The Hills

You never step in the same river twice

– Heraclitus

The mountains are as high as the clouds. Rivulets of snow streak their uppermost flanks. Each night the valleys echo to the sounds of drumming from the temple – a constant, chest-shaking thump that rises and falls with the wind, punctuated by the rasping horns and the high reedy skirl of an oboe. The men of the village parade the effigy on a float borne on their shoulders. It is faceless, and resembles an upright sitting figure in a crimson bridal gown, edged with gilt thread and with ten rupee notes pinned to the embroidery. The crowd stand in a circle, women and children in small groups around the edges, and different men come forward to take their turn bearing the load. The effigy sways back and forth on their shoulders, possessed of a momentum of its own, forty-five degrees each way, almost falling, and others rush forward with arms outstretched to support the load.

The interlocutor is gnarled and bearded, his voice cracked with age and passion. He hears the villagers’ babbled complaints, and clutches at his brimless felt Kullu cap as if in exasperation. The goddess speaks through him. “You people have learned nothing!” he cries, and everyone looks bashful and suitably reproached. He goes on berating them in an untranslateable Pahari dialect, and they nod in assent, clasp their hands, and add their own pleas for mitigation. The float spins to face whoever is speaking. Finally some agreement is reached and the crowd look hopeful once more. Three men with long brass horns blast out a discordant note that echoes around the valley as if to underline the pronouncement, then they dismantle their horns and shoulder them. The float leaves the grounds of the temple in a procession, a man at front holding a small brazier containing incense, followed by the crowd. They head down the steep lanes of the village to the syncopated drumbeat. They are making for the house of a local lady. The goddess has been invited to dinner.


All the coaches to the hills from a sweltering Delhi were booked up weeks in advance, but we found a private bus company offering tickets on an “AC Volvo” coach. These long distance workhorses ferry hundreds of thousands of people around the subcontinent each night in varying levels of discomfort. The pick-up point was a fly-blown layby in Majnu Ka Tilla, devoid of shade or any facilities whatsoever, other than a tiny chai stall. The toilet was a nearby wall. Groups of people sat around on their luggage, waiting, blasted by dust from the passing traffic. It was 42 degrees C. Eventually a bright orange coach pulled up and we gained the front seats, then sat in them for forty minutes while various people came and went, filling out forms, loading cargo, selling things. Finally setting off we played stop-go for three hours with the Delhi traffic until the city fell away and we entered the flatlands of Haryana, dotted with enormous roadside hotels that were always deserted and construction sites where new private universities were being built.

Some time in the night I awoke to see small clusters of yellow lights in the sky. We had entered the hills, little settlements stretched out along the ridgelines like constellations. I slept again fitfully, wrapped in the Afghan patoo. Waking again at around three o’clock in the morning I peered blearily through the windscreen in front of me, over the heads of the driver and his assistant. We were near the Himachali town of Mandi, on a narrow road with thick forest on either side. Suddenly, in the glare of the headlights, something jumped into the road in front of us. I saw spots, a long tail… It was a leopard. The driver slammed on the brakes, crates and boxes cascaded into the aisle from the overhead racks, people waking with cries of fright… but it was too late. I saw the animal crouch down, ears flattened, mouth agape in a snarl… and then there was a bump and we struck it. The coach drove on slowly in silence, the driver in shock, unsure whether to stop or not. After a few minutes we pulled in to the side of the road and he got out, inspecting the underside of the coach with the torch of his mobile phone. Small groups of passengers stood around disconsolately. The driver and his assistant were grim-faced. “The leopard has gone,” someone said. “It died.” I felt like crying. Approaching the driver I wanted to offer some consolation, knowing how he must feel. “I’m sorry,” I said. “There was nothing you could have done.” He looked at the ground. It cast a pall of tragedy over the entire trip.

I rarely revisit places when travelling. Even returning to Goa again was slightly different, as each time it had been in a different part; first Anjuna, then Arpora on a later trip, and this time Siolim. But now I was heading back to Manali, where I had been three years previously after the trip to Afghanistan. The plan was to collect an Enfield motorbike and ride into Kinnaur, then on to Spiti, on the border with Tibet. I had researched different rental places, and found one that did group rides through the Himalayas. Their prices were extortionate, but the mechanic who serviced their bikes had his own company, for half the cost. We arranged to have an Enfield delivered to us in Manali, and it duly arrived outside when we were having lunch at Moondance cafe. The young guy dropping it off handed over all the necessary paperwork – registration, insurance and the rest which is so often lacking in India. In addition there was an impressively large bag of spare parts strapped to the back: accelerator cables, clutch lever, spark plugs, filters and so on. The bike was a 500cc Bullet “Machismo”, of all things. I hadn’t ridden one before, but the design was similar to the Classic I was used to in Goa, so I felt sure I’d figure out its idiosyncracies.

As it turned out, this was a little optimistic. The first problem was how to start the engine. I tried the self starter. Nothing. I flipped out the kickstart and pumped away at it. I might as well have tried to push a boulder up hill with my foot for all the good it did. A small group of lads gathered around us. “Here, let me try,” said one, and he pumped away for a while before climbing off in defeat. Others took his place, trying the Enfield rituals of choke, decompression, kill switch on and off, everything. Nobody could even get it to cough. We rang the delivery guy. “Duh?” he said. “Clutch in and self starter.”

Clutch in. Why didn’t I think of that? I tried it and it worked – the engine roared into life. Broad smiles all round. Riding the bike up the narrow track towards our guesthouse, I knew at once it was going to be a handful. It seemed to have an alarming wobble through the handlebars. The tyres were probably half-flat as usual. The only air pump being on the other side of Manali, through an endless snarl of vehicles, we decided to check them the next day just before we set off.

Heading back down the hill the next morning, fully laden and with K on the back, it took every bit of balance I possessed not to drop the thing. Round one bend I saw that the entire road was covered with a carpet of straw. The locals lay it out so that the tyres of passing vehicles thresh out the seeds – but it was a damn tricky surface to be riding over on tyres which were, indeed, half flat; the front was just under 10 psi, when it should have been 25. With them fully inflated it handled better, but was still challenging to get through the gridlock: Manali was packed nose to tail with minivans and taxis full of Indian holidaymakers. This was peak season, and the sheer number of vehicles had turned the roads into giant tailbacks stretching for many kilometers. Eventually we got free of the traffic, and set off south down the highway which ran alongside the river – a fast-rushing torrent of green tumbling water coming down from the mountains. Occasional rafting camps dotted its banks.

The first spots of rain began to fall an hour out of Manali. It wasn’t too bad, though the road surface immediately became greasy. But we had ridden in worse. We pressed on, stuck in a long line of boxy white people carriers. Then the rain became heavier. Soon it was a full downpour, and I could hardly see. I felt three taps on my shoulder indicating that I should pull over, and wobbled onto the muddy verge as trucks roared by, drenching us with spray.

“There’s a restaurant back there!” shouted K into my ear. Somehow I did a U-turn on the main highway and nosed down a muddy track with led to Garden Restaurant. With numb fingers we undid the bags and headed into a small dining room that was packed with Indian families. Judging by their expressions we might have just arrived from outer space. They stared. They gawped. Small children goggled or burst into tears spontaneously. Removing helmets and sunglasses we took on a more human appearance, and this was further consolidated when we ordered aloo parathas and masala chai. This seemed to break the ice – we clearly ate normal food, and with our fingers too, like normal people. The children on the bench opposite, who had been mesmerised, turned to stare glumly out of the window at the rain once more, like children on rainy family holidays anywhere. After an hour the rain began to slacken and patches of watery sunlight appeared. We set off once again, occasionally passing through patches of drizzle, making for the town of Kullu.

It was a narrow road with a greasy surface, sloping slightly downhill, with buildings along either side. That much I remember. Groups of schoolkids were heading home, walking up either side of the road, boys in white shirts and blue trousers, girls in long kurta blouses and baggy white trousers, their hair in twin plaits tied with ribbons. There was a group of five or six coming towards me on the right, past a small entrance to a lane or a yard. A dog ran out. It was a flash of black and tan fur. I flung my whole body right, trying to countersteer, braked, and somehow missed it with the front wheel, but I heard a yelp, and must have caught it with the rear pannier. Then the back wheel was trying to overtake the front, and bike was going sideways – upright, but totally out of control, heading towards the schoolkids, who stood frozen with expressions of horror. I flung the bike back the other way, knees slamming into the tank so hard they bruised, and went into a skid in the opposite direction, away from the kids. Directly in front of me was a small maroon car, and I could make out a row of beribboned and plaited heads in the back window. To the left was a wall. There was nowhere else to go. Into the wall I steered, laying the bike down on its side at the last moment. We were doing less than 10mph when we hit it.

I found myself still in my seat, but lying on my side. Miraculously I seemed uninjured. I reached out my arm behind me and encountered K’s leg. “Are you OK?” I called.

“Yaar!” Cushioned by her enormous pink marshmallow of a jacket, she was unscathed.

“OK, get up slow.”

Somehow we got to our feet. The bike engine was screaming, the throttle jammed open, and I flicked off the kill switch. Then there were people around us. Two lads helped lift the bike upright then politely stood holding it until I remembered to put down the side stand. A policewoman appeared from nowhere and hovered at the edge of proceedings. But there was nothing to see: the bike was up, we were uninjured, the schoolkids were OK. “How is the dog?” K asked someone.

“The dog is fine. He hurt his foot.”

I started laughing, then caught myself. My heart was hammering. One of the lads holding the bike said: “You did a good riding. Everybody saw you try to miss the dog.” He nodded emphatically, as if to underscore his words. That was it in a nutshell. I did everything I could, and nobody got hurt. A controlled stop featuring an immoveable object. The policewoman wandered off again and gradually the crowd began to disperse. A procession of saffron-robed Buddhist monks were walking down the road towards us in the rain. One caught my eye and held it, smiling enigmatically. I bowed my head.

Getting back on the bike it became clear that it was far from well. There was an audible ‘tac tac tac’ sound from the front wheel, and the steering wobble was worse than ever. Slowly riding on into Kullu I felt three taps on my shoulder again: “There’s a mechanic on the right.” I U-turned again and pulled up outside a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop littered with bike parts. For three hours an old man and his son dismantled the bike, hammering things into shape, refitting parts, and going off to fetch new ones. The mudguard was bent and rubbing on the tyre. The headlight was broken. And there was a fuel leak from the reserve tap which was dripping petrol into the hot metal of the engine. It was all a bit of a mess.

While we waited for the mechanics to do their work we took stock. We clearly weren’t going to make Narkanda that night, which lay over a 3000 metre pass some four hours away. Then I remembered Kasol. I had been there three years before, and remembered it as a slightly druggy hangout for travellers, but which had plenty of guesthouses. It lay along the Parvati Valley, reached from the junction at Bhuntar which was just to the south of us. “I reckon I can ride there,” I said. “We should make it before nightfall.”

The mechanic lifted his head, overhearing the name. “Yes, you could reach Kasol in an hour, hour and a half?”

So it was decided. We paid the bill – 800 rupees, or £8 – and headed for Bhuntar en route to Kasol.

What I had forgotten, however, was just how bad the road was. It clung precipitously to the edge of the cliffs and was comprised mostly of potholes interspersed with large rocks and soft sand. Many people carriers appeared to be heading the same way, and rather than get a faceful of diesel fumes I carried out some tricky overtakes, sometimes coming within inches of the cliff edge. I feared for the tyres – a sharp rock would cause a puncture, and the consequent loss of control could be catastrophic. Never mind stepping in the same river twice – was it conceivable that I might crash twice in the same day? The bike engine kept stalling on me, but somehow I restarted each time. Finally, after yet another jarring descent, just as night was falling we came into Kasol.

The streets were packed. I remembered the way down to Alpine Guesthouse by the river, and fought my way through the traffic, past clumps of Indian holidaymakers who stood with truly bovine passivity in the middle of the road, or platoons of dreadlocked Israelis who would give way to nothing and nobody. I discovered my horn wasn’t working – that most essential piece of equipment for Indian roads – and was reduced to shouting at people to get them out of the way. We wobbled crazily over the boulders that lined the track to Alpine, and finally stopped. Trudging tiredly up to the terrace overlooking the river we saw that it was packed. Groups of young Delhiites sat around smoking hash and loudly talking to each other. It was a dispiriting sight; when I had been here in April 2013 it was all but deserted. We ordered chai from the delightfully camp waiter. A young guy in a hoodie decorated with the Union Jack came to stand in front of us. Did we have any rolling papers? We did. Where were we from? On hearing London he beamed. “I was at university in London! Just near Farringdon – City University. Do you know it?” I did. He loitered for a while, until it became clear that we weren’t really fit for conversation, then he sauntered off, having failed to offer us anything in return for the loan of our papers. It was a fitting introduction to Kasol.

Alpine was clearly full to bursting. Confidentially I took the camp waiter aside. “Do you remember me?” I asked. “I was here three years ago.” He looked unsure. “But I remember you,” I told him, and he beamed. “We have a problem. We need a room.”

He sighed, and said: “Everything fully booked. All Kasol, because of the festival. But maybe you could try Blue Diamond.” It was a large hotel we had passed coming into town. Finishing our chai we climbed wearily onto the bike once more, and headed back along the road to Blue Diamond. I was, by now, almost hallucinating with fatigue. K could hardly stand up. Two utterly disconsolate figures, we swayed up to the reception desk to ask about rooms. A young man in designer specs, who had a rather preoccupied air about him, regretfully informed us that the hotel was full. The time had clearly come to play the sympathy card.

“We’ve had a motorbike accident,” I told him. His forehead puckered in feigned concern. “I can’t ride any more. She has hurt her shoulder.” (It had been injured days earlier, but this was no time for technicalities.) “Do you have anything at all? I can pay cash.”

It was the magic word. He frowned at his register. “There may be a chance… one guest is leaving unexpectedly tonight. 2000 rupees?”

It was an outrageous amount for India. But there it was. I laid out two crisp thousand notes from my notebook and he passed me the register. We were in.

We waited for them to clean the room. The departing guest was an American who had been due to appear at the festival. It now transpired that it had been cancelled, and he wanted a refund. He hung on and on, arguing with reception, going out to his car, coming back for another go… In the end we carried our bags up to the room ourselves and sat on them in the corridor, both periodically nodding off. Eventually the room was ready, and we collapsed on the bed. I must have dozed again, because I was woken at midnight by raised voices outside. Going into the corridor to see the source of the racket I saw that the door to the room opposite was open. Five elderly Sikh men in orange turbans were sitting in a circle on the floor, having dinner, talking loudly. Sighing I went back to bed.

Three hours later I was woken again by the sound of blaring dance music. Cursing, I rose. It came from the room next door. I hammered on it. It was opened by a girl in a hoodie who bobbed back and forth on the spot with a rather glazed look. Seeing my thunderous expression she immediately said: “Sorry sorry sorry.” Behind her the darkened room was lit by flashing disco lights, and I made out the shape of five or six people jerking up and down spasmodically like marionettes, dancing. All were clearly on drugs. I made them turn down the music and stomped grumpily back to bed, swearing like a sailor, feeling very old.


In the morning Blue Diamond redeemed itself slightly when I opened the curtains to reveal bright sunlight and a magnificent view. The forested sides of the V-shaped valley narrowed to end in a jagged barrier of snowcapped summits, a wall of peaks halfway up the sky, scalloped and fluted like icing. It was breathtaking. In the narrow stone-walled lanes just below us Himachali women trudged along with bamboo baskets full of foliage on their backs, fodder for their livestock. The scene was pastoral and somehow timeless. In the garden opposite a man swung a hoe, breaking up clumps of soil in the small strip of land beside his house. A sign on the building next door said “Yoga Centre”. After a morning chai we decided to head out in search of another room, in a normal hotel, where people didn’t hold trance parties in their room at 3 o’clock in the morning. But walking up the lanes behind the main road it soon became clear that Kasol was full to bursting. We tried half a dozen guesthouses without success, each becoming progressively grimier the further we went. All full. But there was one more place we hadn’t tried, halfway up the hillside behind the town. A weathered sign through the trees advertised Deep Forest. Up the steps we went.

On the sunlit terrace trance music was blaring out at nine in the morning, totally at odds with the idyllic scene. Small sunbirds flitted through the trees, seemingly undisturbed. Yes, said the owner, somewhat cagily, they had a room. 1500 a night. We asked to see it, and were led halfway down the steps again to a small and rather dingy cavern. The interior was cool and damp. Empty crisp packets littered the floor, and there were dribbles of wax on the surfaces from where innumerable candles had guttered out. It looked like an abandoned drug den. But we were all out of options. I went back to Blue Diamond to fetch the bike, which utterly failed to start; no amount of clutch and self-starter could raise even a cough. Watched by a dozen or so tourists I worked up a sweat trying to kick-start it. At that moment a young Indian guy pulled up on a Classic Bullet. “Here, let me try.”

It took him five minutes, but he somehow kicked it into life. “Your battery is flat,” he said.

“How can it be? I rode here from Manali yesterday! Surely it charged.”

He thumbed the horn, which was silent. “See? No power at all. There’s a guy down the hill who might have one.”

With profuse thanks I climbed back on and headed down to the main road, which was gridlocked again. For twenty minutes I fought my way through it, trying not to stall, finally bumping up the track to Deep Forest. I lugged the bag of spares up the steps again, and staggered dripping into our new room. K took in my expression. “What is it?”

“The traffic. And the bike wouldn’t start again. And the bloody pedestrians…” I froze in horror. “Ohmygod…”

“What?” She craned her neck to see what I was staring at. A hand-sized spider was making its way tentatively down the wall.

“We have to get it out. Right now.”

She approached it. “Oh, but it’s beautiful!”

“I don’t care. I’m not sleeping in here with that thing.”

At that moment a figure appeared in the doorway. It was one of the staff, carrying a long broom. “Excellent,” I said. “Would you mind getting rid of that?”

He took one look at it and deftly swept the creature off the wall and out of the open doorway.

“Thank you so much.”

I was a little freaked out. It’s not exactly a phobia, but spiders – like large roaches – have a curious unsettling effect upon me. Rather shakily I went outside for a cigarette, keeping a watchful eye out in case it came back.

The tragedy of Kasol was that, by virtue of the Parvati Valley producing the best hash in the world, a peaceful Himalayan village had been taken over by the seediest elements of rave culture. The locals trudged along the mountain paths passing tourists coming the other way and the two rarely interacted. In the most idyllic, sylvan glades there was inevitably a cafe which blared out the demented bleeps and thumps of jittery psytrance. And the tourists, whether Indian or Western, ambled about in a stoned haze which, despite their ostensible openness to other forms of consciousness, had had the effect of walling them off from everyone else; few people would meet your eyes in passing. Instead their glance would slide away, with all the neuroticism and anxiety one associated more with big city life. It was as if they had embraced all the trappings of a movement without understanding any of the concepts behind it. And in their dealings with brusque, demanding tourists, the locals too had changed, becoming abrupt and rather mercenary themselves. It was the tragedy of tourism everywhere, underpinned here by a whiff of criminality. There had been many disappearances over the years in Parvati – with the cause ascribed to wild animal attacks, or people falling in the river, which roared and tumbled through the town. But in a recent case three Israelis who had decided to do a spot of camping had been attacked in their tent by a gang of masked men with machetes. Two died, but one survived, despite being thrown into the river, and his account pointed to the most likely source of the disappearances: banditry, fuelled by the drug trade.

And yet there were redeeming figures. The local man carrying a load of firewood who sheltered with us under a tree during a shower of rain, whose rather simian features split into a huge grin beneath his colourful Kullu cap. The local women herding cattle who had a bold, glittering brilliance; they would look directly at you and smile unabashed, quite unlike the ‘modesty’ of the plains. The schoolgirls who ran laughing over the footbridge across the river each day, wildly exuberant, in this, one of the states in India where women were most empowered; perhaps they had a decent future here, not one worn down by grinding poverty and patriarchy. The grizzled Croat who we met for coffee one morning, who had been coming to India for 30 years, and who used to play chess with passers-by in the cafe. And Dr Jain, briskly efficient, lavishly moustachioed and emitting an air of deep respectability, who as it turned out was the only person in Kasol that I really trusted.

Another night, another spider. This time it was even bigger than my outstretched hand. It crept along the wall and then on down the curtain, like something from a horror movie. No wonder the guy at Deep Forest had seemed a little shifty about the room – it was infested with gigantic arachnids. My tropical routine of shaking out shoes became embellished with new additions: turning my clothes inside out before putting them on, or checking both sides of the towel before using it. I slept with one eye open, trying to ignore any strange random tickles on my legs. The sweeper guy was fetched from reception again to dispatch it. “Not killing,” we cautioned. “Just put it far, far away.” He knocked it off the curtain and then lost sight of it. We spent five minutes trying to find the thing again, whereupon it appeared underneath my backpack in the corner.

Waking at dawn, having scanned all surfaces for spiders, I went out for a cigarette, the birdsong in the tree opposite raucous in the cool morning air. Then I thought I heard a cry from within the room. “JEZZZ!”

I rushed in, prepared to do battle with tarantulas. K was sitting on the edge of the bed, tears streaming down her face, clearly in great pain.

“What is it?”

“I can’t get up,” she sobbed. “It’s my shoulder!”

It had been twinging since the night bus to Manali, and now it seemed she had trapped a nerve. She was in a very bad way. I tried to run through our options. We were an hour-and-a-half’s ride down an appallingly rough road from the nearest town, and had a motorbike that didn’t start. She couldn’t walk, or even get up. There was no air ambulance, nor even a road one. I remembered the painkillers I had been given in Venice when I trapped a nerve in my neck; they had got me halfway across Italy the previous summer. But the pharmacist had been most insistent that they must be taken only after food. We had no food. Reception at Deep Forest was such that it was impossible to even get chai before 9 in the morning. Then I remembered the biscuits in my backpack. Checking it carefully for spiders I fished out half a packet of gingernuts, and fed them to her, then gave her two Momendol with our last inch of bottled water. We sat and waited for them to kick in as she shook, trying again to get up and failing.

“OK, we have to get you to a doctor,” I said. “You’re not going to get to Manali like this. So we have to try and find one in Kasol.” Then we looked at each other. “Dr Jain!” we both said at the same time.

After an hour the Momendol were working. I helped her slowly to her feet, and we carefully negotiated the steps down to the road. I was praying Dr Jain’s shop was open – a small ayurvedic clinic near the cafe. It was. He smiled when we came in, then frowned as the extent of K’s incapacitation became clear. He immediately clicked into professional mode, and dispatched a small boy to go and fetch his assistant, who was skilled in spinal problems. Within ten minutes she arrived, and took K into a back room, to a stretcher which was decorated in Rasta colours emblazoned with stylized cannabis leaves. Smearing some gel on her neck and shoulder the assistant placed electronic pads over it, to try and halt the spasming muscles, then did some gentle manipulation. It seemed to help.

“Do you think she can travel? I asked. “We’re supposed to be riding to Kinnaur.”

The assistant smiled and shook her head. “She must rest it. Perhaps tomorrow you can see. But for now you have to stay here.”

I resigned myself to another night in Kasol, in the room of the giant spiders.

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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.

 

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.

The Road

IMG_2002

From a hilltop overlooking the churches of Old Goa, outside the Chapel of the Lady of the Mount, we sat and watched the sunset, listening to the chorus of birds. Occasionally there was the faint sound of an engine or the carolling horn of a truck carried to us on the breeze, but otherwise just the sounds of the forest. A freighter nosed silently up the estuary which looked as vast and wide as the Amazon, until its rusted hull merged with the backdrop of foliage and was swallowed up by it. We sat on the low wall, the thick tangle of vegetation falling steeply away before us, and smoked in silence, taking it all in. A lone church bell began to toll in the distance as the sun slowly faded into the gathering dusk.

Old Goa was once a town of 200,000 people and the capital of Portuguese India, abandoned in the 18th century after waves of cholera and malaria decimated the population. The Mandovi River had been an artery for the spice trade, vessels laden with pepper and chillies and cardomom setting off for the voyage to distant Europe, but it began to silt up, changing its meandering course, and soon became unnavigable. The few travellers that reached Old Goa in the early 20th century reported that it had become a snake-infested wilderness, ruined buildings mildewing in the tropical heat, overgrown with creepers and lianas. The jungle swallowed up the town until only the two large churches remained, poking through the canopy of trees: the Basilica of Bom Jesus, built in 1605, which holds the remains of St. Francis Xavier, and just opposite it the white octagonal towers of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, built in 1661.

I thought of another Church of St. Francis of Assisi – Greyfriars Franciscan priory, in Dunwich, on the east coast of England. In the Middle Ages Dunwich was an international port similar in size to 14th century London, until the town gradually fell into the North Sea, the waves whipped up by winter gales biting deep into the soft earth of the cliffs. Legend has it that the drowned church bells can still be heard from beneath the waves on certain nights.

Debussy’s Le Cathédrale Engloutie of 1910 drew upon a similar myth: an ancient Breton one in which an underwater cathedral off the coast of the Island of Ys rises up from the sea on clear mornings to the sound of chanting, bells chiming, and the organ audible across the water. As the waves climb higher again the sounds are slowly submerged until only the faint tolling of the bell remains. Two years earlier Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, composed in 1908, was inspired by a black and white reproduction of a painting by Arthur Böcklin of the same name. The 5/8 time conveys the dip and splash of the ferryman’s oars out to the isle, the rise and fall of the waves, and also perhaps the act of breathing, in and out, life and death intertwining.


As we rode back along the banks of the Mandovi I could smell the coolness of the river beside us. The road passed between the two churches, leading to Panjim, which has become a bustling city with steamboats moored in the river which now operate as casinos. From the distant shore the lights of illuminated advertisements shone on the water in rippling colours, spilling together. Turning into narrow streets lined with colonial buildings that had a distinctively Latin feel, we pulled up outside a doorway decorated with tiles and seashells: Venite – an old Portuguese restaurant. Samba music played softly in the background. Tiny candlelit balconies just large enough to accommodate a table for two jutted out above the street, and we found one at the far end of the long room. At the opposite end was a wall covered in messages, one of which I noticed four years ago, but which dates from 2002:

Hi, I’m Jez. Yes!

Here I am, up on high,

My life on a thread.

I owe everything

To the unwavering support

Of two truly beautiful women.

I always give Jez a nod as I go up the stairs, in recognition.


In a restaurant in Chapora the waiter was operating in slow-motion, very much on his own plane. He was deeply stoned – he always smokes before going to work, otherwise he gets bored, although he spent much of the time sitting in a chair watching the cricket. The eldest daughter, who is lithe, pretty and tall, scolded him for messing up the orders, and he smiled slowly. She’s in her late teens and glides around on long legs that go on forever, with the air of a girl on the brink of something, who has reached a point where she’s just realised the power that her beauty gives her, without quite knowing how to handle it or how dangerous it can be, like a character from Tolstoy. Having brought drinks with a rather aloof air to a table of Russian tourists – the men unable to take their eyes off her, their two women shooting each other a narrow glance of warning – in response to a shout from her mother she coltishly ran flat-footed into the kitchen, a child again. Her father, who is the owner, has a wall eye, a wonky leg and is missing a finger. He gazes sometimes in the general direction of his beautiful, dutiful daughter with a kind of haunted awe, as if he can’t quite believe that he is responsible somehow for the creation of such a budding goddess.

That particular restaurant is always thumping to classic rock bands – Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Doors. Sometimes this music can feel like the bane of a place – in how many traveller hangouts around the world have I heard the plangent opening bars of “Wish You Were Here” with a sinking heart? – but in Chapora it feels exactly right; it somehow captures the edginess and rebellious vibe, the sense of being far out. And it’s not just put on for the tourists; the owner is Goan, and a genuine rock and roll fan, his collection extensive. He worked the stock market in Mumbai for a while and lost a bunch of money before getting out and opening up this place. “It’s so damn hot this time of year,” he complains. “If I’m in the kitchen all lunchtime I have to have three or four beers afterwards to recover.” Of the stoned waiter he laughs, and says: “That guy… sometimes he’s just not here at all.”

Music… there has been so much music. The old American guy we met playing a retro, folksy blues guitar at a bar one night who came over to join us for a smoke. (“You heard of Altamont? Rolling Stones, 1969? I was there, man…”) He was playing his way round India, then going to fly to Moscow and busk his way across Europe all the way to Ireland. He was 66 years old and had been doing it for decades. “I can’t afford to live in the US,” he laughed. “But here… well, freedom, you know?”

Or the gig at Aranya on the jungle hilltop, beneath a parachute canopy hanging from the trees, and only 15 or so of us in the audience, where a guy came and sat down with a guitar – very tanned, looked Indian but had something about him from elsewhere; a cosmopolitanism, a worldly knowledge. His first song was in French, the second in Swiss German, and I tried to translate. It turned out he was from Kerala but lives in New York. He sang one which I only remember one line of: “London, New York, Goa or Sydney, you can always come and find me.” Then another, with the refrain “No brown stag policy”, which means exactly what it sounds like: he’d been turned away from a local club with those words, as a lone brown-skinned male – just like the group of Maharashtran lads at the night market – and you could hear the hurt and anger at the injustice in him. Gradually, song by song, he revealed more and more of his character, and I marvelled at it – the beauty and depth of it, the shared emotions he described, the gift of being a musician, an artist, a storyteller. “Your vibe attracts your tribe,” as they say here. Then he sang a classic Bollywood hit from the 60s in Hindi: “You wrote your name, on a blank page in my heart…”


The notebooks:

Something different in the air this morning – the perpetual susurrus of cicadas has begun. The palm fronds hang limp in the damp air, barely stirring. Although it has been months since the last rain, there’s a change in the humidity, which has jumped by 20 percent or more, a precursor to the monsoon, and the cicadas have felt it, emerging from their burrows. These are located at the base of a single tall stalk of grass – each has their own – and they climb up the stem to the very tip, ripening in the sunshine. Then, when the time is right, they emerge from their plastic-like exuviae, or exoskeleton, leaving it almost intact, and hop away. Sometimes you come across a small patch of these grasses, each with a perfect transparent mould of a cicada atop the stalk, like a miniature forest of insects. Cicadas have long been used in mythology to portray insouciance, carefree living and immortality.

***

A belief in Bengal amongst tribal groups who work on the tea estates where, when someone dies, their body is kept overnight in a hut and then burned. The ash is then scattered around outside. The first tracks that appear in it in the morning are said to represent the creature that the person will be reincarnated as.

***

“How can you not issue a permit? Is it my fault that the men of the village turned themselves into leopards at night and went into the forest?”

The official visibly shrank into his chair, and seemed to keep going, his spirit retreating far into himself somehow.

“That is possible,” he conceded.

Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey

***

Letters between Rilke and Marina Tsvetayeva. “The first dog that you stroke after this letter is me. Watch their eyes!” Tsvetayeva wrote.

***

Is it only when you’re in love with another person that you see them as they really are? And in the ordinary way, when you’re not in love, you see only a fragmented version of that being? Because when you’re in love with someone, you do indeed see them as a divine being. And suppose that’s what they are, truly. And your eyes have, by your beloved, been opened. If you should be so fortunate as to encounter this spiritual experience, it seems to me to be a total denial of life to refuse it.

Alan Watts

***

“It’s like being in a spell,” she said… “You’re dizzy, but you don’t want the experience to stop. It’s too special.”

I had felt those very things in the Urewera forests. Once, at midnight, I stepped outside a hut on a high ridge and almost stumbled with vertigo. The stars were thicker than I’d ever seen — great clusters of light spangling the sky — while immense trees thrust upwards to greet them.

At dawn, I walked to a bluff with a view of mist-wreathed valleys and listened to kōkako, the soul of the forest, the bird that Tūhoe say mediates between wairua [spirit] time and people time. Kōkako seem not to simply sing their notes, but send them into the world as gifts, painting the forest with song, drawing the listener into the music.

In such times, the curtain between natural and supernatural feels thin, like a membrane allowing passage from one side to the other. The more I get to know te ao Māori, the thinner that membrane seems to get.

Kennedy Warne – Saana Murray — and an awakening for a Pākehā

http://e-tangata.co.nz/news/saana-murray-and-an-awakening-for-a-pakeha

Walking up the Whakatane River in New Zealand, Warne repeatedly thinks he can hear the babble of voices behind him, and scans the steep bluffs looking for its source, but sees no-one. “What ghost band of hunters or hunted was making its presence known?” he muses.

***

And I remembered my friend in Zimbabwe, who said: “When you go up the mountain, no matter what you see or hear there – a baboon playing a drum, or a face in a tree, or the voice of a loved one, or rock spirits that are watching you – you must not speak about it. Otherwise you will stay there, become part of the mountain too”.


Sacred Sites

There are places in our lives that exert a power over us, that will always be associated with a sense of something spiritual, as if it had reached in and touched something deep within you. It may be a memory of someone who you once sat with there – in a sunlit park amongst the daffodils beneath the swaying trees… or perhaps there weren’t daffodils – how could there be, at that time of year? – and you mentally added them later, but it doesn’t matter because you can see them in your mind’s eye, and they will always be there, around you. Or a sparkling day on a pebble-strewn beach before a sunken city, or a mountain top where you felt you could see the course of your entire life stretching out before you along the road that led you there, and continuing on into the distance. Somehow at that point the world stopped and simultaneously revealed itself to you, leaving you in awe at its beauty.

Just outside Zimbabwe’s capital Harare lies a small settlement called Domboshawa, overlooked by rounded rock formations that contain caves decorated with paintings by San Bushmen – the original inhabitants of the land. Some paintings date from 20,000 years ago, the most recent just 150 years old. Here the tarmac ends, and you bump over a cattle grid onto the red dirt road that stretches on through the bush. The hills grow larger as you continue, until you come to a small junction off to the right, which lies at the foot of a high, bare dome of a mountain: Ngomakurira. “The Place Where the Spirits Beat the Drums”. Though not officially labelled as a sacred site, that is exactly what it is – and not just to the local people; at some point I realised it had become a sacred site for me personally too. There beneath the trees a small trail leads through dry mopane scrub, heading uphill, until you emerge onto the rock itself, glittering with mica, streaked with patches of red and yellow lichen, populated by lizards who scurry from crevice to crevice, blue throats quickly pulsing. The trail leads through the shadow of a high wall, the mountain split by a giant cleft, and it is this that gives the mountain its name: your footsteps echo off the clifface opposite, your ragged breathing magnified, and your words come back at you spoken in dozens of tongues. You hear the echoes of the spirits.

Walking up once I could hear what sounded like an African choir. Snatches of “Alleluyah” and “Hosanna” were carried to me as they echoed around the mountain. The singing grew louder, and then I made out a lone figure in white, labouring his way up the hillside. He was an Apostolic, wearing the white robes of his church, clutching a tall staff, walking barefoot all the way up the rocks to the top, singing hymns in a deep baritone all the while. I nodded in greeting as we passed and his face split into a huge smile above a spade-shaped beard, but his song never paused.

From the bare dome of the summit Africa stretched out before you. Rocky outcrops known as kopjes studded the landscape, and you could make out small round huts that congregated together at their base, dozens of tiny villages. The clank of cow bells, distant lowing, shafts of golden dust thrown up by their hooves. Sometimes I’d sit and watch the sunset and then descend again – a steep course down the rounded flank of the hill, 45 degrees or more, praying the soles of my boots would hold. Once, when I was wearing a new pair of jungle boots, I found I had no purchase at all – they slid over and over again. I unlaced the boots, tied them in a yoke around my neck and descended barefoot. I fet the heat of the rock on my soles and felt the small crenellations of its surface, as well as something else, almost like a deep, slow pulse with every step. I never wore boots again for the descent.

Sometimes I’d head back towards Domboshawa for a beer at the hotel – Castle Lager, ice cold. Other times I’d turn left out of the site, heading deeper into the bush – the old Tribal Trust Lands – driving on for twenty minutes or so to where there was a tiny white building that stood alone which was marked as “Butchery and Bottle Store”. I once took a society beauty out there from the capital – she’d wanted to go for a walk in the bush, thrilled at the exoticism of the idea, so we went up Ngomakurira, then stopped off at the Butchery and Bottle Store afterwards. She had never been anywhere like it, and sipped her Coke with a faint air of distaste, sitting on a rock in the shade of a mopane tree and waving away the flies, watched by half a dozen children. The strange thing is, I cannot remember her face – only the face of the young African woman in the shop who served us, and her wide open smile. There are many forms of beauty.

And sometimes I would camp up there, just taking a bivvy bag. There was a wide natural platform that looked out towards the north-east, and I’d lie there smoking a pipe, my backpack as a pillow, hearing the ripple of the leaves from the sparse outcrops of trees that clung to the hillside, and the cicadas, and the sounds of the African night. And one night I heard a sound from high on the hilltop behind me, a repetitive rasping like a man sawing wood. A leopard. Staring sightless into the dark I followed the sound with my hearing, not alarmed but just awed. Somehow I must have slept, because I woke soon after dawn to the sounds of the villages below waking up: the crow of the cockerels, the squeak of a turning well handle, the sound of someone whistling. I remember taking the local bus back into Harare that morning, dusty, wild-haired and with a thousand-yard stare, and all the other passengers smiling in bemusement at me, until we entered the city and these villagers slowly fell silent, faces clouding a little, and they peered out through the open windows at the crowds and the traffic and the bustle with a faint air of misgiving. These memories that form our inner landscape of the world, where part of us somehow always remains…


Floating in warm water smooth as velvet, the delicate fronds of the gulmohar tree silhouetted against the pink sky. A little yellow-striped squirrel spirals up its trunk. And you think to yourself: I’m here, I’m in the present right now, feeling the water holding me, and this will become a memory that  I will never forget, that I will look back on and it will fill me with happiness. I’m happy now. And then you wonder why you juxtapose past and future like this, imagining yourself looking back when it’s here, right now, all around you: the resistant sift of the water through your fingers, the rippling waves that lap upon you and sway your body gently… and you realise you are trying to describe it even as you are experiencing it, with some detached part of yourself that doesn’t contradict the present sensations but somehow enhances them, appreciating the beauty of the experience all over again in words even as it simultaneously happens to you, by sharing it. Where you begin and end becomes increasingly blurred, and there is only the now. By making it all the more real in your own mind, you bring yourself back to life.

And that life is here, in Goa… at least for now. The beautiful and surreal plants: the deep blushing interior of the hibiscus around the trembling pads of its pollen-dusted stigma – flower of the goddess Kali. It is traditionally worn by Polynesian girls behind the left ear if married or in a relationship, and behind the right if she is single or openly available. The trees that drop coconuts and mangoes all over the road; the psychedelic insects shimmering in iridescent colours; the scent of different types of incense from small shrines as you ride at night – suddenly you pass through an olfactory patch of gardenias or tuberose, and then, a few minutes later, the earthy notes of patchouli.

Riding back from the noise and traffic of Panjim slowly the roads became darker, and we went over a hill through the jungle feeling the coolness that the vegetation exhaled, the forest softly respiring. Four cows plodded along the road in the middle of nowhere. Two scooters riding along side by side, two young guys, one with his arm around the other’s shoulders, talking as they rode. And we came down from the hills, through small, darkened villages, over the bridge and then there was the water again, a chorus of cicadas from the trees on the foreshore, and the road that led down to the shining sea.


Santiago

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside

hiding then revealing the way you should take,

the road dropping away from you as if leaving you

to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,

when you thought you would fall,

and the way forward always in the end

the way that you followed, the way that carried you

into your future, that brought you to this place,

no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,

no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:

the sense of having walked from far inside yourself

out into the revelation, to have risked yourself

for something that seemed to stand both inside you

and far beyond you, that called you back

to the only road in the end you could follow, walking

as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice

that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,

so that one day you realized that what you wanted

had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place

you had lived in before you began,

and that every step along the way, you had carried

the heart and the mind and the promise

that first set you off and drew you on and that you were

more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way

than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:

as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city

with golden towers, and cheering crowds,

and turning the corner at what you thought was the end

of the road, you found just a simple reflection,

and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back

and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:

like a person and a place you had sought forever,

like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;

like another life, and the road still stretching on.

David Whyte – from Pilgrim

©2012 Many Rivers Press

Goa Trance

A drunken man is close to god.

– K’iche Mayan proverb, Guatemala

Take your pleasures freely, but be prepared to pay for them.
– Spanish proverb

Dawn in Goa. The sky is seashell pink behind the silhouetted fronds of the coconut palms. High on the hill behind stands a small white chapel overlooking the valley. From the jungle surrounding it comes the deep ‘hoop hoop hoop’ of langur monkeys serenading in the new day. There is the ascending limpid whistle of a bird – a koel – a sound I always associate with Goa. Other sounds: the honking klaxon of the poi guy, who pedals up and down the lanes selling the small, round wholemeal rolls. The ringing of a handbell from a fruit vendor. The occasional quack of scooter horns. The shriek of an unoiled gate. A frenzy of barking from the pack of labradors across the road as a cow wanders into someone’s garden. The plosive sound of Russian speech as two women leave their apartment, heading out for a morning swim, and the slap of their flip-flops down the stone stairs. The thunk of a 500cc Enfield engine riding along the road. Mostly, though, there is silence, but for the birdsong.


One of the first things I saw on my return to Goa was a man falling into a ditch. Riding into Chapora one night I saw him stagger into the headlights on legs as floppy as a ragdoll’s, then just topple headfirst over the parapet at the side of the road. At the last minute, as he realised that the ground was rushing up to meet him, he casually extended an arm to ward off the low concrete wall and nosedived almost in slow motion over the edge, coming to rest face down in a clump of bamboo which sprung back and forth, absorbing his impact. He was a skinny local guy with a mop of black hair and a filthy white shirt. I know he was none the worse for his experience since three days later I saw him again, meandering up the other side of the road in exactly the same condition.

Chapora always had a slightly edgy feel, with a whiff of danger like a frontier town. Small, slightly seedy bars lined the main strip, playing rock music to a rather dissipated clientele – the kind of place where everyone had a past and nobody really talked about it. It was a microcosm of Goa itself, in many ways; the old Goa which had drawn the hippies since the 1960s: a home to people who didn’t fit in anywhere else any more; the drug addicts, the drunks, the fugitive, the mad… and those who had simply opted out of a more conventional existence. Some had given up on life altogether, some had decided to create a new one as the old priorities didn’t seem to matter any more. Here nobody judged; no state mechanism existed to provide either support or condemnation. People formed their own community of sorts in the anarchic free-for-all of a society which prided itself on turning a blind eye.

And it was cosmopolitan – Russians, Brits, Israelis, French and various other Europeans all rubbed shoulders, intermingled, occasionally hampered by language but more or less getting along. Many were long-stayers and had Indian friends or partners; our next door neighbours were a group of Russian women in their early 40s who took turns babysitting each other’s children as the parents went out partying. The latest story doing the rounds was of a European who had been arrested for operating a large drug dealing network. While on bail he had fled the country, but had ended up on an interpol watchlist and was arrested again. Extradited back to India to face trial, the Goan court confiscated his passport and granted him bail again, so he promptly opened up a nightclub locally and resumed his former business activities while waiting to come to trial once more – a process that could take a long, long time. It was not an uncommon story.

If there was a hierarchy at all to it, it wasn’t based on money or social status but rather how long one had been in residence. “I have lived in Goa ten years!” I heard a man protesting in a thick Israeli accent, in protest at being overcharged for something, thus attempting to establish his qualifications. The shopkeeper smiled thinly and repeated his price, subtly reinforcing the fact that it was all the same to him – a foreigner was a foreigner, and therefore rich. Rules and regulations, such as exist in India at all, were by default ignored: everybody rode motorbikes without a helmet, often while drunk, people smoked hash openly, everything was negotiable, risk was relative. There was no CCTV, no snooper’s charter, no paranoia about terrorism – despite the outgoing police chief begging Delhi for funds as Goa was a wide-open target due to the tourism industry – or government meddling in people’s lives, unless they showed signs of political aspiration or activism which threatened big business interests. It was one of the things that Goa was known for: a sense of freedom. To people coming from more constrained, authoritarian societies (i.e. just about anywhere) where a fast-paced anxiety had somehow become the underlying mood, and “busy” or “stressed” were commonplace responses when someone asked how you were, the atmosphere was enormously liberating, and the air of tropical lassitude seductive. It was the sleepiest place I had ever been – people just lay down and dozed when they felt like it: shopkeepers swaying in hammocks in the shady interior of their stalls, tourists sprawled out on deckchairs beneath beach umbrellas, locals snoozing beneath the great banyan trees. The entire population seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, lulled by the heat, gently rocking on the tides of a dreamlike torpor. Susegad, it was known as locally – a kind of relaxed, laid-back attitude to life.

We moved into a top floor apartment in a little enclave – three blocks built around a swimming pool – a short distance inland from the coastal strip, with a rent of £260 a month, including all bills.  Though invaded by columns of tiny ants on a regular basis, it was breezy and spacious, and we began to establish a suitably tropicalised routine of sorts: I’d get up at 6 am in the cool of dawn, switch on the ceiling fans and make coffee – Leo coffee from Madras, which had chicory added, giving it a dark-roasted French flavour. I’d rinse off the ants which had congregated on the draining board overnight, chase out any lizards from the walls, then write for a couple of hours. Then it was time for the first shower of the day: rinse under the tepid water then work up a paste of Mysore Sandalwood Soap and rinse off again. Later K would join me for breakfast – either muesli or toast and marmalade – and then we’d both write until mid-morning. For lunch we’d ride to a restaurant somewhere, before heading home again for a siesta in the hottest part of the day.

We hired a local woman as a sweeper to clean twice a week. She was stick thin and languid, with quite distinctive features – her face had the high cheekbones and slanted eyes of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, but for the unmistakeably Indian long black hair which hung down her back in a plait. She was in fact from a tribal group in Chhattisgarh in central India, and had a rather watchful air which frequently dissolved into a radiant smile. She had fled from an abusive marriage with her young daughter and was taken in by an order of nuns, essentially as a domestic worker. Eventually she met a Goan man who was charmed by her, and who made her a very simple offer: “I will look after you, I will look after your daughter.” She quietly accepted.

She would pad soft-footed around the apartment, sweeping with a plastic-handled broom with grass bristles known as a jhaadu, while giving us the latest gossip in a sing-song Hindi that she’d learned from the nuns… but she was completely illiterate. During the initial negotiations as to how much we should pay her, she suggested 100 rupees a time. “”I’m not paying her that!” K said to me. “It’s outrageous. We should give her 150 at least.” On being told of her spontaneous pay rise she nodded, lowered her eyes and kept on sweeping, her face impassive. Despite her poverty she had recently taken in two dogs from an expat couple she cleaned for who had abandoned them, and somehow managed to look after them on her tiny income.

Religious orders such as the nuns who had taken in our sweeper still exerted great influence in Goan life. Despite a Hindu majority of 66%, Goa had a uniquely Christian element in its heritage, steeped in the ornate tropical Catholicism of many Spanish or Portuguese colonies. There was something in the lavish celebration of high mass which appealed to the locals, combined with a fairly straightforward theological framework – the guilt and absolution that forms a cornerstone of the Catholic psyche. Goan Christianity, however, was itself a fusion incorporating earlier influences: prehistoric petroglyphs dating from 6000 – 8000 years ago indicate shamanic practices in a predominantly hunter-gatherer culture. Later, around 2000 BC, people worshipped the earth goddess in the form of an anthill, or more accurately termite mounds – a practice which continues to this day. Buddhism was introduced to Goa in the 5th century BC under the Mauryan Empire, followed by centuries of Hinduism and then a period of Muslim rule in the 14th century.

On the 10th of December 1510, Goa was captured from the Ottoman-allied Ismail Adil Shah by the Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, and in 1534 the Catholic Archdiocese of Goa was established. Soon the missionaries arrived in force, winning over the populace by giving them rice and offering paid positions in the Portuguese administration – the same tactics that are still deployed at political rallies today, where a crowd’s loyalties can be bought with free food and alcohol and promises of jobs. But easy come, easy go: In 1545 St. Francis Xavier suspected that many Goan Hindus and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism were still practising their old religion in secret, and wrote a letter to John III of Portugal requesting that the Inquisition be established in Goa. The Inquisition tortured and tried thousands, suppressed the local Konkani language, and prohibited the growing of the tulsi plant (also known as holy basil) which is sacred to Hindus as the earthly manifestation of a goddess who venerated Vishnu. Outside our neighbour’s house, a single-storey building with a rust-red corrugated iron roof partly covered by dusty tarpaulins, a tulsi shrine six feet tall stood in layers of red, yellow, blue and white in the yard on a plinth. Atop it was a bowl in which the tulsi plant was grown. Each evening the lady of the house climbed onto the plinth, watered the plant, then shakily descended, pouring some of the water into her hand and wiping it over her face, before clasping both hands in prayer and bowing her head before it. The house opposite, a large, multi-storey building with Escher-like staircases that seem to lead nowhere with an open skylight in the roof, had an enormous white cross perhaps 15 feet high just outside the entrance.

The Inquisition also banned dietary taboos on pork and beef, ensuring that both became staples of the Goan diet. Local cuisine was full of Portuguese influences, and the names of dishes didn’t sound Indian at all: reichado, balchao, sorpotel, xacuti and vindalho (also spelled vindaloo). Like the Keralans further south they had a reputation for being great drinkers – the local spirit feni, unique to Goa, is distilled from either cashew or the coconut palm. Talking to a Goan friend one day about the state’s druggy reputation, he expressed frustration. “It’s all the tourists,” he protested. “They want to smoke hash so it’s supply and demand – because it’s around a lot of locals smoke too as a result. But smoking is not our Goan culture – we prefer to drink. You take one beer, five beers, maybe some Old Monk. You know Old Monk?” It was a dark rum. I’d once seen a couple of guys finish a litre bottle of it one night between them then get on their motorbikes and ride home in the small hours – helmetless, of course. The next morning I said to K: “Shouldn’t we call them, make sure they got home OK?”

“Nah – they’ll be fine,” she said. “Anyway, it’s Saturday. They’ll be drunk again today – best not to disturb them.”

There were, of course, plenty of people who did both. Anjuna’s Saturday Night Market, a small town that sprang up each week in the season, with white canvas tents and palm-roofed stalls spilling down the hillside selling pipes and shishas, ethnic clothing, Bob Marley T-shirts and vaguely BDSM-themed fashions, had the distinct whiff of hash smoke about it. It was like Camden Market combined with Glastonbury, but with palm trees. Lanterns hung in golden orbs overhead, and the fronds of the palms were decorated with lights that left glittering trails of debris like shooting stars. There were tribal women in elaborately mirrored costumes, hippy Europeans who had been here for decades, groups of Indian boys in skinny stonewashed jeans and hideous sandals, potbellied Goan uncles with families in tow, a Thai girl in a skin-tight pink minidress leading a guy by the hand who looked like the actor Ernest Borgnine if he had been playing the part of a Maori biker. A lissom pair of six-foot Baltic goddesses wafted ethereally over to a stall with every item priced at 100 rupees; the shoppers within had expressions of scowling concentration as they flicked through the items on the rails, grimly determined to pick out a bargain.

Up at the top of the hill was one of three dancefloors, pulsing to a mellow, spaced-out trance beat. Three Russians were sprawled out in wicker chairs with blissful expressions, eyes shut, nodding along to the music. One of them, a young guy in his 20s, had a crumpled sheet of paper full of a mixture of hash and tobacco, and was trying to roll a joint, but he was so drunk he kept dropping it. His friend, a guy in his 40s, opened an eye blearily in frustration to see what was taking so long, then spotting us sitting nearby, picked up the package and swayed over to us. “You have injury?” he asked.

“What do you need? Papers? Tobacco?”

“Nyet. Fyul.”

“Ryul? You mean roll? You want help rolling?”

“I khave no energy. No fuel!” He proffered the package, asking if we could roll it for him.

I looked around. A guy with dreadlocks all the way down his back was pinning up a poster for a “Tribal Warriors” class at a nearby art cafe. A couple of Nigerians bobbed in time to the beat with a loose-limbed fluidity as one texted on his mobile phone. The two beefy security guys at the entrance were engaged in preventing a group of rather excited-looking Maharashtran lads from coming onto the dancefloor. Meanwhile westerners filed past. It seemed unfair, but was borne of long experience – groups of young Indian men from out of state had a reputation for getting a little overexcited and pestering the girls. Laid-back local Goan guys, no problem – they knew the scene – but the Indian frat boy crowd had a very different vibe; one that basically exuded an air of desperation. They looked geeky and provincial, wide-eyed at the licentiousness of it all, peering over the security mens’ shoulder to see what they were missing. A deeply tanned girl in a tiny pair of white lace shorts with a thong visible beneath them favoured the security guys with a coy smile as she made her way in, and they, along with the Maharashtrans, followed the progress of her neatly swinging bottom across the terrace and up the steps to the dancefloor with a hot-eyed, unblinking stare.

“It’s not safe,” I told the Russian. “You must go up the hill. Maybe cops here. Militsia.”

He scoffed at the notion. He was in Goa, as far as he was concerned. There was no point explaining to him that we knew the place better than he did, where was safe to smoke and where wasn’t, and that undercover cops were mingling with the crowd, looking for a chance to shake down a tourist for a bribe. In a cloud of neat vodka fumes and clutching his package he stumbled away, looking for someone more accommodating.


Dusk in Goa. The sun is low, shafts of golden dust hanging in the air. Pigeons come down to drink from the pool as we float in it, suddenly taking off in fright, startled by something, then returning one by one. There is a spray of bright purple bougainvillea cascading down the wall, and behind it a riot of jungle vegetation. The chowkidar – security guard – is ambling around watering things with a hose. I lie on my back and the water rushes into my ears; high overhead I can see hawks silently circling in the blueness of the sky. The evening is perfumed with woodsmoke. As I surface again sounds return with a rush: laughter from the local boys play cricket in the lane, a passing motorbike, and the low whistle of a koel, slowly ascending higher and higher, on and on. We’ll head out again for dinner soon, enjoying the cool flow of the night air on the bike as we ride along narrow palm-lined lanes, out onto the main road briefly and over the bridge, past the enormous church whose ornate facade looks like a wedding cake with thick slabs and spires of white icing, perhaps to a small family-run place in Chapora that we like, or to a Greek restaurant perched upon the clifftop…

Above the dark tapestry of the sea shot through

With threads of silver from the rising moon,

And the booming of surf on the rocks below,

The silhouette of the palms as they gently swayed

Out on the headland, and the lights, all the lights

That danced away into the distance along the Malabar Coast

Sparkling in the jungle night like dewdrops on a cobweb.

IMG_1768

The Malabar Coast

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Varkala Shivagiri Station drowsed in late afternoon heat. Two women carrying baskets made their way down the tracks, languidly picking up litter. Passengers sat in pools of shade, beneath the fans on the platform canopy, waiting, dozing. Late March on the Malabar Coast and the heat slows life to a crawl. A column of ants made their way round the stone plinth upon which I sat, and as I leaned over to observe them more closely a bead of sweat ran off my forehead, trickled over my glasses and landed on the platform in their midst. Keralan men slopped along in their ankle-length lungis, ocassionally reaching down to readjust, wafting the skirts in both hands to catch the breeze like people perpetually preparing to curtsey, then folding them up and retying to above-the-knee height. One could measure the external temperature, it was said, by the length of the lungis: the higher the mercury, the higher their skirts. It was 37 degrees in the shade and we were entering miniskirt territory.

They seemed like a people whose lives were utterly determined by the sultry climate. Their features varied: thin, willowy women, often beautiful, with swaying hips and slim ankles; the men paunchy and thickset with leguminous noses and pendulous lower lips, inevitably sporting blunt military moustaches. They were the colour of tree bark; walnut, mahogany. They bathed often, sluicing water over themselves five times a day, wandered around with toothbrushes in their mouths in the mornings, turning the brushing of teeth into an activity that could take quarter of an hour or more – perhaps as a legacy of the tradition of chewing the end of neem twig into bristles and scrubbing away with it – and ate enormous meals of rice with half a dozen chutneys and sambars off plates of banana leaves with evident lip-smacking enjoyment: spicy sauces of twigs and spices, vast masala dosas, rice flour appams and idlis, coconut chutneys.

They were Christian by religion, communist by politics – psychedelic hammer and sickles decorated the white walls around vividly-coloured houses, and flyers exhorted passers-by to vote: “Shiny Matthew” peered out from a rubicund moustache and spectacles arrangement like a police artist’s impression, next to one of a good-girl, butter-wouldn’t-melt, extensive-shoe-collection type of lady with a centre parting and high-beam smile. Keralans were great drinkers despite a recently enforced prohibition which meant that beer was served in teapots and menus coyly referred to “G and Tonic” or “R and Coke”. The language was a tongue-twisting sputtering burble of palindromes that went in giant circles, where even the name of it could be read either way, back to front: Malayalam. The impossibility of its pronounciation to outsiders meant that many places had two names: Trivandrum, where I was bound for, was properly known as Tiravanathapuram. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu the hillstation of Ooty, which the British had called Ootacamund, was Udhaganamandalam. If in doubt, stick in a few extra syllables.

A man came to join me on the stone plinth that radiated heat like an Aga. He was short and stocky, square-headed and with a stubby, bristling moustache, reminding me somehow of a Tongan rugby player. He stuck his legs out and inspected his toes morosely, readjusted his lungi to knee-height, and then turned to me and introduced himself as Mr Naushad, a seller of books. “That is to say, I am a bookseller by profession, but a numismatist by hobby. I collect coins, currencies, and such and such.”

“And do you have a favourite author, Mr Naushad?”

“I am particularly fond of the works of Mr Tom Clancy, the American gentleman. Sadly he passed two months ago.”

“He passed? You mean he’s dead?”

“Alas yes, Mr Tom Clancy passed on recently.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I must admit I haven’t read anything by him.”

Mr Naushad frowned at his toes. He was mentally preparing a sentence, I could see.

“He was a chronicler of the zeitgeist. That is the right word? Zeitgeist?”

“Certainly.”

He smiled, reassured. “Yes, American intelligence, thriller page-turner. CIA political writing. What is your opinion of this Donald Trump?”

“I think he’s a very dangerous man who appeals to the lowest common denominator by playing to their fears.”

Mr Naushad giggled and patted me on the shoulder. “Yes, very true. Lowest common denominator. Well put indeed. We are having a frank and candid conversation about American political events, are we not? I can say this? Frank and candid?”

“Absolutely. You know that ‘full and frank exchange of views’ is a British euphemism for a political disagreement?”

He was so delighted by this that he reached out and shook my hand repeatedly, then abruptly kissed it.

“Um, Mr Naushad, that is very friendly. In our English custom perhaps a little too friendly. I mean, we’ve only just met.”

He laughed unabashed. “But I am so delighted to make your acquaintance, and discuss these matters frankly and candidly.”

“Well quite. Tell me, are you married, Mr Naushad?”

“Yes gentleman, I am married now twenty-two years, and my daughter is twenty-one years old. I am having two grandchildren. So I am a grandfather!”

“That’s a relief to hear. You must be very proud.”

“Very proud. Family is everything.”

This surreal conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a train. As it rolled in to the station people began leaping out of the doorways, adjusting their skirts and flip-flopping across the tracks. I said goodbye to Mr Naushad (“Do not forget me,” he said; “Never,” I assured him) and made my way towards a carriage, hoisting myself up the steps and onto the 5.15pm to Trivandrum. Thiruvanathapuram.

We rattled at a steady 30 mph through coconut groves and past waterways lined with palm trees. On the bench opposite was an elderly man in a white dhoti who had an enormous paunch decorated with a fine silver fuzz of hair. He gazed lovingly at it for a while and occasionally murmured what sounded like prayers or a low snatch of song under his breath. As we jolted along he decided to put on his shirt, but struggled with getting his arm into the sleeve. The man next to him obligingly held it out for him, but it wouldn’t go – he had it backwards. A young guy on the bench next to me leaned forward to assist, turning the sleeve the right way round. Together the occupants of the compartment helped the old man get dressed, and he looked on, smiling mildly, as if utterly remote from proceedings: Oh, is that my arm? This button goes which way? It seemed as if he was operating on a completely different level of consciousness. I was too.


I’d arrived in Kerala two weeks’ earlier, and the cold I had been trying to shake off in Delhi immediately flourished in the greenhouse heat, multiplying with a vengeance. I sneezed my way miserably round the old colonial streets of Fort Cochin, sucking ayurvedic cough sweets. The famed Chinese Fishing Nets that dominate every tourist brochure photo of Kochi were strewn with rubbish; I realised that all the promotional photos had been taken from the same angle to avoid both the litter and the oil storage tanks and cranes of Ernakulam just across the water. A zigzagging cobblestone path led along the shorefront, lined with stalls selling the inevitable baggy harem pants and tripped out T-shirts. I stumbled across a delightful cafe called Teapot and began to drop in regularly for a medicinal masala chai. At the guesthouse – three spotlessly clean rooms in a coconut grove, with a lounge dominated by a huge shrine with Jesus lit by a neon tube – I met Lee and Tanya from Suffolk, and we spent time exploring Kochi together, checking out vegetarian restaurants and enjoying some enlightened conversation; it was a pleasure to meet them again later further south. The guesthouse was booked up for the rest of the week, but the lanes around were full of similar homestays, and I soon found another. Like a sick cat I holed myself up there for the best part of a week, coughing away endlessly.

One night I met two other visitors who turned out to be a Croatian policeman studying for a PhD in Philosophy and his partner who worked with traditional embroidery. They offered me black tea with lemon out of tall glasses and a course of antibiotics; she actually messaged her mother, who was a doctor in Croatia, to ask whether they were suitable for someone as clearly unwell as I. The good lady responded almost immediately, advising on dosage. A course of three should clear everything up, she said. The root canal abcess which had tormented me since London, and which had decimated my immune system to the extent that I picked up every little bug going around, was long overdue to be cured. “It’s not every day that I accept drugs from a Croatian cop,” I admitted, reaching for the pills, “but I think I will just this once.”

After a few days I felt well enough to travel, but still horribly weak. The heat sapped energy. The next town down the coast was Alleppey, and in retrospect it wasn’t the best choice. The town itself was solely given over to selling houseboat cruises on the Backwaters – the network of coconut-palm laced waterways just inland from the coast. The beachfront hostel I had found in a guidebook was a fair distance from the town, in a neighbourhood that was devoid of any facilities whatsoever – there were two small shops selling essentials, and an Indian Coffee House restaurant about a 15 minute walk along the beachfront – tired masala dosas and “veg cutlet” served by tired waiters in tired uniforms. Worse, the hostel, inexplicably, given its location, didn’t do lunch. Dinner was all delivered by a takeaway company and could take an hour or more to arrive. Had I been in better shape I would’ve moved on at once, but I was utterly debilitated. I bought bread, jam and bananas from the small shop, and went in search of peanut butter in Alleppey itself; I hadn’t had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches since the Anglo- American school in Bulgaria back in the 1970s, but for some reason now I craved them. I spent most of my time sitting looking at the sea, coughing, sucking down water as hungry-looking crows cawed in the trees overhead and periodically swooped on tables recenty abandoned by diners. Mangy dogs curled up beneath the tables, attracting flies. I couldn’t write, couldn’t walk, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t smoke (undoubtedly a good thing) – only cough. This is how people die, I thought melodramatically to myself one night: clutching their sides, dropped to their knees, curled up in a damp bed full of sand on a sweltering night, hacking away with the whine of mosquitoes in their ears, on a tropical beach a hell of a long way from anywhere.

It became unendurable. I clearly wasn’t getting better. Standing on the only part of the beach that had a mobile phone signal I Googled doctors in Alleppey, and up came Dr Shiyas Mohammed, respiratory specialist. I wrote down the address in English on a napkin and the owner translated it into Malayalam. Finding a rickshaw in the lane I presented the driver with the napkin. “You can find this?” He waggled his head, we agreed a price, I climbed in and off we went. Quarter of an hour later we pulled up at a clinic offering X-rays and ultrasounds, and I took my place on a seat in a roomful of pregnant women. After a time a lady in a headscarf came out from behind the counter and asked if she could help.

“I’m looking for Dr Shiyas Mohammed – the respiratory specialist.”

“But he is not here. He used to have a room next door, but last year he moved.”

“Do you happen to know where he went?”

“I can find out. Please wait here.” She went off.

I sat and coughed discretely at all the pregnant women, then decided I’d better go and stand outside in the oven-like glare. Soon the headscarfed lady came back with a phone clamped to her ear. She noted down an address on a pad, tore it off and gave it to me. “I have ordered a rickshaw to take you to Dr Mohammed. It will be 30 rupees. Here it is now.”

“I’m extremely grateful to you.”

“It is a pleasure. I hope you feel better.” Off she went.

The rickshaw dropped me at a large house in the suburbs. Uncertainly I pushed open the gate, patted a beagle who trotted up and woofed at me softly, and made my way across the courtyard to the house. On a bench a young man was asleep in the shade. I knocked on the door and the young man opened an eye and sat up.

“Um, sorry to trouble you. I’m looking for Dr Mohammed.”

He smiled sleepily. “I am Dr Mohammed. How can I help you?”

“You’re the doctor? OK. Well it’s this cough.” I demonstrated it for far longer than I intended.

“Yes, that is bad. Any fever?” He placed a hand on my brow, which was dripping.

“It’s quite hard to tell in this heat.”

He listened to my breathing for a while with a stethoscope, then popped it out of his ears. “I am thinking you are having a viral respiratory infection.” He pulled out a pad and began to write a long list. “Are you on any medication now?”

“Well, I’ve just taken these Croatian antibiotics.”

He peered at the empty packet. “I am not familiar…” He pulled out his phone and Googled the name. Up came a list of brand names, he waggled his head and said: “I will give you some more. These in the morning, this one at lunch, these in the evening. And syrup.” He rummaged around in some crates in the corner and returned with a bottle of linctus.

I went through the list and it consisted of nine pills a day. “Well that seems comprehensive. How much do I owe you for the consultation?”

He waggled his head again. “Call it two hundred.” Two pounds.

All I can say is, Dr Shiyas Mohammed knew his stuff. That very evening I began to feel better, and within three days I was almost back to normal. Nevertheless I duly popped pills with every meal for the next week like a proper invalid. They came in small brown paper bags which were themselves wrapped in a page of newspaper. Looking at the page one day I realised it was all pictures of elderly Keralans, with a few lines of curling Malayalam script beneath each one. It was the Obituaries page.


By the time I got to Varkala I was on the mend. The first morning there I had woken at seven and ambled out into the golden light, the sun already intense. At the end of the garden the ground fell away, dropping perhaps 300 metres down to the beach. As I stood there bleary-eyed looking down at the enormous waves rolling in, I made out a small shape floating just offshore, a tiny speck of a figure. I realised it was a woman in a bikini. The vast, transparent glass-green rollers of the Arabian Sea billowed beneath her, lifting her, tilting her over the crest, then down into the trough until the next wave came and gently raised her again, breaking around her as they spilled up the sand. She slowly moved her arms and legs back and forth, then lay on her back and let the sea carry her. I spotted another figure a little further out – the small black shape of a head in the waves. Then another, and another. I realised that I could see perhaps a dozen or so people, bobbing up and down like seals, each lost in their own private world, floating in the immensity of sea.

Papa Nashini, the beach was known as in Malayalam. Sin destroyer. Hindus came on pilgrimages, to wash themselves in the waves, to cast the ashes of loved ones, to wipe away past misdeeds. And the tourists came too, locals and foreigners alike, wading into the shallows, knocked down by the force of the waves, getting up again only to be batted effortlessly over, lying down in the foam and the spume, giving themselves up to the sea. The rollers were hundreds of metres long, stretching down the beach, the water as warm as a bath, almost 30 degrees. Women in saris, college boys in skinny jeans and T-shirts, tourists in bikinis – everyone just walked into the sea and was carried by it, before being cast up again on the shore of the Malabar Coast, renewed, reborn.

This was the deep, deep south, way down in the tropics, just before the coastline of India stopped going south and turned eastwards, round to the southernmost point of Kanniyakumari – Cape Cormorin: south of Bangkok or Saigon on one side, on the same latitude as Cameroon or the Congo on the other. The days slowed to a crawl: breakfast at seven, a floppy-limbed amble along the clifftop to Coffee Temple for a cappuccino, and then by nine the pathway was a griddle and we were just ants moving along it. The shopkeepers hid in the shade of tarpaulins and squinted up at passers-by. “Come see my shop sir.” By ten you sought shelter again from the heat, retreating to a darkened room to lie naked under the fan. The heat unhinged me; leaving the room was like going into a sauna. It was 36 degrees with 80% humidity, and one felt perpetually wet. The faintest breath of a breeze off the sea was a relief. Clothes were redundant, and the towel became the garment of choice – thin South Indian towels round the waist that dried quickly. I couldn’t sleep in the heat – I woke every hour soaked in sweat – and even a sheet was too much cover.

Going into the bathroom one night I spotted an enormous cockroach the size of a rodent standing in the middle of the tiled floor, antennae waving. I flung an empty water bottle at it and it disappeared behind the sink. Subsequent forays into the bathroom became tentative exercises where I’d put on the light and nervously peer around the door jamb to see what was in there. Terrible things scuttled through my dreams in Burroughsian nightmares – ancient malarial terrors in the fever of the hot night. Lying again under the fan feeling the sweat trickling down my chest the shape of my dreams began to change: landscapes, mountain ranges and cities were destroyed, crumbled into dust, wiped away, abandoned. There was only a sheer blank expanse of red laterite cliff face, and the enormous ocean lapping at its base, living in the here and now, carried on the waves into an amnesiac expanse of blankness. Thoughts fragmented, plans fell apart, anxieties wilted; in this heat one could only endure, give oneself over to it completely, gently perspiring. My mind, ticking away for weeks, finally fell silent. Gone troppo.

One night in Darjeeling restaurant, a tier-seated wooden shack on the clifftop path which played an endless succession of 80s hits – Nik Kershaw, Duran Duran, Ultravox and so on – I found myself overhearing the guy sitting next to me as he quizzed the waiter about the menu. The accent was unmistakeable: “What kind of foosh do you have? Is it frish? How is the kingfish?” Koongfoosh. John was in his late 60s, and had the clipped sound of Southern Africa in his voice. He had a way of peering benevolently over his spectacles at things with an air of mild optimism, and buoyantly ambled along with a little spring in his step. We swapped a few stories about Africa, and he confided that his partner wanted to buy a caravan in the UK and park it by the seaside somewhere on the south coast of England; he, on the other hand, thought that was terribly boring, fancied going to India, and did. “But this heat! I don’t know how much longer I can take it.” He was reassured to hear that my daily routine – breakfast, shower, nap – was the same as his own. “We’re all poleaxed by it,” I told him. “Just got to soak it up and not fight it.” He’d had an interesting life, working as a rigger in Canada in the 60s, Saudi in the 70s, Bombay in the 80s… It turned out we were staying at the same hotel, so began to meet up for meals on the clifftop. It was one of those unlikely friendships one strikes up on the road, and a pleasure to meet him – validation, somehow, that we are never quite as alone as we can sometimes feel.

Varkala’s North Cliff was essentially a line of such restaurants interspersed with small shacks selling the kind of ethnic clothing that marked out a certain type of traveller: baggy harem pants, Om T-shirts and various other rather hippyish items. But given that just about everyone had arrived from chillier climes, the clothes we had all brought with us felt wrong in the wet heat; the Fruit of the Loom T-shirts I’d fished out of a bargain bucket in Rome were fine for the Eternal City in late summer, but far too heavy for Kerala in March. John had a similar problem, and purchased a couple of short-sleeved kurta tops in lightweight cotton khadi. I began to notice other tourists wearing the same. Slowly we all adopted a similar look – slightly psychedelic, a little bit ethnic, the kind of thing that might have delayed us at Customs briefly in an airport as they fetched the drug dog. Goa chic, I dubbed it.

I’d seen a floral Hawaiian shirt on a rail a few days earlier – the kind decorated with tropical fruit in knockout colours – and one evening at Clafouti restaurant I spotted a guy standing outside wearing a similar one. I took him for a Scandinavian, or Dutch, perhaps – tall, tanned, blond hair and with round horn-rimmed spectacles. It turned out Richard was English, in his mid-50s, and was a doctor – he’d just come from Lesbos where he’d been working with the refugees as a volunteer. He joined us for drinks and told extraordinary stories – the time he’d gone to Nigeria and ended up dating a princess who was starting a political party; or spotting a group of young guys who seemed familiar on a flight to New York and getting invited to a party with them, only to find that they were a chart-topping hip-hop band. He was having two silk suits made up by a local tailor in Varkala, one in purple and one in iridescent beetle green (“For festivals, you know…”) and had made a slight error of judgement in the ordering by misplacing the decimal point in the conversion to rupees: at 30,000rs each it might have been cheaper to get them done in Jermyn Street. We had a fascinating conversation about the pioneering work being done by Dr David Nutt, the former goverment “drugs czar” who had been fired for suggesting that cannabis was actually quite a benevolent drug compared to alcohol, on the use of mild doses of Ecstasy to treat victims of PTSD. He was, without doubt, a very interesting character. Then it occured to me, as I recounted a story about driving along the south shore of Lake Kariba and stopping for the night, walking up a hill to smoke and look at the sunset and then realising that I was in the middle of a herd of elephants, who were rumbling to each other and tearing branches off trees with great splintering crashes… and then creeping back down the hill again as they all fell silent and allowed me to pass through their ranks – that all three of us were quite interesting characters really, and that it was only in improbable places like Varkala that we seemed to find each other.

Turning Point

Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi – 30th January 2016

Morning in the Impossible City. Car engines are thrumming into life around the colony. The army of domestic workers are taking up their positions for the day ahead: five different men wielding large wet rags are wiping down five different cars, all conversing loudly with each other. Each are employed by different residents – as garage attendants, parking guides, drivers, perhaps. They wipe off the Delhi dust that accumulates in layers on everything – a mixture of concrete from the endless construction sites, assorted industrial pollutants and a pinch of Thar Desert blown in from Rajasthan. The maids begin to appear, slopping along in flipflops which are easy to kick off upon entering people’s houses. Soon the residents emerge from their apartments, duck into cars and a vehicular ballet commences, a pas-de-deux of incompetent reversing accompanied by a refrain of bleeping and chirping from the reverse warning alarms that so many cars here possess. A traffic jam is achieved before even reaching the main gate of the colony, and they embark upon the first furious hooting bout of the day, as an overture to the main act, out on the road itself.

The scene repeats itself in reverse every evening as cars return after dark, and the owners, nerves frayed from hours battling with impossible congestion and lunatic driving begin to jostle for parking spaces. One car in particular is a serial hooter, a large silver sedan with Kashmiri number plates. The owner is an old uncle in white kurta pyjamas and khaki bush-jacket – off-duty militant chic, as it were – and if someone is in his space (marked with the sign “No Parking: Tyres Will Be Defeated” – a misprint of deflated, I assume) he will sit and hoot for twenty minutes or so. On one particular evening the owner of the car occupying his space happened to return, and a furious row ensued: the Kashmiri jumped out of his car and was yelling at the other driver, who, not to be outdone, yelled back. They circled each other and made threatening gestures. The Kashmiri’s wife hopped out of the passenger seat and offered her own shrill contribution. A small crowd formed, roughly dividing itself in loyalities between the two parties. Heads began to emerge from the balconies to watch the evening’s entertainment. The Kashmiri shouted something particularly incendiary and the other driver, who had begun to swagger away, returned with a vengeance, until a wispy man half his size blocked his path and began to physically lead him away. He made a show of resistance but it was all a bit half-hearted. The Kashmiri, sensing victory, advanced with a new show of boldness, which petered out when the other driver shook off his assistant and returned anew. Round and round it all went, for a good quarter of an hour, like players taking their places in an operetta, or birds-of-paradise posturing, watched by a diverse audience: the veg stall guy, a couple of lads on a motorbike, assorted passers-by and hangers-on, a group of Afghan women in headscarves peering over the balcony opposite, and one solitary gora (white) clutching a notebook in his hand.

I later got the translation of what had been said that had been so incendiary, and it went like this:

“You have insulted me.”

“You insulted me first!”

“You are a mannerless person!”

“No, you are a person without good manners!”

All this yelled at full volume. Imagine a fight in the UK where two burly men scream at each other from inches away: “You’ve just got no manners!”

Similarly, one of the most common cries in the little flare-ups that happen with queue-jumpers, for example, is “Do you know who I am?” It’s a reiteration of self-esteem, a marking out of one’s position in a city with a vast hierarchical scale – “I am an important, influential person, and you are just a low caste nobody with no connections”. I heard a variant of this one from a young man who had dinged his motorcycle on someone else’s. “Do you know who my daddy is?” he shrieked quite unselfconsciously. To which I muttered as we passed, “No, do you?”

The dogs are as much characters of the colony too. They are stray, for the most part – one might say communally owned and communally neglected. “All life is sacred in India except human life,” as someone once said. Occasional kind-hearted souls go out to the park with food for them. The dogs spend their days lying in the sunshine or patrolling in packs, picking up any vaguely edible morsel that may have fallen off a passing cart. But one dog never joins them. It spends most of its time sleeping on top of the steps leading up to an apartment block, and sometimes can be found sitting on top of the roof of a car. It turns out that it is paralysed in its rear legs – run over by a car as a puppy; how it gets itself onto a car roof is remarkable, and must involve dragging itself up over the bonnet and windscreen by its front legs alone. We always stop and say hello, patting and stroking, and it shuffles itself upwards into a sitting position, thumping its tail, looking both abashed and delighted somehow, its useless rear paws folded demurely together beneath it like the ankles of a lady in a short skirt trying to sit on a low sofa. An aunty in a nearby apartment puts old blankets out for the dogs in the winter months, and the dogs dutifully tear them into strips and bury the remnants in the park.


Zainabad, Gujarat – 4th Feb 2016

We met three young students at an ancient step well – a series of ornately carved pillars marking out the layers as the stone steps descended into the cool depths. A couple of lads and a girl in a headscarf, they were studying at the art college in Ahmedabad, but all came from elsewhere in India; she was from Uttar Pradesh, which, with a population of 215 million, would be the fifth largest country in the world, if measured by population – behind Indonesia and slightly ahead of Brasil. The other two students came from Jharkhand and Bihar respectively – both bywords for corruption and impoverishment; they were like three ambassadors for the failed states of India. The lad from Jharkhand was the boldest, and approached us, asking where we were from: K’s fair skin and general air of bohemian cosmopolitanism marks her out as being as good as foreign in some parts here. I’d never been to Jharkhand, I told him. What was there to see? Should I go? He waggled his head, laughed ruefully and then said: “Not really. Coal mines. We have lots of coal mines. And dirt.”

They asked how London was. “Cold,” I told them. “Cold and grey. This would be an unusually warm summer day there.” They found this hilarious. So we chatted for a while, then they all shyly shook hands with us and went on their way.

North of Ahmedabad the landscape began to change, becoming more arid. We passed enormous hotels in the middle of nowhere that advertised conference facilities. These were incongruous enough already, but the sight of a local man dressed in baggy white homespun and enormous scarlet turban herding brahmin cattle across the forecourt of one such place rendered the scene positively surreal. Soon we left the hotels behind and entered a thorny semi-desert with occasional villages. Small round huts like African rondavels had mirror-work embedded in their mud walls which glittered in the sun. The people wore brightly coloured costumes – mauve and lime green together, or scarlet and purple.

Cranes are flying overhead in skeins, with watery cronking calls. They migrate here from Siberia – an inconceivable distance. And there are other migrants too – some of the waterbirds bobbing on the lake or wading through its shallows might have been at Minsmere in Suffolk last year. The sky is pink, apricot, lemon-tinged. “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” A girl pads across the dust of the maidan with a yellow swirl of skirt around slim brown legs, ankle-bracelets jingling gently with every step. The locals here move languidly, accustomed to great heat, as if performing a slow dance. This is still winter, and the temperature is 30 degrees at dusk, though the nights grow cold in the hours before dawn.

Soon the sky is strewn with stars. In the darkness of the narrow lanes the cows are going home, soft-footed through the velvet desert dust, and there is the smell of woodsmoke in the air. The trees are singing as we pass them, leaves shining silver in the light of the moon, each one alive with the susurrus of insects, as if the song were part of the tree itself. There is a deep hoop-hoop-hoop of a nightbird in the distance and then the faint, high cry of an owl. Nightfall on the Rann of Kutch.12647025_10208860133970572_223341529751489771_n


Haus Khaz, New Delhi – 13th February 2016

Hauz Khas – which sounds like ‘Horseguards’ – was heaving on a Saturday night. We’d previously visited on a sunny afternoon and walked round the lake, along with countless others: families enjoying the sunshine, solitary pensioners hobbling bravely along, young couples shyly holding hands, gangs of young men practicing their swagger, with quick eyes sliding furtively over any passing female. But at 9 p.m. on the weekend it was clearly the place to be in Delhi. A line of cars half a mile long queued to get in to the complex. Motorbikes zoomed suicidally around them, swerving to miss pedestrians by… not inches, but an inch at most. One bike misjudged a gap between a parked auto rickshaw and an SUV in the queue, and bounced off the rickshaw with his luggage rack; his female passenger casually lifted her leg out of the way to avoid it being removed at the knee. A small white Suzuki Maruti Swift announced its presence with deep booming bass notes. Inside were three college boy types, the interior lit by UV neon, and they had some gadget attached to the suspension which caused the car to bounce up and down on its springs. They bayed lustily along at the top of their voices to the Punjabi hiphop the speakers were belting out, heads going back and forth as the car bounced, its small size barely able to contain such an excess of testosterone. Around the cars girls in high heels and miniskirts picked their way with well-practiced expressions of scornful disdain. Dozens of touts lined the street, gathering around potential clients as they approached. A young man swayed in front of me, voice hoarse with faux excitement: “Secret Bollywood party happening now, mister! Top celebrity guestlist!” I ignored him. The next one offered a free drink in an establishment of dubious merits. A third blocked my path like a mugger and shoved a flyer at me offering a romantic Valentine’s day dinner. I shouldered him impatiently aside.

Leaving after dinner in a fancy rooftop restaurant full of expats, we hit gridlock – again – in the Impossible City. We inch forward, stop, inch forward again. At a red light, everyone switches off their engines. We sit for five minutes. Then the light goes green, everyone starts their engines and a chorus of hooting breaks out. Everyone is hooting, nobody is moving. We begin to inch forward again as motorbikes slalom between the cars. Once the traffic is moving things begin to resemble one of those car racing computer games from the 80s – the kind where everyone passes on the inside, the outside, anywhere they can, in order to get ahead. There is just no concept of lane discipline at all. If you wanted a snapshot of Indian driving, it would be five lanes of cars all swerving wildly around each other while hooting simultaneously. And at the traffic lights where we all grind to a halt yet again, we are ambushed by the impoverished: small children, usually, tapping on the windows, or on your knee if you are in a rickshaw. Look away, shift your gaze, concentrate on the middle distance, or your phone. If you pay them anything you keep them here, condemned to a life breathing this toxic fug of exhaust, lead, cadmium, covered in dust and filth, occasionally being run over. It kills something inside you every time.

At M-block market one evening, nipping outside the Costa Coffee for a cigarette (140 rupees for a cappuccino – one pound forty, or a week’s earnings for some of these kids – a small child came up accompanied by a granny. They murmured beseechingly as we stood and smoked. I brushed off a small hand that tugged at my sleeve and turned my back, feeling an utter bastard. The child moved away to try someone else. Then one of our group, a local guy, fished out ten rupees and gave it to the child. Immediately the granny took heart. She stood and murmured, just on the edge of our consciousness, not quite daring to make contact but hovering enough to make her presence felt, to establish a sense of collective guilt in us all. We continued our conversation in slightly raised voices, trying not to notice. On and on and on she went. “I just gave to the child!” our friend eventually remonstrated from sheer exasperation. It had no effect. Eventually, to get away, we cut short our cigarettes and went back inside, humanity dying by degrees.

What is ten rupees? Ten pence. How could I begrudge her that? I often pay over the odds here, just because it seems so churlish to haggle over pennies. I refuse to be one of these travellers who not only bargains for ages with some desperate local but then takes a perverse pride in bragging about how they pay local prices for things. But there are begging rings, there are children kidnapped and disfigured in order to improve their earning power. If you hand out money to them you are not only keeping them on the streets but also perpetuating the whole industry of it. The charities who work with such people say you shouldn’t give to beggars. All this you know…

The problem is, there is no solution to the problem. And the full implication of that struck me later that evening as we sat in the traffic. On the edge of the kerb sat a little girl, about ten years old, hair in bunches. She was hugging herself defensively, while simultanously rolling her eyes in despair at the endless mechanical stream of toxic traffic going by. We halted a few feet away. And then I saw, in the glare of the streetlight, a solitary tear trickle down her face, leaving a track through the dust on her cheek. It’s a little girl, on her own in this city, looking at the traffic and crying. Anywhere else – not even in an ideal world, but just a normal one that has a shred of humanity in it – seeing a lone child crying on a roundabout, someone would stop and help her, call the police, who would alert social services, whatever. But here nobody looks. That’s how it kills us all inside. And if you ever see such a child in distress where you live, I urge you to stop and help them, not shamefully look away, as we do in the Impossible City. Otherwise one day everywhere will be like this – all kids so alone, all cities so harsh, all onlookers so dead inside.


 


 

Turning-Point – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

***

The road from intensity to greatness

passes through sacrifice. – Kassner. 

***

For a long time he attained it in looking.

Stars would fall to their knees

beneath his compelling vision.

Or as he looked on, kneeling,

his urgency’s fragrance

tired out a god until

it smiled at him in its sleep.

***

Towers he would gaze at so

that they were terrified:

building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!

But how often the landscape,

overburdened by day,

came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.

***

Animals trusted him, stepped

into his open look, grazing,

and the imprisoned lions

stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;

birds, as it felt them, flew headlong

through it; and flowers, as enormous

as they are to children, gazed back

into it, on and on.

***

And the rumour that there was someone

who knew how to look,

stirred those less

visible creatures:

stirred the women.

***

Looking how long?

For how long now, deeply deprived,

beseeching in the depths of his glance?

***

When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home –

the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom

moody around him, and in the avoided mirror

once more the room, and later

from the tormenting bed

once more:

then in the air the voices

discussed, beyond comprehension,

his heart, which could still be felt;

debated what through the painfully buried body

could somehow be felt – his heart;

debated and passed their judgment:

that it did not have love.

***

(And denied him further communions.)

***

For there is a boundary to looking.

And the world that is looked at so deeply

wants to flourish in love.

***

The work of the eyes is done

now go and do the heart-work

on all the images imprisoned within you; for you

overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.

Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,

the one attained from a thousand

natures, the merely attained but

not yet beloved form.

The Impossible City

Nine hours on Air India to transition seamlessly (more or less) from one life to another. Chetan from Leicester in the next seat shook my hand, asked me in the morose accent of the Midlands if the food was safe on Air India and sank three beers in quick succession (“It’s really naughty of me, I know,” he told the stewardess, “but could I get a brandy?” She smiled thinly at such English self-effacement and brought him one). He was of Indian origin himself, travelling on to Ahmedabad (pron. “Amdabad”) to visit family with his little girl, who like him appeared Indian but was British in every respect – accent, dress, manner, conversation – and he was asking me for advice on how to cope. Most of his stories seemed to have but one theme: what a great bargain he had got. When it turned out my ticket had cost fifty quid less than his own he lapsed into a troubled silence and apologetically ordered another brandy.

It was 7.30pm on a Monday night in Delhi, toward the end of January. A chill in the air, about 9 degrees, everything covered in a thick layer of grey dust. We found an auto rickshaw (tuktuk) to take us south to Alaknanda for ten rupees over the meter, which seemed fair. We buzzed along for a while, bumping over not so much potholes as entire sections of road that were missing, through clouds of dust and exhaust fumes, in this, the world’s most polluted city, then hit total and utter gridlock. Five lanes of traffic on three lanes of road, none of it moving. Next to us on one side was a top of the range Mercedes. On the other, three lads on a small motorbike. Ahead one motorbike decided to bump over the verge onto the pavement, and proceed that way. Others quickly followed suit. Then a rickshaw saw a gap it could get over and also went onto the pavement. Five more followed. Soon the pavement was a line of motorbikes and rickshaws and bicycles, all slowly edging forward.

Then I saw him. A man in a knitted tank top and grey slacks. He was trying to walk. This particular section of pavement had some fume-blasted trees on it, and he had to dash from one to the next, seeking cover as a tide of vehicles edged around him on either side. The kerbstone had crumbled at one point and one joker in a car decided he’d make better progress on the pavement too, so he bumped over it, scraping his exhaust. One bike had to edge so far left that his mirror dragged down the wall of the building overlooking the road. And it struck me then, with perfect clarity: this is it. Total and utter capacity. Every inch of the road was locked solid. The pavement was jammed with snarling vehicles. Even the narrow cobblestone divide between road and pavement had bicycles wheeling along it. And this one guy, who had foolishly tried to walk down a main road in Delhi, was left scurrying from tree to tree, marooned by an endless tide of traffic. If it becomes so congested that you can’t even walk any more, what sort of city have you got? One that has become impossible.


And yet, and yet… Woken by raucous cheers and whoops at 9 in the morning. The uncles are playing cricket on the maidan playing field – uncles being a generic term for older men (it’s nice that we are all related in this way, but I notice with mild misgiving that some are clearly younger than myself). They wear an odd assortment of old tracksuits and tank tops, with an utter lack of self-consciousness – big, paunchy men with moustaches and a waddling gait. There’s a constant babble, a joyful ebullience, laughter. The traffic on Alaknanda road is but a faint rumble. The leaves of the peepul tree overhead whisper dustily. There is the scent of incense from the small shrine in the hallway where the maid crouches, murmuring invocations. Next door the neighbour is singing his prayers, on and on. In the background comes the call of the muezzin from the mosque. Three different religions intertwining simultaneously. I peer through the window next to where I lie wrapped in the patoo. Here in the colony there are small, yellow-striped squirrels that chitter around the trunks of the trees, mynah birds crying to each other and sometimes monkeys in the foliage above.

I hear the mellifluous burble of two ladies talking in Hindi on the steps outside; they sit in the sunshine wrapped in voluminous shawls and will talk for an hour or more, in great rolling sentences that unspool like colourful strands of yarn. What tapestry do they weave with them? They are domestic workers in the nearby apartments, and are the ones who really run this place, catering to the whims and needs of the ostensible owners, raising their kids, packing lunches for the office, doing the laundry. One I know lives in a small shack in a slum with a tarpaulin overhead. After a while, about 9.30am, there’s a honking like the horn of a clown’s car: it’s the subji (or sabzi) guy – the veg man. He tows his cart of vegetables around the alleys by bicycle and maids shuffle into the lane to make their purchases. He has upgraded in the five years since I was last here; he’s bought a bigger, louder klaxon for his bicycle. At night the chowkidar, or night watchman, walks around the compound blowing his whistle and thumping his stick to warn of his presence – or perhaps to reassure himself against the dangers of the night.


Walking round Humayun’s tomb – a sort of miniature Taj Mahal in red sandstone, described unforgettably by Mr William (Dalrymple) as possessing a sort of “blowzy Mughal rococo”, one saw a quite different Delhi – beautifully symmetrical gardens through which small channels of water trickled. Little yellow-striped squirrels tentatively lowered themselves over the edge, hanging by their back legs to drink. Young couples walked around and sat quietly on benches together, glad of the privacy offered by a ten rupee ticket (or 250 for foreigners). A group of boys played a game called “gilli danda”, similar to cricket or rounders, whose tools were two sticks – a small one as the ball, and the larger one as the bat. The interior of the tombs possessed a deep, sepulchural chill at this time of year, the sun filtering through the latticework windows, making the marble of the coffins gleam. This was a Delhi which was known for its poetry, its ghazal singers, its dedication to the arts, its nautch dancing girls who moved with a liquidity and seductiveness to melt the hardest of hearts. (“I see you dance from place to place…”) There was peace, tranquility, if only for a while. Seven cities have arisen and fallen on this spot over the ages, and now we are in the era of the eighth.

Leaving the tomb we emerged back into the mayhem of modern India. The auto drivers. These ones were used to preying on tourists, and circled like sharks. How much to Khan Market? 50 rupees. Outrageous, K snorted, and slopped off in her red slippers. “TK, TK, Madam – 40 rupees and we go to a nice shop on the way.” This was so ridiculous that even the newest arrival on the subcontinent would have been advised by their guidebook that it was a trap. We walked along the pavement pursued by one auto. “Khan Market? Very far. Not possible to walk. Only 50 rupees. Standard price, fixed price, meter price.” When we declined he U-turned in disgust and went back in search of fresh pickings. Besides, I wanted to walk.

In a city of extremes, people tend to move from one insulated bubble to another, sticking safely to their chosen method of conveyance. You might use your own car and driver (most middle class families have one), or get an Uber or an Ola cab. You can use a pre-paid taxi of the Delhi Police booked from a stall. Or you can try your luck with the autos who can be hailed off the street. But what few people do is actually walk – not least for the reasons above; that sometimes it is physically impossible, it is often searingly hot, that it is never particularly pleasant, but most importantly, because it crosses the invisible barriers that separate the different layers of this city. At Humayun’s Tomb coaches drew up in the car park and disgorged tour groups. We crossed the road, and there, just the other side, was a slum. And what a slum.

Jhuggi. Bustee. Zhopadpatti. Remember the words. They describe hell on earth, and all mean slum. This city has the dubious distinction of having slums as bad as anywhere – perhaps worse. And this is just one of dozens, hundreds, of these torn cardboard and tarpaulin encampments in Delhi alone. Each city in this country has the same. How do they get here? How do they live? It’s like the aftermath of a battle. People lie on the pavements on their backs with their knees raised in attitudes that are alleged to ward off the worst pangs of hunger. There is a bus stop here and in it are a business man with a briefcase, a college girl playing with her phone, two labourers, and amongst them on the floor lie three men wrapped in rags. There are shacks that aren’t even shacks, made of cardboard boxes and torn plastic sheeting. There’s a mountain of rubbish and a man… asleep? Drunk? Dead?… on top of it. Chickens peck around him. The stink is unbelievable – you don’t even want to breathe. It curls into your mouth with a fetid reek, through the scarf you cover your nose with. Here on the pavement are three bright pools of scarlet liquid. Paan juice? Blood? It is not clear. A horribly crippled boy crawls along begging from some equally destitute-looking people, illustrating the subtleties of the hierarchies at work here. A woman is shrieking, waving her hands dementedly. The water tanker has arrived, the driver running a hose out from his truck, and a queue rush to line up with pots and pans. It’s a garbage mountain crossed with a sewage farm, and there’s a line of washing hanging out to dry between two decaying trees. You have to look – you can’t look away. And across the intersection a boy is washing himself with a small jug of water and singing. On the pavement sit two dead-eyed derelicts, a man and a woman – she with matted hair, huge, prehistoric gnarled feet, and both of them are covered in dust as if they’d been rolling in it. Try to see the beauty in everything, the sages advise; we are all of this world. But there is no beauty here – only horror.

Across the road are two giant billboards. One offers spiritual enlightenment courtesy of a well-known guru, for a suitable fee. The other shows a minor Indian actor, son of a more famous actress, scion of Bollywood’s dynastic nepotism, striding across Waterloo Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background – taken from roughly where the number 4 bus meets the 172. His coat is open to reveal a smart suit, and he looks serious, businesslike, slightly pissed-off. “Bahaar Paan”, it says in Hindi – the spicy, mildly narcotic nut confection that people eat which produces vast quantities of scarlet-tinged saliva, pools of which are notably absent from Waterloo Bridge. “Bahaar Paan. The Measure of Success.”

In quite literally the next street were smart apartment buildings with security guards at every gate, and frequently cars with diplomatic number plates outside. Surely nowhere else has such inequality in such proximity? Khan Market is a kind of upmarket shopping centre, identical to many others around Delhi – Hauz Khas, Greater Kailash (known as GK 1 and 2) and Defence Colony, shortened inevitably to Defcon 1, are all cut from the same pattern. Small boutique-style shops, selling clothes, books, cosmetics, shoes. There’s a yellow metal entrance gate on rollers bearing the logo of the Delhi Police (“True, We Slow You Down, But We Try Not To Let Criminals Slip By”, it ruefully acknowledges) and usually three or four machine-gun toting cops hanging around it looking bored. There are cafes and fast food places: Pizza Hut, Cafe Coffee Day, Amici. Everywhere is overstaffed – it’s not unusual to find shop assistants outnumbering the customers, and there are always various people hanging around who may or may not work there. There’s usually someone crouched on their haunches sweeping dust around with a bundle of twigs, all over your shoes if you have just entered – but there’s usually someone outside who offers to clean it off again for a suitable fee. The cafes have become the hangout of choice for the young, middle-class Delhiites; where they went before such places existed a few years ago is something of a mystery. Round each other’s houses, mostly.

And it’s pretty good really; there’s usually a charming level of ineptitude, but they do try. Outside the main urban centres the concept of customer service doesn’t really exist, and you may wander into a restaurant to find yourself the object of unflinching scrutiny of the eight or nine staff who spend their time hanging around waiting for something new to look at. So these markets are where the affluent go, playing with their phones, swapping gossip, and they talk about the same sort of things as their counterparts in other large cities around the world, although with a certain local idiom. “Shruti’s gone to UK,” someone says. “PhD.” Everyone nods approvingly. “I heard Raj is in the US,” says another. “He’s working for Google! now.” The name Google is inevitably followed by an impressed exclamation mark, as is Microsoft! They are the international generation, the globetrotters, and they’ve got money, but it’s still not a level playing field, and it would be easy to read into it the notion that success comes only with getting out. Bahaar Paan. No globetrotter would be seen dead using it.

And somewhere in all this you have to figure out how you fit into it. You’re going in the other direction, so to speak – turning your back on the places that so many are aiming to get to. The place is an antidote to self-consciousness by magnifying it to such an extent that you’d go mad if it bothered you; the staring, the people whose heads swivel as you pass, the guy on a bike who damn near crashes into the car in front so mesmerised is he by the sight of a foreigner, the guy at the next table who just stares and stares and stares, and when you greet him, stares a few seconds more then breaks into an astonished smile and returns your greeting. It’s like being a celebrity perpetually on stage, and you have to get over any hint of stage fright before it takes you over completely.

Invited out to “The Club”. Not some techno-pulsing nightspot, but the colony club – colony being the residential neighbourhood complex. Originally a British institution which locals were barred from – George Orwell satirised perfectly all the petty snobberies and prejudices in “Burmese Days” when the club’s denizens were scandalised by Flory inviting in his friend Dr Veeraswamy – it has retained all the same essential attributes; only the characters have changed. Dinner was pizza, but with a distinctly local flavour; the choice was veg or non-veg. Non-veg pizza had chicken tikka on it. The veg had cubes of paneer – the Indian cottage cheese. This was consumed to a soundtrack of 80s hits while businessmen in blazers sat around discussing oil prices and correcting each other in that vaguely admonishing style that is so common here, while their wives sat on looking decorative, swathed in yards of gilded silk, like a shelf-full of ornamental hens. Occasionally one interjected with an anecdote about a child who was doing particularly brilliantly, or who had just been accepted at a US or UK university, or got a job offer. (Google! Microsoft!)

“Oh, I love London,” someone says. “Where do you live?”

On hearing the Barbican a row of immaculate foreheads pucker slightly.

“Is that near Knightsbridge?” someone else asks.


Such was my arrival. No matter how many times you’ve been before, India still hits you if you are arriving from more organised, sanitised locations. The smell, the chaos, the scale of it all, the noise – every vehicle hoots, incessantly, all the time. And yet somehow you find yourself simultanously horrified and charmed: the stink of open sewers is just about masked by the coiling wafts of incense, the lunatic driving is somehow offset by the garlands of flowers across the dashboard, the hooting is reflexive, not aggressive, as in England. The sign on the ATM that warned of “Miscreants attempting to befool with offers of easy puzzles” while relieving you of your wallet. The anachronisms, the archaism, the quirky, jaunty, colloquialism of it all. “Thrice,” they say here, for three times – something that hasn’t been used in England since the days of Dickens. There’s a distinct lack of the garish brand-names that decorate every English kitchen cupboard; here everything is stored in little glass jars or steel “vessels”. Tea is made in a stainless steel pot on the gas ring, picked up with tongs. Milk must be boiled and strained. One showers by putting the geyser on, filling a large bucket and using the accompanying jug to tip water over oneself. It’s like living in a museum. Everything feels like it belongs to an earlier era – one in which things work perfectly well, just about, so why change it?

On July 10th, 2013, sitting in my flat in London, blind in one eye from a piece of flying grit, 10kg thinner than usual, with my wallet full of rupees and pockets full of sand from the Nubra Valley in Ladakh, I wrote this:

The Delhi Police run a pre-booked taxi company, and they are generally cheaper than the private operators, so I tottered up to the stand and ordered a cab to Lajpat Nagar. 275 rupees. The private firms had wanted 400 (although that was negotiable). The driver looked about 15, and had a thin, wispy moustache and the half-famished look that comes of generations of grinding poverty. The car was a small Maruti, the name written on the steering wheel in Hindi script, and looking around the interior I realised what it was that I liked about this city, and indeed this country, so much. Everything was broken. Everything. The speedo needle sat stubbornly at zero. The windscreen was cracked. The knob to the fan was snapped off and stuck on cold. The rear seat was exuding a mixture of stuffing and springs. My window didn’t go up. The car shuddered and lurched round the potholes, and we weaved from lane to lane, missing other vehicles by inches, and all of this in slow motion, never exceeding 30 miles an hour. Everything was broken and yet everything somehow still functioned. We drifted like a shoal of fish across an intersection where the traffic lights flashed amber endlessly. A motorcyclist passed with a six-foot plank sticking up out of the back of his shirt. Green and yellow autorickshaws crawled up the hill of the flyover, barely holding together over the bumps. A truck reversed down the hard shoulder having missed a slip road. The slip road itself was missing about 5 metres of tarmac, and the patch of dirt was pitted with potholes.

We passed yellow police blockades which said: “True, we slow you down. But we try not to let criminals slip by.” I loved the rueful honesty of it. Yes, we’re crap, but we do what we can with what we’ve got. It was like a metaphor for the whole city. Two tousle-haired little girls in pyjamas rushed up to car windows at an intersection and tapped on them, trying to sell pens. Grain covered the pavements on both sides of the road, pecked at by hundreds of pigeons. A man crawled along the pavement, spine twisted by some appalling condition, his spindly legs dragging behind him. College girls in jeans and flip flops waited at bus stops and talked endlessly on their mobile phones. A long-distance truck, short wheelbase, orange and with gaudily painted sides ground along leaving a cloud of black smoke belching out behind it. Punjab, Haryana, All India. Green buses packed to the gills, every window open, the pixel signs on the front advertising their destinations in Hindi: Okhla, Defence Colony, Hauz Khas, Lajpat Nagar, Khan Market. A Sikh in a turban and face mask on a 125cc Pulsar with his wife in a sari side-saddle behind him, and a small child tucked under one arm. Three girls colourful as birds all sitting on a scooter, going tripsies, the one at the back flicking the long plait of her hair back over her shoulder as she texted on her phone with the other hand. Delhi, Dilli, दिल्ली. I love it, I hate it, I miss it, I’ll be back soon.

Well here I am.

The Invisible City

IMG_9790

Just below the surface of consciousness I am hanging in suspension, occasional muffled sounds and flashes of dappled light reaching me. I can hear people’s voices – a crowd, all talking. There’s a cry of a vendor in a three-bar song, distant laughter, a child’s fluting call. It is the sound of a street full of people, all going about their business, and there’s something timeless in it – we could be anywhere, at any period in history. I do not recognise the language, but there’s a rhythm to it, vaguely discernible above the babble. There comes the rattle of shutters, somebody whistling, a softly muted glassy chime – some instrument, perhaps – and the patter of quickly running feet. I could swim upwards towards it, or drift down again into unconsciousness. Caught somewhere in between I become aware of the clamour going on in my own inner world – an endless cycle of conversations, sounds, people and imagery: the faces of strangers, so familiar somehow and yet unknown to me as individuals – and simultaneously I can hear the world outside. Treading water, suspended, slowly I begin to float upwards, detaching from one world and heading towards another, until I break through the surface, opening my eyes.

On the wall before me is an enormous picture – a drawing, an ancient map. In each corner are the heads of four gods emerging from the clouds, each one captured in the action of blowing: Septentrio, god of the north wind, bringer of winter, is wild-haired and angry looking, a chilling blast emanating from his mouth which scuds the waters into a malevolent chop. To the west Favonious is a youthful god, half-smiling as he ushers in spring and the light breezes of summer, lips pursed as if to bestow a kiss. Auster, from the south, is forceful – head back and cushioned by waves he brings the gales of autumn. And Subsolanus, looking on benevolently to the east, fans his breath softly across the map. Four lesser ‘venti’, or wind gods, occupy the north-east, south-east, north-west and south-west winds respectively, as back-up. The distant mainland towers with boiling cumulus clouds… or are they mountains? Land merges with sky, city with water.

The map across which these gods waft their zephyrous airs was created by Jacopo de Barbari in the year 1500. It is of an ancient fantasy city set upon a shallow littoral, ringed about with smaller islands, guarded by a forest of masts and spars belonging to sailing ships that lie at anchor festooned with rigging. It is bisected by the sinous twist of a grand waterway through its heart, along which progresses a fleet of smaller vessels. The houses are densely packed together in crooked streets overlooking canals, a hump-backed bridge joining the two halves, domes and spires of dozens of churches punctuating the skyline. In the foreground a triton straddles a gigantic fish, a sea monster, having just speared it. And right in the centre of the map is a large piazza, surmounted by an enormous clocktower, measuring out the pace of the inhabitants’ lives in a timescale of centuries. But this is no fantasy city, no dream-island of the imagination. This is Venice.

Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Venetie_MD_retouched


It is a floating city, blurred at the edges with liquefaction, the wash of watercolours fading as the palette runs together. A mackerel sky with a sheen of bluish-silver fish scales, houses picked out in shades of sea-pink and lemon. The green sea mutters to itself, jostling its waves together, becoming calmer at the edges as it turns over, softly respiring. The suck and gurgle of water heavy with sediment around the dark pontoons causes the prows of gondolas, etched like hatchets in black and gold, to nod in mute agreement, tossing their heads like horses. The babble and ripple of wavelets, lapping the edge of an ancient stairway, sipping at beige-grey stones which descend in darkening shades of green, stepping carefully downwards into the depths as currents swirl across them. A sparkling, iridescent, Canaletto morning marked by the low growl of marine diesels as small white craft nose into the jetties, then raise their voices in a snarl as they bound away across the waves like excitable dogs.

Down the zig-zagging cobbled alleys in the dark, through small windswept piazzas – tiny squares with shuttered houses, following the quick clip of heels from two girls ahead of us. As we turn a corner they come briefly into sight before disappearing round the next one. Lost in the Venetian labyrinth. Pools of light from streetlamps overhead fading into the night, glowing orbs with halos of golden mist that seem to visibly fizz in the air. The distant sound of a violin – a lone busker in a square. Echoing laughter and the rattle of shutters descending. Fallen leaves chase each other round in circles, then are suddenly swept away by the wind – a cool hand placed upon a brow, smoothing worries away. In the background the endless sigh of the rise and fall of the sea.

We arrive at a junction that we recognise – the yellow sign high on the wall indicates San Marco and Rialto with a thin, straight arrow. Turning into another narrow alley, just wide enough for two abreast, we meet groups of people coming the other way, and all smile apologetically while passing; in Venice pedestrians unthinkingly drive on the right. Then suddenly there is the canal before us, and Accademia bridge. Lights are winking into life along the water, the sky a thin glimmer behind the blue underwash of clouds. There is the cafe where we had lunch a couple of days ago. Together we stand at the rail of the bridge looking along the canal, shivering in the wind. I imagine myself being here alone, and it feels like the loneliest place in the world. We have become used to distance, you and I, have we not? Some lines of Rilke come to mind – Rilke who loved Venice and visited many times:

You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet

I could inhabit this dreamscape until the end of time and you would still be with me. This city is suffused with a beautiful melancholy, elegiac as a shift to minor key, notes falling like tears.


When Luchino Visconti chose the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as the soundtrack for his 1971 film Death in Venice, he captured that atmosphere perfectly: the shimmering strings of reflections on the water, the tremulous longing that beauty can inspire. Thomas Mann, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, modelled the physical description of the lead character Von Aschenbach on that of Mahler, also giving him the first name of Gustav. The two had met in Munich previously and Mahler had made a strong impression on the novelist; Mann is said to have been deeply moved on seeing Mahler break down in tears when departing Venice by train.

In the novel Von Aschenbach is a writer himself who, suffering terribly from writer’s block, takes a holiday to Venice in search of curing it. Observing a Polish family at dinner one night in the hotel, he finds himself mesmerised by the beauty of their son, a youth of around 14 dressed in a sailor suit, called Tadzio. In his mind he likens Tadzio to a Greek sculpture, and feels a rekindling of, as he sees it, artistic passion. Gradually, over the following days, he finds himself seeking out the family in order to catch a glimpse of him, transfixed by the boy’s looks. When, one evening, Tadzio glances at Von Aschenbach and smiles openly, he is so discomfited by the ensuing emotional turmoil that he rushes outside into the garden, and furiously whispers to himself under his breath, in a mixture of reproach and astonishment, “I love you!” For the hitherto ascetic and repressed von Aschenbach, locked into a state of tension where he is unable to create, this sudden allowance of sensuality begins to spin out of control, and he becomes enslaved by beauty and desire.

Increasingly besotted and tormented by erotic dreams, he takes to obsessively following the boy – who seems aware of the admiration and even flattered by it, but without perhaps fully realising its form, nor indeed its danger. The culmination is when von Aschenbach takes to a deck chair to watch Tadzio standing by the sea, gazing out at the sparkling water, and as the music swells Tadzio turns, extending an arm, seeming to beckon to von Aschenbach. He attempts to rise, to join Tadzio at the water’s edge, but collapses into the chair and dies. Tadzio, standing in the waves, is blissfully unaware, and turns to look out to sea once more.

Von Aschenbach had justified his interest in Tadzio to himself in the Platonic ideal of beauty, taking refuge in the cerebral coolness of Apollo – god of restraint, form and the intellect. If there was love, it was a rationalised appreciation of aesthetic beauty to him – nothing so base as an erotic charge that would threaten the idealised, internalised romance. But it is Dionysus, god of passion and unreason, who takes over and dictates a destructive obsession. In Von Aschenbach’s attempts to dye his hair and use make up lies a clumsy vanity to compensate for the total loss of dignity in the throes of his hapless love; in his adoration of a boy he never speaks to we see the timeless story of age mesmerised by the beauty of youth, confronted by its own inevitable decrepitude.

The novel had its genesis in actual events. In a 1974 book, Mann’s wife Katia revealed that they had travelled to Venice together in 1911, and that there had been a family of Polish aristocrats at the next table, whose young son was wearing a sailor suit:

On the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.

Katia Mann – Unwritten Memories

The young Polish boy was the Baron Wladyslaw Moes. Just nine years after the Venice holiday with his family he volunteered in an Uhlan regiment in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war, taking part in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Komarow against Soviet troops on horseback – the last entirely mounted engagement of the 20th century. Captured by the Germans in the Second World War, Moes was held prisoner for six years, and on his return to Poland found that the Communist regime had stripped his family of all its estates. He became a translator at the Iranian Embassy in Warsaw, and died in 1986.


In Venice I found I had some sympathy for Evelyn Waugh, who in an uncharacteristic moment of self-effacement, felt himself utterly unequal to the task of describing it:

What can I possibly write, now, at this stage of the world’s culture, about two days in Venice, that would not be an impertinence to every reader of this book? Perhaps if I made my home in Venice for twenty years and attained a perfect command over its language, history, art and culture, I might decently contribute a chapter here to what has already been written by those who have mastered those accomplishments. Meanwhile, since there seems no probablility of my ever becoming anything more considerable than one of a hundred globe-trotting novelists, I will pass on to Ragusa.

Evelyn Waugh – Labels

Ragusa seemed drastic. After weeks of not writing anything at all because there was too much to say and I couldn’t choose what to leave out, I close my eyes briefly and see the invisible city, offer up a plea for literary mitigation and turn to the keyboard once more.

In the Piazza San Marco at dusk, rival orchestras competed – one outside the Grand Cafe, and another outside Florian’s, both establishments boasting countless luminaries that have patronised them over the years, too tedious to list here. Tonight most of the clientele were Chinese tourists photographing themselves with selfie sticks over €10 coffees. Out in the main square little green lasers flickered over the stones, and occasional glowing parachutes fell to earth: the vendors from Goa’s Anjuna beach had moved in to colonise St Mark’s – this, the heart of the loveliest city on earth, which Napoleon once described as “the drawing room of Europe”, turned into some tawdry parody of a tripped out tropical beach.

We stopped at a small bar for cicheti – a kind of Venetian tapas of small, bite-sized snacks usually involving fish. There was smoked eel, hard-boiled egg decorated with anchovies (the Italian word “acciughe” somehow conveyed K’s expression at the prospect of eating one), fresh tuna and baccalà – dried and salted cod, which I’d seen hanging on wooden drying racks in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. I’d tried it there – one revolting mouthful from a packet labelled “Fisksnaks” which was proffered to me by a local with a dark sense of humour. It was disgusting – like a lump of wood which slowly softened and became slimy, while releasing a powerfully fishy flavour tinged with ammonia. Happily the Italians, as always, had made a much better job of creating something edible out of such inauspicious material – the baccalà was delicious, if powerfully salty.

These different sestieri, six distinct districts, had their own individual mood and atmosphere. San Marco was busy, armies of tourists endlessly streaming past designer boutiques, the outlets of global chains with these flagship stores in this, the most exclusive of addresses. In one monstrous act of consumerist vandalism, the exquisite outline of the Rialto bridge was hidden by an enormous billboard for a brand of jeans which was draped over its parapets. To the north, across the Grand Canal, lay San Polo and Santa Croce – smart neighbourhoods with hidden pockets of local colour, where tourists tended to stick to well trodden routes. Castello felt poorer, more lived-in – small convenience stores and kebab shops, housing estates, and the functional outline of the Arsenale naval base. Dorsoduro was narrow and crooked, authentic and more solid underfoot – its very name means “hardback”. Cannareggio was quieter, prettier and residential, and from its Fondamente Nuove small craft set sail across the lagoon to their final destination – the cemetery island of San Michele, Isle of the Dead.


As a birthday treat I bought two tickets to the opera. Not the famed La Fenice – it was sold out – but a smaller production to be held in a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. Given the labyrinthine nature of Venetian navigation, we decided to do a reconnaisance that afternoon, and found ourselves repeatedly coming back to a small junction marked by a little bridge. According to the map it was just here. We nosed speculatively along a kind of wharf which appeared to be nothing but the backs of warehouses. There was the streetname, however. Spotting an elderly gentleman with shopping bags fumbling with his keys at a doorway nearby, I approached him for directions. He was tall and slightly stooped, with a patrician mane of swept-back silver hair.

“Scuzi Signor, dov e Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto?”

He looked round and blinked. “Il palazzo?” he replied. “Ecco!” he gestured with his chin to the building next door.

I looked up at the blank wall along which we had walked several times. A small alley appeared to lead off to one side of it. “Down there?”

“Si, si. Musica! Musica a palazzo!”

“Yes, that’s the one. Molto grazie.”

We followed the alley, which was dingy and lined with old wooden pillars. It didn’t look terribly promising. But then, on a door set into the wall, I saw a small flyer advertising that evening’s performance. This was the place alright. Retracing our steps we headed back towards Dorsoduro, mentally marking the turns. Right at the cafe, left at the church, over the bridge and along the canal.

That evening we dressed up as best we could in a mixture of ethnic chic left over from the wedding in Sardinia. I wanted to be in plenty of time, and we arrived back at the junction with half an hour to spare. A glowing doorway nearby advertised itself as the American Bar, so we decided to have a drink beforehand. Despite my forays into the medicinal powers of brandy in Sardinia, I didn’t intend to make a habit of it, and ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail called a Shirley Temple, which was aptly named: genderisation aside, it was the kind of thing a young girl might enjoy, being bright pink and sweet and fizzy and bedecked with clusters of berries. K ordered a double Jameson’s, no ice. The barman, entirely understandably, placed the whiskey in front of me and the Shirley Temple in front of her. There you go dear, your first grown-up drink. The sweetness of it made my teeth jangle, but a sniff of her whiskey gave me the shudders, so I sucked at the elaborately curling straw while keeping a gimlet eye on the clientele.

I was trying to spot fellow opera-goers. I recalled an entry from The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron: “After inspecting two palaces, the Labiena, containing Tiepolo’s fresco of Cleopatra’s Banquet, and the Pappadopoli, a stifling labyrinth of plush and royal photographs, we took sanctuary from culture in Harry’s Bar. There was an ominous chatter, a quickfire of greetings: the English are arriving.” They were arriving in the American Bar too – respectable pensioners in cords, beige anoraks and shoes like calzone, treating themselves to a small sherry or a G&T.

Heading back out over the little crooked bridge we made our way back along the darkened wharf, past the spot where the old man had given us directions, followed by a small platoon of Home Counties retirees. Turning once more into the alley we saw that the doorway we had noticed earlier was now open, and a line of candles marked out a path across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs. There were other people there already, smartly attired in dinner jackets and evening dress. We queued on the stairs, everyone speaking in low, reverential voices – it’s not every day one gains admission to a 15th century palazzo by candlelight.

The opera – The Barber of Seville – was organised by Musica a Palazzo, a club which one became a temporary member of in order to attend a performance. We duly filled out forms at a low table and were presented with our membership cards by a young man in black tie. Taking our places on small wooden chairs in a long, gilded room, the lights dimmed, the four-piece orchestra struck up, led by a large, bearded figure who was so enthusiastic in his playing that he had trouble remaining in his seat, and then, suddenly, from behind us, a powerful baritone voice. Coming down the aisle was Figaro. He passed within feet of us, making his way toward the front of the room, singing all the while. The effect was extraordinary – to hear these voices in a relatively small room gave them a power and resonance entirely absent from larger performances. It was magnificent.

Each act was in a different room, and for the next we made our way into a small drawing room, taking our places around the edges. In front of a tall rococo mirror Rosina laced her corset an arm’s length from where I sat, the vibration of the high soprano notes creating an extraordinary fluttering sensation in the room, like the wingbeats of a trapped bird. Paintings lined the walls, and my eyes were continually drawn upward towards a vast painting across the ceiling – The Triumph of Virtue over Ignorance, by Tiepolo, who had decorated the entire room. We moved again, to a baroque boudoir for the finale. Cherubs cavorted overhead upon ornate plasterwork that exhaled the cool damps of the Grand Canal outside, the room heady with the scent of powder and perfume. And then suddenly it was all over, and we all filed out, back down the candlelit path of the stairway, and out into the alley, only to find ourselves in another stage set of moonlit canals and spires, with soft voices passing in the darkness and the endless, lapping water. Serenissima.


On a thin, grey day spattered with flecks of rain blowing in from the Adriatic, the ferry across the lagoon to the airport was full, the passengers all slightly subdued, clutching their luggage, smiling grimly or looking sombre, trying to put a brave face on things as they headed back to other, less lovely destinations and lives. Off to the right lay San Michele, and it felt appropriate; take this channel to the airport and the world of the living, that one past the line of buoys and the mournfully clanging bell that leads to the Isle of the Dead. The narrowest of lines separated the two. Behind us, beyond the corkscrew of the white wake, the crooked rooftops and spires began to sink slowly beneath the waterline. Say goodbye to Venice as she is leaving, as Cavafy might have said.

I knew that part of me would somehow always return to inhabit those same narrow alleys, those small windswept squares, and that various scenes would repeat themselves in my mind: a girl in a white lace dress sitting on the parapet of a bridge as she brushed out her long red hair; the nodding gondolas beneath a lighted window full of music and laughter; and you would always be standing beneath the last lamppost on the promontory of the Salute, lost in wonder at the view. The lights would still spring up along the Grand Canal at dusk, the paintings would hang in Ca’ Rezzonico and Accademia for centuries yet to come, only the crowd that swirled before them like the tide changing slightly in manner or appearance, and operas would continue to be sung in the old palazzo by candlelight before a rapt audience. Others would come to discover the invisible city, and it would be a different city for each of them, but I knew that it had become one of those places that had established itself in the vast gallery of my dreams, to be revisited over and over again.

Isn’t it time to free ourselves, with love,
– from the one we love, and,
trembling, endure…?
For to stay is to be nowhere at all.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Duino Elegies