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.

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