Last weekend I was a witness to the rather colourful Sankranti festivities of Andhra Pradesh. They were spread over four days & quite cool to wander about in. The first day was called Bhogi, which began at the unearthly hour of 4 AM. It is then that fires are lit across the state to banish evil spirits in the same way we burn sage when exorcising a house. I duly set off out into the darkness at four, & went on a tour of the neighbourhood’s ‘bhogi’ bonfires. The first one was just a guy on his own burning two four-by-fours in a shack, his mate snoring beside him. The second was a largish affair of long poles – but the clientelle were clearly ruffians, one of whom was being beaten with a brush by an ancient woman half his size defending a bit of rope netting.
The third fire was a wee one, with a lone man boiling a large pot of water. Nearby was a chai stall doing its first business of the day, & by him a guy standing in front of piles of blue crates full of plastic sacks of pasturised milk. The fourth fire looked like an oil drum, burning by a temple, but on nearing it I realised that it was a load of rubber tyres stacked in a tower, with wood inside it, belching off thick black smoke. The fifth fire was a family affair, at the crossroads of two narrow, meditterranean-style streets, dominated by this fat controller guy who kept bringing wood out from nowhere to add to his massive pile. The festivities were disturbed regularly by rickshaws & scooters trying to squeeze thro’ gaps in the road. Walking down the street I pass’d some startlingly psychedelic patterns chalked outside the houses. Then further on, the sixth fire burnt above me – on a bit of concrete sticking out from a half-built house. There was no-one sat by it, but it added to the scene.
The seventh fire was on a mainish road, by a temple to Durga – the goddess perched on a tyger – & was woman-heavy (& some of them looed very heavy). I thought this would be a good place to stop, with seven being such an auspicious number. The Hindus have seven holy cities, rivers etc. This fire was pretty big & was built within a chalk circle, coloured in with flowers at the points of the triangles that formed the circle like Nepalese peace flags. I shared the moment with a Western girl from Luxemberg (her German boyfriend was asleep) & we silently watch’d the great pieces of wood turn reptillian in the flames.
The next day was Sankranti itself, when the sky resembl’d a multi-coloured spectrum of wafting confetti, as the paper birds filled the azure spaces over the city like the Luftwaffe over London during the blitz. In the middle of all the smiling kids, however, I got all poignant. There was this sad wreck of a man sleeping – shaking – on the pavement. Perhaps he was dreaming of a time when he ran though the streest with his own kite as an innocent, fun-loving boy, before life struck him so low.
The last part of the Sankranti festivities occurred with a mad street party thrown to the local tutelary deity, Lord Balaje, a curious little black fellow who one sees everywhere. It was a bit like Notting Hill Carnival, & indeed there were loads of speakers belting out tunes top volume to the heaving mass of Indians wandering thro’ the streets. A street was lit up Blackpool illuminations style, with dolphins & green bars puking illuminous light onto the scene. All the kids had these wee vuvela things which gave out a dreadful shrieking sound – a bit like mi ex-bird having a strop. There were loads of stalls – porcelain dolls of the gods, sugar cane – & a heavily decorated ox (called a gangireddulu) getting all four legs onto a little wooden stool while his keepers played drums & trumpet. There were cardboard boxes of chicken chicks spray-painted in pastel colours, there was a guy with a set of weighing scales charging a rupee a pop. There were corn-on-the-cob sellers fanning the cobs over hot coals – I tried one & it was very tasty.
I am now at the half-way point in my Indian tour – two-&-a half months in, two & a half months to go. This morning I found myself 15K north of Vizag at a place called Thotlakonda, a hill which houses the ruins of a 2000-year-old Buddhist complex. They weren’t particulary impressive, but the views were, of the gold-lined ocean below & the rolling upland greenery of the Eastern Ghats behind. The road to sea level was lined with blossoming trees, a very lovely walk which recharged the poet in me. At the foot of the hill I caught a bus which swept me along the ocean drive back to Vizag – a place I hadn’t left since I arrived 12 here days ago.
The reason I’ve lingered for so long began last Thursday where, on joining in a cricket game with some young Indians, I was befriended by seventeen-year old Sameer. He was a likeable chap & very keen to hear of life in the West. He’s a Muslim to boot, & invited me to his house in the old port quarter of Vizag to meet his parents, who were lovely, & fed me like a trooper. Its mad, they literally all live off sixty quid a month – & Sameer just receievd a student grant for the same amount to last the whole year. He & his sister are quite academic – hoping for better lives I guess – & we even discussed Shakespeare. It amazes me really how the young Indian ploughs through the complex densities of Shakespeare like dull oxes through the tough soil of Elizabethan English. However, seeing as they speak four languages fluently – Urdu at home, Telegu in the street, English at school & Hindi to other Indians – I guess they can handle it.
Sameer pointed me toward the only library in town. For a few days I’d asked all & sundry about the district library & finally came to the conclusion that there actually wasn’t one. However, there is the Ramakrishna Movement’ ashram’s library, which flew like an angel into my literary lap. It forms a key component of my daily routine which has been conducted thus:
5.30 AM: Wake up
6 AM: Walk to train station to get English newspaper, calling for poori breakfast on the way back
7 AM: Watch a movie playing guess the swear words – they silence the voice & put stars where the word should be on the subtitles. Despite being English language films, I think they put English subtitles in to help Indians learn the language.
10 AM: Internet café for an hour of work
1 PM : walk to an internet place near the sea for a couple more hours of work
4 PM: The library opens where I hit the books – but only one at a time. They are all held behind locked up glass cabinets, & you have to sign each book in & out every time you use it. The library is on the beach road & my session is divided by trips to the kiosks on the beach for these beautiful samosas & ice cream cornets
8 PM: Walk back to my hotel, chomping on various street foods as I go
9 PM: TV, cups of tea & sleep
So that’s it, pretty simple stuff but I’ve got some proper work done, preparing loads of notes for my poetic cruise around Orissa which starts in earnest at 6.50 in the morning. I’ve got to conduct a six-hour train journey through apparently beautiful scenery, including passing thro’ the highest train station in Asia. I’ve got my rough route worked out & one of the places I’ll be calling in on is a Maoist hot-bed. They are a seccessionist group who have been fighting for their rights & lands against, less the Indian government, more the corporate conglomerates.
The bodies keep coming out of the forest. Slain policemen wrapped in the national flag; slain maoists, displayed like hunters trophies, their wrists & ankles lashed to bamboo poles Arundhati Roy
Sounds like fun…