Amongst the Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








Tales from the Hills

The train left New Delhi Railway Station at 6am and it was already hot. Six lanes of traffic nudged slowly around Connaught Place, narrowed to the width of one car by a yellow police barrier just before a set of lights which admitted only a vehicle or two at a time before cycling back to red. The consequent tailback grew to such proportions that eventually a policeman wandered over and wheeled the barrier aside, parking it next to the sleeping form of a man stretched out flat on his back on the pavement. The forecast for that day was a high of 42 degrees C, with “very unhealthy air quality”.

The station entrance was pandemonium, the masses of India engaged upon a slow shuffle up and down walkways. Due to a quirk of the system there was no central billboard indicating which platform one needed; instead you had to walk past each platform to check the sign at the entrance, and the station was huge. A porter in scarlet tunic with two suitcases on his head told us we needed platform 14. At the top of the steps a man with an air of officialdom blocked the path of the uncle in front of us and demanded his ticket. Suddenly there came a cry of “No, no, no – don’t show him anything. He’s a scammer.” It was a woman with a backpack and North American accent. “Come on, let’s go to the police station,” she challenged him, and he edged away, somehow retaining an air of wounded pride, to try his luck elsewhere.

We found our carriage and stowed the bags, glad of the air-conditioning; my shirt was already soaked with sweat. There were a group of around 15 middle-aged Bengalis in the seats around ours, all in high spirits at the prospect of holidays. They were incredibly loud. One man, perhaps in his 50s, with Nehru vest and white goatee, had clearly appointed himself in the role of class clown, and kept up a string of quips which reduced the aunties to loud squawks and hoots of phoney laughter that is the sign of the truly humourless. “Ooh, you are awful! – hee hee hee.” This went on for the next six hours.

We rolled slowly through Delhi’s interminable northern suburbs, halting briefly at a packed platform where I made out the Hindi lettering Ghaziabad Junction. The people were quite different to the Goans – many wearing kurta pyjama and several women in veils. The staff brought a thermos of hot water for each passenger, a sachet with teabag, sugar and milk powder, and a pack of Marie biscuits which were described on the label as having been invented long ago by a girl called Marie in the countryside of London, who found long lines of Englishmen queueing up to taste her biscuits. As K was showing me the packet across the aisle, one of the Bengali aunties, who had a curious duck-like pout and corresponding waddle, came and stood right between us to engage the row behind me in conversation. After trying “excuse me,” a couple of times, I hissed at her and made a shooing gesture like one would with a fly. It worked – she retreated to her seat for more squawking. The two Indian gentlemen in the seat opposite, who had been discussing linguistics in low murmurs and sketching things on a notepad, rolled their eyes at the appalling behaviour of their fellow travellers.

The flatlands of Uttar Pradesh rolled by at a steady 50mph, open fields with occasional trees. Sometimes a solitary figure crouched in the shade, or you’d see a group of distant women in vividly coloured saris making their way along a dyke. There were small ponds packed full of water buffalo lying submerged nose to tail. I was reading Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which he retraced his previous route of The Great Railway Bazaar some thirty years before. He was just setting out, passing through Clapham Junction in a thin drizzle, through the dismal suburbs of south London, and musing on how trains would take him all the way across Europe, into Turkey and then on through the Stans, all the way to the plains of India – those same plains I was trundling across now. There was a pleasing sense of things having come full circle.

Occasionally we’d pass through a settlement, a melee of motorbikes and tractors and bullock carts held at a level crossing, small, dusty towns under a broiling sun – “these towns that we live and die in”. This was rural UP, a huge, dysfunctional state with a population of over 200 million, heartland of Hindu nationalism and militant groups of gau rakshaks, cow vigilantes who had lynched people accused of transporting beef – Muslims, in other words. Dirty streets full of rubbish, the smell of spices and rancid cooking oil, filthy hotels, nowhere you’d want to stop.

By the time we rolled into Lal Kuan breakfast was served, the non-veg option being a kind of rubbery white materiel described on the lid as “omlit”, and two pre-packed slices of bread. Large buildings set back from the track proclaimed themselves as “Engineers Boarding House 2nd Class”, and “Conductors and Drivers Club”. This was clearly a railway town, and a branch line led off towards the gates of a paper factory, with small shacks nestled up close to the edge of the tracks. People lay about on charpoy rope beds in front of them: a woman brushing a small girl’s hair, two young guys watching something on a mobile phone, a boy scowling at a textbook as he chewed his pencil. In India life is lived in the open, and these scenes rolled slowly past the window like a stage set. I must have dozed off, and was woken by a jaunty automated female voice announcing that we were approaching Kathgodam, our final stop. Suddenly in the distance a huge escarpment was visible, the town nestled at the foot of it. We had reached the hills.

We emerged from the station into a car park snarl of hooting taxis and jostling passengers, the sun like a hammer on an anvil. Here again the people were different – shorter and stockier, many with an oriental cast to their eyes, speaking a soft, blurred form of Hindi: Pahari log – hill people. We found a driver and joined a long convoy of vehicles snaking up the escarpment, round endless hairpins. We passed the HMT Watch Factory, which looked deserted, and then a series of small roadside restaurants where jeeps packed full of tourists from the plains had halted for lunch. We decided to press on and soon had left the traffic far behind. We stopped in a small settlement round a lake near Bhimtal to buy toothpaste and an ice-cold bottle of 7-Up, and I noticed that despite the strong sun, I had stopped sweating; the temperature had fallen to 30 degrees C. On we went, ever higher, through forests of enormous pine trees that swayed and creaked in a breeze scented with resin. Past a small shrine the driver took both hands off the wheel and placed his palms together in the namaste gesture. Blessings for the road ahead.

The car was a small, boxy Suzuki, and it ground its way upward, in first gear round some of the bends, tyres skittering on patches of loose shale. We halted at a small junction and the driver made a phone call to summon the porters. This was as far as the car could go – the next 30 minutes up to the cottage would be on foot. Two men appeared, skipping down a narrow trail. Both were in their mid-50s. One loaded a sack with vegetables from the car boot, and set off uphill. The other, whose name was Ram Lal, unfurled an old sari and piled the two backpacks and suitcase of dry rations inside it, knotting it carefully. He then slung it about with a length of rope, and bound a strip of plastic about a foot long around the centre part. Squatting down he hoisted the load upon his back, settling the plastic strip across his forehead. The entire load must have weighed 50kg, and I offered to carry one of the bags. “No problem sar,” he said. “I can carry 100kg.”

Off we went in a slow trudge up the hillside, over rocks that glittered in the afternoon sun. Within a minute my breathing had quickened; after two I realised my heart was thumping. I had come from sea level in Goa the day before, and we were now at 6000 feet and climbing. Ram Lal halted to roll his trouser legs up above the ankle, exposing shins as narrow and brown as dry sticks, and I followed his flapping cuffs and worn tennis shoes along the narrow path. We passed small terraces of what looked like spinach, the fields interspersed with sticks from which flew strips of ragged cloth. Sometimes the trees met in a canopy overhead, draped with lianas, and the air became cool and damp. Leopards still prowl these hills, and I cast my eyes upwards into the branches overhead on the lookout for snakes. In the distance the ridges rose and fell, their spines surmounted by the serrated outline of pines, beneath which glimmered the light of the afternoon sky. This type of tree had foliage that grew from halfway up its trunk, and the effect was curious, as if the mountains and the sky overlapped.

We halted at a small terraced garden perhaps 20 metres long. A two-storey chalet stood beyond it, the entrance flanked by varnished pillars of dark wood. The only sound was of birdsong and the wind in the trees. Two dogs rushed up in silence to greet us in a parade of sniffing and wagging. This was to be our home for the next week. Biscuit-coloured brick and rough stonework dominated the interior, the existence of a fireplace in each room an indication of how cold it could get up here, although now, in late April, the daytime highs were in the mid-20s C. A cool breeze came down from the snowfields of the high Himalayas that lay just out of sight behind the ranks of forested ridges marching off into the distance.

These small cottages dotted around the hills retain something of the lost world of the Raj – a strange fusion of British and Indian cultures, the dak bungalows and old “chummeries” where young, unmarried British officers came to avoid the heat of the plains and tire themselves out with the assorted wholesome pursuits of hunting and riding. The furnishings reflect this to this day – heavy drapes and rugs, plush, chintzy furniture and overstuffed armchairs one can sink into at the end of a long day to enjoy a peg or two of whisky. Faded photographs sometimes decorate the walls, people staring out from a sepia fog of time, in pith helmets and breeches, enormous moustaches and all too often, some slain animal laid out at their feet. In the heat of Goa the furniture is more practical; any physical contact with material causes one to sweat relentlessly, so wicker chairs or slatted wood are favoured for ventilation, with bed and sofa frames made of metal to prevent them being eaten by termites. I remember kites wheeling above the palm trees in a white-hot sky over Tarchi Bhat, the clang of corrugated iron roofs expanding in the sun, the gaudy buses parked up at the fish market, half a subcontinent and a whole world away.


The going is still good, because arrivals are departures.

 Paul Theroux – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Back to a simpler, more languid existence in Goa. Time-pass, as they say here, instead of time-poor. Thunderous downpours in the steamy heat, cascades of water off giant tropical leaves, the violent green of the paddy fields. Everything is damp and redolent of mildew. The locals hang plastic sheeting on their balconies to keep out the rain and giant whorls of mould spiral up the sides of the buildings. Clothes never fully dry after washing. Puddles form in the footwell of the car – a small blue box with tiny wheels, which is rusting visibly by the day. It judders over red laterite puddles in the potholed lanes, swaying crazily. Everything here is antique, like being transported abruptly into an earlier age. All the technology is failing in this climate; my phone has developed a series of vertical lines across the screen which render it unusable. The solution is to leave it in a bag of rice for three days to dry out. The electricity goes off repeatedly. Jungle life in the monsoon. It takes time to adjust. Go slow.

It wasn’t even a month ago, in another world… a sleepless night in London, on a friend’s couch. Around midnight I awoke to the first sirens, and cursed the city’s perpetual din, its endless assault on the senses. Soon after came the chop of a helicopter’s rotors, interminably hovering, breaking away, returning. What were they looking for? I remembered this from when I used to live in London – endless police helicopters overhead. Grumpily I turned and pulled the pillow over my head, snatched fragments of sleep, tried to resist the temptation to look at my watch and the dwindling hours before I’d have to get up and make my way to the airport.

In the light of a summer dawn that poured slowly through the quiet streets I rose and pulled back the kitchen curtains to be confronted with a sickening sight – one that makes your heart immediately thump, an awful, iconic scene of our age. A column of smoke, hundreds of feet high, burnished by the rising sun, and around it like insects three helicopters buzzed, helpless at a distance. As we do now, I reached for my phone to see what had happened. Another attack? A tragedy, certainly. BBC: “Huge blaze engulfs West London tower block. Many trapped, 6 believed killed.” Now, weeks later, the authorities say we may never know how many. It was the latest in a long string of calamities that befell Britain that summer, as incomprehensible as if malignant stars had somehow aligned overhead. And each time thoughts turn to those we love, through blow after blow, until a sort of wan resignation sets in: I have watched these events from so many places; probably you are not there; you will be alright; I cannot comprehend the alternative.

The Hammersmith and City line was shut, countless roads closed. Citymapper directed me to Shepherd’s Bush Tube and the Central Line to Marble Arch. From there the coach would take me to Luton Airport. How well I know these streets, eerily empty at this hour. There is a cafe where I once sat – I forget who with or why. The coach nosed north, the wide West End streets becoming narrower, more chaotic and colourful. We passed through Kensington and then Kilburn. I took in the small shops, the new arrivals, the passers-by, people waiting at bus stops, as if I were still half-heartedly looking for someone. Once a staunchly Irish area, now it was far more multicultural – a microcosm of London itself, and how it had changed over my lifetime. This was the suburb that a young couple had come to in 1973, fleeing Ireland, the strictures of church and family, small-town scandal and moral judgement, as her pregnancy became increasingly visible. James and Mary. My birth parents.

The departure hall at Luton was packed with holidaymakers clad in shorts and T-shirts. The board was a list of familiar names – there was the Vueling flight to Roma that we had taken two years earlier. All of Europe was laid out: Sofia, Barcelona, Riga, Ibiza, Venezia. But it was easy to recognise the boarding gate for the Ryanair to Knock. These passengers weren’t dressed for a holiday; they were going home. Many carried jackets and thick sweaters, though it was 28 degrees. I recognised features familiar from my Welsh relatives – short of stature, with pale skin, light-coloured eyes, many with reddish hair and freckles – except their accents were rounder, more rapid. I found myself amongst the Irish.

Having spent much of my life as an ethnic minority, the odd one out in a crowd, even amongst my own melting-pot nationality of the mongrel British, for the first time I truly felt that I fitted in – in terms of outward appearance, at least – and then immediately wondered why I felt the need to. A sense of belonging? After a lifetime of travel that seemed an odd condition to suddenly require. I’d always been an exile, was indeed virtually brought up to be one, in schools that were essentially training for a life of colonial rule that no longer existed, ‘home’ being a far country that we visited periodically every few years – a place of odd associations, in childhood: of the smell of frying bacon, of the picture on the HP sauce bottle, of ‘the Office’ in King Charles Street, or the old biscuit tin that was decorated with a scene of Westminster Bridge circa. 1950 – empty of traffic but for a couple of postwar cars, a boy in a flat cap on a bike, a Routemaster bus, and a policeman in blue tunic and tall Bobby’s hat; this ‘home’ from where the chimes of Big Ben emanated as a prelude to the BBC World Service news and the jaunty notes of Lillibullero (an old Irish tune, ironically), a blur of short-wave static emphasising our very distance from it. It was perhaps our lot to live in exile. I had seen the city through so many incarnations of myself, so many people come and gone. London held so many memories, and yet consistently failed to live up to its own hype.

I was used to being lost; I enjoyed the sensation and had enough by way of inner resources to not feel threatened by it. But I knew that I was subject to a cyclical pattern of mood or behaviour which I was not always able to discern until the impact was observed on others; that old fear of madness again, where you lose the ground beneath your feet, are no longer quite sure who you are, and first become aware of it through the nervous glances of friends. Is he alright? 

And I knew too that I was, in a sense, playing with fire on this trip – that there was a whole Pandora’s Box of emotion, personal history and identity loosely hung together that might well fly apart. I had no idea where I was going – only that I must go. So, as always, I put on my traveller’s disguise, British passport issue. Just bumbling through… What, you want me to stand over here? Look that way? Fill in this form? Ok, sure. Tourism. A fortnight’s holiday. Yes. I am alright.

From 30,000 feet the patchwork fields of the English Midlands were laid out neatly in the sunshine; a fertile, abundant landscape, sculpted and coerced over the centuries into extraordinary productivity. On the horizon the sails of a wind farm turned lazily. In the seat next to me an Irish aunty demurely read some mildly scandalous airport novel with close attention.

After a while she closed the book, turned to me and asked: “Going home?”

I gave a wry smile. “Just a holiday for a couple of weeks, round Galway and Mayo.”

“Oh lovely. That’s the best part, I always think. I’m from Mayo myself, but live in Melbourne these days with my daughter.”

We talked about Australia for a while. “So many of the lads from our town have gone there now,” she said. “Ten years ago it was different, people were actually coming home to Ireland. But now they are leaving again, looking for work.”

“There’s a long history of it. A nation of exiles.”

“There is,” she sighed. “I’m glad I’m an old lady now. I wouldn’t want to be young these days, with all the debt and no jobs.”

“It’s the same in England,” I said. “Everyone running faster and faster just to keep their head above water. Busy busy, no security, no future. But if you’re lucky you can carve out a niche for yourself and find a life you’re happy in.”

“What is this Brexit thing all about?” she asked me. “Have they all gone mad over there?”

It was a question I was to be asked repeatedly in the coming days, and I had no answers, despite a few theories.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks this is a good idea. We’ll see what happens.”

“Isn’t that the truth of it.” She picked up her book once more.

I awoke to a very different scene outside the window. A lumpy green landscape dotted with slate-grey lakes came into view through wisps of ragged cloud. An enormous river meandered through it, and I saw small boats moored at a marina. There were tiny cottages alongside, all painted white. The fields were smaller than England, more haphazardly laid out, hummocky and rugged, demarcated with stone walls clearly visible from the air. We had begun our descent into Knock – an airport described as “boggy and foggy” – where, the pilot informed us, it was 14 degrees and raining.

It looked more like Iceland than Ireland. We walked across blustery tarmac to the tiny terminal. There was a stationary carousel for the luggage, but nobody seemed to have any. Immigration was a solitary guard in a booth who glanced at the sea of Irish faces passing him by and waved through all the proffered maroon EU passports. The arrivals hall was rural; a girl in muddy gumboots with a jumping labrador greeted her returning parents; fathers gave awkward hugs to hulking, bashful sons temporarily come home. Two backpackers with hiking poles and woolly hats marched up and down the concourse looking for an ATM. Three priests went by, young men in a Mediterranean swagger of black. Next to the currency exchange booth was an office marked “Pilgrimage Assistance”. Indeed, the airport’s entire reason for existing was due to the proximity of the shrine at Knock, known for its miracles. A local priest, Monsignor James Horan, had made it his lifetime’s work to have the airport constructed in order to ferry in pilgrims, and a statue of him just outside the exit showed a man with both arms raised aloft in victory towards a leaden sky that spat thin flecks of drizzle.

The weather thickened in the night, and the rain came down hard, drumming off the slate roof, spattering the windows, drilling vertical curtains of wet into the already sodden fields. I lay in an unfamiliar bed, listening to it fall, marshalling my thoughts, reassembling myself into consciousness. I was bound for Galway that day on the Bus Eireann from Derry, which would arrive at the village by 11.

I browsed the news on my phone as I had breakfast, the true scale of the tower block fire becoming apparent. Quite apart from the untold personal tragedies that occurred that night, I knew this would convulse an already reeling nation, becoming politicised. I was reminded of Ian Jack’s brilliant piece for Granta in 1989, Unsteady People, from when he was travelling in Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most corrupt states, as it still is today. A ferry accident at Manihari Ghat had left four hundred dead, and soon after he returned home to the UK the Hillsborough disaster happened – the aftermath and repercussions of which are still being felt some thirty years later with an endless apportioning of blame. At the time, the victims of Hillsborough – the Liverpool supporters especially – were attacked by the press for being hooligans… “drunks, beasts, uneducated, ignorant, violent”. As Jack says, the accusations would have been familiar to any citizen of Bihar, used to taking the blame for being who they are. “I am afraid we are not a steady people,” an old man had said to Jack on his visit – and indeed, as anyone who has lived in India for a while can testify, the unsteadiness can be deeply disconcerting: the total indifference to risk, the devil-may-care driving, the mercurial nature of the crowd and how quickly it can turn into a mob.

But then something shifted in the UK coverage, which highlighted just how far apart the two countries were in their approach to disaster. A ‘national tragedy’ was declared in Britain. Mourning began. Liverpudlian politicians demanded a royal visit to acknowledge the scale of the calamity. One commentator pronounced that the victims had “died for football”.

Nobody in Bihar would have suggested that the dead of Manihari Ghat had made such a noble sacrifice. Nobody would have said: ‘They died to expunge corruption, caste and poverty.’ Whatever their other faults, Biharis are not a self-deluding people.

Ian Jack – “Unsteady People”, Granta 28, 1st September 1989

I was mulling this over as I stood by the roadside in the drizzle, at the small Bus Eireann stop marked with its logo of a galloping red setter. Cars whizzed by, each a small, isolated bubble, windows up, headlights on, wipers going. There were no roadside shacks, no chai stalls, no buses pulling in with people hanging out the doorways. Life was passing by, but at a remove and a steady 100kmh. Eventually I made out the insect-antenna wing mirrors of a large coach and optimistically stuck out my thumb. 64 Gaillimh said the display. It pulled up, settled itself with a hydraulic sigh, and I boarded into a warm fug. Four Africans chatted animatedly at the front. At the rear there was a seat free next to a teenage girl who rather grudgingly moved her bag to accommodate me before plugging her headphones back in and staring glumly out the window. She checked her phone every 30 seconds for the entire journey.

Ahead of me were no less than three tweed caps, and my neighbour across the aisle was a muscular man with a crew cut, numerous tattoos and one arm in a cast. He had a harsh Northern Irish accent, and I tried not to make judgements about how he might have acquired such an injury; each week it seemed there was another kneecapping or punishment beating in the North, just as I remembered from the 80s. “They” hadn’t gone away, as various keyboard warriors on the internet were quick to point out. When I later told this story to a friend from Northern Ireland, about how I was a little ashamed of my judgmentalism but that we – in Britain at least – had been so conditioned by the coverage of the Troubles that it was hard to shake off the historical suspicion, she laughed and said: “I’d have thought exactly the same.”

We were passing through Knock, which looked rather like Assisi in a greyer latitude had it been done out in breeze-block. Dozens of small shops sold religious artefacts, and one had two life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary flanking its doorway. A church done in brutalist concrete was surmounted by a gigantic needle of a spire. A few days earlier there had apparently been a miracle: I had watched five-and-a-half minutes of shaky footage online which looked to me rather like clouds parting to reveal the setting sun, but which had been accompanied by various ecstatic cries from onlookers celebrating the Virgin making her presence known. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if it reminded me more of a Velazquez, or… was that a bit of trunk?… perhaps of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of the Hindu pantheon. Cultural contexts.


On the Beach


Next, we read about the cobalt bomb, which was worse than the hydrogen bomb and could smother the planet in an endless chain reaction.

I knew the colour cobalt from my great-aunt’s paintbox. She had lived on Capri at the time of Maxim Gorky and painted Capriot boys naked. Later her art became almost entirely religious. She did lots of St Sebastians, always against a cobalt-blue background, always the same beautiful young man, stuck through and through with arrows and still on his feet.

So I pictured the cobalt bomb as a dense blue cloudbank, spitting tongues of flame at the edges. And I saw myself, out alone on a green headland, scanning the horizon for the advance of the cloud.

Bruce Chatwin – In Patagonia

At half-past five in the afternoon the temperature was still over 30 degrees, but slowly the heat began to go out of the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. Dogs chased each other, had stand-offs, ran through the surf barking with what could only be joy. People made their way down to the water’s edge, some taking up positions on an outcrop of rocks that jutted into the waves. They stood around in small groups, some couples quietly holding hands, eyes turned seawards. Two Goan girls picked through a rockpool, foraging for crustaceans. A bearded man of indeterminate nationality did a headstand on a yoga mat. A Russian nearby turned his back to the sea and held his phone out in front of him; on the screen I made out a woman’s face, blue-lit from her computer. She was wearing a heavy jumper, watching this Indian Ocean sunset from a wintry Moscow. Children played, turning cartwheels along the damp sand. Next to me a man watched the advancing ripples of water with an expression of solemn appreciation, as if in a gallery. And I suddenly felt connected to every single person there somehow, as fellow members of a species – all of us part of humanity, drawn together by this elemental force of the sunset at the ending of the day.

In the green room at home in England, on the shelf at the foot of the narrow bed, lies a book. On the cover a Naval officer is pictured standing looking out to sea, the white top of his cap contrasting with a bilious green sky. Behind him, further along the beach, stands a woman in a red dress. She is barefoot, her arms folded about herself. Is she looking at the officer, or past him, out to sea? It is not clear. To the left, below the arc of the horizon looms the ominous black outline of a submarine, hull half-visible in the molten white waves. Above it is a curious shape in the sky, a thin pale stalk swelling outward at its top. A mushroom cloud.

On The Beach was written in 1957 by Nevil Shute not long after he’d emigrated to Australia from England. The book details the lives of a small group of people in Melbourne who are awaiting the inevitable arrival of a cloud of deadly radioactive fallout. A nuclear war the previous year in the Northern Hemisphere has contaminated life on earth, leaving only parts of the far south habitable – southern Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia. But global air currents mean that soon these locations too will succumb to radiation poisoning.

Life in Melbourne continues with a veneer of normality, despite a few changes due to circumstances. There is no fuel, for example, so people travel once again by horse and cart. Others plant gardens knowing full well that they will not live long enough to see them bloom. A group of old buffers decide that they might as well drink their way through the club’s wine cellar, since there’s no point in keeping it, and there are campaigns to have the fishing season brought forward by a few months. The Australian government issues suicide pills. Everyone adapts to the new reality in their own way.

The book opens with a description of Peter Holmes waking on a golden, sunlit morning next to his wife Mary, trying to recall the mysterious sense of happiness that he feels. Is it because it is Christmas? No – that was last week. Slowly as he becomes conscious he recalls that he has to go into Melbourne that day, to a meeting at the Navy Department. He’s hoping for a new command – his own ship. At the foot of the bed their baby daughter Jennifer awakens in her cot with a series of small whimpering sounds.

Commander Dwight Towers is the captain of one of the last American nuclear submarines, temporarily assigned to the Royal Australian Navy. He becomes attached to a young Australian woman, Moira Davidson, wry, funny and cynical by turn, thinly hiding a terrible vulnerability, who is herself coping with circumstances by drinking heavily. Towers is already married; his wife and children were living in the United States when war broke out, and they are almost certainly dead. Despite knowing this, he buys birthday presents for his children and maintains a fiction that they may be alive. Once, in an unguarded moment, he admits to Moira that he knows they are dead, and asks if she thinks he is crazy to pretend they are still alive. She replies that she does not – she understands. He kisses her in gratitude.

Shute’s characters are, as always, decent and upright individuals who are not given to great displays of emotion even when inwardly reeling. They possess a stoicism that was a characteristic of the time amongst the generation that had come through the Second World War – a quiet fortitude to their suffering, which when it occasionally slips, is all the more shocking. Moira cycles through different emotions – tearfulness, determination, and inevitably the anger and bitterness of someone who feels cheated of her future. When Peter Holmes tentatively tries to broach the subject of suicide pills to his wife, she goes into complete denial, refusing to entertain the notion. He becomes exasperated, and shouts at her about the awful sickness that they will all succumb to. Her tears and childlike naivety in response prompt an enormous welling up of compassion within him. He knows he cannot ask her to administer the pills to their baby, but is determined that they will die together as a family.

Towers embarks on a mission to check for survivors in the northern hemisphere, sailing the submarine across the Pacific, as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. Returning down the coast of the United States, they halt briefly off San Francisco. Through the periscope they look out upon a deserted city. The Golden Gate Bridge has fallen. One crewmember jumps ship to spend his remaining days in his home town. Finding no trace of life the submarine returns to Australia. Towers goes on a trip with Moira, both aware of the feelings developing between them, and yet he cannot become involved with her without feeling disloyal to his wife. Nevertheless their platonic love for each other deepens, thrown into relief by the precariousness of the situation, of the fleeting sweetness of life. It is all the more moving for being necessarily chaste.

As the situation worsens and more people begin to show the first signs of radiation sickness, Towers decides that rather than commit suicide together with Moira, he will instead follow his duty to the end, take the submarine out into international waters and scuttle it, going down with his ship. In doing so he will, in his mind, be reunited with his wife and children. Moira drives up to a hilltop to watch the submarine heading out to sea for the last time. It is a testament to the humanity of the book, that even in this appalling, apocalyptic scenario, that some things still endure at the end of the world. As Moira looks out to sea, torn with emotion, she achieves a kind of peace: admiring and understanding Towers’ decision, filled with love. She imagines herself together with him as she opens the box containing the pill.

Sometimes I think of that young woman, standing on an Australian headland looking out to sea, waiting for the arrival of a cobalt-blue cloud, and it breaks my heart.

Elections in Goa. Small trucks – camionettes – drive around the neighbourhood blaring out music and speeches. Aam Admi have the best tunes, and the crew wear the white forage caps favoured by Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s leader and Chief Minister of Delhi. The BJP – Prime Minister Modi’s party – are the loudest, the volume so high that it distorts into static. It’s all quite friendly, with none of the sinister overtones that you sometimes get during elections in tropical countries, but there’s an underlying seriousness to it all. For the last two weeks, bars and restaurants have been rigorously enforcing last orders for alcohol at 10pm – these places which are so laid back for the rest of the year. The owners are all nervous, fearing a visit from the police, who normally turn a blind eye to such things. Now the shops and supermarkets have stopped selling alcohol too – there’s a ban from the 2nd to the 5th of February, although polling day is technically only on the 4th. Although it is illegal to smoke in restaurants, everyone still does, even beneath the hand-made No Smoking signs – but now all the ashtrays have been taken away. In one place the waiter mistakes our hand-rolled cigarette for a joint and tells us to be discrete as there’s a cop at the bar. It’s a temporary tightening up, an establishing of a pretence of rules more in line with the rest of the world. Democracy is a serious business, is the message.

Exactly what the rationale is for enforcing an earlier closing time for a fortnight before an election is unclear. It doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. One explanation is that voters are sometimes bribed to attend rallies with alcohol (undoubtedly true), and licensed premises have a readily available supply. But of course there would be countless ways around that, with alcohol smuggled across state borders, and the explanation is more akin to the recent, economically disastrous policy of demonetization, where the most common notes in circulation were withdrawn overnight. It served no practical purpose other than causing massive inconvenience – 90% of the money found its way back into the economy within a couple of months, making a nonsense of the claim that such a policy would wipe out black money. Psychologically, however, it was a shrewd move: it gave people a sense that they were all in it together, that the agreed menace of corruption needed addressing somehow, and this gave everyone the opportunity to do their bit, to feel that they were suffering for a greater good. It makes a population compliant.

One of the ironies of this, of course, is that the political parties regard their voters with such contempt that they can be bought by the promise of a few drinks. And yet it strikes me that this situation is not dissimilar to the one I am currently in. K’s bike developed a puncture the other night. We parked it at a small pizza place, and the next day I went to a puncture shop, who collected it and fixed the puncture. The problem I have is that the bike is at the puncture shop. K is in Pune. Given that I cannot ride two bikes at once, I shall have to ask a friend for a favour, to ride the thing back home – a favour that really only merits the offer of beer. To offer money would be insulting. To offer nothing at all would be crass. Beer is the perfect solution.

So I have visited a small shop where the owner discretely went out the back with my rucksack and illicitly filled it with Tuborg, for a suitable fee. In India there is always a way.

I have written before of my fellow foreigners here, how they are brought together in a temporary truce that transcends nationality. I’m thinking of the group of Germans who sat at the next table to me the other night – perhaps six or seven of them, most in their 50s or 60s. They were from Munich, and I eavesdropped as best I could, occasionally losing the frequency of their Bavarian accents, then tuning in again. Two ferries out on the estuary had a near miss, pirouetting silently upon the seashell-pink water, which prompted them to comment upon Indian driving generally. The ferries were “schwein teuer”, apparently – swinishly expensive. The Goan electorate might as well vote for “Koko nuss” – coconuts – or perhaps, as one sour-looking man opined, a banana. I thought, as I often do in these circumstances, of recent history, and how they had, within their lifetimes, been born into a wasteland of rubble, a nadir of barbarity, which had gone on to become the economic powerhouse of Europe, with a society almost at the zenith of what we call civilization. The paradox was heightened by the group behind me, who spoke Czech. Across the courtyard were a large Russian family. And I thought: right – so this lot here invaded that lot behind me, occupying the Sudetenland, which was part of Czechoslovakia. Then they invaded that lot over there, who repelled them, occupied half their country, then went on to later invade this lot behind me to crush the uprising in the Prague Spring. And how did all this come about? What delineates this group from that group? Language? They are not so dissimilar, and besides, it’s easy to learn another’s language – often to find that other people utter the same banalities to each other that we all do. Culture? These three groups here have a great deal more in common with each other culturally than they do with any of the Indians in whose village they are currently sitting. What an utter nonsense it all is.

Because it strikes me sometimes that to travel is to embrace strangeness, and there are times when India is deeply, inexplicably strange. Waiting for a bus in Mapusa the other day, sitting on a low wall on a steaming night with an endless stream of two-wheeled traffic snaking past, I looked around myself at all the Indians who calmly accepted me in their midst. There was a man wheeling a bicycle which had a 50kg sack of wood on the back. A group of small children came to beg, proffering little steel bowls – one spotted a couple embracing, saying goodbye to each other, and managed to insert the bowl between them before being rebuffed. Women in saris sat waiting for their bus with large bundles before them. Further along the wall upon which we sat, there was an invisible border; here, people lay stretched out asleep, curled on their sides – the inevitable accumulation of pavement dwellers of any Indian town. And I sat there among them, with 2500 rupees in my wallet – about twenty quid these days – which is several months’ salary for some of these people, and nobody did anything, hassled me, visibly resented me for it, anything. There was just a quiet acceptance that although they lived in their world and I in mine, we were sitting next to each other on the same wall, and we in fact had more in common, in our daily needs or desires, than differences between us.

There are times, though, when you know that you will never understand this country – it’s extraordinary beliefs, the pantheon of its gods, the vastness of it all. You can’t even read the simplest signs. Who are those two men in the small van waiting at the gate? Two pot-bellied uncles in white shirts who are holding mobile phones. They have been there an hour, waiting for something, watching the passing traffic. Are they police? They don’t have the worn leather jackets, moustaches, tired eyes and cigarettes of any Arab mukhabarat. They lack the safari suits, flares and Afro hair styles favoured by Zimbabwe’s CIO, who seemed to model themselves on the 70s film star Shaft. These are just two rather portly Indian men whose presence, like so much here, is inexplicable.

Riding back from Mapusa round the hairpin bends over the hill in the dark, I came down into the valley where we live. The air was cool on the hill but thickened into sultriness across the marshes. The Enfield thunked along in fourth gear like an outboard motor, the buckled concrete of the road causing the bike to pitch and yaw as if I were in a small boat at sea. The temple was glittering with lights – thousands of them in spiralling patterns, and I heard the yodelling squeeze-box notes of music, and a man singing. These songs often go on for hours, everyone packed in together in the sweltering darkness. Sounds of a small handbell being rung, then a series of explosions from firecrackers – chasing away the bad spirits. A kind of sermon began, the Konkani language utterly different to the nasal “aap” and “hai” sounds of Hindi; this was a more rounded and mellifluous tongue that might as well have been Yoruba. The man was becoming more voluble, and then the congregation began a strange kind of groaning and crying. I pulled over, switched off the bike and listened to the utter, barbaric strangeness of the sound – this mass of people wailing on a hot night, the distant hollow thunk of a man chopping coconuts with a machete, the howling dogs, the endless chirp of crickets. Goosebumps rose on my bare forearms even as sweat trickled down my chest, and I thought: you will never understand this place – the hopes and terrors of these tropical people, the things that they fear in the darkness, the lamentation of the gods. This is the world we inhabit.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

Full Circle

A thick yellow dusk, the air smelling of burnt matches, haloes of streetlights fizzing in the sulphurous fog. Shadowy figures squat on their haunches swathed in blankets against the chill of evening – on a pavement, against a wall in the shadow of a tree, one perched birdlike on the crash barrier of a dual carriageway. They have the same beadily watchful intensity as the crows, swathed in their drab plumage. After a while they begin to infiltrate your dreams; you see them even when they are not there, in this city of tattered ghosts, crouched on the periphery of things, waiting, watching. The apocalypse already happened here, slowly, incrementally. As eras have come and gone, at least eight cities have risen and fallen on this site, and now Delhi is in its ninth incarnation. These ragged survivors haunt the ruins. Everywhere you go in India there’s someone living a life of sorts just in the periphery of your vision.

The Uber driver’s name was Anand, and his profile picture showed a gaunt man in his sixties with a worried expression. His rating was 4.4 stars – not calamitous, but on his way down. I could imagine some of the scorn with which the city’s youthful nouveau riche would regard him: as a hapless rural dolt, no doubt, granting him a spiteful one star to wipe out his rating. He spoke no English at all. On the radio classic Hindi love songs played, slow and measured, crackling with the static hiss of a gramophone. His shoulders were as narrow and thin as a coathanger, covered in an ancient beige sweater above which poked the frayed collar of his shirt. His ears were as thin and flat as minute steaks. He clutched nervously at the steering wheel with his farmer’s hands as he peered through the windscreen, and suddenly remembered something: one hand strayed to a small icon on the dashboard, touching it as he murmured a prayer, seeking protection from the innumerable dangers ahead. He drove with an old man’s caution, which I was glad of, belatedly swerving out of the way of vehicles that came at us with headlights on full beam. In the jams everyone leant on their horns incessantly, avoiding each other’s eyes. Stinking, shrieking, demented city. No space to think or reflect – only survive.

Anand’s phone with the satnav was upside down in its holder: left had become right, the direction we were to take reversed so that the arrow pointed downwards. Inevitably we went the wrong way at a junction and ended up on a flyover. We pointed this out to him and he embarked upon a lengthy lamentation by way of apology, saying it was all new to him; he stopped in the middle of three lanes of traffic, detached the phone and reverently handed it over, some precious, valuable thing containing incomprehensible magic. His gnarled finger extended and swiped the apps closed tenderly, as if wiping the brow of a child, showing us how it worked with a barely suppressed sense of wonder as the vehicles roared around us on all sides. He was essentially a farmer from a rural Indian village who had, from pride, desperation, or a mixture of both, decided to become an Uber driver in the unspeakable traffic of the impossible city, navigating his way through a dystopian landscape of concrete and dust that he didn’t understand.

I had left Delhi in late June, at the height of the Indian summer – dust-brown beneath the glare of a broiling sun. I landed in England at teatime on a Thursday afternoon, with trees in full bloom and green fields passing by outside the window. The sun in Delhi was something to be hidden from, the temperature over 40 degrees; people spent most of the day indoors, with curtains drawn against the heat. In London it was a balmy 22, and every patch of grass appeared to be occupied by sunbathers. At Liverpool Street Station there was the sound of a military band, playing a succession of popular hits culminating in the theme tune to James Bond. Soldiers in desert-pattern combat fatigues stood around with trays of poppies, raising money for the Royal British Legion. They wore the maroon beret of the Parachute Regiment, and they had all the exits covered. Around them swirled the travellers – stressed-looking men in suits, girls in tight skirts and high heels clipping regally along, tourists in backpacks not knowing where to go, pensioners clutching bags tightly as they shuffled across the concourse. The trains were going haywire due to flooding somewhere in Essex, and a circuitous route took me back and forth across East Anglia on a packed carriage for the best part of the afternoon, till darkness fell at 9pm, a lingering simmer dim of drawn-out northern dusk.

Outside London it seemed like a country given over to the old. At Ipswich Station I shared the lift with a woman in her late 60s wheeling a bicycle. She nodded to my backpack. “That looks heavy. Where are you off to?”

“Home to vote. I’ve just come back from India.”

She gave a cracked laugh. “You must feel right at home here then. This country’s going to be nothing but Indians at the rate we’re going.”

It was wholly unexpected. I digested the nasty little quip until the elevator stopped, then just in time, the response came. L’esprit d’escalier. As the doors opened I called out: “Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so arrogant to plunder their country for centuries then. Tables have turned, na?” (This last bit half Hindi.)

She gave me a look of disgust over her shoulder then wheeled her bicycle away down the platform, nose in the air.

“Silly season”, they call the summer months in British politics – the time when MPs head off on their holidays and nothing much happens. This time it was different. I had landed in a country that was tearing itself apart. The referendum on whether to remain in the European Union had essentially been hijacked into a debate about immigration; not so much a debate, in fact, as a series of increasingly vitriolic and xenophobic statements. Loudest of all was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, who appeared on television with monotonous regularity, thin lips smacking with satisfaction, eyes swivelling with outrage, inflaming a tense situation to the best of his ability in that oddy quacking voice – duckspeak, Orwell called it in 1984. “Believe you me!” he’d quack, the Verb-Subject-Object order an archaic inverted imperative, as if to give him more credibility, in the manner of every pub bore or bristling right-wing drunken uncle. “Believe you me, the British People have had enough…” etc., etc.

It was ugly to watch, and uglier still to see the effect it had on so many of The British People he claimed to speak for. Suddenly they did believe him; they’d believe anything he said, as long as he was outraged enough. His statements made less and less sense, but contained fragments of things that people somehow related to. “The pound in your pocket… hard-working families… foreigners sponging off our NHS… decent taxpaying folk… immigrants… immigrants… immigrants…” The poisonous dripfeed landed on fertile ground, ploughed by twenty years or more of tabloid bigotry. Suddenly Britain was Going It Alone, We Could Make it, we were still Great – this last one a characteristically inept government marketing initiative, attempting to brand the entire nation with a campaign of residual greatness in All Caps. At the interminable queue for Heathrow passport control (Borders Agency staff cut by 20% due to austerity measures, departmental civil servants flown in to provide emergency cover from around the country), a sign painted on the floor of the hall, trampled over by the slow-moving shuffle of thousands of travellers, British and foreign alike, had a scuffed and muddy slogan shouting: “This is GREAT Britain!” The feeble exhortation splashed across the edge of the UK border somehow perfectly captured the mood.

In the flatlands of the Suffolk coast the landscape had an illusion of timelessness, the lap and chop of the green waves on shingle, the yellow flowers of the gorse smelling of vanilla and coconut in the summer sun. Then the heavy damps of evening beneath a yellow moon, the slowly sighing waves, the mournful cry of seabirds. It was pretty, manicured and cultivated, and yet subtly change had blurred the edges. The fields across which I looked each day towards the harbour had been reclaimed from the sea by Dutch engineers in the 16th century, who had set up a network of windmills to drain the land – the local phone book was still full of names beginning with “van” this or “de” that. The coastline itself had shifted over the years in an endless interplay of advance and retreat with the North Sea, incrementally losing a little more each year to the waves. The ancient woodland of Dunwich Heath darkened the skyline, a mass of trees steadily climbing inland, and yet just visible beyond it were the white sails of a wind farm slowly turning. In an ironic juxtaposition, off to the left one could make out the golf ball dome of Sizewell Nuclear Power Station. In England if you half-closed your eyes it was possible to blot out these signs of modernity and focus instead on the neat lawns of small, crooked cottages in villages half-smudged by twilight, and hark back to some earlier, simpler era, some idyllic pastoral vision where everyone knew their place and all was well with the world. It was this artificial construct which was being touted by the politicians as the place that we all ought to return to in order to protect it – a narrative fairytale where by closing our borders, and presumably our consciences, there would be no refugee crisis, no migrants in makeshift camps just over the border, no troubling home-grown jihadis. We’d simply pull up the drawbridge and retreat into a daze of boozy nostalgic optimism. Old ladies sat alone in million-pound houses decked with Union Jack bunting, fending off the chill with supermarket sherry.

I went to vote in the old Methodist Hall, reeling with jetlag, ruddy with sunburn, my wallet full of useless rupees, wearing the jeans and dusty boots I had flown home in. An elderly couple manned three trestle tables and a pair of curtained booths. They checked my address on the register. It was oddly anticlimatic to actually add my cross to the Remain box. Then it was done, and I retired next door to the pub. People were blaring at each other like television sets, reciting chunks of tabloidese, everybody shouting, nobody listening. Chatting to a perfectly pleasant couple taking their holiday at the seaside, I asked if they had voted. Yes, they said, both had agonised over the decision. He had grudgingly voted remain, feeling that as a former businessman, access to the European single market was crucial for the economy. But she had voted leave. Why, I wanted to know?

Well, it was awful, wasn’t it, they both opined. What was happening to us? We didn’t have Sovereignty any more! (That most meaningless of terms, which had become a buzzword for the Leave campaign.) Not that they were racist or anything, but in the high street of their home town they hardly heard English spoken! It just wasn’t right!

What was their home town, I asked?

Bury St. Edmunds. (Small East Anglian market town, overwhelmingly white.)

But surely that’s an exaggeration, I said. Hardly hearing English in the High Street. And why does it matter anyway?

Ooh! There’s Polish shops everywhere, and all these gypsies selling Big Issue, and takeaway restaurants! You go out at night and it smells of curry! You see women in burkas sometimes!

Really? Burkas? In Bury St. Edmunds?

Well, you know, these headscarves. All these Muslims. It’s just not our country any more, is it?

“We just want our country back.” Occasionally someone would venture: “Why is it taking so long? We should leave now, today. Enough is enough.” What exactly did these people think they were going to get by doing so? What did they expect to change? England had taken aim firmly at its own foot, shut its eyes and defiantly pulled the trigger while singing Rule Britannia. Now it was just going to have to hobble along as best it could.

I went back home to Goa.

The tang of salt-spray on a shimmering beach, coolness of water assuaging the smart of sun-glowing skin. Teal-coloured sea, gold flecks in suspension, glittering mica swirling around. Rollers lift gently and billow subsiding, smoothing the sand with a faint shushing sound, wiping away the footprints of small birds – pipits and waders – who cheep softly, patrolling the shore. Tiny crabs walk alongside, gathered up by the retreating flow of the waves, carried on a carpet of foam to the sea. Beyond the strand lie the straw roofs of shacks merging into the green backdrop of jungle. The faint thump of bass emerges from them.

The area around Morjim has become popular with the Russians. They are utterly different to the hippy crowd, clean-cut and square-looking. The men are beefy, short-haired and swaggering, orthodox crosses hanging round bull-necks, with the pert (pointy? Putinesque?) pectorals of a weight-lifter’s physique. Many sport urka-style tattoos – translated roughly as “thug” or “gangster” – scrolls of inky iconography across backs and tree-broad torsos, once the mark of the professional criminal in Soviet times, now (usually) a fashion statement. They speak in low, lip-twisting mutters. A group of six stand in a circle, at ease, hands behind backs, smoking, growling like bassoons – a sextet of morose Mafiosi.

Others pack up their swimwear and leave the shack, trudging across the hot sand. Then something catches the man’s eye and he halts and looks back towards the bar. “Kto?” he mutters irritably. What is it? One of the women looks back and it becomes clear. The waiter is waving goodbye to them. “Ah! Goodbye! Bye. Bye.” They remember the suitable response and give a half-hearted flap of the arm.

The women often look Scandinavian – tall, pale-eyed and lissom. They arrange their limbs languidly on the sunloungers, roll onto their stomachs and pull their bikinis up at the back to tan their bottoms, cushioning salt-tousled heads on downy arms. The waiter brings beer for the group of four in front of us, and one young woman stands up, raises the bottle aloft to some of her friends sitting in the shack and lets out a cheer: “Urrah!”

“Urrah” has been used as the battle cry of the Imperial Russian Army, the Red Army and the present-day Russian ground forces. Major Bruno Gebele of the Wehrmacht decribes the chilling effect of hearing it during the battle of Stalingrad, as a mass of snow-suited Russian infantry charged towards the German lines baying the word.

Does this girl on a beach in Goa know this? Does she understand the historical irony, now, here, in the context of present-day events? She probably wasn’t even born when the Berlin Wall came down. Perhaps she’s just a young woman having a nice time on holiday, enjoying a cold beer in the hot sun in the company of her friends. Na zdorov’ye. Cheers. Urrah.

Ideologies… stereotypes… Here, on this sun-struck tropical coast, the world comes together in a temporary truce, like a watering hole in the jungle. Looking around at the other tables in this old Portuguese restaurant, beneath the slowly circulating punkah fans, I see half a dozen nationalities. Four pear-shaped Finns, pale and puffy from winter, converse in long strings of syllables. Next to them are three French diners, two men and a woman. They are sun-wizened and lithe, like rock climbers. Behind me I can hear the strangulated English vowels of an old colonial voice – a man in his 70s wearing a safari suit. Old Africa hand. His companion is a lady of a similar age, but German. His voice has the low rumble of authority and they speak in that terse shorthand that old couples can adopt. “Jolly good bread. Pass the salt, would you?” Now he’s talking about the British Prime Minister’s recent speech on Brexit. “Europeans absolutely livid with us!” he says in Telegraphese. Epsolyutely. “Don’t blame them one bit!”

Four young Russians walk in. Early 20s at most. They are clean-cut, almost plastic-looking, like members of a youth movement. They flick through the menu, scowling at it, clearly ill-at-ease, like gap year kids who’ve ended up in a fancy restaurant by mistake and are trying to act like grown-ups. All the other tables are taken by foreigners, all of us long-stayers in Goa – we can recognise each other somehow. This is where we are hiding out from the world, and yet all the world is here too. The French are wheezing with smoky laughter at a joke. Opposite me some Londoners order another round of beer (“Cheers, squire! You’re a gent,” one says to the waiter, a sleepy boy with a wall eye, to his utter confusion). They drink out of styrofoam Australian-style beer-holders decorated with the St. George’s Cross. Another table has two Irish couples of retirement age, whose speech is a rapid Dublin blur, three times the pace of our own. One man is talking about fields, developments, two-hundred-thousand-euro a piece, building societies, agricultural subsidies. The other gets up and makes for the bathroom, five-ten of solid muscle, wrists like rolling pins and an arm-swinging gait. Two more elderly Brits come in and recognise the Irish: Howarya, roight, roight, still here then, oh yes it’s minus three and snowing at home, ugh, not looking forward to it. Everybody laughs a little ruefully. My chicken xacuti arrives – a spicy green Goan curry – and I tuck my legs up under me on the chair in the lotus position and eat with my hands, because it feels more comfortable that way.

The old hippies are still here, of course. The American guy I met last year, veteran of Altamont who was busking his way to Moscow. I shake his hand in passing, but he doesn’t seem to remember me. It doesn’t matter, he smiles – last season was a lifetime ago, and here we are again. Are we going to the gig tonight? Sure, we’ll drop by.  And there are the newcomers, the millennial hippy kids in harem pants and Om vests, the dreadlocks and laptops brigade, searching for something to believe in with an almost evangelical solemnity, documenting every step of their spiritual journey on instagram, no matter how banal. What future do they have at home, now that the politicians have destroyed it? One cannot blame them for trying to find an alternate one here, however clichéed.

Here, on the precipitous edge of now, the fronds of the palm trees sway, stirring the air. The egrets stand upon them, bobbing back and forth, gurgling to each other. I rinse the ants out of the kettle to make coffee, as I do every morning, then shave in tepid water, enjoying the coolness of the pass of the blade, the scent of sandalwood soap and coconut oil. Beyond, the world has gone mad, but here the sky is pink and lemon, and the forested rise of hills cuts off the valley from the outside. The dogs are barking at a cow wandering up the lane, the children are standing outside the temple, which is painted tangerine and lime-green, decorated with golden swastikas. The school bus arrives, its side emblazoned with a picture of Jesus. The poi guy cycles past, splay-kneed, klaxon honking, his tray of round bread rolls covered in blue plastic behind him. The marsh steams gently in the sun, cows grazing on the lush grass, wallowing up to their bellies in water, attended by egrets. The crippled boy comes lurching along the road, as he does every day, one arm limp, one leg dragging, looks up to see me smoking on the balcony, and slowly smiles.


Black Narcissus


Kublai Khan: “Is what you see always behind you? Does your journey take place only in the past?”

Marco Polo: “Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.”

Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

You wake, and you have travelled far in the night. Something is altered somehow – you have returned to a truer version of yourself than whoever you were yesterday. And in the half-light of dawn, in the increasingly familiar room, with the cigarette burns on the table and the stopped clock stuck at quarter to four, and the garish painting of a turbanned herb seller under some Moorish archway, you drawn back the curtains and look out on the valley once more, for the last time.

The village assembles itself before you. Wisps of incense smoke coil lazily upwards in shafts of sunlight, through the branches of the tree with leaves glowing green. Sunbirds flit from flower to flower in a soft thrumming of wings. The notes of a flute, a man singing. The booming cow in the stable below. The rhythmic wet slap of laundry on stone, the women crouching at the taps which spout piping hot water from the springs. A bundle of puppies on a sunlit doorstep, paws twitching in sleep. And high overhead the tiny silver glint of an aeroplane, flying north-west. Towards home.

“Hello, room service?”

“Which room number please?”

“Four hundred and two.”


“Four oh two.”

“I am not understanding.”

“Four zero two. Chaar sau doh.”

“TK. Yes please?”

“Could I have two cups of masala chai?”


“Chai. Masala chai. Two cups.”

“Small pot chai?”

“Yes, fine. And two cups.”

“Sugar inside?”

“Haan. Same as yesterday. And the day before.”

“Ahh! Four jeero two! Good morning sah. TK, doh masala chai. Ek minute.”

“Thank you very much.”

Ten minutes later there’s a knock at the door. A small, squirrel-like boy, perhaps eight years old, with bright eyes and a cheeky grin, chest heaving with the exertion of running up four flights of stairs. He slops into the room in giant, adult size flip-flops, sets two glasses of sweet, milky tea down on the side and departs again with a shy wave. Namaste Chotu. I greet you from afar. Thanks for all the tea.

In 1947 the acclaimed British film-making duo Powell and Pressburger made a film called Black Narcissus, based on the 1939 book of the same name by Rumer Godden. It tells the story of a group of nuns who take over an abandoned seraglio high in the Himalayas with the aim of establishing a school and clinic. They clean and restore the building, working in the garden to grow fruit and vegetables, and set about establishing their order. But slowly they find themselves seduced by their surroundings. The colours are too bright, the mountains too high, the light too clear. They see too much. One by one the nuns succumb to visions of their past which threaten to undermine their vows. The stoical Sister Philippa, who is in charge of the vegetable patch, is called to account by the Sister Superior, Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, when the planted beds erupt into colourful flowers. “I can’t help it,” she cries, spreading hands which are calloused by labour. “They are just so beautiful!”

Sister Clodagh herself is trying to escape the aftermath of a failed romance in Ireland, and finds herself replaying scenes from it over and over again. The more she reproaches herself and tries to throw herself into her work, the more undone she becomes. Past and present merge in a series of flashbacks: her eyes glow with happiness as she recalls her beloved Con in Ireland, hopeful of their future together, when at the same time Con was dreaming of his future in America – a future, it transpired, which did not include her. Slowly the light fades from her eyes and her face resumes its frozen, inward immobility once more.

The arrival onto the scene of the British Resident Mr Dean, a louche adventurer who has made the area his home, throws the convent into turmoil. The barely-suppressed emotions boil over. Sister Ruth, played mesmerisingly by Kathleen Byron, portrays a woman always brittle but now cracking into full-blown madness, conceiving a violent passion for Mr Dean and an equally violent jealousy for Sister Clodagh, who she sees as her rival for his affections. A young General – played by Sabu, the only Indian actor in the cast – is a foppish, regal playboy, all silks and perfumes; he wears the scent which gives the film its exotic name, ironically importing it from the Army and Navy Stores in England. He becomes besotted with Kanchi, a seductive, teasing dancing girl (played by a heavily made-up Jean Simmons), who has a jewel-studded nose, flashing cat-green eyes and a talent for making people fall in love with her. The old Ayah caws and flaps like a demented crow at the prospect.

Black Narcissus is not only lavishly beautiful in its cinematography, but an extraordinary film in its psychological depth. The central theme is one of repression; by specifically focussing on a group of nuns who are sworn to chastity, and placing them in a strange environment where every sense is heightened, we see the effect of unresolved passion let loose from its moorings. As Sister Clodagh observes the burgeoning romance between the young General and Kanchi we see the return of her repressed past, in the form of her flashbacks to Ireland, and in her stand-off with Sister Ruth over Mr Dean it is the repressed present which haunts her, leading to a continual cycle of re-repression which eventually must break.

But there is much more at play here. The silent holy man who sits meditating day and night on the mountain overlooking the convent expresses the cultural clash between the rigidity of the nuns and the exotic east – the difference between the good works of the nuns by their doing, and his own spiritual framework of being. It is the nuns’ own imperfect resolution of their individual issues that cannot withstand the translocation to another cultural landscape, despite their ostensible spirituality, and at the end of the film, as their small, bedraggled convoy makes its way down the mountain having finally abandoned the convent, the first drops of rain begin to fall on the lush, subtropical vegetation, heralding the onset of the monsoon. There could not be a more apt metaphor for a film released in 1947. The British were leaving India, a country whose colour and chaos and passion simmering away beneath the surface had always defied any attempt at control, and which they had never really understood.

The bus driver was a cheerful tough with a boxer’s nose that formed a level plane from forehead to determinedly jutting jaw. He was clearly a respected character locally – people at the roadside would often give him a wave or break into a smile as the bus passed. I looked at the fruit stall where we had stopped, not twenty minutes into a 16 hour journey. The owner was a man in his late 40s, wearing a greying singlet. He had hitched this up to expose his paunch, cooling his belly quite unselfconsciously, and sat on a stool directing proceedings. A woman in yellow and blue kurta pyjama sat opposite him, dangling a baby on her knee. She was younger, in her 20s, and pretty, but already there was a knot of worry forming in the centre of her forehead. She would be old by 35, worn out by childbirth and poverty.

The bus’s headlights tracked through the hot night, flicking over a stream of oncoming vehicles. The road was swooping and curving round the mountainsides now, the driver playing a constant tattoo on the horn. As the outlying buildings of a settlement began to spring up, the traffic thickened, and soon we were in a slow line of barely moving cars. Eventually it ceased to move altogether. Gridlock at nine o’clock at night in rural Himachal Pradesh. We had travelled 60km in three hours. Passengers disembarked and stretched, walking up and down the long line of vehicles into the distance, all of them parked with engines off to save fuel. Occasional motorbikes would zoom crazily up the sandy roadside, scattering pedestrians.

A distant rumble, and then illuminated taillights. Drivers restarted their engines one by one, and we began to nose forward again. This was Bhuntar, which we had passed through three weeks before on the motorbike. A solitary iron bridge across the river was the cause of the trouble: it was only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time. On the far bank there was a funfair taking place. The bus crawled through crowds of people who spilled across the road. A band marched by, followed by laughing children. There were shrieks from a fairground ride – a big wheel which hoisted people high into the air. We fought our way through traffic to pull in to a parking lot and take on more passengers – one of them a white woman with a scarf over her hair who looked utterly fed up. I gave a sympathetic smile. We were running four hours late. It took another 15 minutes to get back out of the parking lot and onto the road again.

I woke again at 3 in the morning to the pulse of blue flashing lights. The bus had slowed to a crawl. Sikh police in khaki turbans stood guiding traffic around two crumpled vehicles. At the side of the road the body of a man lay face down. No-one was helping him – he looked far beyond the point of any help. I’d already seen one fatal accident in the road on the way up to Manali; now here was another. It was a reminder of the tenuousness of life in India – how different rules applied, and we all somehow trusted to luck, or the gods, or something. As the bus swept on down the escarpment, round the hairpins, I tried not to look out of the windscreen. There was nothing I could do to control events. I closed my eyes once more and immediately fell asleep.

Blearily I woke again in the light of dawn. We were off the escarpment and passing through the flatlands of Haryana. In the aisle next to me assorted bodies were curled in sleep – the bus crew. A bearded man in long white kurta was using one of my discarded hiking boots as a pillow. His thin brown shins protruded like sticks. We passed enormous hotels that looked perpetually deserted, miles from anywhere. One was called The Sydney and had a neon-lit kangaroo decorating the entrance.

The bus halted at the foot of a mountain composed entirely of rubbish. Several hundred feet high, small fires smouldered across its flanks, around which ragpickers sifted in search of things to recycle and sell on. The rickshaw wallahs crowded around the open doorway. “Airport, Delhi airport!” they cried. A few passengers got off and went with them, buzzing away into the glare. We stayed aboard, waiting for Kashmiri Gate – once the northern gate into the city, built by British engineer Robert Smith in 1835, and named because it marked the start of the long road to Kashmir. Now it was another fly-blown layby with a reeking public toilet nearby. From there it was a short rickshaw ride to Lajpat Nagar, through the strangely deserted streets of Lutyens’ New Delhi – broad, tree-lined avenues and mansions set back from the road. 8am on a Sunday morning.  A group of college kids wobbled by on green rental bikes – the latest transport initiative. A pack of feral dogs galloped past in the other direction. Already the heat was growing intense.

Two days later I passed Kashmiri Gate again, bound for the airport myself – this time in air-conditioned comfort, in the back of a taxi driven by a young Sikh. I had once been driven by his uncle. I mutely set my mind to record, taking in the familiar streets again, deliberately not thinking. A skirling love song played quietly on the radio. Say goodbye to Delhi as she is leaving. Andrews Ganj. Who was he, I wonder? That’s the way to Dilli Haat, where we had momos and fruit “bear” at the Nagaland stall. AIIMS medical centre. Green Park. In 9 hours time I shall be passing beneath another Green Park, if I take the Piccadilly Line, in another world, another life. Vasant Vihar – that strange taxi driver one night who picked us up there and who none of us trusted, driving us through a dust storm in apocalyptic surroundings. Rangpuri – “Full colour”. Unspeakable, impossible city, which infiltrates your dreams at night. I shall miss the cry of the vendors, and the warmth, and the jingling ankle bracelets of the maid as she pads from room to room, the way that everyone is an aunty or an uncle or a brother or a sister so we are all related, and the colours and the indescribable smell of the place, the hard-won acceptance that the city requires, and the sound of distant trains passing in the night. I shall not miss the traffic, the chaos, the overcrowding, the squalor of it all. No, I shall. I always do.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

T. S. Eliot – Burnt Norton

A Schooner to Hobart


In the covered shelter overlooking the temple hot pools the women are singing, perhaps 30 or 40 of them; a robust, brassy chant that rises and falls to the accompaniment of their clapping. Round and round the chorus goes, as wild as the mountains that surround us, bold, glittering and defiant. I can only make out their shadowy figures from afar, but can picture them from the sound: a grandmother bawls out the lead in a voice cracked with age, a call and answer to the high, clear notes of a young girl, perhaps in her teens. Then the rest join in a shrill, powerful chorus. It has a barbaric splendour to it, full of strength, and slowly the village becomes quiet around us in awe as the women make their voices heard. Then the singing dies away, and the low roar of the distant river rises again as it rushes on into the darkness.

Naggar had been picturesque, but after a week it was time to move on. With no clear destination in mind many possibilities presented themselves: Kinnaur was out, but perhaps we could go to Dharamsala, and a small village above the town where we had stayed three years previously. But it was going to be a long slog to get there, and at peak holiday season accommodation might be in short supply. We toyed with the idea of a return to Ladakh, but the region’s remoteness, previously an attraction, now became a liability; we both needed somewhere to rest up and recover, not go into one of the wildest parts of the Himalaya which took two days’ ride to reach.

Then I remembered Vashisht. It was a village just three kilometers across the valley from Manali, but a world away from the snarling traffic and reggae-blaring coffee shops that Old Manali had become. Vashisht was known for its hot springs which lay in the very centre of the village as part of  an ancient temple complex, and when I had visited previously, nerves frayed from Afghanistan, it had been a tranquil spot to linger in for a while, still retaining something of its village atmosphere.

Trudging up the hill past the castle, laden with backpacks, we emerged into what passed for a town square in Naggar. There were several taxis parked up but no drivers in sight. A lone autorickshaw was parked by the chai stall, and we found the driver – a young, sleepy-eyed guy in a red polo shirt. Could he take us all the way to Vashisht? Certainly, he said. No problem. We agreed a price, clambered in and set off on a roller coaster ride down the lanes. A short way beyond the village he turned off onto a dirt track that zigzagged its way down the mountainside, past small stone houses and bushes of wild cannabis. “Short cut,” the driver explained. We clung on, pitching and yawing our way over the bumps. We crossed a narrow bridge bedecked with prayer flags that was just wide enough to accommodate the rickshaw, and turned onto the main highway to Manali.

As we buzzed along, I started to notice that the driver appeared to be swaying. He’d glance down at the handlebars with his hooded eyes, give a strange half-smile, and begin a slow clockwise rotation of his upper body. It looked like he was going into a trance.

I tapped him on the shoulder. “Thik hain, bhai?” You OK, brother?

“Haan, haan, thik hain.” He straightened up once more. He was driving well – his reflexes seemed good: he braked swiftly to miss a motorbike that pulled out in front of us, avoided the potholes and anticipated all the countless hazards. But again, after a few minutes, he began that odd swaying rotation. Was he drugged? Falling asleep? I couldn’t tell. We were coming into Manali now, past the private bus stand by the river where we had arrived three weeks earlier. I did a quick risk assessment, debating whether to get him to stop and find another rickshaw. But relative safety – he’d got us this far. Nevertheless I kept a close eye on him.

The traffic was worse than ever. Nose to tail gridlock for several kilometers. Masked Himachali cops waved arms and blew whistles seemingly at random, trying to control it. As we neared a line of parked rickshaws, a paunchy guy in blue shirt and aviator shades stepped in front of us, blocking our progress. He began barking at the driver in the manner of officialdom everywhere. He wanted us to turn back, it seemed. We had the wrong plates. The driver explained he’d come from Naggar. It was the rickshaw cartel, where they had unofficially assigned themselves certain routes. Our driver was an outsider, and not welcome. There was some shouting back and forth in Hindi, and then we drove on once more.

“Yahan se right.” The directions came back to me after a three year absence, through the mental maps of other cities. Straight on led to the Rohtang Pass, culminating in a wall of mountains, the other side of which lay Ladakh. And much seemed familiar, but so many other places intervened: these trees are not the gum trees of Victoria; not the pines of Scandinavia, nor the poplars of Italy. How many places have I been? Sometimes you feel you have seen too much, travelled too far. The memories blur together, superimposed over one another. A place will pop into your head at random, temporarily transporting you in time and space. In the end destinations become immaterial, and the only consistent theme is your endless journey. But over there was a hotel where I had once stayed, and there a barber’s where I had a haircut. I had been here before. What had changed in three years? Myself, immeasurably.

Dharma Hotel was a succession of long, echoing corridors which carried the unmistakeable reek of cooking gas. A six storey monstrosity, it had a perfect bird’s eye view over the village from the hillside, reached by a flight of steep stone steps from behind the temple pools. These lanes were mediaeval – spattered with cow dung and with open drains running alongside. Rounding one corner we had a near miss as a lady in a nearby house flung the contents of a bucket out of her open doorway. Gardez l’eau. I remembered this slow trudge up, heart hammering. We had come from sea level in Goa, and were now at 6,500 feet. Ahead of us three local labourers toiled upwards, each with a stack of bricks on their back supported by a band around the forehead: I counted 24 bricks in the load of the man ahead of me. They would do this journey over and over again each day, 40, 50 times. They moved in slow motion, faces impassive, eyes on the step ahead, lost in their own private worlds. And how many people had I followed up mountain paths over the years? Robustly jovial Manyikas in Zimbabwe, endlessly laughing and singing; the fearsomely proud Tajiks of Panjshir who brought a casual, dashing flair to everything they did; rugged Gurungs in Nepal whose men supplied the Brigade of Gurkhas, legendary for their toughness, who knew no flat land from the day they were born – all mountain people whose steps danced effortlessly up the track ahead.

We adjourned to the terrace for lunch, and found we were back in backpacker territory; the menu was a combination of Western and Indian dishes – pizza, falafel, aloo gobi. In the distance the white wall of the Rohtang Pass barred the valley, and above it the sky was darkening. A wind sprang up, and the first spots of rain began to fall. Seizing our plates we moved into the dining room, which was notable for the absence of any tables. A group of six or seven men were sitting in a circle in the centre of the room, gathered around an enormous hookah. It was one of the largest I’d seen, with a stem that was over a metre long. Each would puff on it for a while then give it a little flick, and it would spin round the group before coming to rest in front of someone else. On one wall an enormous television played an Indian soap opera, involving liquescent-eyed beauties demurely quailing in front of scowling mothers-in-law – a staple of the genre. Occasionally a banner would pop up on screen titled “Breaking News – Ranbir spotted in Colaba nightspot with Deepika”, or “Karina dazzles at blockbuster launch”, on what was ostensibly a news channel.

You can tell a lot about a country by its media. Bollywood has never translated particularly well to other cultures – it’s too Indian somehow, too rigidly formulaic – but that’s precisely what offers an insight into local aspirations. A film of any genre would be unthinkable without at least one song and dance routine, although if it is the type of Action blockbuster popularised by Hollywood the routine might be not-so-cunningly hidden; in a nightclub scene, for example, which the hero and heroine just happen to visit before becoming the stars of the show, everyone else somehow magically lining up around them. There’s also a dearth of originality; it’s quite common to find yourself watching a sequence which somehow seems oddly familiar, due to it having been lifted almost scene by scene from Hollywood. But nobody cares – nobody cries foul, or sues anyone else. The local audience doesn’t mind; indeed they somehow relate far more to the sight of Shah Rukh Khan chasing a baddie over the same red-tiled rooftops of Dubrovnik than they would Daniel Craig. Never mind the silliness, the parodies and the intertextuality. He’s our boy.

But the night bus movie to Manali unwittingly showed everything that was wrong with the country. Racist, sexist, disablist, homophobic, it would have prompted howls of outrage in any Western audience – in fact it did so even on the bus; two of our fellow passengers, both British, winced their way through it – while all around us Indians laughed. It was called Housefull 3 (how they had made two previous ones along similar lines defied belief) and revolved around a patriarchal Indian father not wanting his three daughters to marry. He was a millionaire, the setting somewhere in England (success comes only with getting out), and it managed, typically, to make the women look like silly bimbos who sneaked out to spend their time jumping up and down in slow motion to a series of Bollywood hits on party boats up and down the Thames, pausing in their tepid twerking only to pout for selfie shots. Their hapless suitors feigned disabilities to gain admittance to the family home (one blind, one crippled and one mute), and were mocked for their afflictions. The grand country house that was the family home was run by a domestic staff who were all black. In one unforgettable scene an Indian actor woke in horror to realise that the woman beside him in bed was also black – a fact he had been unaware of because it was dark (the audience howled with laughter at that one). And in almost every shot, somewhere, looming with semiotic aspiration, was a Union Jack flag – either hanging from a flagpole, or as the logo on somebody’s sweatshirt, or on the masks of three jewel thieves. It was a slavish display of repugnantly Anglophone loyalty, a perpetual Stockholm Syndrome of the mentally colonised. Kick us enough and we’ll lick your boots in gratitude. We only want to be like you. Trouble is, we just don’t know how.

Sometimes you cannot see what is right in front of you. Your mind is elsewhere entirely. The eyes unconsciously take in a scene, but it means nothing, has no relevance to what is going on in your inner world. Then suddenly you register what is before you, and the present comes rushing back, like surfacing for air. I am miles away, reliving events, rewriting new ones, and then I find myself noticing a flock of white egrets flying up the river. I’ve been watching them for perhaps a minute without realising, taking in their curious head-up posture while flying, their neatly trailing legs, the shape that their wings cut through the air, a sideways figure-of-eight, tracing infinity. They rise, climbing, and split into twin skeins, perfectly framing the rising moon behind the mountains which turns them silver, then they are heading in different directions, one group gliding across to the western bank and settling there on a small beach, the other flying on over the village, making for the pass. I’m grateful for their presence now, like a sign, and wonder at how I could unthinkingly observe something so beautiful and be so preoccupied as to not notice.

I was woken soon after six in the morning by loud voices outside. Many voices. Emerging onto the balcony I saw an Indian family on the next balcony. Beyond them were another couple on their balcony, and on down the line – six balconies in a row, each with people standing on them, all of them having a shouted conversation with each other. A man on the next balcony saw me and called out: “Good morning sar!”

“Morning,” I croaked at him.

“Where are you coming from?”

Goa. Delhi. London. Suffolk. I don’t know. 

“England,” I replied. “And you?”

He gestured to all the adjacent balconies. “We are from Jalandhar. In Punjab!”

Jullundur. “I know it. Lawrence Durrell was born there. The writer.”

He smiled uncomprehendingly, so I nodded in their general direction and went back inside. K sleepily stirred. “What is all that bloody noise?”


“Oh god.” She pulled the pillow over her head and went back to sleep.

By nine the Punjabis had gone, perhaps on a jeep ride up to the snowfields to have their photographs taken – one of the more popular excursions for the plains dwellers in mid-summer. On a flat roof below us a blonde girl was doing exercises, standing up, touching her toes, then forming a bridge with her bottom in the air before repeating the process. I watched her perform the same routine for half an hour – in which time I drank two masala chais and smoked three cigarettes. Then I saw another western girl appear on a balcony below her, dressed head to toe in skintight black lycra, headphones in, some kind of health monitoring device strapped to her upper arm. She looked as if she was about to go jogging round Hyde Park. She unfurled a skipping rope and began bouncing up and down, her ponytail jigging prettily behind her. “And now I must do my skipping!” I thought unkindly.

I was distracted from observing her aerobics by the sight of an Indian couple slowly climbing a spiral staircase to the rooftop. Both were decidedly large, and must have been in late middle age. They hauled themselves upwards using the handrail, then tottered across to a swing seat onto which they collapsed, fanning themselves. There they stayed for a few minutes, until the man rose and began a curious, knee-lifting walk around the rooftop perimeter. He wore baggy white shorts and a yellow T-shirt. He turned and beckoned to his partner, who slowly got up from the swing seat and went over to join him. She began to imitate his strange gait, lifting the knees high, then they both turned on the spot and went backwards a few steps, turned forwards again, and clapped their hands over their head. One, two, three, four steps forward, turn, turn, clap. One, two, three, four, turn, turn, clap. I realised they were dancing. Perhaps they had music on a mobile phone that I was too far away from to hear. They went in a circle around the rooftop, then reversed their steps and went backward. I watched, mesmerised.

“Come and look at this!” I called inside.

K emerged. “That aunty and uncle? What are they doing?”

“I think they’re dancing. Isn’t it awesome?”

Together we sat and watched these big people, aunty and uncle ji, high-stepping and clapping their way round and round the rooftop, and as they turned I realised both of them wore huge smiles.

The rain comes at four o’clock every day. The sky darkens, the Rohtang Pass slowly vanishes and the mountains echo to thunder. The wind sweeps up the valley, prompting a flurry of activity in the village below – washing is taken in, the hay which is laid out to dry on the flat roof opposite is bundled up hurriedly, and tables and chairs are cleared from the terraces. Soon the rain begins to fall, and the cloud descends down the hillside opposite, dripping stands of conifers looming, silhouetted against the mountain’s flanks. Twin headlights nose cautiously along the other side of the valley as vehicles tentatively find their way back down from the high passes, and eventually the road snarls into gridlock, a long line of vehicles inching forwards with a muffled honking. The sky boils black and grey with torn cloud, tendrils of shredded mist, and a lowering fog draws a diaphanous curtain over the scene.

By evening the rain has stopped and people emerge into the streets again, waiters shaking off chairs, stallholders setting up once more. The river has doubled in size across the boulders of its bed and is roaring in full spate, silt-grey and green woven through with twisting braids of white water. Sometimes you see fishermen selling their catch, smoked on roadside braziers, a small bundle of trout held aloft, with scales of burnished gold, sightless eyes opaque now, fins akimbo. There is a damp chill in the air, reminiscent of home somehow, which induces a certain wistfulness – I haven’t felt this cold for months. You look out at the rain-slick streets of London through the droplets trickling down the bus window on a blustery evening, monochrome passers-by clad in black and grey, huddled in coats, clutching umbrellas, hurrying home. And perhaps you think to yourself: What am I doing here? 

I was leaving India in two weeks. The end of another half-year, my biannual peregrination to the subcontinent like that of a migratory bird. This time I had covered a lot of ground, from arid Gujarat in the far west to the deep tropical south of Kerala, and now the north, here in Himachal – “abode of snows”. That was why, I knew, my mind was turning to other destinations once more. Thoughts of home mingled with other places, other possibilities.

Travel becomes its own imperative – a legacy of latent nomadism. It winds up some internal spring within you tighter and tighter, some escapist urge to see new places, other people. It might take a month, or a year, but sooner or later it manifests itself. You pace out the corners of your apartment, stare out of the window for the hundredth time, and everything familiar is sickening. Your life is on hold. Your mind turns to other places you’ve been, other trips. You remember the colourful awnings of a market flapping in the breeze on a sparkling day, like prayer flags. Where was it?… There was a big red ship in the harbour, an icebreaker. Hobart.

We went to Salamanca Market and bought some local honey – blackwood, I think it was. Acacia melanoxylon. It came from way down on the south-eastern coast of Tasmania, where the road ended and there was just miles of bushland, the Franklin-Gordon National Park. The bees flew through the forests all day and returned to their hives at night. The honey tasted strong, not floral so much as a rich, vegetable scent, rather like artichoke. And it was just like the Heaphy honey from the top of New Zealand’s South Island, at the start of the Heaphy Track. I walked that track, and had the honey for breakfast each day, with Weet-bix (no ‘a’) and dried apricots and water from the river, mashed into a paste. Perhaps there’s a connection – similar flora, rain-lashed island wildernesses on the same latitude, just across the Tasman amid the Roaring Forties of the vast Southern Ocean.

I had met Mick in a hostel the previous day. A great black-bearded gentle giant of a guy, he offered to show me round Hobart, his home town. He was in his late 60s, and his marriage had just ended, so he had pitched up at a backpacker hostel as he had nowhere else to stay. His memory was going, and lines of concern at what looked like a bleak future were etched across his brow like lightning. Now he was forgetting the words for everyday items, and I had none to offer him in consolation.

After the market we went to watch the footie in a pub – the AFL final. Hawthorne Hawks against Sydney Swans. I snatched off my bush hat when Jane Fonda sang “Advance Australia Fair”, prompted by Mick rising rather unsteadily to his feet and removing his own. He nodded approvingly.

The barman came over. “What can I get you, gents?”

“I’ll have a…” Mick frowned, trying to remember. The barman was a young guy with a frosted mat of spikes for hair and tattooed arms. The silence went on.

“Sorry mate. Gimme a minute. I’ll have a…”

He started to go red. His forehead puckered with a knot as he tried to remember. The barman looked at me, and I silently willed him to wait, to be patient. He did.

“Bugger it, a beer, dammit. In a…”

We waited a bit more. A bottle? A pint? The barman started fiddling with glasses, eyes drifting to the screen overhead.

“A schooner! A beer in a schooner!” It was a half-pint glass. Mick’s face cleared with relief. He’d remembered.



Shared Journeys

In Search of Shambala

With a new battery fitted the bike seemed to start more frequently. K’s shoulder had improved marginally – enough for us to travel back to the main road, it seemed. Once again we packed the bags in a weary routine and tied them to the bike, ready to ride to the highway at Bhuntar. I was still torn; part of me still wanted to try reaching Kinnaur. But the previous night as we had sat on the balcony we had both given voice to our private thoughts. Neither of us are particularly superstitious, but with one problem after another on this trip the signs did not look particularly good. The leopard that the bus ran over, the wobbling bike, the unreliable starter, her shoulder, the crash… I felt like I was stretching my luck to breaking point. It’s normal to have a few nerves before a big trip into a remote and rugged place, and in the past I might have dismissed them and pressed on regardless. But when she confided: “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I had to admit that I didn’t either. She had had bad dreams – she wouldn’t tell me the specifics, but my own had been alarming enough: missing a bend, losing traction, going over the edge. So we had an emergency council, and decided that to continue without paying heed to these inner voices would be unwise.

There was an alternative, however. The bike had come from Naggar, which was described as a pleasant mountain village on the opposite side of the river to the main Kullu-Manali highway. Although on this trip it seemed as if I kept revisiting places, I’d never been to Naggar. We decided to head there and rest up, then see how we felt. I was also, in the back of my mind, contemplating getting rid of the bike altogether, as by now it felt like a liability. But we needed it to get there. I tried to do a balanced assessment of what exactly these ominous premonitions were telling me. Was it that I shouldn’t ride into Kinnaur? Or was it that I shouldn’t get on the bike at all? Was it cursed? Had someone died on it? I drew on my reserves: of extensive experience, of all that training that I had, and of a fair amount of luck, and thought it would hold as far as Naggar. After that I’d never get on it again.

Five minutes out of Kasol we encountered the first oncoming traffic. The road was a potholed strip of asphalt just wide enough to accommodate a car, with sand and loose stones on each side. Heavily laden, I needed to keep my tyres on that asphalt. But the Indian road rule of ‘size matters’ meant that cars and minibuses claimed the entirety of the road, coming barrelling towards us hooting furiously, refusing to give way an inch. A people-carrier driven by a wispy man, horn blaring, forced me to move left onto the sand. As soon as the tyres hit it the bike began to tip. We slewed wildly from side to side, tilting 45 degrees this way and that. “We’re going over!” I thought to myself with incredulity. “Again!” I gave it a burst of accelerator and somehow the tyres bit; the Machismo did about the only thing it was good at, powering through. Somehow we stayed upright.

The road took all of my concentration. Off to the right the cliff plummeted away down to the tumbling waters of the Parvati River. To my left was a wall of sheer rock, chunks of which had broken off in places, depositing boulders on the road. Lacking a functioning horn, on the blind hairpins I gunned the accelerator, the resultant snarl echoing off the cliff-face as a warning to oncoming vehicles. Loud pipes save lives, as the Harley crew claim. We passed through the small village of Jari, and the same men were sitting on the bridge, dressed in white homespun cloth, with scarlet Kullu caps and enormous moustaches waxed into points. They looked like they had sat there forever, and this stream of traffic that now passed them by all day was just a temporary blip in history; they were here before the cars and would be here long after they had gone.

After an hour or so the road improved, and we arrived at a junction on the outskirts of Bhuntar, and a signpost in Hindi. कुल्लू was to the right. Kullu. On the bridge a group of Sikh pilgrims in white kurta pyjamas and orange turbans prayed facing the river. As we passed them the window of the car ahead of us came down and a bangled arm languidly extended from it to fling a handful of litter into the river. The Sikhs prayed on as small, colourful wrappers and discarded fruit rind fluttered about them, coming to land on the rocks below.

There were no signposts to Naggar. I knew we needed to be on the eastern bank of the river, but how to get there? We were passing a line of small workshops and I spotted a man standing by the side of the road. Pulling up alongside I greeted him, and asked: “Naggar?” He looked confused.

I tried again: “Naggar kidhar hai?” Which way is Naggar? He still couldn’t understand me.

At that moment K leaned forward and said: “Nuggrrh.”

Ah, Nuggrrh! He pointed straight on. In my Anglicised accent he heard Nagg-ah, and somehow failed to make the connection.

We rode on. Channelling my inner Taggart, over my shoulder I informed K in pure Glaswegian: “Thurr’s been a murrdurr in Nuggrrh”.


“Never mind. Tell you later.”

Naggar appeared perhaps half an hour later, with the usual dusty, traffic-snarled street, chaotic with people and noise. This was far from the idyllic village I had pictured, “like Switzerland!”, the Croat had said in Kasol. But as we rode upwards, round hairpin after hairpin, the signs of development fell away and we entered a more timeless and tranquil environment. Cows grazed in the front gardens of small houses, and women trudged uphill with enormous baskets on their backs. The narrow lanes were improbably steep, like ascending a staircase, and with the bike fully laden and two of us on it the 500cc engine was labouring even in first gear. For the last part I had to slip the clutch to prevent it from stalling, and the front wheel kept lifting off the ground – it was like walking a tightrope that bounded up and down beneath you. Finally we saw the sign to the lodge we were booked at, and I roared up to the gate in a cloud of dust and switched off. No sooner had I done so than a smiling Himachali face appeared at the door and said: “You can park the bike just there, on the grass opposite.” Sighing I fired it up once more and did a tricky three point turn on a 45 degree slope, bringing the Machismo to rest on a small patch of lawn that was occupied by three grazing goats. Climbing off the bike wearily I patted the fuel tank – it hadn’t let us down in the end. It was the last time I ever rode it.

The room we were shown to was wood-panelled throughout like a mountain chalet. We fixed a price for 700rs a night – a great improvement on the exorbitant prices in Kasol – and retired to the garden for chai. Just next door was a small stone temple covered in scaffolding, and opposite were wooden houses with ornately carved balconies that looked almost Balkan. In the distance loomed the peaks of the Pin Parvati Range, their summits dusted with fresh snow, and all around us conifer-covered hillsides climbed steeply to the mountains behind the village. Through the heart of them a trail led over the Chandrkhani Pass at 3,666 metres, leading to the holy village of Malana, famed for its hashish, then on down to Kasol. The wind sighed through the trees, and colourful butterflies chased each other around the garden in the sunshine.

That evening we walked up the lane past the temple to a small rooftop restaurant that advertised itself as a pizzeria. A large Indian family had arrived shortly before us – perhaps a dozen of them – and the patriarch occupied himself by issuing a series of orders to all and sundry: “Here, you – sit over there. Waiter! Move that table closer to this one. Now, children, what do you want to eat? No no no you don’t want that – it’s non-veg. Have this instead.” It was obvious that he liked to be in charge. He kept jumping up out of his seat and rearranging things. Small, balding and with a bristling moustache, he reminded me of the character Zebedee in the children’s programme Magic Roundabout, who had a large spring in place of his legs. The wives all sat on one side of the table and looked at us disapprovingly as we entered, and even more so when K spoke Hindi to the waiter. What was an Indian girl doing with a foreigner twice her age? They were those sort of people – snobbish, suspicious, judgmental and afraid. The children – all girls – chased each other around the terrace and shrieked excitedly.

The smallest one, who was perhaps six – a curious, frog-like child with spindly arms and legs and a perpetually snotty nose – kept trying to join in. But she was terribly clumsy. She bumped off our table, and then managed to run into a pillar. At one point she somehow missed her footing and went down with a great clonk, followed by a plaintive wail. Gathered up by her father she eventually subsided a little, before escaping again and making her way across to the steep concrete steps to where the other kids were watching the chef take the pizzas out of the oven. This coincided with me heading down the stairs to find the bathroom. The minute I got up the family became sharply attentive. I followed the child to the top of the stairs, where she halted uncertainly. “Come on,” I encouraged her. “Slowly slowly.” She looked around for reassurance, found none,  then decided to trust me, and took the first step carefully. I shadowed her every move, ready to catch her if she fell. As we descended, I looked up to see that her father had come over to the railing and was looking down at us, keeping a watchful eye out. She reached the third step, where the stairs turned sharply to the left, and halted nervously. “Sit down, na?” I told her. “Go down that way.” She looked up at me trustingly – showing far more trust than any of the adults in her family – and did so. Slowly together we descended the stairs, and when we reached the pizza oven the entire family exhaled a collective sigh of relief.

When you travel a lot sometimes other people with more settled and sedentary lives comment on it and say things like: “Oh I wish I could do that! I’d love to travel all the time”. But it can be utterly exhausting. After months on the road a sort of long-term sense of demoralisation can creep in; you live out of a backpack and endlessly recycle the same clothes, which progressively fall apart. You are never really, properly clean: there’s no hot water, or the bathroom is filthy and every surface adhesive with grime. Each night a different bed in a different room in a different town. Each night different problems to deal with, or different species of vermin. In Goa it was ants that invaded the apartment each day. In Old Manali it was swarms of flies – 30 or 40 of them in the room, all the time. In Kasol it had been giant spiders. In Naggar it was both flies and spiders. And in Vashisht it was silverfish – small wiggling creatures that appeared in the bed, every night. It’s exhausting, disconcerting and debilitating. Bad food, hideously uncomfortable transport, endless problems. You get tired of being ill – a sort of continual low-grade sense of unwellness. And repeatedly you recall Rimbaud’s metaphysical enquiry writing home from Ethiopia, and echoed by countless other travellers over the years as a nomadic refrain: “What am I doing here?”

And yet somehow these tribulations make you more accepting of things in the long run. Everything becomes relative. Your train home is delayed by half an hour? Then you laugh at the time it was delayed for nine hours when you were in India, and you sat at the station in infernal temperatures because you had nowhere else to go, trying not to fall asleep because there were thieves about. The restaurant brought you the wrong order? You remember the time that a restaurant had no food whatsoever and you went to bed hungry because it was the only place in town. You’re fretting about driving through a small country town in Europe because it’s five o’clock and rush hour? Then you think about the time it took you five hours to travel 50 kilometers on a bus which was standing room only and the man next to you had obviously waded through sewage to get on board because he stank so badly you wanted to retch. What am I doing here?  

In Naggar there was a simple answer. Resting up. Recovering. We made light of it, with a sort of robust humour. One morning K came out of the bathroom with a wry smile and said: “Just check when you use the towel.”


“You’re not going to like it. There’s a damn big spider hiding behind it.”

“Oh god. Here too?”


I went into the bathroom. There it was, on the geyser, impressively large. It appeared to have a marshmallow stuck to its body in a sort of white foamy ring. Eggs. I was becoming exasperated with all these enormous arachnids – or more accurately, exasperated with myself for being so freaked out by them all the time. I seized the plastic jug that furnishes every Indian bathroom in place of toilet paper and clapped it over the spider, then slid a piece of card over the top – actually the front cover torn off the Rough Guide. The book had proved worthwhile in the end: it was smeared with deceased Manali flies. “Get the door!” I called, and carefully carried the jug and its contents out into the lane. I marched over to the few steps that led down to the street, upended the jug and the spider fell out onto the step. It crawled a couple of feet and then stopped. At that moment a mynah bird which had been perched on the wire overhead swooped down and landed just in front of me. It looked at the spider, then cocked its head on one side and looked at me, emitting a low whistle, as if to say: “Do you not want that?” Clearly I didn’t. The mynah hopped up to the spider, pecked a hole in it, then flew off with it in its beak, the legs sticking out either side like whiskers. Shrugging I went back inside. Wheel of life.

Insect life aside, Naggar was tranquil. The air had a mountain freshness, and there was little traffic this high up in the village. The sounds were older, more timeless: birdsong, the sighing wind in the trees, the lowing of cattle, the ringing of bells from the temple… and the drumming. Every evening there was a procession from the temple, and the sound of the drums echoed around the narrow valleys. On and on it went, until you fell almost into a trance with it – a rumbustious thumping exuberance of percussion. I clenched my pipe between my teeth and adopted a clipped, pre-war accent: “When the drums stop, that’s when they’ll attack”. I thought of the town band at home in Suffolk – boys and girls in red uniform jackets like guardsmen, marching along like clockwork soldiers in time to the snare drum and glockenspiel. Naggar was altogether more chaotic. The drums were syncopated and had a wonderful barbaric wildness to them. Nobody marched in step here – they ambled along, each at their own pace. There were no uniforms either, other than the ubiquitous Kullu caps on the men, made of grey felt with a colourful band of embroidery round the front of the forehead. What must the British have made of it all when they were here?

One foreigner who documented an answer of sorts was the Russian artist and mystic Nikolai Roerich. Initially a stage designer for Borodin’s Prince Igor and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as well as a member of Diaghilev’s World of Art society, he became interested in Eastern religions under the influence of his wife Helena, and began to explore Theosophy, Vedanta and Buddhism. In the 1920s he mounted a five-year-long Asian expedition, “from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet”, with the aim of establishing a spiritual utopia that he called The Sacred Union of the East and discovering the lost kingdom of Shambala. As Colin Thubron describes in his book To a Mountain in Tibet:

The precise location of this kingdom of Shambala is uncertain, but it is said to lie encircled by impassable snow peaks somewhere north of Mount Kailas. Yogis have thought it a three-month journey beyond the mountain, but the path is so elusive that pilgrims find themselves wandering hopelessly. Some even have a notion that Shambala floats in another dimension of time, as if through a galactic wormhole, and can be accessed only through ice doors in the Himalaya. Patterned like an eight-petalled lotus, radiating tributary kingdoms, it has been ruled for two and a half millennia by a dynasty of godly kings who reside in a jewel-built palace, as at the heart of a gorgeous mandala. No word for ‘enemy’ or ‘war’ is known here. Its founding king was taught by the Buddha himself, and as his subjects grew more selfless, so their country faded from human sight. Yet its rulers continue to watch over the human world, and after 400 years, as that world falls deeper into ruin, the last redeemer king will ride out from his sanctum to institute a golden age.

For almost a year the Roerich expedition was feared to be lost as nothing was heard from them. They had in fact been detained by the Tibetan authorities and forced to live in tents through the harsh winter – leading to the deaths of five members of the party. Eventually released, they travelled south to India and settled in Naggar, where Roerich founded the Himalayan Research Institute.

It still exists today. A museum now, it sits high above the village overlooking the Kullu Valley. A gallery displays many of Roerich’s paintings, mostly of mountain scenes in Tibet, Ladakh and Spiti, the palette consisting almost exclusively of shades of blue and white, snow and shadow. There’s a purity to them – the boldness of the colours appearing almost psychedelic, surreal peaks looming over unearthly landscapes. I recognised the style at once – I had seen it before, decorating the cover of Robert Byron’s book First Russia, Then Tibet. That one was titled Tibetan Monastery 1944. Next to it on the gallery wall there was a self-portrait of Roerich in silk gown and skullcap, like a Central Asian merchant, and next to that a photograph of the family, attired in the fashions of the time – Norfolk jackets and plus fours. In the dining room the table was set for dinner, European crockery somehow at odds with the Indian furnishings throughout the room and the Buddhist thangkas around the walls. In the garage outside a large vintage car was parked – a Dodge. The badge on the bonnet said “Royal Automobile Association of North India”, and in the background was a photograph of the car being towed out of sand by three Bactrian camels. Down below the main house, along a narrow path that winds along the hillside, lies the memorial samadhi, or cremation site, marked by a large stone with Hindi script around it: “The body of Maharishi, Nicholas Roerich, a great friend of India, was cremated at this place on 30 Magh 2004 of the Vikram’s era, corresponding to December 15th, 1947. Om Ram.” (Let there be peace.) Lilies grow at its base, and the site is overlooked by a huge tree, a deodar cedar, whose gnarled branches creak and sway gently in the ceaseless Himalayan wind.


Nikolai Roerich – Tibetan Monastery, 1944.



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.






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.