Stage 8 – India & Bangladesh: Punjab To Bengal [1/2]
India is quite possibly the most astoundingly exotic and multi-faceted country on Earth. Its long, human history is one of the continual arrival of people; settlers and conquerors drawn alike by her legendary fertility and riches. All have added to the rich tapestry of Indian culture, yet none has ever changed it completely. It’s a land in which entire religions and philosophies have been born and grown-up side-by-side, in what must be one of the most tolerant societies on Earth. Incredible India, as the Indian Tourism Ministry likes to call it.
My first encounter with India came in 2005, when, following a work placement in Bangalore, I spent three weeks backpacking around the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I came away with very different impressions of India, than those I had come away with from Pakistan two years earlier. As a foreign visitor to India, one must be constantly alert in order to avoid being scammed, cheated or over-charged, and must endure the omnipresence of touts and beggars; it seems there are no depths of dishonesty or self-debasement short of outright robbery to which some will sink in order to make a few dollars from a passing foreigner. This is all well enough, and can be seen in numerous tourist hotspots across the globe, where large discrepancies exist between the standard of living of visitors and that of the locals. But I soon saw that it was not just the foreigners who were being cheated; my Indian colleagues in the office would complain just as vehemently of over-charging rickshaw drivers or scamming bazaar merchants as any of us, though this impression was best embodied at a Keralan bus station. In the city of Alappuzha a bus rolls into the station, and an unruly crowd form a scrum to board, with middle-aged men pushing past frail elderly women, stepping on children in order to secure a seat on the vehicle, and avoid standing up. It seemed that through desperation, people here would literally step over their own grandmothers in order to get what they wanted. Pakistan might be hopelessly divided along ethnic or sectarian lines, but here in India it seemed simply like a free-for-all. Surely the great religious tolerance in India was not simply contempt for all fellow countrymen, regardless of creed?
I am entering India on the 7th March 2008 with a mind to forget my previous experiences, and try to approach the place as if it were my first time here. My journey will take me across the plains of northern India, through centres of Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism, through the city of Kolkata and on into Bangladesh, to the very edge of the subcontinent. It will take me through some highly touristed areas, but I hoped to bypass the worst of the tourist traps, stay with locals, and of course avoid the horror of Indian public transport at all costs.
At the previously quiet Pakistan-India border crossing, known as Attari Road to the Indians, crowds gather on both sides in the run-up to sunset when a ceremonial closing of the border gates takes place amongst all manner of pomp. Each side selects its tallest soldiers, who wear dark red cockscombs giving them the air of courting grouse, march forward and back in great goosesteps, shouting, gurning and finally slamming the gate in symbolic anger. It’s rather a sad testament to the division between two countries which for centuries were largely a single unit, with millennia of shared history. Returning to the car, I find that one of the idle men loitering around the border station has covered my car in blooms which have fallen from the overhanging trees, and of course his hand comes out for payment. The tribulations of India begin, before I have driven even one hundred metres into the country.
My first city in India, as for all overlanders, is Amritsar, the holiest city of the Sikhs, whose name means ‘pool of the nectar of immortality’. My host is Alvin, a Malaysian expat, station manager for Singapore Airlines who tells me I’ll be met at the reception of the four-star hotel in which he lives. I get half of his suite; a private bathroom, a double bed which is the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in, and a pool table. I’m feeling pretty lucky, but all these comforts fade into insignificance when I’m invited to join the crew for drinks. After months in the strict Islamic societies of Iran and Pakistan, it’s an immeasurable delight to walk into a room full of Singapore Airlines’ attractive female cabin crew, be offered a beer, and chat and drink with some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
Amritsar is the main city of Sikh cultural, political and religious history, and bustles with pilgrims who flock to the Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, to bathe in its waters, all equal in front of God. The Golden Temple has a very welcoming air; non-Sikhs are equally welcome to enter and eat at the langar (a communal canteen where vegetarian food is served free of charge to all), and even sleep at the temple. Men and women mix freely, and whole families arrive with an air of celebration, adults and romping children all bathing in the temple’s jade coloured waters. Sikhism was founded here in Punjab in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, a Hindu born near Lahore who came to refute both Hinduism and Islam, and the injustice of the caste system. Sikhs are supposed to embody faith and justice as ‘saint-soldiers’, and can easily be identified with their long, unshorn hair covered in lofty turbans. I get chatting with an elderly Sikh gentleman who accompanies me to the langar. Often of large stature, swarthy, charming and valorous, Sikhs remind me slightly of the Pashtuns of Pakistan’s north-west frontier, and during colonial times, the British found them almost as difficult adversaries as those fierce tribesmen of the Hindukush.
From Amritsar, I head south from the lush greenery of Indian Punjab (noticeably greener than Pakistani Punjab) through thinning vegetation, and eventually barren, sandy desert, into the state of Rajasthan. The area is buzzing with Indian military vehicles; another reminder of the huge distrust between the two neighbours in this sensitive border area. My first stop is the city of Bikaner, where I am staying with Manvendra, a fifty-two year old lawyer and artist. The sweltering pre-monsoon heat is already making the days unpleasantly hot, and it’s not until evening that we venture out. We get into Manvendra’s car, which has ‘ADVOCATE’ prominently displayed on the windscreen (which, he explains, will deter police from pulling him over or making any trouble) and drive to the Sardul Club, which with its manicured lawns, full-sized snooker table, dining room complete with long antique dining table, and fleet of waiters in tails, reeks of colonial days. Initially we sit in the warm evening air sipping gin and tonics and scotch, chatting about India. Later, we are invited to join three club members – who have obviously enjoyed a good bit more whisky than Manvendra or I – and I’m given the dubious honour of being hand-fed lamb curry by one gentleman, who manages to land a good dollop of the stuff on my shirt. Eventually, after drunken pleas of eternal friendship, we make our retreat. Manvendra, also a touch tipsy, drives me back very carefully through the empty streets, reaches home, backs his car lightly into mine, and we retire for the night.
Next morning, Manvendra’s friend Durga collects me on his motorcycle and takes me around Bikaner’s old town, made up of anarchic, squalid lanes of open sewers which wind through the city’s beautiful old havelis, or rich merchants’ houses. Hugely ornate, often with overhanging first-floor balconies, and with echoes of North African Islamic architecture, each is painted in pastel shades; peppermint green, lilac, terracotta or butterscotch, the iconic colours of India. In the afternoon, Durga seems to step down a little from his role as a guide, and invites me to the house of a friend of his, where we eat, drink and smoke together. Despite all Rajasthan’s beggars, ‘one-pen’ kids, rickshaw drivers and hotel touts, here I’m back in the same old Asian hospitality, no different from Pakistan or Iran.
Near to Bikaner lies one of India’s more eccentric places of worship, the Karni Mata temple in the town of Deshnoke, which Manvendra takes me to one morning. Karni Mata was a local sage believed to have been an incarnation of the goddess Durga, who re-incarnated the family of her favourite storyteller into rats. This temple in her name, out in the Rajasthan Desert, has become a sanctuary for its burgeoning muroid community. One must remove one’s shoes at the entrance and walk among hundreds of scurrying, playing, fighting, squeaking, stinking vermin. Some of the rats seem diseased with open cuts and festering wounds, some are in the final throes of death, and in one corner two rats are ripping open the carcass of a pigeon which has had the misfortune to fall into the temple. Walking barefoot among these creatures – and plenty of their droppings – and with the thought in mind that the world’s most recent epidemic of bubonic plague occurred fourteen years ago in the neighbouring state of Gujarat, I’m a little uneasy, but local worshippers come and kiss the floor, take nips of sour milk from large pans around which dozens of rats are jostling to drink, and generally attach great reverence to the place.
Hinduism is not an easy religion to understand, certainly if one attempts to approach it from a rational perspective and attempts to elucidate concepts which simply don’t apply. It’s a set of distinct, and sometimes contradictory philosophical ideas, rather than a rigid set of beliefs. It can be interpreted as being monotheistic, for there is ultimately only one (rather metaphysical) ‘God’, Brahman / Atman (actually a statement of one’s ‘true self’ being identical to God), though there is also the trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, respectively the creator, destroyer and maintainer, plus an almost uncountable pantheon of local deities and incarnations, said to total some 330 million. There is no dogma in Hinduism, no strict or rigid moral code, and no organisation such as the church.
One comes into contact with this most popular of India’s many religions in the mandir or temple, which may be dedicated to any deity, though some are more popular than others. Shiva temples for instance, feature a linga, representing the penis of Shiva within the vagina of the goddess Shakti. Deshnoke’s rat temple is just an example of another deity of the pantheon. Hindu temples have an unmistakable smell, a mixture of sour milk, sickly milky sweets, incense, bat droppings (in older temples) and humanity, and are usually intensely gaudy, with garish pictures of six-armed, blue skinned gods, tinsel and flashing lights. But then to Hindus, God is everything, so therefore everything may be God, and consequently a subject of worship. This extends of course to living creatures, and Hinduism has a staggering list of holy animals; cows, monkeys, dogs, rats… and so on. As Mark Twain observed of India, ‘..all life seems to be sacred, apart from human life’.
I’ve grown fond of Manvendra; he’s a quiet, entertaining and intelligent man. On the morning of my departure, he drives with me to the edge of the city, and seeing me about to embark on a journey across the breadth of his country, looks at me a little wistfully; ‘Goodbye young man, enjoy your life!’ he says, and waves me off.
From Bikaner I drive south-east, deeper into the Rajasthan Desert, through rolling sand dunes dotted by scrubby acacia trees which shepherds hack down to feed their goats in this marginal environment. The area borders my ‘home’ province of Sindh, in Pakistan, but my destination, Jaisalmer, couldn’t be further from the gentle hinterlands of Sindh. This small desert outpost, nicknamed the ‘Golden City’ has a magnificent sandstone old-city of tall fortified buildings, with intricate carved balconies, looking out over the surrounding desert. However, herein lies its downfall, for the town is wholly sustained by its seedy tourist trade, utterly ruining any shred of romance which the town must once have had. Almost every building is a hotel or guesthouse, restaurant or camel and jeep safari business, and the streets are filled with souvenir stalls selling a range of goods from tastefully crafted souvenirs to absolute rubbish. Here one sees the full spectrum of tourists in India; the tour groups of French, German and British retirees, young, naïve gap-year students, the old fans of India – the gaunt, long-haired modern hippies in native clothes, often slightly mad from years of drug consumption – the Japanese, too polite to resist the touts, commonly seen trying-on local clothes or playing souvenir instruments in the curio shops, and the Lonely Planet backpackers with their lists of ‘must-sees’, ready to book contrived and over-priced desert tours. This is the very worst of India; every interaction with a local person boils down to a business transaction, however genuine it may seem at first. Children – rich or poor – hold out their hands on reflex when a foreigner comes near, for pens, chocolates, or that old favourite, money. Touts will find any way to attract one’s attention; screaming like chimpanzees, making kissing or hissing noises, or just hollering incessantly down the street. Decades of tourism have eroded peoples’ dignity to the base; I have absolutely no wish to be in such a place, gain no satisfaction from the experience, regardless of the magnificence of the town’s architecture, and leave after one night feeling disappointed and frustrated.
My spirits are lifted somewhat at my next stop, Jodhpur, the fabled ‘Blue City’, with its tightly crammed lanes of periwinkle-blue house and the massively imposing Mehrangarh Fort. The city is large enough to have its own non-tourist based economy, and crucially, I am staying with a local, Kiv and his family. Kiv’s traditional Hindu family are every bit as welcoming as any I’ve yet stayed with. The air in their two-roomed house is filled with the aromas of incense, the spices of cooking, and the ghee (clarified butter) which is burnt at the small shrine to the deity Krishna, one of India’s favourites, which sits on a small table. Kiv’s mother, who keeps her hair covered but is not as timid as the women of most Muslim households, serves a traditional vegetarian meal of daal (pureed lentils), a spicy curry and rice on polished metal dishes which are ubiquitous in India. Despite understanding very little of Hindu ideology, I feel comfortable and at-home with his family, who, in accordance with Hindu tradition, tell me that ‘guest is God’.
The drive from Jodhpur further south to the magnificent city of Udaipur passes through a beautiful landscape of red-rock hills and outcrops, the first hints of the ancient red-rock geology of the Deccan, which features some of the oldest remaining surface-rock on the planet. Small villages and patches of jungle, dry in the heat of the pre-monsoon season, dot the hills either side of the winding road, but the traffic is horrendous, with slow lorries crawling past each other into oncoming traffic. Unsurprisingly, in India the law of the jungle applies on the road; the largest has right-of-way and all other vehicles must leave the road if a lorry or bus chooses to overtake. Soon I see an all-too-common sight; the mangled remains of a motorbike, a blanket-covered corpse, and a lorry stopped at the roadside nearby. Whilst preferable to using public transport, driving in India is not without its hassles. Aside from the outright danger of driving amongst people who have seemingly no concern for the safety of others, there are toll-booths to negotiate, the staff of whom will of course take the chance to over-charge a foreigner (leading to me simply driving through without stopping) and then there is the truly soul-destroying sight of watching Indian drivers negotiate a closed level-crossing. Once the gates have closed and the traffic must wait for the train to pass, cars will line up across both lanes of the road, nudging the barriers, meaning that when they finally open, there is a scrum of perhaps twelve vehicles all trying to be the first to move on. It goes without saying that this takes far longer to clear than if the drivers had stayed in their respective lanes, but in India nobody seems willing to risk that another person may get ahead of him. It happens at every level crossing in India, everytime.
Udaipur is a stunningly beautiful city, famous for its palaces and lakes, most notably the Lake Palace which sits as an island in the dazzling blue waters of Lake Pichola, and is surely one of the most romantic and evocative images of the splendour of India. But it also shows India in microcosm; right next to where I’m sitting, admiring the beauty, is a sewage outfall discharging a steady stream of grey-brown filth into the lake’s cerulean water. The lake’s shore is a swathe of muck, awash with plastic litter, even an old tyre, and filled with green algae which thrive in this anoxic soup. Not thirty metres from me, men and women are bathing and washing clothes at the waters’ edge. Beauty and squalor, like ying and yang.
I’m lucky to have a host in the city, who lives away from the lanes of banana-pancake backpacker cafes and ‘one pen, uncle?’ children. His name is Ranjan, a young graduate geologist, and though he’s studying here in Rajasthan, he’s originally from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. Like many Biharis, Ranjan is darker skinned than most North-Indians, and in a country where whitening creams such as Fair & Lovely are big business, this can traditionally be a source of prejudice. This is due largely to the infamous Indian caste system, which strictly divides Indian society into a hierarchy of social strata, most simply: Brahmins (the ancient priestly class), Kshatriyas (the warriors and kings), Vaisyas (merchants and farmers), Shudras (artisans and servants), and finally an ‘untouchable’ underclass. The Sanskrit word for caste, varna, can be translated as ‘colour’, and although it’s a highly sensitive and contentious subject in a modernising Indian society which is, nominally at least, trying to move past archaic prejudices, it seems to link one’s position in society with one’s skin colour. It is said that the system was introduced millennia ago by the fair-skinned Aryan invaders of India in order to maintain their social dominance over the dark-skinned native Dravidian population. Certainly, one need only look at Bollywood actors and actresses, public advertising materials, or at a group of high-level Indian executives to see that India’s rich, beautiful and powerful are overwhelmingly fair-skinned.
Traditionally, one’s caste has placed the limits of one’s life – birth, marriage, career and death – within one’s caste; in short, it’s a centuries-old system of selective breeding which makes up the basis of Indian society. As repugnant as the idea is in principle, this strict delineation of the limits of one’s life seems to be a great binding force, smoothing over some of the gaping inequalities between rich and poor, forces which lead to extremism and war in other societies. When an untouchable Bihari road-sweeper who struggles to earn a dollar each day sees a Mumbai businessman drive past in a $100,000 car, the look of the road-sweeper seems less of hateful envy, than of resignation that, on the great ‘Wheel of Life’ (a central concept in Hinduism), that is simply his place; to sweep the roads. Unsurprisingly, the three major religions which have emerged in this background of inequality – Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – all place social equality (as does Islam) as a central doctrine.
Attitudes are of course changing as India rapidly modernises; discrimination based upon caste has been officially banned since the introduction of the Indian Constitution in 1950, and Ranjan is evidence of this emerging middle-class based on social equality and equal-oppurtunity free-market economics. The sociopolitical ambitions of this middle-class, as well as their inherent spending power, drives progress in Indian society, something glaringly absent in Pakistan.
One beautiful warm evening, I accompany Ranjan and his Sikh friend Jagdeep to a local restaurant, Ranjan on his motorcycle and myself riding pillion on Jagdeep’s Vespa. Indian food is one of the undisputable and unending delights of travelling here; for a dollar or two one can eat a good meal, five to ten dollars will pay for a veritable feast. Like the richness of Indian society, Indian food is a delicate, harmonious mix of strong and subtle flavours, and is in my opinion the world’s finest cuisine. On the way back, Jagdeep needs to make a call, and so driving the Vespa is down to me. I’ve never ridden any type of motorcycle, but I’m soon zooming around the now-quiet backstreets of Udaipur, with Jagdeep riding pillion, turbaned and shouting into his mobile phone. We stop at the lakeside and watch the city lights across the shimmering black water. It’s a magical moment of enjoying simple pleasures with friends; the difference between loving and hating India clearly depends upon one’s company.
The Hindu festival of Holi celebrates the end of winter and the oncoming colour and fertility of spring. It’s perhaps the least ‘religious’ of Hindu festivals, and the most public, as thousands of joyous revellers flood the streets and throw coloured powder and water at each other. One of its nicest aspects is a breaking-down of traditional social barriers; between male and female, rich and poor, and even between castes. As a foreigner, it’s by far the most spectacular and enjoyable of festivals, and I intended to take part. I would be meeting an old character from the trip; Boštjan, the Slovenian whom I had met in Bishkek last September, and with whom I had driven to the Pamirs. Boštjan has chosen the small Rajasthani town of Bundi as our place to meet and celebrate Holi, and it’s a good choice; small enough to be intimate, obscure enough not to be over-run by other tourists.
Revelry begins at about eight in the morning, with people pouring out on the streets and handfuls of pink, yellow, green and lilac powders flying through the air, covering everything in vibrant colour. Strangely, it’s the middle-aged and elderly who dominate the crowds, who ritually smear colour over one and others’ cheeks with time-practiced skill. Many of the men have clearly had a little bit to drink, but it is in the local Shiva Temple that the real elixir is dispensed. Here, under the watchful gaze of the temple idol, which is wrapped in a mass of strobing multicoloured fairy lights, a group of punch-drunk men assemble, awaiting the bhang lassi, an infamous Indian concoction made of milk, water, crushed marijuana leaves and pistachio nuts, which is served out from a huge steel tea caddy, free of charge. At first the mixture has no discernible effect, and we fortify ourselves with some revolting Godfather 50,000 beer, and move for some lunch into a Punjabi dhaba (a simple restaurant). Here, an hour or so after drinking the narcotic lassi, its effect is suddenly obvious; the senses dull, one’s perspective pulls back, and everything is tinged with hilarity.
The tubby Sikh owner of the establishment, who is covered in colour, paces around the dhaba madly, shouting orders at errand boys whilst taking nips of whisky from a metal cup. Three drunken men, covered head-to-toe in all shades of coloured powder, stagger out of the room, down some steps, and start their motorbike. Just as the third man giddily swings his leg over the seat of the bike, the driver guns the throttle and roars off, leaving the inebriated man in the middle of the road, legs astride, in a hilarious state of perplexity. Boštjan and I are in fits of laughter, watching this bizarre street pantomime of multicoloured people.
The Sikh offers us some beer, labelled ‘Super Strong’, which we politely decline. ‘NOT STRONG, ONLY LIGHT STRONG!’ bellows the Sikh, and demands with the vehemence of a Russian alcoholic that we take some. Moments later, he pours some soda into his whisky, then demands that we take soda too; ‘TAKE! NOT STRONG!’. ‘BEER!’ we shout, tilting our cups to show him we’re fine, but he sends his can of Super Strong our way. Memories become hazy after this point, though I recall the proprietor banging his head with a silver tray, drinking a great deal of whisky, and bellowing down three mobile phones at once. I vaguely remember walking into a lamp-post, and passing out in the street, but by three in the afternoon, when the effect of the bhang was finally beginning to weaken, Boštjan and I were already sleeping it off in the guesthouse. This wild, irreverent festival was, truly, Incredible India.