India Part Three - My Last Days in the Raj
As our journey passes the halfway mark I feel like I'm beginning to get a handle on things. Here's what I've learned so far -
Dealing with traffic is all about eye contact (as in, your terrified eyes locked pleadingly with theirs hoping they'll notice you and swerve.)
The notion of time-keeping came with the invading Empire and railway lines that demanded punctuality. It remains an alien concept here, a thing of whimsy not to be taken too seriously.
There are other hangovers from colonial times. As white westerners a lot of people seem to be deeply fascinated with us. We take it all with bemused grace, but there's a troubling subtext concerning race and class that leaves me feeling uneasy.
A lot of things here just don't work properly and may have been repaired with sticky tape and gum. For this reason I'd recommend taking the stairs over the elevator.
Your bowels will be working a double-shift so bring a good book to keep you occupied in the bathroom.
Only drink bottled water. Also mosquito repellent is a wise idea as the bastards are quite beefy out here. Earplugs are also useful for blocking out airport muzak and noisy children.
Masala Dosa is delicious. Eat it regularly.
Prices may suddenly go up if they think you can afford it and public attractions charge different prices for foreigners, often ten times as much. We can afford it so fair enough - but I hope we don't start to see this approach in post-Brexit Britain...
A wobbling head gesture is widely used to punctuate conversations, however the exact meaning seems to change depending on circumstances. This can be highly confusing when expecting a simple yes or no and instead being presented with an enigma.
Then, just when I was beginning to find my bearings they went and broke the money. We get the message from Redd - overnight all small bills had suddenly been withdrawn from circulation and were now worthless. It was a dramatic plan by the government to counteract black market shenanigans and claw back billions in undeclared taxes. The old notes had to be exchanged at a bank within the next thirty days after which they would be completely void. Except, of course, none of the banks were open on the day of the announcement. Predictably this leads to even more chaos on the streets as inadequately stocked cash machines quickly garner vast queues. Imagine everything under a £50 note suddenly being declared worthless with no way to get replacements - it was absolute pandemonium. Luckily for us Redd was able to change our money up for us so we avoided disaster. Tough luck for all the small traders who deal in cash though, or travellers stranded without loot.
The next bit of troubling news is of a thick smog enveloping Delhi, our next destination. During the Hindu festival of Diwali a crazy amount of fireworks had been set off in celebration leaving a thick misty haze over the city. This teamed up with the already nightmarish pollution to form a heavy toxic cloud that wouldn't shift. Flights in and out of the city had even been disrupted and we began to worry about getting there at all. Fortunately Ganesh was smiling down and conditions improved enough to get us through. It was a deeply unpleasant atmosphere to be in though, a thick itchy sensation that assaulted your lungs with every breath.
Like an old mans pub before the smoking ban,
Thankfully the city itself has some very beautiful sights to compensate and by the second day the worst of the smog has dissipated. We visit the magnificent Red Fort and take a bone-shaking ride on a rickshaw (see video below.) My eyes nearly pop out of my head when I spot an elephant and two camels walking down the highway - I'd only just got used to the cows. But the poor beast didn't look in great shape, doubtless being led off to entertain tourists for a handful of rupees. A sad fate for such a marvellous creature.
Take a ride with me and Phil around the backstreets of Dehli, you can drag the video around too. At the end you'll catch a glimpse of an enormous queue for a bank.
Unfortunately for us the national cash situation did nothing to assist patchy ticket sales and it's a far from packed house as we take to the stage. However, we have fun anyway and those who did come along enjoy themselves enormously. Which is, after all, the point.
Back at the hotel I hear a bit of a commotion from down below. Drums are pounding, bells are clanging and there's jovial singing. Disgraceful - what right do these people have to disrupt my evening? I head downstairs to complain and spot a wedding party sauntering up the road. People are dancing around a feller dressed up as a prince riding along on a white horse - the groom, I presume. They head into a decorated area at the front of the hotel to continue their partying, laughing and shouting. Its a lovely sight really (yeah, I was joking earlier. Jeez, do you take everything I write seriously?) I wish them luck and head upstairs, wedging me ear plugs in extra tight to guarantee the nights snoozing.
Our next date is in Pune, another short flight away. Outside of our happy little touring bubble the world has been getting increasingly insane and the dreadful news of Trump's election win was still sinking in. The first thing we see when we land in Pune? An overbearing black slab with 'Trump Towers' emblazoned tackily in gold across the front. Like an invading alien force stomping down on it's territory, I wonder if these have appeared in every city on the planet. I shudder as our car goes by,
The venue is a much more chilled out location, a hippy beach shack called High Spirits. With Bob Marley paintings on the walls and anarchist murals inside, its a veritable a refuge from the woes of the world. Again we're welcomed with warmth and hospitality and enjoy a relaxed sound check under the sun,
Happily its a packed floor that greets us in the evening as we get ready to rock it up one last time in India, A real shame that this will be the final show but a great night to finish on.
There was one last surprise for us from India, a spectacular and surreal finale that would take us right back to the days of the Raj.
Redd informed us that he'd booked a table for us in a fancy hotel restaurant to round off the trip. Sounds like a good plan and as I'd taken advantage of the inexpensive tailoring here to have a couple of suits made up I'd be looking dapper too.
The drive couldn't have provided more of a contrast for what was to come as we cruise through the outskirts of the city. Buildings here are often little more than ramshackle constructions of breeze-blocks and tarpaulin, silhouetted in the murky darkness without proper street lighting. Interspersed are strips of simple shops - garages repairing battered motorbikes, corrugated iron stalls cooking up curries, mosques and mobile phone stores. After an hour or so of this a vision suddenly appeared up in the sky. High above us on a distant hill a row of lights from some kind of grand mansion could be seen. It was so unexpected and incongruous as to be like a hallucination.
Far too fancy for scum like me .
Taj Falaknuma Palace was our destination. Built in 1894 by the ruler of Hyderabad, he was reputedly both the richest and stingiest man in the world at the time. He certainly splashed the cash on this place though. It's opulent on a scale that makes my jaw literally fall open in awe (and when I say literally, I mean literally. Not in the way most people use 'literally' nowadays, as in "my head literally exploded" - NO IT DID NOT. IF YOUR HEAD HAD LITERALLY EXPLODED YOU WOULD BE DEAD AND THUS VERY UNABLE TO TYPE. Sorry, just had to get that off my chest. My mouth was actually agape is what I'm trying to say.)
Our car glides slowly up a long driveway lit with Victorian lamps as ornate buildings come into view. The grounds seem to stretch off forever, roads swirling off in different directions through immaculately sculpted gardens. We drive up to a gate house and are met by a old bearded gentleman dressed in traditional costume who bows to welcome us. At this point I could quite possible believe I've just stepped through a time portal.
We're guided through to the terrace at the front of the palace, unreal in it's dreamlike perfection. We drift through the entrance patio and up marble stairs strewn with petals to enter the baroque interior. Inside it's like a living museum, every room crammed with period details and carved furnishings, each doorway opening up another sumptuous rococo interior.
Through a long courtyard we finally reach the dining room and are shown to our table. Needless to say the food is excellent, a selection of southern Indian delight accompanied by fine cocktails. Less impressive is the huge painting of a smug looking hunter stood atop a pile of dead tigers, the nagging reality gnawing at the edge of the dream. Cruelty and empire go hand in hand - uh-oh, there's that sense of guilt again...
It's an amazing experience however, and one that won't be easily forgotten. Which is how I would sum up the whole trip to India - every day a sensory onslaught, everything heightened and exaggerated - tastes, smells, sights and sounds. And every day something else would leave me astonished and bewildered. I hope this won't be the last time that I visit.
Big thanks to Redd and his family who welcomed us with such hospitality, Petra for putting up with us lads and everyone else we met along the way. Namaste!