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 cafĂ©. 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.