With our arts community in lockdown and galleries closed, Mike and Joan Street continue with their Indian travelogue.
MIKE. As a result of having been bombarded with complimentary remarks on my Varanasi article — does the figure three constitute a bombardment? Definitely, according to Trump! — I present you with part two of our Indian tour. The two weeks were an amazing experience — stunning, sobering, bewildering. Sights, sounds, colours, contrasts — all fascinating.
Along the main roads in the cities were gigantic advertising hoardings, urging the populace to aim for the lifestyle of rich Westerners, luxuriating in their brand new car/fridge/bed/furniture/jacuzzi/ad nauseam.
At the base of the hoardings were small groups of people, all Indian, naturally, sleeping rough as they were homeless. The incongruity hit you in the face. Yet there we were, rich — by comparison — Westerners, being driven to some plush hotel. The occasional pang of conscience kicked in, which I attempted to assuage by reasoning that we were putting some money into the economy and, more to the point, learning about the history, architecture and way of life of the people. Does that strike you as valid? There was also the indisputable fact that we couldn't change the world.
Two weeks, seven cities, whisked from hotel to temple, to fort, to palace, to cultural show, to the Ganges, and, at the end of each day, wearily back to a hotel. Physically demanding, we found it mentally exhausting, with all the noise and hubbub of the teeming millions, plus the constant stream of information hurled at us by our knowledgeable guides. They were keen to show us their country, we were keen to learn about it. Joan's interest in people always breaks down barriers and her searching questions enabled us to develop a personal, if brief, relationship with our guides and drivers. We were no longer guests and staff, but people with a mutual interest and enthusiasm. They appreciated our genuine curiosity.
Every day, every city, presented us with astonishing sights. Jaipur, the "pink city", and the elephant ride up the hill to the Amber Fort. The brilliant "son et lumiere" presentation at Khajuraho, highlighting — literally — the numerous temples and the story of their foundation. (My diary mentions "the full moon, floating mistily in and out of the clouds", which seems quite apt after last week's supermoon, called the "flower moon"). The magnificent architecture and carvings of Delhi's Red Fort, along with the towering India Gate, a more recent structure, a memorial to the Indian soldiers who died in World War II. No mention of India, of course, would be complete without reference to the humble, bespectacled, physically insignificant man who was Mahatma Gandhi.
His powerful presence and charismatic personality played such a huge part in his country's gaining independence in 1948. In Delhi we were taken to the Raj Ghat, where he was cremated, "quiet and peaceful, in beautiful green-grassed lawns and surrounds". Our guide in Mumbai took us to the Mani Bhavan, the house where Gandhi used to stay when visiting Bombay, as it was then known. My diary — "the small room where he slept; his few basic possessions; photos of his life and important events; photocopies of letters sent and received; his sayings all round the walls". I found it touching and moving.
Mumbai was quite different from Delhi. The centre of government, it offers a clean city centre, with no rubbish — or cows!, and the traffic actually follows the rule of staying in lanes! No three-wheelers are allowed in the central area, though taxis — usually old are battered — have dispensation. People are smarter, there is a throbbing nightlife, it is all more Western, for better or worse.
But the outskirts — well, that's a different story. We were driven past the biggest "dhobi ghat" in the country. It's the municipal laundry, where more than 5000 men wash clothes in open-air troughs, beat the dirt out, then hang them out to dry before ironing. Near the airport we saw a shanty town, one of the world's biggest slums, where the huts had tin roofs and sides, often painted bright blue, countless tarpaulins for extra weather protection and ubiquitous TV aerials! The owners, we were told, are computer savvy, often running businesses from these uninspiring shacks. This was the chief location for Shantaram, the hyperbolic, often absurd novel by Gregory David Roberts, which, despite its many flaws, painted a graphic picture of life in this shanty town.
Our single night in Mumbai was spent at the Hotel Taj Mahal, an impressive building with numerous photos of famous guests on the lobby walls. They were a multifarious bunch, including Gina Lollabrigida, the Clintons, John and Yoko and President Nasser. The staff were attentive and caring, without being obsequious.
We were there in July 2008. A mere four months later, in November, terrorists landed from small inflatable boats, attacking several sites in the city. The Taj was one of them, and I well remember reading accounts of how the lives of many guests were saved by the selfless, heroic actions of the staff.
Although tourist attractions obviously played a large part in the holiday, equally important was the human aspect. Aside from our regular contacts, this would often occur in the shape of venerable older gentlemen. Outside a temple in Udaipur, we greeted, with "namaste", a family of three generations, "grandpa as old as the hills", according to my note at the time. They asked Joan to take a photograph and, when she did so, the old gentleman knelt down and touched her feet. It was very moving.
In Mumbai we went to the theatre, advised by the hotel doorman to take a taxi, but pay no more than 30 rupees. On the return, I hailed two cabs, each quoting 100, which I refused. The third one I tried was driven by a white haired old Sikh, who stated 20 as the cost. His honesty earned him a tip of 10 rupees, clearly well beyond his expectations.
At the Hanging Gardens, in that same city, we met another old gent, who kindly provided information on the nearby Tower of Silence. By Parsee tradition, bodies were put on slabs high up the tower for vultures to eat. With fewer vultures nowadays, other birds of prey enjoy the feast. He explained that it was simply maintaining the natural balance and links between life and death.
On that sombre note, I leave you till next week, when I hope to conclude our Indian travelogue.
JOAN. Over the past weeks, I have marvelled at how theatres of note such as the National Theatre, London, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and, indeed, the Auckland Theatre Company have offered us the chance to watch their productions on You Tube. I had almost forgotten the brilliance of the creations presented by the National Theatre where I have thrilled to Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Antony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes.
I recommend them to you with more to come. We are enjoying the Auckland Writers Festival which is available on Sunday mornings and brings us interviews live, each one recorded in the author's living room or study. The Metropolitan Opera in New York continues with its repertoire and there is the New Zealand Ballet to view. The streaming is excellent. In fact you get the best seats for each occasion!
The cast of four for Amdram's next play are itching to rehearse again and get our "show on the road".
Perhaps we could each stand in a corner of the auditorium to rehearse then, when level 2 is established, perform to a smaller audience, offering waiter service for food and drink. I do hope so.
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