India part one - Go East, Young Man
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
I've been spreading my wings a bit since the end of The Revue. Aside from the Righteous Mind (which musically its proving a very rewarding step forward, I couldn't be more pleased with our forthcoming LP) I've been bassing it up with the incredibly talented Suzie Stapleton, recording with Drip Dry Man, Thee Unholy Innocents, a bit of me own stuff as well as playing some upright bass with Jim in 'Dirty Down Time.'
Not being one to rest on me laurels and still having the odd half hour free I landed another bass playing gig with Indian singer / songwriter Redd Alluri. Along with the Righteous Minds' Phil we got a rhythm section together, backing him for some UK gigs as well as doing a spot of recording down in Brighton. In the summer I was thrilled to receive the news that we'd been booked to play a festival in Hyderabad and there'd be an Indian tour built around it. Having been lucky enough to visit a few exotic spots around the world with Jim and co. I always relish the chance to immerse myself in a new culture, and if I get to twang a few bass strings then all the better.
We secured our work visas (arriving with seconds to spare, as is oft the way. It's just no fun without the panic and minor heart attacks) and I had various jabs to protect my fragile western body from ghastly beasties. Rehearsals in London introduced us to Petra Breiner who would be playing keys, a thoroughly lovely lass she is too. Musically prepared, I stocked up on Imodium and prepared to head off into the unknown.
I didn't want to prejudice my opinions with too much advance reading about India (other than useful advice about not drinking the tap water and the aforementioned Imodium) and opted to just dive in and let it all wash over me - in retrospect I don't think anything could have suitably prepared me anyway. From the moment of landing the sensory overload was overwhelming and wonderful, a riotous cacophony of noise, colour, sights and smells.
Arriving in the morning (admittedly half-cut after a somewhat boozy flight) we met Redd who was thankfully in a more coherent frame of mind and ferried us safely to a waiting car. My first introduction to driving India style and all I can say is that I'm glad I had a few miniature bottles of wine swilling around inside me. Simply put it's bedlam, a complete free-for-all where the only way to survive is to adopt the same disregard for any sense of rules, logic or self-preservation. Our driver immediately charged headfirst into three lanes of oncoming traffic, motorised rickshaws splaying off to either side missing us by inches. Yet nobody seemed particularly annoyed or even disturbed by this act of suicidal insanity. Apparently it's just standard driving technique here. It takes a bit of getting used to.
They're not big on pedestrian crossings here either
...and these guys frankly don't help matters.
The sun is blazing, my head is upside down and in a different time zone. It's great. I settle back into my seat, say a quick prayer to Ganesh and take in the sights as our car manically swerves around a bus so overpacked that people spill out of its doors and hang off the windows. Puts moaning about the rush hour tube into sharp perspective.
As we hit the motorway the traffic calms a little and I take in the views, a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds to process. The most common sight is the ubiquitous yellow and green motorised rickshaw, each customized with various flowers, trinkets and painted slogans. In fact many of the vehicles I see are brightly coloured and garnished with flowers and religious iconography. Brightens up the day, who wouldn't love to see that on miserable old British trucks?
The density of the population is mind boggling even compared to a crammed city like London. The other unmissable fact is the widespread depth of poverty. It seems as though all life is lived here in public, on the street, in the dirt. Whole families will gather around a burning pit, naked children pissing in front of the endless traffic whilst mum, draped in coloured sari carries a pile of bricks on her head to a nearby building site. Shanty towns line the streets, permanent home to millions without hope of escape to anything better. It's certainly a country of extremes. On our drive modern shopping malls appear through the smog, towering above the slums on the other side of an insurmountable divide. Familiar western brands and their Indian counterparts beam from giant billboards touting a lifestyle utterly alien and inaccessible to the people toiling below. It's hard not to feel a pang of guilt as you sit in your air conditioned car being zoomed off to your hotel.
Driving through the city. With apologies to Jim Jarmusch
Sadly my bleeding-heart liberalism won't be enough to change this situation. But by the end of the trip I'll have thoroughly learned a few lessons in gratitude, to remember that we all live relatively like royalty and should quit our whiny little moans of self-entitlement when things are less than perfect.
We check into our hotel and are greeted with a very warm welcome by the staff. Of which there are many. Redd explains the situation - a high population has led to over-employment. Five people will be hired where one will do, albeit at a tiny wage each. This leads to gangs of staff hanging around with little to do. When attention is required you'll find yourself suddenly surrounded with zealous helpers eagerly offering to lend a hand. It's charming, if a little overwhelming and unfortunately seems to end all too often in utter confusion. Requests operate on a Chinese whisper basis and often result in surprising outcomes. You may or may not get your coffee. Or it may be a cake. Or a hair dryer. Or five bottles of water. But always delivered with such warmth and friendliness you can't really care.
Petra, from Canada but living and working here tells me the vagueness can get a little exasperating when experienced on a daily basis. I'll see her point over the coming weeks as things never quite go as planned. Another lesson from India - expect nothing and just accept what does happen in life, it's mostly beyond your control anyway
I crash out for a few hours in the hotel, shower and freshen / sober up. Redd arrives and we head to a nearby veggie restaurant for sustenance. Masala Dosa - the first of what will become my staple diet - is served up with a selection of dips and is bloody gorgeous. In the past Redd has bemoaned 'Indian' food in Britain as being like a cover-version and now I understand what he means. Unfamiliar flavours explode on my tounge, knocking my beans-on-toast palate on its proverbial arse and whacking my head about with tangy spices. I'm hooked.
We visit Redds nearby home and set up some gear in his garage for rehearsing tomorrow. We round off the day by grabbing some beers from the local bottle shop - a simple outdoor booth crowded with motorbikes and men shouting their orders - and take in the warm evening air as local mosquitos enjoy a feast of freshly imported white flesh.
The following days see us rehearsing the band at Redd's house and seeing the sights. Our first stop is Golconda Fort, a crumbling old structure overlooking the city.
Climbing up ruined walls. Health and Safety? Not here sir!
Another odd experience for me and Phil - our western appearance earns us fascinated stares everywhere we go and we end up posing for endless photos with strangers. Eventually Redd has to come to the rescue as our progress is halted and we're pretty much mobbed by curious selfie-gatherers.
Our next port of call is the Qutb Shahi Tombs, a series of crumbling monuments housing former dignitaries, now home to packs of sleepy stray dogs. They reverberate with the echoes of forgotten reverence, a quiet and magical place.
Back at the hotel that night I crash into bed exhausted and flip on the TV. A wonderfully insane film from the seventies is showing, a perfect end to the day.
Possibly about the life of Prince
In part two I'll share my thoughts on gigging in India, the challenges of air travel and dining in a palace.