Fear of Ghosts

Republic Day: 26/01/2013
A military parade on tv: enormous Soviet style missile is the star attraction. This is the Agni 5 – Agni means ‘fire’ – which is later described by the Pakistani press as “an unsettling display of muscle flexing”. It can reach parts of Europe, apparently, although which parts they fail to specify. Look out Bulgaria and Romania, I suppose. Soldiers marching in roughly British uniforms, but topped with uniquely local headwear – turbans and assorted exoticisms. The marching is interesting: a tight, stiff legged shuffle and then an enormous goose step kick on the command of eyes right. The left arms rise way over shoulder height; over the head even, and with their white gloves hands all rising and falling at once the effect is like a flock of egrets taking off. The Garhwal regiment: oriental soldiers in bush hats, like Gurkhas – they are from Uttarakhand, which borders Nepal. The Rajasthani camel corps, the great beasts decorated all over with dangling glittery tassels, swaying ponderously with their delicate, high stepping tread. There’s something very loose limbed about tropical armies marching, quite unlike the tight clockwork of the British regiments. Now the soldiers are singing, in turbans which sport a huge colourful fan on top. When they eyes right the effect is that of a peacock unfurling its tail. Now the Punjabis, whose contrasting webbing has the unfortunate effect of making them look like they are wearing suicide belts. Girls in kilts and the skirl of bagpipes. Tribal dancing girls doing some kind of stick dance – they ceremonially clash sticks overhead, perform a half pirouette, shimmy and sway as they go.

Nightfall at Chapora. The village is dominated by a large banyan tree in the middle of the road. Benches are attached to it and upon these sprawl various dreadlocked boom shankars, ragged clothes and dirty feet. One man is sprawled face down in the recovery position – when I pass by two days later he is still there; perhaps he hasn’t moved. Perhaps he is dead. I wonder what the locals make of it all: this is a small village. Turn off the main drag and you are in rural India. How do they feel about these enormously rich westerners flying halfway round the world to collapse half naked and profoundly stoned under a tree? It’s like that park full of heroin addicts in Zurich. They value the income, of course, but what cultural impact must it have? A bus blocks the road and I have to back up the bike, shuffling it backward with my feet. In doing so one of the pillion foot pegs touches a metal sign offering bike hire, which sways by an inch or so. A sleepy eyed local in grubby vest and torn shorts sitting nearby says irately, “what is your problem, man?” I look him up and down and say, “the bus is the problem, man. But I’ll deal with it.” He tuts and scowls. It is such an extraordinary reaction around here, so aggressively big city and out of character, that it can only have been learnt from outside influences. As has the expression.

Two elderly German men share my table. 60s, 70s, I don’t know. I always think ‘Wehrmacht age’ to myself. Boorish loud English men at next table. French rap on the stereo with the chorus ‘I don’t give a fuck’. Cultural contexts. “Where come you from?” London. “Ah, lonn-donn. Schoen tsity. I was once there in… 1965. Prrrimrrrose Khill. You know this?” Oh, certainly, I nod, squashing memories frantically that threaten to take me somewhere else entirely. My small craft hits a choppy wave, sways and bobs, then resumes its course once more in calmer surface waters. The turbulent currents of the depths are stilled.

The ancient Greeks built their temples in sites such as this: high on a hilltop overlooking the shimmering sea. The wind sighs and rustles the thorny undergrowth. The sun is hot and there is the continuous sussurus of cicadas above the boom of the sea on the rocks below. Groups of Indians are here to watch the sunset and take in a view. In fact views are so in demand that one girl stands overlooking miles of jungle and tropical beach, and asks “is this the view? I think there’s more view on other side.” Large girls in jeans waddle uphill, squirming like tadpoles encased in tight denim, flat footed in flip flops. The boys shout and whoop and bounce like playful puppies. I leave the fort behind and head out on a narrow path down to the headland. Finding a rock perched high over the sea I sit and look at the sun fading, growing smaller and redder with each passing minute. I am completely alone. Then a jingle draws near: a small brown dog with a curled tail. He climbs up onto the rock and sits down next to me, watching the sunset. I stretch out a hand and stroke his greasy, matted fur. His eyes turn briefly to me then go back to staring out to sea. He pants and drools incessantly. What does he see out there? Is it all in black and white, shades of grey? Is something as fundamental as circadian rhythm, the ending of the day, hard wired into us all in some profound animal connection? Together we sit looking out at the sun fading, disappearing into greyness just above the horizon, feeling a companionship at something deeply felt and shared, humbled by the size of things neither of us understand.

Nightfall on a verandah, overlooking a garden shining in the moonlight, luxuriant tropical vegetation giving off the scents of flowers in the warm, velvety dark. We smoke and chat in low voices. Then someone’s phone rings: there’s been an accident. The police have been called, and an ambulance. “Don’t let them treat you,” one cautions. “Which hospital?” A discussion ensues about the relative merits, or rather demerits, of assorted local hospitals. “Stay there, I’m coming to get you,” someone says. They buzz away into the night on their scooter. We sit again and smoke more. After an hour they return, with a passenger: I can see a large bandage round his head in the moonlight. He staggers up to the porch and collapses into a chair. A drink is brought for him, a cigarette offered. He is in a sorry state, and reels punch drunk in his chair. A motorbike crash. He is Spanish, and somehow managed to crash into another Spaniard – both of them complete strangers. What are the chances? His eye is swollen shut, he is covered in bruises. It emerges that most of these are from the subsequent punch up rather than the crash itself. Neither of them wearing helmets- nobody does here. It’s lucky, to say the least, that neither are more seriously injured. Hospital is suggested and dismissed; you only go here if you are at deaths door. It is fortunate indeed that he hit a fellow countryman, the Police didn’t want to get involved in two foreigners. Had he hit an Indian it would have been another matter, like the tourist arrested two days ago for causing an accident on a scooter, although causing is a relative term given local driving. After making elaborate snorting noises for a while in the garden he staggers back up the path and collapses into the chair, and we embark on a complex discussion about Mexican Indians and their use of psychedelic plants to bring about altered states of consciousness. Pleased to see his brain is still working, if slightly concussed, we chat about London for a while, where he once lived. It seems very far away indeed.

“The further I get from the things that I care about, the less that I care about how much further away I get.”
The Cure – Fear of Ghosts