16 Hours on an Indian Track

August 18, 2012

Dahl baht and rice looks pretty much the same at either end of the digestive tract. It’s delivered on a silver tray in some sort of order. Delivery at the other end is another matter altogether. At Saugauli Junction train station it seems to me that the vast majority of everyone’s Dahl baht is sprayed across the sleepers and tracks, baking away under the 35 degree heat, putrefying in the 90% humidity. The stench is overpowering but the thousands of Indians here, milling about, with some gathering in a cluster around us (we are objects of some curiosity) don’t seem to mind. Read more

India is not…

November 28, 2008

prabudda.jpg…a country of poverty and perverse Victorian customs lost in time and place. It is not Mother Teresa or slums, cholera or cyclones, terrorists or dodgy airlines. It is first and foremost a country of the senses. India is felt on the skin, tasted in all the mouth, heard through every pore, and smelt even when sleeping. It is spices and aromas and sensuous fabrics. If you are the remotest bit tactile India is seductive. Read more

India Opens Your Mind

March 15, 2008

india-fashion-week.jpgNot by inhaling some of its roadside greenery tamped into a bong but by travel. Which will do that to your mind (if you let it), regardless of where you go. But we usually start with such polarised preconceptions about India that any visit there dislocates our understanding of the place. This picture from a collection taken of the India Fashion Week reminded me of the effect the subcontinent can have on our expectations. Read more

Vale Nigel Hankin

January 15, 2008

nigel-hankin-290x200.jpgReaders can be very kind, even if it is sad news they bring. Ray Pearce has just brought to my attention the death of Nigel Hankin, a COMPLETELY eccentric, gentle, likable old chap who won our hearts when we met him in India. Thanks Ray, I had missed it. Read more

Cricket: India versus England, Australia, NZ, Sri Lanka…No one wins.

January 9, 2008

indiacricket.jpgIt was a World Series Clash held in Mumbai. It was hot. In the mid thirties and steaming, with the heavy salt air hammering the city with a humid blanket that never lifted. The tamarind trees around the ground had their foliage blasted off and shade was notional at best. Sri Lanka was batting, there had been an appeal and the umpires were closely looking at the wicket to determine if there had been an error. The crowd was screaming for blood. Out! The crowd roared and hooted and the next batsman skipped out onto the pitch with the crowd chanting his demise even before he started. Read more

I Married a Dog

November 13, 2007

There is a wonderful line quipped in Ghostbusters by Dr Venkman (Bill Murray) when he rather nonchalantly explains to his colleagues that his girlfriend, now turned into a hellish demon with a canine disposition of Cerberus, is just that, a dog. “So, she’s a dog…” It is typical of Venkman’s understated throw away humour but its a line that snapped to mind last night when the Hindustan Times picked up a story of an event that is not uncommon in India – a person marrying an animal. But AP picked it up as well and it was splashed across the Sydney Morning Herald today. According to all reports this marriage was one of atonement, the groom having not only felt aggrieved for stoning and killing two rutting dogs years earlier, but was now convinced his stroke and other illnesses were a direct result of that culling. Marriage would appease the gods. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. After all it looks like he is doing his own ghostbusting. By all accounts he can divorce the dog with no ill effects and is not precluded from marrying a two legged creature (bird?) when he feels that is appropriate. In the meantime he has no in-laws to concern himself about, he has not had to add an extra room onto the house, his toothpaste tube can continue to be squeezed just the way he wants and the cost of the reception was kept to a minimum. Her family had no guests and while the groom had a feast all she needed to sate her hunger was a bun. Training her to fetch slippers will be a career enhancement, not a red neck sexist approach to living together, and “bitch” will be a term of endearment. Sounds like a marriage made in …well, India of course.

An Extraordinary Well

March 18, 2007

Our prowl around Delhi with Nigel Hanklin turned up some surprising revelations. Some of which helped remind us that the modern day has no exclusive claim on art, inventiveness, science or creativity. Sure, we know all that, but sometimes it requires something to be in our face to understand it.

We paused for a stop at a low brick wall in the shade of a large tree, then walked around to one end of the wall, ascended a few steps and were presented with this rather odd view, looking down into this structure with a small green pool at the bottom. Its scale can be gauged by the figures in the top right hand corner. I exhausted all ideas about what this structure was before Nigel revealed that it was in fact a well. Albeit a very large one. Once filled to within about eight feet of the top. But which had in fact been only about a third full for most of its life, as the lighter, less weathered brickwork shows. In fact the water level was most consistantly at the ledge above the largest and lowest arch at the far end. Steps at one end descend to this depth. It still eludes me as to why a well would be build with the arches and interior architectural decorations if they were to spend all their life under water.

As it turns out modern Delhi has put so much pressure on the water table that the well is nigh on empty, the current small pond revealing the depth of the table. But that earthen mound of centuries old silt covered in weeds must be ripe for an excavation, surely. As a kid I used to watch people excavating old wells, of the more traditional kind, around the goldfields of Otago, pulling out old bottles and crockery. What would a 3-4 century well of this size reveal?


January 29, 2007

During our trip with Nigel around New Delhi we were treated to some extraordinary sights, with Nigel focusing on cultural elements of the city that a tourist probably would not plan into their day. But which are an integral part of the fabric of India and for which a visitor is all the poorer for not visiting. You might not think that a couple of hours spent at a crematorium would hold much a appeal. Yet in a strange way it formed a powerful part of our visit. Mortal Hindus are cremated quite quickly after death and the process is an interesting reflection of society. The rich parade their deceased on an open bier, covered in marigolds and send them off with a very large fire – the firewood is purchased at the entrance. The very poor, some of whom had passed away on the river bank beside this crematorium, are picked up by “social workers” and given a solemn send off. We watched both. Interestingly, in each case once the fire was under way all spectators left, and the fire was left to blaze away on its own.

It is a good place to be reminded of our fleeting passing, and while intriguing (without being morbid – India wears everything out on her sleeve and this really is a good example of death being a part of life) it also was a sobering visit. But it was a good place to see death put in perspective as well. For directly in front of us a beggar woman had been placed on a bier, lifted to the top of the pyre, and the fire lit. Immediately after the crematorium staff departed another beggar jumped the fence and rushed over to the fire. We had all just ducked out of a heavy shower but this chap must have been caught up in it. The heat from these fires is intense. Very quickly he pulled off a pair of pants (revealing another underneath) and held them up to dry while he placed another garment on his head to get the same effect. Shortly there was a cloud of steam pouring off him. Here he is, giving a new level of meaning to “recycle”, while keeping half an eye on the crowd off to the left who were saying farewell to a wealthy businessman. I don’t think anyone in that crowd chased the beggar off -it is not that sort of place after all.

Chai Chai, Tea Tea, or Chai Tea? Or Just Chai?

January 24, 2007

The local Gloria Jeans coffee shop serves up a very nice “Chai Tea”. It has not been heated over a cow dung fire, filtered to remove twigs and other impurities, nor made with a tin of condensed milk and a secret recipe of herbs and spices which are best not ask about. It all comes out of a clean machine and I have to say it tastes pretty good.

When it was first introduced to the menu I badly wanted to point out the repetition of meaning – the word Chai, as roughly simulated in the tea served up in the Gloria Jean recipe, has its origins in northern India. Though its roots go back to the Chinese where it is called cha. Interestingly the British military took “Chai” into its vocabulary and from there into the British community as “char” – exactly as the Chinese pronounce it. You will still hear the word in use in Britain.

I digress. Within the bowels of the old fort in the centre of New Delhi, where tourists rarely venture, and where we would have never visited except for the guidance of Nigel, we stumbled over a group of men and boys pondering the contents of a black, simmering pot. The moment we showed interest one of the lads started ladling out the contents, pouring it through a filter a few times. The others peered at it excitedly, jabbering encouragement at the rise and fall of the liquid. Eventually, and with a flourish, it was ladled into a tall glass and offered to us. It smelled glorious and I would have gladly partaken except that Nigel warned us off. The contents came, in part, from local cows and was known to create health problems, even when heated. We had no idea what had actually gone into the pot but as Nigel pointed out, the glass was filthy, and loudly advertising a bad dose of “Delhi Belly” – at best.

The liquid was no less than Chai. Made with local cow’s milk – there are plenty around. Supplemented by sweetened condensed milk. And all sorts of herbs and spices. And accompanied by an elaborate ritual with which to serve it. Carefully filtered of any street rubbish and presented to many oohs, ahhs and other encouraging sounds. Sadly, we did have to decline – but we caught something of the sacred ritual in the photograph here. The Chai is being dispensed through a filter from an exaggerated height – but which helped create a more frothy texture. They should consider a franchise!

Coronation Park

January 8, 2007

Poking around in Hanklyn Janklyn last night had me dragging out photos rather than diaries this evening. Coronation Park. King George declared this to be the site of the new capital of India. In 1911 if my memory serves me correctly. He did so to a large crowd of Indian rajahs and other important rulers and bureaucrats without realising that when it rained this place turned into a swamp. The capital was moved from Calcutta to the present day site while this proposed site remained an amusing story at the expense of the king.

Nigel introduced the park to us on his little tour as it has since taken on a peculiarly Indian flavour, and a light joke at the expense of Indian Independence planners. After Independence a call was made to remove any symbols of British rule. And the most obvious (collective) symbol were all the statues around the country dedicated to this or that English character. King. Soldier. Merchant. Philanthropist. Civil Servant. It would probably be a safe bet that there are more statues to Brits in India than anywhere else. Even Britain.

Anyway, the call went out. Pull all your statues down, but because we are an ancient people and proud civilisation we won’t be so Vandal as to destroy them. Rather we will gather them all in this park on the outskirts of New Delhi where all can come and wonder.

The great part of the story is that Indians decided that they liked their British statues. None came from any of the state capitals, or any other city for that matter, apart from the new capital. In fact only four turned up. So in this overgrown park there are dozens of plinths, all set up in anticipation of a flood of statues. But all save four stand empty. It is, I think, a powerful testimony to the power of the Empire and the thoroughly ingrained nature of that culture in present day Indian culture. They are proud of it. Mostly.

The four statues stand alone, missed by almost every visitor. Courted by stray cats and pestered by noisy crows. And smiled at on occasions by Nigel and his guests who understand the irony of this lonely and overgrown park.

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