Back in Spring 2008 I travelled counter-clockwise around India & Nepal for 3 months, starting in Bombay. I went there because I was interested in Indian literature, specifically Indian literature written in English.
Indian literature is popular in the UK (and in other Western countries) because of the large number of Indian immigrants and because of the British colonial history. One thing I like about it is that the language they use is so colourful, lush, flamboyant. Magical Realism, a style I enjoy, is employed by Indian writers like Salman Rushdie. Then there is Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai. And not Indian but still his novel Life of Pi partially takes place in Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu: Yann Martel.
I wanted to see what inspired these writers to write in such a way and also wanted to visit places I had read about or heard about here and there.
So I flew to Bombay where Midnight’s Children mainly takes place. And then took the train down to Goa, where Arundhati Roy once baked cakes for tourists. Then to Kerala, the state of the world’s first democratically elected communist government and the state with the highest literacy rate in India.
There, in Cochin, where Vasco da Gama was buried in a church before he was moved to Portugal, I found the blue & white tiled synagogue mentioned in The Moor’s Last Sigh. In Kottayam I visited the house and river from The God of Small Things. Crossing over into Tamil Nadu, in Pondicherry I searched for the cafe where Yann Martel was told the story of Pi, and then I took a 29-hour train all the way up to Calcutta, poet Rabindranath Tagore’s hometown.
In Calcutta everything that happens happens on the streets. People wash, cook, eat, brush their teeth, shave. In the morning you see groups of men soaping and washing themselves with water from municipal pipes. Calcutta was the first place in India I saw rickshaws pulled by human beings (not cycle-rickshaws but ones where the man is running). The bazaar was so crowded I couldn’t see the ground beneath my feet. There are probably 20 million people living there (registered + unregistered), but geographically it doesn’t feel big – everyone is living on top of one another.
Calcutta is a city that took my perception of humanity to a different level (some years later Hebron in Palestine for different reasons added to this). Günter Grass the author of The Tin Drum was so moved by this city that he lived there for a while.
My next stop was Darjeeling, the hill station with tea plantations and tasty local cheese, and where Sherpa Tenzing who climbed the Everest with Edmund Hillary lived. And then Kalimpong which I knew from The Inheritance of Loss, which tells the story of the Gurkhas who are seeking their independence. In Kalimpong I was fortunate enough to visit the author Kiran Desai’s aunt Indira Bhattacharya, a medical doctor, at her home, and found the house Cho Oyu.
Over into Nepal for 10 days, where it was election time and, to avoid attacks from Maoist rebels, overnight traffic had to proceed in a high-speed convoy. Down to Varanasi (where cows sit on porches and people walk around naked), Agra (to set my eyes on Taj Mahal, a dedication to love), and, best of all, Emperor Akbar’s whimsical city Fatehpur Sikri (which inspired me to read The Enchantress of Florence).
Fatehpur Sikri, built of carved stone, has buildings whose use archeologists are still trying the understand, though, sadly, it had to be abandoned shortly after completion due to water shortages.
Up to Delhi to the Friday Mosque, the Red Fort, to Indira Gandhi’s house, to the spot in the garden she was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguard. Then to the mountain village of Dharamsala, where Dalai Lama’s residence-in-exile is, and up along a fabulous road cutting through mountains, edging along cliffs, a trip intercepted by military convoys… to Kashmir… to the Dal Lake… where Midnight’s Children commences.
Next, down to Amritsar, to the Golden Temple — the otherworldly temple of the Sikhs — and to the garden that was the scene of the Amritsar Massacre, also touched upon in a few novels.
Sikhs, by the way, are one of my favourite people in India. They are hardworking and trustworthy. With their beards and turbans are always neat. Every Sikh man is a warrior and you see them carrying their swords in and around the Golden Temple. Even the man selling fruits on the street is well dressed and the way he handles the fruits and conducts himself – it is as if he is the prime minister.
(After my visit, I read Tourism by Nirpal Dhaliwal Singh who is British of Sikh origin. An autobiographical novel of a man living a wonderfully impudent life in London.)
Then from Amritsar down to Rajasthan, where each of the 4 big cities is a different colour: pink, white, blue, brown. I was in the pink one, Jaipur, the day 8 bombs exploded, killing 60+ people (13 May 2008) — Bangladeshi militants were thought to be behind these bombings. The brown one, Jaisalmer, which is in the Thar desert, has a delightful fort and is the most remote one.
A brief stop in Gandhi’s hometown and Ahmedabad, the location of his ashram, and from where the Salt March took off in 1930; and Pune, the IT city notorious Osho chose for his ashram — Osho, a complete opposite of Gandhi, had a fleet of Rolls Royces!
And finally back to Bombay, to find the landmarks from Midnight’s Children: Malabar Hill, Breach Candy Hospital, the Mahalaxmi racecourse, and, of course, the Arabian sea… 1001 nights… and Saleem Sinai hiding in a washing basket.