Thursday, January 29, 2009

Incredible India

We arrive in Bangalore at midday and are glad that we're leaving at 10 that night - it might be the centre of India's IT revolution (read Infosys and more call centres than we've had hot curries) but it's also a great example of India's rapid urban expansion (read traffic chaos, pollution and more traffic chaos). We take a bus to the botannical gardens, stopping off first for a veggie burger - they like their Westernised ways here. The gardens are a great refuge from the city and there's a flower show on to boot. Eventually we return to the chaos. From the bus we see shopping centres and malls and McDonalds - it's a stereotypical image of the city - and later find ourselves walking amongst building rubble and dug-up roads. Ten o'clock can't come quick enough. As usual, the station is alive with people and there are plenty of trains coming and going.

In the morning we step off in Hubli and have chilli doughnuts for breakfast before catching a state battle bus up to Badami. Our bus conductor is a woman, quite a rare sight, and she sits next to Gayle to chat. At one point she comments on her "lovely white skin". Most Indians are dark-skinned but the TV presenters and Bollywood stars are usually light-skinned. We see TV adverts for skin-lightening creams. Clinics advertise 'skin treatments'. It's a great example of how media and business can create demand through fantasy people, fantasy worlds. Just like home, really.

Badami's a small town with a busy main street and a quiet old town full of old mud houses, built together in blocks. We have come to visit the rock-cut cave temples which sit in a cliff face above a small reservoir, built in the 5th century, along with the temples, when the place was capital of an old kingdom. The reservoir has a dam with ghats (steps) and behind the dam sits the old town. On rocky outcrops there are ruined forts and temples overlooking the place. It's a great place to wander around, besides the aggressive dogs and a few children asking for pens or money. The cave temples are similar to others we have seen, the carving very good in places, and one features naked gods in stark relief, so to speak, which is a novelty. Each day on the ghats the local women are to be seen washing their pots and doing the laundry. The sound of wet clothes being heaved and slapped against the stone steps echoes all around. Their labour is tedious and incessant. None of the old houses have running water.

We find ourselves in a hotel popular with other tourists, some of them here to climb, and there's a peaceful garden restaurant out the back. By the temples we had seen signs warning "Monkey Menace". They hang around in groups, like the unemployed and idle young men of the town, waiting to be fed or foraging amongst rubbish for scraps (that's the monkeys, not the young men, who can be seen engaged in the national past-times of paan-chewing and ball-scratching). Occasionally they'll (monkeys again) appear at the hotel to make a raid. They seem to be tolerated, despite their nuisance, but everyone seems to be wary of them. I get sick here and have to spend the day not further than 5 metres from the toilet. I am confused by the automatic flush on the toilet - until I realise that the sound is coming from me. It's days like these when I rue not checking the room properly before taking it. (It was only after we checked in that we realised there was no sink in the bathroom. A careless omission.... on both sides.) Gayle makes the most of it and spends some time walking around the old streets and meeting people and taking photos of them - something she's very good at.

Finally we move on to Bijapur, just up the road, where there are remains of the old city and a mausoleum or two that have survived from the Mughal era of the 17th century. The town is much bigger and hotter and possibly dustier and not so nice for walking around. However, the Islamic architecture is impressive and the Golgumbaz mausoleum is a huge empty building (bodies in the crypt below, whooohoohoo....) topped by a huge dome. You can climb up to the top and test the acoustics on the 'Whispering Gallery' just like St.Paul's in London. But no-one knows what whispering is in India, so instead you can be deafened by young men howling and squawking like afore-mentioned monkeys, whilst a security guard blows his ear-piercing whistle at full blast for some minor infringement unseen and unknown by anybody but him. The other sights are far more peaceful.

The town has a large Muslim population, judging by the number of chadors and skull-caps we see around, but the old Jammi Masjid (literally Friday Mosque i.e. the main mosque) looks a bit sad. I sit on the outside steps whilst Gayle goes for a look around inside. There's a group of pesky lads who hustle up to us with instructions and directions and orders to leave our shoes at the entrance and we try our best to ignore them. They don't leave us alone. One of them comes up to me shouting gibberish right in my face so I reach up and slap him. He looks surprised, but not as surprised as I am. He shuts up and leaves me alone to worry about what I have just done. How can I tell Gayle? What is happening to me? Gayle reappears with a sheepish look on her face and tells me that she's just had to cuff one of the older boys on the head who was making kissing noises in her ear. We both seem to have lost it. Or have we? We know you're not supposed to leave your sense of humour behind when you walk out the door, and most of the time we manage with the children who appear at our sides asking What is your country? China. What is your name? Wan Pen. One pen please? Yes, that's right, nice to meet you, ad infinitum. If we are asked for money we just say no money and that's it. Invariably the boys are cheekier than the girls. What we don't tolerate is people grabbing us, but usually we just growl a bit. So what has driven us to strike out separately but simultaneously? Maybe the boys were just too pushy. Maybe because we know they would never behave the same to Indian tourists (they ignored the ones that were there). With hope, they'll think twice before doing it again. We will, that's for certain.

It's another night train to Hyderabad. We change trains at a junction called Sholapur and the station is a scene like a refugee crisis - people lying around the platforms and entrance hall with their belongings, villagers carrying their loads on their heads, old folk looking lost and bewildered. Trains come and go frequently. At the unreserved carriages there is an unholy scrum to get aboard first, verging on hysterical. Most windows are barred, except for the emergency exit through which the more nimble climb onto the train to bag a place. Luggage racks are cherished as a place to lie down. We board ours and meet a man who works for an Austrian company. He tells us that they speak Dutch in Vienna. We haven't the heart to correct him. In the morning hawkers pass along the carriages announcing their produce by repeating it endlessly "vadai vadai vadai vadai" "chai chai chai chai" "samosa samosa samosa samosa", not pausing for breath, like kabbadi players. As the train pulls in a man shouts hopefully through the window at us: "Coolie?"

Sometimes we see the Indian Tourist Board's swish adverts on cable TV, beautifully shot, full of wonderful ruins and monuments, colourful people, fantastic landscapes. 'Incredible India' is their tag line. It can be like that sometimes, but there's a lot lot more too it.


qunfuz said...

really beautifully written and commandingly realist

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