My Indian Truth

by Ant Stone on April 17, 2008

in India

As we spluttered to a stop, I never imagined that fifteen frustrating minutes later we’d be buying a bottle of petrol from a man who at first glance, only peddled tyres. As we pulled the bike over to inhale a glorious vista, I never imagined two seconds later the Enfield would forcibly lay down, casting my pillion and I into a fumbled knot. As we realised my pillion had lost my beloved sunglasses, I never imagined just ten minutes into silently retracing our route a poor village man would return them, without mention of a rupee or reward. When we ran out of fuel, the second time, I never imagined the number of no-strings offers of rest and solutions from concerned strangers I heaved my sweating brow by. As we agreed the rate of yet-another-hotel, I never imagined a boy of seven would appear to tell us to ‘have nice dreams‘ in his tiny poppy English. The bottom line is, on returning to India, I never imagined the people to be so far from my Indian truth.

After my scarper around north India and a quick stop with Santa in the southern city of Pondicherry I’d quickly evaded to the teardrop of India, the island of Sri Lanka, where I’d instinctively sighed with relief, and gasped in sheer disbelief; how could a country so close to India’s sordid shores, be so sweet. I scoffed at India. I slated India. I cursed and pitied and branded India. And my opinion was shared, reflected and believed. But now, as I roar through the roads on our grumbling Royal Enfield or teeter through the streets in my bright blue Crocs, I find myself looking for faults because there must be something wrong, something to justify my previous disdain. And obviously – ha, this is India – there are, but not nearly the levels I’d perpetuated in my head. After a quick visit to the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, I stood up like the bespeckled icon himself and – I imagine in a similar fashion to he – declared to myself ‘no! This isn’t the way it should be‘, and so began my pilgrimage of (relative) peace through one of India’s most revered states, Kerala. ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner‘. Yes Gandhi, sir, you’re right, lets go for chai, we could write a book, make a movie, I’ll make you famous!

The hill station of Kodai Kanal was the last stop before leaving Tamil Nadu state and crossing into Kerala. In a nutshell Kodai is famous for having an international school, founded by the US, but this does little for the towns overall dull appeal. Since when does a school have that ability anywhere? Put this nutshell in a larger nutshell and what you’ve got is a bizarre bazaar, but thanks to it’s +2000m altitude a vastly cooler climate to those condemned below. The best part however was to come on the road out. After a breezy downhill stint we hit the flat before being faced with the verdant folds of the Western Ghats, a mountain range that upon crossing would reveal Kerala in it’s cozy nook. As we began the ascent we were greeted with a rusting road sign reading ‘17 Hairpin Turns. Sound Horn When Cornering. Avoid Liquor While Driving‘. If this didn’t arouse the biker in me then, nothing could. I was Barry Sheen. Terminator. Carl Fogarty. Hell, I was the blue one in Tron. As we swept round number five we pierced the underbelly of a grizzly raincloud and the fantasy went soggy. I was Ant. I was wet. At the pinnacle of this route, after 12 more slippery hairpins we took shelter from the rain in a cafe before feasting on a samosa and biting the proverbial bullet. What goes up, must come down and what an unbelievable way to come down.

As we crept under the nondescript border crossing the sun gave us a boasting wink. The road was a faultless charcoal gray and as smooth as slate. We cruised through the forests and villages before emerging into the familiar shallow shores of some of the world’s highest tea plantations. The crop seems to demand the most scenic settings and by injecting it’s endless pallet of green around the rocks, cliffs and ribbons of snaking road it gifts those fortunate enough to see it with premium memories. Tea plantation scenery is quaint, it wears it’s robes in boastful style and appears not to put a leaf out of place. The road that day, led to the idyllically located town of Munnar. With most of what was on offer being viewpoint based we needed only one nights rest before slipping onward, tracing a twine of tarmac down through the western foothills. We acted to buses as pilot fish to the sharks of the road, passing like a relay baton between the honking steel masses in a cloud of choking fumes. The views in many ways outshone the previous day by adding in waterfalls and all the time drenching us in infant sunshine. The descent must surely figure in some Top Ten list of machismo. My footpegs were gently combing the corners. The gurgling engine growled with delight. My once-garrulous pillion Reb, was tellingly silent and for long moments I felt like an eagle descending to terminate it’s prey. A highlight of The Trail thus far and fully recommended to one and all.

As we found ourselves horizontal again we followed the fumes into the city of Cochin, which nurtures the much-loved lanes of Fort Cochin. The suburb is a result of many a European powertrip and these days home to their residual meze. Giant Chinese fishing nets, which resemble a catapult/fly-swatter hybrid, Portuguese architecture, a catholic basilica, a protestant church and the peaceful district of Jew Town (though there were no Jews present) which I found to be the most amazing source of local art, antiques and craft. The nucleus of it all, was a 16th century synagogue, a rare sight in Asia. Another highlight of Fort Cochin was a small cultural centre. My first experience here was for Kathakali (Katha meaning story, Kali meaning play) and after an hour they’d covered their faces in colourful coconut oil based makeup and dressed for the part in their various guise and head dress. That the main character resembled a cross between a ballerina, a drag queen and the demonic girl from The Exorcist didn’t take away from the demon killing storyline. Drum beats and the fluent vocals of ‘arrrrr, aaarrr, arrrrr‘ from the narrator made the evening memorable.

I returned to the cultural centre twice in the coming days, once for a classical music concert performed on local drums and violin and a final time for a martial arts performance called Kalaripayattu. Though the students of Kalaripayattu (said to be a forerunner for all modern day martial arts) endure six or seven years of rigorous training, it was easy to spot gaps in their expertise and being the sole audience member in a 150 capacity hall was a surreal if not honour-felt experience. They leaped through the air defying gravity before clashing swords and shields, daggers and bamboo sticks, sending sparks flying through the dimly lit, incensed air but to me the most impressive display was of the one-armed holds they inflicted at incredible speed, one slip and injury would be inevitable. One fighter showed me later that he had one leg longer than the other, a result of polio.

It’s easy to see why India has stood the tests of time and prevailed as one of the great quests in travelling. If you’ve never experienced life in this country of constant conflict then your India is no doubt filled with thieves and disease. My India is now gathering a harvest of curiosity and kindness. Your India is filled with hippy tourists and mounds of spice. My India with far fewer tourists than tuk tuks and heaps of stubborn plastic bottles. Your India with heaving markets and sweltering heat. My India is filled with worn chai stands and a climate tipped with cool. Your India is filled with the poor of pocket and Kipling’s classic. My India is filled with carefree content and newspaper headlines screaming vicious hate. Your India is filled with spicy feasts and Bollywood bonanzas. My India is filled with same-old menus and the baksheesh bowls of beggars. Your India is filled with Taj Mahal and burning ghats. My India is filled with caches of colonial glory and a tear for the Indian past. I’ve seen your India, but before arriving back again I never imagined mine.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Reb April 18, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Shit, Crap, Awful…….how many more lies can i tell without giving the game away!?! You make the pain of sitting on the back and hanging onto my helmet strap tightly ,avoiding myself being strangled seem like such a distant memory. Plus you didn’t kill me, for which i am eternally grateful!You have put the journeys onto paper perfectly showing the great writer that you are!………….(now can you pay me!! he he). Really good read AND i was there!!!! xxxxxxxxxx

Becki April 20, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Welcome to my world Mr Stone! I knew it would get you eventually!

Rachael May 7, 2008 at 11:58 am

Yay! Glad to see you got to view the real india :0)…and that it still exists! I keep hearing there are lots more tourists and things were not like they were in my day (albeit only 6 years or so ago) which was kind of sad. So, were the plastic bottles are still being ditched/ thrown from train windows then? How is Singapore? Kids send you a big hug too Me xxx

Ant May 8, 2008 at 4:27 am

It’s a rarity to see “lots of toursists” in any of the places I visited in India. Except the Taj Mahal. And Fort Cochin. And Mamallupuram. But seriously, India has this myth around it that it’s full of hippy tourists and people ‘finding themselves’ when in fact, even the places the LP raves about as must sees will often result in you being the only non-Indian.

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