Over the last six weeks, I’ve become increasingly aware of two problems that India poses for me, one as a traveller and one as a writer. The first problem is that I think I never want to leave this place. But, as problematic as this is, I fear the decision is out of my hands given that overstaying visas is severely frowned upon in most places and India is no exception. The second problem is how to sum it all to you, the reader, in a short blog post.

India is a vast and complex country, the diversity of which I had never appreciated prior to coming here. Cross a state border and you will most likely change language, alphabet, food and customs. In addition, the pictures and cuisine that most often make it to our shores are overwhelmingly from northern India and so I find that Southern India is almost entirely, and intriguingly unknown to me, although that doesn’t stop a strange feeling of familiarity akin to having arrived home. Then there is the fact that life here is so very evident and rich, as full of contradictions, mess and unfathomable depths as life gets. It is a sensory onslaught of woe and wonderment delivered in high definition and technicolour. I feel it is impossible to polarise here, my observations of the country so far are almost too complex to form any opinion at all. Each statement made feels like a vast over-generalisation, so cognizant of the details and diversity am I here. One day when discussing the topic with Mickey, I ended up stammering to a halt with the stunningly profound insight that “India is just…just…different, it’s different here”. Profound it might not be but it was the only statement I felt I could make that had any degree of truth.

In India I feel as if I can believe in the three fates sat spinning their threads and that I have found a magical viewing pane onto the very fabric of life, in all its wondrously and terribly flawed beauty. I find I can abide with the bad as well as the good here, in a way I couldn’t back home and I don’t know why. I find I don’t worry here, I feel part of something, though I don’t know what. The problem I face then, is how to communicate this richness with mere words. I have delayed and it only becomes a bigger problem. So, I have decided to do my best, though I know it will be a poor reflection of what we’ve experienced so far.

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Cash crisis

The morning after we arrived in India, we sat in Goa, surrounded by palms and received word that the Indian Prime Minister had rendered all 500 and 1000 Rs notes invalid with almost immediate effect. Thanks to a declined card at the airport exchange and only a small stash of emergency foreign currency we only held three worthless pieces of paper that morning. As the situation unfolded we learned the full significance of Modi’s move. The announcement had taken over 80% of circulating currency out of action. Rural India is largely a cash economy, and even in cities many places don’t take cards. Modi was asking for people to pull together for the good of the country as he knew they could.

I was incredulous. And I was about to get an education. Because there was no rioting, no run on the banks. In fact, there was very little complaining at all as far as I can tell. As I’ve spoken to various people their reply has been the same “What can we do? Black money is a problem that needed fixing. We just need to get on with it”. The most damning comment I heard in the days following the announcement, as all the ATMs closed and the queues out of the banks were unbelievable, came from a taxi driver. Laughing in a good natured way, he joked to us that “our Prime Minister has gone mad” as if it were all good fun and not of any real importance. It calmed my nerves a little, given that he’d just told me that no, he didn’t take cards and we didn’t have the cash to pay him.
The ATM queues were still long when we left the city a month after the announcement. Demand outstrips supply and so ATMs limit people to a single crisp new 2000 Rs note per transaction, ensuring queues stay long. The replacement notes coming into circulation are difficult to use as few people have the change to break them. And still, somehow, life seems to go on as normal.

We survived our first four weeks in India on the kindness and generosity of relative strangers alone. Our circumstances, those of the cash crisis and the kindness and like-mindedness of the people who showed us warm hospitality gave room for friendships to flourish. In turn, this has allowed us to experience India through the lives of these friends.

Bengalaru

After the excitement of MTM and the peace at Off the Grid, we headed to Bangalore with Aditya and Huda who had kindly offered to put us up for the night along with their two feline princes, Matrix and Glitch. On arriving back to the city we got our first taste of real city traffic in India. It was rush hour and we had to cross Bangalore. The best way to describe it is like watching sand flow between rocks, with the cars being the rocks and the bikes being the sand, filling all the small gaps you wouldn’t think anything could get into.

We arrived at their place and got settled, and after a few minutes Huda appeared with a helmet and handed me the keys. “You’re in charge, I’ll give you directions as pillion” she said. I had about a moment’s doubt before agreeing – the ride was in the heart of Bangalore in the dark and I’d never taken a pillion. But the temptation of riding again was too much to say no to.

We kicked the flat battery and I wibbled the bike out of the garage, getting used to the weight distribution difference and by the time we were out on the road I’d adjusted. And oh, it felt good to be back on two wheels! Even hemmed in by the city, it was strangely exhilarating to be part of this giant, mulit-limbed, snaking thing called Bangalore traffic. The Impulse is a nimble little thing and I could easily flick it from side to side, a useful thing in the streets of Bengalaru. It stalled a number of times in the middle of junctions and major roads, before we realised the choke was out unnecessarily. No panic though, stopping in the middle of the road in flowing traffic is not an unusual thing here it seems and traffic just flowed round us like a river round a rock, stopping and rerouting as we crossed their path to return to the side of the road and restart. I was beginning to enjoy myself on the Indian roads.

From much observation since I’ve gleaned four major rules:
1) Do everything slowly, unpredictable moves are fine but make them slowly
2) Even if you think it won’t fit it probably will
3) If rule two fails, evasive action will not be deployed until the last second, so up your game of chicken.
4) Never, ever hesitate, not even at junctions. Only stop if you absolutely have to. Everyone else will adapt.

We stopped and picked up a few bits and then headed back with Huda hooting laughter in my ear as I opened the throttle a little on a clear(ish) stretch of road, passing another, somewhat shocked looking guy on a moped. Simple things please me greatly these days it seems!

New friends

The following day we headed over to Praneet and Lyn’s place where we would stay, with them and their beautiful puppy-child of an Alsation, Zuri, for the next three weeks. Zuri would wait patiently for her play guests to wake up each morning, pricking her ears every time we uttered the slightest sigh in the room. On waking we would be presented with a variety of toys to choose from, play would commence and happy ears would come out in full force. We also had the joy of watching a grown Alsation bunny hop around the apartment each time we returned to the apartment. As far as I could tell the size of the bunny hops were directly proportional to length of time we’d been away. We settled into a lovely routine, basking in the adoration of Zuri and thoroughly enjoying the company and conversations of Lyn and Praneet whilst getting to know them better. It was quite a wrench to leave them by the end.

Life in HD

A few days into our stay in Bangalore, we headed to Bandipur jungle to visit Santosh and Chinthana at their home, 10 degrees off. Just on the edge of a tiger reserve, we would be close to Santosh’s conservation project, Elephant Pocket, a reclaimed piece of scrub jungle under re-greening as an elephant sanctuary.

Setting off on the 6 hour drive to Bandipur the realisation of just how evident life is here hit me, full force, for the first time. Every place we pass there are people going about their daily lives, hustling and bustling, standing still, talking, silent, selling, buying. The auto-rickshaws are jammed full of bodies, some hanging off the side. And all is carried out on a backdrop of glorious colour. Draped over every moving body and splashed onto many of the walls. Plain concrete cubes transformed into splashes of joyful and prettily patterned colour on the landscape. The temples take the ornamentation, decoration and colouration to a whole new level. India loves decoration, if it stands still for long, chances are it’s decorated.

Life seems to spill out onto the streets during every hour of the day in a constant sensory onslaught. The tradesman shaded by the roadside, stalls laden with fresh coconuts, machete by his side. The roadside mechanics bustling from small shacks displaying the innards of dismembered engines much as the butcher also displays his wares next door. The men and women in the street, talking, or sitting alone, whiling away time. The shy smile of a child stood solitary in a doorway, eventually raising a tentative hand in a shy wave. The melodic laughter emitted from a woman you share a joke with but no language. And the bewildering array of beautiful fabrics in every known colour draped over each person…and on, and on.

It’s stunningly beautiful.

And it’s ugly too. This is life in all its mundane, beautiful, heart-breaking, wondrous and filthy glory. It would be naïve to think it doesn’t have its flaws. And these are on display just as the beauty is. India seems to hide nothing. And not all of it is pretty, not by a long way. The litter is something I doubt I’ll get used to. Beautiful rivers clouded with floating plastic. You don’t need to look far to find those who discard coffee cups, paper receipts and plastic bottles out of car windows or wherever they happen to be. The ingrained actions of the majority are a hefty tide to turn. I twitch every time I see it.

Stories too, of everyday life from people I’ve come to know, furnish me with tales of how bribes are necessary to get anything official done in a timely way. Even the most principled of people can’t justify the expense and time it would take to do some things in a ‘clean’ way. We are far from protected from it, although the ‘taxation’ of us is levied in different ways, with many places having one price for Indian nationals and one for foreigners. Sometimes this is in excess of one hundred times more (as with the museums), sometimes it’s a mere 20 Rupees added to the bill, unnoticed until our card is declined and we have to rely on a friend to pay. I find it uncharacteristically easy to swallow, though I can’t say why. Perhaps it is just that this is part of travel. Perhaps because it is a small thing against the pleasure India has given me. Perhaps it’s that I know it is in my control whether I choose to stay and accept these things or not.

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It’s dropping dark as we approach Bandipur tiger reserve. The roads have a gentle chaos to them and I feel I will never tire of watching Indian traffic. But it’s not the scene that my head had created for me prior to getting here. Granted, it’s hard not to wonder at the young man on a motorcycle travelling the wrong way down our carriageway. And it seems even less wise to do this being all but invisible with neither helmet nor lights, in an unlit, bustling town. But all is conducted at low speed and without aggression which somehow makes it easier to accept. I’ve just received word that we may soon be back on the tarmac again and so I watch passively while I have the chance, soaking up the unwritten rules so that I may play the game better when I’m part of it again.

We turn off the main road onto a track and enter the reserve. The flame of the forest’s dazzling colour is visible even through the dark. But we’ll witness how it pales in comparison to the day-lit form a few days later on our way back home. An army of ghostly eucalyptus trees loom up ahead, white and eerie in our headlights. Further on, we pass a small village or two, people on the street and candles in doorways lighting simple but welcoming rooms, bare of furniture but full of bodies, where people continue daily life, almost shielded from the prying gaze of a traveller.

And then as we round the next corner, we slow and I let out a muted shriek. An animal just ran across the road and something in my head has noted it as unusual. Mickey and Praneet make it out a second later. A striped hyena! Although I’m assuming somewhere in the back of my mind that this must be a common occurrence I’m still brimming with excitement. Not so, I’m told later by Praneet and Santosh, this is only the second documented sighting of a hyena in this area in more than a decade. It’s hard to say whether this increased my reverence for the event or not given that it was already pretty maxed out. After a lifetime or a second (depending on whether you go by my head or the footage we managed to get) it slunk away over the roadside banking and we glimpse it one more time moving off parallel to the road.

10 degrees off

For the next five days we enjoy the quiet solitude of 10d, the hospitality of Santosh and Chinthana and the care and wonderful cooking of Chandra and Mallige, the caretakers. Chinthana’s two beagles, Calvin and Sasha, keep us amused, both of them bursting with personality. Calvin with his loveable, too cool for school, ‘take me as I am’ air and Sasha with her very sweet waddle and persistent love of belly scratches…turns out Mickey knew just how to hit the spot and she could often be found scooching up beside him for a quick scratch.

The last two days it’s just us as the others head back to the city and with no translators we begin in earnest our communication with Mallige who is eager to ensure that we enjoy the food and are well looked after. She teaches me a word or two of Kannada and stays patient as I butcher the unfamiliar words, appreciating the effort rather than the outcome and joking with Mickey that he’ll have to start learning. The day before we leave she shows pictures of her family and I reciprocate. We agree a little photoshoot before we leave.

The morning arrives and Mallige changes after making us breakfast, Mickey starts to snap as we arrange ourselves and everyone sits quite formally. He soon shakes things up though, getting Chandra on his motorbike and snapping Mallige sneakily when she’s not looking, much to her amused annoyance. By the end of it we’re all laughing and unselfconscious. Then Mallige asks if I’d like to try one of her sarees. Having been bursting to try one but not having had the opportunity I jump at the chance, wondering if I’ve misunderstood the offer. But no, a few minutes later Mallige returns with yards and yards of beautiful fabric over her arm and begins the complex process of draping the saree. I daren’t move afterwards but it’s all quite secure and I feel like a queen. Too soon it’s over and we have to say good bye to our new friend, waving from the back of the jeep as we’re driven by Nagesh out to Bandipur checkpoint and the bus stop.

Sealed with a kiss

As we rumble over the rocky tracks through the sun-bleached landscape in the white light of midday a dog runs alongside and I peer out of the back of the jeep at the dust cloud behind us. We’re late but Nagesh has called the bus and it is later so no worry. Worry is far from my mind here anyway it seems, I feel a certainty that every problem is solvable, a wonderful feeling of security. People are helpful, we are not alone. Not for the first time, I’m wondering slightly awestruck, how I got so lucky. And as we pass through a small village a young girl looks back at me in the jeep as she pauses on her threshold, then waves and blows me a kiss.