Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Journey's End

"the indians stood watching him. He could see that none of them spoke among themselves or commented on his riding there nor did they raise a hand in greeting or call out to him. They had no curiosity at all. As if they knew all that they needed to know. They stood and watched him pass and watched him vanish upon that landscape solely because he was passing. Solely because he would vanish." Cornac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

One day I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me I am not mistaken in mine.

India was affecting, and that's about all I'm able to say by way of conclusion. Call it writer's block, or the seemingly innate ability of this place to defeat you and leave you smiling at the same time, but my numerous attempts over the past week to write a final post have been a failure. There's no point dropping wack shit just for the sake of it. Like other planned pieces on Rajasthan, Indian sexuality, and Islam in India, lengthier summaries will have to wait for some other time, some moment of clarity. Instead, I'll leave you with choice excerpts from bits and bobs I've been reading over the last few months, which will hopefully give you some insight into this crazy journey. West Asia awaits. Wandering Satlan is stop.

“The sole country under the sun that is endowed with imperishable interest…the one land all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the world.” Mark Twain

“If there is a place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.” Romain Rolland
“A kind of India happens everywhere, that’s the truth too; everywhere is terrible and wonder-filled and overwhelming if you open your sense to the actual pulsating beat.” Salman Rushdie

“I believe that a nation is happy that has no history.” Gandhi

“Azadi [Liberty] is coming, India will soon be free.” I laughed and said, “Babuji, what is that to me? I am carrying loads now and shall continue carrying them then.” Bhisham Sahi, Tamas

“The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga. She reminds me of the sun-covered peaks and the deep valleys of the Himalayas, which I have loved so much, and of the rich and vast plains below, where my life and work have been cast. Smiling and dancing in the morning sunlight, and dark and gloomy and full of mystery as the evening shadows fall, a narrow, slow and graceful stream in winter and a vast, roaring thing during the monsoon, broad-bosomed almost as the sea, and with something of the sea’s power to destroy, the Ganga has been to me a symbol and a memory of the past of India, running into the present, and flowing on to the great ocean of the future. And though I have discarded much of past religion and custom, and am anxious that India should rid herself of all shackles that bind and constrain her and divide her people…I do not wish to cut myself off from the past completely. I am proud of that great inheritance that has been, and is, ours, and I am conscious that I too, like all of us, am a link in that unbroken chain which goes back to the dawn of history in the immemorial past of India.” Nehru

“Why are you doing this work [on the dam]? Nehru asked one; Sahib bahadur, that man tells me to take these stones over there. At the end of the week he gives me money. That is why I do it.”

“for an Indian, superior and subordinate relationships have the character of eternal verity and moral imperative – [and the] automatic reverence for superiors is a near universal psycho-social fact.” Sudhir Kakar

“There is an India expression and, like others, quite impossible to adequately translate: jugaad. People are encouraged to use some jugaard when faced with a blank wall, or a difficult problem. Jugaard is creative improvisation, a tool to somehow find a solution, ingenuity, a refusal to accept defeat, initiative, quick thinking, cunning, resolve, and all of the above.” Pavan K Varma

“Saying the Indians are a gentle, dreamy, fatalistic people, detached from the world, only describes the effect, not the cause. ‘Strange’ is the word, for spontaneously, in their very physical substance, without the least ‘thought’ or even ‘faith’, Indians plunge their roots deep into other worlds; they do not exclusively belong here. And in them, these other worlds rise constantly to the surface - at the least touch the veil is rent, remarks Sri Aurobindi. This physical world, which for us is so real, and absolute and unique, seems to them but one way of living among many others; in short, a small, chaotic, agitated, and rather painful frontier on the margin of immense continents which lie behind unexplored.” Satprem, Sri Aurobindi or The Adventure of Consciousness

“I am of 56 [years] and forcibly exiled from my home I am wandering disappointed. Will you kindly advise me what to do and where to [go] in this critical moment of my life.” Congress Worker and Refugee from NWFP, 1948

“Everything I have loved and lost has been in India.” Sonia Gandhi

“Of the many ideals of Gandhi which the Indians didn’t accept, ahimsa, non-violence, stands out most.” Bengali Marxist

“The [Indians] are gentle and benevolent, more susceptible of gratitude for kindness shown them, and less prompted to vengeance for wrongs inflicted than any people on the face of the earth.” Warren Hastings

“By our bad habits we spoil our sacred river banks and furnish excellent breeding grounds for flies…A small spade is the means of salvation from a great nuisance. Leaving night-soil, cleaning the nose, or spitting on the road is a sin against God as well as humanity; and betrays a sad want of consideration for others. The man who does not cover his waste deserves a heavy penalty even if he lives in a forest.” Gandhi

“slapping and moaning are no matter for lists or tables of contents. For when the wheels of sexual ecstasy is in full motion, there is no textbook at all, and no order.” Kama Sutra

“The very idea of beggary…precious to Hindus as religious theatre, a demonstration of the workings of karma, a reminder of one’s duty to oneself and one’s future lives, has been devalued…The beggars themselves, forgetting their Hindu function, also pester tourists; and the tourists misinterpret the whole business, seeing in the beggary of the few the beggary of all. The beggars have become a nuisance and a disgrace.” V.S. Naipaul, A Wounded Civilisation

“Well, India is a country of nonsense.” Gandhi

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Greetings from Jaiselmer,
Just a few words on today's bombs in the Gujarat state capital. Firstly - President Patil is reported to have urged people "to remain steadfast in this testing time and maintain communal harmony." Once again, it shows India is almost uniquely restrained in the face of the threat of terrorism, particularly if today's bombs are shown to be the responsibility of Pakistan (the Indian media has been speculating in recent weeks that Pakistani intelligence is looking to increase communal tensions in the near future).
Then there's the response of the notorious CM, BJP's Narendra Modi (currently banned from the US for his role in the pogrom against Muslims in 2002). He said that "the land of Mahatma Gandhi [Gandhi was from Gujarat] has been bloodied by terrorists whom we shall not spare." There's a nice little yiddish word for that - chutzpah. One can only hope that we don't see a repeat of six years ago.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Train as Culture: The Great Indian Railway Shakedown

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the pioneer of Modern Hebrew, wanted Israelis to call the bus tziborit, which literally means ‘little public’. Unfortunately, autobuuus won out, but the deft little idea at the heart of his thinking still holds true today. What is the bus but a little public, the country in a microcosm?

In India, the tziborit is the train. The one great legacy of the British, its development has somehow been maintained, whatever the circumstances. Indian Railways is the world’s second-largest employer (behind the People’s Liberation Army), with around 1.6 million employees. While the trains don’t always run on time, they work. More than that, they’re a part of the culture, provides of a shared experience for a diverse nation, texts for reading the Indian psyche.
Before getting on the train, though, you have to go to the station. At the major stations, the contrast is between the grandiose atmosphere intended by the colonial-era architecture, and the reality on the ground, which is more like that of a refugee camp. People are everywhere – walking, crouching, sleeping, buying food, clambering across the tracks, begging, schlepping, living. Witnessing all this for the first time is what the term culture shock was intended to define.
Platforms multiply off into the distance, vast things, more like runways. You ask which platform the train departs from at enquiries; after that you hope for the best. The departing platform can be changed at a moment’s notice, but your chances of hearing the announcement (always preceded by a fantastic, technicolour wall of sound) are slim to none. This has happened to me on two occasions, but thankfully people in the know told me to move before it was too late.

The trains are as long as the platforms – which is handy, because they’ve got a lot of people to carry. They are divided into three classes, and I’ve traveled all three.

Third-Class: The cattle-car experience, with – and this is barely an exaggeration – ever so slightly more room to breathe than my forebears on their way to Auschwitz. I traveled this way from Agra to Jhansi, a journey of three hours, which cost me 60 rupees (80 pence). My entrance onto the train almost gave the other passengers a heart attack. Assuming I had made a mistake, one man demanded I show him my ticket. When I had proven that I was rightfully entitled to be there, he gave me a firm slap on the shoulder, as if thanking me for my solidarity. I carefully kept my place by the open door, standing the whole way, the plains rushing past, pondering the justice of justifying third-class by recourse to ‘experience’, while tens of millions of others traveled the same way, day in, day out, without hope of a more spacious, humanizing experience.

Sleeper-class: Most Indian trains run overnight journeys, so even if your trip is only a few hours, you’ll find yourself in sleeper. Here, people sit in open cabins, three facing three, with the seats folding up into beds come nighttime. During the day, however, it’s like so many markets, heaving with hustlers. A vendor announces his presence with a strangely endearing nasal whine – paneeee for water, chaaai for tea. But it’s not just food and drink. Scissors, soap, games, newspapers – you want it? Just wait a few minutes and it will inevitably appear. Then there are the sadhus and beggars, amputees or children who hope to curry favour by sweeping the ground beneath your feet.

There can be few more astounding anthropological sights than to see how Indians ignore their beggars. They are like little ghosts, spirits one is trained to ignore. Indian society is all too lacking in solidarity. As A.M. Rosenthal wrote in 1957, “An individual-to-individual callousness, despite India’s belief in her own spiritualism, was always part of India. No miracle has taken place. This callousness is still so strong in the country that it is the greatest danger for a foreigner living in India, for it is a frighteningly easy thing to find it creeping into one’s soul.”

First-class: Now we’re talking. This is like sleeper, but with air-conditioning, linen and food provided. With all these creature comforts, though, there’s no need for the outside world, which is promptly shut out between stations. Windows are tinted, forming a Separation Barrier between the Great Indian Middle Classes and the outside world. Every country has a Separation Barrier to keep out that which it most fears; most countries operate theirs more subtly than mine. India’s rail system provides a poignant illustration of how this is done. Gandhi used to travel third-class (prompting the famous quip, by one Gujarati politician, “you’ve no idea how much it costs us to keep Gandhiji in poverty.”) With a rapidly-growing domestic aviation industry catering to a growing middle-class, Indian transport has the potential to divide more than ever. Sometimes it’s important to remember that we all ride on the same train, hurtling towards the same, ultimate fate. This is the shared culture.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Indian Identity (2): Language - Babel or Bust?

“We must at present do our best to form a class of persons who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Lord Macaulay, 1835

“The language in which we are speaking is his [the Englishman’s] before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In my admittedly shite M.Phil dissertation on Progressive Zionist visions for Israel’s future, I argued that the nation was defined above all by language. A nation’s citizens had to speak in the same tongue, for this is how the all important ‘societal culture’ is maintained. If the citizenry has a shared language, all other distinctions cease t matter, and minority will flourish the same as majority.

My argument didn’t take India into account. The Constitution of India recognizes twenty-two languages, and there are thirty-five Indian languages spoken by over a million people. Hindi, the most common language, is understood by only around half the population; its grammar is totally different to the languages spoken in the south or northeast. And then there’s English, powerfully stalking the sidelines, spoken fluently by around 2% of the population, while a further 10-15% understand the basics.

Perhaps nothing sums up India’s linguistic peculiarities more than the following story: In 1996 the Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, delivered the annual Independence Day address in a language he didn’t understand, Hindi. As a southerner, he didn’t speak it, but the law required that he give the address in it. In the months leading up to the address, he promised to master Hindi, and the words were ultimately written out for him in his native Kannadan script.

Amidst the tumult surrounding India’s religious and caste divisions, it is often forgotten that the country is divided on primarily linguistic lines. Language provided the rationale for how the states were carved up after independence, and tensions over the issue occasionally turn violent, as recent events in West Bengal demonstrated. Because of these tensions, there has never been a pan-Indian language. Indian nationalist luminaries – Gandhi and Tagore included, agreed – perhaps surprisingly – that it might be better if Hindi became first among equals, but this has never come to pass.

Is India a dramatic exception to the rule, or a model for others to follow? Whatever the country’s shortcomings may be, one fact is indisputable: there is a shared notion of Indianness, one that has somehow managed to transcend – with occasional violent exceptions – other allegiances. India has been roust and confident enough to remain a broad, pluralist temple.

In language terms, there is one significant flaw to all this – the status of English. Western-educated Indian intellectuals are surprisingly proud about English’s pre-eminence, as a result it goes relatively unchallenged. Shashi Tharoor, for example, writes as follows: “the Indian professional elite is educated in English, so that English has a far more genuine ‘national’ existence: it is the language in which the Indian government officials would naturally converse, in which two teenagers might discuss cricket or music, in which a Madras journalist might instinctively address a Bombay businessman, and in which the ‘national media’ (those publications aiming at a countrywide audience) are published. It is undoubtedly the language of a small minority, but its speakers feel no minority complex at all.” Of course not, for they are the elites.

Is this really something to be proud of? English is the world’s pre-eminent language, for a developing country to produce fluent speakers of it is vital. But it becoming the language of the elites is another matter entirely. Before coming here, people told me with confidence that most Indians speak a little English. Not in my experience. Many may have a smattering of words, but competency is reserved for those in the tourist trade or the middle-classes: speaking English is a sign that marks you out from your less educated and less privileged countrymen.

This is an irony I can’t comprehend. Indian intellectuals will happily condemn the Raj in its entirety (with the possible exception of the trains), while at the same time reveling in the fact that they can communicate their Indianness in English, the language brought to India by the imperialists. There is a famous quote, the words of which unfortunately escape me, about India being able to absorb the best of what its would-be conquerors bring, before spitting them out when the time is right. This implies a wily, cunning national ethos, and Tharoor & Co would no doubt view the absorption of English in the same spirit. I fear, however, that they are missing the wood for the trees.

Take Israel, for example. English is widely spoken – people understand that mastering it is of great importance in getting ahead in the world, a fact reflected in the excellent instruction in school. This has not come, however, at the expense of the societal culture. There are English newspapers and cultural events, yes, but this has not affected the extraordinary revival of Hebrew, purveyors of which are renowned the world over. Because there is no particular reverence for English, there is no threat. It’s just realpolitik – knowledge of English is vital for being part of a globalised world.

In India, as noted, English is a social divider. More than that, it’s accompanied, in elite circles, by values which seem to be left over from the Raj – deference, hierarchy, formality – with English used as the weapon. I witnessed this for myself last week in the 1st Class Waiting Room at Sealdah Train Station in Calcutta, where a woman expressed her exasperation to the attendant asking her to move her luggage in English, a language he didn’t understand. Pavan K Varna argues that these unfortunate aspects of Indian society have far more ancient antecedents, either way India won’t be truly free until it emancipates itself from them.

By all means ensure that your people speak good English, just as you should ensure that they are literate. But don’t let this come at the expense of a national culture. India’s Babel is exciting and genuinely radical. If a Keralan and a Bengali sit down for chai, there surely has to be a better solution than having them speak in English.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Against Romanticisation

Night had fallen over Varanasi. We were on an island – if you can call it that – in the middle of the Ganges, facing the Old City. We were attending a party, of sorts, thrown by Pilu, who had been our ‘fixer’ since arriving in Varanasi’s impossible-to-navigate (especially during the monsoon) old lanes and ghats. Crouching on the sand, sipping whisky, we were talking to ‘The Boss’, the man who owns the silk-shop from where I purchased a silk robe cum dressing-gown which Snoop Dogg would be proud to wear (I fervently hope it will turn heads and divide opinion in equal measure).

The conversation soon turned to life in Varanasi, to The Boss’ adopted son, and how he makes sure to take care of all his employees. Then one of the girls I was with interjected: “People are so much happier here [than in the west],” she stated with confidence. “They are poor, yes, but their lives are so much more meaningful. In the west, people are only concerned with acquiring more wealth; they forget what’s really important.” Opposite us, the electricity had just failed again (power-cuts are a regular feature of north Indian life, especially in the summer); candles flickered on like cigarette lighters at a rock concert. The girl took a swig of whisky, and leaned back, smugly.


I’ve said it before and will say it again: India is a difficult place, one that constantly challenges your most deeply-cherished beliefs. For the first-time traveler, there are a number of potential responses to the dilemmas this causes. One is to escape to Thailand. Another is to romanticize the place, to see poverty as a spiritually enriching thing, something as eternal as Mother India herself. It would be wrong to dismiss this view of Indian poverty as merely an orientalist trope of the western traveler. As many people have argued, for example, it was one of the more unfortunate aspects of Gandhi’s world-view. But there can be few more awful ways of reacting to poverty than to romanticize it. Poverty is appalling, a disease that should be eradicated. There is no grandeur – spiritual or otherwise – in suffering.

As noted, we were at a party. Varanasi is known as one of the scam-capitals of India, with hundreds of young hustlers looking to shirk you out of a hundred rupees or two. At the same time, the sheer difficulties of navigation means that having a local guide can be extremely useful. In the case of my crew-for-the-week and I, we found ourselves a genuine mensch, Pilu. Officially employed at The Boss’ silk-shop, he said he drew a monthly salary of 7000 rupees ($150), plus 3% commission on sales from customers he brings to the shop. A thoroughbred maven, he also draws commission from others bits and bobs, like hooking me up with a tabla teacher (Dha Dha Thete Thete Dhin Ta, for those in the know).

After a few days in his company, Pilu invited us to the party. A regular gathering of him and his mates (which, of course, includes no women), the party takes place on a houseboat moored beside one of the Varanasi’s famous ghats – a series of steps leading down to the river. There’s a chef and booze, as well as a mid-evening motorboat jaunt down the river.

Pilu insisted he wanted no money from us, which was strange. A boat-party is the kind of thing that would entice tourists, and as Pilu was our fixer, we expected to pay him. Besides, even if he didn’t want money, we felt uncomfortable at not chipping in for something that cost so much.

“I don’t want money,” he insisted. “I do this regularly. Money isn’t important to me.” So we had our appetizers and beers, before heading out on the motorboat to the island. There the conversation which opened this piece ensued. Dismayed, I withdrew into the darkness (the same girl suggested we shouldn’t stand on the island, as it was a king of holy place permitted only to sadhus; the locals laughed) to reflect.

A Passage to India is concerned with the impossibility of egalitarian social relations between Indians and Englishmen. Substitute westerners for Englishmen, and – excluding the Anglophone elite – the observation remains true. Celebrating as equals was impossible: we were too guilty at not contributing anything, while at the same time it was transparently clear that Pilu & Co were earnestly trying to convince us that their lives were as good as they might be in the west, a point disproved by the squalor of Varanasi’s streets.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, and I’m aware that many of my posts since entering the plains have focused on the nasty dilemmas that stem from the inequalities between the average tourist and the average Indian. But here is a concluding, confirming anecdote: Two days later, walking back to my guest-house, I ran into one of the guys from the party. A thickly-mustached, well-built man, with strong English, he ran an internet café. I asked him how he was. Through the betel-chewing, he replied “not good, very poor, very difficult,” a far cry from his articulacy at the party, as if the self-confidence had been just an act. He asked me for money, which left me stunned and saddened. Those who romanticize episodes like this, or who patronize the locals by saying their lives are better than ours, do India no favours.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The King

I assumed the man before me to be drunk. Even in India, I didn't expect to see someone placing a coconut on the ground, lying down, picking it up, walking a yard or two, and then repeating the trick.

Suppressing my amusement, I noticed that he was not alone. Leading the way were a gaggle of musicians, while behind him followed a crowd of women, their saris forming a protective rainbow of colour. And then there was the entourage. Two other men joined him for coconut duties, with a few other people sweeping dirt from The King's path, before pampering and massaging him during the frequent breaks.

Why The King? first I was told he was the Chief Minister of Khajurao, the small town in Madhya Pradesh famous for its raunchy medieval temples. Then someone told me he was the mayor's husband. Either way, The King. And a BJP man to boot. This was his way of fulfilling a promise he had made way back when, that if such and such should happen to him, he would 'coconut-stride' (to coin a term) the two miles from his home to the Shiva Temple, and lay on a great celebration for the whole town.

I couldn't find out for sure whether this was some pre-ordained religious ritual, but I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't. Rather, this was rural Indian life in full bloom, with local politicians securing their subjects' allegiance through charismatic acts, and - at the end of the day - food.

Anyway, with nothing else scheduled (my game of cricket with local children having ended right at the point I took my first wicket), I decided to join in. My welcome was second only to that of The King himself. Of particular interest was my camera, and the publicity opportunities the scheming politicians seemed to think it offered them (as if wanderingsatlan would support the BJP).

Shashi Tharoor astutely notes that poorer countries have far more public festivities than richer ones. India has more than any other countries in the world. The poor have no money for holidays; public celebrations offer an opportunity to forget the difficulties of day-to-day life. The accuracy of this was confirmed when I saw a toothless rickshaw driver park his bike as if crossing the finishing line in the Tour de France, before launching himself straight into the chanting of Sita Ram. A day for dignity, without degradation.

The coconuts meant the march took a while, and I had time for a leisurely lunch. Eventually, the procession made it to the centre of town, where The King and his wife led the faithful in their uits of the temple.

Returning a few hours later, the carnival had barely begun. Crucially, food was distributed, in the form of generous helpings of filling, sweet cereals. To begin to understand poverty, you only need to see what happens when free food is given out. Devoured with relish by all concerned, one less mea to worry about, I was left with no doubt who the people of Khajurao would be voting for in the future.

Of course, this was a minor event. But with western eyes focused on the ongoing political wranglings concerning the US-Indian nuclear deal, it's worth remembering what's important to the vast majority of Indian citizens. They don't care about issues that are unlikely to impact on their lives; they care about being able to put food on the table. With double-digit inflation in India, this remains a life or death issue, one that - in the absence of good policy - will leave people vulnerable to local demagogues, like The King, for some time to come.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Ridin' Solo

"people often talk about being scared of change/But for me I'm more afraid of things staying the same/Cos the game is never won by standing in one place for too long" Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Jesus of the Moon (Dig, Lazarus, Dig)

I leave before I have settled down; I jump ship just when things start getting comfortable. It’s a trick I learnt at Noam: always stop while you still want more. This has been the philosophy driving my journey, and it’s occurred to me that it’s remained relatively unchallenged. It’s time to redress that balance.

Even in our thoroughly individualized world, traveling alone still arouses suspicion. Why are you traveling alone? Isn’t it difficult in a country like India? Wearily you trot out the same well-rehearsed answers; wearily you ask yourself (yet again) if they still hold.

Why did I come alone to India? Four principal reasons (in no particular order): to detox from the army (even jobniks need to warm-down), to learn about India, to think about what to do next, and to reflect on what has already passed. Oh, and one more: to be.

It’s clear that the art of ‘confronting yourself with yourself’ is best done alone, without the distractions and compromises that come from traveling with companions. The flip side is that traveling alone can be a disconcertingly lonely experience. This means that the lone traveler is forced to be far more sociable than those that travel in a group, Luckily for me, that’s generally been easy. Something I’ve rarely lacked is self-confidence: striking up conversations with randoms is second nature.

So I’ve made plenty of friends along the way. Indeed, my journey so far could be described as a series of week-long holidays with two or three people, interspersed with nights of existential angst or physical sickness in a place like Kargil, which would make a suitable setting for Kafka’s The Castle.

Real recognize real, and I’ve met top people along the way – from all over the world – some of whom I’m sure I’ll stay in touch with in the future. Not everyone’s been cool, of course, but travelers generally give people more of a chance than they would in day-to-day life. To be brutal, there isn’t always enough choice to discriminate, which means you have to make do with what’s available.

The key question is why I’ve often moved on just when a firm friendship has been established, or when someone has piqued my interest, why I move on when security is at hand. Isn’t this willfully perverse, or anti-social? I hope not. The fact is that if I had come away for purely social reasons, I wouldn’t have chosen India in the height of the monsoon (water up to the ankles today). Of course making friends has been a part of the journey, a key part, but so have many other motivating factors.

As ever, the key word is balance. My aim is to juggle my varied motivating factors successfully, so I don’t lost sight of what led me away in the first place. This is the art of travel.

Which is why some of the most liberating moments have come after saying l’hitraot to new friends. Standing at the door of a bus or train, carefully selected music as sound track, this is freedom embodied in a moment, the rush of air the most powerful of intoxicants. This, above all, is what makes the sadness of an all-too-brief encounter bearable. This is what makes ridin’ solo the singularly powerful experience that it is.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Indian Identity (1): A Tale of Two Emperors

Emperor Akbar (1542 -1605) ruled India with a radical pluralism that could teach today’s multiculturalists a thing or two. “He sought for truth amongst the dust-stained denizens of the field of irreflection and consorted with every sort of wearers of patched garments such as yogis, sonyasis and qalandars, and other solitary sitters in the dust and insouciant recluses.” noted one verbose contemporary chronicler. Born in India (Umakot, in present-day Pakistan), he had known no other land since his birth. “To Akbar Indians were not the uncultured mass of infidels who so horrified Babur; they were his countrymen,” writes historian John Keay. Here was perhaps the first argumentative Indian.

Emperor Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707) ruled India with the kind of oppressive measures people assume characterizes Islamist (to use an anachronistic term) rule. According to Keay, “he wanted to create a moral climate in which Muslims could live in accordance with the tenets of Islam and in which non-Muslims would be aware both of their subordinate status and of how they might improve it by converting.” If Akbar was an argumentative Indian, Aurangzeb was an oppressive Muslim.

Akbar lifted discriminatory measures against Hindus, like the tax on pilgrims. He celebrated the Hindu festivals of Divali and Dussehra. Through marriage, he diversified the royal court, without forcing his new nobles to abandon their faith. Dynamic religious debates were held in the new imperial capital of Fatehpur Sukri, the architecture of which itself testified to Akbar’s eclecticism. In contrast to the disputations being carried out around the same time in Europe, they were scrupulously fair, with every religion represented, and no pre-conceived outcome sought.

Aurangzeb restored the tax on Hindu pilgrims, with revenue endowments enjoyed by temples and brahmans rescinded. Hindu merchants were penalized by heavier duties. Provincial administrations were made to replace Hindu employees with Muslims. Newly built, or rebuilt temples, were destroyed. These included the Vishvanatha Temple in Varanasi, and the Keshawa Temple at Mathura. In 1679, the jizya (per capita tax levied by a Muslim state on certain of its non-Muslim citizens) was restored.

“Akbar [had] disrupted the Muslim community by recognizing that India was not an Islamic country; Aurangzeb disrupted India by behaving as if it were,” writes one historian. In the balance-sheet of Mughal rule, which at its peak covered nearly 90% of the subcontinent, Akbar and Aurangzeb represent the two extremes: to speak crudely, the other emperors fell broadly in between. Today, however, Akbar’s rule (alongside the earlier Buddhist emperor Ashoka) is remembered as pioneering a specifically Indian form of multiculturalism, while Aurangzeb is remembered as an aberration. Why?

I write these lines from Varanasi, where I have just visited the rebuilt Vishvanatha Temple. A mosque still stands on the site, although heavy security (strengthened in the wake of recent disturbances in Kashmir) meant I was not able to visit it. There is a very real fear that Hindu extremists may seek to destroy the mosques, just like they did to the Baba Masjid in Ayodya in 1992. The tensions I have tried to tease out by my loose contrast between the reigns of Akbar and Aurganzeb are alive and well in contemporary India.

A formally secular republic, with a majority Hindu population (itself defied on caste and linguistic grounds), India is also home to the world’s second largest Muslim population (around one fifth of the total population), a well as Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and many other religious groups. Optimistic observers of the Indian scene call it as ‘sumptuous thali’ (in conscious distinction to the melting-pot, the favoured metaphor of western ‘multiculturalists’), with different groups living happily side by side, content in their shared Indian identity. More pessimistic observers point to the generally lower socio-economic status of Muslims. They note the rise of the BJP, as well as the state-sanctioned murderous pogroms against Muslims in a relatively prosperous state like Gujarat, in 2002. And then there is the political divide, with the Congress promoting a secular-pluralism, with the BJP in favour of the country’s Hinduisation. Again, Akbar and Aurangzeb.

Some personal context before continuing: I come to India as an Israeli-Jew from Britain, proud of Zionism’s historical achievements, but agnostic about its ability to be the ideology of Israel’s future. At the same time, though, I’m cynical about the visions offered by post-Zionist and anti-Zionist thinkers. Surely there’s a third way somewhere? Maybe inspiration can be found in India.

Enough of the Middle East; this blog remains very much about India. But I’m fascinated by the possibilities offered by Indian pluralist-nationalist thought. At the same time, I’m disturbed by how the reality has all too often turned out. I can’t help but thinking that Indian thinkers – particularly those resident in the west – are too ready to dismiss the violent outbursts as aberrations. The likes of the BJP draw their strength from somewhere – complacency will not help the fight-back. In the post-9/11 world, Indian identity politics have been surprisingly neglected. For anyone interested in a more tolerant world, it is absolutely vital that Indian pluralism can reach the heights its creators ambitiously laid out for it. Will India go the way of Aurangzeb or Akbar? In future posts in this series, I hope to examine this question more closely.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Death of a Rickshaw Driver

“Indian helicopter, sir?” asked the tiny old man as I was leaving Agra’s Red Fort, and I laughed out loud. In this city of harassment and bad hustling, his sales pitch stood out like a crisp line of rap braggadocio, perfectly delivered. How could I refuse him?

Morality, for starters. Having someone transport you on a cart attached to their bicycle isn’t going to do their bodies any favours; all the more so when the driver is your father’s age. Indeed, many Indian states have considered outlawing them altogether, although they’ve generally stopped at the point where they realized that the ‘rehabilitation’ of the thousands of people such a move would immediately impoverish would be no simple matter. Once again, Isaiah Berlin’s irreconcilable positive values.

Agra’s rickshaw drivers are notoriously aggressive, which is no surprise, given the year round flow of tourist meat for them to feed on, all keen to ogle at the Taj Mahal and other Mughal monuments. Walking a few metres down the street is impossible without being accosted, the drivers’ repertoire normally consisting of ‘where you go?’, ‘very good price’, or ‘give me a chance’, all easy enough – with a little Israeli sturdiness – to brush off. My favourite trick is to turn ‘where are you going?’ back on the questioner, to launch into a pseudo-philosophical tirade that convinces them you’re mad. It works every time.

‘Indian helicopter’, however, seemed too brilliant to ignore, and I decided to make it one last rickshaw ride. My driver (with that strange mop of orange hair no-one has been able to explain to me) ushered me aboard and began to peddle. Within seconds, however, it became clear that this was a bad idea. Maybe I’ve had one too many paranthas, but my man was struggling to move; he had bitten off more than he could chew.

To solve the problem, I had an entrepreneurial brainwave. Why didn’t I get behind the proverbial wheel? The benefits were obvious. Firstly, it might spare my man a coronary. Secondly, it could save the entire rickshaw business. The drivers’ health and wallets could be saved by having their clients drive for them! There isn’t a backpacker in India that wouldn’t go for it. With that thought in mind, I set off, thankful that the professional remained in charge of the steering. Even so, it was tough work. No gears makes for a challenging journey, like cycling through water. If this is hard for me, I thought, how much harder it must be for the old men who make up most of the rickshaw-wallahs in Agra.

Half a kilometer up the road, we stopped for lunch. The Uttar Pradesh sun had weakened my appetite, and I wanted something light. Unfortunately, he presumptuously chose to drop me somewhere a little more upmarket, perhaps to benefit from a commission. I pondered whether to invite him to eat with me, but from my experience people in his situation haven’t been keen to break bread with the ‘client’, possibly out of embarrassment at being seen as out-of-place in more fancy places. So I ordered a pilao, and began eating alone.

The food hadn’t arrived when he appeared at the door, hovering. Instinctively, I invited him to sit down with me, asking him what he wanted. “Whatever you are having, sir,” he said, and with that the wandering satlan and the rickshaw-wallah started tucking into a pilao rice and roti apiece, washed down with a shared bottle of mineral water, our contentment only disturbed by the occasional questioning look from the nouveau riche Indian clientele.

Food completed, and my man slunk outside, without so much as a thank you. I paid the bill and joined him. Then I learnt his name, Rapalial, from a note he suddenly produced, scrawled on the back of a postcard. Written by one Neil Owen of Stoke-on-Trent, it testified to Rapaliel’s good character, and how helpful he had been when Neil visited Agra. I do not know when it was written, but have resolved to try and contact Mr Owen.

We set off for our next stop, the Mughal garden overlooking the Taj from the other side of the river. It took a while, with Rapalial and I swapping pedaling duties whenever fatigue set in. On arrival, I wanted to shake him off, to give him 100 rupees to go somewhere and rest, and not return to me. He was having none of it. He could rest whilst I visited the garden, and – besides – there was no other work. Unconvinced, I headed to the garden, increasingly desperate at the prospect of this 62 year old man rickshawing me to my guesthouse on the other side of town.

There could be no escaping it: Rapalial was resolved to finishing the job, and then some. Back on the road, he started telling me about all the wonderful things I could buy in Agra – stones, jewelry, a shawl for my mum, a leather jacket for my dad. I explained that I just wanted to go straight to my guest-house and rest. This didn’t deter him, though, and he launched into a schpiel about how he would get commission even if I didn’t buy anything. Unmoved, I told him that I would pay him sufficiently, that he needn’t worry about the lost commission.

He wouldn’t stop, however, and I’d soon had enough. After a while, I told him I wanted to walk, but would happily pay him as if he had taken me the whole way. At the beginning, he had told me I could pay what I want (always a good hustle); now that I produced 150 rupees (a massive sum, without mentioning the lunch), it was not enough. Souring the day, he demanded an extra 50, which I readily gave him, disgusted at India and tourism and what the two of them together had wrought.

I do not write this down to show off my generosity. In India, one quickly learns that the difference between a good and bad deed can be tiny indeed. Moral dilemmas – often impossible to resolve – confront you at every turn. This is a difficult place, one that gnaws on deeply-cherished beliefs from all sides. The mountains are now but a memory, but the urge to escape to them must be resisted. For it is here, in the northern plains, that the grandiose claims about India’s significance start to make sense. In the plains, where overpopulated town gives way to overpopulated town, where kids shit in the street while their mothers crouch selling vegetables nearby. India shines here, yes, but the worry is that it is the light of a white dwarf.

Monday, June 30, 2008


My devotion to the Doctor is unquestioning. Wherever I am in the world, I will follow his attempts to save the universe. The Information Age makes this relatively easy, of course, and my only dilemma in India has been whether to get a friend to download Series 4 in readiness for a return-to-Zion marathon, or whether to make do with YouTube. Like a seasoned addict, I’ve plumped for the latter. Every Sunday night, no matter where I’ve been, I’ve made my way to the nearest cyber-café in order to watch the latest episode.

Two Sundays ago was the same; the only difference being the pull of the start of the series finale, and an episode penned by the Guru of the new series, Russell T Davies. Turn Left promised counter-factual craziness with political undertones (the south of England wiped out of a car turning left, instead of right), as well as the return of Rose Tyle (Bille Piper). Seeking familiarity, I headed for the same café where I had watched the previous episode, in High Bank, Rishikesh. That time I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to watch, as a sign on the wall read “No Downloading or Uploading.” Seeking refuge in my technical knowledge, though, I reminded myself that YouTube constitutes neither downloading nor uploading; it simply streams videos from a remote server, leaving no trace on the computer. Nonetheless, I decided to check, asking the owner for permission to watch. Permission duly received, I started watching.

A week later, and I was just coming to the end of Part One. Infected by a mysterious time-feeding bug, Donna Noble was on the verge of turning right, a move that would lead to apocalypse upon apocalypse. Excited to get started on part two, I was disturbed by the boss. Pointing to the sign, he menacingly told me, “No downloading or uploading.” A disputation ensued. I explained to him that YouTube didn’t break the rules as stated on the sign, he said that they did. I said that it hadn’t been a problem last week; he said that that was then. An appropriate response, I suppose, given that the topic under discussion was a programme about a time-traveller.

It didn’t stop me though, and I continued to explain to him that I wasn’t downloading (or uploading, or sideloading) anything. “If I’m downloading it, you would be able to find it on the computer,” I told him, “Where is it?” Again, no answer but his authority as the boss; I was fighting a losing battle, and my exasperation was starting to show, particularly in my inarticulate arguments in favour of the “YouTube is not downloading” motion. The temperature was rising.

Now a moment of schadenfreude for my parents, who have always told me to cut down on my swearing. “It’s not fucking downloading,” I told him, desperate to watch, and now the gloves were off. He totally lost his cool, jibbering and jabbering and threatening to call the police, whilst I stood my ground, telling him that I would welcome their intervention. Swearing had been a mistake. Now I was as calm as possible, but it was too late to save the situation.

He wanted to charge me 100 rupees, I refused to pay a single paisa. I reminded him that I had been a good customer throughout the week, using him for rafting, internet and telephone calls, and was happy to sit here for another hour, on the condition that I could watch my programme, which after all wasn’t doing the other customers any harm. Unmoved, he dismissed me, telling me that he didn’t need my money. That night, I always walked the mean street of High Bank accompanied, out of the exotic feat that he might send his goons after me. The next morning, I left town, in search of an internet-café where disciples of the Doctor would be welcome.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Since the pesky Romans destroyed the Second Temple, we Jews have lacked a proper pilgrimage. Sure, we can make a nuisance of ourselves in some biblical tomb in the West Bank, or nip off to see the shrine of some wise Moroccan sage, but these are all optional excursions. Evan at its most Orthodox, Judaism requires no pilgrimages. In fact, the Rabbis were so concerned with the negative effects of pilgrimage culture, that they took great efforts to ensure that the most obvious candidate for a hardcore Jewish pilgrimage – Mount Sinai – became anything but.

To make up for this lack, I decided to join the Sikh community on their trek up to Hem Kund (Uttarakahand), where the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, is reputed to have meditated for 300 years before being summoned by God to begin activities as a human. My love-in with the Sikhs has only deepened since my chapatti-distribution at the Golden Temple, and now seems as appropriate time as any to officially declare that my apostasy of choice would be to Sikhism. They have been the friendliest single community I’ve encountered in India (with the possible exception of the Tibetans), and I’m particularly intrigued that most travelers seem to overlook them in favour of the more other-worldly abstractions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Perhaps it’s the Jew in me, but Sikkhism seems to be rooted in the here and now, which no doubt helps to explain why Sikhs have always punched above their weight, whether in India or the Diaspora. Also, their men are extremely tough (someone told me it’s the Punjabi water), and yet are still allowed to carry daggers! My only complain would be that they – like other religious communities – take themselves far too seriously, as demonstrated by their frequent complaints whenever Bollywood portrays one of their ranks as anything other than Turban-wearing, barbershop-avoiding, pilgrimage-completing devotees.


My pilgrimage started – but of course – with a ten hour bus ride into the mountains. I’ll spare you the details, though, save for one vignette: I spent the first couple of hours (4-6AM) cramped next to an old man vomiting out the window. During the dhaba-stop, I spied salvation in the form of a seat adjacent to the driver, with leg room that called come hither more enticingly than the Bollywood actress being beamed coquettishly out of the DVD player. Our break complete, I moved to occupt it. Almost immediately, the teenage boy who had been sitting there before came to reprimand me. Believing that the etiquette for these front-seat free-for-alls was first-come, first-served, I held my ground, greeting every Hindi threat with wild, threatening gesticulations. This stand-off played itself out for a few seconds, until a middle-aged man lifted his head from his newspaper, before stating disinterestedly – in English – “he’s the driver’s son.” Defeated more emphatically than the Russians by the Spanish, I returned to the dying man.


Hem Kund is reached in two stages. First, a meandering 14km hike to the 3029m high village of Ghangria. The pilgrim season runs from June to September, which makes for a crowded path. As every, I was the pork pie to the proverbial Bar Mitzvah, the crowds greeting me with the excited astonishment participation in India religious rituals leads to. Early on, two teenage boys took me under their wing, teaching me to say Sat sri ahal (hello in Punjabi) like a native. The next step was to teach me Wahigru, the Sikh name for God a word that is chanted constantly on the way up, with no variation, like a set of football-fans with only one song.

Although uphill, the first 12km were relatively easy. But then, like an invisible gas, the high altitude suddenly kicked in. Everyone was staggering, as if in a mysterious trance. Old or young, fat or thin, Jew or Sikh, it didn’t matter: Every twenty metres, there was a pause for breath. It was a taste of what was to come. 2km later, barely standing, I made it to Ghangria, base-camp for Hem Kund.

I rose the next day at 4AM, keen to be among the first to the top. The mountain-scape was lit up by the moon: giant, protective shadows were cast all around us. As my eyes accustomed to the gloom, I made out the shapes of a handful of other early risers, also eager to be ahead of the hundreds that would inevitably follow. Yesterdays 14km took me just under four hours. Today there were only 6km. From the rudimentary knowledge of high altitude sickness I garnered from Lonely Planet, I had hoped that a good night’s sleep would help me acclimatize. Not fast enough. The climb to Hem Kund turned out to be – quite simply – the hardest physical thing I had ever done. The path rose from 3029 to 4329 metres, while the air got thinner with every step.

As I tripped forward, I cursed Gobind Singh. Why couldn’t he have meditated in the hut of his local chai-wallah? Why did he davka have to schlep up here? Maybe this pilgrimage lark was over-rated, after all. Such thoughts were far from the mind of my fellow pilgrims, however, whose ever-monotonous chants of wahigru were as strong as the burgeoning morning light. By now, even I joined in, hoping that it might spur me on. It did. Eventually, after three and a half hours of calf-crushing climbing, I had made it.

The existence of a gurdurwa in such inaccessible place defies belief. The shrine itself looks more like something out of a ski-resort, a freezing structure dug into the snow. Pilgrims are greeted with hot chai, before heading inside to listen to the cantor recite from the Sikh holy book. The braver ones then walk outside to take a dip in the half-frozen lake. I was implored to join them, but thankfully my lack of towel proved a sufficient excuse, and I made do by taking photos of submerged old Sikh men.

On the way down – after taking a detour to se the famed but currently flowerless Valley of Flowers – I started to think about the pilgrimage in a less idealistic light. The sheer difficulty of the climb means that certain sectors of the community – like small children and the elderly – can’t do it unassisted. As a result, they employ local Nepalese worker to help them up. Some go on ponies. Others are carried up, either in a basket on a Nepalese man’s back, or in a chair carried Cleopatra-style by four Nepalese men. This doesn’t come cheap, of course, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that we’re talking about slave-like work. It doesn’t matter how used to the high altitude you are; carrying a fat old man up a mountain on your back twice a day is going to quickly destroy your body.

I suppose it’s yet another powerful illustration of Isaiah Berlin’s argument that two positive values can’t always be reconciled. You can outlaw the human-carrying, and in the process destroy the Sikh-reliant local economy. Or you can do nothing, and watch as the mountain schleppers turn into cripples. Such as the awful dilemmas India often confronts you with, even in the middle of nowhere. The only resolution will come from the Sikh community itself, who should surely implore those who are unable not to climb Hem Kund, while at the same time taking care to guarantee the economic future of the local community, who after all make the pilgrimage possible.

Note: Five days after I climbed Hem Kund, seven pilgrims were killed there in an avalanche – five from the Punjab, and two from Delhi.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pass the Courvosier: Chandigargh and the question of Indian modernity

“the past is the past: architecture in India is a modern course of study and, as such, another imported skill, part of someone else’s tradition.” V.S. Naipaul, India: A Wounded Civilisation

“Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by traditions of the past…an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” Nehru

“The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous, it is a paralysing thing. The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aims, into every human act.” Le Corbusier

Three clobbering gap-year girls are standing in the centre of Sector 17, Chandigargh’s downtown district. Their bags were - inexplicably - forbidden on the train, so now they are scrambling across town to catch the bus to Delhi. They know nothing of the place where they stand. “We’ll stay until the evening,” declares one of them, her sharp green eyes stinging from the sweat brought forth by the Punjabi son. A veteran of one day in this city, I offer up my recommendations, which they politely but unconvincingly promise to follow up.

Chandigargh is a new city, designed by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest architect-theorists, an attempt by a newly independent nation to free itself from the “existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions.” Anywhere else, it would be a major tourist attraction. For the average traveller to India, though, it is barely an afterthought, at best worthy of a quick stop-over between Delhi and the Himalayas. Why?

In most western countries, visitors try to avoid the poverty, to pretend that it does not exist. A traveller to New York does not seek out Brownsville, a pilgrim to Zion does not spend the night in Lod. Urban deprivation is of little interest: the tourist is looking for galleries and restaurants and clubs, but rarely reality. In India, ,this phenomenon also holds, although it manifests itself differently. The tourist seeks something ‘eternal’, something ‘spiritual’ and ‘unchanging’. Poverty is no hindrance to this; indeed it may be positively beneficial. But wealth, wealth is useless. Wealth must be ignored, denied.


The sword of partition fell most heavily on the Punjab, in the North-West of the subcontinent. The state was split down the middle, with the beloved state capital of Lahore allotted to Pakistan. For Indian eastern Punjab, a new capital had to be found. Nehru, an avowed secularist, thought it best to start from scratch, to build a new Indian city, “the first large expression of our creative genius, flowering on our newly earned freedom.”

Nehru was also convinced of the sanctity of Indian self-reliance, a principle that would dominate Indian economic policy (with disastrous consequences) until the 1990s. Strangely, though, he had no problem calling in a western team to design the new Punjabi capital, arguing that India did not have enough qualified architects of its own to complete the task. An American team (influenced by the Garden City movement) began the project, but when of them died in a plane crash, the others decided they couldn’t continue. In stepped the legendary Le Corbusier, enamoured by the opportunity to design a whole city, one that would be constructed according to his holistic theories of urban planning.

The mention of Le Corbusier to architecture enthusiasts quickly leads to reverential, hushed tones. To those in the know, Chandigargh is of far more interest than the Taj Mahal. I haven’t made it to the Taj yet, so am reluctant to comment. But as someone interested in contemporary India, I get the point. Chandigargh is indispensable for thinking about the country, a place which challenges all your assumptions about what India ‘is’ or ‘should be’.

At this point, I should confess that I wasn’t particularly taken by Le Corbusier;s flagship buildings in Chandigargh - the Secretariat, the Legislative Assembly, and the High Court. Perhaps it was the drab weather, the disappointment of discovering that the heavy rain was not a premature monsoon, but merely a tropical storm caused by cyclones over Pakistan. Or perhaps it was the soul-destroying bureaucracy, traipsing through the rain from building to building, in order to get a permit for a brief look around. Either way, the grey monoliths didn’t impress me much, particularly after nothing how drab and dirty and chaotic they were inside. If I’m missing the point, I encourage the architects to say so in the comments.

Of more interest was the city’s design, in particular the ethos behind it, explained in the fascinating city museum. As mentioned above, Le Corbusier was a theorist as much as an architect; he didn’t just endow Chandigargh with buildings, he left it with a constitution. “(i) Chandigargh is a city offering all amenities of life to the poorest of the poor of its citizens to lead a dignified life. (ii) Chandigargh is a government city with a precise goal and consequently a precise quality of inhabitants.” This was something radically new, a precisely planned Indian cit.

Le Corbusier organised the city according to four key principles: living, working, circulation, and care of body & spirit. Divided (sinisterly) into sectors, the city has wide avenues reminiscent of French boulevards, and massive stretches of parkland, a greater amount than I can recall seeing anywhere else. There is an artificial lake (for care of body & spirit, noch), and monuments dot the horizon, including the Open Hand, the city symbol. It is a rationally-planned, relatively clean city, a bourgeoisie outpost with delusions of grandeur.

If it wasn’t for the Indians, though, you’d never know you were in India, and this is why I don’t understand Nehru’s stance. Admittedly, I don’t know much about the country’s architects at the time of independence (Naipaul’s controversial quote at the top of the page alludes to a ruptured tradition), but surely there should have been greater domestic involvement in the project? As already mentioned, it seems particularly surprising in the context of Nehru’s virulent opposition to foreign interference in other spheres of Indian life. The rhetoric about freeing India from the shackles of the past seems overly harsh, not to mention unnationalistic; surely the point was to create a blend a between tradition and modernity? rather than rejecting either one.

What of Chandigargh today? Contemporary architects are, of course, a notoriously short-sighted lot, and the relative wealth of the city hasn’t prevented the ‘other’ India from shaping its image. At night, the workers from the village bed down on the covered sidewalks in front of the chic stores; by morning they are brewing up chai and baking chapatis, ready for a day’s work. Despite the space and the traffic lights (routinely ignored by rickshaw drivers), crossing the road is barely less terrifying than elsewhere, and - despite the emphasis on quality of life - there’s an unmistakable sense of decay about the place.

Perhaps it’s because there’s too much parkland, or perhaps it’s because Chandigargh seems old hat in comparison to the new satellite towns springing up as a result of India’s financial boom. Either way, it feels provincial, like some old Eastern European town. Not even trendy coffee shops or expensive restaurants can shake this feeling. But that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. It’s a first attempt at Indian modernity, forty years before financial liberalisation, the benchmark for other attempts which followed. The fact that it is of little interest to the average backpacker points to larger themes, ones I hope to pick up on further on up the road.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Indian Pastoral

British readers may remember Transworld Sport, which used to be broadcast every Saturday morning on Channel 4, just before Football Italia. It showed obscure sports from around the world, including Kabbadi, which can loosely be described as a cross between wrestling and British Bulldog.

Wandering through the valleys of lower Himachal Pradesh a couple of weeks ago, my ambition was fulfilled. At the edge of a village, I stumbled upon an elementary school, P.E. class in full effect. At first I was thrown. The game the pink-saried girls were earnestly playing triggered memories of my Transworld Sport days, but I was used to heavy-set turban-wearers, not little pixies. Also, the great gimmick of Kabbadi is that the would-be conqueror has to constantly mutter Kabbadi (‘holding of breath’ in Hindi) as they launch their raid into enemy territory, but here the sound was a monosyllabic ‘mudge’.

Seemingly honoured by my interest, the teachers invited me to pull up a pew, and readily answered my questions. This was Kabbadi, yes, in its purest form, the change of vocabulary explained by locale. We were in Himachal Pradesh, and not in the Punjab, where it originated, hence the change in word. With the confusion cleared up, the boys stepped forward, in sky-blue-shorts and sand-yellow corduroys (no PE kit here), predictably more aggressive in their approach. I sat back and photographed the spectacle to my heart’s content.

The school-bell rang, the class was over. Break-time. I was due to get back to the Tibetan summer camp I was visiting, whose participants must long ago have reached the river for an afternoon of frollicks. As I prepared to set off, though, I felt a firm but gentle palm on my shoulder. “You must come and drink chai with us,” implored one of the teachers. Without waiting for a response, he led me into the school courtyard, where hundreds of children gawked, as if President Musharraf had just walked in.

We took our seats in the corner, the children circling us, transfixed. At this point, I should explain. I was well off the tourist-trail, at a school not used to foreign visitors. “Actually, you are the first,” declared the English teacher, my chief interlocutor. “This is a great day. We shall record it in the school diary.” With that, what I thought would be an informal break-time chin-wag turned into an audience. After being politely questioned on my background, I was interrogated on the UK. “What is its topography?” the teachers asked, peculiarly. Then, we moved onto geopolitical matters, which involved me giving my considered opinion on the future of India and its relationship with the rest of the world.

The school seemed to be a lovely and buzzing-place, with all the sweet, sentimental images (Famous Five, anyone?) that conjures up. It was also – I hope – a little snapshot of the spread of education into rural India. The teachers were humble, but proud of what they saw as their vital role in the development of the nation. “Come to learn, go to serve,” was plastered on the school walls. This sense of mission may be surprising for a democratic country, but – coming from Zion – I suppose I’m used to it. Chai finished, I was granted a few moments with the principal. I thanked him for the welcome, and congratulated him for the atmosphere of the school. He promptly invited me for more chai, but by now I really had to go. Taking my leave, I skipped down the lane towards the river, delighted in having stumbled upon this pastoral scene, with no cause for cynicism in sight.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Leh-Manali road

We headed to tbe bus station at 2AM, having picked up our tickets for the 18-hour jeep ride from Leh to Manali in the morning. As it was early in the season, the buses weren’t yet running, which meant we had to do the journey in one, hard slog, with only one driver behind the wheel. There are two roads out of Leh – west into Kashmir and south into Himachal Pradesh. While both have a reputation for treachery, the Leh-Manali route is less of a road, and more like the bit in Gulliver’s Travels when he’s being carried through the air by a soaring eagle in a little box. In a word, visceral.

I was accompanied by Leo the Lion and The Swede, whom I had met on my way to Leh. The Swede and I paid 1000 roops for a middle seat, with The Lion preferring to rough it in the back for 200 less. Comfortably in position, we set off surprisingly promptly into the darkness. Stretching out my legs, I remarked to my friends that this might not be so bad after all. But I hadn’t reckoned for Leh’s urban sprawl, for apparitions standing on street-corners in the twilight, patiently waiting for a ride south.

There were four stops in all. First, the front two seats were taken. Second, two men joined Leo in the back. Third, a moustached Ladakhi joined The Swede and I. When I purchased the tickets, the driver promised me there would be only three on the middle seat. Three I could tolerate. But then, with the lights of civilisation about to vanish for the next 400km, a final, soul-crushing stop.

The introduction of a fourth man meant that us middle-seaters were transported into a peculiar version of Whose line is it anyway, namely the Standing, Sitting, Bending game. It wasn’t possible for us all to lean back at the same time, so we had to improvise to find comfort. At the start, I was wedged between the now-regrettably tall Swede and the moustached-Ladakhi, awkwardly twisted like trapped in some medieval torture instrument, the only consolation being the heat that was provided. During the first stop, I reprimanded the driver – via a makeshift interpreter – for lying to me about the maximum number of people on the middle-seat. He deflected my criticism without a care, as did the two Indians sitting pretty in the front, rejecting my plea for an occasional swap on the false grounds that they had paid more for their seats. There could be no avoid it – I would be travelling to Leh cattle-car style.

By now dawn was slowly breaking, and the first mountain pass was upon us. 5000m above sea level, the seasons were changing, with the melting snow turning the road to sludge, a brilliant white giving way to an unedifying brown. I gave a knowing shrug, having seen it all before on the Srinigar-Leh road. It couldn’t phase me now. Breakfast was two miles down the road, a bundle of big-top tents in an otherwise deserted landscape, its proprietors distributing much-appreciated noddles as we tried to keep our toes warm.

Rocky mountain passes soon gave way to flowing rivers; harsh ascents gave way to endless flats, any semblance of road disappearing. Colours changed rapidly, the perilous views reminding us that we somehow weren’t meant to be here, or at least not in a vehicle. The dust churned up by the jeeps in front of us made us choke, so we sealed the windows, as if in a travelling tomb. I then replaced The Lion in the back, holding on for dear life, as we headed off-road in search of short-cuts, where I was lifted into the air like on some fun-fair simulator, only without a seat-belt. We appreciated every minute of every break, lying still or slurping chocolate, cursing every time the drive summoned us back.

Our driver deserves a few lines. With a brooding, wounded look on his face, he went about his task like he was steering some great warship through enemy fire. Every turn was over-amplified, every acceleration dramatised. He did this for eighteen hours, with only the occasional break for regeneration. Despite this, he never seemed to waver. On the final leg of the journey, up some highland peak, The Swede drew my attention to the red in his retinas, but it only seemed to spur him on further. It was a most impressively-driven journey, and I regret the agitation I caused him earlier in the morning.

Eventually, we arrived safely in Manali, aching but alive. The grandeur of the vistas, and the thrills of the plummets, will not convince me to take the Leh-Manali road again. “Next time you fly, eh?” quipped a Kashmiri man to me on the Zhoji-La pass separating Kashmir and Kadakh. Yes sir, I do.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ancient Futures: Pondering modernity in Ladakh

The documentary Ancient Futures tells the story of the Ladakhi people and their encounter with modernity. According to the filmmaker, modernity (primarily delivered through new roads and tourism) has destroyed the traditional Ladakhi way of life, which until now had managed to sustain the Ladakhis for centuries.

Sitting bare-footed in the Women’s Alliance, agit-prop all around me, I was having none of it. The film presented a crude dichotomy (pre-modernity good/modernity bad), which positively enraged me. The documentary may not be the best medium for nuance, but that doesn’t excuse such crudely simplistic arguments, arguments which don’t tally with a cursory look around Ladakh’s capital, Leh.


Ladakh is really western Tibet. It has found itself under Indian rule for geopolitical reasons, which saw the Indo-Chinese war being fought on its territory. Despite this, its people have managed to use their physical isolation (cut off from Himachal Pradesh, Tibet and Kashmir by the mountains) to preserve their cultural identity. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion here (the Leonard Cohen-narrated documentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead is largely filmed in Ladakh), but the Ladakhis are culturally distinct from Tibetans, with their own language and customs, and wonderfully sinister hats.

Ladakh is the coldest and driest territory on earth. Settlement is only possible in the shadow of the mountains, where the snow-water falls. Beyond the shadows, the land looks strangely like a Middle Eastern desert. Ladakh is the one place in India that the monsoon leaves untouched, an apt reminder of how odd its political status is. I arrived just before the peak tourist season, which is fuelled by the demand for high-altitude trekking and biking, as well as the spiritual attractions. With the seasons changing, the land gave off a hint of what life must be like in winter. Somehow the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism make more sense here – the passive acceptance of life’s brutal rhythms, the futility of using emotions as a weapon against reality. Better to resignedly take your place as part of the landscape, to take your place in the cycle of life as best you can.

Ancient Futures argues that modernity has exposed innocent Ladakhis to the west’s most pernicious features, that the traditional fabric of life had broken up, that communities have been destroyed, that drug abuse and perversion is now rife, that people have become thoroughly individualized, concerned only with the pursuit of wealth.

It’s an easy argument to make, of course, one that’s been made in a number of other places. No doubt much of it is true. The problems caused by modernity are hard to deny. But when the balance-sheet is drawn up, it’s clear that modernity’s overall effect has been positive. This can only be denied through a sentimentally-skewed reading of pre-modernity.

While the film mentions high infant mortality in pre-modern Ladakh, it whitewashes the exclusion of women from political power, the poor standard of literacy, and the dominance of feudal elites. The filmmakers can do this because Buddhism has a soft power other religions can only dream of, because they know that critical questions will not be asked. Sentimentalisation, coming from a familiar place in the human spirit, will win out. The grass is always greener on the other side, and there is nothing worse than the present. Take the Jewish example, with the absurd romanticisation of shtetl life, lazily contrasted with the supposed ‘degraded society’we have created in Israel.

Contemporary Ladakhis have some sense of this, which is why Leh is a surprisingly hip place, where interesting ecological innovation and dramatic architecture sit side by side. If the patronizing westerners who made Ancient Futures had their way, Leh would still be in the dark ages. Arrogant in their conviction of what the good life is (meaning through community, sense of place in cosmos), they neglect to see the rewards reaped by modernization. “Never abandon our culture, just be moving it along, technology and tradition, innovation in the song,” sing Asian Dub Foundation on New Way, New Life, the motto for managing the often traumatic transition to modernity. Yes, there is much that was precious in the pre-modern world. The key word is balance, finding the right balance so that communities can both prosper and maintain their ancient heritage.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bargaining in the Barbershop

It's the barbershop, you know the rules...No fighting, no cussing, no Cause and no Bloodin' - and sit yourself down and act like you got some sense.
Murs & 9th Wonder, Barbershop (Murray's Revenge)

A weekly visit to the barbershop for a cut-throat has become one of my essential Indian rituals. I am lathered and shorn, massaged and perfrumed, always with the devotion of an artist. This is high-skilled labour, performed to perfection. And the price?
India is cheap. Cheaper than I thought it would be before I arrived, which was already cheap. It is almost insultingly cheap, a place where the gap between price and quality is almost heartbreaking. A good dinner should set you back no more than a pound, but you can fill yourself adequately with street-food for a third of that. A baseball cap will cost a couple of quid, an en-suite hotel room should be no more than four. India is cheap.

That makes it a backpacker's paradise, a place where you can live in relative luxury for $10 a day. As a result, it's an attractive place for those looking to while away the days in stunning surroundings, without falling into financial difficulty. This creates a strange change in mentality. Even if you come here with wads of cash, the low prices soon alter your perspective. When you realise that 100 rupees (just over a pound) is relatively expensive for a main course, you start to alter your consumption habits accordingly, even if your budget makes penny-pinching unnecessary. This is partly because you consume according to the company you keep, but it's also an issue of self-esteem - nobody wants to feel ripped off.

Backpackers also buy things in India - clothes, trinkets, carpets, things. And, like other countries with similar economies, you buy through bargaining. While I'm not a major purchaser of "objects" (at least not until the end of the trip, when thoughts must inevitably turn to presents for nearest and dearest), I've spent plenty of time with people who are. One of my strangest experiences, for example, was sitting in a boat and watching a couple barter over jewellery being hustled by the boatman next door. This lasted about half an hour, without a sale. Watching them in action, I realised that, try as I might, I can't get into the bargaining mentality. Not only am I awful at it, I can't even fathom the economics behind not having fixed prices. The first clause explains the second, I guess, but I'm still left deeply unsatisfied. Bartering may be part of the "experience" of travelling in the subcontinent, but is there a deeply shady morality behind it?

The shady morality, I think, comes from the traveller. Even the poorest of western backpackers brings with him/her stacks more cash than a vast majority of Indians will ever see, even if recent economic developments are taken into account. In this context, a 'tourist tax' isn't just reasonable, it's also deeply moral. My knowledge of economics is appalling, but I am convinced of this: the growing gap between rich and poor is shaping up to be the major source of instablity in the twenty-first century. Optimists can talk until the cows come home about the benefits of trickle-down economics, but allowing the wealth gap to widen will end in blood. One friend told me of a businessman who drives down Delhi in an orange lambourghini. This is - quite simply - an incitement to violence.

So I haven't minded being 'exploited' here and there; I've paid my tourist tax with pride. I guess my only hope is that all my transactions have been performed with dignity, that the seller hasn't laughed in my face when I've left the store. As long as that's not the case, I'm prepared to pay that little bit more.

I hope this doesnt come across as excessively self-righteous, and I also don't want to give the impression that I'm splashing the cash like some rap star. But I am getting increasingly annoyed at seeing people from Britain or France or Israel arguing over ten or twenty rupees. It's deeply distasteful.

I'm writing these lines - in righteous indignation - freshly shaven in the isolated village of Sumur in the Nubra Valley, close to the border with China. Here, the barber wanted to charge me 10 rupees. 10 rupees, 15 pence, for half an hour of his time, after which he has left me looking - quite frankly - invincible. After he quoted me the pittance, my mind drifted back to Amritsar. It was the third day of my journey, and I was feeling a lot more generous than now, not to mention a lot more ignorant about the consumer economy here. As I drifted through the most sensuous hairdressing experience I had ever had, I asked myself how much I was willing to offer him, whilst speculating on what his chutzpah would lead him to ask for. After an awkward pause, we came to the same figure, 300 rupees, astronomical even in the context of first-week naievity.
Paying that every week would be excessive, of course. It might even be a little bit patronising. So I've settled on 20 rupees here, 30 rupees there, depending on how safe I felt when the blade was gliding over my adam's apple. To the barber in Sumur, I have 50, which left him quietly surprised, but not offended. Quite simply, it's a reasonable price for a western tourist to pay for a high-quality service. Part of the role of the travellers it to put money into the local economy. We should do this with dignity, without excessive and shameful bargaining. After all, we are only passing through, fired by cliches about memories that will last forever. Amidst the constant inspiration, let's not forget about those who will be left behind.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Scenic Route

I've just made it to Vashisht, near Manali, for a week of well earned relaxation and footie watching, where I also hope to update the blog. I have plenty of tales to tell - from the 18 hour drive from Leh to Manali, to becoming a celebrity at an Indian primary school, to visiting a Tibetan summer camp. Stay tuned - from tomorrow evening I plan to update daily throughout the week...

And I'd be interested in hearing feedback about my route: my latest plan is to stay in the hills until the start of July, and then to work my way down into the plains and east to Calcutta, before heading to Rajasthan the first couple of weeks in August. (I know it's hot and monsoony, but that's part of the fun, particularly after reading Alexander Frater's delicious Chasing the Monsoon. Anyway, feedback is welcomed...

The Wandering Satlan

Monday, June 2, 2008

Free Kashmir?

"The vast majority of Kashmiris want independence, or at least hugely increased autonomy, not to mention a withdrawal of troops." Here, at Comment is Free.

Kashmir (2): Down in the Valley

The Kashmir the world knows about begins when you emerge from the 2531 metre long Jawahar Tunnel. Leaving the darkness, you are immediately confronted with the two salient points which define what the locals call "paradise on earth": the fertility and the soldiers. Before the descent down into the valley, a sign invites you to take a break and admire the view. To the left, a military post, the first of many.

Soldiers are everywhere in Kashmir, on street-corners, in forests, by rivers, by Mosques. One Kashmiri told me there were 800,000 soldiers based in the state; with an overall population of just over ten million, that's quite an astonishing figure. On one hand, their presence is testament to the fact that the violence which killed thousands in the nineties is not far behind us. On the other hand, it's a reminder that India has a shit load of soldiers with little else to do. [For more on the political situation in Kashmir, see my Comment is Free piece - link above]

You soon get use to them, though, like a part of the furniture, and they don't stand in the way of appreciating the great life and fecundity of the valley. Alpine glades, fast-flowing rivers, snow-capped peaks - it would be Orientalist to describe the vistas in terms of the Alps, but that's the image which springs readily to mind.

Of course, the people are anything but European, and indeed are anything but Indian. The Kashmiris are a proud and hospitable people, of mysterious origin, often dressed in shawls and turbans like their Muslim counterparts in North-West Pakistan, but with a cannier approach to tourism. Especially given the warnings, it was gratifying to see a group of Israelis greeted so enthusiastically, a phenomenon that is surely unmatched elsewhere in the Muslim world. A few Hebrew signs dot the landscape; with many other western tourists still reluctant to visit, it seems that the Israeli contingent is still doing its best to keep Kashmir's connection to the outside world alive.

We stayed at Pahalgam, the valley's main tourist centre. From here, masses of Indian tourists head to the Armanath Caves, an important Hindu holy site, while the more adventurously inclined go raftnig and horse-riding. We did btoh, before heading for a few days hiking up-river from the nearby village of Aru.

We were accompanied by Haji - the patriarch of the 'Brown Palace' and assorted other tourist ventures - and his dimunitive nephew, Roma. In his shawl and white skull-cap, Haji loked like he should be reclining in a Mosque, but he was was the man responsible for setting up our camp in the midst of a community of Kashmiri herdsmen and their families, liberally translated by our guide as gypsies. While loading the jeep, I had been startled to find my rucksack placed alongside a box of two live chickens, which turned out to be our dinner. To sit by a mountain stream at twilight, watching Haji slaughter and then meticulously clean the chicken (this took him over an hour) was - how shall I put it? - a rather carnal experience, on that (I'm sorry to say) didn't make me a vegetarian. On the contrary, it made me realise that meat tastes better when it has been freshly killed.

Our days of hiking finished, we headed to Srinigar, just after the disturbances caused by the President's visit. In Srinigar, you stay on houseboats, hundreds of which create a floating island ni the heart of the gigantic Dal Lake (now there's tautology for you). Houseboats, shops, wandering chikoras selling jewellery, even floating gardens - Dal Lake is a random wonder which makes Venice seem rather ordinary. The only downside is that it serves to detract from the main city, which is justly famous for its wooden mosques sans minarets.

I probably should have stayed longer in Srinagar. Certainly, getting a boat to take me to shore at dawn has been one of this trip's great memories. But what struck me most, after having internalised Lonely Planet's annoying habit of referring to the security situation every other sentence (although, to eb fair, they do have to cover their backs), was just how safe and welcoming a place it was, and how much potential is still has. I hope the development continues, and that the Kashmiri people can find the self-determination that they - like anyone else - deserve.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Kashmir (1): Danger Danger

I spent my last few hours in Dharamsala watching one of the most fascinating Champions League finals in living memory. Sure, Liverpool vs Milan beat it for sheer narrative, but when have two titans clashed so closely or bloodthirstily? Chelsea were the stronger team, but United created more chances through guile, rather than just good fortune. A shame, I suppose, that it had to be settled so tragically, with John Terry slipping when everyone knew he was a dead cert to score the winner, and in the process expose the arrogance which continues to undermine Ronaldo’s claims to greatness.

As a Liverpool fan, though, it was some consolation to watch the drama unfold early in a Himalayan morning. The cricket-obsessed Indians couldn’t give a shit about football, which meant I wouldn’t be subjected to Old Blotchy One’s inane grins all over the newspapers in the morning. To make sure, though, I decided to follow that old backpacker’s cliché about getting away from it all, by heading somewhere where I wouldn’t have internet or mobile access: The Kashmiri valley.

So along with a few other Israelis – a young jazz musicians and a honeymooning couple, later to be supplemented by an itinerant chef – we signed up for a highly recommended seven day journey into the Kashmiri interior, organised by the Kashmiri Muslim family which ran our hotel in Dharamsala. All that was left to do was watch the football before setting off. But now, unfortunately, was the time for doubts to start creeping into Ran’s mind. His phone began to ring, it being alternately his girlfriend and his mother (a truly dangerous combination), telling him of new warnings that terrorists in Kashmir were specifically looking for Israeli targets, that it wasn’t safe, that he mustn’t go, that they’d keep ringing until he decided to drop out, that he…

He came in the end. But, as I lead you down into the valley, it’s this theme that I’d like to focus on. Why does heading into a conflict zone cause us to suspend our rationality? Why will we err on the side of caution when fearful of terror, but not for more sensible concerns like the perilous state of India’s roads? With all that by way of introduction, then, let’s go down into the valley.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Real

E.M Forster's seminal A Passage to India deals - amongst other things - with the problem of the 'Real India'. Is there such a thing, or is it just a construct of the sunbaked western imagination? And, if it does exist, do westerners actually want to experience it? Indeed, is experiencing it even possible? "I want to see the real India," cries Adela Quested, only to be greeted with an anonymous voice of cynicism: "It'll end in an elephant ride, it always does." Where do things stand today?


Dharamsala is not Dharamsala. It is Mcleod Ganj. Dharamsla is the transport hub down the road. Backpackers stay in Mcleod and the surrounding villages (chiefly Bagshu and Dharamkot). Mcleod was established as a British military base in the mid-1800s; with time, it became a place of refuge from the heat of the plains. Still, in their emails home, travellers write of being in Dharamsala.

A quirk of history has given Dharamsala its dominant character: The Dalai Lama's escape from China and the establishment of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Mcleod. Here the Tibetans have created an impressive little piece of Tibet in India - temples, political organisations, restaurants, cultural centres - broadcasting Tibetan soft power to the world and keeping the Tibetan issue on the agenda, while at the same time maintaining the area as a tourist centre.

They have been helped in achieving the latter by another quirk of history - Israel's compulsory military service. Dharamsala is about as far from life in the IDF as you could imagine, making it a perfect place for demobbing Israelis to come and detox. It would be no exaggeration to state that at least 50% of the western tourists here are Israelis. Dharamkot may as well be a West Bank settlement, restaurants serve falafel, and I have met at least one Indian here (a chef, no less) who knows Hebrew better than me.

The circle is completed by British gap-year students, wannabe European intellectuals, and ageing wanderers (complete with Keith Richards sun-glasses), all of whom are perfect customers for what Dharamsala has to offer: meditation, yoga, Tibetan medicine, astrology, stunning mountain walks, and large quantities of marijuana. A cynic, I came expecting a pastiche of Glastonbury, fell ill, recovered, has a surprisingly good time, but am nonetheless ready to leave, having brutally decided that this is too far from the 'Real India'for this particular wandering satlan.


I arrived in Dharamsala four days after landing in Delhi, fresh from Amritsar, shocked but seduced by the chaos of life inh the plains. I carried with me the assumption that 'the real' was a chimera, that the 'Real India' was whatever people in India do, even the tourists. This was a cop-out. In arriving here, I have left the real India behind.


The community the Tibetans have built in Dharamsala is the equivalent of the packed suitacase kept in the corner by the refugee, so that s/he will be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Despite everything that happens in their homeland, the Tibetans have refused to give up on the dream of return, while simultaneously managing to confidently forge a new future, one that may yet survive, no matter what.

However, there is still precious little sign of a symbiosis with their Hindu-Indian neighbours. While the Tibetans provide the culture, the Indians provide the services - cabs, hotels, food, drugs. This division of labour means that everyone can eat, but it doesn't necessaarily lend for an integrated community, and it certainly doesn't resemble anything else I've seen on my (admittedly brief) travels.

As for the backpackers, they're the oil that keeps the car running, and it is to them that questions about the 'Real India' should be asked most thoroughly. Forster was astute enough to recognise that a person's attitude to the issue can't be separated from their personal circumstances; Adela Quested is partly looking for the 'Real India' as a way of escaping the dilemma of whether or not she should get engaged. Here it's the other way round: travellers rush straight from Delhi to the hills, thus bypassing the Real India, as a way of dealing with their personal problems.

Aside from the post-IDFers (whose fucked-upedness should require no explanation), and the Gap-Yearers (still wide-eyed at the world), it is the veteran travellers here who have interested me most. While it wouldn't be right to go into details, suffice to say that I have heard truly awful stories here, stories which explain why people would seek escape from the world in the form of Vipassana, extreme spiritual practices, and heavy drug use.

I've no complaints about all this - each to their own. As I said, it's understandable. But it's not what interests me about this country. India has - against all the odds - been a place of redemption from time immemorial, and will no doubt continue to be so long into the future. Sitting eating my curry, though, reading the newspaper, I come across stories of farmer suicides and right-to-work activists murders, of a chaotic but dynamic economy and an ever-present stand-off with Pakistan. Call me dull, but this has been my idea of the Real India, or at least a snapshot of the issues that will determine whether this country plays out the century in glory or anarchy. My fear is that my quest to see it will be as fruitless as people looking for redemption in Dharamsala. But I may as well try. So next up is the question of conflict. Kashmir...