Monday, 27 April 2020

Interlude 5—Indian Images


Awake to a room
by the beach at Goa,
a high white cave
of slumbering heat,
the lazy fan
painting the walls
with brush-strokes 
of wave sound.

Outside the endless sands
preserve the naked footprints
of a thousand gods
sandwiched deep between 
the layers of crashing waves.

And ghosts of fevered Jesuits 
gaunt as Greco Christs
haunt the tombs
of mouldering laterite Notre Dames
to whisper in the souls of travellers
vying still for puny man's eternity.

Miracles still keep
the flesh and bone of Xavier
as young as yesterday
before the wondering eyes
of faithful devotees.
Once, long years ago 
a woman overcome with ecstasy,
perhaps the one true convert,
bit a toe from off that sacred foot.

Upon the wall above, bejeweled Ganesa
huge amidst his happy fragile acolytes
a garish ponderous rolling bulk
of comfort, peace and succour
celebrating as he smiles enormously
the rotund joviality of our too brief lives.

If he were mine
I would not give him up 
to drink the blood 
and eat the flesh
of promises uncertain 
and days of pain and thorns and suffering.


High upon the dusty Deccan plateau
I sit amongst the dancing ancient stones
while prancing priapetic princes
copulate with energetic friends
and happy jewelled concubines
in mock disapprobation 
avert their eyes and preen themselves
for pleasures ever to be locked in stone.

Did Kajuraho's princes fight and kill and die
as ever princes have been wont to do?
Were pleasures taken as reward for valour
or with captive fair or bestial?
If so they did not think it true enough
to be immortalized in stone
for here no one can die, except perhaps from ecstasy,
and days in endless leisure spent
pile one atop the next to reach
the sacred mountain peak.

This culture of unbridled joy
eight centuries before I came
could celebrate with such abandon
as to make the silent rocks alive
and tell this tale so unalike 
the grubby world of now
where loveless gods look down
and sneer at our sad procreation.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Beggars and Gentlemen—part 4

The shellpocked ruins of the Residency as both Jim and I saw them in Lucknow
The governor at Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence, prepared the city for the Indian Rebellion of 1857 much more effectively than did General Wheeler at Cawnpore. When the rebellion broke out, over 2,000 British and loyal Indian troops and civilians, including many women and children, took refuge in the fortified Residency buildings in the centre of the city. They held out from May 30 to November 27 when they were finally relieved. Oddly, they had been relieved once already. On September 25, Colonel (now Brigadier-general) James Neill, who had been slowly slaughtering his way from Varanasi, led his 1st Madras Fusiliers as part of a relief attack on the city. It succeeded, but there were not enough soldiers left to force a way out, so they became part of the defence in a second siege. Neill, in a touch of poetic justice, was killed in the attack.
After Lucknow was relieved, the Residency was kept in its ruined state as a memorial and it remains so today. Jim was born in Lucknow in 1905 and visited the ruins several times as a child and as an adult, so was able to tell me many exciting tales of the Residency’s defence. When I went to visit the ruins, they looked as they had eighty years before, so I could half-close my eyes and imagine a small boy in short pants or a young man in jodhpurs and solar topi walking ahead of me. 
After visiting the Residency, I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around the quiet tree-lined streets of the cantonment area of Lucknow. This was where the British had lived during the Raj and their bungalows were still there although, according to the name plates by the gates, now mostly occupied by high-ranking Indian army officers.
While I was peering at one bungalow, an aged Indian gardener poked his head above the rose bushes and asked who I was and what I was doing. I explained that I was from Canada and that my father had been born in Lucknow many years before.
“What was his name,” the old man asked. I told him and he nodded his head. “This is the house he was born in.”
Of course it wasn’t, at least no more likely than any of the other identical bungalows, but it was a delightful idea. It was told in a genuine attempt to be helpful and friendly and not in the insincere way of so many attempts to scrounge baksheesh. To the gardener, there was no difference between working for an imperial engineer on the Bengal and North Western Railway and a general in the Indian Army. 
A slowly decaying imperial bungalow on the hill above Simla
If you know anything of the British Raj, walking through Simla (now Shimla), is like entering a time warp. The Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies; Christ Church, where the minister showed me the entry in the church annals recording Eve and Jim’s wedding; the toy train from Kalka, which is still hauled by steam locomotives over 864 bridges and through 102 tunnels; the immaculately uniformed waiters in the high-ceilinged tea rooms on the Mall; the countless slowly decaying imperial bungalows; and the sad overgrown cemeteries filled with sahibs, memsahibs and their children, are all incredibly evocative of the nostalgia I recognized around the fire in Paisley. With the exception of the wedding in Christ Church, I had no specific locales in Simla to evoke my parents, but the whole town was like a museum to Eve and Jim’s lost past.
Churches, slowly deteriorating bungalows, overgrown cemeteries, cricket, an incredible railway network and a ponderous bureaucracy are the legacy of two centuries of British rule in India. Personally, the Raj of my parents, their remembrances of it, and what it made them, have all played their part in creating who I am. However fascinating it is to explore the past, one’s own or one’s
Indian laundry
culture, it is a not particularly profitable or healthy, and probably a doomed, activity. 
After Simla, I still had several weeks in India, travelling on my father’s trains but experiencing an India that he and my mother were never a part of. For a westerner, India is not an easy country to know and there were times on my travels when I sincerely wished for the closeted, protected, privileged existence that Eve and Jim enjoyed, but the Indian culture which had existed for thousands of years before the Raj, which had absorbed from the Raj what it wanted, and which continues to evolve and change in its own way is where I was and where I wanted be. 
I went to India seeking remnants of a very specific, personal past, but I ended up appreciating a much larger history that gifted me extraordinary days wandering around and appreciating Fatehpur Sikri, Hampi, Ellora and Ajanta, Arunja’s Penance, and a host of other extraordinary places. I suffered dirt, noise, suspect food, crooked rickshaw drivers, interminable waits, and numberless beggars and thieves, but I also met some of the kindest, gentlest people on earth who made my travelling exceptional in countless tiny way: Mr. Pavri who bought Jen and I supper; the taxi driver who refused to charge us for the trip because the temple at our destination was closed; the aged, turbaned, impressively moustachioed Sikh guide who showed us round the palace where he had once been a retainer for the long vanished Maharaja. 
The perspectives that I inherited directly and indirectly from my parents—skepticism and a love of story, history and travel—are much more important than the eroding specifics of the world that I searched for in India. I loved standing in the doorway of Christ Church in Simla where Eve and Jim’s wedding photograph was taken and was enchanted by the myriad tiny remnants of the Raj that I encountered. However, if I am honest, I can never capture the nostalgia of my parents, but then I suppose that is the nature of nostalgia. Even in Simla, the nostalgia is simply a bonus that spices and enlivens the history that, at the root of it, stirs my emotions.
Obligatory photo in front of the Taj Mahal
I am an atheist but I can stand in absolute awe for an age in the nave of Chartres Cathedral; I have never been a soldier and I can come close to tears standing in no-man’s-land where the Newfoundland Regiment were slaughtered in half an hour on July 1, 1916; I am a slightly cynical skeptic and yet I can feel the excitement of being a twelve-year-old boy standing by Hadrian’s Wall watching seventy or so middle-aged Italian re-enactors marching back and forth and play-fighting as a Roman legionaries. The Raj, through my parents’ expression of their nostalgia for it, gave me that gift, but it would not be much of a gift if it had not been crafted and polished by countless other experiences, an early one of which was an odd congruence of castles.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Beggars and Gentlemen—part 3

A remnant of the RAJ
Occasionally when the two legacies of British imperialism intersected, the results were startling. In Delhi I went to the main station to book the next leg of my journey. 
“How long will you be in India?” the clerk behind the desk asked.
“About another five weeks,” I said.
“Very well,” the enigmatic head nod, “then tell me where you wish to go and I shall book it.”
“But I don’t know exactly.”
“No matter. It can be changed.”
The clerk unfolded a large map of India and over the following half hour we worked out an itinerary that took me to all the major places I wanted to visit.
“Very good,” the clerk congratulated me. “You will see much of India. Come back tomorrow.”
Without much faith, I returned the next day. My clerk stood and waved a greeting at me above the heads of the other, less-fortunate travellers. “Everything is done,” he said, handing over a printed itinerary. “Please enjoy your stay in my country.”
If this had happened in Japan, where people get upset if a train is a minute late, I would have believed our clerk, but after ten days in India, I was getting used to travel uncertainty. Miraculously it worked perfectly; the trains were where they should be, mostly when they should be, even at the places where there was only a half hour connection. 
Some things haven't changed
since long before the British arrived
Of course, the trains didn’t always run on time. One train, already scheduled to take nearly fifteen hours to cover 250 kilometres, was two-and-a-half hours late arriving, and some routes were better than others. High speed trains ran between some major centres, but on rural lines it was still sometimes necessary to change trains because the gauge of the rails changed. The highlight was, four weeks after my visit with the clerk in Delhi, I arrived at two in the morning at Madras (now Chennai) station to find my name handwritten in careful gothic script on a board on the platform, a reserved sleeping car complete with bedding, and a smiling attendant who, unasked, brought breakfast in the morning. Perhaps Jim’s ghost was looking after me.
India is, and I suspect has always been, a land of staggering divergence—cleanliness and filth, peace and violence, gentlemen and beggars. I suspect this is why so many people find it so difficult to adjust to travelling in India. From one moment to the next you can never be totally certain which side of the contrasts you are about to land on. Most of these disparities can be encountered on the railways.
My favourite railway companion was a gentlemanly Parsee, Mr. Pavri, on a journey down to Bombay (now Mumbai). He was an education specialist and we conversed pleasantly on the relative strengths and flaws of education in India, Canada and Scotland and he told me about his religion and his sorrow that his three sons were in America and would not be able to care for him in his old age. 
Every so often, he would break off the conversation with, “Please excuse me for a moment.” He would then produce a tiny transistor radio from his pocket, press it to his ear for a moment or two before returning it to his pocket. Noticing my puzzled expression, he explained, “Cricket. The test match with Pakistan is on just now. It is the third day and we are not doing so well.” I suppose that is the advantage of a five-day-long cricket match—one doesn’t need to pay attention all the time.
Gateway to India in Bombay (Mumbai),
the first sight for many coming to the RAJ
As the train reached Bombay’s sprawling suburbs, Mr. Pavri invited Jen and I to get off a stop before our destination. He took us in a taxi to a restaurant and bought us dinner, although he didn’t eat, “My wife will have prepared something for me,” and took us back to the station to complete our journey.
On the other side of train travel in India, I was targeted by a beggar girl on a platform in Jhansi. She was 10 or 12 years old and had the most incredibly annoying whine imaginable. By then I had been travelling for a while and was used to beggars and took precautions around keeping my packs at my feet, if possible with a foot through a strap. The fact that this girl had followed me through the station and stood about four feet away whining incessantly and unbearably should have given me a warning, but it didn’t. Eventually, I could take no more. I stood up, took a couple of steps forward and yelled at her to shut up and go away. She vanished into the crowd, and so did the daypack that had been at my feet.
I looked around, but it was futile; the theft was professional and the pack long gone. I went to report the loss to the railway police and bureaucracy kicked in. I was asked politely but repeatedly what colour the pack was, how big it was and what was in it. My only consolation was that opening the pack must have been a disappointment for the thief since most of the contents were either personal—prescription glasses, address book, etc.—or of low value—small camera or bottle of perfume. The most frustrating loss was the trip diary from Nepal.
After two hours of alternately being asked the same questions and sitting waiting for a report to be drawn up, I had an idea. There was no hope of getting the pack back, but I needed something official for the insurance company back home. I got a piece of paper from a policeman, wrote out what had happened and what had been stolen, and signed it. I then took it up to the desk and pushed it over. The policeman didn’t speak English so I pointed to the impressive array of rubber stamps on his desk and mimicked stamping the letter. He got the idea and entered into the spirit of things, smilingly stamping the letter with an impressive collection of Hindi stamps. I don’t know what the insurance company made of them all, but I was eventually reimbursed.
Of course, not everyone met on an Indian train is a gentlemanly as Mr. Pavri. On a commuter train in Bombay Jen and I were separated in a crowd so dense that neither of us could move. Jen was shamelessly groped by the men around her. When we pulled into a station and the doors opened, I had to physically haul people out of the way to get Jen off the train. The passengers thought it was a great joke and only later did we learn that there were separate carriages for women.
An alternative mode of transport
Taxing though the railways could be, there were worse modes of transport. I feared for my life on numerous occasions as taxi drivers played chicken at high speeds with approaching buses, and almost lost an arm as I careened through traffic clinging onto the side of a Tuk Tuk. Once, an insane rickshaw driver hurtled round a corner into the middle of a funeral procession. Amidst much angry shouting and gesticulating, the linen-wrapped corpse was thrust under my nose to point out how inappropriate the rickshaw driver’s actions had been. At least on the trains, there were times when I was close to being alone and the railways were always a connection with my parents. I travelled by train to see sights all across India from the Taj Mahal to the beaches of Goa, but there were two places where I could be certain that I was walking in Eve and Jim’s footsteps.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Beggars and Gentleman—part 2

The time of day when you can forgive India everything
My first visit to India lasted only 24 hours, yet it encapsulated many of the divergent annoyances and joys of a much longer sojourn, and introduced me to one of the two things that, it is said, India inherited from the British, the bureaucracy. 
It was December 23, 1986 and, with my wife Jen, I was just over six weeks into a year-long backpack around the world. Among many other things, I had cried at ground zero in Hiroshima, been tear gassed in Seoul, propositioned in an unrecognized brothel in Thailand and was now heading for some trekking in Nepal. The plan was for a short, two-and-a-half hour flight from Bangkok to Calcutta (now Kolkata), and an even shorter ongoing connection to Kathmandu.
My farewell to Bangkok was harsh with a sleepless night, missed taxis and excruciating airport delays. Long after dark, exhausted and hours after my connecting flight would have left Calcutta, I was ushered out towards the waiting Air India plane. Harsh floodlights snapped on and Thai police in full riot gear watched us all file slowly across the wet tarmac. I guess a grubby backpacker with a beard and long hair was fair game. I was pulled aside and frisked. Standing in the glare with legs apart, arms out wide and head slumped despondently on my chest as I was searched, the image of Brad Davis in the airport scene in Midnight Express flashed uncomfortable into my mind.
Eventually I was let on the plane and it was then that India came to my rescue. I was presented with a single rose and a cool cloth to wipe my brow then, in a scene that my father would have appreciated, the immaculately dressed First Cabin Officer approached me and said, “Would you like a whisky after take-off, sir.” It was a moment in which I could have forgiven imperialism almost anything. Then we arrived in Calcutta.
The bureaucracy kicked in at immigration in Calcutta airport. Because I was supposed to be in transit, I had no visa, yet the next flight to Kathmandu was not until the following evening. After much back and forth, discussion and paper stamping, I was allowed through to collect my bags. Because I was technically in transit, I was allowed to stay in the nearby Airport Rest House. 
The Airport Rest House was a large bungalow that had once been a part of the Dum Dum Barracks where the British had invented the Hague Convention-banned expanding bullet of the same name. My excitement at being in a piece of British imperial history was somewhat diminished by the fact that the place looked as if it hadn’t been painted, the bathrooms cleaned or anything repaired since my father might have stayed there. The only bright spot was that I had had the foresight to purchase a bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich during the interminable wait in Bangkok, and the bungalow was stocked with glasses and ice, so I sat in a cane chair on the generous, screened verandah and, to the clink of ice in a glass of whisky, toasted my parent’s vanished world.
The next day was Christmas Eve and I felt refreshed enough to consider searching out some other Raj remnants in the old imperial capital city. A cheerful official gave me my first sighting of the Indian head nod that could mean yes or no, or anything between, and confirmed that it was a wonderful idea to go into the city even if the bus to downtown would leave, “Maybe ten. Maybe later”, and he had no idea when the bus back might be. He also encouraged me by telling me that a “holy man” was going to be in the city and that there would be, “…millions of people downtown. So many crowds that, if you fall over, you will not fall down. You land on people.” Enticing though this inner ring of Dante’s Hell sounded, I decided to confine myself to the Dum Dum Barracks and spend the day reading.
That evening, after more waiting and bureaucracy, I caught my flight to Kathmandu where, in a surreal change of scene, I checked into the Sheraton (at the trekker’s rate), discovered the Gurkha Bar and drank and ate peanuts in lieu of supper.
After a month’s trekking and rafting in Nepal, I returned to India on a luxury overnight bus with reclining seats. I soon discovered that reclining wasn’t a guarantee but more of an either/or—my seat didn’t recline, the one in front did. As a consequence, I spent the night uncomfortably bolt upright a few inches from the over-greased hair of the blissfully snoring passenger in front. 
Varanasi temple
Varanasi, or Benares as my parent’s knew it, is the site where Shiva dropped the severed head of Brahma after he tore it off in battle. It is also the site of a minor massacre in 1799 (five Europeans were killed) and a much larger one at the beginning of the rebellion in 1857. Colonel James Neill of the 1st Madras Fusiliers, in a fit of Old Testament passion, declared that “the Word of God gives no authority to the modern tenderness for human life”, ordered his artillery to open fire on a confused mass of soldiers and Sikhs and proceeded to hang anyone suspected of rebellious intent. It was not an auspicious place to begin my exploration of India’s imperial past. 
Unfortunately, in Varanasi I never discovered one of the strangest remnants of the Raj. Somewhere in the bustling city there is a banquet hall with a large dining table kept exactly as it was laid out in 1906 for a visit by the Prince of Wales (later one of the Georges who thought my father “trusty and well-beloved”).
What I did discover was that Varanasi is a popular place for weddings, all of which seem to involve brass bands playing all night, and the holier a shrine, the dirtier and the more it is overrun with beggars. It was also very crowded and the options of getting around are: risking 12 to a Tuk Tuk (a motorized rickshaw designed to carry four), braving insane and often crooked traditional rickshaw haulers or walking, which involved avoiding strolling cows, being pummelled by crowds and having betel juice spat down one’s legs.
The other thing I learned about India in Varanasi was that, however bad the day had been, it was often followed by a sunset so stunningly beautiful that I could forgive the country anything. In Varanasi the sunset is best seen from a boat on the Ganges River as it turns the buildings above the burning ghats ethereal shades of orange and red.
Part of my father's legacy
The other thing that India inherited from the British was something my father spent his years there working on. India possesses the fourth largest railway network in the world (after America, Russia and China). It carries over 22 million passengers per day between 8500 stations on 120,000 kilometres of track of five different gauges at speeds that range from impressive to snail-like. In honour of Jim’s memory, I was looking forward to travelling on the trains. Consequently, I had purchased a first class railway pass in advance and had it activated, bureaucratically, in Varanasi. 
Travelling by train, at least back in the 1980s, was probably as close to recapturing my parent’s world of privilege as possible. Many trains were still steam in those days and first class compartments were often quiet idylls of gleaming wood panels, the smell of leather, mirrors ornate with gilt foliage, and heavy windows which, at the pull of strap, disappeared with a loud thump into a gap in the carriage wall. There was even one that still had, beneath the seats, metal lined boxes with a separate door opening to the outside through which, in the days before air conditioning, large blocks of ice were introduced.
The people one met in these compartments were Indians, but in some cases more British than the long-gone rulers. One business man who was old enough to remember the Raj even spent an hour lecturing me on how he wished the British would return because life had been so much better when they had ruled. What he selfishly meant was how much better life had been for him.
He reminded me of an Indian I had worked beside in Canada. He was a keen photographer and had the remarkable talent of taking pictures of his crowded homeland with no people in them. When I asked him why there were no people in his pictures he told me that he was not interested in photographing people and described hundreds of millions of his fellow countrymen as “insects”. Even the most strident class and race conscious memsahib would have been hard pressed to compete with that level of superiority.