It's taken me nearly 15 years to get to 10,000 posts, so I thought I'd post something special.
I remember the cold. I think it was the first time in my life that keeping warm was a struggle. Shafts of cold air channelled in through a train not designed to keep it out. Arriving at Amritsar station, there was some relief. I remember the shouts of ‘garam chai’ (hot tea) rising above the cacophony of engines, whistles, and general yells. This trip was the first time that I was allowed to drink tea. At home in London, tea was an adult’s drink, and there simply had been no occasion or need to drink it. Here at Amritsar station, in Indian Punjab, during the middle of the night, I was allowed to drink the strong, sugary hot tea and eat the hard-boiled eggs that the hawkers were selling. It was only many years later that I appreciated the business nous of selling hard-boiled eggs. Pre-packaged and ready to eat, what could be easier for a hawker to sell?
Some years later standing in the cold in the school playground would help me appreciate all the more as I read of Ivan Denisovich’s battles against hunger and cold in Solzhenitsyn’s account of life in a Soviet gulag. And many years later still this way of experiencing the novel would prompt me to encourage my daughter to read Denisovich’s account while she was fasting for Ramadan.
Standing on the platform with my snacks, amongst the flow of passengers and porters, I took in the destination signs on the different trains, heading off to distant parts of a sub-continent. Perhaps my diminutive 10-year-old perspective added to the perceived size of the place; I would not be surprised. The porters wore a uniform, after a fashion. For each one of them, the acquisition of a customer provided a sense of purpose and superiority of status which would be underlined by rearranging their head-covering to better protect themselves from the luggage that would soon be loaded on top. On this trip, I was just a spectator to the rituals of engaging porters. When old enough to be a participant, I’d find it a difficult balance between exploiting and being exploited.
At last, it was time to get back in the train and cover myself as best I could with an assortment of clothes, waiting for the morning to bring some respite. Some mornings were awesome, the rising rays of sunshine spread across green fields, punctuated by trees and seemingly in rhythm with the regular beat of the wheels on the track. At some point, I’d have to go to the toilet, which was a balancing act of the toothbrush, toothpaste and some attempt at washing and keeping my distance from the ubiquitous hole in the floor.
At first, I had distanced myself from the perceived filth of the train and had tried to keep myself to as small an area as possible. But as the hours passed my comfort zone expanded until I was even comfortable lying full stretch on the wooden slats of the third-class benches. As the miles passed the squalor, even that of the toilet, was no longer alien but something to which I had become habituated. Though I still haven’t managed to achieve the level of equanimity displayed by a fellow airline passenger who went into the toilet barefoot. As someone else commented on this practice, the liquid on the floor isn’t water.
Safety was and still is a distant concept when it comes to Indian railways, best observed by the person at risk. In both my childhood travel and in recent times safety seems to lie, for example, in keeping your distance from the open door of the railway carriage. As a 30-year-old on a train from Chennai to Hyderabad and no parent to hold me back, I was able to lean out to take videos and photos to rekindle childhood memories of fleeting Indian railway stations. The observation stimulated the same sense of passing through and catching the moment in local lives. What I was not able to recapture in a photo was the rising dawn that I had observed in my childhood journey.
On that childhood trip, I had brought a couple of books with me, which I still remember. There was ‘Tarka the Otter’ and Joy Adamson’s ‘Home Free’. I can’t remember which one was more boring, but Tarka does stand out as being particularly good for being interrupted by the least remarkable scenery outside. The same can’t be said for the novel I discovered at our destination in Lucknow. Our host had a copy of ‘War of the Worlds’ the title itself was captivating and the story engrossing. I remember sitting in various locations of the house working my way through the invasion.
A few years before this train trip, aged six, I had seen a book titled ‘War and Peace’ sitting on another relative’s bookshelf in London and that also seemed to suggest excitement within. I wasn’t there long enough to pick it up, but a few years after the Indian trip, when I was about 14 I made a point about buying the novel but the enthusiasm stimulated by the title was very, very quickly dimmed by the story within. I decided to grind down the story by reading a page a day. It took a couple of years, but I managed to finish it.
‘War of the Worlds’ was the starting point, since then I’ve come to associate books with the places where I read them: Sterling Seagrave’s, ‘Dragon Lady’ accompanied me on a trip to Singapore and provided the incentive to visit China.
Aged 17, I was transiting between two Paris metro stations, on a trip to Aix-en-Provence when a kindly gentleman took pity on me and helped me with my overweight suitcase containing Lipsey’s tome ‘Positive Economics’. Amongst other books, this would be entirely superfluous to my needs at the French language summer course I was about to attend. Even in adulthood, I have never quite managed to balance taking on travels work-related things that I would use as opposed to those I might regret not having brought with me. Laptops and cloud storage have meant that that personal deficiency no longer has to be addressed.
This had been a unique trip in some different ways. My mother was a widow, and we did not have a great deal of money. I hadn’t been abroad between the ages of 5 and 10. But travelling third class on Indian railways and staying with relatives wherever we went meant that this trip was fairly affordable. So, it was not unreasonable that my mother was not too impressed with what took place when we arrived at the border crossing between India and Pakistan sometime earlier.
When we got off the train for the immigration check, there was a French lady in front of us, and she and my mother started speaking. Quite proudly my mother presented me as someone who could speak French. The unexpectedness and ambition of the challenge meant that I was completely dumbstruck. For a good few hours to follow, I’d hear my mother’s lament about how much she had paid for a French Linguaphone course for me, which was well beyond our means. I had assured her that this would be a great aid to my linguistic efforts, the advertisement promised as much, and I had waited with great anticipation for its arrival. Finally, one day there was a brown rectangular package waiting for me outside our house. But for a 10-year-old to master the use of the different texts and develop some semblance of a study plan was quite an ambition and one for which my abilities and self-discipline fell seriously short.
There must have been a subconscious notion that the pursuit of academic endeavours would give access to budgets otherwise unavailable. A few years later I’d decide that photography O’level would offer a greater chance of scholastic success. Once more I was lured in by a mixture of an economy with the truth by the people promoting the offering and my imaginative willingness to fill in the blanks. First, there was a need to buy an SLR camera, and as time passed it became obvious that the necessary skills to process photos could not be acquired in the few minutes, I’d have to be in front of the enlarger at school every week. An investment in a darkroom became a necessity. This time self-discipline wasn’t needed to drive study. I had discovered a subject for which I had a passion. I’d end up spending many happy hours in the darkroom, well past midnight channelling Diane Arbus and Cartier Bresson. By the time a school trip to the Soviet Union took place, I was reasonably competent and still have some of the photos of that visit.
Looking back, both the camera and the Soviet trip itself seemed like a judicious investment in an unrepeatable experience, a few years later the USSR would cease to exist. This lesson in political upheaval was to prove particularly useful before a trip with my wife and kids to Syria. My brother had borrowed my video camera and forgotten to return it, and the realisation only came in the departure lounge at Heathrow. Buying a video camera specifically for one trip seemed like an extravagance, but soon afterward the civil war broke out. I have clips of my daughter walking amongst a temple to the Phoenician god Melquart, I wonder whether ISIS have left it standing?
For the India trip, in contrast, there was no camera at all. As I had left London, I had been given a compact camera, which refused to show any sign of working for the duration of the trip and which it had not been possible to repair either. So, I have no tangible images of the entire trip. Whether that has forced me to try harder to remember over the years or whether I have become better at embellishing the details, I don’t know. I do know that on one review I have left on Tripadvisor, I have commented that the prohibition on taking cameras into a particular museum means that visitors are more likely to pay attention to the exhibits in their own right rather than as fodder for an Instagram feed.
From Lucknow, we went to my mother’s ancestral home in Fatehpur. We drove through the potholed roads of Uttar Pradesh, slowed even further by overladen agricultural traffic. We arrived in the evening, and all I could sense was that we entered a courtyard and then another. This was quite different to any home I had visited previously. Morning brought a much better sense of the place. The hallmark of the building was its twin towers, installed a couple of hundred years previously, with permission from the rulers of Awadh, since they were considered a mark of royalty and my maternal ancestor’s position as a tutor to the princely household earned him the favour to use them. These rose above the building and the surrounding town. Beneath them was the building’s mosque entered through several large wooden doors, several steps then led to a large courtyard at the other end of which was a narrow staircase leading to some apartments on the first floor. The men of the family had offices cum bedrooms on the ground floor of the courtyard, and their families slept in apartments on the first floor. Any tangible evidence of conjugal relations, such as a couples’ double bed was considered impolite. There were also apartments on the ground floor. To the right of the towers was the entrance to the building and beyond that the disused stables, a further courtyard and then the exit to the main street of the town.
In Fatehpur, there were no books, or indeed television, but there was exploring the building, listening to stories, fishing and staring at a night sky whose lights I had never previously seen in such profusion. Frustratingly, the shot guns could only be seen and not touched, in fact, I wasn’t allowed to use the air gun. Even the fishing wasn’t with actual rods, but the sensation of the lightness of a short stick with a bait at the end being replaced with the sensation of something tugging at the end of a line remains vivid.
Exploring the old building would be an experience for someone who had lived in a terraced house all his life. Playing cricket in its central square meant that we had room for both wickets and the ability to run between them, while back in London the garden lawn barely stretched a couple of metres and in our London suburb kids just didn’t play on the street. And then there was the dungeon. Like quite a bit of what we were to experience the name or prior description didn’t quite live up to schoolboy expectations. The Urdu word they all used was ‘mahal’ as in Taj Mahal, but you could hardly describe it as a palace. The dungeon itself was no more threatening than a basement room.
The family mahal stood in contrast to the Taj that we had visited on a side-trip while staying in Delhi with an uncle. The sense of serenity reflected off the colour and curves remains in my mind. The sound track no longer remains, perhaps the size of the place drowned out the chattering throngs. The image is now distilled from the range of different perspectives: the head-on view as captured by those photographers who pictured Princess Diana in the foreground, to my standing under the columns staring up and being up close to the marble.
While the Taj was glorious enough to represent the nation and thus rose above its religious and ethnic antecedents, this was not the case with the family mahal. The condition of this modest building perfectly reflected the state of the community it housed: elegant decrepitude with only a memory of former glories. While the building’s statelier past was visible from the remnants of the structure, so the stories passed by each generation reminded subsequent ones of the lifestyle they had been denied because of opportunities missed and talents wasted.
Such was the problem they were facing that even acts of renovation seemed like destruction, where older styles of building work and decoration were replaced with more functional and cheaper modern ones. My youthful displeasure at the erasure of history would later be tempered by a more mature realisation of the practicalities of habitat when I had the chimney breasts and fireplaces of my Victorian house removed to create more space.
Occasionally the person who had hosted us in Lucknow would visit. He was a local politician and would arrive in a stately Ambassador car or even more excitingly a ‘jeep’. Not an eponymous one of course, but I still remember the fact that it had gun racks. Both that vehicle and the Ambassador were made in India. This was India before trade liberalisation. Not as familiar a place as the Pakistan we had travelled through to get here. Pakistan had the welcome familiarity of brands that I had grown up with; the ketchup was Heinz and the coke a recognisably friendly white swoosh on a red background. Billboard and television advertising was reassuring. Here unfamiliar names came across as peculiar. Why would a cola be called ‘Thums Up?’.
Such has been the irony of globalisation that a few weeks ago eating at Dishoom restaurant in London’s East End I saw the Thums Up logo once more. A symbol of rejecting western capitalism had itself become a brand, with a consumerist meaning, evoking a carbonated essence of India.
Like all children of Asian immigrants on visits to their parents’ country of origin, I was also overwhelmed with the extensivity and density of familial connections. There were first cousins, second cousins, and quite a lot more complicated combinations, for which there are no words in English. Added to this, a matriarchal aunt could also be a cousin. My wife came up with a novel way of explaining one such relationship to me. “If that aunt were Mary Queen of Scots, your mum would be Elizabeth I”. Indeed, an artefact of such complex and inter-related ties was the obvious existence of rivalries, jealousies, and squabbles spanning generations. In England, my younger brother and I had been protected from this aspect of extended family life. The protection came at a price: we didn’t know how to deal with it at all. At the age of 10 this did not matter, but on future visits, it would become more significant and certainly by the time my brother and I reached marriageable age. For the time being, it was just nice that as I wandered from apartment to apartment in the mahal, everyone I met was a relative and I was too young to understand any political dimension of that relationship. It would also be in subsequent visits to the mahal, when I was older, that I’d appreciate the tensions with the communities who lived outside the mahal.
On my daily walks, I’d see hand powered sewing machines and food being prepared more laboriously than anything I had seen at home. The dirt floor did not afford the comfort of sitting cross legged and sitting on my haunches was not something my leg muscles were prepared for. Unlike the urban homes, I had come across in the sub-continent, the toilet here was a platform raised above the multi-coloured offerings beneath. So large was the place that any smells remained distant from any other rooms.
The cold had not left us in Fatehpur. At night, they would light braziers which were wonderful for bringing around family members, sitting together on the Indian style wooden beds, sharing each other’s warmth, stories and gossip.