India’s Child’s Play

by Ant Stone on December 16, 2007

in India

Spin, spin, spiiiiin… the central hub of our rusting green roundabout squealed for forgiveness as my kid sister and I span ourselves senseless before tumbling playfully onto the back garden. ‘Where are you, John?’, Natalie echoed aimlessly to my alter ego. I picked up my invisible SpeedTalker 8000 radio to get the message through to my sister (alter ego; Jane), ‘I’m in outeeeer spaaaaace’ I’d crackle, ensuring we didn’t ruin the imagination of the game with the reality of eye contact. I floated around in my spacesuit urgently fiddling with a failing antenna, ‘where arrrre yoooou, Jane?’. Just moments after I successfully avoided a Martian-occupied asteroid, Jane regained communication, ‘I’m in – yee haaa – the wild west! Giddy up cowboy! He-ya he-ya‘. The following hour-or-so was spent trying to find each other in the confines of the modest lawn, though to us it took on convenient swirling portals, terrifying totem poles and spontaneous transportation upon a cosmic twister. I believed the roundabout didn’t survived our playful youth, though the past week or more in India, has caused me to wonder.

Leaving behind India’s iconic Taj Mahal, I soon found myself in the northern city of Amritsar beside the Immortal Nectar of the Sarovar (lake) while my gaze draped over the breathtaking centre of Sikhism, the Golden Temple. My head was respectfully covered with a red scarf, and my bare feet gripped the cool white marble walkways as I circumnavigated the temple with my equally groovy-looking parents (remember, they’ve joined me for a few weeks). The temple attracts Sikh devotees from around the world as a symbol of infinite freedom and spiritual independence, and just being in it’s sparkling presence, I could feel why. The cube-like temple rose splendidly out of the Sarovar, leaving only its golden reflection behind, where the faithful bathed in it’s perimeter. Once inside, my toes dug into a rich red carpet as I arched my speechless head in amazement at the sheer levels of indulgence on intricate extravagance. The evening was spent at the Pakistan border, in the nearby village of Attari watching the border closing ceremonies of the bitter rival neighbours. Flag bearers fanned the increasing volumes of rival announcers stirring up the atmosphere, bringing the crowd to fever pitch with a few well placed stomps, stares and in India’s case, chants of ‘Hindustan‘ through the double iron gates. A memorable spectacle, especially for my dad who in the seemingly aimless surging mass found his pocket light of a hefty ₤120. The next day, I’m sure I heard the distant pitch of the roundabouts ‘spin, spin, spiiiiin…’

Jane! I’m in an alien land called Sector 17, where arrrree yooouu?’. Sector 17 was in fact in Chandigarh city, south east of aurous Amritsar. Chandigarh’s claim-to-fame is being the most ‘modern’ city in India, designed by European architect, Le Corbusier it has a certain unmistakable je ne sais quoi. The tourist map shows a grid system containing numerous self-sufficient blocks, (known as ‘Sectors’) veined by free flowing traffic soaking up the city’s shopping districts, Subway, Levi, KFC and more and passing by only the faintest tinge of the India I’ve come to know (the poverty, the wallah’s, the urine stained streets, the daily hassles, hostility and suspicion). The residents boast about having the highest average income of all of India, and seem oblivious to the fact that their slice of modernity is, in 2007, forty one years out of date and fading faster than Le Corbusier’s original designs in the city museum (though the granite grey of his pencil remains poignantly embedded in the city’s architecture). The main attraction is the Fantasy Rock Garden of Nek Chand, a fascinating world splattered with modernist sculptures perceived by Chand to populate the divine kingdom of Sukrani. Constructed from concrete and old tiles, it has a long way to go to infuse the aimless wanderer with the crazy levels of animation that fuse the Indian way of life but a quirky tangent all the same. For British readers, Chandigarh is like Milton Keynes, mixed with Corby. After a few days denying most things Indian, I found I craved a return to abnormality. I didn’t want straight roads with single file traffic, I wanted honking horns and gridlock. I didn’t want pasta and pizza, I wanted vegetable jalfrezi and a stack of chapatis. I didn’t want fixed prices, I wanted to barter. Spin, spin, spiiiiin

‘Jane, I’m hanging out with Lord Brahma (Hindu god of creation) in Pushkar’. The small town in the western state of Rajasthan is a tourist haven where temples sit surrounded by hotels, tourist camels pad the deserts and 52 ghats lead the way to the central Pushkar Lake (the place where a swan released by the gods dropped a lotus, and subsequently Pushkar rose). Along the ghats you’re almost always followed by one of the towns feisty, phony priests insisting you cough up money for some petals for puja to bless your family – apparently it’s normal for foreign tourists to pay in dollars or pounds and it’s illegal to walk around the lake without paying for this infamous Pushkar Passport. Needless to say, I’m a man on the run, Brahma help me. Spin, spin, spiiiiin… went the resurrected roundabout, ‘I’m in the Pink City of Jaipur, Jane!’. Though there’s little pink to see, the city, it’s forts and palaces, it’s hilltop views and wonderfully obscure astrological park, Jantar Mantar have been refreshing. The rickshaw-wallah’s claim to be different from their crooked cousins, and in 75% of the cases they’ve been charming, as have the city’s people. For me, the North of India is saved by it’s history and a fair amount of romanticised denial. In a tragedy similar to the one facing Chandigarh, the towns, cities and majority of the people in North India have succumbed to loss, like a cancer victim may concede to their fate, when all around people peering in plead them to clench their fist and try at least to fight. The dusty urban blisters of the North can barely stand in the shadows of monuments to their dazzling former past; Agra’s Taj Mahal, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, Agra Fort, Lucknow’s Bara Imambara and the temples of Khajuraho are among the regions countless rigid saviors while strong religions offer some excuse, and others reason.

It’s a difficult country to enter, especially hitting the ground running from Nepal (a poorer, yet in my opinion more dignified country). It seems a country spoiled with exaggerated literary offerings describing the vibrant colour, brilliant spices, tempting aromas, warm climate and captivating population. The realities at street level bear more resemblance to a piss-stained tramp, than of a Maharajah swathed in silk. The food, I concede is fantastic, it’s a rare day when 5 or more curries don’t pass my lips aboard a shred of naan. The aromas are largely unaccounted for – unless the aforementioned stagnant piss or two-stroke of the growling rickshaws are what was intended. The climate is maybe one of the biggest shocks, not a night passes where I’m not tightly wrapped up craving heat in layers of my warmest rags – though in fairness, it is winter and the days are a couple of layers lighter. The captivating population is there, but the hoards of seemingly innocent approaches that swiftly transpire to hard sells for tours, hotels, alms, transport or trying other, force you into a mindset consumed with suspicion and an automatic persecution via the negative system of ‘guilty before proven innocent’. But, things have improved.

My entry point of Lucknow was in hindsight, a more amiable city than I first portrayed (though only slightly) but my distaste for Varanasi stands, and has possibly grown deeper over a period of time where I have come to a certain level of understanding with the North. I deliberately label it ‘the North’, as I’m promised ‘the South’ is a different country altogether. Tonight, the sounds of a North Indian Railway carriage will be accompanied by the subtle screech of ‘John & Jane’s’ rusting green roundabout, and in 38 hours (though I suspect more) we will alight in the southern city of Chennai (Madras), a short skip from a highly anticipated Christmas reunion in Puducherry with Reb, Sharon, Rachael, Andrew and his mother. I conclude; The North could be loved, but first it must be hated. It will be remembered, but first, it must be forgotten. Spin, spin, spiiiiin


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

sue pathak December 29, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Hi Anthony, I hope you had a very Merry Christmas! We are waiting for your next story. What happened to the photos? XXOO Sue

Reply

Jase January 2, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Alright mate, hope things are as good as ever on your trail and you had a great christmas and new year. Just had a catch up on the last few issues, and i’m slightly concerned with this one. I think mixing your imiginative writing and childhood memories may have gone to far this time!! So let’s get this straight…. when you was a kid, you used to pretend to float around in a space suit, fiddling with your little antenna looking for your sister!? Really sick mate, this time i’ll put it down to a dodgy jalfrezi and cheap indian booze poisoning your mind!!

Will email soon, Jase x

Reply

Ant January 3, 2008 at 6:25 pm

@ Sue: Thanks a lot, next story should be up soon enough (been struck down with a bout of illness again!). I’ve had to take the photos down as there was a bug in the system which I’m trying to fix asap. Merry Xmas and Happy NY2008 to you and Tino x

@ Jase: Only you son, only you…!

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