XVI: Blaggin’ Vizag

Welcome to Andhra Pradesh – India’s number one state for competitive rollerskating. Its second city, the port of Vizag, is a great place to wander about in. A far cry from the the intensity of the BIG FOUR – Calcutta, Delhi, Chennai & Mumbai – with wide streets & smatterings of traffic. However, there still 1.5 million people living here, which would make it Britain’s second city in size – more than Glasgow or Birmingham. It is also a long way off the beaten track. Since I got here I’ve seen five Westerners; two irate Germans who got into my train carriage as I arrived & pointed me in the direction of the hotels, plus two plump American women & a six-year old boy coming out of a hotel. Other than that, its just been me on my own – rather like one of those British officials of the Raj who would find himself ruling two hundred thousand Indians. Those days are long gone, & now there’s just the odd English poet wandering through the dust of empire’s lost.

Talking of plump women, I witness’d a rather funny incident in the street. Two women in their fifties were suddenly halted & slapp’d about by this woman in her twenties. A fight ensued over a golden sari, & one of the plump women had a top ripped open to reveal a rather large granny breast. A large crowd began to gather around the melee, to the side of which a security guard was blowing his whistle to no effect at all. Then the old women were dragged through the street to a shopping mall, where I presumed the sari had been stolen from. They were led underneath it, some large gates being bolted as they passed under. Excited, I tried to climb a wall to see if they were getting a battering, a process which was halted by this security gaurd with a stick who threatened to batter me. So, I slipped down a side street & up a tenement & jumping spiderman like across a couple of rooves managed to get a view of the women pathetically lying down in a carpark, awaiting their fate. Content that they were not being clubb’d to death I went on my way.

One morning I headed out for a walk along the seafront. Its a charming, yet ageing affair, like Brighton in the 90’s before it got trendy. Some of the beach is golden, while some of it is a bit skanky, & the whole lot cool’d by a stiff breeze, pleasantly relieving me of the 30-degree heat. The promenade is full of statues & murals, from Indian freedom fighters to dinosaurs & mermaids. There is even a massive old submarine right on the sea front that you can wander about in for 25 rupees. Not far from there is a wonderful war memorial, far more inspiring than the dull affairs back home. It is testament to the 1971 war with Pakistan, who’d sent a submarine to Vizag to sink India’s only aircraft carrier. The sub ended up being sunk by a depth charge, a model of which creates the centrepiece of a fountain beside the chimney-like marble memorial. In the little garden you can also find a green & red Indian tank & a jet fighter, painted sky blue with a white underbelly, perfectly camaflaug’d for the skies. There are also four quotes on the memorial which I wrote down. I found them quite inspiring, a far cry from the solemn dreary roll-calls of the dead on our memorials, which seem somehow resigned to being places of sadness, unlike this memorial which makes one want to change nationality & join the Indian Army.

The first duty of a soldier is to attend to the safety & interests of his country

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honours

All a soldier desires to drive him forward is recognition for his work

The nation that forgets its defenders will have no need of ancestors

On the seafront there was this cool indoor market craft world, full of pretty sets of earrings at 10 rupees a pair. I did actually spend some money – there was the ‘Rajasthani Churan stall,’ which had about thirty different sweets in all shapes, colours & sizes. Some were conventional enough, but some were basically curry sweets. I sampled a few & bought 100g worth of two of my favorites. I then found myself at the Rajasthani pickle stall – similar to the charan place, but with about twenty massive plastic see-thru buckets of assorted pickles. I’d just sampled my third lot when I was told I had to buy something now. The problem was, after the first lot of pickle hits your tongue you cannot really use your taste-buds any more, & so cannot make a decisive judgment. I also had no intention of buying any anyway, so swiftly exited left.

On the way out, I was suddenly struck by the beauty of a set of pictures. They had been engraved onto palm leaves & the detail was incredible. I got chatting to the guy & it turns out they stuff is from a village in Orissa. I’ll be heading there next to write some sonnets, & its wicked to pick up a few pointers of where to go en route. I’ll definitely be checking out this village now, along with another place. I got chatting to a young Indian woman on the train to Vizag, who told me the native version of the story of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism – something the books would never tell me. This is why I love literary archeology – you really do have to travel the world to fill in the inherent gaps contained in libraries & the internet. I got her number by the way, & she’s up for being my guide when I hit Orissa.

It has been getting interesting being in such an indigenous city, & I’m guessing with my new tan I look a bit Indian – I’m getting spoken to in Telegu quite a lot. The place has a lazy air at the momemt. I have arrived in the middle of a festival called Sankaranti, a celebration of the sun beginning its journey into the northern hemisphere (the Uttarayan) & is celebrated across India under different guises – to the Tamils it is Pongal, to the people of Assam it is Bihu. Here in Andhra Pradesh there is a lot of kite-flying going on, plus illegal cock-fighting, where billions of rupees are blown on beer & gambling. Imagine those feathery gladiators having four-inch blades tied to their legs. It is illegal, but it seems the state’s top politicians have ringside seats. As for the beer, I’m guessing theres a problem in AP. Despite the spirits being four times more expensive than in Goa, every morning on my street this guy tunrs up with cardboard boxes full of bottles & sells the hard stuff at 50 rupees a glass – & he’s inundated.


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