India: 3/6

Our guide is 28, married and Brahman.  He says he wonders about the purpose of life. It’s hard to read people across cultures but he doesn’t seem to care that much.  Then again, it probably seems to him that I don’t so it’s best not to judge.

He particularly likes the god Hanuman.  He is strong, a great warrior, and the first follower of Rama.  The story of Rama and his wife Sita is part of an annual festival that lasts ten days called the Dussehra.

In most of northern and western India, Dasha-Hara (literally, “ten days”) is celebrated in honour of Rama. Thousands of drama-dance-music plays based on the Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas are performed at outdoor fairs across the land, in temporarily built staging grounds featuring effigies of demons Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghanada are held. The effigies are burnt on bonfires in the evening of Vijayadashami-Dussehra.


Our guide said that the story is told in four hour performances over the ten nights leading to Rama’s final victory over Ravana.  The victory of good over evil.  A flaming arrow shot into the effigies ignites and destroys them.

The guide tells me that each person is reincarnated seven times.  You don’t know if you’re in your first or seventh incarnation, but being human suggests that you did something good in the past.  Man is the penthouse suite of creation which is not an idea I really agree with.  It seems to privilege consciousness too much.  But it should mean that we are a brother and sisterhood of beings who all have good in our past, and the experience of having been another consciousness: a cockroach, a rock at the bottom of a river, a bird hanging high on the updrafts.  That should make humans something special, shouldn’t it?  Well, it would if the knowledge of goodness and otherness was evident in us all I suppose.


After the bus ride back from Agra to Delhi we had three hours to kill before our train ride.  Should we take the metro to some shops?  Some hesitation, but ok.  It put us in India for once.  Not in a monument, or a foreigner friendly restaurant, but on the trains.

In the metro, waiting for the guide to come back with tokens, an old man approached me.

“Where are you from?”

“New Zealand.”

“So many pretty flowers,” he said nodding at the girls and chuckling.

I nodded.

“You are a lucky man.”

I shrugged, not wanting to play the game: the imaginary brotherhood of the cock.

“Have a nice day.”

Down in the metro the girls got on the woman only carriage.  I went in one of the other ones.  At the other end of the metro we found a cafe and flooded in with our exotic cool.  The coffee was terrible but I enjoyed it.  And the chippies.  And the samosa.  We could have been anywhere in the world.  Sometimes that’s nice.


We picked up our packed lunches in a car park that stank of urine.  Urine in a fan oven.  Then we walked to the bus.  To walk with bags, literally bags, of food past the poor and starving wearing my stupid white man skin.  Fuck.  We put all the bags of food down.  A man hung about asking for food.  I gave him 10 rupee.  The point of which being nothing.  A fee to my pricked conscience.

Then into the thick of Delhi Station with suitcases.  Weaving through the crowds, around the families camped on the ground eating, or the men lying down to sleep, through the sheep pen maze of railings to the metal detector.  Up the stairs, along the bridge, down the stairs.  It reminded me of Japan.  The heat, the noise, the time pressure, but for quite a few of the girls it was pretty full on.  A bit too real.

After all that the train drifted out of Delhi Railway Station serenely and on time.  We passed vacant lots and ponds so clogged and covered with rubbish you could see neither land nor water. A rejoinder to the posters and signs about cleaning up India.  After the sweaty chaos of getting on to the train we settled into quiet, into the slow rocking sway of the carriage.  Soon, men in blue polos and caps (“Doon’s”) started marching up and down the aisles selling chips, chai, water and snacks.


Two men in white, with rimless white caps, hands at their backs, walk quietly between fields up a dirt track.  A little black puppy lollops across rough ground.  20, 30 young men out on a beaten earth court playing volleyball. A cat, as a rare as a woman out after dark, regards the train as it passes.  A sense of people coming in from the land and the busyness before dark.  The moon, low and large, an orange disk sliding up on the “wrong” side of the train, disorients me.

India: 2/6

So far all the monuments we have seen have been Muslim.  The impact of Islam on India has been huge to a degree I didn’t understand.  I didn’t understand even that the Taj Mahal was Muslim.  In the mental image I had of the Taj it was simply a metonym for India.  It is, of course, much more specifically located in history than that.  Islam often seems austere, but in India it feels looser, softened, extremists would say compromised.  Which is how life actually is.  A lot of trouble starts with people who want to make the crooked path of life straight.  At most all they can create is the illusion of straightness, an illusion that pleases the eye of people who like straight things, and who benefit from it, but is in reality concealing only unhappiness. The only way to make a linear world, after all, is through fear.


Something happens to me more and more when I see the old palaces and tombs.  I see the oppression as well as the grandeur.  I see a metaphor for our modern life in the West.  In the West we see the Taj Mahal; we buy a ticket and walk through the grounds with our camera and admire the shadows at dusk on the curve of the minarets.  We forget the 22 years of labour by hand. The thousands of workers.  The inevitable deaths and accidents.  The pittance paid and haggled over.  I think you must hold both things in your head. The beauty of the stone at dusk and the oppression.  When you buy your organic filter coffee think of the coffee bean farmer.


Red Fort.  The guide pointed across the arcade to a beautiful pavilion of marble, rows of columns supporting scalloped archways that mirrored each other, falling away like colonnades of lace.

“This is where Jahangir met Sir Thomas Roe, the British ambassador, and granted the British protection of their first base here at Surat in 1614.”

We study that very meeting at school.  Extraordinary to be there.  400 years later.  To see the space, the arcade where that moment in time occurred; a small exchange that presaged momentous shifts in the history of the world.


The men who sit alone.  Dark, dark skin.  Wild hair and beards all thick and matted.  Clothes that have never been changed, that are close with dirt and sweat and hang off them: gaping.  They sit or lie wherever they like.  They walk like ghosts, they do not exist,  they exist: on the barriers between lanes, on the boundaries of things.

A family group.  Multiple generations of women in  saris: green, yellow, blue, red, blocks of bright colours fringed with gold. They are chattering to each other like birds, ruffling, pecking, grooming each other.

A young married couple.  She bosses him about.  He holds his point.  She asserts hers.  He gives an exasperated tut which means “you’re right” and “pah!”.

The guides are plumper than the driver and his helper.  They wear nicer clothes, stay in the bus with us, stay in the hotel.  I don’t know where the driver and his helper go at night, what they eat or where they stay.  Everyone understands the importance of a job when everyone can see everyday what happens to those without one.


I downplayed the Taj Mahal to myself, and told myself that it wouldn’t probably be that good.  It was stunning.

What does it tell you, the Taj Mahal?

Death is the hardest thing.  “Just Want U Back”.  Written in marble not in spray paint but the same thing: an articulation of love and pain.  A cry against the finality of death for the living.

The beauty of labour. We went to a marble factory tour before we went to the Taj Mahal.  Usually these are tedious, but this one wasn’t.  It was about the process of marble inlay.  We watched a group of men spinning their grinding stones with one hand, and holding a fragment of rock or shell against the other end to shape each fragment of rock into a tiny piece that would be inlaid in marble later.  Extraordinary.  It was a moment of seeing.  I’m not taken with marble inlay, but I see it now for what it is: a sort of mandala in pieces of stone instead of grains of sand.  They took us into the display room to see their most priceless pieces: large slabs of marble, coffee table size, covered in patterns of flowers, foliage and birds, each leaf, petal and feather one of those hand ground stones set in place.  And then you see it on the Taj Mahal.  The flowers and stems, the Arabic script around the great door into the tomb.  It made me see the Taj Mahal more clearly; not just the men who cut, hauled and placed the stones, but the men who put all that inlay into it so that it was as beautiful up close as it was from a distance.

Man’s vanity. It may be that on either side of the Taj Mahal there is a mosque and a madrasa, but the tomb is what it’s all about.  What are the messages in that? That this one person was important to one man, and that one man being important wanted everyone to know.  I also believe in the importance of people to each other.  About the pain of death I have some understanding.  But to put so much resource, so many other lives into the memory of just one person.  Aren’t we all important?  Whether we have lived good lives is about our character, our choices, our circumstances and opportunities, what is and isn’t done to us by life.  None of us deserve a Taj Mahal.  We deserve only to be remembered by the ones we loved and who loved us.  Isn’t that enough?

Just Want U Back.

India: 1/6

At the immigration counter out of Hong Kong the booth I went to had a man and a woman working in it serving two separate lines of passengers: an endless stream of people pushing paperwork across a counter at you.  For some time I thought that the woman who was processing my visa was making dismayed and derisive comments about it.  If there’s one situation where you feel like the veil between your normal life and being violated by officials in a back room is about to be pulled it would be when an official takes an interest in your forms at immigration.  But that was not what was happening.  I realised that the female and male officials, processing the two lines without looking at each other, were talking to each other.  They were in fact deep in conversation.

On the plane to India a man asked if his mum could sit with him.  He was overweight and unshaven.  After a few minutes his mother came steadily up the aisle with rocking gait.  She had a cardigan over her sari, glasses, and long braided plait of mostly grey hair.  After a while the son put down his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, and went to sleep.  The mother sat on the edge of her seat and watched Harry Potter films for six hours.


What do you start with?  Do you do it order, in the order that the events occurred?  That’s how it happened after all: chronologically.  One thing after another until bed and even then the brain picking over and sorting the events of the day.  Maybe when you are on the railroad tracks of your ordinary life, passing the familiar stations and landmarks of your daily landscape, it seems sensible to think of your life chronologically.  And then you become insensible to even that.  Nothing seems notable.  Life as a lived negotiation stops.  To be fair, society tends to try and steer us down that path, to take out all the bumps, to take the blood out of the meat in supermarkets, to make funerals a neat process, and to siphon your money into things, possessions, holiday experiences.

The problem with chronology is that while we seem to live that way we don’t, and we certainly don’t remember that way.  When we live our lives we don’t see things as a CCTV camera, we see them as beings, as a confusing cocktail of instinct, experience and character.  If we see differently then we must remember differently.  What one person sees another doesn’t.  The events of life sit in the head differently in different people.  One event can sit in the head of one as proof of a theory, and in another a troubling contradiction of a proof.

So this is how I remember Delhi.

Dogs.  Let’s start with dogs.  What was for me an unusual and striking impression of India on my first night, a dog lying completely flat on its side, un-moving, almost dead, is actually how dogs are in India. They are flattened by the heat.  Or they are loping across a street their heads swinging back and forth with the rhythm of their gait.  There was a dog with a thick wheezy cough who queued up with us to go through the ticket booth at Humayan’s Tomb.

Humayan’s Tomb.  We were told a wealth of detailed historical information but for me its message was contrast.  The contrast between the white marble tomb of a single man under a massive dome, in a great building, atop a raised platform, set in gardens, surrounded by walls, punctuated by gates, with – on the bus out – the clump of little kids under an expressway overpass, in a great mess of roads, atop broken boxes and cardboard sheets, set in scattered rubbish, surrounded by scooters and cars, punctuated by horns.

Crows.  That derisive caw.  A long harsh haaaaaa.  Above a high prayer well, on the peak, a lone crow sat and offered withering asides to our guides attempts to explain something cultural, or religious, or something like that.

“Just Want U Back – Anna – 16 Aug.”  Spray painted on the wall of an underpass.  Just Want U Back.  It must be that there are a lot of accidents.  The horn is used to mean: “I’m coming past so don’t hit me.”  A lot of people are always coming past.  Families, of course, on scooters.  Some women sit side saddle behind the man.  Some sit side saddle holding a bag, or a baby. One was breastfeeding.  At the traffic lights a man walks down the line of cars.  He has no hands, and a small tin bucket hangs off one stump while he uses the other to bang on the passenger windows of waiting cars.  The passengers sit stiffly waiting for him to move on  which he does, after awhile.

Sign on a lamp post for a day care centre called “Brats and Cuties.”  Peacock.  A man with no pants putting on his shirt.  Stalls selling water, fruit, snacks, tyres, helmets.  Cows.  Slow heavy cows stepping unenthusiastically from a rubbish pile to a puddle.

We visited the largest mosque in India which squashes in 60,000 people at Eid.  Mainly for us, the visit was about the girls putting on light weight floral dressing gowns so as not to offend.  Our girls were dressed conservatively anyway and the dressing gown simply served to make everyone hotter and more obvious to everyone.  Florence F said:

“I feel like a garlic bread.”

Once we made it into the open air arcade of the mosque and stopped we became the focal point of a hundred different videos and photographs.  We were ringed by people recording the fact of us.  Or, I should say, them.  The women were of interest; the middle-aged guy off to the side, not so much.  It was hard to understand the purpose of these photos.  Hard not to be discomfited.  The male gaze.  The male jokes.  Power.  The way people always look to me first, or the joking about my good fortune to be travelling with 20 women.  Ha, ha, ha… I think.

Like a crow.