Indian cities have at least seven cardinal directions. They wriggle and jut in non-Euclidian chaos, a pantheon of angles as confusing as the menus. Since my own internal compass is, at the best of times, a plastic toy with a painted needle, I’ve spent a lot of time wandering in various towns hopelessly, pleasantly lost.
And given Mr Einstein’s much acclaimed proclamations of the pushme-pullyou nature of space and time, it makes sense that the chronology is also a little disoriented. Mobile phone stores crouch beneath millennia old monuments; cities are like bronze-age metropolises crossed with rundown lunar colonies; the arrow of time spins like a compass at a pole. Events whoosh past then smear and stumble into each other. Days swell into Himalayas and shrivel into cardamon seeds. The only exception to this manic irregularity has been my regularity. Without wishing to dissertate too explicitly on the intricacies of my ablutions; I think I’m the only person in history whose diarrhea was cured by coming to India.
I’m sorry, that might have been a bit much for paragraph two. A second sorry: you may find yourself already rankled raw by my too-too cutesy turns of phrase and nauseating metaphors. I assure you, it’s just a phase – if something smells fishy, it’s the Salman. I’ve just finished Midnight’s Children and my little restraint has been crushed by Rushdieji. And to top off an apologetic trifecta: this post is altogether too little too late, a mangled mess that barely brings the blog a week less far from the present. I’m just not used to this much stuff happening. So though I’ve been to about a dozen places, this post covers the first two, and even then isn’t especially coherent.
I have always there is only one airport. Wait, hang on, my posts are repeating on me… After flying from Kuta I spent a night at The Airport, in a wing of the thing that claimed to be in Kuala Lumpur. I, sleep deprived, wandered up and down escalators and deliriously invented a parodic future academic discipline called Emojiglyphics. It’s core tenet is that the rise of the smiley is, in fact, the beginning of a revival of semi-pictographic script. In ten years we’ll be writing like Egyptians, right down to the cat worship. (Txt tlk, meanwhile, is a return to the vowelless Sumerian form in which the alphabet originated.) In the departure lounge I met a twitchy, talkative seventy-year old from Queensland who hates Tony Abbott and showed me funny pictures his daughter had sent him on his phone. His wife has the same lung infection that killed her mother; the doctors have given her four to six years.
They advised us to cover our faces as they fumigated the plane, spraying for Ebola or Terrorists. Below, grander vapours rose and swirled in glowing kingdoms and reefs. It’s hard to look at the clouds from above. There’s a part of you that can’t process it, and turns, automatically, to smaller things; like the invading elbow of the dickhead on your left. Being in the clouds is surrealer still – they are simply a blankness, a world unwritten. This creeping erasure smothered the views of Kodai, a teetering mountain town I later visited. As we fell on Chennai I flickered in and out of consciousness, catching the sunrise in pieces. First it was a smear of umber the horizon, then a red-green-blue truncated spectrum, at last a bar of gold.
IT IS WISE TO DO YOUR PRESCRIBED DUTY,
BUT SEEK NOT THE FRUIT OF THY ACTIONS.
These were the first words I read in India, hanging above a little tapestry of a scene from the Bhagavad Gita. The quote is from the Krishna, a slick and blue-skinned avatar of Vishnu posing as a charioteer. It’s part of his answer to his worried buddy Arjuna’s question – how is it possible to be free of greed, aversion and attachment without dressing in a hessian sack and going off to live in a cave? Why work when the accumulation of goods is trivial at best and detructive at worst? Krishy’s answer is to toil and do good in the world without feeling ownership over the results. But I think pride – that violet-eyed monster that flatters the meat it feeds on – makes this much easier preached than practiced.
After a farcical quest to find a working ATM in Chennai I took a bus to Mahabalipuram, a pleasant, florid hamlet where I spent three days. I slept in a decadent hotel perched over a verdant latrine where everyone called me “sir”, to my profound discomfort. Mahabalipuram is casually littered with remarkable sixth-century caves and shrines carved from single reddish boulders. “Where will you be in thirteen hundred years?” the rocky faces seem to growl, “and where my sister stones you trample beneath your feet? You are just a lotus drawn in chalk upon the road, to be washed away in the rain.” The most famous of these monuments is Arjuna’s Penance, a carving of the aforementioned archer Arjuna standing on one leg for a hundred days to win the favour of the Gods. Apparently they love that shit. He’s surrounded by hundreds of other figures, deities, spirits, humans, beasts. My favorite was an old fat cat pretending to do a penance surrounded by admiring and gullible mice, the best bit of rock-carved seventh century anti-clerical satire I’ve ever seen.
By happy happenstance I was in the town at the time of an annual festival. Poorer pilgrims from the west, who locals awkwardly referred to as “jungle people”, camped in the park and on the beach, making little cooking fires out of rubbish and twigs. On the night of the ceremony fireworks spattered the sky and a barge paddled a god around a pool as humans and crows watched on. India’s crows mean business. No large and lounging tricksters they, like the ragged umbrellas back home. These are sleek, sickle-beaked gallow birds with little charcoal vests around their necks, veritable stockbrockers of death.
The food here is incredible. I’ve been eating feasts rice, naan, half a dozen chutneys and curries, fresh lime soda and a generous tip for less than two Australian dollars. I’ve even enjoyed breakfast, indisputably the worst meal of the day, whatever self-loathing protein-snorting “healthy” types would have you believe. Rather than the best-skipped blandness of cooked bread and dust-with-milk, Indian breakfasts are comprised of towering conical crepes, samosas and fried savoury donuts served with spicy coconut and tomato chutneys.
“There are reports that Prime Minister Modi has eaten a thaali meal at the Parliament staff cafeteria. The simple but tasty meal, which many political journalists are familiar with, allegedly cost 75 rupees.”
Wherever I go, the Prime Minister of India watches down from billboards with lotus flag and firm paternal stare. I do not like Narandrah Modi. He’s the kind of man who orchestrates ethnic cleansing without a drop of blood falling on his famously pristine shirt. The kind of man who makes GDPs magically raise as median wages faulter and doesn’t get a hair in his wizard’s beard displaced. The kind of man who sees nuclear missiles as elephants on a chessboard through gleaming, gold-framed spectacles.
In the state of Tamil Nadu, Modi’s matronly negative is even more ubiquitous. See her beam beside a swirling slogan written in Tamil. Watch her wave with her soft-focused disciples. Look at her sit, cross-legged, between hairless monk and hirsute Saddhu, a gleaming testament to her spiritual credentials. The woman’s name is Jayalilalatha Jayaram, but her followers call her “Amma” – mother. The four-time governor of Tamil Nadu, she is, like many of South India’s politicians, progressive, and campaigned strongly for social justice and Tamil rights in the face of Hindi hegemony from the north. She’s currently in prison for overindulging in certain perks of office – namely, 2000 acres of land and thirty kilograms of pure gold.
Nowhere was she more present that Pondicherry, my next destination, a former French colony of syncretistic charmant. Having lived my life in an English Colony, the second-fiddle flavours of a Gallic one are conspicuous. No empire ever took to committing and hiding brutality quite like the motherland. Ol’ Blighty, master massacrer, making whole peoples disappear like a street magician hustling two-bob bits. The French seem positively blundering by comparison. Beautiful Pondicherry eschews the Escherian entanglement of other Indian cities for a neat grid of broad boulevards – the legacy of conscientious Napoleonic city planners who wanted to ensure that protesters could be easily mowed down by grapeshot. The old government house, now a guarded Hilton, still sports a pair of jutting phallic canons, which even I thought was laboring the point a bit. Of course, General Reginald Dyer & co had about as much need for such foppish ostentatiousness as he did the metric system. His boys could shoot ten times as many unarmed natives as a bunch of bloody frogs and still be home for tea.
In the charming, quirky Pondicherry Museum I saw an old photo of an effigy built by Governor Dupleix. Begrudgingly admitting that a set of seventh century Chola obelisks were too exquisite to smash into gravel, he instead used them as spindly pillars to support an oversized bronze statue of himself. The memorial, though now moved to a humbler pedestals, still stands by the beach; resplendent in heavy wig, bulging frock coat and verdigris-whiskered jowls.
Not all idols are imposed by force. Mina Alfassa was born in Paris in 1878. When she was five years old she had her first vision from god. Early in the new century she came to India and befriended Sri Aurobindo, a revolutionary-mystic. Uniting their cont- and subcont- inental clout, the pair of philosophers established an Ashram in Pondicherry and dedicated their lives to the pursuit of peace and universal love. After Aurobindo retreated into asceticism Alfassa; also known by her disciples as The Mother; became the sagely leader of the community.
She oversaw the planning of Auroville, the City of Dawn, a socialistic spiritual metropolis which would unite all the nations of the war-ravaged earth. She penned books of politics, volumes of poetry and a seventeen-volume autobiography. As the sixties slung a diverse spiral of Western disciples her way, the Mother shriveled like a tissue-paper mannequin. She became pale, then transparent, until all you could see were her smile and probing Kohl-blackened eyes. After 95 years of cooperation consciousness dispersed from gossamer body. And at that precise moment her children begun building the dome. For The Mother, who had preached humility, poverty and selflessness, had declared that her life must be commemorated by the four-decade construction of a 1,400 foot high gold-plated orb.
Auroville was conceived as a utopian community free from violence, money or sectarianism, and as you’d imagine that all worked out really well. Designed for a 50,000 spiritual seekers, as of 2015 it has a population of fewer than 3,000; almost entirely Western bourgeoisie. Having spent everything to enter Auroville, they meditate under the weight of unfinished projects and allegations of the exploitation of locals and child abuse. Amma would have been disappointed and frankly, so was – I traveled to Auroville on a day trip, pen poised for a sinister cult compound. Instead I found a new-age bookshop, a tiny art gallery and a Gelati stand. The feverish disciples were just middle-aged white women with aqua kaftans and three quarter length pants. In short, more David than Jim Jones. The dome, which I was only permitted to see from a patch of comically roped-off viewing turf, reminded me in scope and strangeness of the Parkes Satellite dish. It lay on the lawn like a gleaming, scaly egg; a gift for the Ancient Alien theorists of the year 5015. For there is no doubt that our fruitless attempts to contact the beyond will once again be willfully misinterpreted as themselves evidence of success.
One night in Pondicherry I had a plasma-hot veg curry and Kingfisher beer in an empty little restaurant. It was run by a friendly Anglo-Indian guy who told me, proudly, that his son works at Sydney Hospital and even more proudly that he’s a Roman Catholic. As I wandered back through the streets (strangely all the more confusing for their chessboard geography) a booming music bored through my gut. The Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception was hymning in ecstatic worship, it’s looming edifice flattered with spotlights. It was as if the Catholicism of my suburban education – self conscious and moderate almost to the point of Anglicanism – had a racked a line of powdered wafer and smashed back a tabernacle of celestial Shiraz. I wandered, dazed, into the faithful-flooded courtyard and saw a gaudy banner reading:
DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU John 2:5
I looked up at a gilded, lifesize, plaster of paris Mary surrounded by a dozen scented candles, that universal shitty Mother’s Day present. An image of an image of a myth of a woman, immaculately conceived by grizzled misogynists who decided that if there must be women they should be mothers and virgins both. Outside, a beggar in skirts crouched on the stair and a half-bald bitch, heavy with litter, lay half breathing on a pile of rubbish.
Amma, Mama, Madonna. Icons devised and self-devised to maximise unconscious leverage for wriggling, conflicting ends. They circle each other like triplicate stars and flicker between darkness and light, always weighed down by gold. I sat on the rocks by the Ghandi memorial and overlooked the ocean. A Tamil elegy rang through the air and the full moon shattered on the black sea.