Category Archives: India

INDIA (2002)

EPISTLE II

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India

January-April 2002

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I – Ciao India
II – Mashtupville
III – Vijiyanagar
IV – Headin’ South
V – Mosquito Wars
VI – By the Ocean
VII – A brief note about headphones
VIII – Thirukural
IX – The cheapest beer in the Raj
X – Paradise
XI – Near Death Experience
XII – Admiral Akbar
XIII – Another Near-Death Experience
XIV – I Can See Dead People
XV – High
XVI – Mountain Stuff
XVII – More Mountain Stuff
XVIII – Smelly Delhi
XIX – Desert Ranger
XX – Cumin Home
XXI – The Boy is Back

I: Ciao India

I have finally got me one of these new-fangled e-mail thingys. International Messenger services have advanced a long way since the Incas used to send them over a thousand miles on foot, carried by teams of relay runners at a rate of ten miles an hour. Also going are the days of formal letter-writing & waiting anxiously at the letterbox for the tread of a postman’s feet coming down the path. But, however nostalgic I’m currently feeling, I do see the value of the internet. Its ability to send information across the globe in an instant is obviously an important tool in defining the global village. Another valuable asset to the e-mail phenomena is its ability to store vast amounts of text. No more shall I be travelling around with bulky notebooks to record my journals – all I have to do is find a computer & within a few minutes my wayfaring will be presented for posterity & wired out to the world. That’s why this little number has appeared in all your inboxes.

Rudyard Kipling once mused, ‘East is east & west is west & never the twain shall meet,’ & boy was he right. The flight to the sub-continent began in a dull pre-dawn, slowly permeating the skies above the galaxy of stars that is the city of London. The capital was surrounded by the bright, wavy circuit of the M25 & thro’ the murk it seemed like the delicate golden stitching on some Chinese emperor’s sable suit. Europa soon pass’d majestically beneath us, eventually broken by the Black Sea & the dusty treeless leagues of North Persia, before the drop over the ocean into Bombay – another galaxy of stars in another corner of the universe. With dawn flecking red over the rooftops I took a crazy black taxi to a cheap hotel – £3 for a bed & a fan. My first impressions were the stench… it stinks! The sweat of a billion people mingling with pollution & Sulphur emissions – like one of my own lethal flatulence moments, but permanent!

Mumbai.jpg

My first day in the very European Bombay – complete with red double decker buses straight from the Strand – was a montage of sights & smells. As I cut a swathe thro’ sight & sound, all asweat with lips parch’d dry, I was assail’d at all sides by various beggars, touts & conmen – but you can’t blag a blagger & I even managed to haggle down the cost of my first score – a strange blend of Indian weed, which works! I was also blest by a priest of the elephant-god, & painted with a bindi – the spot in the centre of the forehead which represents the third eye. Ganesh, the elephant-headed god (xviii), is one of the major deities in the vast Hindu pantheon. There are over three million of them, for all sorts of obscure things. I guess there’s probably gods for scratching yer bum & putting the right amount of chilli sauce on yer chips. The craziest one is Kali, a goddess who wears a necklace of shrunken male heads & a dress of sever’d arms. Very morbid, but also very holy.

I have recently tried my first proper India food & tuck’d into a thali; several mini pots of curry + rice bready things, all for 40 rupees (60p). The money is mad; I got 5000 rupees all in fifty notes & feel pretty loaded. I also encountered my first ‘shocking’ scene. A man & four ragged, tiny urchin children, thin-legg’d & dirty, all asleep by the harbor. My automatic response was to offer them a little money but I refrained & went on my way. It felt like the time I saw a stoat heading for a nest of bluebird hatchlings. I scared it away the once, but I couldn’t stay on guard forever, & so let nature take its course. Later on I went down to the beach and rented a ‘friend’ for a hundred rupees (about a pound) who told me where all the Bollywood stars lived (basically pointing at random houses and saying the name of a random Bollywood star). He then took me for a ridiculously cheap and hot curry in a kind of shack cafe on the edge of a shanty town. His chat was disturbing, all about his childhood in 1947 when he watched Hindus massacre Muslims in the city streets at the dawn of Indian independence.

So, I’m slowly settling in, & after buying some shades & slipping them on I prepare to face my journey.  I’ll bell you all when I get to Goa, it might be in a few days as there are some wicked Portuguese forts to buzz round on the Konkan Coast, & you know how much I love forts!

Bombay
15/1/02

II: Mashtupville

Goa… it’s better than its rep, believe me. Even tho’ I cannot drive I have hired the funkiest looking moped for 100 rupees a day (£1.20) & have been cruising round the sandy roads, listening to my MP3 player, dodging the cows & burning the straights. My petrol ran out on one occasion, so I blagg’d some from a roadside shack & headed for my pad in Baga. On the way back I pass’d my first elephant – all truss’d up in psychedelic garb, stomping his way thro’ the street. As to partying, there was a crazy taxi ride to a sunset techno party in Vagator – reminiscent of the Hackney squat raves, but on a balmy evening & cool’d by a soft sea breeze. This was follow’d by a game of snooker with a mad Scotsman & a chill out with some Camden girls on a rooftop terrace drinking beer (40p) listening to the tunes I just happened to have in my pocket (handy when you’re fuck’d)!

I am staying next door to a cool Indian family, sharing their garden & toilet – which is in the middle of the street! The other streets roundabout are narrow, sandy & really serene. An old woman visits my patio with a fruit basket on her head & a cheeky little scamster (who beat me at pool) will get you your food from the restaurant – for a small fee of course! I am sharing with two Estonian guys at the moment. They are from a rural outpost of that little Baltic nation & seem a little country bumpkinified. We met on the fifteen=hour bus ride from Bombay, each of us amazed as we drove through Dharavi (a Mumbai suburb), where a world of squalid, one-room’d, tarpaulin lives smiled at us thro’ the glass. My continental brothers are nice enough guys & gave me some of their beers for the journey – which soon had me pissing out of the window, consequently getting a yellowish spray in my face.

So, Goa is like Glasto, only more strung out – Glasto on bikes! Heading down South to Hampi soon, but I think I’ll stay here just a few more da

Baga Beach
19/1/02

III: Vijiyanagar

At last I unpeel’d myself from the lush, green dolphin shores of Goa & struck forth into the Indian hinterland. The other morning, as dawn stirr’d the steaming jungle from her sleep, I thought I’d try out the local buses & head west via the verdant Western Ghats – jagged mountains that run for a thousand miles. The view of Goa from these peaks was shrouded in mist & very Lord of the Rings. I was startled to see old Indian women carrying baskets of stones on their heads & others operating a concrete mixer as they were building the road I was travelling on (road? I don’t think so mate). Ten hours of numb-bum later I arrived in Hospet & was forced to take a very dirty room in a lodge there. Subsequently I was eaten alive by bugs. Next morning & scratching like fuck I set off for Hampi,  arriving on a bus just as morning was breaking, while around me appear’d the ruinous environs of an ancyent city called Vijiyanagar. Several hundred years ago it was the fabulous capital of a great empire, with six-mile wedding processions on cloths of gold, & kings with 12,000 wives. It was razed half a millennium back & has remain’d uninhabited until recently, when the hippies arrived. After passing abandon’d temples full of monkeys, I was ferried by basketboat to a little settlement across the river from the old city. It is so serene here, a tantalising lace which bathes the soul. As pastel lustr’d sunsets muster’d oer Vijiyanagar, silhouetting a bongo player stood on a boulder playing to the heavens, I shared the stunning scene with Doratha, a beautiful little Romanian creature. We were led on these warm giant boulders, still retaining the suns heat, & there she taught me a soothing meditative technique. My hyperactivity went out to the stars, but it soon came back as she was hot as fuck!

The mosquitoes came out at night (to bite) but a bike-ride early in the day to Hospet saw me equipp’d with a mozzy net, and a couple of things I didn’t really need – when you enter an Indian shop they treat you like an old friend & offer you everything in the shop. Anyhows, my new ‘armour’ kept out most of the bugs & I zapp’d the couple inside – a peaceful night’s sleep. Next day saw more touring; overbearing statues of lion-type, frog gods, funny-faced monkeys, fluorescent birds & the world-fabled Monkey Temple. It was quite a climb up a hell of a load of steps to get there, & when I did I saw yet another-fuckin temple. However, the place was crawling with monkeys & I shared one of those karmic moments with a wee laddie with big fangs. As I skinned up, I’d left my bag on some rocks, complete with money & passport & all mi weed. Then I turned around & came eyeball to eyeball with a monkey who had his hand outstretched an inch from mi bag. We stared each other down like something out of High Noon, before he scampered off emptyhanded. A lucky break, one expects.

I’m staying in Hampi for a couple more days then moving down to Bangalore. This morning I went for a scramble over the huge boulder piles, like little hills but full of batfill’d caves. Believe me, they stretch for miles – like the ruined columns of some ancient giant temple – I’m right next to the fuckin desert here. Anyway, I stumbl’d across a small village & smoked my last charas joint, on which the tripp’d out guru-owner of a restaurant offer’d me some nice Nepalese black, just in time for an after-breakfast spliff.

Hampi
24/1/02

IV: Headin’ South

After a whirlwind tryst with the Romanian lady I left the Jupiterlike landscape of Hampi & delved further into the sub-continental hinterland. A sleeper train took me overnight to Bangalore, a city very much in the vein of hectic Bombay (but cleaner). Spent most of the afternoon in search of some rizlas to go with the very fine Nepalese charas I’d been tripping out on the last few days, but to no avail. God, I would have paid ten pounds for a single fuckin rizla! I ended up in a fortress-town called Sriringapattanam (try saying that with a mouthful of spaghetti), the site of the Duke of Wellington’s first significant career victory (15 years before Waterloo) over Tipu Sultan, the Tyger of Mysore (xix). Tipu stuck in the imperialist British throat like a chicken bone. It took them years to defeat him & claim their share of South India. The raja was martyred thro’ his noble death, personally defending a breach in the walls of his capital. The piss’d up redcoats could not differentiate him from a common soldier thro’ the smoke of battle & slew him, his body turning up next morning underneath a pile of his dead soldiers. I spent a day being carried around in a pony-driven carriage, checking out all the sights, & the evening trying to deflect an Indian businessman’s attempts to marry one of his daughters!

Had a crazy conversation with this English guy one morning. A month or so ago he had been kidnapped at gunpoint in an alleyway in Hyderabad & held captive for three days in a derelict house. He had no food or water & was forced to telephone his family in England for some cash, inventing a reason as he did so. Luckily, they didn’t understand enough English to realise he was telling his dad what was really going on & the gang was intercepted outside a bank just before they collected the money, with one ‘bandit’ being shot dead. However, instead of flying immediately home the guy has kept the two grand & is now writing a book of his experiences in the much more tranquil environs of Sriringapattanam. I mean, this country is such a place of wild extremes.

I moved on to Mysore where fate once more push’d me into the company of an Israeli guy I’d bumped into at Goa & Hampi (weird). We agreed three random meetings is more than a coincidence & we’re gonna hire out a houseboat to sail the Keralian backwaters in a week or so. Mysore was the most pleasant city so far – wide European streets & a genial atmosphere… but not enough to make me stay. So I spent another six hours on a bus winding thro’ thick jungle. As my soul’s boatman cut thro’ Karnataka I burst once more atop the feisty Ghats, drinking in the heady views that lead to Calicut (xx) & the Arabian Sea, drinking a £1 bottle of whisky & grooving to some tunes. I am now in Kerala, an alcohol-free state, but very charming, & I have just enjoyed an excellent meal watching the end of the latest one-day cricket match between England & India, which we won, much to the waiters chagrin… my dessert tasted strangely of phlegm! To the Indians cricket is god, Tendulkar the messiah & Sehwag the second coming. Like Goa, Kerala was once an enclave of the Portuguese empire, & the place where the first imperial seed was planted. Vasco De Gama sank his renaissance gaze upon the east here, & was palanquin’d to meet the local king, bringing the winds of trade to blow upon this spicy shore.

I’m beginning to get used to India & the people now. It is generally very scruffy, but the vegetation & scenery often stunning. As I have broken away from the main tourist trail I am encountering a non-hostile curiosity as to my country? My good name?  My marital status? & my job? But all-in-all, it is so-far-so-good & somewhere south of here there’s a beach with my name on it.

Calicut
31/01/02

V: Mosquito Wars

I am winning the battle of the mosquitoes. The Nazi bastards have been victorious up til now, but I have develop’d some new techniques. At first, I would set up a safe defensive position under my net, only venturing out for some ‘zapping’ with my heaviest book. It is very dispiriting to look at their ‘splats’ & see your own crimson life-force sprayed across the wall. Now I have taken to using the net as a, well, net & catching them in it  – very effective.

I am currently nestled amidst the rooftops of Fort Cochin, an old Portuguese enclave & very pleasant indeed. Yesterday was more like a typical English Sunday, reading the Hindu times, drinking tea & watching cricket in my hotel – England levell’d the series much to the annoyance of the staff (buzzin!) with a lad from Devon & a lass from Milton Keynes (poor thing).

A couple of days ago I was walking thro’ a jungle town (very cool) & walk’d past a large group of village lads playing footy. I was soon barefooted & joining in, playing in defence with an occasional Sol Campbell run into the goal-scoring area. My fellow defenders were three coconut trees (as the rest of my lads were all strikers) & we did well to shut out the other side (despite our goalie also being a striker) & win 3-0. After the match I shook about thirty pairs of hands (the game had drawn quite an audience).

One more crazy coincidence. I blagg’d a spliff of an old, bald Swiss guy back in Baga & last night, after 5 days without a smoke (quite a trippy experience actually) lo & behold he was on my hotel’s rooftop terrace. After nearly losing two fingers in a fan (fucking painful) he gave me a bit of weed (no pain no gain) & I had my first spliff – it’s safe to say I was soon suitably stoned & swaying,

Fort Cochin
4/02/02

VI: By the Ocean

Ah, the beach!

Left Cochin a few days ago on an 8-hour boat trip along the Keralian Backwaters (Israeli guy still up North). It was serene as fuck, passing pretty little villages, some of the menfolk fishing with spears, dodging the steady flow of hummingboats. I bought some brandy for the voyage, which the captain noticed, on which he immediately invited me into his cabin for a drink (of my brandy). Coming in towards Kollam I was witness to one of the golden treasures of Kerala… the narrow backwaters suddenly fann’d out into an awesome, horizon filling scene… 360 degrees of palm tipp’d coastline. I was literally hauled onto my feet in one of those Scott of the Antarctic moments.

Ah, the beach!

Here life is so chillin’. Dark golden sand hugging the bottom of volcanic red cliffs, on which sit a number of restaurants. Life basically consists of lying on the beach interspersed with refreshment breaks (those steps up the cliff are a killer). I have never been this close to the equator before & it’s hot! Also, we are very close to the Indian Ocean & this I can see in the waves – they are mean fuckers & already I have lost some beads, shorts, got a graze on my arm from being flung onto the sea-bed & all day yesterday I was convinced I had broken my neck!

So I’m staying put for a while. I’ve got great accommodation, pleasant rooms by a pond (so the fish eat all the mosquitoes) with my own private eating hut set out in the water. Last night I was sat down smoking with an Italian lady & she was giving me flawless, romantic Italian for my film. The tantric landlord has just leant me a guitar so I’m gonna sit down & write me some psychedelic ‘Eastern’ numbers – I’ve bought some Indian tunes & a big bag o grass so wish me luck.

Varkala
6th February

VII: A Brief note about Headphones

As the sand they pick’d up on Varkala beach slowly corrodes the insides of my left earphone, making it buzz real loud on the bass, I ponder on the earphones I have already toss’d by the Indian roadside. Seven pairs in fact, & the last lot lasted me a whole week. They are so naff! I am currently sitting in a dark & dodgy internet room in the Tamil Nadu city of Madurai & am a little – a lot – stoned after sharing a spliff with Prakesh, the owner. Just roll’d into town with a German geeze (of course I mention’d the war – I’m saving the 5-1 for the right moment) & a Dutch couple I met in Varkala. It was a struggle to leave that place, believe me, but when there’s some adventurin’ to be done put mi name down Fergal Sharpley!

Yesterday I left Varkala, one song & two bags of weed to the good, & took a 3 & 1/2 hour train ride to Kanyakamari, the very southern tip of India herself (xxi). In one sweep of the horizon you can see the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean & the Arabian sea, all meeting in a choppy, liquid mass, the Tazmanian Devil waves coming in from all directions. The sunset was crazy, a lucid ball of red that just sat on the clear horizon & was slowly swallow’d by the sea. To celebrate we hit the brandy, chilled on the hotel balcony & the Dutch guy got his guitar & we jammed – note: a Dutch couple that don’t smoke weed!

Paresh, the owner has just said ‘please kindly bring some more of that – it’s nice’. I think he’s referring to the weed & not that fart I did about two minutes ago. ‘I don’t have any more on me’ I said, so he’s nicked my lighter instead. Honestly, you get harangued from every side, everyone after yer rupees. The slow counts are the best, it takes a minute to get yer small change & then another for your notes – they are so slow & indifferent about your change, hoping you will go away or perhaps die of boredom. There are many, many more… my favorite is if you sit in a cafe & ask for something they don’t sell, they’ll just pop next door, buy it & sell it to you for five rupees more – a rupee a meter!

Madurai
14/2/02

VIII: Thirukural

It’s been an interesting few days in Madurai, a typical crazy melting pot of a place. The 12 gopuras of the great temple here dominate the skyline, but this time the technicolour pantheons are covered up by these massive brown hats – basically rush matting on a stick-scaffold. The 1000-year-old temple is busy as buggary, & just as noisy. I can’t blame them tho’, there’s so much detail on the sculptured phantasmagoria in & around the temple, from the huge cow at the main gate to the horses prancing like the Scottish lion rampant. There’s also the Golden Lotus Tank, a wonderful ghat a little larger than a basketball court. It’s very lush & looks like some ornamental garden-fountain, with the said golden lotus emerging from the waters. In the early morning when the sun just peeps above the high porticoed walkway that surrounds the waters, it is a wonder to behold.

The city itself is quite clean, very busy, but generally a nice place. I’ve been showing off my primitive Tamil, & it’s gone down like a house on fire. My best memory was taking a walk along the river & seeing a few slices of Indian bankside life The river itself was cool, lots of grassy islands with a few horses grazing on them. The main event down there was the washerwomen, hundreds of them bearing the rocks with their wet washing, leaving gleaming white bedsheets on the grass like sails in the Spanish Armada.

Further along I came across about twenty kids – 6-12 years of age – holding hands & trying to tig each other. It was kabbadi, a great wee game, sort of rugby without the ball, full of dust & cheers. I loved their celebrations, like raving away at a dead good Sheffield techno-trance night.

I have also ‘discovered’ the Thirukural. I was browsing thro’ a bookshop when I saw a picture of a man I thought I recognized. It was in fact the poet-saint, Thiruvallavar, the statue of whom towered over me back at Kanyakamari. The book was a mere 20 rupees, & on first glance found it a fascinating thing – a kind of guide to life. Then something happened to really kick off my fascination with the book.

On my way back to the hotel I was accosted by a scrawny guy offering to sell me some smoke. I was running out, so agreed to top up, biting a little of the ‘weed’ to check it out. There was a crush, & then a rush of liquerice flew round my mouth. ‘That’s not weed.’ I said. ‘It’s opium,’ he replied. I’d never tried the stuff before, so my curiosity get the better of me. I didn’t exactly have Coleridgian visions but it trigger’d off a shed load of poetry. Not long after my first bite I was spun out on my bed, staring at the spinning fan above me. I then began to look thro’ the Thirukural, & almost immediately started converting them into a more poetical English, using the same form as they appear in Tamil – 4 words on top & three below. There are 1330 individual ‘maxims’ & I already intend, one day, to translate the lot.

Madurai
16th February

IX: The Cheapest Beer In The Raj

Hi folks, it’s been a weird kinda few days, but I’d mainly put that down to the opium. I was forced into my first train jump from Madurai – the sleeper train was full & I didn’t want to hang around a city in my new state of mind. I got a couple of hundred k before being collar’d – & despite my offers of baksheesh (bribes) & beers the fella just wouldn’t let me stay – the best I got was a third class carriage. I took one look at the hot, thirsty mass of humanity & opted for a new mode of transport. As usual, luck was on my side, & outside the station was a luxury air-condition’d coach heading exactly where I wanted to go – I paid my hundred rupees & off we went into the balmy night.

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The winds blew me up to Pondicherry (an ex French colony) where I stock’d up on the duty free booze… 28 rupees for a big bottle of beer (40p) & 20 fuckin rupees for my whiskey. Great! Fifteen kilometers from Pondicherry was the place I chose to chill for a couple of nights. Auroville is an experiment in communal living, a kinda European utopia. Thirty years ago a holy woman called the Mother bought a load of land, planted forests of trees & decreed the area to be devoted to spiritual, artistic & intellectual study. It is virtually a cashless place (I managed to blag free food by making up an account number) & very serene. The place also had bikes & scooters which were great & cheap – I was scrambling about all over the place – keeping the Ciscostyle company of an American lass called Rhonda, who let me ride her buzzin’ blue bike while clinging to me quite tightly. In return I kept rolling up spliffs in various scenic woodland spots. I would have pounced but her acne put me off.

I have now reach’d the vast Westernesque sprawl of Chennai (Madras). The Swedes have turn’d up again & we intend to get a boat for the paradisial Andaman Islands. A local strike, however, has brought the sailing from Friday til tomorrow morning at 11am. I only got here late last night & had to spend today sorting out my permit to visit this legendary archipelago (xxii). I hired a rickshaw for the day (Note – remember to buy fleet of rickshaws & build track at home so we can all play Rickshaw Races – with a couple of guys hanging out of the windows with baseball bats!) & we rocketed around on loads of crazy missions (including a trip to his weed-dealing cousins, the net result being I get my permit tomorrow morning at 9 Am & there’s no actual guarantee of gettin’ on the ship. Fortunately there’s about twenty others in the same boat (unintended pun) & we’re gonna go down en masse waving 500 rupee notes & smilin’ widely, & if they don’t let us on we’re gonna sink the bastard!

Chennai
19/2/02