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
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,
….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
‘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.
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.
that matter to you.
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.