he adds, thoughtfully scratching himself.
There are many British like the taxi driver, sweeping the floors at Heathrow, or hurrying from grocery to council home, tired men spitting and scratching their privates in public. Their women wear gold earrings and bold saris and chatter boldly to each other in alleys and under bridges. Their voices and flowing garments summon up memories of the rural Punjab, its fields full with wheat, its smiling sardars sitting out on their bedsteads drinking milk foaming up in tall glasses, a world where one may open one’s mouth wide to devour hot chat with bright yellow lemons, where lusty men and women dance the Bhangra.
I have now left behind the towers of Oxford, to spend the day cruising down the gentle country roads of Middle England, driving past flower strewn meadows with sheep and cattle grazing bucolically and birds chasing each other giddily into the air. The road winds down gracefully, past hedgerow and hayrick, passing country churches, furrowed fields, old stone manors; in the distance are more gentle hills, and then the M40 thundering its way to London. I am on board a tour bus. The driver informs me that he’s been to India; he went to Kashmir after dropping out from film studies at the University of Kent. He certainly looks the part, dressed as he is in a kurta, beret, and silver earrings.
I look around at my fellow passengers. The Moskowitzs are seated behind me, a mother and daughter team from Cincinnati, first time in England, and already missing the comforts of suburban America. They explain the difficulties faced by the American traveler, getting used to separate hot and cold water faucets, the spartan facilities offered by bed-and-breakfasts, the scarcity of attached baths and showers.
“To experience true discomfort you must travel in India”, I tell them, by way of encouragement.
“Where are you from?”, inquires Mother Moskowitz, curiosity flickering in her long lizard eyes.
“From New York.”
She guffaws. “But ya weren’t born there now, were ya?”
The daughter smiles in apology at her mother’s unintended rudeness. I ask her if she’s related to Carol Moskowitz, who shared a house with me and several other lads and lasses in Brighton in the 1970’s..
“No, we’re from Cincinnati”, the daughter tells me proudly. “Where’re you staying?”
“In a B&B – on the Iffley Road.”
She nods sympathetically, while Mother Moskowitz launches into a long jeremiad about the sorry state of plumbing in B&Bs on the Iffley Road. But despite the good woman’s complaints, in reality the Bed&Breakfasts are places which invite reflection and contemplation. There is something special about staying up all night in a tiny bedroom, listening to footsteps in the corridors, hearing couples returning joyfully from their haunts and tired travelers padding furtively to the bathroom; there is nothing to do but to gather your thoughts and sip tea from a bedside electric kettle and munch on McVitie’s Biscuits. Boredom soon sets in; the only escape is inwards. At times like these I can sympathize with the plight of Moskowitzs the world over. To suffer the ignominies of harsh travel accommodations, to lay one’s head down on unfamiliar pillows – far better never to set out in the first place!
“At least they’re better than before the War”, says a husky, Lauren Baccallish voice, interrupting the flow of Mother Moskowitz’s lamentations. The voice issues from an old lady in dark glasses with a broad smile under thick lipstick. “When I first came here as a teenager in ‘37 you never knew what to expect – you could end up sharing a bed with a stranger.”
She turns to the old man beside her, who has just elbowed her in the ribs.
“Ernie!” But Ernie has turned away, looking out at some distant gargoyle on a country church.
“You’re not going on about that guide book are you?”, she asks him.
He continues to stare, glumly, out of the window.
“But there wasn’t enough time”, she says exasperatedly. “We’d have missed our flight. Anyway, we can pick up another..”
She shrugs her shoulders, in defiance of her husband’s continued silence. She tells us she’s from Rochester, New York, Ernie is a retired leather executive, and guidebook or no guidebook, they visit England every summer. I wonder why they bother; like so many others struggling with old age, exhaustion and ill-humor seem permanently etched on Ernie’s face.
By contrast, the other passengers appear cheerful, resigned to each other’s company, dutifully awaiting with a vacuous expression the next segment of the tour, awaiting instructions to photograph, to collect souvenirs. The driver meanwhile amuses everyone with droll tales of local customs. My eye falls on Anna, a big girl with pretty green eyes and a somewhat flushed face.
“Der was a girl from India on der tour yesterday”, Anna informs me later, while we stroll through the village of Lower Slaughter. The Moskowitzs are walking ahead, holding hands. Other tourists are strolling by in the sunshine, sniffing roses and gingerly crossing small brooks. The cottages look half asleep, as if they have been plunked down from picture postcards. As if to complete the scene, a few suitably rustic villagers appear frozen in postures of semi-immobility as they sit in pairs swilling beer outside a pub.
“Isn’t it amazing that people still live this way”, says Moskowitz the younger, turning to me.
“She came from Bom-bay”, Anna continues, a little insistent. “She wast traveling a-lone. Are you traveling a-lone?”
We pass the village Upper Slaughter, and then Anna comes to the back to sit beside me. I can feel her body close by, a whiff of some strong deodorant or soap, her small childlike fingers scratching at the seat in front. The Moskowitz girl cups her chin in her hands and gives me a conspiratorial smile. Anna tells me she is a teacher of English, from a small town near Heidelberg. She mentions the Black Forest, just as I notice the brown down of a very faint moustache that flourishes on her upper lip. She is very sincere, she seems the perfect tourist, gathering tidbits of useful information wherever she goes; she comes often to England, because of the History, and the Language. So we talk for a while about the glories of language, of the basics that find utterance in every tongue.
“Never give up traveling”, she tells me mysteriously, “it’s der one ting dat vill survive.”
The van rushes down old Roman roads, passing small villages and churches, Saxon, Norman, Elizabethan, then rolling hills with iron-age forts along the ridges. A man walks his dog in a verdant meadow; another leans casually on a fence and smiles as we go by. His face is ruddy beneath honest blue eyes, with a mysteriously twisted nose, a cross between an elderly Druid and an anglicized Dr. Gachet. The van gathers speed. We pass the imposing gates of county seats, and villages with dry stone walls, where thatched and slated roofs are being groomed devotedly. A crowd of BMWs look on, their bonnets gleaming in the sunlight.
“The houses are being spiffed up for the yuppies”, observes the driver.
We soon spot these British yuppies, dashing by in their Jaguars and German chariots, eager to devour the countryside, pottering about at country markets, lounging casually in beer gardens in their Polo shirts, all of them indirectly championing the cause of historic preservation, helping to transform rustic hamlets into cunningly disguised suburbs. But in the market towns I come across other, untrammeled properties, the town houses of wool merchants, their slabs of golden stone speaking of a different England, a mercantile nation boasting prosperous marketeers. Then the golden Cotswold stone gives way to gray, and we are back among the wooden houses of the Tudors. The driver is taking us to Stratford-on-Avon.
I have no desire to visit this holiest of English shrines. Stratford-on-Avon, the Eiffel Tower, Disneyland, the Statue of Liberty – these infamous and popular attractions have each a certain ineffable essence, but they are best experienced alone, away from the stifling chatter of crowds and tour guides. However, today everyone else is dead set on going to Stratford, so to Stratford we go. The driver promises to be back in three hours, but Anna wants to stay until evening to watch The Tempest – and hopes that I will join her. I decline the invitation, and Anna flashes me a treacherous look. The driver refuses to accommodate her, insisting on leaving at the stroke of three.
We are deposited at the bus stop, a block from Shakespeare’s first home. Stratford is much as I expected, a lively theme park buzzing with tour buses and loudspeakers; messages pound at your ears, the Arden home is a must, such-and-such an exhibit will close at three, please remember to reserve seats at the theater. You stagger through the crowds, brushing past parents yelling at their young, past smartly capped policewomen in short skirts and black stockings. The usual capitalistic tributes to Shakespeare are in evidence everywhere – on shop and restaurant signs, on T-shirts and beer mugs, on an infinite variety of bric-a-brac, all lovingly purchased by the American tourists who flock here in vast numbers as if to an ancestral burial site, accompanied by equally eager Germans and Japanese. Also conspicuously present is an army of old age pensioners, who can be found mulling about in the sunshine in dull overcoats and wheelchairs drinking endless cups of tea.
“At least ve can valk togeder, can’t ve?” asks Anna, falling into step beside me.
She leads me into a gallery of theatrical costumes. Here I come across Hamlet’s sword, Caliban’s skimpy costume, and the tasteful nightie worn by Desdemona at the moment of her untimely death. The characters from the plays stand boldly about, some in battle armor, others in ermine cloaks. An incisorless Japanese gentleman who has been photographing the exhibits bows graciously to us and hands Anna his camera, requesting a picture. I escape, hoping they will hit it off, but Anna follows soon after.
Meanwhile I try to absorb little bits of Shakespearean trivia. It is difficult, given the polite jostling of the crowds and the relentless chattering of tour guides. But wait – is that Elizabethan music being piped through the speakers? Yes, I am now being transponded back into Shakespeare’s life and times. I am introduced to his proud parents, John Shakespeare, a prominent Stratford man, who rose from glovemaker to the wealthy to town chamberlain, and Mary Arden, an elegant woman of the Warwickshire landed classes. And there is the childe Shakespeare’s crib, where he lay cosseted in blankets, presumably burping heartily after his first taste of mother’s milk.
I follow the tour, reliving the stages of his life. I’m introduced to a schoolboy with his satchel and shiny morning face, hurrying along to the locally prestigious Stratford Grammar School. There, hunched over an antique graffiti-engraved desk, he marvels over the classics, pores over Holinshed’s chronicles, the first fertile thoughts forming delicately on his brow…..But he is a young man now, a handsome fellow humming Greensleeves and O Mistress Mine and other lovely ballads and ditties of his day, and in the evenings he indulges in Wenching and Carousing, pastimes popular among Stratford teens. One night he strides across miles of farmland to bed down Anne Hathaway, a farmer’s illiterate daughter. A few months later her belly is swollen with child. The Hathaway brothers march to William’s house, and he agrees to a hurried marriage. But all these are mere irritations, bubbles on the surface. Beneath it all some great force lies simmering. And then one fine day the call of his ultimate vocation is too strong; he falls in with a group of wandering players, and deserting his wife, sets off for the bright lights of London.
The remaining biographical details are somewhat glossed over by the British Tourist Authority. They speak of him in terms one would use for a successful banker or jeweler. After making it big in London, he invests shrewdly in real estate, and then gets his father a coat of arms, settling Anne and the kids into New Place, a posh residence in Stratford. His daughter Susanna does rather well, marrying a prominent surgeon; the couple inherit most of his money, while Anne is willed the master’s second-best bed, his best one being apparently reserved for guests.
It is hard to reconcile this rather dull businessman with the extraordinary mind which emerges from the texts. The biographical record reveals very little about his inner life; outside his oeuvre there is no evidence of anguish, of the suffering, desperation, and boredom that is so often justified as a necessary condition for true knowledge. The record merely points to an outwardly successful and vigorous life, to a man who seemed rather nonchalant about his poems and plays, not even bothering to save any of them.
Of course, what the British Tourist Authority says matters very little. We continue to imagine him as the archetypal poet, at heart a deeply private, contemplative man, his wellsprings of feeling transformed by the upsurge of a tremendous imagination – an imagination that thrived in a brilliant age, and yet a man able to sketch the wider view, to come to terms with the essence of our condition. That is, to recognize that we are such stuff as dreams are made on; and that our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Meanwhile, the British have upped the ante, milking his soul for whatever it’s worth in dollars, marks, and yen. The pilgrims now come from the world over to gaze fondly at Shakespeare’s birthplace and tomb, at the Great Britain of rotting wooden houses tended lovingly by the English Heritage society. Most poignant of all is the sight of the crinkled faces of the old age pensioners, some of whom sport the mustaches of former military men; they remind one of the defenders of the faith at Lenin’s tomb. They nod to themselves, these pensioners, their eyes shining through the tears: all is not lost, England is still in good hands, despite all the loss of empire and the damn unemployment and all the bloody immigration. They are witnesses to history, to the disintegration of an empire, of a short but brilliant civilization. These whiskered old fogeys take on a sudden nobility, they are representatives of the lost cultures of time, they are one with the last denizens of Erbil and Pompei and Chichen Itza. In time, their legacy too will disappear, as the last vestiges of British culture give way to the relentless wave of Americanization.
An old lady makes way for me at her sidewalk table, clucking all the while and calling me love and darling. I try hard to munch on something resembling a miniature quiche, but it proves unrewarding. A sparrow arrives and perches near my teacup, and I feed it a crumb. Anna drums nervously. This is her last day on tour and she wants to see everything. Finally, exasperated by my spending nearly half an hour at the table, she stands up and accuses me.
“You come all der way to dis famous place, and all you do is eat!”
I am taken aback by this rude onslaught, with its disturbing implication of shared goals and values. I wander off alone into a dark church, finding myself among crowds solemnly admiring what’s left of Shakespeare and his kin. It is a quiet church, rather cave-like. As I sit in there trapped beside Anna, who has followed close behind, thoughts of death come crowding in, jumbled with vaguely Shakespearean associations. I can feel someone nearby, a pale woman dressed in black – I suddenly remember Jennifer Kendall, one of three sisters from a Shakespearean troupe who visited during my days at the Doon School, Jennifer who played a sexy Desdemona in the cool Himalayan air. Jennifer, who later married the Bombay screen star Shashi Kapoor, and who died of cancer in her husband’s arms. Dead and gone, gone to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.
Out, out, it is time to be out. After all these dark intimations of mortality and the death of cultures, it is important to take things one at a time, instead of rushing about madly, to savor those special moments, a quiet walk in the sunlight by the river, beside the gliding perfection of the latter-day swans of Avon. In the past I have enjoyed many fine English walks by the water. But it is not to be.
“Quick, the bus”, Anna shouts.
I take one last look at the river.
“Vat are you vaiting for!”, she bellows. Stratford has completely transformed her.
I hand her handbag and camera and climb onto an open-topped Stratford doubledecker.
“On top dis time!”, she gestures angrily.
“Topless in Stratford”, giggles the tour operator.
We ride into the wind, and Anna tightens her rather formidable grip on her dark glasses. We are bound for Anne Hathaway’s house. The ugly borough of Stratford rushes past, revealed finally as a flurry of sooty red brick homes and betting shops, and then we are in green and open country. The tour operator jabbers on about the glories of English history, while England flies by, the wind becoming fiercer, tearing about us in a hellish vortex. People clutch wildly at flying hair and glasses. Anna shouts to me that the tasteless commercialism is all for a good cause – vich other country honors its poets like dis? I try to think of some, Russia, for one, but she has turned away, her hair billowing into the wind.
The Hathaway house turns out to be a vulgar little place, comically offset by a thatch that looks fairly Rastafarian. By the time Anna and I sprint back along the cobblestones to our Spires and Shires bus, people on board have started getting rather impatient.
“Watch out for the driver”, says Mother Moskowitz. “He’s going to put you in the doghouse.”
I apologize profusely to everyone, but things are a bit tense on the way back. We stop to admire from a safe distance Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, landscaping by Capability Brown, and then walk around an ancient stone circle, the King’s Men. A withered yew tree stands nearby, a symbol of death as well as immortality. As the driver prattles on about various local legends, adding his own feverish speculations about the peculiar magnetic fields associated with stone circles as evinced by the odd behavior of dousing rods when placed directly in their center, the old lady from Rochester suddenly touches my arm and tells me about her son.
He was apparently at Harvard when he took the summer off to go to England. It was 1968. On Midsummer’s day.
“People were dancing naked at Stonehenge”, she chuckles. “ ‘Mom’, he said, ‘it was awful’. Poor boy, he just didn’t know what to make of them.”
She laughs now, a husky, attractive laugh, running a jeweled finger down the side of an immense oblong stone. The husband remains stonily silent.
I wonder about her son, but something tells me that he may have died. So I head back to the bus, leaving behind the stones and their memories.
At Anna’s request, we make an unscheduled stop at a Jacobean country house, famed for the poisoning over dinner of twenty Roundheads. The owner, an eccentric old lady dressed in a housecoat, will not let us in – arrangements to visit the fifty-odd rooms must be made in advance. Anna is furious – this is her very last hour on tour, tomorrow she returns to London and Frankfurt. I wander off lightheadedly into the chapel, my sneaker accidentally brushing away the dust on the floor beside a crumbling tomb. There, revealed in a mosaic of bright purple and orange despite a good thousand years, is a crudely drawn caricature of a king with a weakly phallic scepter. The face of England, peering through centuries of grime.
We have dismounted from the tour bus into the twilight, and are back on the Broad, opposite Blackwell’s. The bookstore is closed for the day.
“Let me carry dat for you”, says Anna, grabbing my rucksack. There is a funny look in her eyes.
“No,” I say firmly, regaining control of my life. “This is it. Adios. Auf wiedersehen.”
I wave her a quick smiling goodbye, and hurry away down the street into the growing darkness.
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THE SONG OF SINGAPORE
by Inderjeet Mani
(Parts of this article were previously published separately in the Deccan Herald and the Reston Review.)
We were nearing our destination when the hostess announced that anyone entering Singapore for illegal work would be given “six strokes of the lash”, in addition to six months in prison. Soon after that she came graciously down the aisle and handed me an embarkation card, which carried a warning about the death sentence for drug smuggling. Meanwhile she smiled a disarming, somewhat shy smile, the professional smile of the Singapore airlines girl in her sarong kebaya. I couldn’t help smiling back.
I kept smiling as I walked on the highly polished floors of Chiangi Airport. It was different from other airports in the region. Tokyo’s Narita I had found suffocatingly crowded, with barely enough standing room; Hong Kong seemed crumbling and backward, and Bangkok remained dirty and overrun by sorry-looking hippies and whores. At Chiangi, by contrast, everything was spic and span, running smoothly and efficiently under the watchful eye of the security police. Travelers waited politely with their duty-free bags, the girls at the information desk were attentive, and in the cafeterias with the papaya juice fountains everything was calm and orderly. Even the taxis approached cautiously, waiting obediently for the police signal before collecting the next arrival.
As I left the airport I passed by a guarded gate. It was the V.I.P. terminal. The long black limousines of the government and business elites waited quietly inside the compound, their sleek blackness reeking of a quiet, unseen evil. As we glided along the beautifully manicured orchid-lined boulevard leading to the city, I realized that I had entered one of the world’s most successful police states.
Still, it was impossible not to sit back and revel in the luxuriant surroundings. Tropical foliage and tall trees shot up into the sky around me, palm leaves swirled in the sun, and I felt on my skin the slightest suggestion of a salty breeze carrying a whiff of jasmine. I put my legs up and sat back. Hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings appeared, each window bearing a flag and a pole of washing hung out to dry. The roads flashed by, smooth and spotless, still bearing the marvelous names bequeathed by the British, Bencoolen Way, Tiverton Lane, Goodwood Drive. Then we entered a region of broad avenues resplendent with the towering glass facades of banks, hotels, and shopping centers. Boutiques came and went, Alfred Dunhill, Nina Ricci, Chanel, as well as lesser stores like Qureshi’s Carpets and the Chew Cheong Silk House. The city seemed in the middle of a construction boom, busy with jackhammers and earth movers and ubiquitous hardhat signs. Orchard Road gave way to Sir Bukit Timah Road, and then the taxi turned suddenly down a quiet lane, thick with bougainvillea and other floral fragrances. We passed a number of sprawling mansions nestled within bamboo groves, arriving at last at the gates of the Balmoral Hotel.
As soon as I got in to my room I fell promptly asleep. When I woke up the sun had set. Opening the window, I was greeted by the shrill welcome of a thousand cicadas. I took a quick shower and went down to dine on the exotic foods of Asia.
As luck would have it, the hotel prided itself on its French cuisine. After some coaxing, a young Malay waiter furnished the native menu. The soup came with a number of interesting objects floating in it, including a sea-horse, which tasted rather mushroom-like. There was no one else to talk to in the dining room, so I summoned my waiter.
“Everyone’s gone to the bar”, he told me. “After dinner you should go to the bar. Try our famous Singapore Sling.”
I looked at him carefully, but he was quite serious. The bar was next door, and through the open doorway I could hear the lead singer of an Indonesian pop group belting out a mournful sixties tune about a tavern and the good old days. From time to time his harsh grating voice lapsed into some unidentified Malay slang. A few patrons clapped clumsily.
“In two weeks time it will be our National Day”, my waiter told me proudly. “Won’t you stay for it?”
His face had a fresh, innocent look. I would have liked to tip him, but tipping was strictly forbidden.
“Will there be fireworks?”
“At the parade grounds. We are not allowed to play with fireworks. Only the Army can do that. The government is very strict.”
He smiled apologetically about the strictness. I sympathized with him. Given the prospect of a public flogging (another quaint custom bequeathed by the British), no Singaporean in his right mind would dream of exploding a firecracker.
The vision of a wealthy, vibrant nation built on industriousness and fear is not a new one. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had the courage and good luck to carry it off. Singapore’s citizens were now well-versed in the skills of the twentieth-century, but they did not apparently share a commitment to democratic values. They seemed cautious, content to live with the devil they knew, who had made them prosperous and brought them to an advanced stage of technological development. The government in turn was apparently an intelligent one, aware that dissent must never be completely bottled up, but allowed to bubble off here and there through officially approved channels. The few who emerged in the censored Straits Times to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo did so in oblique ways, speaking only of the need to preserve their diverse cultural traditions, or complaining about the highly competitive college entrance exams. The most outspoken criticism I heard was of the Singapore Airlines girl, as an insult to Singaporean womanhood. It was no accident that they had picked on an advertising image; their society lacked other heroes, and their history celebrated only a former colonial master, Sir Stamford Raffles, who in 1819 did what he had to do and established the British presence on the island.
Mr. Lee’s caution also reflected the delicate position Singapore occupied with respect to its neighbors, the Muslim lands of Malaysia and Indonesia. Each of those still developing nations had substantial military machines. Unlike Singapore they were nations without a solid Western-style infrastructure, with a large underclass, and that opened up the possibility of political turmoil, the nasty threat of alternative isms, of people moved by beliefs, by passions: Islamic fundamentalism, communism, separatism, terrorism, or some explosive combination thereof. Lee and his cohorts were also concerned about the threat of racial displacement. Despite Singapore’s professed multiculturalism, with its tolerance of Indians, Malays, and Eurasians, each with their own vibrant ethnic communities – so much so that the country vigorously celebrated nearly two dozen festivals a year – the predominant influence in Singaporean government and business had always been Chinese.
In the Tamil quarter of Serangoon Road, I found bazaars of old, buildings with long colonnades and dark staircases, packed with tiny shops with their owners chattering animatedly, waving their hands, unfolding rolls of glittering saris. I could hear Tamils speaking Malay, Chinese Tamil, Sikhs Chinese, all yakking away about the police, sports, or financial worries. The staircases led up to flimsy wooden doors, reminding me of the brothels of Old Delhi, but they often had little girls seated on top in pavadais, giggling down at the passers-by. Some of the rooms on the ground floor were not shops but miniature residences which overlooked the street, and on this Saturday morning the head of the each household could be found seated in his tiny living room cluttered with steel cabinets and a worn desk or two, drinking coffee and pensively watching the street go by. Women wandered down the passageways in black purdah or wearing richly embroidered brocade dresses, saris, and salwar kameezes. Others stood in the doorways chatting, or stopping at stalls to eat. At the Apollo eatery a large crowd had gathered, to sample among other delicacies an especially spicy mutton, prawn and pickle dish served on a fresh banana leaf. A notice declared that hands were to be washed before eating.
Outside the Kaliamman Hindu temple I found more crowds, groups of Tamil dandies lounging about in slippers, with ash on their foreheads and cigarettes in their hands, their slender waists hugged by tapered bush-shirts, each with a comb in his back pocket to minister to an extravagantly puffed hairdo. From time to time one of the youths would detach himself from the gathering and head into the temple, to circle three times and prostrate himself before each of the rather fearsome idols of the Goddess Kali. These youths were reminiscent of their freshly laved cousins who gathered outside the cinema halls on Saturdays in Madras or Cochin, and yet they seemed somehow more vigorous, less sallow, less fierce, as if their transplantation another twenty degrees east had freed them of the oppressive burden of history and failure.
Strolling along I found myself in a hawker center, where people of every conceivable racial extraction were sitting together swilling Tiger beer and feverishly gulping down prawn and noodles. To feed sumptuously, to practice one’s religion, to retain the freedom to chatter about everyday matters – these were apparently sufficient to keep a civilization afloat. And what a chattering – some of it in singsong Singlish, with the characteristic “la” tagged on the end of every sentence, much of it in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tamil, and even a dash of Australian and Italian. The chattering rose and fell, merging with the sea of miscellaneous sounds created by humans and their inventions, the sounds of cars, buses, and voices rising like lightly crested waves above them. The most frequent sounds were scraping sounds, coming from frying pans being stirred, and then there were others, like the clatter of beer bottles being extracted from wooden cases, the clacking of fish being chopped by a cleaver-wielding Chinaman in a singlet. There was also a medley of lighter plopping sounds, prawns being scooped up from neat little piles, dishes bubbling peacefully, punctuated by the inevitable clinking of dishwashers’ glasses. At nearby tables I could hear sounds of a more private nature, slippers clinking, chopsticks clicking against plastic bowls, the sounds of vigorous chewing and sucking and slurping and swallowing, and the occasional smacking of lips. A child was playing with her bangles, letting them roll and settle on the table, and cigarettes were being lit up, then beer was being sirruped against a backdrop of bicycle bells. An old woman began coughing.
As I sat in the hawker center listening, the sounds seemed to cascade together and grow in number, gathering force, building into an immense wave, and it struck me then that each region of the world had its own peculiar chorus of sounds, its street or field or mountain song, as it were. Yet it seemed there was something unique and different to the sounds of Asia as a whole, and to the experience of Asian ears: a kind of quiet attentiveness amidst all the tumult, not simply a sense of happy chaos and multiplicity or simplicity but some other kind of preoccupation, which made living a rather busy and intense affair.
“Right here”, one of my neighbors at the hawker center told me, when I asked him about his origins. He pointed to Chang Kwok Hospital, an older, decrepit building festooned with flags.
He was an old Indian and he had lived his entire life within a few miles of the hospital, and it was possible that he would die in the same circumscribed area. And it was he who told me about the C.B.I.B., the Singaporean secret police.
“They’re everywhere. So many people work for them as informers. Anyone you see – it could be the man eating chicken curry over there, or that Eurasian lady with the straw hat…you can’t really tell, they look just like you and me.”
He explained about the housing blocks. Each block had its own vigilance committee, which reported once a week to the police. Everyone knew what was going on, even, he said, who was going out with whom.
“Doesn’t it bother you, all this spying? If you can’t trust anyone. what’s the use?”
He took a deep gulp of his beer, and then wiped his lips politely on his sleeve.
“As long as we mind our own business, everyone is happy. You should have seen us twenty five years ago. Now, no one goes without a roof over their heads. And Prime Minister Goh – he’s loosening things up a bit….”
The loosening up was of a limited kind, the most prominent act of liberalization being the much-welcomed lifting of the ban on R-rated movies. I had heard that this was part of an economic plan to eventually get a foothold in the X-rated movie business.
“And the young people – you should see them, so clever, so smart, their heads held high. Thanks to Mr. Lee’s foresight in the area of education, we now have some of the best schools in the world.” His eyes gleamed with pride.
His statement was disturbingly true. The Singaporeans seemed to have mastered the art of changing small children into robots. They had adopted the Japanese model, imposing sixty to seventy-hour work weeks on children over the age of ten, shaping them into obedient, industrious machines. It was an admirable, if frightening, achievement. I had talked about the results with some of my friends at the National University. They acknowledged that the government had taken a rather brutal approach, but what other choice did they have? With no natural resources, the island’s survival into the twenty-first century depended entirely on people, on selectively breeding tough technocrats, engineers, and skilled workers. Who else would be there to man the multinationals?
This singular emphasis on science and practical skills did not leave people with a narrow, blinkered attitude. Quite the contrary – the young robots were terribly well-informed, quick at grasping complex arguments, able to reason rapidly and cheerfully, to calculate and act decisively. Although their programmers had not paid much attention to the liberal arts, regarding it no doubt as a breeding ground for intellectualism of a dangerous sort, they had taken pains to cater, through the introduction of parochial schools, to the needs of various ethnic groups who continued to regard the mastery of Chinese characters or Tamil intonation with some pride.
My friend at the hawker center poured me another Tiger. He asked about India. He had been there a few years ago, but had come away dismayed by the inefficiency and squalor.
“My ancestors left a hundred years ago. I’m so glad they came here. We don’t have the sense of history you people have, but unlike India, all the different cultures here coexist peacefully – the five stars on the Singapore flag, la. Economically, we’re strong, very much the Lion City.. The security aspect is a small price to pay for all this..”
We sat and talked till evening, about the new, muscular Asia that was emerging all around us, after centuries of stony sleep. At times it seemed this new Asia was overtaking the West in development, it seemed to have bred a new race of highly skilled and organized people, modern and yet parochial, rationalist and yet skeptical of fundamental liberties, at ease in the international kitsch of consumer and pop culture, yet honoring – however superficially – ancient traditions and rituals. They were philistines, their culture would breed no Baudelaires or Shakespeares, and certainly no Buntys. But their streets were vibrant and alive. They ate well and drank hard and did not ponder the meaning of life, but they also prayed to a multitude of gods and did not kill each other. Such a paradoxical culture seemed well-suited to the flux of the modern world, but I wondered how long it would survive in the absence of political freedoms. Wouldn’t some of its bright-eyed youth one day take to the streets demanding liberty, whatever that was, as countless others had for some reason been prone to do the world over? Wouldn’t they risk whippings, lathi charges, tear gas, guns? Wouldn’t they sing Guantanamera and fast unto death outside the Legislative Assembly?
But at other times it was clear that nothing had really changed, it was no more than an old all-absorbing Asia taking on new forms, the pulse of the civilization was the same as ever. The old Chinese women still played mah-jong and watched the passers by with shrewd and suspicious eyes, and despite their financial pre-occupations people young and old still had a look of simplicity in their faces.
I said goodbye to my hawker center friend and wandered for a while in the bazaar. A boy walked by holding two polythene bags bulging with fish soup. At a cake shop the owner was seated cross-legged threading flowers, under an immense garlanded picture of Ganesha the Elephant God, single-tusked, pot-bellied, riding on his mouse. A few yards away three Chinese men sat together on a bench roasting lightly skinned pigs. Another sat huddled over a cauldron, scratching his back thoughtfully with a cooking ladle. Just then I nearly tripped over an elderly, bespectacled man seated inconspicuously on a small steel trunk on the pavement. He greeted me with a smile, and reached for my palm.
Like everyone else, I had been through some hard times, and I was curious to hear what this old Tamil gentleman would say. He measured my fingers, noted my date of birth and made various quick calculations in a tattered hardcover notebook.
“You will always be restless, traveling to distant lands across the seas, away from your birthplace. In five years you will prosper, as an exporter of a precious commodity….”
He talked for a while about business matters, and I soon grew bored, having sold very little merchandise in my life. As he talked on, I remembered, self-consciously, some rather stern lines from T. S. Eliot:
“[To evoke] ….biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from the fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors –
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road…”
“What about…other matters?”
“Next year you will marry, but the marriage will not be consummated.”
I heard a girl giggling, and turned, to find a small group of young women standing by, their eyes laughing, obviously enjoying the reading.
The palmist studied my face carefully, as if perusing some battle-worn map.
“You were injured in a car crash last June?”
“You think often about your old friends from long ago?”
“You long for your homeland?” He used the Tamil word “wooru”, which, rather like the French “pays”, means not country, but the land or region you come from.
Astrologers and palmists, I have found, have often been uncannily right about my past, but never about the future. And just as well, for life is best lived in complete ignorance of the vicissitudes of fate. Modern man must be thankful to be rid of the terrible prophecies of classical soothsayers and oracles. Yet, while we may scorn those obsolete methods of prediction, our understanding of ourselves is seldom wrong: we know too well our own weaknesses and foibles, recognizing that we will most likely live with them to the very end. We understand, for better or for worse, the rough trajectory of our lives.
Some days later I found myself waiting for a taxi in Raffles Place, surrounded by young people relentlessly shopping in the high-fashion stores and boutiques. A block away, overdressed young Chinese men were coming out of the trading floors armed with heavy briefcases. Rush hour was in progress, and BMWs and Benzes glided by, picking up those dashing young men in pinstriped shirts. At a taxi rank a policeman stood by, vigilant. A mangy cat sat near him. It was hungry, ferociously hungry, miaowing imploringly at passers by, and from time to time biting savagely at its fleas.
Meanwhile commuters hurried past, and the Benzes and BMWs kept on picking up more and more young bankers. Two young things in black party dresses were standing behind me speaking into a portable phone, planning the evening’s engagements. An elegant young woman in a miniskirt was holding the briefcase of a disheveled Dutch trader, as he held a suitcase in one hand and rummaged through his pockets with another for an apparently lost air ticket. Her voice was soothing, reassuring – they would take care of it at the airline counter, no problem, and why not take the MRT – the subway – it would be faster, only a short walk, and she’d be glad to carry his briefcase for him. She seemed so poised, elegant, beautiful, speaking with an air of happy wholesomeness about the somewhat tense goings-on in the trading room. Then she mentioned a party she was going to that weekend, talking about young Europeans and Singaporeans who had found nice flats and were apparently having the time of their lives. She reminded me of airline hostesses, who always seemed to be discussing parties and entertainments with an air of cheerful vapidity; but I felt happy for her, and a little sad that we had not had an opportunity to converse, for soon she had disappeared with the Dutchman, heading no doubt for the MRT.
The day before I left, I rode in a reconditioned dragon-headed junk across the oily waters of Singapore harbor to Pulau Kusu, or Tortoise Island. I was accompanied by a gray sky, a light breeze, and the brash voices of Australian and Korean tourists in flowery shirts and shorts. Dozens of small, thickly-palmed islands passed by, Sentosa, the resort isle, and Pulau Brani, and Lazarus Island, with its palms clustered together in spidery tufts. Cameras were clicking, filming relentlessly. The urge to trap, to freeze and impale moments of life like so many listless butterflies….but there was romance in the air. A woman handed the camera to a new-found acquaintance, leaning on the railings and posing blushingly, her hair lightly sprinkled with foam. The boat bobbed restlessly, its gleaming wood washed by light waves, its dragon prow surging forward. Meanwhile our guide, dressed in skin-tight jeans with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, was announcing that T-shirts and biscuits were on sale. Earlier on she had rattled off long statistics about the Port of Singapore – second only to Rotterdam in the number of ships arriving per day. The announcement switched to Japanese, then Chinese – her Japanese sounded fluent to my ears, while her English reeked of gangster slang. Perhaps she had done time at an American base or bar.
Pulau Kusu approached slowly, and then a boy quickly hopped onto the pier to tether our vessel. We alighted onto this tiny hilly island, site of a Singaporean October festival. There I found about a hundred small tortoises gathered in small communal pens, each with a shallow pond. I stood and watched them for a while, admiring their hard shells and statuesque semi-immobility. How far away their world was from the rush-hour one of Benzes and BMWs! Presumably lacking any sense of time or duration, their dull mud-pens may have constituted for them a vibrant world throbbing with exciting stimuli. Whatever the case, they seemed to care little for humans, as they unblinkingly inched forward towards some unidentified goal.
I strolled along a brightly painted walkway, its railings draped with creepers, passing a cluster of beach huts towards which one of the Australian cameraman was heading, brandishing a roll of toilet paper. There were two temples on Pulau Kusu. I hurried up to the Malay shrine, located up a steep wooded climb. There was nothing there, except a collection of unlit incense sticks and an ancient leatherbound Koran under a glass case. Down below, the Chinese temple was undergoing repair. In the temple compound was a resident python, slithering in a small caged cell. An empty food bowl stood outside.
The temple was peopled with statues of Taoist and Buddhist deities. A number of plump Chinese ladies with tiny feet stood about praying or selling flower wreaths and souvenirs. Before leaving, I murmured a quick prayer to two shy white goddesses, Gian Yin – Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Giver of Sons, and Da Bo Gong, who had the power to confer prosperity, and calm.
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