Sunday, 24 February 2008

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

Notwithstanding the ten years of independence, a strong English trend still exists in some parts of India. Bangalore, for instance, presents a queer mixture, rather like the town of Winchester in a tropical suit. During a one-day stop we stayed with an intrepid Englishwoman of uncertain age, who, like the hotel proprietor in Lahore, mentally refused to accept a fait accompli. She entertained us, with unconscious humour, by giving us a brief history of the town, which prefaced a fund of stories concerning mainly the military indiscretions in the old days. We were told about the Brigadier and the polo ponies, the young subaltern who had been caught at an embarrassing moment with the Colonel's wife, and the relief of the hill stations during the heat.

While the old lady talked, a host of crusty, military gentlemen glowered forbiddingly at us from their smoky canvases on the walls. The whole interlude was a fascinating glimpse into a bygone age, related by this woman who lived-heaven alone knows how in this 'brave new world'-exactly as she had done twenty-five years ago. She lived alone, apart of course from a couple of 'boys', in a bungalow which was very comfortable though not luxurious. England remained for her a nostalgic memory to be cherished, but not to be marred by visiting the land of her birth again. She would, we were told, die in Bangalore. I felt rather sorry for the old lady; she seemed so alone.

We left very early the next morning for Trichinopoly. During the night there had been some rain and the air was fresh and invigorating. The tarmac road was also greasy and treacherous, as was the laterite border. We began to sing as the last houses with their still-sleeping occupants fell behind. By six-thirty we were already forty miles south of Bangalore and in the highest of spirits. Everything was so promising that I should have known there would be something unpleasant. It happened just after we had watched with bated breath an extraordinary sight: a snake and a mongoose fighting like fury in the centre of the road.

Perhaps it was the early hour, or possibly in the struggle they had over-spilled from the lush jungle edge. But there they were, these two arch-enemies, rolling, spitting, biting, and sliding across the bitumen. I pulled up not ten yards from this deadly battle and we watched, engrossed, as the tide turned first one way and then the other. This was no walkover for the mongoose. We had seen a staged fight in Bombay, where an old man produced both adversaries from a sack to entertain a morbid crowd, who, I suppose, derived some pleasure from seeing the mongoose swoop from the sack and despatch the snake with one bite. But this was the real thing and the snake in this drama was no drowsy, overfed bait.

Again and again the mongoose, like a flash of furry quicksilver, darted in to the attack and in return was bitten by the reptile who was a mite quicker. The mongoose was flecked with blood; obviously the snake (about three feet long and russet-hued) was not venomous.

Finally, in a last desperate bid to kill, the mongoose flung himself into the striking coils, regardless of the razor-like teeth which we could see quite clearly in the snake's jaws. Somehow, he withstood the onslaught of slashing bites, got a grip on the slippery throat and in less than half a minute it was all over. The victor dragged the corpse back into the undergrowth. For him, breakfast was served.

For Nita and me, however, the stop to watch this ferocious battle almost ended in disaster. While I had been poking about in the undergrowth to catch a closer glimpse of the mongoose, a big diesel truck had lumbered past heading for Trichinopoly, and in another twenty minutes we had caught up with the lorry and were being choked with exhaust gas. As Nita said afterwards, we should have stopped for a spell and so let the truck get away; the road was too slippery to play tag. But prudence was a missing quality with me that morning. Repeated blasts on the horn failed to shift the lumbering brute from the centre of the narrow road and the driver could not, or would not, hear my persistent hooting. After enduring five miles of choking fumes and a view restricted to flapping tarpaulin, I had had enough. I pulled out into the rough and opened up. . . .

We hit the washout at about forty-five miles an hour. In the last agonizing second I instinctively snatched the front wheel sideways to lessen the impact. It didn't soften the blow much, but probably saved the front forks.

The familiar montage quickly followed: a sudden and painful close-up of the ground-a fleeting glimpse of the sky with a big truck tyre flashing past a corner of my vision-a rushing noise and a shower of stars and asterisks as finale to the ghastly sequence.

The immediate aftermath, too, followed the time-honoured pattern. A shout to my wife and the agonizing second of silence before she replied in a shaky affirmative, then a hasty scramble to cut the engine which was screaming at a horrible pitch, with the rear wheel spinning wildly; and finally a hasty pat at my own anatomy to see if it was still intact. With the machine upright once more, we leaned upon one another to survey the damage. It could have been much worse.

We placed on one side in a neat pile everything that was a write-off, including various items of shredded clothing, a broken pipe, and a pair of sunglasses. Fortunately our camera gear had been well padded. We used up a couple of bandage rolls and a bottle of disinfectant, and then made an exceedingly strong cup of tea. The scooter was still mobile (despite a handlebar which required bashing with a rock to a reasonably horizontal position). Shakily we mounted and started off down the deserted road to complete our journey.

For the rest of that day I drove carefully enough to pass any driving test and Nita, never one for recrimination, reminded me that the next time when she yelled into my ear 'Don't overtake' I might do worse than heed her warning. Meekly I agreed. When she decides to become a back-seat driver it is usually with sound reason.

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.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

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

While we were waiting for this, I tried desperately to extricate the batch of new film which was waiting for us at the airline office, but this too proved to be an almost insurmountable task. We went from one Government department to another and from end to end of the city, filling in forms, declaring we were not hostile to the Pakistani Government, pleading, cajoling, ranting at the authorities to release our property.

During this time of frustration and uncertainty a young man, Abdul Qauyum Shaikh, came on the scene; he was a friend of the NSU dealers and had both influence and patience with which to deal with the red-tape. He helped us enormously and was wonderfully hospitable to Nita and me during our stay in Lahore. When all our business had been completed, save for the arrival of the new parts from Germany, it was he who arranged a long weekend trip up to the hill station of Murray, high above the arid plains.

We left a Lahore gasping in 110 degrees of heat, to arrive half a day later at the rest-house of Changla Gali, where we huddled gratefully around a blazing log fire to keep out the bitter mountain cold. There were three of us in the party: Nita and myself and a German doctor of languages, with whom we had become very friendly at the Lahore hotel. A tall, gaunt Bavarian, only thirty-five years old, owing his cadaverous looks to ten years in Russia as a prisoner of war, our companion possessed a shrewd, critical mind and a dry, refreshing sense of humour. He was a bachelor, who preferred teaching Pakistani students to his own countrymen and liked the hermit-like existence at Sunny View Hotel.

On the Sunday, while Nita stayed behind to rest, we climbed a nearby peak as the sun rose, in an effort to see the mighty Nanga Parbat, one of the Himalayan giants. We stood on the mountain and gazed into the far distance as the sunlight crept rapidly over the crystal peaks. For a second we felt we had seen the great snow-crested outline, thrusting up into the sky; it may have been a cloud formation, but we liked to think we had seen the mountain. If we had not, I had at least found a kindred spirit in this German, a man who could understand my urge to see over the next horizon.

On our return to steaming Lahore there was another hold-up while the mechanics assembled the bits and pieces (which had miraculously arrived) in all sorts of sequences endeavouring to find the right combination. One would hardly credit that a rear scooter hub could be so complex. There was only one correct way to assemble the twenty-odd parts; otherwise the wheel locked solidly.

After a further two weeks of trial and error, the machine was once more declared to be fully roadworthy. To our surprise, and infinite relief, this proved to be quite true. We prepared for the long haul down through India to Ceylon.

What a difference the beautiful tarmac roads-a legacy of British rule-made to our progress. Instead of hard-fought fifty-mile maximums, thickly coating us in dust, we could step up our daily total to two or three hundred miles, according to our mood. But on the road to adventure nothing seems to come easily. True, we were now free from the appalling dust and horrific surfaces, but in order that things should not be too easy we had to run into the monsoon season in northern India. The rain fell steadily, a chilling, raw downpour that soaked us constantly day after day and night after night. Time and again we were washed out of our camping positions, after which, drugged with fatigue and shivering in wet clothes, we would pack our few belongings and push on without stopping again until daylight.

The whole of Delhi seemed to be under water when we arrived on yet another cold, grey morning, and the road was awash under inches of water. To our left and right, flat rice-fields looked utterly dreary in their swampiness, and I can vividly remember a dejected old man picking his way across waterlogged fields, from a saturated mud hut with crumbling walls, his flapping dhoti lifted high above his knees. He epitomized the whole depressing scene.

To make matters worse, one night after we had left the Indian capital there was a fairly severe earthquake which shook the ground beneath us and woke us with a frightening start. It was violent enough to make headlines in an English-language newspaper which we bought the next morning. This incident and the unrelenting rain spurred us along all the faster, and the scooter was forced to its maximum on the road south in search of some warmth, sunshine and terra firma.

Probably because of the bad weather, we hated the sight of northern India. Woefully overcrowded, the flat plains seemed to stretch into infinity, dotted with thousands of stereotyped villages, drab and poverty-stricken. Everyone we met was either begging, spitting lustily, or sleeping. Beggars accosted us everywhere, terribly twisted, hideously scarred creatures who held their afflictions as close to us as they dared, whining the while for annas. After a few days one could feel no pity for these wretched people, only a growing impatience with each succeeding beggar. Through the smelly, littered bazaars we manoeuvred around sacred cows and dung and children playing in the filth, and drove through the fetid atmosphere as quickly as possible.

Throughout the long, boring haul down to Bombay I blessed the manufacturers of the Prima for supplying a robust and really audible horn. After the solitude of most of the journey so far, through the comparative quiet of the Middle East, it was impossible to drive through any of these communities without using the horn every few minutes. People just milled around in the middle of the streets, ignoring trucks, private cars and, of course, us. Once free of the towns, however, we made excellent time on the perfect road surface.

The skies were still leaden, and as we had no particular interest in architecture, we did what our friends at home considered an unprecedented thing. We went straight through Agra without stopping to see the Taj Mahal. Nita has never quite forgiven me for this. The truth was that up to that time I was disappointed in the 'magic of India'. What I had seen held for me hardly a fraction of the fascination of the African continent, and these people, with an average life expectancy of thirty-eight years for both sexes, seemed passive, carrying the visible resignation of their poverty and gross overcrowding. They did not possess the sunny lustre of the Africans I had met.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

From the Khyber to Ceylon (Chapter 8 - Into Pakistan)

So down from the heights, from the wild mountain world, to the sweltering plains and eventually to Peshawar. The bustle and noise, the smells and overcrowded heat-dazed population made a strong contrast to the dignified, almost regal individuality of the Afghans. Teeming thousands of passive Pakistanis milled around gregariously on every street, blissfully ignoring the assortment of crazily driven cars which swerved, horns blaring, between bullock carts and meandering robed figures.

Our truck-driver friend deposited us in the middle of the market-place. Fortunately he had a lot of acquaintances and, between us, with much exertion and even more well-meant advice from a crowd of interested onlookers, the Prima was again manhandled down to ground level. Another search began to try and locate a bearing of the right size, and again we had no luck.

On the second day in Peshawar I began to feel dizzy and out of sorts and found myself cursing the situation, our sick machine, and the lack of repair facilities even more than usual.

On the third day I awoke with a high temperature and a feeling of great weakness which was impossible to fight. For the next three days I lay swamped in my own perspiration, dimly aware that something was radically wrong and wondering idly if I would ever leave the small hotel room in which I lay. From somewhere Nita procured a Pakistani doctor who dosed me with pills, prescribed a diet of yoghourt, and would not accept any fee. That gesture (perhaps more than the medicine) did much to hasten my recovery from dysentery. On the third day the fever went and I was able, with the help of my wife, to get up and dress. It was another month before I felt really fit again and reached my normal weight.

With all hope lost of a new bearing for the scooter, we reassembled the rear-end and pushed on to Lahore. There, we were assured, we would find everything we needed.
I do not remember much of that stretch. Partly because it was flat and uninteresting country and partly because, after being prostrate and foodless for most of our Peshawar stay, I found steering the scooter something of a major feat. Happily, though, the combination of a good tarmac road and a low cruising speed enabled us to reach Lahore.

Floundering along at ten miles an hour, with the most horrible rattle overriding the exhaust burble, we wobbled to the door of the NSU agents, on a wide, well-laid-out avenue of shops nostalgically called 'The Mall'. Little did we realize, as we clattered through the centre of busy, crowded Lahore, that we were to be detained for six weeks in this Pakistani city. But such, incredibly, was to be the case.

At first it was very pleasant to be convalescing in a comfortable hotel. The scooter was being thoroughly overhauled by the agents and within a week (we understood) should be like new. A new replacement bearing and oil-seal would be obtained in the city and once those elusive parts were found our troubles would be over. In theory, then, everything seemed plain sailing.

There was a novel fascination in leading a routine life again for a brief spell, and I caught up with some writing that was long overdue. We ate regularly and well in our hotel which was run by a faded Englishman who was unable to accept the fact that the British had left.

The agents continued their search for parts, while they lavished attention upon the rest of the scooter. One old metal-craftsman made an excellent panel-beating job of the torn and twisted foot-boards which had been battered almost beyond recognition by the tracks of Persia and Afghanistan. Thank God, we thought, there will be no repetition of that horror.

At the end of the first week the fun began. A wheel bearing had been fitted and, the scooter being pronounced in almost original condition, I was asked to take the machine for a longish test run to make sure that all was well. This I did, and was promptly stranded fifty miles from the city. I coaxed a lift back after a long wait and arrived at the hotel a day and a half later. Twice more, experimental bearings were tried, tested, and discarded as useless, until, heartily sick of this parade of failures, I cabled the factory
in Germany to send a complete unit out, post-haste.