Published: January 18th 2009December 28th 2008 Do you like India?
Humayuns Tomb, Delhi
Another day, another tomb. This one was also pretty spectacular. Like a red and white Taj but with less people and more chipmunks.
It’s a question all the Indians we meet like to ask after “which country?”, “what is your job?” and “is she your girlfriend?”. I’ve thought about the answer to this question quite a bit and had plenty of time to consider a polite enough response that doesn’t involve lying (diplomacy is something I am hugely successful with - why they haven’t yet involved me in the Middle East Peace talks is beyond me), yet when we do eventually encounter it my “umming” and “erring” usually gets in the way of me telling them that I find India to be “interesting…”.
Those three dots after “interesting” are important. They betray the truth of a thousand caveats. They are the “but”, the “however”, the story that I don’t quite have the time or bottle to tell. They are everything I dislike about India while conceding that our experience of India is limited to the well touristed areas of the North over a relatively short period of time. But on what else can I base my opinion? First Impressions
We sat on our rucksacks outside the Chief Health Inspectors Office at Gorakphur Train Station watching as
You want fries with that?
At the Taj McHal everybody wants a photo down the waterway with the reflection. It is the Big Mac of Indian photos. I had to push, I used my elbows and blocked a number of family shots but I eventually got to the front and annoyed everyone behind me by taking ages to make sure the camera was lined up juuust right.
the cockroaches paraded past like a victorious army. The place was theirs: all they were missing was flags and tickertape as they marched their way down the hideously filthy platform toward the body a man who lay unconscious in his own puke. In front of us a toddler joined the hordes of others who’d stopped to stare at us, his eyes as wide open as his mouth and his little yellow pants around his ankles as he puddled the platform with an unfeasible amount of pee for such a small being.
Fearing that killing the hours sat on this platform waiting for our train may result in us contracting some form of serious bacterial infection, we moved to a grubby little restaurant across the road from the station which, it turned out, had rats running along the curtain rails and a waiter who held the drinks he delivered to your table so that his finger prints remained around the lip of the glass and you got the scent of his cigarettes with every sip: a nice touch I thought. At this stage we’d been in the country for just over two hours.
By the end of the first
More Indian that India
What you can't see in this picture is the guy who was so taken with staring at me that he didn't notice the elephant until it almost trod on him.
day I’d seen my first human corpses. But I’d expected it; we were after all in Varanasi, the city where people bathe, wash their clothes and float their dead relatives in the Holy open sewer that is the Ganges River. What I hadn’t expected to see was my first animal stampede at a funeral; an experience that adds real black slapstick comedy value to what the Lonely Planet describes as the “intimate rituals of life and death”. Believe me, there’s nothing intimate about a large horned cow chasing a stray dog through a crowded funeral procession and certainly nothing ritualistic about stretcher bearers toppling like skittles and dropping poor dead grandad in the mud. I Blame the Sexbots
Being in India is like being in a Bollywood version of a cross between ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video - but without women and a with whole lot more urinating in public. The cars are classics, the fashions are caught on the cusp between John Travolta 70’s flairs and tight, wide collar shirts and Michael Jackson 80’s black jackets and drain-pipe jeans - all with brown or mustard-yellow knitwear tank-tops thrown in for good measure, and there’s
Got the Blues, Jodhpur
I bet B&Q run out of blue pretty quickly around here.
something just a bit weird, seedy and occasionally slightly threatening about the whole place.
In a society where terms like ‘girlfriend’ and ‘boyfriend’ are frowned upon; where marriage is for life and for the most part doesn’t happen until you reach your thirties (for men at least); where women sit at the front of the bus and men at the back; where there are gender specific queues at the cinema, the Taj Mahal and the train station; where women stay at home and men earn the crust; and where kissing in public is frowned upon; you’d be forgiven for thinking India’s media would be a little more prim than that of their immoral European and American cousins. Not so.
Indian TV channels are flooded with scantily clad model-thin women with unnaturally large breasts and giraffe long legs, thrusting and gyrating like uncontrollable sexbots against some bloke twice their age, half their height, with a moustache like a small woodland creature and hairy knuckles who sways from side to side and wobbles his head in time to a song that he clearly isn’t singing and probably couldn’t care less about so long as he gets to see some boobs.
Consequently India is a country of men who are not really going to experience actual sexual intercourse until their wedding night at the age of thirty-ish but who are on a daily basis exposed to half-naked fantasies on TV and receive their sexual education from the highly accessible, celebrity obsessed, pornography filled information super highway: a medium that is, it is probably fair to say, less than natural in the manner in which it portrays women and sex. Is it any wonder then that foreign women are the focus of Indian men’s attentions in a way that we have not so far encountered in our travels?
And it’s not like this is some subtle undercurrent I’m talking about. There seems to be no shame in staring at Western women just like there’s no shame in photographing them or, in some cases, propositioning them. In modern India there’s no hiding grubby magazines under the mattress or writing innocent titles on naughty VHS tapes; all you need is a video-phone, a long train journey and a Western woman in the bunk next to you. Just ask Vik who, for the duration of a 45 hour train journey from Agra to
Ghats at Sunrise, Varanasi
The Ghats are the stepped areas down to the water where all the washing, cleaning and burning happens.
Ernakulam had the pleasure of sleeping less than a metre from a gentleman who made no attempt to disguise what sort of movies he was watching - nor the gratification he took from them. Suddenly the cockroaches that plagued some of our other train journeys in India don’t seem like such bad cabin-mates.
Aside from sharing the attention of sweaty men with small screen grainy porn, Vik was also the subject of two unauthorised gropings during our stay in Northern India.
Obviously, on a daily basis Vik is subjected to numerous forms of harassment from her husband, but he has a piece of paper (a certificate of ownership if we’re being Indian about it) declaring that this is okay. Likewise Vik is the authorised harasser of her husband, though for some reason she chooses to exercise this right on a very restricted basis. At no point that I’m aware of has Vik made any open declaration to the men of India stating that they may have a squeeze if they wish to. Neither does she wear, I think it’s fair to say, clothing that could be construed as saying “squeeze me” or “put your hands here”. Clearly though,
Red Fort detail, Agra
Much, much, much better than the massively disappointing and overcrowded Red Fort in Delhi.
some - and by some I mean a large number - of Indian men believe that women of a Western persuasion are as “liberated” as the ones who appear on their videophones and are as open to sexual harassment as Indian men are to chapati’s.
Incident number one was a bum cupping incident that while non-aggressive on it’s own soon escalated into something a little more intimidating for both of us. Bum Cupping
As we made our way through the passage ways, corridors and rooms of the Palace in the dramatic but shit strewn and woefully poorly conserved hill-top fort in the desert town of Jaisalmer listening to the excellent if dubious audio commentary (“children in the desert city of Jaisalmer will often grow to seven years old without ever seeing rain” the woman’s voice authoritatively told us as we tried to shield the audio handset from the downpour), we met a large group of adolescent men - some with their faces covered inexplicably with scarves - in a narrow corridor that required Vik to squash herself against the wall in order to let them pass. Clearly the temptation was too much for one fellow who took
Dogs See in Black and White... (Fatehpur Sikri Market)
...which is a real shame for them because they'd be missing out on one of the few joys in Northern India. Actually... no, a dog would have a cracking time here. Lots of smells... if you catch my drift.
the opportunity to - not aggressively - “weigh” Vik’s buttock in his hand. Vik made angry noises and shouted things like “hey!” and “oi!” in the same way that a puppy may bark and attempt to look ferocious when cornered, but she couldn’t be sure who deserved her much practised right-cross to the jaw (much to my own peril I recently explained to the ever curious Vik that the jaw line is one of the most sensitive areas of the body and that a swift, sharp blow there can knock a man out).
When we ran into the same group on the roof of the Palace - a vantage point offering the best views of the fort itself, the city and the desert - I was literally backed into a corner by the mob who demanded that I let them photograph Vik (who, it being India, has no say in the matter).
As their tone and body language became more aggressive and their observations and questions about Vik became more uncouth in their manner, I became more and more uncomfortable with the whole situation - not least of all because I realised I was separated from my wife
Boob Grabbing Incident, Jodhpur Fort
A stunning sunset turning the magnificent sandstone fort red will forever be remembered as the Boob Grab place.
by an angry mob and was standing with centimetres to spare in front of the longest drop in Jaisalmer.
I may be tall, muscular, devastatingly handsome and trained in several martial arts, but when confronted by a gang of horny, masked men (don’t even get me started on my years in prison) the hairs on the back of my neck start getting ready to do whatever it is they think would be useful in a situation like this, my adrenaline starts pumping, my heart beat increases and the “fight, flight or shit your pants and drop to the ground in a quivering ball” instincts that any mortal man would have all kick-in. Since flight would literally be that and I was wearing my only clean pair of undies, I chose to get aggressive - not recommended, but then we’ve already discussed my diplomacy skills - and physically shoved several members of the group aside, forcing my way along the forts battlements through to Vik like Lancelot to Guinevere through Mordreds hordes.
With great haste we left the palace roof, under a volley of what I can only assume was Hindi for “see you later” and “lovely to have
I do everything around here, Varanasi
Facilities Include: turning your sheets orange, beard tickling, making beds from cardboard and stealing Little Red Riding Hoods basket for granny.
met you”. Feeling a Right Boob
Incident number two was, in some ways, more disconcerting.
We watched the sunset turning the walls of the far more impressive and faithfully restored/conserved Jodhpur Fort from a yellowy-orange sandstone to a deep red from a parkland area on the opposite side of the city from the usual tourist hubbub. If truth be told, I’d got us a little lost in the maze of winding streets in the stunning blue painted old town that surrounds the fort and we’d ended up with this excellent vantage point thanks in part to one of the many stray street dogs we’d met along the way who wouldn’t let us take the road we wanted to - his road - without first introducing his teeth to our ankles.
The only other person in the park was an old man who invited himself onto the wall we stood on and generally pestered us with the usual questions one expects while we focused our attentions and lenses on the fort and tried to enjoy the romance of the moment. “From Scotland”, I said in response to his first question. “That’s right - Scotch Whisky… No I
Vik and the Happy Meal
I love this building. I was expecting to be disappointed but I found myself to be somewhat bowled over. I think its all about impact. You don't see the building until you walk through the giant gate that obscures it from view and then BAM! there it is - white and flat looking so that you could be staring at a magnificent painting.
don’t drink it myself… I don’t have a job at present… I used to work in a bank… No, not my girlfriend - my wife”. The answers roll out with the greatest of ease. It’s a script I’ve run over a thousand times in several different countries with the numerous touts, hoteliers, rickshaw drivers and tat sellers who feel they need to engage with you on a more personal level in order to sell whatever it is they want to sell. It’s usually followed up with lines like “come have a look at my shop” or “my rickshaw is very cheap” or “you smoke?”… But I don’t tend to mind it. Of course it’s all designed to lead to that pivotal moment when you are either wooed into parting with your cash or refuse his services and put your new found best friend in a bad mood but occasionally it’s worth going through that initial interrogation just to find that rarity: a person who doesn’t round it off with a sales pitch but is genuinely being friendly and curious.
However, while India has been no worse than many other Asian countries for the number of people approaching us, it
is the first country where the number of genuinely friendly and curious people has failed to climb above zero. Which is why, when this old man failed to mention either his shop, his rickshaw, his restaurant or his need for some of our spare change, I became a little more relaxed and, foolishly, trusting.
He was dressed in the Indian standard issue mustard-yellow tank top, had the standard issue Indian moustache which was greying in time to the hair on his head and, taken as a whole, he looked exactly as he was: a retired engineer. He hailed from Jodhpur and was married with three children. He liked to come to the park each day for peace and quiet - clearly a man who enjoyed thought and contemplation. He spoke only to me and largely ignored that Vik was even present.
With the sun having dipped over the purple horizon and the dark sky rising in the East, colour was vanquished for another day and the walls of the fort took on the same grey tones that had crept over the previously blue old town. We made our way toward the exit with the old man in tow
asking lots of questions about our time in India - you know the ones - Do you like India? Would you come back to India? - but when we reached the exit he pointed to the little shrine beside the gate and said that before we left we should take a look… suddenly I could smell a rat: what were we about to be sold?
The shrine was crap and our friend seemed to acknowledge this so I made to leave. But I made the mistake of leading the way. Ladies first is the rule and we now know that there’s a reason for this. With me striding off ahead on the narrow walkway, Vik and our Indian friend did the polite “you go first”, “no you” thing that invariably results in the lady going first. But as she moved ahead of our friend he suddenly gripped her firmly by the arm attempting to turn her toward him and grabbed at her chest with his free hand.
Long story short - Vik shook him off and scarpered, the ‘friendly’ old man slunk away into the depths of the park and I carried on my way with a little
Snuffed it, Varanasi
Floating candles in the Ganges at night following a day of serious body burning (200-300 a day!).
whistle and merry tune blissfully unaware that anything had happened until Vik stormed past saying “OK. We’ve just had a boob grabbing incident”.
Our scoreboard for experiences of people approaching us in an initially friendly manner in India consequently looks like this: Genuinely Friendly 0, Salesmen 700, Perverts 1.
It would seem that in Northern India, if they’re not after your money then they’re after your woman. Stitched Up for Post Office Robbery
How difficult should it be to send home from India a small package containing 10 CD’s and my ridiculous obsessive compulsive collection of ticket stubs, receipts, business cards, flyers and maps which will inevitably rot away in a cardboard box at the bottom of our wardrobe for years to come despite what I tell Vik about making a scrapbook? The answer is: head wobble.
The Indian head wobble is, frustratingly, the answer to everything you ever wanted to ask. Is this the way to the Taj Mahal? Head wobble. Does this train go to Delhi? Head wobble. At what speed is the universe expanding from its point of origin? Head wobble. What is the meaning of life? Head wobble. I want to be
Poison Cake, Varanasi
A delicious fruit cake would be nice for our train journey I thought. The guy wrapped it cleverly in two card squares for me. It was only when we opened it that we noticed what that cardboard had been in a previous life. I ate it anyway knowing that if I did die as a result, at least I wasn't going to have any problems with fungus.
on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. With just a few head wobbles I could be rolling in rupees.
Unfortunately for us Scots with our stiff necks and fully functioning vocal chords, a head wobble when you are asking which queue to stand in at the Post Office is tricky to interpret. There seemed to be several staff behind desks doing things with stacks of papers and wooden stamps and ink pads and there were three lines of people waiting to be served by the two people who seemed to be involved in the process of accepting money but where do I go to get a box or envelope for my parcel?
Having interrupted one of the very busy and self-important looking paper shuffling stampers and, for my efforts, been given the kind of look I would have expected if I’d just farted on her desk, I was advised by a man wearing his “Post Office” badge like it was an access all areas pass at a Bon Jovi concert, that I needed to use the parcelling service just outside the main door.
In the street outside the Post Office I had my
eyes trained high on the shop front signage looking for an official sort of India Post Parcelling Service sign when Vik called me back and pointed to a guy squatted on the floor outside a currency exchange stand who was wrapping a box in cloth and stitching it closed with the efficiency and speed of a well trained military medic. The small piece of card sellotaped to the wall above his head (about four feet off the ground) read “Parselling Service”.
Having paid the happiest man I met in Delhi (a city that we found to be disappointing rather than unbearable and chaotic) on the floor outside the Post Office to turn my collection of items into a well bandaged and perfectly stitched bundle, I returned to the end of the three queues figuring that if I stood in them all at once I was bound to find the right one sooner or later. This was actually fairly easily achieved as Indian queues are not like British ones which are often simply a straight line with a back and a front, but are triangular in shape in that they have a back with several fronts and a peering mob
Tree Stripper, Delhi
Even the wildlife here has no respect for its surroundings.
in the middle. This may make queuing sound horrendous but usually it’s pretty efficient as very few people are there with a purpose other than to see why everyone else is queuing.
When I reached the desk that ran along the side of the queue, the gentleman with the Bon Jovi pass was waiting with two copies of the customs declaration for me to complete. However, rather than take a seat at the back of the room and complete the forms as he had indicated I should do I was determined that I wouldn’t be losing my place and completed the forms in the queue, sliding along the counter as I was jostled toward the front. By the time I did actually get served the forms looked like they’d been completed by a five year old and the clerk reached the conclusion pretty quickly that I was a bit of a simpleton.
The man taking the money and the parcels was the man who ran the show. He sat in a chair that was far superior to the stick and plywood stools the others balanced on and carried an air of power that made him look like an
Haveli detail, Jaisalmer
Most of them are being woefully and unsympathetically restored to 'glory' by throwing large quantities of cement at them but the Havelis (rich merchants houses) that have survived are stunning. Thats not wood carving - its all sandstone.
Indian version of the prison governor from Shawshank Redemption. And indeed, he looked like, if it were possible, he’d quite like to have most of the queue taken away and beaten soundly with the long metal spike they use to flip naan breads.
“We don’t need two copies of the customs declaration”, he barked at me. Somewhere on the other side of the room the guy with the Bon Jovi pass was chuckling to himself but I didn’t say anything. “Passport copy?” he said. Don’t be mislead by the question mark, it wasn’t a question but a demand. “I…” but before I could finish a little demon of a man appeared on the shoulder of the Governor and stretched out a thin palm toward me. “Passport”, he sneered with a pointy little smile. I took the prompt and handed over my passport which was, of course, well concealed within a plastic bag, which was within my money belt which had slipped from its intended place, around my waist, to its usual place, into my pants. (While this makes my belongings entirely secure, it does mean that when my passport is required (at Post Offices, Train Stations and Immigration) I
Layin' out your shit, Varanasi
With the cold winter coming the demand for good fuel increases. Time to start the cattle on a course of laxatives to up production.
have to open my fly to retrieve it).
As the scrawny little demon fellow disappeared holding my warm passport like he might catch something from it, the Governor set about weighing my bundle and inspecting the customs declaration. “900 Rupees” he said. “Is that Airmail or by Sea?” I asked. “Air”, he replied. “And how much is it by sea?” I asked. “It’s not worth it. Three months instead of ten days,” was his helpful response. “Yes, but I’m not in a rush - so how much is it?” “About 150 rupees different.” I was getting too irritable to argue and neglected to find out what exactly the ‘about’ meant. I’d now been in the Post Office or having my belongings stitched up for over an hour.
With a puff of smoke and a flash of lightening - the little demon appeared again with my passport which he dropped onto the counter in front of me. “10 rupees”, he smiled with his palm held out like he’d done before. “What for?”, I asked. “Copying passport”. I think he sensed my annoyance and I could have sworn I saw a little pointy tail flick around behind him with glee.
Feeling Blue, Jodhpur
The old town of Jodhpur, which sits just below the hugely impressive palace walls is painted almost entirely blue. Celtic fans be warned.
I felt irked and just to let him know this and make him work a bit harder I gave him a 500 rupee bill and told him I didn’t have any change.
The Govenor had by this time input all the details of my parcel into his antique computer and had printed out the postage label which he stuck with great aplomb and care onto the corner above the address I’d written on the fabric in black marker. “900 rupees”, he said as he chucked my bundle on to the pile of other bundles with addresses in the UK and the US on the floor behind him. I unzipped my fly again and began rustling around to try and get my wallet out; much to the distress, disgust, joy - I can’t be sure - of the pretty Spanish girl at the counter next to me.
“Can I see the parcel please?”, I asked the Governor. Head wobble. “I’d like to…”
“Yes, yes!”, he said irritably and reached down to pick it off the floor. It was the first time I’d seen his buttocks leave his seat - I knew I’d got to him. For some reason, something
Ginger, Posh, Sporty, Baby and Scary
A stall at the spice market in Jodhpur.
inside me - my Asian Scamdar perhaps - had been telling me that I was being taken for a mug. “This postage label says 800 rupees - not 900”, I told him in as stern and pissed off a voice as I could muster without total losing the plot. We were approaching the hour and a half mark and my nerves were on threads. Quite sensibly he didn’t say anything - he could tell I was another one they’d driven to the edge and so he just wobbled his head, returned his buttocks to their former position and handed me 100 rupees.
But I didn’t just leave. I wanted to be there; I wanted to watch him; I was onto his game as he served the Spanish girl who I’m sure would have been more impressed by my stand against corruption and injustice had I remembered to zip myself up. And it was as my glorious victory over the cheeky scamming bastards of the world was buzzing around my head that I was distracted by the sight of the demon fellow who had been oddly absent for the last 20 minutes or so and who now seemed to be
Spice and Saris, Jodhpur Markets
Colours and smells - lots of colours and smells: some good; others not quite so good... just don't look down...
avoiding eye contact with me. With my simple mind otherwise focused on the Governors skimming scheme, I couldn’t recall whether or not the demon had brought me my change?
With a flick through my wallet and another frantic dig around in my pants, it was clear that I was short by about 490 rupees. Having made eye contact with him, bared my teeth and waved him over to me with the kind of “get over here NOW” gesture your mother gave you when you’d just made your little brother cry, I didn’t have to say anything before he ‘suddenly remembered’ that he was on his way over to me when he got distracted. Save it for the gates of heaven, devil boy.
I left the Post Office drained, exhausted and zipping myself up. Unable to face the prospect of haggling with tuk-tuk drivers for a ride back to our hotel in Pahar Ganj - the backpacker area (read lively budget hovel) of Delhi - we took the opportunity to enjoy the hugely disappointing Connaught Place area of the city (supposedly the trendy cosmopolitan area - it is nothing more than a roundabout with dilapidated colonial buildings filled with
the odd international brand name store and a host of ‘tourist’ offices). Please, End it Now
Sorry - I'm tired. I've written far too much. Nobody likes long blogs - least of all me. I wouldn't read it. But I think in reading this exhaustingly long and overly worked blog you will get an idea of how it feels to be in India: it's hardwork when it doesn't need to be.
To get back to the point: do I like India? There can only be one response to that:
There are more photos below