Letter 6 to Son No. 1 – On Leaving India

Written at Basoto Hotel, Ernakulum, Kerala
21/22 October 1985

When I set off on my circumnavigation of the world, I promised to send you a letter a month. This is letter 6 which means that I’m about halfway through the year and my journey and will shortly leave India. When you receive this, I’ll either be in Singapore or heading north through Malaysia, Thailand and, hopefully for one week, Burma.

It has been a fascinating learning experience for me: India is a difficult country to come to terms with. Only a little younger than me, this nation with 14 major languages and over 200 dialects is still coming to terms with being a federation of states which are fiercely protective of culture and customs. This can be very confusing to an observer such as  myself briefly travelling through. This is especially true when many of the monuments I have visited relate to an age when many of the states they relate to were of a different geographical area to now. Until 1947, Pakistan and Bangladesh were both part of the British Raj.

Since then, India has changed from being a rural society facing a population explosion with severe problems of recurring droughts and floods brought about by the monsoon which lead to food shortages as crops failed. Today India is self-sufficient in food and has risen to being the 6th most industrialised nation. The country has developed the nuclear bomb, which Rajiv Gandhi the prime minister has consistently stated he doesn’t want. He succeeded his mother, Indira, who was assassinated a year ago by her Sikh bodyguards following the Indian army’s June 1984 assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. This lead to the killing of thousands of Sikhs in retaliatory violence.

However, Rajiv has gained much prestige with the signing of an accord in the Sikh state, one with a sizeable Hindu and Moslem population.

There are so many religions, both mainstream and sects, in India that inter-communal strife is sadly inevitable. With everyone believing that only their particular version of God has the power to govern lives with their promises of a better existence in the next, I am a little surprised at the tolerance most people have shown to different lifestyles, including my own.

I could spend hours talking about the ‘State of the Nation’ as I believe it to be, but my main interest has been in the daily life, the small details rather than the big picture. I’ve generally stayed in hotels frequented by Indians rather than the international jet-set western-style luxury establishments, so I’ve rarely been isolated. This has certainly made my travels more interesting if occasionally frustrating. Buying a train ticket with a beggar kissing my feet, ordering tea without sugar, getting straight-forward directions from A to B and being told to “go backsides” … these have all been time-consuming and at times extremely aggravating. The easiest reaction has sometimes been to shrug my shoulders and mutter “This is India, after all.”

It has been a memorable experience which has inevitably changed me. Physically I’m now half a stone (7lbs/3.2kgs) heavier. (I never gain or lose weight, so it must be my diet which contains little fibre.). My tan has stopped pealing so people think I’m wearing a white vest when I take my shirt off, such is the contrast between the exposed skin and my London pale chest.

My mental state has changed too: I hope I’m more patient and stoic. I have spent so long on trucks, buses and trains, some journeys lasting 18 hours without a fresh book to read, that one has to relax. This is difficult given the accompanying discomfort of wooden seats and overcrowding, with each arrival eagerly anticipated for the new contacts, sights and experiences.

India is a land of contrasts: the old, the new; the straight forward and the bureaucratic; the3 banal and the bizarre. My impressions have been governed as much by my experiences as by the events and the commonplace observed here. My expectations owed much to films such as Gandhi, Passage to India and Heat and Dust, books by Eric Newby, E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling (Kim more than Jungle Book), and to the many Indian restaurants in London. In fact, I was little prepared.

Each day brings a new image – good or bad. Having learnt to accept these continual culture shocks – This is India, after all – I will be sorry to leave. Certainly, I hope to return one day, if only to explore some places further. That, and to meet with a people who constantly amuse and amaze. I hope I have been able to reciprocate.

I cannot draw too many conclusions from my stay here: what is true today may not be so tomorrow, except for the printed or painted word. Although English is an official language, I was regularly boggled by its use. These are but a few examples I noted:

Shopping can be fun!
a. TINGLER – no fruit juice of pulp used
“Guaranteed artificially pure.”
b. WORST TAILORS (Srinigar) and LOVELY STORES (Allopey)
c. “We give 100% discount.” (Carpet salesman in Srinigar.
“Not enough,” we cried.

The road to hell is signed with good intentions!

And this, from Fort Cochin, is my absolute favourite and one I shall probably treasure until my life’s journey is complete. Remember it well.


Note: I have not posted here the following lists I included in my letter:
Memorable and Pleasurable Journeys
Best Forgotten Journeys
Favourite Foods Eaten
Contented Moments
OK Bedrooms


About Jakartass

A Brit Abroad
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