Sunday, 17 February 2008

From the Khyber to Ceylon (Chapter 8 - Across India)

Night driving began to play an increasing part in our journey through India. Although neither of us had seen the country before we had no regrets that we had to traverse most of it during the hours of darkness. Possibly because we had our own mental picture of India, going back to childhood and associated with Kipling and tales like the Four Feathers, we felt that everything we saw and did and all the situations in which we found ourselves were in some way familiar, and if not actually commonplace they did not possess a novel quality. For instance, quite dispassionately we watched a snake-charmer doing his level best to entertain us. We gazed unmoved at the jaded, weaving snake and listened to the reedy piping, knowing, as everyone knows, that the snake was no more dangerous than an English worm, and we walked away feeling that it was so much nicer in expectation.

We gazed, too, at the crowded bazaars, the cows (elevated almost to deity), the stalls, and the dense throngs of slight, dusky figures in their dhotis and saris. These scenes, and the ubiquitous temples, were all (to my eyes) ugly, musty constructions, sticking up like sore thumbs and covered with faded, once-gaudy effigies of fat Buddhas and fatter cows. They seemed to squat in an aura of unwholesomeness, with dank, pungent interiors that never saw the daylight.

We inhaled the incense, the aroma of spiced, curried foods We endured the oppressive, damp heat and listened to the reedy music that so well mirrored the thin, reedy people-all familiar and unstimulating. India, in fact, was as I had pictured it, but a black-and-white reality of a coloured imagining. Millions shackled with a fanatical religion strive to grasp the hem of the atom-age nations. Nehru, they said, had an answer to the world's dilemma; India could lead the great military blocs from extinction to salvation. As they spoke, these intense Asiatics hastily stepped aside to avoid an Untouchable, or detoured carefully round a trail of ants.

And what, we asked of these supreme pacifists, after Nehru? Who would lead the world to peace and, along with it, perhaps Kashmir to independence? At that they would suddenly show distinctly non-pacifist leanings: 'The Pakistanis are grasping warmongers. The armed might of India will soon put paid to any trouble from that quarter.' Then would follow the time-worn relating of the Amritsar riots and the word 'imperialists' would be liberally scattered throughout the conversation.

Perhaps it was only natural, but not once did we hear a word of praise for the superb road, rail, and postal systems which Britain had left behind. Not a mention of the foundations of administrative, economic, and military structure which the now enjoyed. We were told most emphatically that India had progressed only since the British had been' forced back into the sea'. Enlightenment had only come since the bloody partition with Pakistan. Before that, the country had lain under the iron grip of the British and had been dormant for over a hundred years.

At every village, what the Australians call 'bush lawyers' were ready to pounce on us and expound the glories of India since independence. No one likes being governed by aliens, they said. No people worth their salt like being dependent on foreign powers, and 'surely the dullest schoolboy realizes that Britain had not ruled India for India's sake'. It was useless for us to point out that, of all the colonizers, Britain replaced pretty evenly all she took in the latter part of her Empire history, that Singapore was built from a swamp, Burma developed into the world's rubber larder, and West Africa put into a position to become self-governing. But in India, where even tiny, second-class roads are as well surfaced as they are here in Britain; where trains run the length of the vast continent, usually on schedule despite the difficulties; where most of the farming, educational, and industrial structure was laid before 1947, the British are considered imperial aggressors.

Our mood of disappointment lasted about a thousand miles, from Delhi to Bombay, across the endless flat plains and the patches of semi-jungle around Indore, and on, under skies that became gradually bluer, until at long last we crossed the last range of gentle bills and dropped down to sea-level and the coast.

For a week we rested, and explored Bombay, a surprisingly clean city with many light, modem buildings. In contrast there were the slum areas and the prostitutes' quarter, known as 'The Cages'. We drove through this area one evening, to marvel that humanity could exist-let alone practise the oldest profession-under such appalling conditions. There were tiny cramped cubicles, most of them not more than six feet or so in width, with open fronts facing the narrow road. A sleazy, much-thumbed curtain conformed to some sort of modesty and the painted ladies shouted their wares with raucous gusto to all who passed by. Thousands of these creatures were confined in the cramped quarter which is sealed off and locked at twelve o'clock nightly. To drive slowly through this den of iniquity was an enlightening experience. But it was pleasant to return to the city centre.

South of Bombay, the cloud of gloom which had hung over us at last began to disperse and it disappeared entirely when we reached Bangalore. The skies were bright and blue, the people not too politically minded and, most delightful of all, hosts of mischievous monkeys swarmed on the road and took every opportunity to tamper with our scooter.

The landscape was peaceful and friendly, mercifully not over-populated and blessed with first-class roads and clean dak bungalows. Less than three hundred miles from Ceylon (and our ship to Australia) we really began to appreciate India.

In a pleasurable frame of mind we buzzed into the state of Madras. Here, in one of the most picturesque of all the Indian states-save perhaps those in the Himalayan region-we were to tangle with a prospective assassin, witness a fight to the death between a snake and a mongoose, and experience a near-fatal accident. Life is rarely dull on the road to adventure.