Indian Travelogue

This is just some notes. The point of the trip was to study India and write five ‘Listener’ columns. They are drafted and will be published from January to May 2011.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Saturday 6 – Monday 8: Flew into Chennai (Madras) from Singapore. You cant fly direct from New Zealand, bother it. To be frank Chennai is not a great city, despite being India’s fifth to largest (4.6m) and one of the four cities from which the British Raj administered India. We could easily have skipped, except I wanted to see the NZ (honorary) consul, who heads the automotive component manufacturer, the Rane Group – fascinating, because it embodies the best of the history of Indian manufacturing.

Visited a temple for Shiva and the basilica of (doubting) St Thomas – there being a theory he got to India – interesting how close they were.  (I had a number of discussions with Hindu guides, but never got my head around Hinduism. One guide explained the trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – stood for Generation, Operation and Destruction.)

Tuesday 9- Friday 12. An early morning train –  ugh –  to Bengaluru (Bangalore  – 5.4m) up 3000 feet in the middle of the Deccan Plateau A very pleasant city except a long way from the sea. Its trying hard to upgrade the environment – trees every where. Very envious of its Botanical Garden – in a similar style to Christchurch’s but bigger and even more gracious, with a gneiss (rock) some mind-blowing three billion years old. I started my history of New Zealand 650m years ago – India’s would be five times further back.  Also saw a temple to Shiva in which a natural rock had been shaped into a huge black bull, garland with marigolds.

About this time my gout flared; the spices (or possible lentils) afflicted me with the most acute episode I have ever had. I am mildly prone to it, and was carrying preventive doses. (The Delhi doctor I saw said that spices exacerbate most of the problems of age – arthritis, diabetes and rheumatism … ). To cut a long story short, I was still hobbling a fortnight later; I wont bore you with its constant nagging, but report only the high/low lights.

I had asked to visit a IT establishment. Blow me down, Total Holidays arranged for me to see one of the seven directors of Infosys, one of the most successful IT companies in the world. A vigorous discussion – among the books he gifted us was Sen’s The Argumentative Indian (I had been trying to get it in NZ), inscribed ‘many happy arguments’. Another great privilege. The 25,000 graduate campus I hobbled about was lovely. Vice-chancellors would kill for it.

Friday 12-Sunday 14. Plane to Kochi (Cochin 0.5m)in Kerala. (Clouds so couldnt see the Western Ghats, the remains of the scarp of the Decan Plateau – nor on the next flight. Kerala is mainly the coastal plane from the erosion, and the coastline is a mass of islands and estuaries). As a link in the trade between the spice Islands of Indonesia and the Middle East and Europe – it faces the Arabian Gulf – its food is famously spicy (ooch), and quite cosmopolitan – the Paradesi Synagogue is said to be the oldest in the Commonwealth, although sadly the congregation is dying off.  It is next to the ‘Dutch Palace’ (being restored and worth the visit) originally built by the Portuguese for the local ruler, and then upgraded by the Dutch who drove out the Portuguese (who, sadly, destroyed the original synagogue, which probably went back 2000 odd years). The new one’s location was to indicate the ruler’s protection, and his valuing of the Jews as traders.

We went to a traditional dance – Kathakali – and various historical sites, including Fort Cochin  which is close to the harbour. Our guide pointed out a rather pleasant beach and said its swimming  was only for Indians, and then twinkingly added ‘its too polluted for anyone else’.

An evening with Malcolm McKinnon who was living in the Ghats foothills was both pleasant and revealing, a nice reminder of the difference between the tourist passing through, and the insights from someone who can settle for even a few months.

Kochi roads are terrible.  There is a convention that potholes should not be deeper than cars, and generally it was maintained – the other convention that their area should be smaller than cars was not. (I am told they are particularly bad after the monsoon season.) Add the way Indians drive – virtually no lane discipline, distance very close,  and constant honking – and the great mix of vehicles of different capacities – tuktuks (motorised rickshaws), motorcyclists, bikes, handcarts, pedestrians even when there was a footpath, and underpowered  or overloaded trucks (probably both); no skateboards – the only reason there are not more accidents in the chaos is that top speed is about 20 kph. (We were rear-ended once. Driver and motorbike checked out the damage was not great, and drove on – the distance they caught up following the stop-over was a couple of metres.)

You end up with a nightmare; its been a long day and you are exhausted, in the late afternoon you drive from the last venue to the hotel, and it goes on and on and on, and on, and on  … The honking is not melodious. The shower was lukewarm, the bed often hard.

South of Kochi is the ‘Backwaters’ a vast estuarine complex which has been converted into lakes, canals and rice fields (some below the water level) with people living on the dykes. We chugged around for a day in a houseboat, sleeping in it overnight. Most people would have enjoyed the break, but I was not enthralled because of the gout.

Apparently New Zealand does not have a lot to do with Kerala because of its low industrialisation but – spices aside – it’s a great tourist destination, and as the column points out an even greater fascination for the social scientist.

Sunday 14-Wednesday 17. Fly to Delhi (12.5m)– the airport was to the north of Kochi another long drive since we started off well to the South – by Spice Jet (I kid you not). They opened the new domestic terminal that day and were totally unprepared. We must have been the last plane in at the far end. I hobbled totally alone through the empty corridors – everyone having gone before – another nightmarish adventure. Eventually reached the helpless desk – manned by four – and asked for a wheelchair. No help. Elizabeth had gone ahead to get the baggage (we had not appreciated how big the terminal would be) –  no trolleys, and noone had wheelchairs either. It took an hour to unload the bags. And then another long drive to the hotel. (We had a snack in the airport from a takeaway; ‘No spice!’ ‘No spice sir’. The chilli burnt my mouth.)

Taken around New and Old Delhi the following day. Pleasant and interesting enough – ND reminded me a bit of Canberra. I did not get out of the car to limit walking, so missed the temple and mosque which Elizabeth visited. Back at the hotel rang the High Commission and the very helpful consular officer organised an appointment at a local hospital and the taxi. Never met her, but am in love with her.

Hospital proved to be clean, open and helpful – and impressive; no waiting and we got the medicines from its pharmacy. Senior consultant was super – excellent English, and treated me like my GP. What happened is that I had been taking a regular maintenance dose, and it was not enough. He upped it, and gave me extra medication, although it took a week to come right. Pharmacy fine except they buggered around bit; all the medication was in drawers on display, including two sets of parallel columns which were labelled ‘looks the same’ and ‘sounds the same’.

As you probably know, any physical infirmity is immediately deemed to damage one’s brain (David Hill has a super teenage novel See Ya, Simon which illustrates this.) So the pharmacist gave the instructions for taking the medicine to Elizabeth because I was in a wheelchair and was obviously mentally handicapped by the gout.  (Elizabeth says she is not cut-out to be a nurse, but I must say I received the same tender care and concern which she gives to Pauline.)

Tuesday was arranged by the High Commission and went well with interviews with an ex-secretary of the Treasury, a feisty woman journalist from The Economic Times, and the HC itself – the building is modestly charming, on Ed Hillary St. You spend a valuable hour with each of them and it only appears as a paragraph in a column (albeit a valuable one). I hope they did not think it wasted their time.

My inflamed feet desperately needed a soak in warm water, but we only had a shower. Long negotiation to get a tray in which I could do a foot bath. They finally got it – ‘Yes, sir’ – and came back some time later with a bath mat.

Wednesday 17- Saturday 20. Fly to Kolkata (5.1m) in Bengal (from the old terminal – much more convenient). Overnight there – it looks a gracious city, quite unlike its reputation. (Poshest hotel we had, but only warm water for soaking the feet). The next day train to Shantiniketan. By now I had pretty well succumbed to the indignity of a permanent wheelchair – and indeed was revelling in the humour of it – sort of an elderly gentleman suffering a disease of affluence.

You will get a sense of the importance of Shantiniketan from the columns. It is the university of Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen, but Tagore consciously put the campus in a village setting, so it (and the Backwaters) were a couple of occasions we saw something about what rural India was like – perhaps a little towards the affluent end. The village put on a dancing display for us, and coopted Elizabeth at one point – she proved notably taller than they were.

Saturday 20-Sunday 21. Back to Kolkata, thence to Singapore and Auckland. The last leg was not really up to Singapore Air’s reputation and complicated by the person I was sitting next to having a cough, which I caught. I came off the 737 in Wellington on a wheelchair, but the infirmity began to clear up away from the spice, and with the heavier anti-inflammatory.

Conclusion

There is much that could be added – even after supplementing this with the columns. I’ll just mention tipping, always stressful for a New Zealander. There was not as much begging as Elizabeth recalls when she first visited Delhi during the Emergency in the 1970s. Keynes famously remarked when refusing a beggar that he would not debase the currency; I take a similar stand. As far as those selling postcards and the like, I buy if I want. But when someone has done something for me … There is typically a ‘going rate’ – perhaps a few dollars – which seems well below a ‘fair rate’, and so I tend to over-tip, hoping that there would be a trickle down effect.

(I was amused that at the Kolkata airport the wheelchair pushers fought for the privilege of pushing me. In Wellington I was pushed off the airbridge, but as soon as we met the good Don Gilling, the pusher handed over and disappeared. The difference? Tipping.)

I would recommend ‘Total Holiday Options’ (anita@totalholidayoptions.com)  if you are going to India (I particularly appreciate the guide’s attention to my debilitation; all the drivers were good too.)  Note that they seem to subcontract by state – a decentralisation whereas the China equivalent (China Holidays – www.bookchinaonline.com/nz/– which I would also recommend) seemed  more centralised – fitting one’s prejudices about the way the two countries are run. Couple of changes: next time I would go for four star rather than three star hotels, and really try to avoid early morning starts – travelling to the station or terminal is another tiring hour at least.

Happy to add to the advice, if you get an urge to visit India*; would like to return in a few years to see how things have changed.

Brian.

* Prepared to connect with Indians via cricket. The Blackcaps did us proud while we there – the Indians liked my explanation that their team was so good, that we took a draw as a win. The team collapsed as soon as we left.