For today’s blog I was going to talk about my latest experience on a bouncy castle. It was with other consenting adults, it wasn’t naked and nothing funny was going on (No I don’t know either why I felt the need to justify that; if anything it will probably just incite anyone reading this to be even more suspicious.). Instead I thought I would attempt a more serious minded piece contemplating my recent visit to the Indian sub-continent.
Except I should say right up front I was chased by a monkey. Not a large, scary one screaming out of the rain forest like a RAGE infected chimp. No it was juvenile, quite small and as menacing as a teddy bear. However it still managed to chase me in cowardly circles around one of my companions, who stood perfectly still with a look of utter bemusement on his face, as I proceeded to orbit him three times. Each time I made a full revolution I would come to a stop on one side of my friend, monkey mainly eclipsed on the opposing side apart from a glimpse of its fiendishly protruding trail, and then continued my dance of terror as I fled its imminent approach. After the third revolution I became aware that this was possibly the most pathetic moment of my life. I turned to face my aggressor and, being a small monkey, of course it did largely nothing except implore me with its eyes and reach up for my water bottle. All of this took place at sunset on a grand theatre of dusky rocks, backlit by pixel perfect green plains hundreds of feet below, whilst a delicious orb of ruby red draped the sky in silky tendrils. This juxtaposition I feel perfectly illustrates the nexus of the divine and the absurd that intersected my experience of India, plotting my map of the surreal.
I remember India as a vast cracked painting. We streaked across the South of the sub continent in full HD, eye burning 3D. Rattling in trains, juddering in jeeps, shimmering on scooters, lurching in rickshaws and teleporting through magic bus stations. Our first stop, after a short plane hop from Mumbai were the beaches of Goa. Goa, Goa, Goa as soft on the ear as a mellow hippie singing a lullaby. In Agonda we totally hippified ourselves from beachside stalls – in contrast to the locals who dressed in a more conservative western style. It was in Agonda that I was persuaded into buying an ayurvedic concoction from a roadside practitioner for the princely sum of 3600 Rupees (about £35) – this was by far the weightiest expenditure of my trip but the earnest romantic in me believed in the cures the doctor proffered. What if he perceived a deficiency that Western doctors didn’t, what if he knew. Good for the stomach, good for the liver, good for the pancreas, good for the love life. That bag of bad smelling brown dust still sits reproachfully on my window sill.
We left Goa after a few days of acclimatisation and travelled to Hampi in Karnataka. Guest house arranged we hired nifty little kick start mopeds and revved up for adventure. Day time temperatures reached forty degree Celsius but on the moped with hair aerated and eyes incubated in moody Ray-bans we zorbed around in bubbles of cool. We pursued each other down rolling highways. We pulled over to swim in a lake. We climbed up the monkey temple in the midday sun. Which is where I had the encounter with my simian shadow. A walk in the evening light of Hampi, out of the bazaar and scrambling over boulders lead us one evening to discover a vast ruined area of temples, a complex of wide avenues, deserted except for darting green parakeets. Here, inhaling the evening light, the very landscape was painted in soft hues of ochre and terracotta. One word that conveys the sensation of the terrain is CARTOON. Boulders rendered in soft, wide strokes, shaded at the edges and warm in the centre. Sky the sort of red that Wile E. Coyote could have plummeted through after being thwarted once more by the road runner. And this was just one of the places we visited, the small area of India we toured around threw up so many surprises, so many pleasures that time elongated, became boundless. This was in no small part facilitated by the friendliness of the Indian people we encountered. Curious, open, “where are you from?” became a refrain of greeting. Conversations lilted with a sense of humour that you might not detect until it glances you a playful blow and then chuckles as it breezes past. One example: we travelled from Hampi toBangaloreby sleeper bus. In one stop at the bottom of night a policeman boarded to inspect the passengers. He arrived at us, sitting at the back of the bus in the manner of excitable school children, and appraised one of my friends. With a pleasant smile he offered the observation “you look nice”, turned on his heel, and advanced back up the bus. My companion, despite advice to dress conservatively for travelling, was wearing a flowing multicoloured stripy top, Ali Baba trousers, crocs and a sari for a scarf. To be frank he looked a state. On another occasion we were out on an evening walk, think twilight, and an Indian outside his house called us over. We had a chat and on leaving he casually advised, “look crocodile”. We all jumped and he laughed before returning back into his house. But we were mocked always with friendliness.
Travel was one of the most pleasurable aspects of being in India. By sleeper train I could walk between carriages and confront the landscape as it reeled past – raw footage, unedited and fully interactive. There was nothing stopping me from dangling my legs over the side in the open doorway as scenery shot under my feet or with more bravery standing and leaning out, head buffeted by the breeze. Rickshaws buzzed like bees as they attacked the hectic Indian traffic. Buses could be elusive to track down but always reliable. The chaotic behaviour of the traffic at first appraisal might seem highly dangerous but I came to realise that lacking in the nanny state people self-regulate. Common sense generally prevails and the tyranny of health and safety is a myth. I hadn’t realised in England how constrained I am by subtle, insidious rules and guarded social interactions. I think unquestioning rule following makes people more automatic in public behaviour and social IQ flounders at the simplest of tests. I can say I felt genuinely free in India and my IQ ballooned.
One of the most memorable journeys had to be a jeep ride across the state of Tamil Nadu from the hill station of Ooty to Vattakanal high up in the mountain range known as theWestern Gatz. At fifteen hours long, me, my four companions, an Indian couple and their small child ploughed through the night to reach our destination. I got to sit in the front on the proviso that I stay alert to ensure the driver stayed awake. This I managed with eyes ever more drooping, narrowing until I could barely see out past migrating herds of dreams. This of course also turned out to be a hilarious joke. At least all my friends fell for it too. Deeper in to the night haunted sweatshops flashed past as machines clattered under fluorescent lights
Part way through the journey we drove over some train tracks, complete with howling dog and found ourselves in a busy little town, bustling at 2am with Chi stands and horse drawn carriages. This town was in its way was one of the most surreal interludes of my time in India, and to heighten it further a Chi stall proprietor offered to buy my 50p Primark watch – which I could have sold to him at a profit.
The jeep journey lead us to our destination in the mountains, 10,000 feet up where cool air roamed. We arrived with the sun. And what a sunrise – affording perfect symmetry to the sunset at the monkey temple in Hampi. The sun ascended through Hobbit mists and welcomed us to another Indian realm. I don’t remember what I thought as I witnessed this first mountain sunrise but I would be surprised if it didn’t contain the following qualities: surreal, friendly, exultant and liberating. Above all Indiamost often felt like a warm hug and from the moment we set foot strangely familiar.