Amongst the Trees

I woke up dreaming of the sea. The wind had picked up in the night and was rushing through the pines, causing them to sway and hiss with the sound of small waves lapping on a shingle beach. The balcony looks out onto a tangle of branches, green light filtering through the foliage, and through the trees a variety of birds hop and flutter – laughing thrush, “vissling” thrush (it does indeed whistle, the full tune lasting some 15 minutes), a magpie with a foot-long tail and dual voice box like a tui, and two other species that might be dubbed ‘the emergency services’, one with the wailing call of a British police car, the other with the two-tone blare of a French one. At night every few seconds comes the double chirp of a nightjar. Himalayan pheasants as tame as hens nose around the balcony each morning in search of food. 

Living in a house overlooking a tree one can sometimes feel a strange wonder at these weird vegetal growths that surround you. They shower us with pollen, wrap us in their scent, cast us in a benevolent shade. And you become part of life in the branches: the little yellow-striped squirrels whose bushy tails jerk back and forth as they chirp, the innumerable birds: bulbul, sunbird, koel, hornbill. The monkeys – the black-faced langurs with two-metre tails who gallop over the tiles and then leap into the branches with a whoosh, or the smaller rhesus macaques, who peer curiously through the foliage to inspect their fellow primates observing them from the balcony. 

We were invited to a birthday party by the neighbours, which turned out to be for a young boy of around 13 years of age. A group of around 30 women and girls huddled on their haunches in a circle on the patio, shawls drawn tightly around them against the evening chill of the hills. A series of skinny girls in skinny jeans and long kurta shirts took it in turns to rather shyly dance in the centre of the circle to a variety of Indian hits played on a mobile phone, cheered on by raucous grandmas. The dances were an odd combination of the chaste and suggestive, with raunchy Bollywood moves slightly suppressed by the self-consciousness of adolescence. One of the older women had had enough of the endless coy wiggling, and stepped into the circle to perform a more indigenous version which involved much twirling and twisting of wrists – the same style of mountain dance you can see all the way from Turkey to Afghanistan. 

Eventually it was announced that the cake cutting was about to begin, and we all crowded into a tiny room as everyone sang happy birthday. I found myself standing head and shoulders above a sea of glossy black plaited hair, and realised that other than the birthday boy and one other guy, I was the only male present. As is the custom in these parts, the boy was fed large wodges of cake by a succession of aunties and sisters, who then carefully dabbed the icing on his face until he looked as if he had been hit by a custard pie. I was presented with a small slice together with a couple of biscuits and some namkeen – Bombay mix – and retired to the terrace to eat it. The cake tasted like air freshener. 

Soon afterwards dinner was served, blankets being laid out with stainless steel trays set before them. Each had three compartments into which were ladled paneer (cottage cheese) in a spicy gravy, chickpeas in an even spicier gravy, and a dish of raita, a cooling cucumber and yoghurt confection whose emollient effects were entirely negated by the addition of an eye-watering mustard. A mound of puris like deflated yorkshire puddings were used to scoop up the sauces, and we sat panting slightly and giving the occasional drawn out sniff, wondering whether it would be acceptable to blow our noses over the balcony with our fingers, in the local manner, or if we should just sit there gurgling like drainpipes. The meal was over almost as quickly as it had begun, and groups of women and children slipped on their flip-flops and made their way off into the night, along pitch-dark mountain paths. Two girls squatted at one end of the terrace and washed up thirty steel trays in a couple of plastic bowls with impressive speed. 

One of the peculiarities of Goan celebrations that I have attended – weddings, birthday parties and the like – is the presence of a compere or MC. They all have the same smarmy tone, slightly patronising, occasionally hectoring over the microphone, and the crowd somehow consent to a series of games that can only be described as ritually humiliating. At the last event I attended, a joint birthday party, the compere was a stocky guy with a mullet and designer stubble, and a name that sounded like “Goatse” – something from the early days of the internet that you really don’t want to look up. He was encased in a shiny satin dinner jacket, which must have been a torment, as the humidity was in the 90s. After a series of fairly mundane competitions such as “who has the oldest driving licence” or “the biggest shoe size”, this joker somehow ended up organising a race of all the fattest people from one side of the venue to the other. And this crowd of Goans, all in their finery, good-naturedly obliged, tottering back and forth across the sand again and again, dripping with sweat, before one welterweight lad in a dress shirt and bow tie was pronounced the winner, and collapsed into a deckchair grinning bashfully to the patter of exhausted applause. 

The day after the young boy’s party, with a combination of local grapevine and modern technology, we were informed by text message from a mutual friend in Goa that we had been invited to tea at the estate on the hilltop. We trudged uphill through dappled forests, following a trail marked by scattered piles of horse dung – most of the heavy goods are carried up the mountain by pony, although the day before I had seen an elderly guest hoisted upon the shoulders of four local lads in a palanquin. We were greeted on arrival by none other than the aunty who had done the mountain dance the previous night. It transpired that she was married to the owner of the estate – indeed the owner of the whole hill – a retired Indian Air Force officer who had spent many years touring India by motorbike. Here we had much in common, and spent a pleasant afternoon listening to bagpipe music from this region of Kumaon, swapping travel stories and discussing the longstanding and often convoluted relationship between Britain and India – one that hadn’t by any means always flowed smoothly, but which retains a deep and genuine affection to this day. Indeed in the nearby town of Ranikhet, an old hill station and army cantonment known for its tweed factory, it is possible to take out a day’s membership of the Ranikhet Club (presumably once you are suitably attired in lightweight herringbone), where you can get access to the bar and the billiards room and observe old Indian colonels with enormous moustaches addressing each other as “old chap”. 

The noises began three nights ago, with a strange ambient music faintly audible from the hill across the valley, perhaps two kilometers away as the crow flies, but much further by foot. There was no beat, just a series of chords, often in the minor key, somehow creating an uneasy atmosphere, as if in a film when something dramatic is about to happen. It put me in mind of ‘Wandering Soul’, the American psychological warfare experiment in Vietnam, where helicopters flew over the jungle at night playing a recording of eerie sounds – ominous music, random howls and shrieks, and then messages in Vietnamese purporting to be from the spirit world. This had been put together by a dedicated team of psychologists in the Psy-Ops department of the Pentagon. The theory was that most Vietnamese believed in ghosts – in the absence of a proper burial a spirit would wander – so this would somehow demoralise the Viet Cong, crouching below in the darkness, and convince them to desert. Clearly it didn’t work.

By morning the DJ had moved on from ‘Wandering Soul’ to more mainstream Indian hits, featuring a lot of autotuned singing and thumping Punjabi beats. This began at seven in the morning and continued all day. It was, inevitably, a wedding. The music would stop for an hour or two and then resume, wafting around the valley as the wind direction shifted. At one point there was what sounded like a brass band, who weren’t bad, but undoubtedly sounded a great deal better from two kilometres away. I wondered if the DJ had any idea how far the music carried, or indeed if it would have made any difference to them; knowing this country, probably not. 

It is sometimes said that the British invented bureaucracy and the Indians perfected it. One of the best examples of India’s utter dysfunctionality in this regard is the recent introduction of “the C Form”. This is the form that foreign tourists have to fill out upon arrival at a guesthouse or hotel, and it has been shambolic. A heavy-handed campaign by the government threatening enormous fines for failure to complete one within 24 hours of a guest’s arrival has meant that one of the first things you are confronted with, having driven for hours and staggered up a hill, is a badly designed, repetitive and counter-intuitive form that nobody knows how to fill out. If, for example, you are staying with friends or relatives, should you fill one out? Nobody knows. Best to be on the safe side. So your friend or relative dutifully logs on to the stunningly inept government website, to be confronted with the first question: Name of guesthouse. OK, they think. I’ll put my address. Next question: Guesthouse registration number. At this point they may be tempted to try to find the relevant website for registering a guesthouse. Good luck with that. 

So you go back to the paper forms, which are a necessity given that many places have no internet connection. And after the standard question of name, home address, permanent address, temporary address and associated phone numbers, you come to marital status. Single, I always put. But, in a clever attempt to catch you out, the next question is, Married or Unmarried. Gosh, well… so I used to be single but am now married? It was a rushed wedding – must’ve happened since I answered the last question. Anyway, moving on. Date of arrival in India. Where from? (City.) OK, I put London. Next question is simply, Place. Oh well, the leafy suburb of Heath Row, don’t you know. Zip code? LOL 5R5LY. 

In Goa, which has more foreign tourists than anywhere else in the country (about 2 million a year), the sheer mind-boggling amount of forms that were deposited at the few police stations allocated to process them led to serious storage problems – they simply didn’t know where to put all these millions of mouldering forms. So they decided to “Go Online”. As with most government websites anywhere, the site is virtually unusable, and will be immediately familiar to anyone who ever had the mad idea of trying to apply for a tourist visa to India. Fill out endless pointless questions. Are you, or have you ever been, a Pakistani? No? Are you sure? Failure to declare Pakistaniism is a punishable offence! Ah, but what if your grandma was an East Pakistani from what is now Bangladesh, hmm? No, she was from Wales. It’s in the… OK, scroll down every country in the world, avoid The United Arab Emirates pitfall for the unwary, the United Kingdom Overseas Territories, and whatever diminutive landfalls remain of the former empire, and pick United Kingdom. Yes, but what about grandpa? Repeat the above process, avoiding the United States, etc. 

Are you in service? Yes/no. Military service, domestic service, government service, BDSM relationship service? If so, please choose position from following menu. Let’s just put no for that one. 

So we sigh, and shrug, and waggle our heads, and say what is to be done? It is how it is. And then you get woken up at 7 in the morning by a great hammering on the door from the owner of the establishment who says that you failed to list your permanent address in India, which you don’t have, because the question, subsection 2.1(b) went on to ask: If any.  

Please to be uploading passport photo. Indian tourist visa requirements demand a gigantic one – 2” by 2”, or 50mm each way for the non-imperialistic. But once you’ve arrived in India, the C Form requires a standard passport size, which cannot be more than 50kb for the online form, and is therefore so pixellated upon upload as to be unrecognisable. Never mind, that’ll do. The experienced traveller carries a sheaf of photos taken at enormous expense by a guy with a camera costing thousands of pounds who is actually a serious artist but is forced to make ends meet. So it goes. 

So we have the online illiteracy of the Goan form, and the hillside village with no network of a place such as, say, Jilling, with their paper form. And then you get in the car and carry on with your journey, at a steady 40kmh round hairpin after hairpin, for three hours, and you come to your next destination which is in the same blasted state, and here they want both the online registration and a paper form, because some pot-bellied babu in a nasty little office full of dead flies, who lives in mortal fear of actually being held accountable for a decision he has made and couldn’t find his arse with both hands in a dark room, has decided his life is easier that way.  

Now I’m no great shakes at the mathematics, but India has 7 million foreign tourists a year – and is keen to attract more, despite the best efforts of the Ministry of Tourism, which periodically prompts plaintive enquiries as to why numbers are dwindling in the editorial pages of newspapers. The Goan tourist minister has his own view: India is too expensive (despite being one of the cheapest countries in the world), and tourists should drink more feni cashew spirit, visit temples (he might at least have mentioned churches in a state famous for them) and go to carnival (crowded, hot, and a long journey over appalling roads) to truly appreciate Goenkarponn, or Goan culture. They should on no account go to any party after 10pm or smoke any hashish, because that’s illegal, etc. Somewhere in between the charter holiday mob to Goa, who stay for a couple of weeks in the same hotel then go home drunk (occasionally indulging in bouts of racist abuse at flight attendants), and the more adventurous types who try to pack a lot of sightseeing into a tight schedule (“If it’s Monday this must be Jaipur”), and those hardy souls/masochists who spend months touring India staying in a different place every night, you end up with an average of a new hotel or guesthouse every couple of days. And a new C Form for every one, complete with passport photo. So there’s 365 days in the year, right? Should I bring roughly a couple of hundred passport photos then, to be on the safe side? What’s that times 7 million? How many man hours will it take to process the C Forms for one year? Couple of years minimum, I reckon. It is the perfect Indian bureaucracy.