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…”
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.
“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
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”.
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.
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
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?”
“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.
Varkala Shivagiri Station drowsed in late afternoon heat. Two women carrying baskets made their way down the tracks, languidly picking up litter. Passengers sat in pools of shade, beneath the fans on the platform canopy, waiting, dozing. Late March on the Malabar Coast and the heat slows life to a crawl. A column of ants made their way round the stone plinth upon which I sat, and as I leaned over to observe them more closely a bead of sweat ran off my forehead, trickled over my glasses and landed on the platform in their midst. Keralan men slopped along in their ankle-length lungis, ocassionally reaching down to readjust, wafting the skirts in both hands to catch the breeze like people perpetually preparing to curtsey, then folding them up and retying to above-the-knee height. One could measure the external temperature, it was said, by the length of the lungis: the higher the mercury, the higher their skirts. It was 37 degrees in the shade and we were entering miniskirt territory.
They seemed like a people whose lives were utterly determined by the sultry climate. Their features varied: thin, willowy women, often beautiful, with swaying hips and slim ankles; the men paunchy and thickset with leguminous noses and pendulous lower lips, inevitably sporting blunt military moustaches. They were the colour of tree bark; walnut, mahogany. They bathed often, sluicing water over themselves five times a day, wandered around with toothbrushes in their mouths in the mornings, turning the brushing of teeth into an activity that could take quarter of an hour or more – perhaps as a legacy of the tradition of chewing the end of neem twig into bristles and scrubbing away with it – and ate enormous meals of rice with half a dozen chutneys and sambars off plates of banana leaves with evident lip-smacking enjoyment: spicy sauces of twigs and spices, vast masala dosas, rice flour appams and idlis, coconut chutneys.
They were Christian by religion, communist by politics – psychedelic hammer and sickles decorated the white walls around vividly-coloured houses, and flyers exhorted passers-by to vote: “Shiny Matthew” peered out from a rubicund moustache and spectacles arrangement like a police artist’s impression, next to one of a good-girl, butter-wouldn’t-melt, extensive-shoe-collection type of lady with a centre parting and high-beam smile. Keralans were great drinkers despite a recently enforced prohibition which meant that beer was served in teapots and menus coyly referred to “G and Tonic” or “R and Coke”. The language was a tongue-twisting sputtering burble of palindromes that went in giant circles, where even the name of it could be read either way, back to front: Malayalam. The impossibility of its pronounciation to outsiders meant that many places had two names: Trivandrum, where I was bound for, was properly known as Tiravanathapuram. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu the hillstation of Ooty, which the British had called Ootacamund, was Udhaganamandalam. If in doubt, stick in a few extra syllables.
A man came to join me on the stone plinth that radiated heat like an Aga. He was short and stocky, square-headed and with a stubby, bristling moustache, reminding me somehow of a Tongan rugby player. He stuck his legs out and inspected his toes morosely, readjusted his lungi to knee-height, and then turned to me and introduced himself as Mr Naushad, a seller of books. “That is to say, I am a bookseller by profession, but a numismatist by hobby. I collect coins, currencies, and such and such.”
“And do you have a favourite author, Mr Naushad?”
“I am particularly fond of the works of Mr Tom Clancy, the American gentleman. Sadly he passed two months ago.”
“He passed? You mean he’s dead?”
“Alas yes, Mr Tom Clancy passed on recently.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I must admit I haven’t read anything by him.”
Mr Naushad frowned at his toes. He was mentally preparing a sentence, I could see.
“He was a chronicler of the zeitgeist. That is the right word? Zeitgeist?”
He smiled, reassured. “Yes, American intelligence, thriller page-turner. CIA political writing. What is your opinion of this Donald Trump?”
“I think he’s a very dangerous man who appeals to the lowest common denominator by playing to their fears.”
Mr Naushad giggled and patted me on the shoulder. “Yes, very true. Lowest common denominator. Well put indeed. We are having a frank and candid conversation about American political events, are we not? I can say this? Frank and candid?”
“Absolutely. You know that ‘full and frank exchange of views’ is a British euphemism for a political disagreement?”
He was so delighted by this that he reached out and shook my hand repeatedly, then abruptly kissed it.
“Um, Mr Naushad, that is very friendly. In our English custom perhaps a little too friendly. I mean, we’ve only just met.”
He laughed unabashed. “But I am so delighted to make your acquaintance, and discuss these matters frankly and candidly.”
“Well quite. Tell me, are you married, Mr Naushad?”
“Yes gentleman, I am married now twenty-two years, and my daughter is twenty-one years old. I am having two grandchildren. So I am a grandfather!”
“That’s a relief to hear. You must be very proud.”
“Very proud. Family is everything.”
This surreal conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a train. As it rolled in to the station people began leaping out of the doorways, adjusting their skirts and flip-flopping across the tracks. I said goodbye to Mr Naushad (“Do not forget me,” he said; “Never,” I assured him) and made my way towards a carriage, hoisting myself up the steps and onto the 5.15pm to Trivandrum. Thiruvanathapuram.
We rattled at a steady 30 mph through coconut groves and past waterways lined with palm trees. On the bench opposite was an elderly man in a white dhoti who had an enormous paunch decorated with a fine silver fuzz of hair. He gazed lovingly at it for a while and occasionally murmured what sounded like prayers or a low snatch of song under his breath. As we jolted along he decided to put on his shirt, but struggled with getting his arm into the sleeve. The man next to him obligingly held it out for him, but it wouldn’t go – he had it backwards. A young guy on the bench next to me leaned forward to assist, turning the sleeve the right way round. Together the occupants of the compartment helped the old man get dressed, and he looked on, smiling mildly, as if utterly remote from proceedings: Oh, is that my arm? This button goes which way? It seemed as if he was operating on a completely different level of consciousness. I was too.
I’d arrived in Kerala two weeks’ earlier, and the cold I had been trying to shake off in Delhi immediately flourished in the greenhouse heat, multiplying with a vengeance. I sneezed my way miserably round the old colonial streets of Fort Cochin, sucking ayurvedic cough sweets. The famed Chinese Fishing Nets that dominate every tourist brochure photo of Kochi were strewn with rubbish; I realised that all the promotional photos had been taken from the same angle to avoid both the litter and the oil storage tanks and cranes of Ernakulam just across the water. A zigzagging cobblestone path led along the shorefront, lined with stalls selling the inevitable baggy harem pants and tripped out T-shirts. I stumbled across a delightful cafe called Teapot and began to drop in regularly for a medicinal masala chai. At the guesthouse – three spotlessly clean rooms in a coconut grove, with a lounge dominated by a huge shrine with Jesus lit by a neon tube – I met Lee and Tanya from Suffolk, and we spent time exploring Kochi together, checking out vegetarian restaurants and enjoying some enlightened conversation; it was a pleasure to meet them again later further south. The guesthouse was booked up for the rest of the week, but the lanes around were full of similar homestays, and I soon found another. Like a sick cat I holed myself up there for the best part of a week, coughing away endlessly.
One night I met two other visitors who turned out to be a Croatian policeman studying for a PhD in Philosophy and his partner who worked with traditional embroidery. They offered me black tea with lemon out of tall glasses and a course of antibiotics; she actually messaged her mother, who was a doctor in Croatia, to ask whether they were suitable for someone as clearly unwell as I. The good lady responded almost immediately, advising on dosage. A course of three should clear everything up, she said. The root canal abcess which had tormented me since London, and which had decimated my immune system to the extent that I picked up every little bug going around, was long overdue to be cured. “It’s not every day that I accept drugs from a Croatian cop,” I admitted, reaching for the pills, “but I think I will just this once.”
After a few days I felt well enough to travel, but still horribly weak. The heat sapped energy. The next town down the coast was Alleppey, and in retrospect it wasn’t the best choice. The town itself was solely given over to selling houseboat cruises on the Backwaters – the network of coconut-palm laced waterways just inland from the coast. The beachfront hostel I had found in a guidebook was a fair distance from the town, in a neighbourhood that was devoid of any facilities whatsoever – there were two small shops selling essentials, and an Indian Coffee House restaurant about a 15 minute walk along the beachfront – tired masala dosas and “veg cutlet” served by tired waiters in tired uniforms. Worse, the hostel, inexplicably, given its location, didn’t do lunch. Dinner was all delivered by a takeaway company and could take an hour or more to arrive. Had I been in better shape I would’ve moved on at once, but I was utterly debilitated. I bought bread, jam and bananas from the small shop, and went in search of peanut butter in Alleppey itself; I hadn’t had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches since the Anglo- American school in Bulgaria back in the 1970s, but for some reason now I craved them. I spent most of my time sitting looking at the sea, coughing, sucking down water as hungry-looking crows cawed in the trees overhead and periodically swooped on tables recenty abandoned by diners. Mangy dogs curled up beneath the tables, attracting flies. I couldn’t write, couldn’t walk, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t smoke (undoubtedly a good thing) – only cough. This is how people die, I thought melodramatically to myself one night: clutching their sides, dropped to their knees, curled up in a damp bed full of sand on a sweltering night, hacking away with the whine of mosquitoes in their ears, on a tropical beach a hell of a long way from anywhere.
It became unendurable. I clearly wasn’t getting better. Standing on the only part of the beach that had a mobile phone signal I Googled doctors in Alleppey, and up came Dr Shiyas Mohammed, respiratory specialist. I wrote down the address in English on a napkin and the owner translated it into Malayalam. Finding a rickshaw in the lane I presented the driver with the napkin. “You can find this?” He waggled his head, we agreed a price, I climbed in and off we went. Quarter of an hour later we pulled up at a clinic offering X-rays and ultrasounds, and I took my place on a seat in a roomful of pregnant women. After a time a lady in a headscarf came out from behind the counter and asked if she could help.
“I’m looking for Dr Shiyas Mohammed – the respiratory specialist.”
“But he is not here. He used to have a room next door, but last year he moved.”
“Do you happen to know where he went?”
“I can find out. Please wait here.” She went off.
I sat and coughed discretely at all the pregnant women, then decided I’d better go and stand outside in the oven-like glare. Soon the headscarfed lady came back with a phone clamped to her ear. She noted down an address on a pad, tore it off and gave it to me. “I have ordered a rickshaw to take you to Dr Mohammed. It will be 30 rupees. Here it is now.”
“I’m extremely grateful to you.”
“It is a pleasure. I hope you feel better.” Off she went.
The rickshaw dropped me at a large house in the suburbs. Uncertainly I pushed open the gate, patted a beagle who trotted up and woofed at me softly, and made my way across the courtyard to the house. On a bench a young man was asleep in the shade. I knocked on the door and the young man opened an eye and sat up.
“Um, sorry to trouble you. I’m looking for Dr Mohammed.”
He smiled sleepily. “I am Dr Mohammed. How can I help you?”
“You’re the doctor? OK. Well it’s this cough.” I demonstrated it for far longer than I intended.
“Yes, that is bad. Any fever?” He placed a hand on my brow, which was dripping.
“It’s quite hard to tell in this heat.”
He listened to my breathing for a while with a stethoscope, then popped it out of his ears. “I am thinking you are having a viral respiratory infection.” He pulled out a pad and began to write a long list. “Are you on any medication now?”
“Well, I’ve just taken these Croatian antibiotics.”
He peered at the empty packet. “I am not familiar…” He pulled out his phone and Googled the name. Up came a list of brand names, he waggled his head and said: “I will give you some more. These in the morning, this one at lunch, these in the evening. And syrup.” He rummaged around in some crates in the corner and returned with a bottle of linctus.
I went through the list and it consisted of nine pills a day. “Well that seems comprehensive. How much do I owe you for the consultation?”
He waggled his head again. “Call it two hundred.” Two pounds.
All I can say is, Dr Shiyas Mohammed knew his stuff. That very evening I began to feel better, and within three days I was almost back to normal. Nevertheless I duly popped pills with every meal for the next week like a proper invalid. They came in small brown paper bags which were themselves wrapped in a page of newspaper. Looking at the page one day I realised it was all pictures of elderly Keralans, with a few lines of curling Malayalam script beneath each one. It was the Obituaries page.
By the time I got to Varkala I was on the mend. The first morning there I had woken at seven and ambled out into the golden light, the sun already intense. At the end of the garden the ground fell away, dropping perhaps 300 metres down to the beach. As I stood there bleary-eyed looking down at the enormous waves rolling in, I made out a small shape floating just offshore, a tiny speck of a figure. I realised it was a woman in a bikini. The vast, transparent glass-green rollers of the Arabian Sea billowed beneath her, lifting her, tilting her over the crest, then down into the trough until the next wave came and gently raised her again, breaking around her as they spilled up the sand. She slowly moved her arms and legs back and forth, then lay on her back and let the sea carry her. I spotted another figure a little further out – the small black shape of a head in the waves. Then another, and another. I realised that I could see perhaps a dozen or so people, bobbing up and down like seals, each lost in their own private world, floating in the immensity of sea.
Papa Nashini, the beach was known as in Malayalam. Sin destroyer. Hindus came on pilgrimages, to wash themselves in the waves, to cast the ashes of loved ones, to wipe away past misdeeds. And the tourists came too, locals and foreigners alike, wading into the shallows, knocked down by the force of the waves, getting up again only to be batted effortlessly over, lying down in the foam and the spume, giving themselves up to the sea. The rollers were hundreds of metres long, stretching down the beach, the water as warm as a bath, almost 30 degrees. Women in saris, college boys in skinny jeans and T-shirts, tourists in bikinis – everyone just walked into the sea and was carried by it, before being cast up again on the shore of the Malabar Coast, renewed, reborn.
This was the deep, deep south, way down in the tropics, just before the coastline of India stopped going south and turned eastwards, round to the southernmost point of Kanniyakumari – Cape Cormorin: south of Bangkok or Saigon on one side, on the same latitude as Cameroon or the Congo on the other. The days slowed to a crawl: breakfast at seven, a floppy-limbed amble along the clifftop to Coffee Temple for a cappuccino, and then by nine the pathway was a griddle and we were just ants moving along it. The shopkeepers hid in the shade of tarpaulins and squinted up at passers-by. “Come see my shop sir.” By ten you sought shelter again from the heat, retreating to a darkened room to lie naked under the fan. The heat unhinged me; leaving the room was like going into a sauna. It was 36 degrees with 80% humidity, and one felt perpetually wet. The faintest breath of a breeze off the sea was a relief. Clothes were redundant, and the towel became the garment of choice – thin South Indian towels round the waist that dried quickly. I couldn’t sleep in the heat – I woke every hour soaked in sweat – and even a sheet was too much cover.
Going into the bathroom one night I spotted an enormous cockroach the size of a rodent standing in the middle of the tiled floor, antennae waving. I flung an empty water bottle at it and it disappeared behind the sink. Subsequent forays into the bathroom became tentative exercises where I’d put on the light and nervously peer around the door jamb to see what was in there. Terrible things scuttled through my dreams in Burroughsian nightmares – ancient malarial terrors in the fever of the hot night. Lying again under the fan feeling the sweat trickling down my chest the shape of my dreams began to change: landscapes, mountain ranges and cities were destroyed, crumbled into dust, wiped away, abandoned. There was only a sheer blank expanse of red laterite cliff face, and the enormous ocean lapping at its base, living in the here and now, carried on the waves into an amnesiac expanse of blankness. Thoughts fragmented, plans fell apart, anxieties wilted; in this heat one could only endure, give oneself over to it completely, gently perspiring. My mind, ticking away for weeks, finally fell silent. Gone troppo.
One night in Darjeeling restaurant, a tier-seated wooden shack on the clifftop path which played an endless succession of 80s hits – Nik Kershaw, Duran Duran, Ultravox and so on – I found myself overhearing the guy sitting next to me as he quizzed the waiter about the menu. The accent was unmistakeable: “What kind of foosh do you have? Is it frish? How is the kingfish?” Koongfoosh. John was in his late 60s, and had the clipped sound of Southern Africa in his voice. He had a way of peering benevolently over his spectacles at things with an air of mild optimism, and buoyantly ambled along with a little spring in his step. We swapped a few stories about Africa, and he confided that his partner wanted to buy a caravan in the UK and park it by the seaside somewhere on the south coast of England; he, on the other hand, thought that was terribly boring, fancied going to India, and did. “But this heat! I don’t know how much longer I can take it.” He was reassured to hear that my daily routine – breakfast, shower, nap – was the same as his own. “We’re all poleaxed by it,” I told him. “Just got to soak it up and not fight it.” He’d had an interesting life, working as a rigger in Canada in the 60s, Saudi in the 70s, Bombay in the 80s… It turned out we were staying at the same hotel, so began to meet up for meals on the clifftop. It was one of those unlikely friendships one strikes up on the road, and a pleasure to meet him – validation, somehow, that we are never quite as alone as we can sometimes feel.
Varkala’s North Cliff was essentially a line of such restaurants interspersed with small shacks selling the kind of ethnic clothing that marked out a certain type of traveller: baggy harem pants, Om T-shirts and various other rather hippyish items. But given that just about everyone had arrived from chillier climes, the clothes we had all brought with us felt wrong in the wet heat; the Fruit of the Loom T-shirts I’d fished out of a bargain bucket in Rome were fine for the Eternal City in late summer, but far too heavy for Kerala in March. John had a similar problem, and purchased a couple of short-sleeved kurta tops in lightweight cotton khadi. I began to notice other tourists wearing the same. Slowly we all adopted a similar look – slightly psychedelic, a little bit ethnic, the kind of thing that might have delayed us at Customs briefly in an airport as they fetched the drug dog. Goa chic, I dubbed it.
I’d seen a floral Hawaiian shirt on a rail a few days earlier – the kind decorated with tropical fruit in knockout colours – and one evening at Clafouti restaurant I spotted a guy standing outside wearing a similar one. I took him for a Scandinavian, or Dutch, perhaps – tall, tanned, blond hair and with round horn-rimmed spectacles. It turned out Richard was English, in his mid-50s, and was a doctor – he’d just come from Lesbos where he’d been working with the refugees as a volunteer. He joined us for drinks and told extraordinary stories – the time he’d gone to Nigeria and ended up dating a princess who was starting a political party; or spotting a group of young guys who seemed familiar on a flight to New York and getting invited to a party with them, only to find that they were a chart-topping hip-hop band. He was having two silk suits made up by a local tailor in Varkala, one in purple and one in iridescent beetle green (“For festivals, you know…”) and had made a slight error of judgement in the ordering by misplacing the decimal point in the conversion to rupees: at 30,000rs each it might have been cheaper to get them done in Jermyn Street. We had a fascinating conversation about the pioneering work being done by Dr David Nutt, the former goverment “drugs czar” who had been fired for suggesting that cannabis was actually quite a benevolent drug compared to alcohol, on the use of mild doses of Ecstasy to treat victims of PTSD. He was, without doubt, a very interesting character. Then it occured to me, as I recounted a story about driving along the south shore of Lake Kariba and stopping for the night, walking up a hill to smoke and look at the sunset and then realising that I was in the middle of a herd of elephants, who were rumbling to each other and tearing branches off trees with great splintering crashes… and then creeping back down the hill again as they all fell silent and allowed me to pass through their ranks – that all three of us were quite interesting characters really, and that it was only in improbable places like Varkala that we seemed to find each other.
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.
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
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
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.
Nine hours on Air India to transition seamlessly (more or less) from one life to another. Chetan from Leicester in the next seat shook my hand, asked me in the morose accent of the Midlands if the food was safe on Air India and sank three beers in quick succession (“It’s really naughty of me, I know,” he told the stewardess, “but could I get a brandy?” She smiled thinly at such English self-effacement and brought him one). He was of Indian origin himself, travelling on to Ahmedabad (pron. “Amdabad”) to visit family with his little girl, who like him appeared Indian but was British in every respect – accent, dress, manner, conversation – and he was asking me for advice on how to cope. Most of his stories seemed to have but one theme: what a great bargain he had got. When it turned out my ticket had cost fifty quid less than his own he lapsed into a troubled silence and apologetically ordered another brandy.
It was 7.30pm on a Monday night in Delhi, toward the end of January. A chill in the air, about 9 degrees, everything covered in a thick layer of grey dust. We found an auto rickshaw (tuktuk) to take us south to Alaknanda for ten rupees over the meter, which seemed fair. We buzzed along for a while, bumping over not so much potholes as entire sections of road that were missing, through clouds of dust and exhaust fumes, in this, the world’s most polluted city, then hit total and utter gridlock. Five lanes of traffic on three lanes of road, none of it moving. Next to us on one side was a top of the range Mercedes. On the other, three lads on a small motorbike. Ahead one motorbike decided to bump over the verge onto the pavement, and proceed that way. Others quickly followed suit. Then a rickshaw saw a gap it could get over and also went onto the pavement. Five more followed. Soon the pavement was a line of motorbikes and rickshaws and bicycles, all slowly edging forward.
Then I saw him. A man in a knitted tank top and grey slacks. He was trying to walk. This particular section of pavement had some fume-blasted trees on it, and he had to dash from one to the next, seeking cover as a tide of vehicles edged around him on either side. The kerbstone had crumbled at one point and one joker in a car decided he’d make better progress on the pavement too, so he bumped over it, scraping his exhaust. One bike had to edge so far left that his mirror dragged down the wall of the building overlooking the road. And it struck me then, with perfect clarity: this is it. Total and utter capacity. Every inch of the road was locked solid. The pavement was jammed with snarling vehicles. Even the narrow cobblestone divide between road and pavement had bicycles wheeling along it. And this one guy, who had foolishly tried to walk down a main road in Delhi, was left scurrying from tree to tree, marooned by an endless tide of traffic. If it becomes so congested that you can’t even walk any more, what sort of city have you got? One that has become impossible.
And yet, and yet… Woken by raucous cheers and whoops at 9 in the morning. The uncles are playing cricket on the maidan playing field – uncles being a generic term for older men (it’s nice that we are all related in this way, but I notice with mild misgiving that some are clearly younger than myself). They wear an odd assortment of old tracksuits and tank tops, with an utter lack of self-consciousness – big, paunchy men with moustaches and a waddling gait. There’s a constant babble, a joyful ebullience, laughter. The traffic on Alaknanda road is but a faint rumble. The leaves of the peepul tree overhead whisper dustily. There is the scent of incense from the small shrine in the hallway where the maid crouches, murmuring invocations. Next door the neighbour is singing his prayers, on and on. In the background comes the call of the muezzin from the mosque. Three different religions intertwining simultaneously. I peer through the window next to where I lie wrapped in the patoo. Here in the colony there are small, yellow-striped squirrels that chitter around the trunks of the trees, mynah birds crying to each other and sometimes monkeys in the foliage above.
I hear the mellifluous burble of two ladies talking in Hindi on the steps outside; they sit in the sunshine wrapped in voluminous shawls and will talk for an hour or more, in great rolling sentences that unspool like colourful strands of yarn. What tapestry do they weave with them? They are domestic workers in the nearby apartments, and are the ones who really run this place, catering to the whims and needs of the ostensible owners, raising their kids, packing lunches for the office, doing the laundry. One I know lives in a small shack in a slum with a tarpaulin overhead. After a while, about 9.30am, there’s a honking like the horn of a clown’s car: it’s the subji (or sabzi) guy – the veg man. He tows his cart of vegetables around the alleys by bicycle and maids shuffle into the lane to make their purchases. He has upgraded in the five years since I was last here; he’s bought a bigger, louder klaxon for his bicycle. At night the chowkidar, or night watchman, walks around the compound blowing his whistle and thumping his stick to warn of his presence – or perhaps to reassure himself against the dangers of the night.
Walking round Humayun’s tomb – a sort of miniature Taj Mahal in red sandstone, described unforgettably by Mr William (Dalrymple) as possessing a sort of “blowzy Mughal rococo”, one saw a quite different Delhi – beautifully symmetrical gardens through which small channels of water trickled. Little yellow-striped squirrels tentatively lowered themselves over the edge, hanging by their back legs to drink. Young couples walked around and sat quietly on benches together, glad of the privacy offered by a ten rupee ticket (or 250 for foreigners). A group of boys played a game called “gilli danda”, similar to cricket or rounders, whose tools were two sticks – a small one as the ball, and the larger one as the bat. The interior of the tombs possessed a deep, sepulchural chill at this time of year, the sun filtering through the latticework windows, making the marble of the coffins gleam. This was a Delhi which was known for its poetry, its ghazal singers, its dedication to the arts, its nautch dancing girls who moved with a liquidity and seductiveness to melt the hardest of hearts. (“I see you dance from place to place…”) There was peace, tranquility, if only for a while. Seven cities have arisen and fallen on this spot over the ages, and now we are in the era of the eighth.
Leaving the tomb we emerged back into the mayhem of modern India. The auto drivers. These ones were used to preying on tourists, and circled like sharks. How much to Khan Market? 50 rupees. Outrageous, K snorted, and slopped off in her red slippers. “TK, TK, Madam – 40 rupees and we go to a nice shop on the way.” This was so ridiculous that even the newest arrival on the subcontinent would have been advised by their guidebook that it was a trap. We walked along the pavement pursued by one auto. “Khan Market? Very far. Not possible to walk. Only 50 rupees. Standard price, fixed price, meter price.” When we declined he U-turned in disgust and went back in search of fresh pickings. Besides, I wanted to walk.
In a city of extremes, people tend to move from one insulated bubble to another, sticking safely to their chosen method of conveyance. You might use your own car and driver (most middle class families have one), or get an Uber or an Ola cab. You can use a pre-paid taxi of the Delhi Police booked from a stall. Or you can try your luck with the autos who can be hailed off the street. But what few people do is actually walk – not least for the reasons above; that sometimes it is physically impossible, it is often searingly hot, that it is never particularly pleasant, but most importantly, because it crosses the invisible barriers that separate the different layers of this city. At Humayun’s Tomb coaches drew up in the car park and disgorged tour groups. We crossed the road, and there, just the other side, was a slum. And what a slum.
Jhuggi. Bustee. Zhopadpatti. Remember the words. They describe hell on earth, and all mean slum. This city has the dubious distinction of having slums as bad as anywhere – perhaps worse. And this is just one of dozens, hundreds, of these torn cardboard and tarpaulin encampments in Delhi alone. Each city in this country has the same. How do they get here? How do they live? It’s like the aftermath of a battle. People lie on the pavements on their backs with their knees raised in attitudes that are alleged to ward off the worst pangs of hunger. There is a bus stop here and in it are a business man with a briefcase, a college girl playing with her phone, two labourers, and amongst them on the floor lie three men wrapped in rags. There are shacks that aren’t even shacks, made of cardboard boxes and torn plastic sheeting. There’s a mountain of rubbish and a man… asleep? Drunk? Dead?… on top of it. Chickens peck around him. The stink is unbelievable – you don’t even want to breathe. It curls into your mouth with a fetid reek, through the scarf you cover your nose with. Here on the pavement are three bright pools of scarlet liquid. Paan juice? Blood? It is not clear. A horribly crippled boy crawls along begging from some equally destitute-looking people, illustrating the subtleties of the hierarchies at work here. A woman is shrieking, waving her hands dementedly. The water tanker has arrived, the driver running a hose out from his truck, and a queue rush to line up with pots and pans. It’s a garbage mountain crossed with a sewage farm, and there’s a line of washing hanging out to dry between two decaying trees. You have to look – you can’t look away. And across the intersection a boy is washing himself with a small jug of water and singing. On the pavement sit two dead-eyed derelicts, a man and a woman – she with matted hair, huge, prehistoric gnarled feet, and both of them are covered in dust as if they’d been rolling in it. Try to see the beauty in everything, the sages advise; we are all of this world. But there is no beauty here – only horror.
Across the road are two giant billboards. One offers spiritual enlightenment courtesy of a well-known guru, for a suitable fee. The other shows a minor Indian actor, son of a more famous actress, scion of Bollywood’s dynastic nepotism, striding across Waterloo Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background – taken from roughly where the number 4 bus meets the 172. His coat is open to reveal a smart suit, and he looks serious, businesslike, slightly pissed-off. “Bahaar Paan”, it says in Hindi – the spicy, mildly narcotic nut confection that people eat which produces vast quantities of scarlet-tinged saliva, pools of which are notably absent from Waterloo Bridge. “Bahaar Paan. The Measure of Success.”
In quite literally the next street were smart apartment buildings with security guards at every gate, and frequently cars with diplomatic number plates outside. Surely nowhere else has such inequality in such proximity? Khan Market is a kind of upmarket shopping centre, identical to many others around Delhi – Hauz Khas, Greater Kailash (known as GK 1 and 2) and Defence Colony, shortened inevitably to Defcon 1, are all cut from the same pattern. Small boutique-style shops, selling clothes, books, cosmetics, shoes. There’s a yellow metal entrance gate on rollers bearing the logo of the Delhi Police (“True, We Slow You Down, But We Try Not To Let Criminals Slip By”, it ruefully acknowledges) and usually three or four machine-gun toting cops hanging around it looking bored. There are cafes and fast food places: Pizza Hut, Cafe Coffee Day, Amici. Everywhere is overstaffed – it’s not unusual to find shop assistants outnumbering the customers, and there are always various people hanging around who may or may not work there. There’s usually someone crouched on their haunches sweeping dust around with a bundle of twigs, all over your shoes if you have just entered – but there’s usually someone outside who offers to clean it off again for a suitable fee. The cafes have become the hangout of choice for the young, middle-class Delhiites; where they went before such places existed a few years ago is something of a mystery. Round each other’s houses, mostly.
And it’s pretty good really; there’s usually a charming level of ineptitude, but they do try. Outside the main urban centres the concept of customer service doesn’t really exist, and you may wander into a restaurant to find yourself the object of unflinching scrutiny of the eight or nine staff who spend their time hanging around waiting for something new to look at. So these markets are where the affluent go, playing with their phones, swapping gossip, and they talk about the same sort of things as their counterparts in other large cities around the world, although with a certain local idiom. “Shruti’s gone to UK,” someone says. “PhD.” Everyone nods approvingly. “I heard Raj is in the US,” says another. “He’s working for Google! now.” The name Google is inevitably followed by an impressed exclamation mark, as is Microsoft! They are the international generation, the globetrotters, and they’ve got money, but it’s still not a level playing field, and it would be easy to read into it the notion that success comes only with getting out. Bahaar Paan. No globetrotter would be seen dead using it.
And somewhere in all this you have to figure out how you fit into it. You’re going in the other direction, so to speak – turning your back on the places that so many are aiming to get to. The place is an antidote to self-consciousness by magnifying it to such an extent that you’d go mad if it bothered you; the staring, the people whose heads swivel as you pass, the guy on a bike who damn near crashes into the car in front so mesmerised is he by the sight of a foreigner, the guy at the next table who just stares and stares and stares, and when you greet him, stares a few seconds more then breaks into an astonished smile and returns your greeting. It’s like being a celebrity perpetually on stage, and you have to get over any hint of stage fright before it takes you over completely.
Invited out to “The Club”. Not some techno-pulsing nightspot, but the colony club – colony being the residential neighbourhood complex. Originally a British institution which locals were barred from – George Orwell satirised perfectly all the petty snobberies and prejudices in “Burmese Days” when the club’s denizens were scandalised by Flory inviting in his friend Dr Veeraswamy – it has retained all the same essential attributes; only the characters have changed. Dinner was pizza, but with a distinctly local flavour; the choice was veg or non-veg. Non-veg pizza had chicken tikka on it. The veg had cubes of paneer – the Indian cottage cheese. This was consumed to a soundtrack of 80s hits while businessmen in blazers sat around discussing oil prices and correcting each other in that vaguely admonishing style that is so common here, while their wives sat on looking decorative, swathed in yards of gilded silk, like a shelf-full of ornamental hens. Occasionally one interjected with an anecdote about a child who was doing particularly brilliantly, or who had just been accepted at a US or UK university, or got a job offer. (Google! Microsoft!)
“Oh, I love London,” someone says. “Where do you live?”
On hearing the Barbican a row of immaculate foreheads pucker slightly.
“Is that near Knightsbridge?” someone else asks.
Such was my arrival. No matter how many times you’ve been before, India still hits you if you are arriving from more organised, sanitised locations. The smell, the chaos, the scale of it all, the noise – every vehicle hoots, incessantly, all the time. And yet somehow you find yourself simultanously horrified and charmed: the stink of open sewers is just about masked by the coiling wafts of incense, the lunatic driving is somehow offset by the garlands of flowers across the dashboard, the hooting is reflexive, not aggressive, as in England. The sign on the ATM that warned of “Miscreants attempting to befool with offers of easy puzzles” while relieving you of your wallet. The anachronisms, the archaism, the quirky, jaunty, colloquialism of it all. “Thrice,” they say here, for three times – something that hasn’t been used in England since the days of Dickens. There’s a distinct lack of the garish brand-names that decorate every English kitchen cupboard; here everything is stored in little glass jars or steel “vessels”. Tea is made in a stainless steel pot on the gas ring, picked up with tongs. Milk must be boiled and strained. One showers by putting the geyser on, filling a large bucket and using the accompanying jug to tip water over oneself. It’s like living in a museum. Everything feels like it belongs to an earlier era – one in which things work perfectly well, just about, so why change it?
On July 10th, 2013, sitting in my flat in London, blind in one eye from a piece of flying grit, 10kg thinner than usual, with my wallet full of rupees and pockets full of sand from the Nubra Valley in Ladakh, I wrote this:
The Delhi Police run a pre-booked taxi company, and they are generally cheaper than the private operators, so I tottered up to the stand and ordered a cab to Lajpat Nagar. 275 rupees. The private firms had wanted 400 (although that was negotiable). The driver looked about 15, and had a thin, wispy moustache and the half-famished look that comes of generations of grinding poverty. The car was a small Maruti, the name written on the steering wheel in Hindi script, and looking around the interior I realised what it was that I liked about this city, and indeed this country, so much. Everything was broken. Everything. The speedo needle sat stubbornly at zero. The windscreen was cracked. The knob to the fan was snapped off and stuck on cold. The rear seat was exuding a mixture of stuffing and springs. My window didn’t go up. The car shuddered and lurched round the potholes, and we weaved from lane to lane, missing other vehicles by inches, and all of this in slow motion, never exceeding 30 miles an hour. Everything was broken and yet everything somehow still functioned. We drifted like a shoal of fish across an intersection where the traffic lights flashed amber endlessly. A motorcyclist passed with a six-foot plank sticking up out of the back of his shirt. Green and yellow autorickshaws crawled up the hill of the flyover, barely holding together over the bumps. A truck reversed down the hard shoulder having missed a slip road. The slip road itself was missing about 5 metres of tarmac, and the patch of dirt was pitted with potholes.
We passed yellow police blockades which said: “True, we slow you down. But we try not to let criminals slip by.” I loved the rueful honesty of it. Yes, we’re crap, but we do what we can with what we’ve got. It was like a metaphor for the whole city. Two tousle-haired little girls in pyjamas rushed up to car windows at an intersection and tapped on them, trying to sell pens. Grain covered the pavements on both sides of the road, pecked at by hundreds of pigeons. A man crawled along the pavement, spine twisted by some appalling condition, his spindly legs dragging behind him. College girls in jeans and flip flops waited at bus stops and talked endlessly on their mobile phones. A long-distance truck, short wheelbase, orange and with gaudily painted sides ground along leaving a cloud of black smoke belching out behind it. Punjab, Haryana, All India. Green buses packed to the gills, every window open, the pixel signs on the front advertising their destinations in Hindi: Okhla, Defence Colony, Hauz Khas, Lajpat Nagar, Khan Market. A Sikh in a turban and face mask on a 125cc Pulsar with his wife in a sari side-saddle behind him, and a small child tucked under one arm. Three girls colourful as birds all sitting on a scooter, going tripsies, the one at the back flicking the long plait of her hair back over her shoulder as she texted on her phone with the other hand. Delhi, Dilli, दिल्ली. I love it, I hate it, I miss it, I’ll be back soon.
Well here I am.
Just below the surface of consciousness I am hanging in suspension, occasional muffled sounds and flashes of dappled light reaching me. I can hear people’s voices – a crowd, all talking. There’s a cry of a vendor in a three-bar song, distant laughter, a child’s fluting call. It is the sound of a street full of people, all going about their business, and there’s something timeless in it – we could be anywhere, at any period in history. I do not recognise the language, but there’s a rhythm to it, vaguely discernible above the babble. There comes the rattle of shutters, somebody whistling, a softly muted glassy chime – some instrument, perhaps – and the patter of quickly running feet. I could swim upwards towards it, or drift down again into unconsciousness. Caught somewhere in between I become aware of the clamour going on in my own inner world – an endless cycle of conversations, sounds, people and imagery: the faces of strangers, so familiar somehow and yet unknown to me as individuals – and simultaneously I can hear the world outside. Treading water, suspended, slowly I begin to float upwards, detaching from one world and heading towards another, until I break through the surface, opening my eyes.
On the wall before me is an enormous picture – a drawing, an ancient map. In each corner are the heads of four gods emerging from the clouds, each one captured in the action of blowing: Septentrio, god of the north wind, bringer of winter, is wild-haired and angry looking, a chilling blast emanating from his mouth which scuds the waters into a malevolent chop. To the west Favonious is a youthful god, half-smiling as he ushers in spring and the light breezes of summer, lips pursed as if to bestow a kiss. Auster, from the south, is forceful – head back and cushioned by waves he brings the gales of autumn. And Subsolanus, looking on benevolently to the east, fans his breath softly across the map. Four lesser ‘venti’, or wind gods, occupy the north-east, south-east, north-west and south-west winds respectively, as back-up. The distant mainland towers with boiling cumulus clouds… or are they mountains? Land merges with sky, city with water.
The map across which these gods waft their zephyrous airs was created by Jacopo de Barbari in the year 1500. It is of an ancient fantasy city set upon a shallow littoral, ringed about with smaller islands, guarded by a forest of masts and spars belonging to sailing ships that lie at anchor festooned with rigging. It is bisected by the sinous twist of a grand waterway through its heart, along which progresses a fleet of smaller vessels. The houses are densely packed together in crooked streets overlooking canals, a hump-backed bridge joining the two halves, domes and spires of dozens of churches punctuating the skyline. In the foreground a triton straddles a gigantic fish, a sea monster, having just speared it. And right in the centre of the map is a large piazza, surmounted by an enormous clocktower, measuring out the pace of the inhabitants’ lives in a timescale of centuries. But this is no fantasy city, no dream-island of the imagination. This is Venice.
It is a floating city, blurred at the edges with liquefaction, the wash of watercolours fading as the palette runs together. A mackerel sky with a sheen of bluish-silver fish scales, houses picked out in shades of sea-pink and lemon. The green sea mutters to itself, jostling its waves together, becoming calmer at the edges as it turns over, softly respiring. The suck and gurgle of water heavy with sediment around the dark pontoons causes the prows of gondolas, etched like hatchets in black and gold, to nod in mute agreement, tossing their heads like horses. The babble and ripple of wavelets, lapping the edge of an ancient stairway, sipping at beige-grey stones which descend in darkening shades of green, stepping carefully downwards into the depths as currents swirl across them. A sparkling, iridescent, Canaletto morning marked by the low growl of marine diesels as small white craft nose into the jetties, then raise their voices in a snarl as they bound away across the waves like excitable dogs.
Down the zig-zagging cobbled alleys in the dark, through small windswept piazzas – tiny squares with shuttered houses, following the quick clip of heels from two girls ahead of us. As we turn a corner they come briefly into sight before disappearing round the next one. Lost in the Venetian labyrinth. Pools of light from streetlamps overhead fading into the night, glowing orbs with halos of golden mist that seem to visibly fizz in the air. The distant sound of a violin – a lone busker in a square. Echoing laughter and the rattle of shutters descending. Fallen leaves chase each other round in circles, then are suddenly swept away by the wind – a cool hand placed upon a brow, smoothing worries away. In the background the endless sigh of the rise and fall of the sea.
We arrive at a junction that we recognise – the yellow sign high on the wall indicates San Marco and Rialto with a thin, straight arrow. Turning into another narrow alley, just wide enough for two abreast, we meet groups of people coming the other way, and all smile apologetically while passing; in Venice pedestrians unthinkingly drive on the right. Then suddenly there is the canal before us, and Accademia bridge. Lights are winking into life along the water, the sky a thin glimmer behind the blue underwash of clouds. There is the cafe where we had lunch a couple of days ago. Together we stand at the rail of the bridge looking along the canal, shivering in the wind. I imagine myself being here alone, and it feels like the loneliest place in the world. We have become used to distance, you and I, have we not? Some lines of Rilke come to mind – Rilke who loved Venice and visited many times:
You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.
Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet
I could inhabit this dreamscape until the end of time and you would still be with me. This city is suffused with a beautiful melancholy, elegiac as a shift to minor key, notes falling like tears.
When Luchino Visconti chose the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as the soundtrack for his 1971 film Death in Venice, he captured that atmosphere perfectly: the shimmering strings of reflections on the water, the tremulous longing that beauty can inspire. Thomas Mann, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, modelled the physical description of the lead character Von Aschenbach on that of Mahler, also giving him the first name of Gustav. The two had met in Munich previously and Mahler had made a strong impression on the novelist; Mann is said to have been deeply moved on seeing Mahler break down in tears when departing Venice by train.
In the novel Von Aschenbach is a writer himself who, suffering terribly from writer’s block, takes a holiday to Venice in search of curing it. Observing a Polish family at dinner one night in the hotel, he finds himself mesmerised by the beauty of their son, a youth of around 14 dressed in a sailor suit, called Tadzio. In his mind he likens Tadzio to a Greek sculpture, and feels a rekindling of, as he sees it, artistic passion. Gradually, over the following days, he finds himself seeking out the family in order to catch a glimpse of him, transfixed by the boy’s looks. When, one evening, Tadzio glances at Von Aschenbach and smiles openly, he is so discomfited by the ensuing emotional turmoil that he rushes outside into the garden, and furiously whispers to himself under his breath, in a mixture of reproach and astonishment, “I love you!” For the hitherto ascetic and repressed von Aschenbach, locked into a state of tension where he is unable to create, this sudden allowance of sensuality begins to spin out of control, and he becomes enslaved by beauty and desire.
Increasingly besotted and tormented by erotic dreams, he takes to obsessively following the boy – who seems aware of the admiration and even flattered by it, but without perhaps fully realising its form, nor indeed its danger. The culmination is when von Aschenbach takes to a deck chair to watch Tadzio standing by the sea, gazing out at the sparkling water, and as the music swells Tadzio turns, extending an arm, seeming to beckon to von Aschenbach. He attempts to rise, to join Tadzio at the water’s edge, but collapses into the chair and dies. Tadzio, standing in the waves, is blissfully unaware, and turns to look out to sea once more.
Von Aschenbach had justified his interest in Tadzio to himself in the Platonic ideal of beauty, taking refuge in the cerebral coolness of Apollo – god of restraint, form and the intellect. If there was love, it was a rationalised appreciation of aesthetic beauty to him – nothing so base as an erotic charge that would threaten the idealised, internalised romance. But it is Dionysus, god of passion and unreason, who takes over and dictates a destructive obsession. In Von Aschenbach’s attempts to dye his hair and use make up lies a clumsy vanity to compensate for the total loss of dignity in the throes of his hapless love; in his adoration of a boy he never speaks to we see the timeless story of age mesmerised by the beauty of youth, confronted by its own inevitable decrepitude.
The novel had its genesis in actual events. In a 1974 book, Mann’s wife Katia revealed that they had travelled to Venice together in 1911, and that there had been a family of Polish aristocrats at the next table, whose young son was wearing a sailor suit:
On the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.
Katia Mann – Unwritten Memories
The young Polish boy was the Baron Wladyslaw Moes. Just nine years after the Venice holiday with his family he volunteered in an Uhlan regiment in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war, taking part in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Komarow against Soviet troops on horseback – the last entirely mounted engagement of the 20th century. Captured by the Germans in the Second World War, Moes was held prisoner for six years, and on his return to Poland found that the Communist regime had stripped his family of all its estates. He became a translator at the Iranian Embassy in Warsaw, and died in 1986.
In Venice I found I had some sympathy for Evelyn Waugh, who in an uncharacteristic moment of self-effacement, felt himself utterly unequal to the task of describing it:
What can I possibly write, now, at this stage of the world’s culture, about two days in Venice, that would not be an impertinence to every reader of this book? Perhaps if I made my home in Venice for twenty years and attained a perfect command over its language, history, art and culture, I might decently contribute a chapter here to what has already been written by those who have mastered those accomplishments. Meanwhile, since there seems no probablility of my ever becoming anything more considerable than one of a hundred globe-trotting novelists, I will pass on to Ragusa.
Evelyn Waugh – Labels
Ragusa seemed drastic. After weeks of not writing anything at all because there was too much to say and I couldn’t choose what to leave out, I close my eyes briefly and see the invisible city, offer up a plea for literary mitigation and turn to the keyboard once more.
In the Piazza San Marco at dusk, rival orchestras competed – one outside the Grand Cafe, and another outside Florian’s, both establishments boasting countless luminaries that have patronised them over the years, too tedious to list here. Tonight most of the clientele were Chinese tourists photographing themselves with selfie sticks over €10 coffees. Out in the main square little green lasers flickered over the stones, and occasional glowing parachutes fell to earth: the vendors from Goa’s Anjuna beach had moved in to colonise St Mark’s – this, the heart of the loveliest city on earth, which Napoleon once described as “the drawing room of Europe”, turned into some tawdry parody of a tripped out tropical beach.
We stopped at a small bar for cicheti – a kind of Venetian tapas of small, bite-sized snacks usually involving fish. There was smoked eel, hard-boiled egg decorated with anchovies (the Italian word “acciughe” somehow conveyed K’s expression at the prospect of eating one), fresh tuna and baccalà – dried and salted cod, which I’d seen hanging on wooden drying racks in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. I’d tried it there – one revolting mouthful from a packet labelled “Fisksnaks” which was proffered to me by a local with a dark sense of humour. It was disgusting – like a lump of wood which slowly softened and became slimy, while releasing a powerfully fishy flavour tinged with ammonia. Happily the Italians, as always, had made a much better job of creating something edible out of such inauspicious material – the baccalà was delicious, if powerfully salty.
These different sestieri, six distinct districts, had their own individual mood and atmosphere. San Marco was busy, armies of tourists endlessly streaming past designer boutiques, the outlets of global chains with these flagship stores in this, the most exclusive of addresses. In one monstrous act of consumerist vandalism, the exquisite outline of the Rialto bridge was hidden by an enormous billboard for a brand of jeans which was draped over its parapets. To the north, across the Grand Canal, lay San Polo and Santa Croce – smart neighbourhoods with hidden pockets of local colour, where tourists tended to stick to well trodden routes. Castello felt poorer, more lived-in – small convenience stores and kebab shops, housing estates, and the functional outline of the Arsenale naval base. Dorsoduro was narrow and crooked, authentic and more solid underfoot – its very name means “hardback”. Cannareggio was quieter, prettier and residential, and from its Fondamente Nuove small craft set sail across the lagoon to their final destination – the cemetery island of San Michele, Isle of the Dead.
As a birthday treat I bought two tickets to the opera. Not the famed La Fenice – it was sold out – but a smaller production to be held in a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. Given the labyrinthine nature of Venetian navigation, we decided to do a reconnaisance that afternoon, and found ourselves repeatedly coming back to a small junction marked by a little bridge. According to the map it was just here. We nosed speculatively along a kind of wharf which appeared to be nothing but the backs of warehouses. There was the streetname, however. Spotting an elderly gentleman with shopping bags fumbling with his keys at a doorway nearby, I approached him for directions. He was tall and slightly stooped, with a patrician mane of swept-back silver hair.
“Scuzi Signor, dov e Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto?”
He looked round and blinked. “Il palazzo?” he replied. “Ecco!” he gestured with his chin to the building next door.
I looked up at the blank wall along which we had walked several times. A small alley appeared to lead off to one side of it. “Down there?”
“Si, si. Musica! Musica a palazzo!”
“Yes, that’s the one. Molto grazie.”
We followed the alley, which was dingy and lined with old wooden pillars. It didn’t look terribly promising. But then, on a door set into the wall, I saw a small flyer advertising that evening’s performance. This was the place alright. Retracing our steps we headed back towards Dorsoduro, mentally marking the turns. Right at the cafe, left at the church, over the bridge and along the canal.
That evening we dressed up as best we could in a mixture of ethnic chic left over from the wedding in Sardinia. I wanted to be in plenty of time, and we arrived back at the junction with half an hour to spare. A glowing doorway nearby advertised itself as the American Bar, so we decided to have a drink beforehand. Despite my forays into the medicinal powers of brandy in Sardinia, I didn’t intend to make a habit of it, and ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail called a Shirley Temple, which was aptly named: genderisation aside, it was the kind of thing a young girl might enjoy, being bright pink and sweet and fizzy and bedecked with clusters of berries. K ordered a double Jameson’s, no ice. The barman, entirely understandably, placed the whiskey in front of me and the Shirley Temple in front of her. There you go dear, your first grown-up drink. The sweetness of it made my teeth jangle, but a sniff of her whiskey gave me the shudders, so I sucked at the elaborately curling straw while keeping a gimlet eye on the clientele.
I was trying to spot fellow opera-goers. I recalled an entry from The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron: “After inspecting two palaces, the Labiena, containing Tiepolo’s fresco of Cleopatra’s Banquet, and the Pappadopoli, a stifling labyrinth of plush and royal photographs, we took sanctuary from culture in Harry’s Bar. There was an ominous chatter, a quickfire of greetings: the English are arriving.” They were arriving in the American Bar too – respectable pensioners in cords, beige anoraks and shoes like calzone, treating themselves to a small sherry or a G&T.
Heading back out over the little crooked bridge we made our way back along the darkened wharf, past the spot where the old man had given us directions, followed by a small platoon of Home Counties retirees. Turning once more into the alley we saw that the doorway we had noticed earlier was now open, and a line of candles marked out a path across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs. There were other people there already, smartly attired in dinner jackets and evening dress. We queued on the stairs, everyone speaking in low, reverential voices – it’s not every day one gains admission to a 15th century palazzo by candlelight.
The opera – The Barber of Seville – was organised by Musica a Palazzo, a club which one became a temporary member of in order to attend a performance. We duly filled out forms at a low table and were presented with our membership cards by a young man in black tie. Taking our places on small wooden chairs in a long, gilded room, the lights dimmed, the four-piece orchestra struck up, led by a large, bearded figure who was so enthusiastic in his playing that he had trouble remaining in his seat, and then, suddenly, from behind us, a powerful baritone voice. Coming down the aisle was Figaro. He passed within feet of us, making his way toward the front of the room, singing all the while. The effect was extraordinary – to hear these voices in a relatively small room gave them a power and resonance entirely absent from larger performances. It was magnificent.
Each act was in a different room, and for the next we made our way into a small drawing room, taking our places around the edges. In front of a tall rococo mirror Rosina laced her corset an arm’s length from where I sat, the vibration of the high soprano notes creating an extraordinary fluttering sensation in the room, like the wingbeats of a trapped bird. Paintings lined the walls, and my eyes were continually drawn upward towards a vast painting across the ceiling – The Triumph of Virtue over Ignorance, by Tiepolo, who had decorated the entire room. We moved again, to a baroque boudoir for the finale. Cherubs cavorted overhead upon ornate plasterwork that exhaled the cool damps of the Grand Canal outside, the room heady with the scent of powder and perfume. And then suddenly it was all over, and we all filed out, back down the candlelit path of the stairway, and out into the alley, only to find ourselves in another stage set of moonlit canals and spires, with soft voices passing in the darkness and the endless, lapping water. Serenissima.
On a thin, grey day spattered with flecks of rain blowing in from the Adriatic, the ferry across the lagoon to the airport was full, the passengers all slightly subdued, clutching their luggage, smiling grimly or looking sombre, trying to put a brave face on things as they headed back to other, less lovely destinations and lives. Off to the right lay San Michele, and it felt appropriate; take this channel to the airport and the world of the living, that one past the line of buoys and the mournfully clanging bell that leads to the Isle of the Dead. The narrowest of lines separated the two. Behind us, beyond the corkscrew of the white wake, the crooked rooftops and spires began to sink slowly beneath the waterline. Say goodbye to Venice as she is leaving, as Cavafy might have said.
I knew that part of me would somehow always return to inhabit those same narrow alleys, those small windswept squares, and that various scenes would repeat themselves in my mind: a girl in a white lace dress sitting on the parapet of a bridge as she brushed out her long red hair; the nodding gondolas beneath a lighted window full of music and laughter; and you would always be standing beneath the last lamppost on the promontory of the Salute, lost in wonder at the view. The lights would still spring up along the Grand Canal at dusk, the paintings would hang in Ca’ Rezzonico and Accademia for centuries yet to come, only the crowd that swirled before them like the tide changing slightly in manner or appearance, and operas would continue to be sung in the old palazzo by candlelight before a rapt audience. Others would come to discover the invisible city, and it would be a different city for each of them, but I knew that it had become one of those places that had established itself in the vast gallery of my dreams, to be revisited over and over again.
Isn’t it time to free ourselves, with love,
– from the one we love, and,
For to stay is to be nowhere at all.
Rainer Maria Rilke – Duino Elegies
The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…
Lawrence Durrell – Justine
Although we were far from the sea, and it was a golden day in late summer, there was no better evocation of the weather and landscapes we were passing through, travelling across the spine of Italy. The tops of the plane trees were swaying in the wind that swept down from the Apennines, the sun a nacreous glimmer behind the white sky, the sound of cicadas on the platforms of drowsing train stations. The Tuscan landscape slowly unveiled itself to reveal low, undulating hills upon which stood the small stony outcrops of villages, with square church towers punctuating the skyline. It was a local train on a Sunday afternoon and we stopped frequently, picking up passengers who were heading to Florence.
Florence… there was something lovely in the name; something flowering or flourishing, with perhaps a promised ending of romance. The kind of city that you didn’t consciously decide to love – you just found that at some point you had begun to. It was as if the banality of various practical civic functions went on as a backdrop to a place governed by aesthetics, where art was steeped in the very atmosphere. Everywhere you looked there were statues, buildings of extraordinary beauty, galleries. It seemed, in some respects, the very pinnacle of human civilization.
Our taxi nosed along cobbled streets that were thronging with people, where it felt as if the mass of pedestrians dominated the spaces rather than vehicles. Through the open window I heard snatches of conversation as we passed people at little more than walking pace. There seemed to be lots of Americans. We entered a small square and the taxi halted. “You have to walk from here,” said the driver. “Just down that street.” A short way along it, past a bicycle shop and then a flower stall, who seemed to have combined their interests with a bicycle parked outside full of flowers, we found the address of our apartment. It was an old building which had been converted into separate flats, just across the street from the Palazzo Vecchio – the imposing town hall. The rooms were huge and airy, exquisitely furnished, with tall windows that looked out across the rooftops. Across the walls of our bedroom hung dozens of paintings; it was like being in a gallery. Everywhere the eye came to rest there was something beautiful.
If Florence inspired romance, however, there were many suitors vying for her attention. Everywhere you went there were hordes of them: a line of sightseers stretching round the Duomo and off down a side street; huge queues for the Uffizi; a wait at the viewpoints on the Ponte Vecchio as people took turns to photograph themselves pulling silly faces before the River Arno. Even in early October the city was groaning with tourists. They marched about in phalanxes following tour guides who had little coloured signs held aloft, sometimes emblazoned with their national flag. Sometimes, incomprehensibly, a group broke into a trot; perhaps they had got too far behind their leader, someone had panicked and the herd galloped to catch up. I saw one couple walking up and down a street repeatedly, nose in their guidebook, until on their third pass they spotted the building they were supposed to take a photograph of, and duly did so. It put me in mind of Lucy Honeychurch in E. M. Forster’s novel A Room With A View, who, having forgotten her guidebook, wanders around Santa Croce wondering which of the many tombs she passes is the one really worth seeing and whether she has missed it. With no authority to tell her what to see, she has to fall back on the uncertain reserves of her own personal taste: “Of course it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold!”
It’s not easy to be a traveller these days. On the one hand it’s easier than ever – international flights deposit you anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Local currency is easily available from cash machines. The notion of spending weeks in considerable discomfort just to get somewhere is, for most, inconceivable. But what this has done is blurred the line between travel and tourism, as the industry is known, into a seamless elision with nothing left between them. Whether you are on a week-long tour of Italy’s cultural artefacts or a six-month fully-paid-for expedition into the rainforest with a side order of volunteering at some worthy cause, you’re a tourist, like it or not.
You don’t have to be a good tourist, however. We were not. We missed the Duomo entirely, put off by the queues. The Uffizi was closed – it was a Monday. We failed to muster the enthusiasm to line up to look at Michelangelo’s David – the original one in the Accademia. Instead we admired the replica of it in the Piazza Signoria, which is where it was originally intended to stand. Ironically by moving it indoors and placing it behind a glass barrier for protection after one of its toes was smashed by a hammer-wielding vandal (reminiscent in many ways of the mummified corpse of St Francis Xavier in Goa having its toe bitten off by a devotee in search of a mouthful of holy relic), David is completely out of proportion for the space he currently occupies in his Accademia alcove: huge-headed, with overlong arms and a posterior which, frankly, was not exactly as pert as the rest of him. He was in good company in the piazza – there was a veritable crowd of statuary along the alcoves – and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus was designed as a companion piece for David in its original location. Cellini was unimpressed, describing the muscles in Hercules’ bulging back as looking like “a sackful of melons” – a description so shrewdly acerbic that once you’ve heard it it’s impossible to see in any other way.
Lucy Honeychurch, presumably, hadn’t noticed. Forster captures all the yearning, all the longing, of a young woman on the brink of something without quite knowing what she wants or how to set about it:
“Nothing ever happens to me,” she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality — the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.
E. M. Forster – A Room With A View
Naturally it is romance that Lucy desires, and naturally enough, having thrown away her guidebook and begun to actually enjoy herself instead of continually striving for self-improvement, she finds it in the end. By literally falling into its arms, as it happens.
Wandering hand in hand along a street after dark we suddenly heard the most beautiful singing. We halted entranced outside a church. Through the open doorway we could see twelve girls in long black gowns, standing in a semicircle, singing in a choir. The interior of the church seemed full of golden light, their voices high and pure and clear, echoing around the interior. Gradually other details came into focus: there was an audience before them, sitting in rapt attention on folding wooden chairs. We stood listening… and then, suddenly, a small group of tourists rushed over from the street and began crowding around the doorway. One man took out an ipad and began filming, blocking the view. I twitched in annoyance. K looked at me, slipped an arm through mine, and we walked back down the steps and into the street. I could still hear the singing behind us, and smiled, determinedly recalling their angelic voices, not allowing the boorish tourists to ruin it.
Just around the corner, not five minutes later, we came across a small crowd in the street gathered in silence around a television set outside a restaurant. The diners had abandoned their meals, and sat craning their necks to see. Chefs in their whites stood in a line, watching, arms folded. The security man from a nearby bar was a head taller than everyone else and oversaw proceedings from the back. What could have happened? Some disaster? The mood was tense. I squinted and made out… an expanse of green. Small figures running. The camera panned over a crowd of spectators. And at the top of the screen: Fiorentina 0 – Inter 0. It was the football, and it seemed as if the entire street had come out to watch.
Round the next corner we heard music. The limpid plucking of a lute, the hoarsely mellow baritone of woodwind, and then, soaring above it, a violin. A chamber orchestra, playing baroque instruments, seated beneath the colonnades. It sounded like Albinoni. From behind us came a sudden roar, cheering, car horns: Florence had scored. Seconds later, with a slight delay, another loud cheer from a nearby apartment. The conductor gave the faintest of smiles, paused the fluid movement of his hands just for a moment as the cheering died away, and then the chamber orchestra played on. How could one fail to love such a city?
A friend in London had long been extolling the virtues of Italian leather jackets, and claimed that Florence was the best place to buy one. There certainly seemed to be many shops selling them – we passed dozens on our walk that evening. However, none that I saw looked particularly inspiring – they were all in a similar ‘bumfreezer’ style, rather short and cut very slim. But then, just around the corner from our apartment, I stopped in my tracks. There in a shop window, adorning a mannequin, was the nicest leather jacket I have ever seen. It was in a kind of mid-brown or dark tan, and looked very soft. I hadn’t planned on buying one, but took a picture of it, just in case, noting down the street name. On we walked, up to the Ponte Vecchio – the old bridge which was lined with buildings just as the bridges of London used to be in Elizabethan times. Sitting on the low wall we looked out at the lights of the city as their reflections swam in the dark water. A cold wind was blowing off the Arno, scalloping the surface, the river burnished gold in the setting sun.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that jacket. Turning to K I said: “Would you mind if we go back for another look? They may still be open.”
We walked back towards the shop. There it was again in the window, just as I had remembered. I wondered if it would look anything like as good on me as it did on the mannequin. We went in.
The shopkeeper was Jordanian, it turned out, and had the bustling sales patter familiar from countless souks, which somehow implied an understanding that you, the customer, clearly appreciated quality merchandise, and that for someone with such heightened aesthetic sensibilites, something as sordid as money shouldn’t be of paramount importance.
“Here, try these on,” he said, laying out jacket after jacket upon the counter. He rather casually flung them down, just as I had seen carpet sellers do in Marrakech, and then fingered the material lovingly. “So soft! And sir, admire please the quality of this stitching. This is only possible to find here in Florence.”
“How much are they?”
“Sir!” He looked shocked. I had, indeed, committed a breach of protocol at this stage in proceedings. “What value does one put on something? I could send you to this shop, that shop, who sell factory jackets” – he pronounced the word with a moue of distaste – “but I can tell that you are an admirer of fine products, beautifully crafted. Where from sir?”
“Ah, London. Welcome in my shop sir. Now, this one is very latest Italian style. Here. Let me assist you.” He held it out behind me and I slid into it. It was nice, certainly. K looked me up and down noncommittally.
“I’m not sure it’s me, really. How about that one in the window? On the mannequin?”
“That one sir, is our finest quality. Very beautiful jacket.” He took it off the mannequin as if helping a lady out of an evening cape, every gesture solicitous. I admired his act immensely. It was working on me alright. Then I caught a glimpse of the price tag, and recoiled.
“€780! You’re kidding. That’s way over my budget.”
He batted away such technicalities with a wave of his hand. “Sir, please! Budgets… We can make discount. If this is the jacket you desire, we shall do everything to accommodate you.”
“Yes, but still! I’m not spending that.” He slipped around behind me and held it out. I put my arms in. It really was a very nice jacket. Looking up I caught K’s eye. She slowly nodded, suppressing a smile.
So now the work really began. As far as he was concerned, I was English. He didn’t know the extent to which I had been trained by the vendors of India. We took our places for the theatricals that were to follow. I took off the jacket, and he twitched. I laid it on the counter and picked up another cheaper one in a sort of hideous dung-brown. No – they really don’t have anything we like, do they dear. Shall we go back to the hotel? What time is it? Fancy some dinner? He picked up the jacket again and helped me back into it. “Look sir, you can roll up the sleeves! So soft! It is made of goat! Mountain goat!” K, poker-faced, turned to inspect the street outside. I knew she was trying her utmost not to laugh. If I caught her eye we’d be sunk. Bakri, bozak, buzechini. A crazy old goat in a goatskin coat. I had to have it.
The calculator came out. He typed in a negligible discount. I took off the jacket. He picked it up again and knocked a significant chunk off the price. Mollified but playing hard to get, I put it on, and stabbed out an outrageously low price. He looked insulted. I took it off and made for the door, pursued by him, brandishing calculator, this time with another figure. Better. But still. I made another offer, prompting a long lament. I began speaking to K in Hindi, which unnerved him. He tapped out another price, and laid the calculator gently on the counter for my inspection. I began to unzip the jacket and he hit Clear and knocked off a bit more. I visibly became attentive. It was already a tremendous bargain now. But then, with the full ruthlessness of Chandni Chowk bazaar, K intervened. For the sake of 30 euros. I was pretty much set to take it then and there, but no. She wanted a number and would get it. He begged. I demurred. She curled her Parsi nose at him and rolled her eyes at the door.
At that moment, with wonderfully serendipitous timing, two Americans walked in and began browsing along the rail. His attention was torn – he wanted to go over to them, you could tell, but we weren’t going to budge. I tapped out 250 on the calculator. He looked at the Americans desperately – they showed signs of leaving.
“Cash?” he said.
“Sure. Cash.” I counted out the last of my money, and borrowed more from K. He stuffed the jacket unceremoniously into a paper bag, I gave him the cash, and that was that – he went over to the Americans and started work on them. We glanced at each other and left.
“Did we just get a leather jacket priced at €780 for €250?”
“How the fuck did we manage that?”
“Haan. Teamwork. Would a high five be appropriate?”
“I believe it would.”
Rising early in the grey half-light of dawn the next morning as K’s warm shape slept on beside me, I went out onto our small balcony to look out over the rooftops. You could tell it wasn’t a place that got much rain – the tiles were full of gaps and wouldn’t have withstood one decent autumn gale. In the bathroom I inspected myself in the mirror, stooping over the low sink as I washed my hands. Then, turning to take the towel off the rail beside me, there was a sudden loud snap in my neck and a bolt of pain along my spine. I let out a gasp of surprise; I knew something had just gone seriously wrong, and fervently hoped it would right itself in a minute or two. It didn’t. Carefully I straightened upward, then ducked again, wincing, as a spasm shot through me. I couldn’t stand up. It was 6.45 in the morning, K was asleep next door, and we had to pack up, check out, get to the station and catch a train across half of Italy to Venice that morning. I wasn’t sure if I might in fact be going straight to hospital instead. Was my travel insurance still valid? I tried to remember what date I had gone to Australia the year before. I had a nasty feeling it had run out a week earlier. I tried to stand upright again and there came a series of cracking sounds like a brushwood fire, each sending off little sparks along my neck. This was not good at all.
Painfully slowly I made it along the corridor, opened the bedroom door and crept into the room. My stealth was betrayed by a loud groan as I tried to turn my head. Keeping it dead level as if I were balancing a book on it I sank to my knees and lay down on the floor, trying to find some relief. It was no good.
“Hun? You awake?”
“We’ve got a problem. I think I’ve broken my neck.”
Long pause. Then, flatly: “Again?”
This was true. I had technically broken it years earlier, sustaining a small fracture in a rock climbing accident. I had been carried off the mountain and transported on the flatbed of a truck along a dirt road to the nearest hospital. It had never been quite right since.
She sat up blearily. “What happened?”
“I dunno. I just turned round and it went snap. I think it’s quite bad.”
“I’ve got pills if you need some.”
Like all Indians travelling in parts of the world with dubious healthcare systems, such as Europe, Australia or North America, or indeed anywhere outside Mother India, she carried a small suitcase full of medications which listed their ayurvedic credentials. And, open-minded as I am about these things, I wasn’t sure it was going to cut it. Still, worth a try.
And so it was that dosed up on “Combiflam”, which sounded like something out of the 70s cookbook, and slathered in enough Tiger Balm to make anyone’s eyes water within a 5 metre radius, we somehow managed to pack the bags. But I couldn’t lift it. It was pathetic – I was helpless. What is a backpacker without a backpack? A tourist, I suppose. I thought of the octogenarians I had seen bravely shuffling around assorted piazzas the day before, and sympathised with them wholeheartedly. Fortunately the owner was solicitude itself: she recommended that I try shiatsu, which had helped her back problems, called a taxi for us to the door, and carried my bag down the stairs herself (no small feat for quite a small lady), seeing us safely into the cab. The route the driver took led around the back streets towards Santa Maria Novella station, which naturally were all cobblestones. I groaned periodically as we bumped over them, and received reassuring pats from K.
Pulling up at the station, nose in the air like a governess, I minced carefully across the concourse towards the information board, checking what platform we needed. As I did so, there was a voice at my elbow. A girl with a big backpack decorated with the Canadian flag:
“Hey, do you happen to know which platform for Venice?”
“Aaaah!” I went, as a spasm shot through me. “Aah. Um, no – I’m looking for it myself. The 1255?”
“Yeah.” She looked at me a little strangely. “Are you OK?”
“Faaark! Sorry. It’s my back. It’s busted.”
“Oh wow, sorry to hear it. Hey, are you Briddish?”
“Yes. If you find out what platform it is, would you mind coming and telling me? I don’t think I can move.”
“Sure, no problem. Hey, feel better.”
“Let’s hope so.”
It was now 1240 and our train still wasn’t listed. Then the pixellated letters flipped through their cycle and there it was: the 1255 Italo to Venezia. But there was something not right. The train number didn’t match the one on my ticket, bought weeks earlier. Surely there couldn’t be two? What if the original train had broken down? Did they base the numbers on engine, or was there a different code? Through a mental fog of pain and Combiflam I fretted, wincing occasionally. Two Chinese girls with enormous wheeled suitcases barged into me, and I snarled at them. They fled. This was not the time to lose my temper. Seeking consolation in literature as always, I recalled an entry by Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana:
BANDAR SHAH (SEA-LEVEL), 26 APRIL 1934
Under arrest! I am writing on a bed in the police-station.
We are in the wrong, which makes it the more annoying. Having waited at Gumbad-i-Kabus till four o’clock, when there were still no horses to be had, we decided to go back with the car, and avoiding Asterabad, reached here at ten o’clock. There was nowhere to sleep but the station, and the station-master, a wilting young man, was not pleased at our disturbing him so late. The train this morning was due to leave at seven. He told us to have the car ready by the siding at six. It was. But the truck for it did not arrive till ten to seven, and we suddenly saw that the station-master, out of spite, had sent the train off without us. The pent-up irritation of seven months exploded: we assaulted the man. There were loud shrieks, soldiers rushed in, and pinioning Christopher’s arms, some struck his back with the butts of their rifles, while their officer, who was scarcely four feet high and had the voice of a Neapolitan tenor, repeatedly slapped his face. I escaped these indignities, but we share the confinement, to the bewilderment of the police, who find us a nuisance.
They threaten us with an ‘inquiry’ into the ‘incident’ in Teheran. We must grovel to avoid this at all costs. It would take weeks. I wonder—we both wonder—what madness came over us to jeopardize our journey in this way.
Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana
Well, it happens to the best of us. But no, in my condition I didn’t need slapping by a four foot high Neapolitan tenor, of which there seemed to be several about, nor indeed by anyone else. Reasoning that since they travelled along the same track, that there could only be one Italo train bound for Venice at 1255, we decided to get on it.
The problem was, there were people already in our seats – a pair of sun-wizened rustics, man and wife, who showed no inclination to move. I showed them my ticket and sighing, he dug his out. We both had the same seat number. Then I saw his departure station. Napoli. They must have been on this train for hours. Was he in fact four feet tall? Could he sing? We tried two more seats but another couple arrived, profusely apologetic, and claimed them. I certainly wasn’t going to stand for three-and-a-half hours. We spotted two empty seats in the next carriage, and stole into them surreptitiously. I plugged my ears with headphones, stuck my shades on and put my hood up. Do not disturb. We slid silently out of Firenze SMN station, the train pouring through a tunnel until the sudden reappearance of apartment blocks sliding by the window. We picked up speed steadily, until we were whizzing almost soundlessly through the Italian countryside in air-conditioned comfort. A speedometer on the TV screen overhead indicated we were travelling at 250kmh.
After halting briefly at Bologna we resumed our flight across the fertile flatlands of northern Italy, the speed now showing 280kmh, briefly crossing the River Po, longest river in the country, in a flash of water and a whoosh whoosh whoosh as the bridge went by beneath us. The conductor entered the carriage and began making his way down it. I hoped there wasn’t going to be a problem with the ticket; being kicked off the train at some tiny hamlet, unable to carry my own backpack, was something that I wasn’t really in the mood for, although it did fit our general pattern of spontaneous adventures. He reached us and I proffered our tickets.
“Grazie,” he said, checking us off against a list of names. His pencil paused. He looked at the ticket again, and switched to English.
“You are in different seats?” Clearly our names were hopelessly unItalian compared to the ones on his register.
“Yes, there were another couple in our seats, so we moved here,” I said.
The train was half-empty by now anyway, and he gave a slight but clearly visible shrug, ticked us off the list and moved on. We were in the clear.
The train halted again at Mestre, the unlovely industrial city on the mainland overlooking the Venice lagoon. At that moment the music changed on my headphones and I found I was listening to Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov, played by the St Petersburg Philharmonic, who I had seen perform it at the Proms a few weeks earlier. The wonderful, lyrical longing of the strings tightened around the heart, accompanying us as we made our way out onto the bridge across the lagoon, over green water flecked with whitecaps. My first sight of Venice was of a low smudge on the horizon transforming itself into distant spires which grew in size as the music swelled, the city assembling itself before my eyes. There was a quickening sense of excitement; which of the invisible cities would reveal itself to me first? I knew there were many.
I was reading Jan Morris – her wonderful book Venice is essentially a long love letter to this most extraordinary of cities, or perhaps a romantic, impressionistic painting of it, and one particularly interesting given that she first visited as a young man named James Morris. As she put in a preface to a later edition, “It is Venice seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment – young eyes at that, responsive above all to the stimuli of youth”.
It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccentric chimneys and a big red grain elevator. There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place; a great white liner slips towards its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses towards its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city: and as the boat approaches through the last church-crowned islands, and a jet fighter screams splendidly out of the sun, so the whole scene seems to shimmer – with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.
The navigator stows away his charts and puts on a gay straw hat: for he has reached that paragon among landfalls, Venice.
Jan Morris – Venice
I was walking up a hill in Assisi, dragging my case behind me. The rhythm of its wheels on the cobblestones seemed familiar. Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah. The wheels jolted over the ruts and set up this continual refrain which I couldn’t quite place. Then it came to me slowly: I had the couplet in my head for years, but couldn’t remember the words – only the sound and rhythm of it, and the rough English translation of what it meant. It was a description of the sacking of an ancient city by the Mongols. Where had I heard it? I thought it Persian, and very old. I walked up the hill, mentally chanting nonsense words: “The hatstand the milkman the brassband the land!” I couldn’t get it. Into the mental archives it went. Later, after we had found our accommodation, a small cavern owned by a poet, built into the hillside and beautifully furnished, I took out my notebook – a battered black moleskine – and wrote down: hatstand, milkman, brass band, land. Persian? Balkh? Bokhara?
Hoping the language hadn’t changed much since antiquity, I messaged a Persian-speaking friend. “How would you translate something like: ‘They came and they destroyed and they burned and they looted and then they vanished?’”
He came back with a line of text in which some of the words were familiar – amdand, kushtand, sokhtand – but the rhythm was missing. Round and round in my head it went. Virgil wrote a Latin equivalent in hexameter: “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” – “The qua-druped’s gall-oping hoof shakes the ground”. Da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Da! But what was it in Persian?
In France these notebooks are known as carnet moleskines: ‘moleskine’, in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.
In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written – about the wounds of a Baroque Christ – were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners.
Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.
“I’d like to order a hundred,” I said to Madame. “A hundred will last me a lifetime.”
She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon.
At lunchtime I had a sobering experience. The headwaiter of Brasserie Lipp no longer recognised me, “Non Monsieur, il n’y a pas de place.” At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and said, almost with an air of mourning, “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus.”
My own moleskine lay open on the table before me, broken-backed, its flyleaves speckled with a kind of international grit. Unlike Chatwin, in twenty years of travel I’d never lost one yet – although I often kept several in circulation at once, rotating them. The opening lines of this one began: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons are landing on the maidan playing field in small, ochrey puffs of red dust. They are thin-looking creatures, as are the Indian crows. Call of mynah birds overhead. Faint tang of drains, incense, sandalwood soap, Wills Gold Flake cigarettes. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”
In the small pocket at the back were: a ticket to the Proms at the Albert Hall in London; a sun-faded postcard from Kyneton, Victoria, showing the bank, the old mill and the hotel known as ‘The Swinging Arms’; a pass for the Annapurna Conservation Area; an entry ticket to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal; ten Indian rupees, and a twenty Afghani banknote. I began to write some first impressions of Assisi:
Hollow metallic tontin of tongue-lolling churchbells. Crucifixes for sale and T-shaped Tau signs. Small religious figurines of St. Francis and enormous, head-sized meringues in the cafes. After the hordes of Gore-tex clad tourists vanish at dusk, the alleys become the preserve of huge cats in residence beneath battered Fiats – the only cars small enough to negotiate the narrow bends. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi stands overlooking the plain below. A sense of something spiritual – a special place.
We walked along the dark and winding streets in search of dinner. Down towards the Piazza Communale we found a small restaurant which was almost deserted, but seemed nice. It was run by two brothers, and had only recently opened. They specialised in local cuisine; very local – they could tell you the provenance of just about everything on the menu. For antipasti we selected a cheese platter, which came on a long, olivewood board. There were four kinds of pecorino, all at different stages of maturity.
“I suggest,” said the owner, “you begin at this end, with the mildest, and try it with some honey. Then progress towards the more mature ones, which you should try with either the fig jam or the chilli preserve.” He was right – it was a delicious combination. Then, another Umbrian speciality: Papardelle con Ragu Cinghiale – wide pasta like tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce. The sun was dipping behind the distant hills in shades of vermillion and purple, silhouetting the poplar trees. Lights began springing up across the darkening plain, and in the distance a lone church bell began tolling, melancholic and solitary in the evening chill.
It was a wild November night on the Suffolk Coast – a gale in the autumn of 1989. Rain spattered the windows and the TV aerial on the tiled roof of the Red Lion pub across the road was swaying back and forth in the wind. The pub sign squeaked on its hinges. On the wall by the yard was a sign that said: “Private Property – No Access. Rights of Way Act 1942”. The sign looked like it had been there since the war. And in the distance, out in the blackness, the sea boiled and roared, the crests of the waves whisked into sprays of silver in the light of the moon. It was easy to imagine a U-boat in 1942 waiting for clearer weather just offshore, lying calmly just beneath the surface, and the captain peering through the periscope at the shimmering lights of the town as the waves washed over the lens intermittently in their remorseless progression towards the land.
In the tall, thin house that smelt of wood polish and echoed to the slow tick of the grandfather clock in the hall, we sat in a small pool of golden light on the second floor, my grandfather in his armchair doing The Times crossword, my father sitting on the sofa nearby, reading another section of the paper, and myself, aged 16, listening to the storm outside and half-watching the TV that was on in the corner. It was an arts review programme, I remember, and the presenter was talking about a new book – a novel about Meissen porcelain – “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin. It was the last interview he ever gave, explained the presenter, before his death from AIDS at the age of 48.
On the screen a gaunt figure, skeletally thin, sat with staring, bright blue eyes. He never blinked. His hair had almost gone. In an eerie, high-pitched voice, plummy as an old lady, he spoke about Meissen, and a man he had come across in Czechoslovakia who couldn’t bring himself to flee the Communist regime because it would mean abandoning the art collection which he loved – a man who was also in love with his maid, who looked after the small porcelain figurines. “And the maid wins!” he cackled. His nose was running, and he sniffed repeatedly. It was pitiful to see, and utterly haunting.
I’ve almost finished my big book – there’s a terrible old character with a twisted gut called Hanlon – and now I have a whole novel growing in the notebooks too. I can see almost all of it. It’s set in Prague and I shall call it “Utz” – “Utz!” Anyway, one day you must tell people Redders, but not now. It’s a fable. It’s all there, ready-made. And the moral is simple: never kill yourself. Not under any circumstances. Not even when you’re told you have AIDS.
Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey
Chatwin had considered taking a trip to Switzerland, to the top of the Jungfraujoch, and jumping off. Or of going back to Mauritania, to the nomads there, and just taking off all his clothes and walking off into the desert. But he couldn’t do it. As Hermann Hesse says in Steppenwolf: “Suicide cases… are those individuals who no longer see self-development and fulfilment as their life’s aim, but rather the dissolution of self, a return to the womb, to God, to the cosmos… They see death as their saviour, not life, and they are prepared to jettison, abandon and extinguish themselves in order to return to their origins.” Chatwin, though, knew deep down that he wasn’t prepared to give up like that. That self-development and fulfilment was something to follow to the end, to be “defeated and laid low by life itself, rather than by one’s own hand”.
Dad looked up from his paper and frowned. “Poor chap. He really does look ill.” Grandpa’s paper came down and he peered at the screen. There was something mesmerising in this ghoulish spectacle – Chatwin’s passion for his subject, his enthusiasm and the fire in him despite his failing body. He spoke, in that strange, slightly querulous voice, of art, and Patagonia, of Aborigines going Walkabout, and nomadism, and the aesthetic imperative that leads to the mania for collecting, possessing that which cannot be possessed. “Of course, art always lets you down.”
Chatwin died soon after that interview. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and hadn’t read any of his books, but I have never forgotten it. In the writing of this piece, to try to confirm the accuracy of my own memory of the event, I searched for the interview online, and found a clip of it. I wondered whether to include it; people should remember him as he was when he was well, remember him for his writing, his beauty, his manic intelligence, his adventurous spirit and his extraordinary journeys. Not as a gaunt and haunted figure with so much still to say in the few remaining moments of lucidity left to him. His mind was going. But it was him, unquestionably, and still there, and still bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.
Though he was very weak and so thin you could see the white bones in his arms, his telephone was still plugged in to its socket. He was making and receiving calls, talking to his friends all over the world.
Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey
Assisi was all about Saint Francis, and in numerous shops small plasterwork figures of him stood in rows in cabinets, styled in various poses. One of seven children born to a prosperous cloth merchant, he had a fairly wild youth, and had gone off to war against Perugia in 1201, when he was taken prisoner and held in captivity for a year. On his return to Assisi a serious illness led to what has been described as a spiritual crisis, but the following year he joined another military expedition to Apulia. On the way a strange vision convinced him of the need to return to Assisi at once and devote his life to God. He took a vow of poverty and spent the next years living essentially as a beggar in the surrounding countryside, wandering.
Reading the account of the saint’s life, I was put in mind of another soldier called Francis who had experienced a revelatory vision, but one who couldn’t have been more different. Sir Francis Younghusband, imperial soldier, diplomat and explorer, pioneered a route into Tibet on an espionage mission, and became the British resident in Kashmir in 1906. He became increasingly absorbed in mystical religion after an experience in Lhasa which he described as “a curious sense of being literally in love with the world”. He published a number of New Age books on his return to Britain, and became a proponent of free love, “the freedom to unite when and how a man and woman please,” as he put it, and wrote to his friend and lover Lady Lees saying: “I have made the discovery that bodily union does not impair soul union but heightens and tightens it”.
The Basilica of St. Francis was perched on a hill at the far western edge of Assisi – a site that used to be known as the Hill of Hell, as criminals were put to death there by being flung off it. Now it is known as the Hill of Paradise. The basilica itself consists of two churches, one on top of the other. The Upper Church was Gothic, the interior decorated with frescoes thought to be by Giotto. Overhead a cross-vaulted ceiling was decorated with golden stars on a deep blue background, and induced a light and airy sensation of soaring aspirations. Below, the Lower Church was an enormous crypt, entirely in the Romanesque style. It was dark and lit with the flickering flames of long, tapering candles. The atmosphere was one of introspection, contemplation.
In a nave off to one side there was a small chapel to St. Mary Magdalen, and at a bench before the altar a priest was praying with his eyes shut – a man in his 50s, with tight-curled iron-grey hair – his hands clasped before him, lips moving silently. As I entered the nave soundlessly on my rubber-soled shoes he suddenly looked up, startled, and saw me. I wondered what psychic field I had brought into the church to interrupt him so. What was the state of my soul, to have this effect? It meant no harm. We held each other’s gaze, deeply and questioningly, wide-eyed as if seeing something in each other for the first time. Then, embarrassed at disturbing him, I dipped my head, placed my hand over my heart in apology in the Islamic manner – a gesture I have always found touchingly respectful, however automatically ingrained it may become – and retreated. He closed his eyes and resumed his prayer once more. Perhaps I could have gone and prayed next to him. But I didn’t have his faith, and felt no urge to – no Franciscan revelation impelling me to do so.
I’ve always been interested in accounts of life-changing revelations. As humans we walk along our familiar pathways too often with eyes half-shut, and have at times to make a deliberate effort of will to notice things. Travel can introduce a kind of artificial jolt to the system, where you are physically transported to a different environment which sends you into a kind of sensory overload, where everything is unfamiliar so you are forced to see with new eyes; not just physically transported but also spiritually. And yet you can’t induce the pliant and open state of mind that is necessary to achieve this artificially – merely travelling somewhere different is not enough; one has to endeavour to see differently too. A concert can do it, music transporting you, manifesting itself in great emotion – your hair stands on end, your eyes fill with tears and you feel unable to breathe, filled with love. It leaves you changed somehow. Art can do it – I remember standing before a Caravaggio and having that same sensation, of a great pressure building up within me, right in the centre of my forehead, and I felt deeply moved and filled with tenderness. It transports us in time and space and we are not the same afterwards; we have altered our gaze and induced a new perspective, become beautifully broken.
I read a review the other day of an art exhibition in Goa: Julian Opie’s landscape prints titled “Winter”. Reviewer Madhavi Gore described the artist using satellite imagery and Google mapping to convey the wintry French landscape, there in steamy, tropical Goa, and spoke of the tradition of landscape painting as being rooted in the desire to possess, to inhabit those landscapes, in a claim of ownership: “Opie’s installation reminds us of humankind’s constant and consistent need to plot and map our footprint or location, and acquire a position of perspective – visual, aural, existential.”
It made me think about that action of plotting and mapping. What was the one group of people who did this to a greater extent than anyone else? People who actually described their world as it occured, footstep by footstep, mapping its features and by doing so, bringing it into being, constructing their own creation mythology in the process? It was the Australian Aborigines. The Songlines.
In the early 1980s Bruce Chatwin travelled to Australia, inspired by a book he had read, Theodor Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia. Chatwin had been trying to write a book on nomads for years, but had got bogged down in the weight of research and had to abandon it. Now, Strehlow’s account of Aborigine traditions and mythology suddenly shone a new light on the subject. For Chatwin it was the missing piece in the jigsaw, or rather several missing pieces. He couldn’t quite see how it was going to fit together, but knew that this was an important area that was little understood, and felt “it might answer for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness”. The book he ended up writing, The Songlines, described how the Aborigines, despite belonging to many different tribal groups, dispersed across vast distances and with often no language in common, nevertheless had a similar series of creation myths or ‘songs’, which connected together. In their songs they had created not just a physical map of their immediate surroundings, but also a moral universe, and these formed a network that spread out across the continent of Australia:
Every song cycle went leap-frogging through language barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier. A Dreaming-track might start in the west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea near Adelaide.
“And yet,” I said, “It’s still the same song.”
“Our people,” Flynn said, “say they recognise a song by it’s ‘taste’ or ‘smell’… by which of course they mean the ‘tune’. The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.”
“Words may change,” Arkady interrupted, “but the melody lingers on.”
“Does that mean,” I asked, “that a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia provided he could hum the right tune?”
“In theory, yes,” Flynn agreed.
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines
“Walkabout.” As a term it is still little understood. Merriam-Webster traces it back to 1908, making reference to “a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian Aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work”. Wikipedia adds that “the only mention of ‘spiritual journey’ comes in a usage example from a latter-day travel writer” – that travel writer being none other than Bruce Chatwin. But The Songlines was published in 1987. Was it really possible that there had been no deeper understanding of the term in all that time?
A film called Walkabout [spoiler alert] was directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1971, which was the story of two white children – a teenage girl and her younger brother – who become lost in the Australian desert where they are rescued by an Aborigine boy. Together they travel through the Outback, in a landscape which author Louis Nowra described as being: “of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting.” But it’s also a film about the mysteries of communication and cultural incomprehension. The Aborigine boy, increasingly drawn to the girl, paints his body with white clay in ritual and performs a courtship dance outside the hut where she is. He dances all day, and then all night, but she ignores him. That is to say, she cannot bring herself to look; we get the clear impression she knows what is going on, but lacks the equivalent language to be able to process it and respond. In the morning the body of the Aborigine boy is hanging from a tree outside. Rejected, he has taken his own life. And, years later, in an apartment block overlooking Sydney harbour, the girl stands in the kitchen as her tired husband comes home from work, loosening his tie, complaining about his boss, and her eyes over his shoulder seek out the distant horizons of the Outback again, and a memory of her and her brother swimming in a billabong together with the Aborigine boy, laughing and naked:
For we never hold hands, nor kiss,
Nor were we ever more than children.
Ricardo Reis – Come sit by my side, Lydia
In a caravan somewhere near Cullen, Australia, trapped by a storm that had turned the roads to mud, Chatwin settled down to write. He describes having a presentiment that the travelling phase of his life might be passing – a tragically accurate prediction, as it turned out – and wanted to reopen his old moleskine notebooks before the malaise of settlement crept over him. Twenty years of travel, questions, quotations and encounters, with the theme of restlessness and nomadism running through it all. Pascal, he remembered, opined that all of man’s miseries stemmed from his inability to remain quietly in a room.
“Could it be,” Chatwin mused, “that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?” (O’Hanlon recalled Chatwin telling him a story about a female southern albatross that wandered into the wrong hemisphere and built a nest in Shetland, waiting for the mate who never came.) The notebooks ranged far and wide, both geographically and metaphysically. And then, reading The Songlines again, in the section where he is leafing through the notebooks, one entry leapt out at me off the page:
Amdand u khandand u sokhtand u kushtand u burdand u raftand
They came and they sapped and they burned and they slew and they trussed up their loot and were gone.
A survivor’s account of the sacking of Bokhara by the Mongol cavalry in the 12th century. The rhythm of the Persian words describes the thud of horse hooves over the plain.
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines
There it was. I had read The Songlines years earlier, and the line had embedded itself in my consciousness, the rhythm of it thrumming away until suddenly it surfaced again in the rumble of wheels over cobblestones in a small Italian hilltown, rather than hoofbeats across the great plains of Asia. The contempt of the nomadic Mongol horde for the settlers of Bokhara, undone by a sedentary life. A similar divide occurs amongst African tribes between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers, the cattle-herders who go in search of fresh pasture and the cultivators across whose lands they pass. Here, in these pages, was the book on nomadism he never wrote. And at the end of the book, in another eerie presentiment, which I find haunting and yet strangely beautiful at the same time, he describes being led to an ancestral site by his guide Limpy and coming across three Aboriginal men:
In a clearing there were three ‘hospital’ bedsteads, with mesh springs and no mattresses, and on them lay the three dying men. They were almost skeletons. Their beards and hair had gone. One was strong enough to lift an arm, another to say something. When they heard who Limpy was, all three smiled, spontanously, the same toothless grin.
Arkady folded his arms, and watched.
“Aren’t they wonderful?” Marian whispered, putting her hand in mine and giving it a squeeze.
Yes. They were all right. They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines
Bruce Chatwin died in Nice on the 18th January 1989. In the last months of his life he had astonished friends by converting to the Greek Orthodox faith, and his ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli, in the Greek Peloponnese. The chapel was near the home of his friend and mentor, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Chatwin had stayed for several months while working on The Songlines. “There was never, not a word about God,” said Leigh Fermor reflecting on their conversations. But the notebooks told another story. “The search for nomads is a search for God”, read one entry. Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time”. Writing of a journey to Stavronokita on Mount Athos, he wrote: “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. Just below the monastery the dark cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam of the sea.” And finally, one last entry: “There must be a god.”
We reached our bed and breakfast that evening in a considerably more subdued state than we had left it that morning. Wet through, freezing cold, with numb hands and a stiffening neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head, all I wanted to do was lie down. But we couldn’t stop – we had arranged to meet friends for dinner in Alghero. We scrubbed up as best we could – I thawed myself under a hot shower for a while, flexing my tingling fingers – changed into dry clothes, and then we had to get back on the bike for the 15-minute ride into town. Alghero had a rather strange parking system, whereby spaces that were marked out in white were free, but others had to be paid for at a machine. What the rules were for motorbikes wasn’t clear. Along the promenade I found a space that looked more or less white under the sodium streetlights, and rolled into it. We walked along the marina, beneath the large gate into the old walled town, and turned into narrow cobbled streets full of shops selling jewellery and T-shirts for tourists, heading up to the restaurant, Osteria Barcellonetta.
The name was a legacy of the long Catalan rule in Alghero. Pedro IV of Aragon overthrew the ruling Genoese Doria family in 1353, and embarked upon a policy of Hispanicization for centuries which became known as “barcellonetta”. Even today Catalan is widely spoken, and uniquely in Italy, it has recognition as an official dual language. The restaurant was pretty full, but they found a table for four in the corner. For much of the week we had been attending dinners for 20 people in a series of restaurants around the town, so it was nice to have a smaller and more intimate gathering. I felt rather underdressed, however: my only clean clothes happened to be a turquoise kurta shirt, a blue checkered Cambodian scarf, and a Nehru vest over the top. We were definitely bringing a more multicultural dimension to Alghero – especially when N and M turned up in their ethnic scarves.
The food at Osteria Barcellonetta was a fusion of Sardinian and Catalan influences. Normally in Italy we found that ordering antipasti to share, and then a couple of primi or secondi dishes was enough for us. But tonight we were pushing the boat out, and somehow ended up having a five course dinner: bruschetta with marinaded fish, black ravioli with seafood, trofio pasta with aubergine, and steak with green peppercorn sauce (the best I’ve ever had). There may have been a tiramisu or two as well. After an hour in the restaurant I was starting to feel warm a little, although I kept getting periodic shivers – as did K. We had both been showing the signs of mild hypothermia, but were recovering well. We regaled the others with accounts of our horrendous ride; they had been in a car on the road to the south of us, and with the rain deafening on the metal roof had looked up at the mountains and wondered how we were coping on the bike.
This in turn led to an exchange of outlandish tales from around the world – stories of improbable driving, hazards negotiated, and assorted adventures. I mentioned nearly dropping the bike earlier that day, and how it had happened before with K on the back – that time at Anjuna Saturday Night Market in Goa. The traffic had been insane, the main road in gridlock, vehicles facing in every conceivable direction as policemen blew whistles futilely, adding to the clamour of honking. A small white van driven by a young Sikh had crept remorselessly closer and closer on my right, until we were inches apart. I actually rapped on his door, but it had no effect; closer it came, and I had no more road to move out the way – just the soft sand of the verge. As I hit it, the tyres slewed and the bike toppled. “Jump!” I shouted to K, and she somehow vaulted off the back. Just as the bike started to fall I glanced down and saw a woman with a baby sitting in the shadows, right where it was going to land. Somehow I held it – the full weight of a 500cc Enfield, as she sat a couple of feet away and watched. While I wrestled with the bars to try and get it upright to avoid it landing on her, she mutely extended a hand, asking for change. “In a minute, lady,” I snapped at her.
A story came to mind of a border crossing between Hungary and Romania undertaken by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his walk across Europe in the 1930s:
This borderland was the most resented frontier in Europe and recent conversations in Hungary had cloaked it in an additional shadow of menace. Well, I thought, at least I have nothing to declare… I sat up with a jerk in the corner of the empty carriage: what about that automatic pistol? Seeing myself being led to a cell, I dug the little unwanted weapon out of the bottom of my rucksack and undid the flap of leather case; the smallness, the lightness and the mother-of-pearl plated stock made it look like a toy. Should I steal away from these bare wooden seats and hide it in the first-class upholstery next door? Or slip it behind the cistern in the lavatory? Or simply chuck it out into No-Man’s-Land?
Patrick Leigh-Fermor – Between the Woods and the Water.
(In the end Leigh-Fermor solved his dilemma by “hiding it in a thick fold in the bottom of my greatcoat, fixing it there with three safety pins”. Well, we’ve all been there. “What about that automatic pistol?” Damn! – I knew I’d forgotten something.)
M told a story of one night in Kabul, when we had come across a guy pushing his broken down car as he tried to steer it. Spontaneously we went over to help, the three of us taking up position against the boot. We got it rolling and he jumped in and tried to drop the clutch, but it wouldn’t turn over. After a couple more attempts we gave up and left him to it.
“And we have no idea who he was, or what was in the car,” I said. “We were just being helpful.” It had been a red Corolla, the type featured in all the security alerts as being the popular choice for a car bomb.
“Our fingerprints will be all over it!” he laughed.
“Not planning a trip to the US any time soon, are you?”
“No, but I’d like to get home to London without getting taken away at the airport.”
We were all laughing quite hard now. I realised that a couple at a nearby table, who I had heard speaking English to each other earlier, were looking at us rather strangely.
(Those icy Kabul nights… empty streets beneath the white glare of the security lights, our breath smoking in the chill air. The weather was oddly familiar, somehow like April in London, bare trees just coming into bud… but everything else was different. We walked past high walls and razor wire, exchanging low “salaams” with loitering men carrying machine guns to establish our legitimacy. You had to watch your step in Kabul – quite literally. The manhole covers had all been removed and gaping holes revealed a long fall into the drainage system beneath the road. Car headlights cutting twin shafts of light through the clouds of powdery dust, silhouetting muffled figures swathed in blankets walking along the verge. The little yellow lights from the houses that climbed the hillsides, and the forest of antennae on ‘TV Hill’. The twin-rotor ‘whump’ of Chinook helicopters on patrol. How long ago it all seemed.)
Sitting in the pool of warmth and light as we laughed in the restaurant, I found myself thinking about the improbable routes our individual lives had all taken to bring us together. From such different backgrounds and cultures we had all found something – a sense of connection – which spanned any such superficial geographical divide. The chance circumstance that led me to do a degree in Norwich – a city which I had never thought I would go back to, where after the bereavement of leaving Africa I had fallen into a pit of depression and heavy drinking which took years to get out of, rebuilding myself – then deciding to go back to university, and then changing my degree course after just two weeks, and overcoming all manner of obstacles, both bureaucratic and personal, to do so… It felt as if it was somehow meant to happen. Perhaps we look for patterns retrospectively in order to fully appreciate the true depth and meaning in our friendships. People come and go, friendships can run their course and you can grow gradually apart, but some remain, even if only as a memory, and the strand of them, the thread of their character, becomes interwoven with our own and makes up the tapestry of our lives.
In this wistful, grateful state of mind we wandered arm in arm along the battlements of Alghero’s old town, with the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below us in the darkness. It reminded me of Essaouira. The streets were full of people, walking together in small groups, sitting in cafes, just spending time together – young couples, families with children, old people; locals and tourists mingling. I realised it was Saturday night. There was no infernal babble of dissent trying to make itself heard above the roar of traffic or the quick heart-jittering alert of sirens – just a low, melodious hum of conversation. Nobody was walking along fast, head down and defensively hunched, staring at their phone – their postures were open and comfortable as they ambled along, their laughter easy and natural. Although many people were drinking, nobody was visibly drunk. In this culture people drank without guilt, without the theatrical casting off of inhibitions that is so much a part of having “a good time” in more northern cultures – without the shrieking raucous laughter that resembles a shout of pain from a distance. They took wine with dinner, a digestivo afterwards, not to get drunk but for the simple pleasure of it.
Descending again into the narrow labyrinth of streets, we paused occasionally at the lit windows of jewellery shops. In the main square, although it was after midnight, a cafe was still open with many people sitting outside beneath a trellis of vine leaves. “Anyone like a coffee?” I asked. We found a table and took a seat.
“I might have a brandy,” K said. “Do you think they’ve got some?”
“Bound to.” I looked at the menu. There were some Italian brandies listed, and then cognac, for €4. “I’m almost tempted to have one myself, for medicinal purposes,” I joked.
“Will you have some of mine?” she said. “I don’t want a whole one.”
She does this with dessert all the time. But brandy? I don’t drink! But if there was ever a time – in the convivial company of friends, after a fine dinner, with my pins-and-needle fingers and spasming back and a lump of ice at my core that was only slowly starting to melt…
The waiter came over. “Quatro macchiati, per favore,” I said. “E un cognac.”
“Prego, signor.” Off he went.
Four small cups of espresso with a dash of frothy milk arrived, and were set before each of us. Then from his tray he took a huge balloon glass with a good inch of amber liquid in it, and placed it in front of me. It glowed like fire. I picked it up cautiously and put it in front of K, who inspected it then took a sip, pulled a face quickly and recovered. It seemed to go down well. I busied myself with my macchiato, which didn’t take long. She took another sip, smiled, then pushed the brandy across the tablecloth towards me. I picked it up, cupping my hand around the base of the glass to warm it, and sniffed:
The cognac was not to Rex’s taste. It was clear and pale and it came to us in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic cyphers. It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.
“Brandy’s one of the things I do know a bit about,” said Rex. “This is a bad colour. What’s more, I can’t taste it in this thimble.”
They brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over the spirit lamp. Then he rolled the splendid spirit round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort.
“That’s the stuff,” he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass. “They’ve always got some tucked away, but they won’t bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some.”
“I’m quite happy with this.”
“Well, it’s a crime to drink it, if you don’t really appreciate it.” He lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We were both happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog barking miles away on a still night.
Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited.
I quoted the passage as I slowly swirled the brandy, deferring the moment. I still wasn’t sure. Then, like stepping backward over a cliff edge and putting your trust in the rope, I raised the great glass tentatively and took a small sip. The pins-and-needles moved from my fingers up to my lips. I tasted it experimentally, rolling it around my tongue – the slightly powdery residue of it, the numbing anaesthesia, the sudden fiery flush of it coursing throughout me. I exhaled carefully through my nose, scenting it – the age of it, the wood of the barrel, the eye-watering, mustard-like sting that mellowed into something warm and glowing. The intake of spirits. A slow smile lit my face. So ended 15 years of being teetotal.
Carefully I placed it back in front of K, shooting occasional cautious glances at the glass out of the corner of my eye. It was certainly medicinal – it seemed to be healing my assorted woes on the spot. I quite fancied another sip, but I wasn’t going to rush her.
The philosophical paradox known as The Ship of Theseus, first outlined by Plutarch, poses the question whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every part of it is in fact still the same ship. Aristotle argued that it was, because the design, the “what-it-is”, or formal cause, of the ship, was unchanged even though new materials might be used. If it is true that the human body renews itself almost entirely every seven years at a cellular level, then after 15 years I have renewed myself twice over. I am not the same person. My formal cause may be the same, but we can change our opinion, our philosophy and even perhaps our personality in the same way that we renew ourselves physically. In drinking cognac I was not going to suddenly regress to where I was 15 years ago, lost and hurt and angry. I had evolved. There might be loss, hurt and anger again, but I knew now how to deal with it, not be consumed by it.
And moreover, I had become greater than the thing itself. My sobriety had become a cornerstone of my personality – something that set me apart, perhaps, as an exercise in self-control. But it was an edifice which was top-heavy; each year that passed by its height was added to, until it was this monumental looming feature. I knew I was playing with fire. But drinking was something that, if I shunned it, would always retain that element of danger to it – that possibility of the loss of control. And yet, as with riding a motorbike where you clutch on to the bars too tightly for fear of coming unstuck, and ride more jerkily as a result, this was an illusion.
So I confronted the thing – the anachronistic beast in the lair that lurked in the darkness of my consciousness – by throwing open the door and allowing the light to flood in. I realised I could take it or leave it – it didn’t merit anything more than that. I picked up the balloon glass and took another sip, and in doing so, in some very fundamental way, I loosened my grip on the bars a touch, smoothed out the ride and regained control.
We walked, fingers intertwined, along the promenade beneath the palm trees. Ahead of us were the other two, small figures in the distance, also hand in hand. The moon turned the outline of the clouds silver, and there was the chink of rigging from the yacht masts in the warm breeze off the sea. A cat began to follow us, trotting alongside, then halting, looking round, and following us once more. I examined myself cautiously for any trace of tipsiness, any effect of the brandy, and found none. I merely felt deeply happy – and as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’”.
“This is nice,” I said aloud. “Main khus hoon.” I’m happy. I wondered how long it would last, then laughed at myself.
“Me too,” said K.