Tuesday, April 26, 2016

From ‘Three-quarters of a footprint. Travels in South India’ by Joe Roberts

I don’t remember having jetlag in Bangalore, let alone culture shock. I felt at home there straight away, even if I was puzzled by what I saw and even when I saw wretched things….

I realized that Indian English wasn’t something quaint but a language in its own right, like American English….. Indian English is full of felicities and poignant poetry.

As I became familiar with this sort of conversation, I realized that many Indian men enjoyed dreaming up business schemes – and liked to think of themselves as entrepreneurs – but the brilliant notions generally went no further than the initial fantasy due to lack of capital.

Suchie told me her impressions of England. ‘It was small and very pretty. I didn’t like the food. Oh, Cadbury’s I liked but that was all.’

That was the first time in India that I felt homesick. But it wasn’t true homesickness, more of a general self-doubt. I wondered if I really liked the country and, if so, enough to stay until October? Could I cope with the people? They were pleasant enough and king to me and much polite and more considerate of each other than people at home …but who could I talk to and, more to the point, laugh with? The Indian sense of humour seemed completely incompatible. I wondered if I’d ever get used to the squalor, the beggars, the flyblown pi-dogs and the ghastly faecal smell of the streets. And then I considered the myriad inconveniences and inefficiencies of everyday life, the difficulty of making a telephone call or buying a railway ticket, for instance, or the days without running water, and this line of thought made me feel disappointed in myself. Such gloomy considerations led to a general malaise and I found myself unable to go back to sleep.

‘Which is better,’ asked Atul, ‘in your opinion, Wendy’s or Burger King?’ Dr Lal thought for a moment then gave a cryptic answer: ‘I believe America is whatever you are looking for. It is there to be found.’ Atul nodded, like the follower of a guru, absorbing some great wisdom.

The travel agents were three identical brothers who looked like pigeons. They always hedged their bets by saying it would be nearly impossible to find a place on such a train or bus (usually because it was a religious holiday) but they would see what they could do. That way, if they got you a ticket you were grateful and if they didn’t, they had a good reason. Generally they managed to get me the tickets I wanted.

Indian public lavatories are nearly always vile, even those in decent restaurants (whereas domestic bathrooms are immaculate) and it took me a while to work out why they let them get so bad. It is to do with the caste system and ‘pollution’ laws; public lavatories are cleaned by bhangis, the lowest of untouchables and very little concern is shown for them and their repellent livelihood. Something nearer contempt prevails. The attitude seems to be: what difference does it make to a bhangi whether you shit down the hole or on the floor?

….Hampi……The region is rich with legend and history and the weird combination of the two that is an Indian commonplace….. Partly its due to a very diverse set of chronologies; calendars varied from kingdom to kingdom and events were difficult to date precisely; this vagueness allowed a good deal of fanciful historic interpretation and the interpreters of history were invariably priests with an outlook attuned to the divine and miraculous…

….I’d often heard similarities between traditional Celtic music (as performed by the Chieftains or Alain Stivell) and Indian music

Dogs, horses, cows, even cats, have eyes that we can recognize emotion in, emotions that we imagine correspond with our own; not so with goats, they are inscrutable creatures. Is that the reason for the old demonic connection, that alien gaze?

At Mandya we stopped for breakfast at a canteen run by the tourist board: two big, bright, light-blue halls and stern notices in English and Kannada: Let Not Your Conversation Be A Nuisance To Others and No Political Activities Will be Tolerated.

A notice was stuck on a pillar….concerned a missing seven-year-old boy. The most poignant detail was that his complexion was described as ‘Bournvita’. That struck me as particularly heartbreaking, so obviously a loving mothers notion. I was reflecting on the poor mothers agony when a tall beggarwoman approached me with a printed card. It was a catalogue of misfortunes, all misspelt. The first couple of lines said that she was an epileptic, that she had fallen down a well and had been struck dumb with shock, that her parents were too poor to support her ….I got the drift and, still saddened by the ‘Bournvita’ child, gave her ten rupees – a generous amount when fifty paise is the normal donation, though ten rupees is less than fifty pence. She must have spread the word among other beggars because soon I was being approached from all sides by ragged figures. The pleasant anonymity that I’d been enjoying evaporated.

….I recognized the smell of Madras, burning rubber and low-octane fuel, that I’d mistaken for the chimerical ‘Smell of India’. Since then I’d come to the conclusion that there were distinctive smells that one associated with particular cities or areas of cities and that a generalized Indian smell would be as hard to isolate as a generalized English one; though it seems to have become a literary convention that the whole subcontinent has a uniform pungency.

….unsophisticated Americans whom I discovered, by eavesdropping, to be missionaries, evangelists with bovine expressions …When I heard of their conversation, with its inherent assumptions of racial, cultural and moral superiority, I found intensely irritating. They sounded far less educated and open-minded than the average Brahmin priest whose teachings they had come to refute.

I was always impressed by this spontaneous Indian capacity for friendship. It made me ashamed that so often, out of shyness, I was standoffish….

…..it seemed to me that Hinduism was flexible and multifaceted enough to adapt infinitely without compromising any of its essential truths, and far less oppressive than either Islam or Christianity could be in many other nations.

There were lots of people washing, cleaning their teeth, scraping their tongues with U-shaped wires attached to their toothbrushes. The colour and texture of one’s tongue is a matter of daily concern to the health-conscious Indian.

I found Indian ‘classical’ music perfect for long train journeys; time passed so slowly that one entered a sort of trance and then the music unfurled like a sequence of short vivid dreams. There was a similarity to the serious jazz of John Coltrane, the same transcendent quality and the feeling of going over and over a melody as if trying to break free some divine message encoded in the notes. Also, as in jazz generally, the instruments seemed to speak or sing as extensions of the human voice. It was as if the landscapes that I could see through the bars of the windows (the glistening paddies, green plains, nullahs stirring back to life with the rains) were being described by the music. That’s exactly right, I kept thinking.
Late in the evening we came to Itarsi. It was drizzling. Cows ambled along the platform….

….two snake-charmers….The melody that they played sounded vaguely Scottish to me…..

Outside, on a wooden pole, were three loudspeakers, the old-fashioned kind that one associates with holiday camps. Intermittently, highly distorted film music would blast out. It was unbelievably loud, an awful screeching, all treble and no bass. I asked the green-eyed proprietor how he could stand it and he told me that it was an idea devised by the Chamber of Commerce (of which he was a member) to encourage shoppers. ‘You see, all these songs are very high in the hit parade.’

…..Benaras. I’d read about it but reading hadn’t prepared me for the crowds, the clamouring, the lunatic intensity of it all. Whatever I thought that I understood of Hinduism flew from me. All the colour and noise that I loved about India were concentrated here into an experience that was weird and alarming. No frame of reference to cling to, nothing familiar, I was out of my depth in a great flood of people. ….Benaras is, more than anywhere else in India, a city of conmen. All Westerners, probably all visiting Indians, are fair game. Cheats and swindlers abounded in the great places of Christian pilgrimage after all. ….Benaras from the river was stunning. A three-mile long cliff of massive and dilapidated masonry. Platforms, temples, staircases and passageways, vast decaying palaces rising in layers from the filthy water. It was like a monstrous Venice, a vision to thrill Piranesi, the fever-dream of a Gothic novelist, the opium hallucination of a doomed French Symbolist. The sun, through the damp mist, was a great yellow beam, Ravi leered at me. ‘Master, single man? You’d like to meet Benaras girl, true virgin?’ I ignored him. ‘Master prefer strong Indian boy, maybe?’

….I listened to mournful sarangi music all the way to Mysore, like rainclouds being sawn in half. At Maddur I bought some idlis from a vendor. Just as I was biting into the first one, I looked out of the train window and on the platform there was a pi-dog with a length of tapeworm hanging from its anus; I was so put off that I threw the idlis to the poor creature, who devoured them with one gulp. An old blind man came down the aisle playing a penny whistle. He was led by a girl who held out a cloth sack for coins. It seemed a Dickensian arrangement.
In front of Mysore Station I stood in line for a rickshaw. A man …..came out of the station and waved to me. He walked over, it seemed that he knew me. But I couldn’t place him. ‘My good friend, hello! How fine it is to see you!’…. ‘At the precise moment I leave the station my eyes land on you! I think, truly, this is auspicious.’ Where had we met before? ‘Ah, a philosophical question. But who can describe the previous life cycle? Perhaps we were brothers? But is not the world one family? Are we also not brothers in this life?’ So he didn’t know me at all? I waited for it. ‘Like you I have just arrived in Mysore. My home is Channapatna. A terrible fire has destroyed my dwelling place…’

….watching Hindi movies generally, made me feel an absolute outsider. The films went against all my Western notions of taste ….these…films seemed vulgar and idiotic…most of the heroes were too stout to dance convincingly. The heroines spent a lot of time fleeing from these portly figures who seemed anxious to kiss them….a heroine would confront her pursuer and then their two faces would fill the screen, their lips drawing closer and closer – at the last possible moment, she would turn away and resume her avian trilling. Then the frustrated hero, presumably for relief, would jerk his pelvis, dog-like, against a tree trunk, or lie stomach-down on the grass with his great bottom bobbing up and down suggestively.

I passed a noisy temple; there were shouted prayers and somebody was banging a drum and it struck me that all that wacky exuberance was closer to the heart of Hinduism than the lofty platitudes of spiritual philosophers.

‘Rain will be coming in one week or two weeks or three weeks,’ said the waiter, hedging his bets meteorologically.

Madurai had more holy cows than any city I’d been to….An elephant came swaying out of an alley, led by its keeper, heading for the temple. None of the merchants or shoppers paid it any more attention than they would have paid a delivery van.

I decided to swim but, remembering the floating turds around the bathing ghat, thought it wise to walk in the other direction and find a clean stretch of water.

Kathakali is the famous dance-drama of Kerala. Stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are acted out by extraordinary dancers in the most spectacular costumes…..I suppose it was all a bit like the spectacles at Versailles and the courtly masques of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A proper Kathakali performance lasts all night …..The movements of the face have become central to the drama. The nine rasa ,dramatic emotions (tranquility, fear, loathing, desire, wonder, courage, pathos, anger and ridicule) are expressed with the weirdest distortions of the facial muscles and, if the lecturer hadn’t announced each one, I’d never have guessed them. They all seemed to express the same thing to me – that the dancer was about to sneeze

By and large, a drunken Indian is nothing to worry about; alcohol brings out a floppy silliness, that’s all – one rarely comes across the confused and pent-up fury that can make a northern-European drunk so threatening.

Somebody, right outside my door, was clearing his throat in the loudest possible manner. It took him a good five minutes to do. Its more like clearing the lungs than just the throat. I’d watched men performing this elimination, the whole neck and chest racked with convulsive spasms…..This obsession with mucus is hard to understand. In certain areas the dust might have something to do with it. There are also breathing exercises that figures in yoga and breathing itself has religious significance (Prana). Perhaps the elimination of mucus is to ease breathing. But women have to breathe as well as men and I’d never encountered a female ‘hawker’…..mucus does hold a real horror for most Indians. To carry a used handkerchief in one’s pocket is about as unthinkable as carry used lavatory paper about.

Spoken Malayalam, which is sometimes compared to the noise of peas rattling in a tin cup, does sound extraordinary, unlike any other Indian language. It has a lot of ‘clanging’ sounds ….

The Black Jews, including the Bene Israel community up the coast in Bombay, probably number a couple of thousand still. I was told that quite a few had gone to Israel but had been treated badly and had since returned.

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