Skip to content

Life-changing happenstance: discovering India

The Hindu, 25 January

2009 will be marked by the usual crop of anniversaries. Twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 200 hundred years since the death of Tom Paine, forty years since Woodstock, and on a micro-scale, thirty years since my first visit to India. A life-changing event for me, as it turned out.

Like so many critical turning points, it came about by accident. Or rather accident combined with some long-held yearning for remote places, different people. I was vaguely planning a camping trip in Scotland with my brother. Then a friend returned from a trekking holiday in Nepal and his tales sparked my imagination. Without preparation, without knowledge, (without visas!) my brother and I set off on Afghan Airlines, stopping in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Ankara, Tehran and Kabul before landing in a hazy late summer heatwave in Delhi.

Trekking in Nepal was joyful, but it was India that overwhelmed and captivated me. I felt compelled to know and understand more – so much was busily opaque – and I began to read, to ask questions, all the while searching out new landscapes. The most memorable was Hampi, in Karnataka, the remnants of the medieval Vijayanagar capitol. It was and still is one of world’s most haunting archaeological sites, its ruins sleeping majestically by the limpid Tunghabadra. I spent what felt like a timeless fortnight there roaming the temples, watching the sunset cast the great boulders in a rosy glow, and reading Basham’s Wonder That Was India.

Unfortunately my passport was stolen in Hampi and I found myself making another unplanned excursion, to Madras, as it then was. This too was to become a significant way-station for me. While waiting around to get the document replaced, I explored the city, which at first seemed to have a curiously old-fashioned air. Mount Road, as I remember it, was much less choked than now and there were still venerable shopfronts on either side. Triplicaine was what drew me in: it was old yet alive. And I began the arduous task of getting to grips with the idiosyncratic politics of Tamil Nadu.

Out of that visit came the germ of my first book, about a cricket tour in India with a climax at Chepauk stadium, and beyond that, an abiding interest in Tamil history and eventually a love affair with Carnatic music (and a column in The Hindu). When I think how many hours of pleasurable wonder that music has given me, it seems incredible that I could so easily have missed out on the whole experience – had my passport not been stolen in Hampi.

Since that eye and mind jolting initial journey, I’ve retuned to south Asia as often as possible; more frequently as the years went on and more opportunities presented themselves. I wandered widely, learning as I went, and met people who became among my closest friends. I’d be incomplete without them.

I’ve seen India in stress. I was in Delhi days after the assassination of Indira Gandhi and in the midst of the anti-Sikh pogrom. I was visiting again in early 1993 when communal thuggery raged in Bombay. And in 1994, when the plague hit Surat, and the streets of Delhi were full of people selling useless surgical masks and fake prophylactic medications.

And of course I’ve seen the cricket. Thirty years ago, I arrived in the wake of Sunil Gavaskar’s great double hundred at the Oval, and found that topic an easy entry-point to conversation with Indians. Since then I’ve witnessed international cricket at the great venues (and was lucky enough to catch Azharuddin’s maiden Test century at Eden Gardens) and observed Indian cricket transmogrified. Best of all, I’ve stared mesmerised at countless games of informal cricket, on maidans and in galis, on industrial waste ground, palmy beaches and once on the verge of a precipice high in Lahaul. It was truly six-and-out.

Amid all the precious memories – the dome of Sanchi in a saffron dusk, the twin Muslim-Hindu shrines to Kabir in Magahar, “that cursed place” – much of what I’ve seen in India over the decades has disturbed and angered me. Liberalisation’s inequalities and corruptions; environmental degradation on a scale unimagined thirty years ago; the malign impact of Hindutva and the Sangh parivar; the bellicosity towards Pakistan, now going through another acute and perilous phase. When I first encountered this phenomenon in 1979 I was shocked by its ferocity and cynicism, its vain chauvinism, and I still am.

India proved a jumping off point for Pakistan – walking through a mist across an eerily quiet Wagah border – and my visits there proved eye-opening and hugely rewarding. Among other things, they expanded my understanding of India. If I had one piece of advice for a young Indian with an itch to travel it would be: get yourself to Pakistan, overcoming if you can all the obstacles that will be put in your path.

Travel actually doesn’t always broaden the mind, especially not these days, when it can be so easy: the transition from one environment to another is softened, sometimes obliterated in the air-con. I met a wealthy American lady who’d been globe-trotting for years – through Europe, Asia and south America – and all she could talk about was the various but universally unsatisfactory toilet conditions she had encountered.

As for me, I’ll be celebrating this 30th anniversary with gratitude and some surprise at my luck. My experiences in south Asia have shaped and (I like to think) widened my understanding of the world. My writing, political activism and personal life would all have been different had I not bumped into that friend on his way back from a holiday trek in Nepal.

Finally, a footnote plea to the Indian tourism industry (which I know will fall on deaf ears). Forget about swelling the ranks of 5 star hotels and concentrate on preserving and creating access to the country’s cultural patrimony.

For a society in which “heritage” and debates about it readily acquire acute political resonance, India displays a remarkable indifference to its actual, physically existing heritage. Despite the efforts of the ASI, innumerable sites of historic and cultural interest are neglected or inaccessible. Urban quarters of distinctive character are crushed beneath bulldozers or smothered in pollution. In small towns, statues of freedom fighters stand forlorn, chipped and scuffed, their achievements left unexplained. The heart sinks at what’s been lost in Calcutta in recent years. Yes, many old buildings were in severe dilapidation. But demolition wasn’t and isn’t the only alternative. Other cities with rotting inner areas have shown that restoration and imaginative renewal can work. The problem is that this is not an attractive proposition for greedy developers.