On the Beach

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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

Black Narcissus

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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.”

“Kya?”

“Four oh two.”

“I am not understanding.”

“Four zero two. Chaar sau doh.”

“TK. Yes please?”

“Could I have two cups of masala chai?”

“Huh?”

“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

The Road

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

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

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

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


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

Hi, I’m Jez. Yes!

Here I am, up on high,

My life on a thread.

I owe everything

To the unwavering support

Of two truly beautiful women.

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


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

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

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

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


The notebooks:

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

***

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

***

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

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

“That is possible,” he conceded.

Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey

***

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

***

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

Alan Watts

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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


Sacred Sites

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Santiago

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside

hiding then revealing the way you should take,

the road dropping away from you as if leaving you

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

when you thought you would fall,

and the way forward always in the end

the way that you followed, the way that carried you

into your future, that brought you to this place,

no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,

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

the sense of having walked from far inside yourself

out into the revelation, to have risked yourself

for something that seemed to stand both inside you

and far beyond you, that called you back

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

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

that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,

so that one day you realized that what you wanted

had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place

you had lived in before you began,

and that every step along the way, you had carried

the heart and the mind and the promise

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

more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way

than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:

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

with golden towers, and cheering crowds,

and turning the corner at what you thought was the end

of the road, you found just a simple reflection,

and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back

and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:

like a person and a place you had sought forever,

like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;

like another life, and the road still stretching on.

David Whyte – from Pilgrim

©2012 Many Rivers Press

Goa Trance

A drunken man is close to god.

– K’iche Mayan proverb, Guatemala

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you need? Papers? Tobacco?”

“Nyet. Fyul.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

Above the dark tapestry of the sea shot through

With threads of silver from the rising moon,

And the booming of surf on the rocks below,

The silhouette of the palms as they gently swayed

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

That danced away into the distance along the Malabar Coast

Sparkling in the jungle night like dewdrops on a cobweb.

IMG_1768

Turning Point

Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi – 30th January 2016

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

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

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

“You have insulted me.”

“You insulted me first!”

“You are a mannerless person!”

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

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

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

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


Zainabad, Gujarat – 4th Feb 2016

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

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

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

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

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


Haus Khaz, New Delhi – 13th February 2016

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

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

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

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

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


 


 

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

***

The road from intensity to greatness

passes through sacrifice. – Kassner. 

***

For a long time he attained it in looking.

Stars would fall to their knees

beneath his compelling vision.

Or as he looked on, kneeling,

his urgency’s fragrance

tired out a god until

it smiled at him in its sleep.

***

Towers he would gaze at so

that they were terrified:

building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!

But how often the landscape,

overburdened by day,

came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.

***

Animals trusted him, stepped

into his open look, grazing,

and the imprisoned lions

stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;

birds, as it felt them, flew headlong

through it; and flowers, as enormous

as they are to children, gazed back

into it, on and on.

***

And the rumour that there was someone

who knew how to look,

stirred those less

visible creatures:

stirred the women.

***

Looking how long?

For how long now, deeply deprived,

beseeching in the depths of his glance?

***

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

the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom

moody around him, and in the avoided mirror

once more the room, and later

from the tormenting bed

once more:

then in the air the voices

discussed, beyond comprehension,

his heart, which could still be felt;

debated what through the painfully buried body

could somehow be felt – his heart;

debated and passed their judgment:

that it did not have love.

***

(And denied him further communions.)

***

For there is a boundary to looking.

And the world that is looked at so deeply

wants to flourish in love.

***

The work of the eyes is done

now go and do the heart-work

on all the images imprisoned within you; for you

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

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

the one attained from a thousand

natures, the merely attained but

not yet beloved form.

The Checkpoint

I fell into your eyes one night

And I’ve not been quite the same

In our dance around each other

In this endless, driven game

You told me that you liked me

Quite formally, but still

The way it was you said it

Made all my senses thrill.

So turn your head towards me

Move into my arms

Raise your face to kiss me

And I’ll meet all your demands

I love the lightness of you

Your vanities and all

Your frailties are an open book

But I’ll catch you if you fall.

Riding along a mountain road

I hit a rock one day

The back wheel jumped, the cliff came close

And I quietly said your name

I don’t know what you were doing

Or where it was you were

But whatever it was or wherever you were

I’d like to think you heard.

So draw your nails down me

And show me what you do

Let loose the drape of your long hair

And I’ll sift my fingers through

Entwine your limbs about me

And we’ll hold each other close

As you close your eyes and shiver

At the passing of a ghost.

On a dark night I heard the click

Of a safety catch come off

And then a scream of challenge

As the soldier aimed his shot

I froze and carefully raised my arms

As the lights shone in my view

And squinting at their silhouettes

I only thought of you.

So we’ll head into the sunlight

Of another tropic dawn

And the limpid call of birdsong

As we walk across the lawn

To the house of many chambers

With the stairs ascending higher

And at last we’ll lie together…

As the soldiers opened fire.

Under the Hill

The tide of commuters was going out,
Rushing fast towards the sluices
Of the great stations, trapped in the bottlenecks
Of the turnstiles, spinning away into eddies,
Carried on the current.
Against it swam one, eyes downcast,
Muttering to himself, trying to find the words,
Solid with mana, the heft in their power,
Trying to remember where he’d left the runes.
They swept along quacking like waterfowl into their phones,
One blocked his way for a moment,
And stepped quickly back, caught unawares,
At the intensity of the stare that speared him.

An ice-bound path frozen fast,
Leading up a slope in Muscovy
Which ended in Novodevichy.
A cold metallic clank of bells
And an ominous murmur of liturgy
In the sharp air, tombs softened by snow,
And a man bent double on the hill,
Coughing hard, red of face as his wounds
Tore at him inside. Was it there?
That he hacked up some part of himself
That fell out and scuttled away?
A pair of horn-rimmed spectacles
Perched under a grey ushanka
Gazed incuriously and turned away.
A mind raked by doubt like a pockmarked wall
Wept its bulletholes for years.

The army came out of the west,
And lined the top of the green hill:
The Spear-Carriers, the black clan.
They were tall and slim men, with
Fair skin and auburn hair,
But they could run all day and throw
In a mighty arc. They bury their dead
Under the hill, facing east,
That they may face the rising sun.
The citadel was alarmed;
They had built their walls
High, but the king was dying, and lay abed
Playing chess against himself,
His jewelled fingers moving softly over the ornate pieces.
Panic ensued. The generals bickered,
And one of the Spear-Carriers
Talked his way into the gate by means
Of a subterfuge, let down the bridge,
And the city was won with minimal losses.

In the king’s bedchamber musty drapes hung on the walls,
A gilt ceiling bedecked in threads, a dusty chess set
With all the figures toppled, swept aside in impotent rage.
In the corner, past the bedpost, stood a small and golden cage.
Inside they found a she-hawk, sadly neglected. She beat
Her wings against the bars at sight of them and set up
A high, plaintive keening. One warrior,
A bashful, mumbling giant, mocked
For his inarticulacy but valued as a doughty fighter,
Beamed in pleasure, strode forward and gently took her
In his huge hands. Her breast was raw from where
She had plucked at her own feathers, cursing her confinement
But he lifted her, light as coin, and she quieted
And allowed him to stroke her head with a finger.
He took her down to the orchard, where
The fruit hung hugely from the trees in orbs
And flew her on a tight leash between the heaving boughs.
He laughed in delight when she sank her talons into his arm,
Caressing her, but kept a firm grasp on the jesses.
Later he flew her low over the hill after a hare,
Whispering words of praise under his breath
And cried in joy when she struck home:
She always returned to him, and soon
Was persuaded to enter her own cage
With a little hop, from where she muttered
And looked cruelly at others who dared approach.

Nothing here but rock, grey sky, green hills
And more rock: no food nor shelter for an outcast;
No bards, nor drapes, nor chessmen,
Only a chill pool and a rough mouthful of leaves.
The armies sweep back and forth across the land,
Oaths uttered and as swiftly broken,
Thick-muttered couplets, amber liquid in goblets,
The flash of a knife and the arc of a sword.

By our history shall ye know us,
We of character inclement. Clouds
Grey as bruises swoop in and unleash
Their torrents of memory from swollen bellies
Upon soggy green fields in a land
Saturated with history. The wind tears
Our words away out of our mouths
And leaves them scattered,
Our eyes gimlet in raw-boned faces.
Darkness comes at half-past thirteen
Prefaced by a red sash that cinches the sky
Tight beneath the bulging hills.
We huddle closer round the fire,
Each gazing inwards on his own lands:
His private fiefdom which he has toiled for
And won hard rights to.
Win-ter is Icumen in,
What are we to do.

The past
Rotates unspooling round and round
Until it hits a scratch, and jumps
Over and over, replaying a thrown word,
An aside, a circumstance, which had
Lodged upon the surface of the mind
And caused it to stick.

Nudge the gramophone, fetch it a kick
Take it outside and beat it with a stick
Dig in your heels or run for the hills
A shot of amnesia cures the world’s ills.

Little Stripey Cat

One night when I was small,
Perhaps four or five years old,
A cat got into my bedroom somehow,
From outside, climbed up on top
Of the old dark wood wardrobe,
And sat up, shut its eyes, folded back its ears
And yowled at the top of its voice,
Causing me to dive under the covers in fear.
It was an unearthly howl of pure animal,
And sounded like a demon, a terrible foe
(I was 1000 miles behind enemy lines),
But these days, as I have come to know
The ways of cats and their habits,
I think it was singing to me.

I am still visited by cats at night –
One, at least. She is small and stripy
And first crept into my room when I left the
Door ajar somehow, although I was sure
I had bolted it fast. “Hello?” I said. “Who are you?”
And she paced out the corners of the room,
Approved, and curled up under the chair.
I smiled, then slept. In the night, about
0300, I felt a small thump, as she had pounced
Onto the bed, and I lay not breathing
And she padded lightly across the mattress
And up over the pillow and then, still not
Breathing, she pushed her tiny pink nose
Against mine and purred, a cat kiss,
Then turned around, tickled my face with her tail,
And curled up on my chest. I smiled
Into the darkness, indescribably moved.

By daybreak she was gone, and I checked
In all the rooms in the house just to make sure
She wasn’t there, and then sighed, and started to dress,
Feeling a kind of loss. I can’t keep a cat anyway,
I told myself – I go away for weeks, months,
Who would look after her? Perhaps she has
Other people she visits, not owners but
Friends with benefits of food and stroking,
And then, when she has had enough, she
Stalks off and goes her mysterious ways.
And so I consoled myself that she would be
Alright, she was independent and loveable,
And was always welcome to drop by.

Then one day she did again, a cold day
In November, with a low sun and raw wind
Off the fields. I went out to the car to get
Something and then looked up to see her
Sitting watching me in the lane. “Hello again”
I smiled. “How are you?” And she mewled
Hoarsely, and then I saw how matted her fur
Was and how a patch of it was missing from mange
And her front leg was injured – she sat with paw dangling
And her eyes had a milky cloudiness to them. I gently
Approached and stroked her soft head with my finger
And she bowed it and looked down in shame, and mewled again,
Eyes shut, and I thought, if cats could cry,
You would be crying now. You are crying now.
What happened to you? Well, I will look after you.
“Come on,” I told her, and walked down the
Path to the front door, looking over my shoulder.

Slowly she followed, stopping twice, then in through
The door and looked around uncertainly, sniffing
Here and there, as if to say, “Have you had another
Cat in here?” No, I laughed, just a lost rabbit one day
Who hopped in, and the bird that came down the chimney.
But what can I give you? I found a saucer of water
And gave her that, on the living room rug. My phone
Rang and she jumped. It was work. “We need you to be here at 1pm.”
I can’t, I said. Something’s happened. A friend… a sudden illness.
And hung up. Back into the kitchen and she followed me
As I went through cupboards looking for food. Bread? Milk?
And then an idea – a four-pack tin of tuna. Quizzically
She watched as I hacked away at it with my penknife
And then the scent reached her and she almost climbed
Up my trouser leg to get at it. Into the bowl a whole tin
Of pole-caught Skipjack in spring water – only the best for you,
I told her. And she wound herself round my feet as I walked back
Into the living room and I picked up a chunk, in the palm
Of my hand and sat with my back to her and dangled my hand
And then felt her whiskers on my palm as she pushed her face
Into my hand and ate with that slight air of distaste that cats have,
Like watching a lion crunching bones, ung, ack, click click click.

And when she had finished it she walked around the room a bit more,
Then jumped up on the sofa, and with the familiarity
Of old lovers, climbed into my lap, curled up and went to sleep.
My phone trilled, an ear twitched, I saw the office number
On the screen, and I just sat there, with it slightly out of reach,
Then leant back my head on the sofa, smiled, and went to sleep myself.

I still think about that cat. I think we loved each other.

Learning to Fly

I am in a hard city of grey stone and blue glass, a damp chill to the air and a swirl of exhaust fumes. There is a permanent background rumble of activity. Every 30 seconds an aeroplane flies past from left to right, in the opposite direction to the scudding clouds, their tailfins emblazoned with national logos: Varig, Qantas, British Airways, Air New Zealand, Singapore, Finnair. A cargo of hundreds of people, each one a world in themselves, with colleagues and husbands and wives and kids, lovers and brothers and distant friends. And you are not among them.

I picture our last flight together. A snowbound Europe unfurling beneath us, so close we can see the tracks of the roads, and along them nose twin yellow beams of light as cars feel their way through a sodium powder. The towns that glittered like strands of flung jewellery, fallen at random on a dark velvet cushion. The blackness of the sea, the blackness of the desert. Are those fires beneath us? A nomadic encampment? Gas platforms whose solitary flares pinprick the night? Turkmenistan. Now Iran. I never knew it was so large. Snow has dusted the mountains behind Tehran, and behind us the world falls into shadow. We are heading for the darkness creeping across the face of the earth, a small fluorescent bubble of light held in suspension above everything, hanging motionless just below an icy firmament of stars. I feel your small hand reach for me under the blanket. Down there is Kabul: I can see the neighbourhoods, some brightly lit, then the lights petering out as the houses climb into the hills. I press my nose to the scratched plexiglass and remember the white hot track of a Sam 7 a lifetime ago against a dun backdrop of bushland, rising, rising, veering, falling away, and how we jinked left and almost turned upside down to avoid it, and the low monotonous swearing of the Ukrainian pilot who had been doing this for far too long and ended up on the route nobody wanted. When we finally landed no-one could get up from their seats and the laughter was bright and forced and slightly hysterical. I watched the rhythmic thrumming tremor in my hand the next day and forced it to stop. Then it started again. I won’t tell you that one, but you feel my grip tighten and look at me. I smile thinly and am rewarded with a faceful of vanilla-scented hair as you rest your head on my shoulder. I want to protect you. I want to weep with tenderness for you.

The antiseptic chill of an air-conditioned shopping mall populated by Oriental soldiers with machine guns. I do not look at them. We are separated by our nationalities and I feel a flush of anger. Who are they to decree you, stand this side, you, over there? To try and take you away from me because of a quirk of fate, history, geography. I see your small form swallowed up in a chaotic crowd and you shoot me a brave smile as we go through. My turn. He barely looks up. Flicks through my passport. It’s a sorry catalogue of misadventure. That smudged stamp that looks like a meteorite heading towards you on the page? That cost me $200 and aged me 10 years. The children with guns at a roadblock who looked at it upside down and walked off with it, and only gave it back in exchange for my sunglasses. 5.75 prescription; hope you get one hell of a headache, kidogo. Stop thinking like this. He’s watching you. Holiday. Yes. By car. Marketing consultant. Ah, many companies – I am freelance. No, my first time here, very much looking forward to seeing your country. He’s a sceptical sod and I don’t blame him. Sighs deeply, then picks up the stamp and whacks it down between Angkor Wat and a Hammer and Sickle. There’s irony.

I sit on my battered backpack in a cloud of synthetic scent from a duty free shop, beneath a poster of an English footballer in his underwear. Giggling women in abayas walk past. Where are you? I have a clear view 180 degrees, there is a pillar wide enough for two about three metres away, over there a soldier, those shiny glass windows on the second floor are one-way only. We are all stars in this reality TV show. That African woman on her own with three suitcases is going to get taken apart. Passing backpacker in brand new sandals shoots me a dirty look. Yeah, alright sunshine. You should’ve been there when tanks rolled up and they shelled the old town. What was it called? Dadadaab? Dabaabat? Something like that. Until you have, don’t fucking look at me. What’s this? Old couple standing in front of me. Yes I speak French. Changing money? Over there: the guy with the stall. Yes he’s legit. I’m English. Well merci, you are too kind. Have a great holiday. You too.

I see you and I get that funny tightening in my throat. You are cross. You’ve been delayed, interrogated, pawed, discriminated against, and you need a cigarette. Me too hun. Let’s get out of here. Then, although I can see you are tired, you smile at me and say: “Come on soldier, on your feet.” You got that from me, and it breaks my heart.

Golden sunlight split into bars across the floor, the sigh of the sea, the cry of the birds. There’s a man singing outside, an exotic refrain which is all quartertones and minor notes, and it’s magical. You lie with an arm across me, a cascade of black hair spilling over the pillow, softly respiring. I watch you sleeping, my eyes moving over your body slowly, pausing here, backtracking there. There are parts of my life that flash before me uninvited, like a snapshot I didn’t want to take, fixed forever in an image branded before my eyes. Well now I am imprinting every part of you on my memory, so that I know in years to come I will be able to conjure this moment again, drowsy with longing, basking in warmth, your scent on my hands and my face and my heart. I can’t believe we made it.