Indian Summer

We are moving slower now, smiling more easily, giving off a different light. Months in Goa have left their mark on us. Back in Delhi everything seems too fast, everybody too loud. People are different, with that big city hustle again, that underlying edge of anxiety. But it’s still India. Mangos are in season, and Indians are connoisseurs. Conversation revolves around the relative merits of mangos from different places. We failed to bring any with us from Goa, to general incredulity.

In English the expression Indian Summer denotes a period of unseasonal warm weather in late September or October, a last breath of summer again after the onset of autumn. The leaves will already be turning, there will be mists and heavy dews in the morning and a chill in the air, but suddenly, for a period of a few days, temperatures will rise again, and the sun will feel hot once more despite the freshness of the breeze.

The real thing is quite different. Summer in India. The heat changes everything. In the tropical south the humidity rises till it becomes unbearable. Every breath is heavy with moisture. You sweat incessantly, perpetually wet. Far out in the Indian Ocean, beyond the southernmost tip of the subcontinent at Kanniyakumari, the gigantic anvil-headed cumulonimbus clouds are building. Soon they will arrive over the land and the monsoon will sweep northwards up the country, bringing relief. The water level has dropped in the ancient wells which have become a sanctuary for frogs and turtles. Some nights, stifling, sultry nights, there is a brief patter, a miniature shower like a rehearsal for the real thing. Everybody is waiting, the skin of the earth parched and as tight as a drum, echoing under your footsteps. Lightning flickers, silhouetting the branches of the palm trees, their fronds like giant feathers against the night sky. Occasionally they stir themselves gently in the faintest breath of a breeze with a soft clicking like raindrops. Everyone looks upwards expectantly. But it is an illusion. Let it only rain.

When we left Goa the temperature was in the high 30s. In Delhi it is 45. And in Gujarat, where we were in February, it is over 50. I’ve been in 50 degrees before, in Africa, but to experience it in a snarling traffic jam, or in the stink of the old city, is something quite different – especially when the power goes off and the fans get slower and slower before coming to a halt completely. Even after sundown it’s over 40 degrees, and every surface exhales the sun’s stored heat. The walls of buildings turn into vast radiators. The metal sides of vehicles are like an oven, too hot to touch. The water that comes out of the tap, which is stored in tanks on the roof, is too hot to wash in. We are all slowly being cooked alive.

Then, lying in a darkened room in mid-afternoon under the cool draught of the AC I suddenly wake. Something has changed – there is the charge of electricity in the air. Opening the curtain the light that floods in is orange. It’s as if a photo filter has been applied to the world outside – an eerie, Martian light. It’s a dust storm. The air crackles with static, and then there is a tremendous crash of thunder. The wind whips clouds of dust along the streets and the trees sway back and forth. People scurry for cover, pulling scarves over their faces. The scent of the earth changes, as if it is preparing to receive rain. The first spots begin to fall – the first rain in Delhi for months – giant fat droplets that land sizzling on the stone balcony that still radiates heat from the afternoon sun. Soon it comes down in torrents, washing away the dust, sweeping leaves into the overflowing gutters. The wind brings down a branch, which crashes into the road, causing even more chaos than usual.

We need to head to CP – Connaught Place – the circular hub of shops at the heart of the vast city, built in the 1930s as a showpiece of Lutyens’ New Delhi. Hailing a cycle rickshaw we perch primly in the back, sitting upright on the hard bench with knees pressed together like a couple of aunties, shuddering as rivulets of rain trickle off the canopy roof onto us. The rickshaw wallahs are a wild bunch, dark and sinewy; this one wears a South Indian lungi, a vest and a colourful bandanna on his head. For thirty rupees (30p) he drops us at the entrance to Lajpat Nagar metro station, and we have our bags X-rayed and pass through an airport-style scanner, as khaki-uniformed cops in green berets sweep us up and down with metal detectors. The metro is modern, the carriages all merging into each other like the Metropolitan Line on the Tube. Up at the front is a Ladies Only carriage, but the trains aren’t too full today so we board a regular carriage and stand near the door, myself the object of great scrutiny as always. One man standing near us stares quite openly, his eyes switching from K, to me, then back to her again, then back to me. There’s nothing hostile in this, though his expression is unreadable – it’s just complete and unabashed curiosity.

K says to me: “Which station do we need to change at?”

I look at the map overhead and realised I am being tested – it’s all in Hindi. Slowly I decipher the letters. Monday Horse? It makes even less sense than usual. No – wait: that sprouting squiggle has no vertical stroke. “Mandi House!”

“And what line is that on,” she asks with a wink.

I read it out. “Blyoo Layeen”. It might equally have been grin, iello or wiolet.

“Very good.”

Reassured somehow that I can read Hindi, thus establishing my credentials as a human being, and perhaps even an Indian one in this land of countless ethnicities, the man who has been staring at us looks away once more.

We emerge from the metro into a downpour and splat wetly around the colonnades of CP in our flip flops, past designer shops. A curtain of silver water falls outside. An endless tide of humanity perambulates: all the colours of the subcontinent. Holy men from the hills in orange robes, sunglasses vendors, skinny boys in skinny jeans, college girls with protectively scornful pouts, businessmen in designer specs and slimfit shirts, the occasional tourists in outdoor gear looking somewhat overwhelmed, wild-haired beggars with their belongings on their back. Kipling would’ve recognised half these people – some of their costumes haven’t changed. We stand arm in arm on the kerb beneath an umbrella, watching the endless traffic, whistling: raindrops keep falling on my head. Others come and stand with us, and eventually, by force of numbers, we manage to cross, wading through the puddles.

We duck into a tobacconist’s – an old man who grins delightedly as he greets us. I bought a pipe from him years ago, but I doubt he remembers me – he is just exquisitely mannered and charming, with that old world courtesy the city was once famed for. We discuss different types of tobacco, including the arrival in India of a brand called American Spirit, which claims to be 100% additive free. In a triumph of consumer-driven marketing with a rather hipster edge to it, this has become the tobacco of choice for many of the somewhat alternative people who hang out in Goa. It’s curious, amongst this price-conscious crowd, because 25g of American Spirit sells for the same price as 50g of Drum – around 450 rs, or £4.50 – and the stuff itself is invariably dry as hay. But perhaps people think it is somehow better for you for being ‘additive free’. The tobacconist’s shelves are stacked with agarbatti incense, its rich aroma perfuming the night. I buy some Borkum Riff Cherry Cavendish pipe tobacco instead, which I used to smoke in Australia. It was nearly £30 a pack there. Here it is £3. I shall perfume the Himalayan nights with my own clouds of cherry-scented incense.

Later, in a taxi, we stop at a red light, behind a car which has three teenage girls in the boot, squashed up against the rear window. They are all staring at a mobile phone, watching something. On the pavement a group of perhaps 20 or so homeless lie curled up together on their sides, stacked like cordwood. Rain spatters on the windscreen, and an old Hindi movie song plays softly on the radio. In a companionable silence the four of us look out at the rain. The homeless sleepers begin to stir, packing up, seeking shelter beneath a flyover. A sign on the traffic light warns that drivers jumping a red light will lose their licence for three months and face a fine. A traffic cop stands in the shelter of a tree. The light remains stubbornly red. As if at an unseen signal, suddenly everybody starts hooting. The traffic that has been turning across our path begins to diminish. Cars start to creep forward – the one with the girls in the boot accelerates away, veering between two approaching motorcycles, stragglers from the oncoming stream. One of the motorbikes is a young Sikh in a turban with a mobile phone clamped between ear and shoulder. The other is a kid in a red shirt who is texting with one hand. The traffic starts moving again, five lanes of cars crossing the junction, weaving from lane to lane, watched by the cop under his tree. The traffic light remains stubbornly on red the whole time. Impossible city.

One dawn in Delhi I woke with a tremendous sense of peace, listening to the almost silent rain. It felt as if I was finally free of something, of an underlying anxiety that I had been holding on to for too long. Only half awake, I mentally ran through a list of things: what did I need to do that day? What was there to occupy my mind with? I tried out a few things experimentally – book tickets for the mountains, pack bag, call someone about a motorbike –  and found that none really mattered; slowly the worries slipped away and I entered this strange state of serenity once more. I realised, almost like a revelation, how much I loved this country. How, despite its numerous faults and impossibilities, like all relationships it took time to build something, but in the end you gradually came to genuinely appreciate it, flaws and all. At times it was immensely frustrating, the scale of everything utterly daunting, and you felt unequal to its dimensions – but that in turn has the effect of making you small, of removing any illusion of control. You can’t hold on too tight. Life is an endless succession of letting go, and never more so than in India. You simply had to go along with the stream of it all and see where it took you. I realised that after countless trips each had involved a progressive letting go, over and over again, from the first wide-eyed moment when you step out of the airport and undergo half a dozen miniature freakouts en route to your accommodation, to the sights that you see each day that confront and challenge you, with not a day going by that you don’t experience something extraordinary. After so long in India, the light in me has utterly changed. Once the place begins to feel normal, you know you belong – in this, the greatest and most enduring of all my relationships with places. I like how it has made me – the lightness of being it has induced – and who I have become because of it. When I think of going home, I have to pause for a moment to think of which one I mean. But it’s not a choice that has to be made, really. I can love and appreciate both.

But before I fly back to the UK there’s one more adventure planned. We are following in the footsteps of the British in the Raj era, and heading for the hills to escape the heat. Hills is something of an understatement – we’re going to ride through the Himalayas on a Royal Enfield motorcycle, following National Highway 22 initially – the old Hindustan-Tibet Road through the districts of Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. It’s an ancient trading route between the two countries, first made motorable in 1860, and apparently it featured in a programme on the History Channel called ‘Deadliest Roads’. The full circuit runs anticlockwise from near Shimla in the south, through the small town of Reckong Peo, up to the now closed Tibetan border and the last settlement in India, the unforgettably named village of Pooh. From there it turns north, before reaching Kaza and Kibber, and the Kunzum La pass at 15,000 feet, then back to Manali via the Rohtang La – which translates ominously as “piles of bodies”. Most likely the Kunzum La will be closed due to snow, so from Kibber the plan is to retrace our steps and do the circuit in reverse, clockwise, the direction of a prayer wheel.

The overnight bus to Manali is booked. A guesthouse there has been reserved. A bike is being delivered to it tomorrow. It’s 40 degrees in Delhi and the bags are packed with gloves, scarves, waterproofs and ‘heavy woollens’. In the film Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole stares at the map of Sinai and points at Aqaba. “It is there,” he says. “It is simply a question of going.”

So chalo – let’s go.

 

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Departures

The baby next door is singing again this morning. It’s not a cry so much as a kind of joyful up and down wail, testing the boundaries of his own voice, adding his bright noise to the dawn chorus. He’s huge – a real bouncing boy, with straw-blond hair and clear blue eyes. The exact details of the parenthood are uncertain, but he’s most definitely Russian – you can somehow see it already. There are several children in the flat next door, looked after by a Russian lady – she speaks fluent English but with a slightly French intonation. She’s a qualified teacher back in Russia, and teaches a class in Panjim here. After she’d graduated in Moscow everyone wanted to know which prestigious school or academy she’d go to. When she said India eyebrows rose. “But what about your career?” they asked. “What about money?” She shrugged. An older child romps barefoot around Goa, playing with the local kids, utterly free. His name is Happy.

And sometimes I see her partner – similar in age, and yet somehow ageless: he’s lithe and athletic with long wavy blond hair and tattoos. Yesterday I saw him playing with the baby in the pool, singing to him in English but with a strong Russian accent. “Write to me a letter…” he sang, and the baby sang along too, in his own way.

We went over to a place in Chapora for dinner at the weekend – an open air shack overlooking the estuary that is usually deserted. It was started up by a couple of the Pahari (hill people) lads from another restaurant we go to, and they have a distinctly laid-back approach to business – half the stuff on the menu isn’t available, ever, and they close as and when they feel like it. Despite a phone call confirming they were open on Sunday, by the time we got there the place was in darkness and the gate shut. A strong smell of kerosene hung in the air. But there was a shadowy figure at the gate who opened it for us, murmured words of greeting exchanged in the darkness. We ascended the stairs and arranged ourselves on cushions in the corner. There was the deep, soft thump of ambient trance. At the opposite end of the room was a figure hunched over a laptop in a small pool of light, setting up a playlist. It was the young Russian guy – our neighbour.

Drinks came, and we looked out at the water. Then suddenly a flare of light from the courtyard below – a flickering yellow flame. Then another bloomed, and it began to twirl. Our neighbour was doing fire poi – spinning a flaming baton around himself. With an acrobatic leap on pointed toes he leapt into the golden pool of light he cast, and the music changed, became deep and rhythmic, a swaying beat like the gait of a cantering horse. Singing began – a droning, guttural chant with an eerie flute-like whistle to it – Mongol throat singing. It was Huun Huur Tu, a group from Tuva, a republic in the Russian Federation on the Mongolian border. Swing and thump, the earth falling away beneath you at the pace of a horse across the steppe. Round and round the flames went as he spun and twirled. Out on the terrace in the darkness a woman in a long skirt danced, entirely beautiful, swaying from side to side, arms tracing patterns through the air, watched intensely by a dog that lay a few feet away. I couldn’t see her clearly but somehow felt her presence: she seemed ageless, the music reaching something deep inside her – some nomadic imperative of the Russians locked in their Asiatic landmass, like some shamanic priestess of the Altai tapping into ancient roots.

We adjourned to the terrace ourselves, and lay on our backs smoking and looking up at the stars. The music faded and our neighbour came up. “That was very cool,” I said to him in passing, and he giggled. “Sometimes it comes together,” he said, his eyes darting around. There was a slight note of hysteria to his voice, and I realised he was tripping. He abruptly turned a cartwheel and walked off on his hands, going to sit in the corner with the dancing woman. Low murmured conversation and laughter. I heard her voice for the first time: she wasn’t Russian at all, but English, with the slightly flat vowels of the East Midlands. I couldn’t hear the conversation fully but then he made a joke which prompted laughter, and then said to her: “But you are only eighteen!” She smiled modestly and dipped her head in acknowledgement. This young Russian man performing fire poi to Tuvan Mongol music, and an 18-year-old English girl dancing like some Central Asian priestess on a rooftop in India…

I met him again the next morning, coming up the stairs to our apartment, emitting a faint whiff of something inflammable. Seeing me he halted and took off his sunglasses. I did the same, fumbling to change to my non-tinted ones. A look of deep recognition passed between us as we clasped hands.

“What is your name?” he asked me. I told him.

“I am Arkady,” he said. “We are leaving tomorrow.”

“Where are you going?”

“Moscow,” he sighed. He said it like an American. Muss-Cow.

I smiled sympathetically. “Well, have a good trip.”

He laughed. “I think not such a good trip. But yes.”

“I hope to see you here again some time.”

“For sure. Till next time.” Then he was gone, in a blur of long hair, racing up the stairs.

I’ve been mistaken for a Russian myself a few times over the years – mostly by other Russians who are then quite taken aback to find I speak not a word of it. Russian or Irish – the Irish always recognise me as one of their own: I have an Irish head, I’m told. But Russian? It’s the eyes, apparently. Maybe there’s some ancestry, way back. Who knows. Certainly many Russians possess features that are a curious fusion of European and Asian – ostensibly Caucasian in appearance and yet with that cast to the eyes and the high cheekbones of the steppes. The Mongols left traces of their presence deep across the Eurasian landmass, right into the heart of Europe, reaching the gates of Vienna in the 13th century.

In consequence there’s always been a historical fear buried deep in the European psyche of the hordes from the East – that they were somehow “other”. In Germany in 1945 the population were terrified of the Red Army not just because they feared revenge for the invasion of the Soviet Union, but from something older, more atavistic. And the sight of a Red Army baggage convoy with visibly Asiatic soldiers leading a column of double-humped Bactrian camels – the 308th Rifle Division – struck a mixture of astonishment and outright terror into the hearts of the Berliners who witnessed it swaying through the streets early one morning. (According to war correspondent Vassily Grossman, one camel, Kuznechik – meaning ‘grasshopper’ – who had survived the battle of Stalingrad four years earlier, was led to the Reichstag and encouraged by his driver to spit upon the building. Kuznechik duly obliged.)


Other departures too: places are closing up in preparation for the monsoon, weatherproofing their roofs for the rains. The tourists are leaving, and the coastal strip of Goa will go down to a skeleton crew, only a few long-term residents remaining. The Pahari boys will go back to the hills as the season begins up there. We will follow soon. And the old English guy in Oppa’s who was looking around, taking it all in, as if for the last time. He rose to his feet with a sigh, paid his bill and began talking to the owner: “I’m off tomorrow. Back home” – he gave a mirthless laugh. “Got to do six months this time. But I’ll be back, after the monsoon.”

The pig dog at Eldou’s – brindled brown and white. He’s big and gentle and perpetually itchy, wandering over to rest his chin on your lap with a silly grin, breaking off intermittently to scratch. Periodically the staff half-heartedly chase him out, but he sidles back in soon after. I gently stroke the warm fur of his head and back. Whose dog is he, we ask? The owner explains: “He is Morjim and Chapora’s dog.” Morjim, the village up the coast on the other side of the estuary. How does he get all the way to Chapora? He swims. At low tide he wades it. And some guy with a boat said how he was out on the water one day and this dog swam up to his boat and clambered aboard, hitching a ride.

Sunset at Sunset – a shack on Uddo Beach. Fishermen wade waist-deep through the blood-warm shallows. The waves are rippling, jumping, a slate-grey band of endless movement beneath the apricot sky, like an animated painting. Overhead wheel 20 or 30 hawks in the spiralling vortex of a thermal that fluctuates over the ground, coming closer then moving further away. There are often birds of prey here; there is a graveyard on the hillside.

Two birds – Brahminy kites – perform an aerial ballet, flying side by side with wings almost touching. One rises above the other, then dips again, and they alternate height, rising, falling, rising. One leads, the other follows, then they swap position, roles… The higher bird turns a half-somersault and flips upside down beneath the other, then rights itself. The other repeats the manoeuvre. They fly on motionless wings side by side over the glimmering water and then glide across the shoreline, high above the coconut palms, heading inland.

A person sees in the world what they carry in their heart.
– Goethe


Adapting to a tropical environment means developing different routines. On arriving home the minute you come through the door you reach for the punkah ceiling fan switch, even before the lights, and then open the balcony door. The air-con is in the bedroom, and now, early May, we are using it more and more frequently – coming back from lunch we’ll have a siesta under the air-con, trying to cool down. The bedtime routine is to brush teeth (rinsing the ants off the toothbrush first) and shower – or at least wash feet, which are always filthy from wearing flip flops the whole time. Then comes the ritual of the Kailash Jeevan – a miraculous, multi-purpose ointment of ayurvedic herbs with a coconut oil base. We daub each other, ministering to the assorted bites and stings that have been acquired over the course of the day. Then I switch on the air-con, set to 24 degrees, on a two hour timer, and put the ceiling fan on to setting three. By early morning, just before dawn, it’ll be hot again in the room, so I get up to open the window and turn the fan up to four. I get up properly at six a.m., and even then, in the coolest part of the day, sitting in the living room without the ceiling fan on you find yourself sweating. And it just keeps getting hotter, day by day…

Each morning the uncle from next door waddles out into the lane clad just in a pair of shorts, his belly hanging monumentally over the waist. He greets the chowkidar and then goes to a bush of hibiscus and picks a solitary flower, plucking it tenderly from the stem between his enormous fingers.

 

“Off-ish-ially I am in Helsinki,” said the woman at the next table, repeatedly and loudly, to no-one in particular. She was terribly, tragically drunk. “In ten days I fly to London Heathrow.”

“Good luck with it.”

She smiled crookedly. “Good luck. Yes. But off-ish-ially I am in Helsinki.”

 

Coming into Anjuna, sitting on the back of K’s scooter. She’s wearing a helmet for once, as we are heading down to Candolim, and cops often try to pull people en route. Sure enough, a blue-uniformed policeman steps into the road in front of us flapping a hand. K nods, smiling sweetly, slows down, and then as she draws level with him, swerves round him and accelerates away. He was checking licences, and she doesn’t have one, like most people around here. There have been many more police about this last week, at the roadside. This may be connected to the fact that the Anjuna cops lost their drugs. They had a big stash that they’d seized and it has gone missing. In consequence a few small-time dealers have been pulled in. Rumour has it cops are planting drugs on people to extort a bribe.

In one of the first blogs I wrote from Goa this time, I mentioned a story of a guy who had been arrested for drug dealing, skipped the country, was extradited back to India and then let out on bail again, whereupon he promptly opened a bar. We happened to be having dinner in a restaurant across the road from it one night, and there were raised voices. Someone was furious. He was shouting into a mobile phone, almost incoherent with anger. “You tell that motherfucker to get my money,” he shrieked. “You don’t know who you are dealing with!”

The security guy came across the road and exchanged low words with the waiters. Immediately they became agitated. “We have to close,” one called out urgently to another. Their movements, normally so slow and easygoing, became jumpy and staccato – the whole mood changed in an instant.

We were getting ready to pay our bill. “Is there trouble?” asked K. No no no, everything’s fine, the guy assured us, but his watchful manner gave lie to his words.

“Time to go,” I said. “Before there’s a drive-by. Anything happens, just hit the floor fast.” I’m quicker than she is, and realised I’d probably have to get her on the ground. We are very laid-back about it, but I am on high alert.

We walk out into the now deserted street. A few customers sit silently in the bar across the road, tense. I look up and down the strip, see nothing, then fire up the Enfield, swing a U-turn which carries me close to the bar entrance, prompting heads to turn, then K clambers on and we roar away, past Savitri supermarket, then right onto the trail that leads down to the temple blaring out amplified chanting. Slowly I exhale. We’re away.


Lunch with the ladies. The maid and her daughter have cooked noodles – a kind of spaghetti with bits of assorted veg. We sit out the back of a friend’s house, watching the chicks chase each other round. A low grunting comes from the stall at the back of the yard – Pigoo in his pen. His days are numbered, alas, due to the feast of St Anthony. There’s a dead straight tree about 20 feet high in the yard, and our friend says how the maid shins up it with a jug tucked into her belt to water the plants on the roof. It’s quite an athletic feat. The aunty next door bathes a dog, and two men sit painting planks of wood with creosote. They shoot occasional curious glances at me. What is a white guy doing with all these Indian women? It’s a breezy day, the wind shaking the treetops.

“Aunty?” Did you eat lunch yet?” She is offered some noodles. The chicks scuff around at our feet, cheeping. The aunty goes off and comes back with a plate of peeled and sliced mangoes for us.

Suddenly there’s a faint rustle overhead, and perhaps two seconds later a tremendous thump, which shakes the ground. The enormous spiky jackfruit, double the size of a watermelon, has fallen off the tree. Lucky no-one was standing underneath. Everyone hoots with laughter, and the chickens go over to investigate. It’s the time of year that things drop out of the trees. You have to be careful – a falling coconut will do major damage – and people die each year being struck on the head by them.

We eat out on the balcony. It feels like a privilege to be doing this, to be here with these women as the only male, eating together. Each has their own experience of the worst behaviour of men. Violence, intimidation. Customs around the world make rituals out of food, and the gendered divide is sometimes strong in Asia – men eating before women, being served by them and so on. But no such division exists between us now.


A final dinner together in the rock and roll restaurant. One of our group is leaving – flying back to the US.

“When you go home, back to the UK, what is the predominant mood there?” she asks me. “You know… the vibe.”

“Anxiety.”

She nodded slowly in recognition. “But this time I’m going to travel,” she says. “Go up to Canada, and then there’s this thing in South Carolina…”

“That’s it. To travel is the thing.”

We laugh again at the chalked sign on the wall: Money Exching. Exchange Ker-ching. Six of us sit around the table. We keep coming back here, from all over the world. Something has brought this collection of improbable individuals together in Goa again and again, year after year. It’s Bob Dylan playing tonight, and often conversation pauses as we go into our own thoughts. Someone softly sings the chorus to themselves.

We descend the stairs in single file, and stand in the courtyard. Above us overhead the balcony juts out beneath the palms, ringed with small fairy lights, glittering star trails that slowly cascade downwards. The music changes – Cat Stevens. Although I’ve heard the song before I feel like I truly understand the words for the first time, the poignancy and beauty in their heartfelt wisdom.

“Oh man, this is too sad,” someone says. Long hugs are exchanged. Then we all get on our bikes and ride away into the night.