And then, ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized that I had prematurely cracked.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
….pistachio is the best litmus for assessing a good gelateria…… You can dismiss out of hand any places that colour their pistachio bright green. These people are not serious about their ice cream. …Real pistachio ice cream should be a pale, almost browny-green, and preferably from nuts harvested from the groves around the city of Bronte in north-eastern Sicily….
One afternoon, I watched a nature documentary about the Siberian salamander, a singularly unappealing amphibian distinguished only by its ability to bury itself in permafrost and remain, essentially frozen for several years at a time. Sometimes I felt that’s what I wanted to do.
Having children should, of course, have brought purpose, focus and joy into my life. Asger and Emil brought limitless amounts of the latter: they were in that golden age zone when your children actually quite like you, want to spend time with you, and are developing enough of a sense of humour to laugh at the same things as you – armpit farts, Gene Wilder movies, air drumming to ‘Wont Get Fooled Again’. But the birth of one’s children also very clearly marks the point at which your life is no longer just about you. Instead it becomes, initially, about making sure their heads don’t loll off; then its about spooning mush into their tiny mouths; holding them up when they try to walk; getting them ready for school; making sure they make the most of the lessons school has to teach them; then its about running a taxi service to ferry them to karate, swimming and guitar lessons; and, I imagine quite soon, to discos, parties and picking them up from the police station on a Friday night. At this fearful rate, it’ll be wedding speech and goodbye for ever before I’ve had time to properly get to know them.
He quotes Maxim Gorky’s Ryumin: ‘And the older you get, the more you become aware of the filth, the banality, the mediocrity, the injustice that surrounds us …’
And to think, Gorky hadn’t even seen daytime television.
….we weren’t going to sit on a beach in Goa for three months; …… we would take in the great historical sights of northern India as well ……Over the next week or so, while I began systematically buying up all the supplies of antibacterial hand gel within a twenty-mile radius, Lissen began plotting our three months in the subcontinent.
From what we could see of it, Delhi appeared to be one great post-apocalyptic building site. The roadsides were lined with rubble, mounds of corrugated iron, and endless ‘Work in progress’ and ‘Streetscaping’ signs, though there was little evidence of any actual work. …..It was difficult to tell whether this disarray was on account of the impending Commonwealth Games, or simply Delhi’s default state (hindsight revealed the answer to be ‘both’)
….the Baha’i faith is supposedly the rationalist’s choice, seeking equality, international peace, human rights and so forth. Also on the plus side, there is no old, angry dude in a dress at the top of its hierarchy. But its golden age was the sixties and seventies; today, there are thought to be only about five million followers around the world, and it seems to have slipped from the religious Premier League.
….my first impression of Amritsar was that it really is the most fearful shithole. If it is true, as diplomat Pavan K. Varma has written, that Indians ‘have a remarkable tolerance for inequity, filth and human suffering’, then Amritsar is a shining beacon of tolerance: rubble and rubbish-strewn, with roads like Emmental, mildewed buildings, and litter, God, the litter.
….We reached Wagah after half an hour by Toyota minivan …..It was a lively journey, as the driver appeared to be insane. At one point he hit one of the thousands of feral dogs which live in Amritsar…..There was a sickening, dull crack of bone and flesh on metal, and a slight jolt as we rode over the carcass, but not a flicker of reaction from the driver ….
The cursed fog descended on Agra ….there was literally fog in the entrance lobby of our hotel. At this rate we would bump into the Taj Mahal before we saw it….
Badri offered me my first Indian whisky, which tasted uncannily like toilet cleaner.
The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss described India as a ‘very old tapestry …worn threadbare by long use and tirelessly darned.’ It perfectly describes Jaipur. It looked to me as if an entire sixteenth-century city had been excavated, a dab of cement applied here and there, a million shards of gaudy Perspex signage flung up about the place, and a carpet of plastic bags and rubble strewn around to lend an air of ongoing commerce, then put back to use.
….Peter Matthiessen, ….. ‘In India, human misery seems so pervasive that one takes in only stray details: a warped leg, or a dead eye, a sick pariah dog eating withered grass, an ancient woman lifting her sari to move her shrunken bowels by the road.’
….Jainism ….Its followers are devoutedly non-violent and hold all life to be sacred ….which even extends to the micro-bacterial life. …One strain of these Jain sadhus, the Sthanakvasis, commit public suicide by starvation in a rite known as sallekhana. Oh yes, and when the Sthanakvasis defecate, they must spread their faeces out to dry within forty-eight minutes so that it will not become home to bacteria. I don’t imagine they are terribly popular house guests.
I am not a people person, it wont surprise you to hear. I tend not to like gatherings of more than me.
…the Kerala railways’ notion of first class did not quite chime with mine. Our compartment was truly decrepit, lacking both air conditioning and inner doors. Indian Railways is said to be the largest employer on earth with over a million and a half workers; but none of them appeared to have been assigned any cleaning duties.
The Dorsetshire couple had arrived that morning and looked precisely as if they had teleported directly from their village pub. They were in no way prepared for the realities of twenty-first-century India and had been the victims of a bag theft at Mumbai station the day before; she lost her credit cards and passport and they had spent twelve hours arranging a replacement.
‘We met in Mumbai in 1962,’ the husband told me, almost personally affronted by the changes to the city since then.
…Kerala ….It didn’t help that we had an open-air bathroom – something of a design flaw if you are in the middle of a jungle inhabited by aggressive, venomous creatures, I’d couldn’t help but think. As soon as I saw that bathroom I knew it meant trouble. During the night, after tossing and turning with a full bladder for some hours, my need to pee finally conquered my fear of what I might find there and I tiptoed across the bedroom and turned on the light. There before me, frozen as if caught doing something they shouldn’t, was enough wildlife for an entire Attenborough series – moths the size of microlights; hideous wasp-type things; various rodents; caterpillars; bats; and mosquitoes. These assorted beasties, which also included an astonishing, blood-red snail the size of a loaf of bread but – thank you, Jesus – no king cobras, then went berserk trying to flee the light, and I was engulfed by a blizzard of wings and antennae.
Lissen came to my rescue, alerted by what she later described as ‘girlish screaming’ from the bathroom …..
The human body is thought to lose around two litres of water in the form of sweat during the course of a normal twenty-four-hour period. I, rather carelessly, appear to have lost all mine in one go…. Ten minutes into my first session of Prana Vashya yoga…..
He then gave me …. an A3-sized laminated printout featuring photographs of him demonstrating eighty different asanas, each an unthinkable contortion of limbs – like traffic accident photographs without the blood.
…I began to read a book, Light on Yoga, which Lissen had given me ….. It was a classic yoga text by the world famous yogi B. K. S. Iyengar. ‘Never practice without having first evacuated your bowels,’ he was one of Mr Iyengar’s early pieces of advice. On the subject of what would happen if you didn’t evacuate your bowels, he was ominously silent. He was not much of an eater either: ‘If we eat for flavours of the tongue, we overeat and so suffer from digestive disorders which throw our systems out of gear,’ he warned. ‘The yogi believes in harmony, so he eats for the sake of sustenance only. He does not eat too much, or too little.’ Clearly the yogi has never tasted slow-braised, Chinese spare ribs.
A sudden … increase in my sex drive was just one of the puzzling questions to reflect on after my first yoga session …. Was a rampant sex drive a permanent side effect of yoga? …. Gandhi would not have approved of the sex urges, that is for sure. Though by all accounts he had quite the roving eye, in his writings he strongly disapproved of non-reproductive sex: ‘Marriage is for progeny, and not just for sexual enjoyment … The sex urge is a fine and noble thing … but it is meant only for the act of creation. Any other use of it is a sin against God and humanity.’
Perhaps you weren’t doing it properly, Mr Gandhi.
Though Hinduism has tempered the extremes of Islam in India since the early days of Mughal rule, it is still hard to imagine two religions less suited to cohabitation. They may agree on eschewing pork, but one can imagine the mortification with which a devout Muslim must regard Hinduism’s proliferation of gaudy deities. Hindus, meanwhile, must doubtless shake their heads at Islam’s lack of comforting myths, touchstones and superstitions and find its intellectualism cold and comfortless. ……Suraj and Devaki’s lives. They convinced me that Hinduism has much to commend it: it has no imams, popes, rabbis or figures of authority. There is no original sin, no big book, no set ritual by which to observe any fixed teachings just this great, amorphous, endlessly interpretable belief system. It famously has those thirty million or so gods; but, then again, in a way thirty million are preferable to one, great omnipotent one. Instead of having an all-powerful being with a Father Christmas timeshare beard, Hindus have Brahma, a vague ‘force’ which seems to me less overbearing. Besides, Hindus’ relationship with their gods appears to be refreshingly pragmatic – I noticed from one TV advert that they even use them to endorse toilet cleaner, something a Muslim would be unlikely to do. I think we can all agree, too, with the principles, if not the literality of karma.
Before we had left home, people had told me that it would take a good two weeks to adjust to life in India but, in truth, until now I had held it at arm’s length. I had been afraid of India, afraid of sickness, of theft, of injury, of guilt, but also of what it might do to me, with its surfeit of spirituality, its cacophony of ritual and belief; and afraid of how it might change me, for better or worse. I had locked the doors and windows to it all, but now I wasn’t so fearful or intimidated.
A blizzard of stars pricked the pitch black sky. I looked up at the crescent moon, felt a warm gust of evening air and listened to the rip of two-stroke engines as children scurried beneath the yellow lights. For the first time, this whole glorious, shouting mess of a country felt like a place I wanted to return to, over and over, for the rest of my life.
Men seek retreat for themselves: houses in the country, at the seashore, in the mountains …. But it is in our power, whenever we choose, to retreat into ourselves. For nowhere either with more quiet or freedom do we retreat than into our own minds …. Tranquility is nothing other than the proper ordering of the mind.
- Marcus Aurelius
A while ago, the New York Times, the planet’s newspaper of record, set out to quantify the essential criteria for happiness. These were, the journalist concluded, the following:
Be in possession of the basics – food, shelter, good health, safety.
Get enough sleep.
Have relationships that matter to you.
Take compassionate care of others and of yourself.
Have work or an interest that engages you.
And finally, to India. As I have said, it is not necessary – nor even desirable – to travel to India to sort out your problems. Lord knows, they have enough of their own without a bunch of messed-up foreigners adding to the pile. But, the one thing India can do is to put things into perspective. As Sathnam Sanghera writes in his book, The Boy with the Topknot: ‘In India, you need only glance out of your window to feel grateful for your lot.’
I defy anyone to spend any time in India and not return home considerably more grateful to have running water, a roof over their head and broadly adhered-to traffic regulations. And if India doesn’t make you appreciate these things then, frankly, you don’t deserve them.
With the Western economy having disappeared into an abyss of debt, many of us are now waking up to the fact that we did have enough of everything after all; that we don’t need a 3D TV, a 4G iPhone ……..that simply having sufficient of everything will do fine. …. This, in turn, leads us to that beloved ‘mindfulness’ trope that we must all learn ‘to appreciate the small things’. Well, it may be a cliché, but I genuinely find that these days I have a whole new appreciation of how great a really nice cup of tea can be, or of the fact that our bathroom is warm in the morning, or of those increasingly rare moments – soon, tragically, I suspect gone for ever – when one of my sons silently reaches for my hand while we are out walking, and I squeeze it tightly, and he squeezes back, and my heart nearly bursts.