Letters (Emails) sent to several friends during my travels in Sri Lanka and India, January to March 2004.
Collated from Yahoo mailboxes. 25/3/04
2004-02-01 Kandy, Sri Lanka
Sunday 15th February, 2004 - Delhi and the school in Haryana
Tuesday 24th Feb. Orissa
29 Feb. Orissa - Itarsi - Amarkantak - Jabalpur
3/3/04 - Itarsi again
6/3/04 - Back in Delhi (and Haridwar)
Back to JOURNALS
Back to HOME PAGE
Thursday, 29th January, 2004. (1800 words) Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Dear Friends (those who have expressed an interest in my travels)
I am sorry I don’t have time (or money – I am in an internet café) to write you all personal email messages. I hope you accept this. (I spent 1 ½ hours writing it then lost it into the electronic ether. I hope this second attempt retains the enthusiasm of the first.)
Despite opinions to the contrary I am in fact a very stupid person, and the greatest stupidity so far was to forget that I needed a visa for India. (Jennifer handled it all so efficiently last time.) I planned to spend 5 days in Sri Lanka on my way to India, but found that it would take over a week to get the visa, and that the next available seat in an aircraft wasn’t for another week. So here am I, stuck (!) in S.L. I nearly chose to come by another airline in which case it would have been Dubai. So despite my stupidity, my luck as ever is good. S.L. is a lovely country, especially in the hills where I headed immediately – the lowlands being too hot and humid even as now in winter. So I came by bus to Kandy.
The buses are very, very cheap, but one has to get a tuk-tuk between bus stations, airport and hotel. These are small three wheeled motorized rickshaws, which swarm around and can be quite hair-raising. For fright, however, the busses are far worse. The drivers seem to assume they own the roads. They overtake and cut in continually within a traffic stream; they occupy the wrong side of the road, forcing oncoming vehicles to a stop or to mount the verge, they blast their klaxons continually. For one who finds riding in the front seat upstairs of a London bus upsetting, buses in this part of the world give one a heart attack. Jo, who I’ll mention below, abhors them and has succeeded in travelling from north to south India by train only taking busses twice.
So I arrived at night in a tuk-tuk at the gate of the suburban guest house of a Mrs Clement Dissanayike, recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook especially for her meals. She gave me a warm welcome and rustled up an excellent supper. Rice with everything, delicious spicy sauces, dal, and on this occasion, fish pie. My room was fine, the other guests friendly and interesting; the only drawback was the shared toilet facilities. Clean but very basic, the spare loo a squat type and the spare wash basin out in the open. A delightful feature was the bird calls, as there were many trees. Their sounds are fascinating, with one exception quite unlike British birdsong. Hoots, tonk-tonks, crazy laughter, and a monotonous scrape scrape-scrape that can go on all day. Humming birds can be very tame, hovering within a meter, delicately putting their curved beaks into the many brilliant flowers. I have seen squirrels, mongoose, chipmunk (? –type) and in the great lake around which Kandy is built, many wading and diving birds and great ugly water monitors. The views are stupendous, steep wooded (jungle covered) hills or mountains, clear blue skies, hot sun, cool breeze. We would sit out on Mrs. D’s balcony and chat until the house rules were mentioned around 10. I enjoyed time with some of my fellow-guests. A German couple. Then a trio, Gary, Jo, and her 10 year old daughter who had traveled all down the west side of India. Gary is a musician (reeds) and often does jazz gigs in Bristol, so he gave me his URL. I also got on well with a retired Indian marine engineer who reminded me greatly of my father both for his technical background and his ethical views. Cecil has worked out his own universalist philosophy, taking from Roman Catholicism, Hindusim, Buddhism I think, and Islam – in fact I originally assumed from his manner he was a modern Muslim. He certainly is very high principled. We had long talks about mechanical and electrical engineering (few of my friends know I did chemical then electrical engineering before turning to radar and computers.) then on to religion and ethics. He honoured me by showing me his one-page credo, most of which I and other Quakers would fully agree.
Each day I walked (and later experimented with bus riding) into town, to visit the sights, and have tea and meals at my favorite restaurant. Lunch usually costs well under a pound). I visited the town’s main attraction, a world famous Buddhist temple of the Tooth. It houses one of the teeth of the Buddha. This tooth has had a troubled history, having been carried off several times, but always won back. Its last assault was a massive bomb set by the Tamil Tigers 10 years ago. A few days ago I saw a huge procession. First there were men with long whips which they cracked making sounds like fire crackers. One way to clear a path! Then elephants, drummers, pipers, and hundreds of devotees, mainly mature women, carrying bright flags. The elephants were brightly decorated and robed. There were a hundred or so people carrying statues of Buddha, each accompanied by a man holding a large decorative umbrella. The occasion was a day of prayer for the protection of the Tooth, 10 years after the attack. One sees elephants a lot, mainly in processions. There is a very old tusker who has pride of place. He carries the tooth on its annual outing. I went to a n Elephant Sanctuary and had a ride, then had my photo taken washing him down as he lay mostly submerged in the river. The also work in the lumber industry. On another occasion I went out of town and walked around the university campus, stopping to watch a game of cricket. I ate at a roadside booth, having bought a soft drink to give me a right to sit on the little bench.
In these trips I make friends with the men, though on one occasion they suddenly seemed rather threatening and I made a quick exit. We westerners are seen as walking treasure chests. A result is that one is plagued by street sellers. However in the neighborhood that I frequent, near my restaurant and this internet café, they have all come to know me and don’t hassle me. In fact the one who tries to sell maps at 500 rupees now jokes with me as he knows I know that nearby in the Tourist office one get better maps, free. I learnt about the many fine sites within a hundred miles, in a UNESCO supported ‘Cultural Triangle’. Formal two-day tours cost about 100 pounds, plus admissions totaling about 40 US dollars. I spent a lot of time trying to work out a cheaper way, e.g. by busses, or by hired motor-bike, but eventually decided I was not all that keen.
Anyway I was spending money too fast. What I wanted was time to meditate etc., so I decided to go to a Buddhist Meditation Centre which costs 300 rupees, about two pounds, a day all in. On Sunday I went to the Anglican church (where I had an extraordinary experience, which along with the singing, moved me deeply). After the service I told one of the priests my plan and he suggested a Benedictine (Roman Catholic) Monastery about two miles away. "We aren’t well organized", he said frankly. "The Catholics do these things much better." So I went to the monastery, Monte Fano (founded by Italian Benedictines) where they offered me a warm welcome. Next day I moved in.
I had asked for a monk’s cell but they insisted I had one of the posh rooms. I had just settled in when they told me apologetically that the usual occupant was returning soon. I would have to move. "To an ordinary monk’s cell?", I asked. "No, we will have to put you in the Bishop’s apartment." So I have a large sitting room with an old ornate desk. A bedroonm with a huge old wardrobe and thank goodness a really good mosquito net. And my own large bathroom. No hot water, of course. The furniture is gaunt and the rooms very sparse but it is luxury indeed. To cap it all I have fantastic views over a small valley and up the steep wooded sides of a veritable mountain. I have been going to all the many services, except that I stopped going to the Eucharist after the first time. There is a lot of chanting and some singing all in a very gentle key. To my inexpert ears it is something between Gregorian chanting, and simple hymn tunes. The services consist mainly of psalms, which I am beginning to appreciate in the same way one appreciates renaissance paintings, feeling the spirit behind the words rather than the often shocking words. Just as a painter will use over colours more vivid than nature, so the psalmist uses more extreme imagery. The remainder of my time I have spent reading, mostly about St Benedict and the Rules he devised which founded monasticism, or critiques of monasticism today. There are many in the US and they and the British seem to be pushing at the frontiers. I have also been dipping into a book called The Philosophies of India, including an excellent overview of these, with continual comparisons with Western phil. Also my bedtime reading is amore careful re-reading of Eleanor Nesbitt’s book which is about what I am doing, gaining enrichment of my religious faith from study of others.
Downsides. Need I mention any? Besides all this religiosity I was impressed a few days before I left England by a radio programme on a psychologist who has a theory about why some people are always lucky, others always unlucky. He teaches people and even organizations to have good luck. He has a four point model, one point of which is not to look on the black side, not to dwell on mishaps, to ignore them or turn them to one’s advantage, to expect good luck. So I will not dwell on the fact that this cessation of my usual busy-ness has, (as has been predicted) resulted in repressed memories surfacing in the form of many bad dreams each night. Dreams of childhood traumas, being sent away during the war, seeing my sister nearly drown, losing my job, the end of my marriage – all these have been haunting me. Perhaps I shall seek out a therapist. Plans.
Well, I should get to Delhi on 5th Feb. I will stay over the weekend to go the Quaker meeting in Delhi, then spend a few days visiting the school in Haryana. I have some jobs to do for it, or rather for the charitable organizations that support it. After a week in that area I will be free to go! But where? Sight-seeing in Rajastan? Visiting an acquaintance in a very remote part of Orissa? Going south, back to "Bede Griffiths" ashram, or north towards the Himalayas to one of the many ashrams around Haridwar and Rishikesh? Anyway, I should be back in the UK on March 10th. I will be busy catching up and seeing to the AGM of the charity (Friends of Sangam Foundation – see www.SangamSchool.org.uk) Then is May I expect I will be working for the Green Party. There are Euro elections on June 10th. Then maybe sailing…. Or will all my Christian and Quaker and Hindu and Buddhist self-brainwashing make me feel it is all unreal, and all that matters is my own navel – what does ‘my own’ really mean? Who and what, if anything, is me? What is the Self?
Best wishes to all my dear friends
From Stephen Petter
Currently travelling and on retreat in Sri Lanaka and India.
Dear Friends 2004-02-01 Kandy, Sri Lanka.
My previous (recent) email message to my friends has had a good reception so I now intend to write a succession of similar ones that will also form a kind of diary. Last time I was travelling (round the world for a year, with Jennifer) I went to great lengths to put such a journal on the www. I think it was more trouble than it was worth. These email letters will serve the same purpose, and anyone receiving them who does not want to read them can either ask me to desist, or may simply delete them unread.
Mostly I want to write about yesterday's adventure. The monastery sits near the foot of a high hill - one could almost call it a mountain. My bedroom window faces its thickly wooded slopes. Looking high up there's a bare patch, from which there must be a splendid view. After two lazy days I decided I needed some exercise, and that I would get to the top if possible. So I set out soon after breakfast when the air should still be cool. I asked several people before I found some steep steps leading from the road that runs round the back of the monastery. For equipment I had my small, cheap compass, plenty of water, anti-fly ointment and little else (plus the emergency pack I always carry). Up the first flight of steps was a large water tank with a big spout issuing water, and there were several women, some washing clothes the Indian way, i.e. by thumping the wet garments on a flat rock, to shake out the dirt, some washing themselves, half hidden by their saris. I sort of coughed to warn of my presence - there were a few giggles but the one taking a bath, if not deaf, was either unconcerned (as well she might be) or had read Cosmopolitan's advice - "If you've got it - flaunt it". Anyway, I didn't stare.
The steps went up and up and up. Several times I had to stop for the sake of my aching legs. I was soon streaming sweat. The very solid stone steps showed me I was on a public path. Off to each side smaller paths led to half hidden houses, substantial shacks, small mostly time-worn bungalows, a few fairly posh. I pitied anyone having to come home from work, school or shopping having to climb these steps. The vegetation was partially cultivated - lots of banana trees, coconuts, yukka, and other fruit or pod bearing trees and shrubs. Several times I had friendly conversations with people, me glad to stop and to have it known where I was in case I didn't return! Several asked me where I was going and I tried to say or indicate "To the top" but I have an idea they didn't understand. At last I was near the top but took a wrong turn and went up two or three private paths looking for the road. As I approached a house I would call out tentatively "Hello! Hello".
(I'm reminded of when I was lost in the pitch dark near a hamlet of gers in Mongolia. Similarly calling out, but quietly so as not to disturb everyone. On that occasion I was 'rescued' by Jennifer who had noticed my prolonged absence and came out of the ger to call me. Next day I traced my wanderings in the dark and was amazed I had not fallen into one of several pits.)
At one house a little child came out, saw me, and screamed in terror. His mother did not deign to show herself. Eventually from another house out came a tall young boy of about 12 or 15, along with a charming younger sister who spoke much better English than he, but who was sent back to tell mum that big brother was guiding a stranger. I indicated I wanted to go to the top and he seemed to understand. He plunged into the woods - everyone had been calling it jungle but it did not conform to my idea of jungle, being fairly dry, open scrub land with bushes and patches of long grass. At one time I wanted to go to a hillock and he seemed unwilling. I wondered if there was a taboo but when I insisted he went along happily. It had recently been on fire and the ground was still hot - no doubt he feared he'd burn his feet. (He was far more sure-footed in his old flip flops than I in boots.) The hillock was a spur of the mountain and from it I had an incredible view three quarters of a circle over the great wide valley of a huge broad river. I could see that the mountain peak was not far away and not much higher. The boy led me confidently back into the woods. We rested for a while and despite his lack of much English we had a bit of conversation including him telling me I was too fat! He showed me his long flat stomach and demonstrated his vigour by leaping to hold onto a branch and lift himself up and down several times. After a while we suddenly came to a broad path and he indicated his job was done. Apparently he had not understood my desire to go (no doubt in his opinion pointlessly) to the summit, but had assumed I wanted to be guided from the path on one side of the mountain to another on the other side. He then indicated it was time for some reward. I had no money (lie - I had only a 1000 rupee note which I had been trying to change in the village). I offered him my retractable ball-point. No, that wasn't enough. So I gave him my old cheap compass which he found 'beautiful' a word we had been using as a generalised positive. e.g. view, path, day, flat belly, etc. OK, I thought. But no, he demanded the pen also. He told me the town (a town) was about 3 km down the path, and that I could get a bus back to our village. So I quickly decided to continue into the unknown, rather than face descending all those steep steps.
I felt totally alone in the forest, but safe on this broad path. There were no habitations. There was much birdsong, and a huge variety of plants, though still not dense jungle. I saw a deer. I stopped to have a pee, quite openly, and after a while realised a man was approaching. I hastily stopped, greeted him - a friendly chap, with his very young looking wife and tall teenage children not far behind. We tried to exchange words, and I gleaned that the town was 2 km ahead. Then I strode on ahead of them down the a very long gentle incline. After a while what had been a green lane turned into a bulldozed dirt road. I came across some men and machinery doing water works - they seemed strangely surprised to see me. After more of this rather more dull track I came to a sort of nature reserve demonstration place, with samples and large diagrams of the flowers of Sri Lanka, and a classroom, all uninhabited except for a troupe of monkeys. Some yards further on a man stepped out of the first house, a sort of lodge, and told me I was not allowed in these woods. I replied rather cheekily that it was OK, I was leaving. Looking back I saw a huge notice saying NO ADMITTANCE WITHOUT A PERMIT!
So that was the end of that adventure. I'd come out to Kandy, the posh end where the mayor etc live, with great views across the town which is built around a lake at the edges of which are fine building including the temple of the Tooth. On top of the hill opposite was a huge white statue of the Buddha. I had a long walk through the suburbs to get to the road back to Ampitiya - 'my' village. I got back about four hous after leaving, very sweaty but not overtired. How I thanked having my own room and shower!
Today is Sunday. I walked into Kandy (by road, not over the mountain!) to go to the Anglican church again. Walking takes about three quarters of an hour, mostly downhill, and is interesting as one goes through the villages or hamlets, then once in town, round the lake which has lots of wild life. I was not quite so moved by the service as last week. But I found comparing its content with that of the Roman Catholics very interesting. (Assuming the monastery's service is typical R.C. which it may well not be.) One realises the Anglican is much gentler, more love centred that the R.C.'s sin-centred approach. More and livlier hymns and in thas case no psalm. And of course a sermon, though today's was the rambling, boring type that gives sermons such a bad name. It was a sort of penance, unlike last week's given by the senior priest. After the service there is tea and spicy rolls outside, and lots of conversation. I had a good long talk with a young man. He mentioned the violence that some young Buddhist monks are dishing out to Christians - several churches have been trashed recently. He says they fear Christians taking their wealthier followers, and he went on to tell me about the huge wealth of the leading Buddhists in the area. I said something mildly against prosletizing and he say wryly "We all do it!". However at another point he said that he thought the Anglican church was big enough now and that they needed more depth rather than more numbers. I mentioned British Quakers' influence and good reputation despite their very small numbers. Then I had a very long conversation with a delightful old man, a former ambassador, about the modern history of Sri Lanka (his civil service career srtarted under the British, and he survived through Sri Lanka's communist era). He touched on the history of countries in which he'd served, e.g. Yugoslavia before and when Tito took over. We talked about religion, the problem with the Buddhist militants, and with the Tamil Tigers and the effect of the bomb 10 years ago (directed at the nearby Buddhist Temple of the Tooth), etc etc. We swapped addresses and he invited me to stay with him if I came to S.L. again.
I see all this love and pleasantness as God working through people.
Another thing to write about is some of my recent reading, but details would bore most of you and are best kept to my spiritual journal. But I will mention some ideas I have encountered. Eleanor Nesbitt's "Interfaith Pilgrims" is very relevant to all I am trying to do. It differs from my other reading in being almost all practical and positive - how we can enrich our ideas and practices by observing and contemplating the practices of members of other faiths.
Vivikenanda in the booklet based on lectures he gave in London in the 1930's, called "Can Vedanta become the world's religion" (his answer - yes), is a pugnatious rant against typical religious faith rathter similar in style and conclusions to those of George Fox. In my reading I am continually amazed how often conclusions we think of as typically and perhaps uniquely Quaker are accepted features of Hiduism and hence also of Buddhism. Also I cannot understand why Quaker writers normally utterly ignore basic Eastern insights.
Mostly I have been reading a massive tome edited by ? Campbell, written by a chap called Zimmer who died before completing it, called The Philosophies of India. He is not sympathetic of these, but his book is very comprehensive and is the first I have found which gives a broad overview. I wondered why his book was not well known. I think it must be because he does interject his own often disparaging opinions, also it is very repetitious and rather muddled. Often as an aside lasting several pages he will discuss a topic which is totally different from his present chapter. I think this is because it is based on lectures rather than written as a book. However it seems very thorough and objective (he makes clear when he is expressing an opinion). Some of the things he has pointed out which intersted me:
In the Greek/Christian tradition souls in Heaven or Hell retain their personalities whereas in the Eastern they lose it, though the individual 'soul' (he calls it a life monad) is retained. These may be reborn as totally differnt beings or in some traditions may go to Hell where they do not know their former manifestation, hence do not know why they are in hell, what sins they perpetrated.
The extraordinary similarity between the Jains' nd the Swedenborgs' bizarre concepts of the form of the universe, both being that it is in the form of a vast human. The world is located near the waist. The Jain hopes to ascend to the dome of the cranium.
That the Jains' philosophy is the oldest and least complex. Their ideal is a state of total indifference to everyting, suffering, even to prayer. Humanitarianism is a feature of the activity of souls much further down the ladder.
Not from Zimmer but from considering the use of psalms by the Benedictines. I find them strangely satisying and uplifting even though I am appalled by the cruely and arrogance of the Israelites (especially as nowadays I am senstive to the sufferings of the Palestinians). The idea occurred to me that just as a painter uses unrealistically vivid colours in a great painting, so the poet or psalmist uses exaggerate verbal imagery to acheive a similar, uplifting effect.
Oh well! I have been in this intenet cafe too long! I must finish now and go back to what James called my horse-hair shirt.
Dear Friends Sunday 15th February, 2004
I spent most of last week in Sohna which is about 60 km from Delhi. When I first came here two years ago we were told there was no bus to Sohna. However we found there was one from S to Delhi. So this time I searched out the bus, and got two different lots of advice from bus company officials. I went to the more plausible place and found it to be a muddy filth-strew layby with buses blaring, conductors yelling, - utter pandemonium. The only bus to Sohna was packed to the gills, so I scrambled aboard one for Gurgaon ("grr – gown"). I stood fro a while, watching the seated passenger agaist whom I had to lean as others shoved their way on board, go thru a long ritual with some leaves and some white ointment, which he kneaded for ages in the palm of one hand, eventually placing the wad carefully inside his cheek. It looked rather like the coca that we took in the Andes, a common practice there but banned elsewhere in the world. He noticed my interest and told me it was tobacco. He was a dark, rough looking chap, with bright eyes, and we struggled with a bit of conversation. Then he got up as if to go and I gratefully took his seat. But he wasn’t leaving – just giving it up for me. I hope because of my age, or as an act of hospitality, but I unfortunately I think it was probably my colour. (In all my bus riding around Delhi and to and from Sohna I have nott yet seen another Westerner on one.) Gurgaon is big and getting bigger very fast. Towering above the grotty old buildings are huge modernistic office blocks. It’s a boom town. (India’s growth last year was second only to China’s.) Transfer to the Sohna bus was easy and eventually we got to Sohna.
It’s one of the ugliest towns I’ve ever seen. It has lots of engineering industry – I met a young Mech Eng whose factory produce car components – but what one sees is the wide, rubble and rubbish strewn verges used streets by dozens of small businesses specialising in truck repair. Further back are many workshops, often with sophisticated-looking machine tools such as lathes. Workers, dressed in oily clothes that look more like rags crouch around smoky little bonfires. The ground is inches deep in a fine dust that settles continously – everywhere one sees shopkeepers continually dusting their goods. Cattle, some European breeds and some Brahmahs, some sleek but most emaciated, snuffle in the rubbish heaps. Rows of fruit sellers add a spash of colour, as do women’s saris. There are many women labourers and road sweepers, often wearing bright, clean clothing. There’s a drainage problem in the area, so although it hasn’t rained for weeks there are foetid puddles and silted lakes everywhere. So the immediate sight is very depressing. I sat drinking a tea looking closely at the scene – dust, rubble, wire trailing from an abandoned utility pole, machines, smoke, dust haze, and endless racket from the contantly beeping cars, buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws. But despite all these negatives I find the street scenes fascinating. The variety of colours, smells and sights is prodigious. One seldom sees any anger or violence. There is noise and bustle and pushiness but no angst. I’ve been reading a book my Gita Meya (I gave it away and already I think I’ve forgotten the author’s name!) short stories based on the River Narmada. It conveys some of the feeling of India.
I took a cycle rickshaw to my hostess’s place. She is founder and principal of the school we support. She gave me a very warm welcome. She is a few days short of 80 and had just returned from a particularly busy day at the school, but her energy was impressive as she ordered and argued with two men in her staff. One, an ex Army sergeant, I later found very obliging but also very insistent that his way was the only way. Kamla dealt with hiom firmly then explained with some embarrassment that she could not put me up in her spare room, but she’d booked me into a hotel. I was very pleased, not only because I had planned to check it out. In the past she had been a bit disparaging about it, and sent people to a government run guesthouse which was more distant, much more expensive, and not much better. However I was to return to Kamla’s for meals. I was in the hotel’s best room, far posher that my usual standard.
Next day we all drove to the school in the new bus – I hadn’t realised it was a real bus, not a large van. I was given the top two classes for English. Class 7 were bright and keen to be involved. We did a variety of exercises which I hoped would get them talking English. Their written work and grammar is excelelnt but they don’t get much speaking practice. (It was the same when I did French at my grammar school in the 50s.) However class 8, ecept for one girl, all seemed too shy. When prompted to speak they just remained dumb, and looked apprehensively at their colleagues. I could only put it down to their age – 13. Then there was rehearsal for the show next day.
After school I went in the bus delivering the kids back in their remote villages. The landscape, which is very flat, is divided into small irregular fields, growing mustard, wheat, vegetables, and a bright green plant, possibly alph alpha, used as fodder. In the scrub beside the road one often sees wild peacocks and hens. There are clumps of trees, and quite a lot of bird life. Here and there there are brick works with a tall chimney belching smoke. Nearby are clay pits, and I was distressed to see the workers hacking out the clay were women and children. Despite Sangam not charging fees if they cannot be afforded, amny parents seem to need their children to augment the family income. (I saw a study which found that if the chilren were educated, even if their parents were paid compensation, it would benefit the national economy within a few years.)
In the afternoon I wandered around the market and narrow streets, and found the hot springs that is the towns only claim to tourist fame. They wereina structure much like a temple, and one had to take off one's shoes, but the floor wasn’t clean and the spring water looked dirty and was oily.
Next day was "Annual Day" which included speeches and prize giving and the children all doing acts such as playlets, singing and dancing – both modern and traditional. My request that I not be asked to hand out prizes or make a speech was honoured at Kamla’s instence. The visiting speaker was the deputy headman of the nearby village. Apparently he is a great supporter of the school. His speech was short. (The proceedings of course were all in Hindi.)
In the evening I entertained Kamla and her lodger, helper, secretary to dinner, at my hotel. I hadn’t looked forward to it but the food was excellent.
Next day I left by bus. Everyone, especially Kamla’s daily (seemingly quite an educated woman) thought this was rather daring. However it was trouble free except that the route ended somewhere (in Delhi!) other than where I expected. Soon I was back in my room at hotel Anand which costs 150 rupees a day, i.e. less than two pounds.
I had decided to go to Orissa, as the chap there, Banamali, seemed very keen that I should visit him, despite me asaying I was not in a position to be a contributor, etc. He said my visit would be an encouragement, and empowerment, to his people. The hotel manager heard me phoning and became very keen on helping me as he comes for Orissa and it seems has relatives everywhere I might go, and insisted on arranging for someone to collect me from the train and onto a bus, if any. (Once again I am planning to travel by bus despite being told it is impossible. Maybe this time I’ll be proved wrong.)
I went toQuaker meeting this morning. Whereas last week we had 7 or 8 attendeders, today there were only tewo of us, but we got on very well in conversation afterwards, and he took me to the place where Gandhiji was assasinated. It is a beautiful garden and there is a museum in the builing in which he lived. I found it very moving standing by the plinth markinfg the spot where he died.
Now I have checked out of my hotel, and am filling time at my favorite internet café, but in a few minutes I have to go to the station to catch the 22.30 Puri express. It’s Sunday evening and I should arrive at ?Kurdah Junction at 0530 on Tuesday. Then I hope to get a bus to Phurbani which should be three to six hours.
So, here’s to the next letter. Wish me well!
(I amy not have time to correct the typos. Sorry.
Tuesday 24th Feb. Orissa
Well, it’s about a week since I last wrote. A lot has happened! A lot of very irksome traveling, interspersed with intensive meetings with remarkable people doing admirable work in difficult conditions. Mostly I have been healthy and cheerful, but yesterday (Monday) and the day before I felt very weak and dispirited, suffering from an extremely sore throat and what is euphemistically called Delhi Belly, or other names according to location. But I was in a good hotel room, and was disturbed only by phone calls from a solicitous Friend, who translated my needs to the hotel staff.
The first journey was the train. I got to the station in good time to find the platform packed solid with people and luggage of all sorts from rifles and crates of ammunition, attended by very lax looking troops, to cloth bundles. The train left about 90 minutes late. My six-person compartment was occupied by three extra people – when I protested the chap with a ticket said "They’re my friends" as if that was all the excuse needed. Worse, they talked loudly deep into the night. Suddenly the extra bods disappeared, except for one hidden under his friend’s blanket. The inspector arrived and saw the stowaway, who left sheepishly. But after he’d gone they returned.
All day the train rumbled, often sped, across vast cultivated plains, past innumerable villages, over great rivers. A continual hubbub of people came and went up and down the train, sellers of chai and soft drinks and many kinds of foods, and noisy toys. Beggars and blind musicians. I had conversations with several fellow travelers – none of them westerners. A very loud spoken, strong minded Jain, and his highly intelligent woman companion, who he always interrupted. A group, wife and two friends or brothers, taking an injured man to a distant hospital. A steel rod with great bolts protruding was attached to his leg.
I had been advised by someone who claimed to be familiar with the area not to go to B (a town whose long name I continually forget – and I forget to bring my maps etc to the internet café; maybe Bhubenesawar) but to the next stop, Kendra Junction. Actually most people advised me to go another three hours journey to B2 (Berampur aka Bramapur). I felt sure B was best but he had arranged for his cousin (a senior cashier at the branch of Bank of India) to meet me so at about 5.30 a.m when I arrived there he was to welcome me and find my bus. He soon found that there were none, and advised me to wait two hours for the train to B2. Much as I didn’t want to hurt his feelings I insisted on going back to B. He enquired about taxis – which at about 400 rupees were too expensive for me, so I asked about autorickshaws (hitherto I have been calling them tuk-tuks) and he found one that would take me for only 130 rupees. I had him stop for a chai and a muffin, then we drove out of town, along a bumpy road, for about an hour and a half. He had been told to look after me so he didn’t just take me to the bus station but sought out my difficult to find bus. I gave him a good tip, and agreed to his request that I put in good word for him to my first helper.
They did me the honour of putting me in seat 1. There was half an hour before the bus left so I scouted around the bus station for something to eat, such as an omlette sandwich, but the food here was unfamiliar to me. I was an object of curiosity. Eventually I had a 7 Up and a packet of nuts.
At first the journey was interesting but steadily the bus became more and more overcrowded. Seat 1 was in the thick of it – if they’d wanted to do me a favour they should have put me further back. About 8 men, the toughest, crowded in the cab, virtually blocking the door, and not budging as people struggled to get off and on. The driver took a delight in moving as people were getting on, as a sign of his speediness – but to have cleared the cab would have made things much quicker. Several times women laden with babies and bundles struggled to mount the high steps and were completely unaided. The bus journey was very long, about 7 hours, and had its amusing moments, as when I leant out of the window at a stop and called for mineral water from a very nearby roadside stand. The people in the bus understood what I wanted, but what I got as the bus moved off was a dozen sweets. Great amusement, and satisfaction as I handed them out to the children.
As the bus climbed into the hills the scenery changed to forest and a greater variety of plant life, such as wild azaleas, and wild lily ponds. The bus was very underpowered, and laboured slowly up the steep hills. At last we arrived at Phulbani. I had been told definitely it was impossible to get there by bus, and had disproved it – but I think they say that because they think we westerners cannot or will not travel that way. The bus cost 90 rupees – I had originally been advised that the only way was by taxi which would have cost well over 1000.
I have to stop now, as I am invited to tea at 4. Tomorrow I continue the journey, aiming to reach the source of the Narmada.
SP, Tuesday 24th Feb. Itarsi.
P.S. Does anyone (e.g. Jennifer, Marion) have Karel's changed email address?
29 Feb. Orissa - Itarsi - Amarkantak - Jabalpur
Dear Friends 40229
I sent you a hurried note from Itarsi last Tuesday. Since then I have had some of the best days so far on this trip. But first I want to bring you up to last Tuesday.
I left Delhi around 2300 on Sunday, 15th. The train journey was about 36 hours and this was followed by about 8 hours bus ride up into the interior hills of Orissa. Incidents during the bus ride, such as the blatant ill-treatment of women and the racism towards hill tribe people distressed me, but the scenery and the village scenes both on the plains and in the hills fascinated me. However it was an irksome journey and I was glad when at last I was in the hot dusty expanse of the bus station.
I had the phone number of my host, Banamali, but the person who answered was unable to help me. So I asked for "hotel?" or "lodging?" (with the stress on the "ing") and was directed quite a long walk (my informant had said half a kilometer, but it was more like 1 ½) to the center of this bustling small town, where I found a hotel. I was pleased to have a shower and a short sleep. After an hour or two Banamali appeared, very cross because he had told the staff to put me in the best suite but I had over-ridden their directions and had installed myself in a cheap room. He kept insisting I should transfer, even asserting I would, and that the staff were about to move my stuff, but I hung onto my key. He went on and on about it and I got quite cross with him. Also he wanted to pay and I insisted on doing so.
He spent that evening and next day showing me the work of his NGO. Their aim is to improve the lives of the hill tribes, forest people. They get most of their support from Norway, Netherlands, UN and Action Aid. Apparently when they started up in 1987 the local people suffered many injustices and hardships, and were demoralized – drinking, gambling, wife beating, etc. NIPDIT (National institute for Peoples Development Investigation and Training) assessed the situation and apparently dare I say nipped it in the bud. They keep good statistics and display these and many photos. Clearly they get a steady stream of visitors. (A representative of the Dutch charity had left early this day.) I was very impressed by their work. They set up women’s groups, village councils, farming and forest product training and marketing, organize protest marches and campaigns (one of their protégée women leaders personally smashed the liquor-makers’ equipment), supply medical kits for midwives, etc etc. I asked them what was their philosophical (or religious or political) basis. They said "part Gandhi, part Marx, and part Vivekananda.")
As well as looking around the center I was taken out to ‘the field’, a hamlet deep in the forest, to have their local organization described by the young manager. After graduating he’d got the job in the face of much competition. He’d had three years general experience in a structured management development programme before recently being appointed to his current job which beside managing a multi village support structure included micro-credit.
Their Treasurer gave me an excellent briefing on the accounting requirements of an NGO that gets funds from abroad. This will be very useful for Sangam school.
The only criticism I have is that despite their stated aims, there were very few women on their staff.
Banamali is Programme Manager. His degree was in Anthropology. I met him at Woodbrooke in 1999, when he was on a Development Management course. Now he wants to go there to do the Conflict Resolution course. He has been granted leave, has a UNESCO grant for his airfare, and has been assured of a grant for the course fees. But he needs a grant for his accommodation at (or near) Woodbrooke, or some kind Brummy to put him up.
I was not sure about buses onward. As usual I had been told there were none, for which read none suitable for a westerner. But it turned out one of the staff was going by bus that evening, and anyway Banamali needed to go to a meeting (in "B") next day. So we decided I would leave late that evening. Before that, I was entertained for supper at Banamali’s home, meeting his wife (a government official, in the aid department) and their two bright children.
To Itarsi via Titlagar
We waited for an hour for the bus. At last it came, at about 23.30. We had seats, me squashed between a blanket clad man who seemed to remain asleep all night, and the chap from NIPDIT who had been assigned to look after me. We’d met another aid worker, from another organization, who had good English. The underpowered bus slogged up and down steep hills and around hairpin bends with precipices that looked all the more terrifying in the headlights. About 4 a.m. we arrived in Bolangir. The three of us walked around, but found all the hotels (generally known as lodgings) either full or too expensive. At first they surmised that the high price was due to it being wedding season, but later they realize I was the culprit. Next time I was kept out of sight until the deal was done, then hey presto! A good room for a reasonable price. The three of us had a wash and brush up. They felt they need look after me till I got the next bus but eventually I persuaded them they were free to go.
I had a couple of hours sleep then went off to find my bus to Titlagar, where I needed to catch a train. I had been told it was a half hourly service and took two hours. However, once on the bus (and my fare taken) I was kept waiting for an hour and a quarter. I’d made the mistake of asking at the bus operators’ office which was the next bus, and a ‘nice man’ had put me on this one, presumably his firm’s, not the first to leave. When at last it set off it crawled for half an hour, trawling for more passengers. Then stopped for petrol. In short, the journey took four hours instead of two and a half.
We arrived at 12.30, the exact time the train was due to leave. I signaled a cycle rickshaw as the bus pulled into the bus stand, and passed my bags to him through the window. Then I was able to wriggle off quickly. I asked him to go as fast as possible to the station. I was hoping the train might be late, but I had no idea how far it was. At last it, and a train hooting its imminent departure, came in sight. I thrust 20 rupees at the rickshaw man and rushed up the steps for the train. Quite an audience watched, and when I passed the steps down to the correct platform a shout went up. I scrambled down the steps. Breathlessly asking is this the train to Itarsi? Well, it’s to Bhopal. I guessed that must be right and staggered on just as it started off.
I’d been told it was OK to get on a train without a ticket, and pay the inspector. But he told me he should fine me. However he let me off, and found me a seat in the position I indicated I liked. (A window seat, on the shady side of the train.)
I arrived in Itarsi around dawn. I’d made contact with a local Quaker and asked him to book me a room at a hotel. He’d tried to do so at a posh hotel he said visitors usually liked, but when I got there they said they had no booking. It turned out they would not accept a booking without money. I was relieved as it was too expensive for me, and soon found another one. However it was rather dirty so next day I transferred to another which is my low price and was by far the best I’ve come across. I even have multi-channel TV, and watched Ireland thrash Wales in Rugby the one evening, and Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" on another. So it IS a spiritual journey!
Dyal Gour is the local Quaker who has been befriending me. In fact he insists I phone him daily, tell him the name and phone number of my hotel, and usually rings them to tell them to look after me well. When I’ve had a problem I tell him and he relays it, often not perfectly, to the hotel staff (or those of the phone shop from where I might be ringing). If I were to do this trip again I would learn some Hindi.
I spent several days in Itarsi, and am going to return there in a couple of days. I very much like the town. It is quite small, very friendly and indeed Friendly as it has many Quaker institutions. I soon found the Friends (i.e. Quaker) junior school, talked with the head, and took photos of a class. Then I made contact with a Quaker, Dyal Gour, who lives nearby and is the retired head of the boys’ senior school, which we visited. (There is also a girls school.) He also took me to the hospital which was also built by Quakers. It is on a very large site and includes a nurses’ home and training center. Inches deep in accumulated soil there is the remains of an FAU ambulance. All this was built mainly with funds from Friends Service Council of London Yearly Meeting. I thought of my Friend Mary Boyd who ran two collections annually in aid of FSC. She still does an annual tea party at her home. Later I wrote to her passing on Dyal’s assurance that people here are still very grateful for all the help they received.
On the Sunday I went to the Quaker meeting. It was a programmed service and rather disappointing (unlike some programmed ones I’ve attended). It consisted mainly of a very long sermon, delivered in a hectoring style as if to a political rally. (In fact I heard the same cadences in a nationalistic Hindustani election meeting recently.) I was writing note when suddenly I was being asked to say a few words. The Clerk, Christopher Lal, would interpret. I gave a mini sermon on the first of our "Advices and Queries". I wondered if this would be seen as rather confrontational as its message is unlike the style of the meeting I had been witnessing. However I was warmly thanked and later found that Christopher has produced a Hindi translation of As & Qs, in size and colour just like ours.
Next day Dyal took me first to the Friends Rural Crafts Centre, Rasulia, where I was shown round by one of its committee. They admit that it is not the success it once was, blaming bad selection of a series of directors. I heard statistics of the numbers of trainees, the volume of milk produced, but now they are desperate to earn enough money to keep the place running. Most of the buildings clearly need attention. It’s a pretty place – I took photos including some of the cottage once occupied by Marjorie Sykes. Then we went on to visit the Meeting House in Hoshangabad (I apologise if I've spelt it wrong – when in an internet café I do not have all my notes, maps, etc, so my memory of place names is very faulty.) It is a handsome building and we had a short silent Meeting for Worship there. Then we went to see a road and bridge built with Quaker funds as a means of employing people to relieve a famine.
From there I was surprised and delighted to be taken into the town, and to find myself suddenly on the bank of a great river. It was the Narmada! The river I wanted to see. I had not realized it was here. It was a delightful sight. The warm evening lit by many lights, the river dotted with floating candles and garlands, people washing busily with foaming soap and shampoo, or delicately sprinkling water from it onto themselves. Many brightly lit temples on and above the steep stone steps that lead down to the water.
My aim in coming to India was for spiritual experience and so far I had been traveling, or seeing to Sangam school, or visiting Banamali at Pulbhani and now Friends in Itarsi. I had been following the leading of the Spirit, first in responding to Banamali’s request or plea that I visit him, now in feeling I could not by-pass Friends in mid-India a second time. Now I decided that rather than return to Delhi and go north to the foothills of the Himalayas, I would see if I could reach the source of the Narmada, which apparently was at Amarkantak.
On the Tuesday Dyal had invited me for tea at 4. After I’d settled down he told me there was a train to Pendra Road (the nearest station to Amarkantak) at 5.30. No need to rush … finish your tea. As I had thought, the enquiry desk at the station had been incorrect in telling me there were no trains on that branch. So I had bought a ticket to an intermediate place and had planned to continue by bus.
I rushed to the station to book the new ticket, then to cancel the other, getting most of my fare refunded. All done in about 15 minutes. I told one of the booking clerks that they were more efficient than British railways. This was without me pushing in, but I did insist on no-one pushing in front of me. Normally people just push and shove up to the tiny hole in the glass wall, interrupting each other. Then back to pack and settle my bill (and to phone Dyal as had been insisted) and I was on the train. But only with a general ticket, not a sleeper. So I had a nervous time waiting for the inspector. When he came he said the sleepers were fully booked but I said I’d stay put until the person who had booked the seat I’d taken turned up, to which he acquiesced with the usual roll of the head that signifies agreement. Later he told me to move to another sleeper berth, for which I paid the 127 rupees.
I’d made a few friends in the first place, mainly a couple who said they were not Jains but the Hindu equivalent, a high caste that specializes in similar work. He was a financial consultant and she an economist. In the new compartment my attempts to persuade the inspector to tell me when we reached Pendra Road (Dyal had told me they ought to do this) resulted in several people assuring me they’d tell me.
By now it was about 9 p.m. so most people got out their blankets, made sure their luggage was locked and chained to rings fitted for that purpose, turned off their light and went to sleep. However as usual there were one or two men who carried on conversations in very loud voices deep into the night. I was in a high bunk and was able to observe. A very fat, rather ugly man was continually being fussed over by his wife. Her job was to sit up all night to ensure he didn’t roll off his seat/bed. And to pat his back when he coughed. A tiny woman with a very loud voice lay on her back on paper and a tatty blanket, on the vestibule by the doors and the lavatories, her baby asleep beside her (seemingly likely to be trodden on) and with a surprisingly lively face and _expression talked excitedly with a man who (who I called Mr Loud) was perched in another corner.
What fascinated me most was a young woman beggar with one leg, and the other palsied. I thought she was crazy, as she kept yelling or yelping like a dog. Later I came to the conclusion she was a deaf mute. She had an extraordinarily beautiful face, and the cut of her thick hair was almost a la mode of that expensive awry look. She gesticulated her needs, and seemed to attract a lot of sympathy as I saw two people go and get her a chai (hot sweet tea). Most of the night she was curled up in foetal position, her dirty blanket wrapped closely around her, so that she looked like a heap of rags. Occasionally she would screech a warning if she thought someone might tread on her, or to demand food. Mr Loud shouted and gesticulated at her to stop making the noise but a middle aged lady told him to leave her alone. I was also kept awake by being nervous about my bag, since several men without tickets were sitting on the floor near it.
However I slept for a few hours before being awakened at about 5.30. There was time to go to the loo. But the train was jolting a lot and as I rose I grazed my scalp on a protrusion. It didn’t hurt but it was an ugly looking gash. When I got off the train I went to a bench under a bright light and got out my medical kit. I started trying to apply iodine but it was impossible without a mirror. But the man who’d agreed to tell me where to get off came back to tell me about buses and offered to help, so I had him paint my wound with the iodine. (At risk of making this all to detailed, I will mention that I’ve carried that iodine for about 23 years. I bought it when I cut my foot when taking a quiet (and probably very foolish) evening bathe in the Loire when on a similar lone journey through France, Germany and Switzerland.) I tried to apply gauze and sticking plaster, but it was hopeless. But then a taxi driver turned up – presumably he’d heard about me from my iodine friend (who by the way was another Bank of India manager) and I got him to stick on the plasters.
It turned out that the taxi was a jeep, used as a minibus. I had traveled in one on a short journey and had often seen them. They are invariably so overcrowded that people hang out of them. I and three others were squeezed into the back. Others were squeezed onto the bench behind the driver. Three people shared his front bench, so that he had half his seat and had to steer with the wheel away to his left. Then the boy conductor had to get in! He stood on the rear fender, with the door open, leaning on us in the back. Fumes came in from the exhaust. However even they saw that this was impossible, so when after a few minutes we stopped for fuel, he was moved to the front. He spent the entire journey perched on the left running board, leaning over the laps of the front seat passengers.
Despite my restricted view the three hour journey was delightful. We were on a mountain trail, mostly unmade dirt track, through lovely forest. At one stage we went through a tiger reserve. I saw monkeys and a fox or jackal, and many birds. With the early sun behind us the steep wooded hills looked very beautiful.
Perhaps I am spending too much time describing my journey, and not enough on the destination.
So, I arrived in Amarkantak about 9. From the bus station it looked a dump! A few buildings and lots of rubbish spread out thinly across an area of poor soil. It reminded me of Mongolia. I started trudging towards the town and was picked up by a pleasant chap in a van. However he misunderstood something I said and dropped me near some shabby gates, and a large bare patch with low buildings. I thought this might be a lodging but it turned out to be a school. So I trudged on and had more problems before I found a good cheap hotel.
After a wash and a rest I went to find the source of the Narmada. It was not far. From the outside a compound of temples. At the gate one takes off one’s shoes and hands then to a keeper. The source is a pool like a swimming pool, with a brick floor, through which the water springs. (Later I saw it drained, and saw that many little springs between the bricks.) When full as it was then it is about two feet deep. Many people, serious men and joyous family groups, were splashing, and plunging in, and washing, and drinking the sacred waters. I found a spot in the shade of one of the many temples and watched the activity. A Brahmin priest, his robes floating around him, was performing a ceremony for a family. People were chatting and laughing. Temple bells were ringing (a devotee clangs a bell when he or she has finished their prayers) and it was all reverent but relaxed and cheerful. The water seemed rather litter-strew, until I realized it was flower petals, garlands, and also rice. After a while I started to look round the temples and a chap attached himself to me, assured me he did not need paying, and showed me each temple. At some I talked with the priest, and/or stayed a while to meditate, and I gave donations to some. The gods were the usual ones, Shiva, Vishnu, Hanuman – not so many Ganesh. Many lingams (spelling?). (P.S. I wish I had described the gods one sees in Orissa. Mainly Juggernath. With mask-like faces looking frightening.) I also had conversations with devotees and with one priest in particular. Later I returned wearing swimming trunks covered with a dhoti, and flip-flops, and bathed. In fact I also did the ‘salute the sun’ yoga routine in the water. Next day I went for a walk in the forest, but soon came to a site where a massive Jain temple was being built. A huge crane, like those one sees in container ports, towered over the site, lifting marble blocks from the masons’ area where they had been intricately carved, up to the site where the temple was being built round a massive statue which looked to my untrained eyes very much like a Buddha.)
On another day I walked several miles down one bank of Narmada and up the other. This was another wonderful experience. The path went through woods and over water meadows. I bathed at a secluded spot. I met very few people, just a few local farmers, women washing clothes, and forest workers. I suppose the reputedly tens of thousands of pilgrims who walk the entire length (which takes two to three years) aim to do this part in the summer. (It became cold as soon as the sun went down – I needed two blankets at night. In the daytime the sun was scorching but the air always cool.)
The day I did my walk I also quite by chance found myself at the scruffy gates and school where I’d been dropped. Looking inside these gates there was a wondrous sight. Gardens of vivid green grass and bright flowers. Dahlias and rose beds. Wonderful statuary of great cobras and elephants. Gleaming white buildings. A short way inside there was a bookstand, so I felt free to enter and to browse. Soon a monk or Sadhu approached me and started a conversation in good English. (I read later they have those with many languages.) He told me there was an ashram here, I could stay free including food, no payment was needed, he almost implored me to leave my hotel and come, and made me promise to do so next time I came to Amarkantak. Then I went to see the temple and it was one of the finest I have ever seen. I felt very much at peace there. I sat and meditated for half an hour or so. I bought a book about its founder’s life and works, a truly remarkable tale. He spent most of his life as a wandering ascetic but about 20 years ago decided an ashram was needed here and he had won such a following that he was showered with funds. Several well-placed people gave up their careers to help and in a short time the temple had been built. Meanwhile he had noticed the plight of the local people and had provided a school, a hospital with three doctors, and a mobile clinic that tours deep into the forest. Without doubt the two plus days I spent in Amarkantak have been the most satisfying. I really felt that this was what I came to India for.
To Jabalpur via Dindori. .
I took the bus to Dindori. It was a government bus, a rattletrap so noisy I had to put in my earplugs. It meandered slowly the 80 km in about 5 hours. However I enjoyed the journey – so much better in daylight. In Dindori I checked in with Dyal who ordered the telephone shop to find me a good hotel. I was a little irritated with his interference and was afraid it would be an expensive one but I found a very good room at my usual price of 150 /-. Then I went back into town to find the river. It was now much wider, about 100 meters across. Again the sight of people washing and bathing. I bathed the way many do – squatting in the water and splashing it up and over one’s back. Later I walked up to a small dam and had a brief swim. However I was plagued by young men, one of whom in particular was so pushy that I lost my temper. I felt bad about it. I did quite a lot of walking about the town. Since my tummy upset I have been eating very little food, and I am glad to see my weight going down, trying to enjoy the feeling of hunger.
I only spent one night in Dindori. Next morning I went to the hospital near the bus station to get my scalp dressing changed. Then waited for a bus at a place I’d been told they left from. I had decided to get a private bus rather than continue on the government service. However some men told me that they went from a place about two km distant. I said I’d get a bus to the place when one of them offered me a ride on his pillion. (I think I forgot to tell you about the other pillion ride I had – given by a plain clothes policeman in Delhi, when I had gone to a police station to ask the way to a Jain temple in Nazmuddin.)
He put me on the bus and it was the usual story of a bum-blistering ride for several hours (9 till 1.45) before we at last reached Jabalpur. At one place on the way there was quite a large crowd waiting for the bus, and I observed how the youngish men fought their way on first, barging past an old man trying to get off. (The step was very high.) Then several women got on, calmly and gracefully. Then tribal men, i.e. smaller, darker skinned, and obviously poorer. A Sadhu stood beside me until another of those fat nasty faced men I keep seeing, seated across the gangway from me, snarled and gesticulated at him to move away. I mused that perhaps India was teaching me the realities of life – realities from which in my social position and with my much favored job I have been protected most of my life.
I’d booked a room in a hotel in Jabalpur, but when I got there they’d released it even though it was only about 2. They showed me a grotty room, but with TV, for 250/-, which I refused, and eventually I took one at 125/- It’s on the third floor which doesn’t bother me, but at the front, facing onto a very noisy street. Eventually at night the traffic died down but there is a festival and all night crowds of youths have been parading back and forth in excited groups, dancing and dashing around, to the sound of drums.
Today is Sunday. My first job was to find an ATM as last night I had my photos transferred to CD expecting to pay by card but had to pay 500/- cash, which nearly cleaned me out (except that I have 60 US dollars emergency fund). So I hired a cycle rickshaw and we went up and down the nearly empty streets till I found one. Then (after we’d had a chai) I had him take me looking for a church. The hotel manager (now all charm and helpfulness) had given me an approximate idea, and after only one stop to enquire we found the former Anglican, now CNI Church of North India church – very English in appearance. (Built 1844.) The chap next to me in the pew told me he was a retired Air-Marshall. The service was in English and I enjoyed it except that the sermon was even more boring than the last one I told you about. Also there was no tea and biscuits afterwards. However one of the priests talked with me – he is coming to do a Theology Ph D in Sheffield next year.
I found that the museum is closed, so I am spending a few hours doing this. Tomorrow I am going to spend all day seeing the marble cliffs where the Narmada flows near here. Next day back to Itarsi then after only a day I’m going back to Delhi, where I am due to meet my sister Anne.
Jabalpur, Sunday 29/2/04
3/3/04 - Itarsi again
Dear Friends 40303 Started on 3/3/04, being continued on 6/3/04
This letter is going to be a bit different. Less on travel, more on being there!
I left the hotel early on Monday 1st March, to go to the "Marble Rocks" – the only tourist attraction near Jabalpur, according to my Guide. (Except for the museum which I planned to visit later if time.) However my lack of Hindi resulted in my hour journey bringing me to the wrong part of the Narmada, but a very beautiful place. I had a bathe, a sort of religious ceremony I've devised, then sat in the warm sun to dry. Then saw a boat and remembering my Guide said trips up river to the Rocks cost 20/- each if they have a boatful, or 200 for the boat unshared, and they quoted 100/- so I took it (still unaware I was not in the right place). I had a delightful ride, including trying my skill at the crude oars, but no Marble Rocks! The boatman clearly could not row against the strong stream at a place where the river narrowed. So I decided to walk. However I found myself in a small area of green grass and several small shrines, a Sadhus' encampment. I sat for a while in meditation, in the soft smoke of many incense sticks, and took photos, then moved on. I encountered a man who was able to explain to me that the Marble Rocks were 30 km downstream! So, more mis-adventures brought me back to where I'd started four hours earlier.
Finally I gave up trying to do things cheaply and hired an auto-rickshaw to take me there, wait three hours, and bring me back. It was delightful bowling along through the countryside. It cost 300 rupees. Once there the driver took over as a guide which at first irritated me, but I soon realized I was seeing more than if on my own. We visited a waterfall, and a place ('guarded' by a strong new railing which was not attached to anything!) overlooking where the mighty river rushed between rocky walls about 30 yards across. Then to a lovely old temple, with 24 statues described as Tantric – curvaceous goddesses with high balloon like breasts. Then, what I'd really hoped to do – a visit to the Government Guest House which I am pretty certain is the one featured in an excellent book I read recently: "River Sutras" by Gita Meyer. However the manager was unable to confirm this, but invited me to have lunch, which I took on a green lawn, in a pretty garden, overlooking the River in the canyons below. The driver refused my offer that he join me.
Then we went on at last to the jetty where the boats take trippers upstream to view the Marble Rocks. It cost 18/- and was worth every anna. Three oarsmen rowed strenuously the heavy boat with about twelve passengers up against the current through a series of widenings. The cliffs were of varying coloured rock – white, black, red, blueish, yellow. When we landed there was time for me to have another bathe then we returned to Jabalpur. I had been misinformed; the museum had been open on Sunday, but was closed today, Monday.
On Tuesday I was to catch the 9.35 but it was 4 hours late so after a bit of a flap I obtained authorization to go on another train, itself 5 hours late. Thereby another tale but I'm trying to do more on being in places, less on getting to them!
Yesterday evening I decided to write notes on what I observed around me. I'd strolled through part of Itarsi, through a cloth merchants' area (gorgeous material!) then the spice area, then rice and grains, then engineering works. I found myself at the bus station where I took out a notebook and wrote the following:
I'll try to describe a fairly typical street scene. It's twilight, still very warm. The sky is a uniform grey, with a tinge of dirty orange to the west. I'm in Istari bus stand. The buses are in a long line, big ugly brutes, high off the ground, battered and shabby, some with once-gay decoration, red tinsel streamers. There's a lot of noise of engines and tooting of horns, burby noises from auto-rickshaws and scooters, sharp toots from cars, deep-throated roars from buses and from what look like jeeps. These are called taxis and operate as buses. Invariably they are so overloaded that some passengers hang partly out of the openings where doors might be, or stand on the running boards and rear bumper. The driver has only half his seat and drives the vehicle with the controls way over to his left. A loaded bus leaves, its conductor banging the side and shouting out the destination, hoping for yet more passengers. One or two leap on the bus as it moves slowly off. In general buses don't depart until full. Any more passengers en route have to squeeze in as best they can.
In the centre of this semi-circular bus station is a memorial garden, a statue of a bespecled hero, trees to give shade, now abuzz with roosting starlings. All around the bus stand there are many small shops and vendors' stands, also a gloomy waiting hall with concrete benches. Above are large advertising hoardings, the nearest is for Wills Bristol cigarettes – "Get Bristol and You've Got Taste". Under it a line of Pepsi ads. Near where I sit is a barrow selling fruit – apples (which are expensive), oranges (surprisingly cheap), bruised small bananas, fly-blown grapes, packs of dates. Across the way there's a stall bedecked with strings of small packets, these are betel. Men tip the contents into their mouth, chew for a while, then eject a squirt of bright red spittle. Everywhere there are red stains on the walls, and pools of red liquid on the ground. It's strewn with litter, much of it the leaves which are used as plates and bowls (for which they are cleverly stitched with splinters of soft wood).
To my left is an egg stall, selling uncooked eggs, or hard-boiled, or making omlettes. I often have these; two eggs, a filling of spiced onion and peppers. He has turned off his electric light, so I suppose he's packing up. Most places stay open till gone 9. Pity, I might have had an omlette. I decide I must go over to the bright yellow stall marked in big red letters "PCO, STD" – a telephone shop, a very common sight throughout India. I have to call my friend; he insists I contact him daily. But he's out.
I'll describe all these little shops. First there's the betel and tobacco stand, then a news and book seller. Then the PCO, an engineering workshop with a sophisticated machine tool, an engine oil merchant, another PCO, a "hotel" i.e. a restaurant, with the cooking done by the roadside, over an open flame. Here it's propane gas, in the towns where I've been recently (nearer the forests) it would be wood fired, the logs being fed in below the great cooking bowl, around which the flames lick. Here the food is chick peas fried in a delicious spicy sauce. (I had that for lunch.) Next along is the waiting hall. Several people are asleep on the benches and the floor. At the next little shop five men sit playing cards.
As I stand, writing, I impede a cyclist. I apologise, but am then nearly run down by a motor-bike which, tooting imperiously, weaves its way perilously amongst the passengers, cycle rickshaws, autos, and loaded barrows. Further round the semi-circle it seems all the remaining shops are engineering works.
These few days are a Muslim festival which involves much drumming throughout the night, as processions – mainly of young men excitedly dashing about, some dancing – some carrying a long pole with a cross piece, reminiscent of a crucifix, and other pulling and pushing a cart adorned with a highly decorated egg shaped object about 15 feet high. A short procession of this type passes now. In Jabalpur they were very long and very very noisy.
As I walk on I notice a pleasant smell. No open sewers here. It could be a flower in the memorial garden. Or maybe someone has spilt some perfume.
Now it's almost dark. I stroll along the main road, stopping in corners to write this. Headlights way down the road illuminate the pall of dust. Above, the sky is brown, grey, and dull red near the horizon. Straight above it's dark blue, the moon and Venus bright and clear. In the distance I hear the long, mournful wail of an approaching train.
Across the road, against the wall of the railway yards, a man urinates openly, though facing the wall. Two smart women in their colorful saris walk by apparently unconcerned. (Almost everything is dull coloured, buildings, vehicles, including men's clothing, with the exceptions of: some temples, advertisements, and women's saris. These are bright, very varied, and worn by all women, even labourers on the construction sites and women sweepers. Another aside: the litter strewn streets are swept clean as a pin every morning before 9, by sweepers who appear to be quite well off and well fed, at least compared with the labourers who invariably are terribly thin and whose saris are usually shabby.)
Across the road men are repairing a large truck, their tools clanking. Also a tractor and trailer are being serviced. The driver squats on the front wheel, his head on the engine cover, apparently asleep.
I realize the egg man was not closing; it's the daily power cut. He has lit a candle; most traders have independent generators. Now I find myself standing by a sleeping cow, beside a rubbish heap in which she has probably been foraging.
I decide to have a chai. A small portion of hot, sweet tea. And a welcome seat on a rickety little bench. I give him 3 rupees but he returns one. Across the road is a huge advert for men's underwear. "Bacteria Resistant Briefs and Vests". Funny how virtually the only English one sees is adverts. It's illustrated with two men who'd be far too smooth and smarmy looking for a British ad. Below it two men are urinating in a companionly manner. I pass a line of auto rickshaws. As usual they almost plead for me to hire them. Then one chap changes tactics and offers a handshake and a friendly greeting. Then indicates "Cigarette?". No thanks I reply, though I know he is asking not offering.
The tractor's trailer is loaded with sugar cane. The driver is whirling a piece of rope. It's to warn off a buffalo cow that was nosing up to the cane. (I have seen cattle eating a thatched roof.) I pass a workshop where a chap is welding a scooter body. Another chap is hammering something on an anvil. Three horses are wandering disconsolately along the road, heedless of the traffic's horns, unlike cattle who move slowly aside. I pause in the shabby gateway of an alms house. I went into it recently – inside there is a lawn and garden. It's a real haven of peace. A very dirty man lies sprawled in the entrance – not one who has been admitted apparently. A handsome elderly Sihk enters confidently.
A cycle rickshaw passes, the driver straining with his load, a woman with enormous cloth bundles. A street child, in an oversized, incredibly dirty dress, bare-foot, and matted hair, a dirty but pretty face. She's carrying a sack – probably collecting something. The last time I noticed one like her she was scavenging cardboard. She looks the same age as my grand-daughter.
I pass the petrol station (they are springing up all over India as the newly wealthy rush to buy cars.) I reach a small flood-lit temple that juts into the road, resulting in traffic holdups and hence a cacophony of horns. Inside a priest is cleaning the statue of Hanuman, while another sits, his glasses on the little table beside a brass jar of holy water and a pile of pieces of coconut. The side of this temple is another one dedicated to Shiva. The great lingam is being garlanded and topped with a crown. Behind is a jolly statue of Shiva, bright blue, features reminiscent of a middle aged woman. The bell clangs as someone completes their pujas. A large bowl contains a mass of smoking incense sticks. I'd linger here but the noise of the traffic is too bad. As I move off, a handsome young Sadhu stops, indicating I may give him something. I drop 5 rupees into his tin. We attempt a conversation, but fail in a very friendly way, meeting each others' eyes in a strong feeling of mutual respect. We part with the usual gesture, hands held palms together in front of one.
I'm hungry. I'm outside a well lit restaurant, but it displays sweets. I ask if they do Thalli. Yes. So I go in, wash my hands and sit. It's all very clean and brightly lit. People look at me curiously. A waiter brings water. I notice someone having a dosa. A nice change from thallis. But a thalli is placed in front of me. Two chapattis, a delicious popadom, a pile of rice and several small dishes to go with it. Cauliflower in a mild sauce, dal, mixed vegetables, a dish of creamy yoghourt with little yellow peas (?), and some pieces of soft white cheese in another gorgeous sauce. None of the sauces is spicy-hot. Before long I am given two more chapattis; when he comes with a third pair he seems surprised I decline them. As soon as I finish one of the little dishes they offer to replenish it. There is also a dish containing a white ball about the size of a golf ball, in a clear sauce. It is a delicious dessert. The ball is like a sponge, oozing sweet juice with a delicate flavour. All this cost 40 rupees, about 50p. I ask for a coffee.
I've enjoyed writing this log. I wonder if I'll have the patience to transcribe it to the computer. Will it bore the pants off my friends? … I'm feeling very much at ease, happy. Now I'll return to my hotel. I should write a couple of letters, but I'll be tempted by the TV. (This is the first hotel that has TV, even though it's the usual same low price – 150 rupees.)
My bill comes, half buried in caraway seeds. The couple at the next table have been given huge puff balls of dosa pastry. She punctures it with delight, and watches the steam emerge as it deflates.
6/3/04 - Back in Delhi (and Haridwar)
Well, I'm back in Delhi.
On my last day in Itarsi I went by bus the few miles to Hoshangabad for a last look at and dip (etc. as I've described) in the Narmada. One nice incident was after thinking I knew the way and spent an hour traipsing around in the heat I returned to a restaurant and had a great conversation with the manager and then with a chap who'd been listening. He told me inter alia that the manager receives 80 rupees (one pound) a day for a 16 hour day. Another good thing was that while wandering in some quite ghastly district I urgently needed to go to the loo. Suddenly I found myself outside a superb one, being cleaned unneccesarily, with staff so obliging I hardly had any privacy. I think it might have been one of the communal ones that some NGOs build in poor districts as a service to the local people. They charge outsiders to cover their running costs.
A third nice event was that after I'd asked someone the way, a young chap on a motorbike drew up and gave me a lift to the ghats. A not so nice thing was that after I'd done my bathing and saluting the sun in the river I noticed amongst the plastic bags and other litter floating in it, several turds. I used my mineral water to wash my head and hands.
I wrote a second poem about the Narmada; this one not so lyrical.
That evening I visited Dyal Gour for the last time (but here in Delhi he is still phoning my hotel, to get me to report back that all is well.) I got the 2315 train to Delhi. For the first time I had booked Class 3A which means 3-tier sleeper, air conditioned. It costs quite a lot more than sleeper class. The a/c was a bit too cold and totally unneccessary but one gets nice clean sheets, pillow and blankets whereas in sleeper one gets none of these. I slept like a log!
On Friday my sister arrived on the train from Kolkata. It was more by luck than planning that I found her as the trains are very long and there are several exits from each platform.
After she's had a chance to wash and brush up in the room I'd booked her we went off to see the Ba'hai Place of Worship which is one of the great sights in Delhi. She was very impressed, and I too found it very satisfying tho I'd been there before. We both spent quite a long time meditating. We then spent time and money trying to locate the Modern Art gallery. It is not on the map and no-one seemed to know of it so eventually we gave up. We had lunch in the oddly named, unique "Coffee Home" then spent a very long afternoon and evening shopping.
Early this morning I went to the airport to see her off. Then I went to the opposite extreme outer suburb to visit Arya B at The Gandhi In Action centre which he founded and runs. It is mainly a holistic medical centre specialising in Ayurvedic methods. His wife gave us a superb breakfast - the best I've had in months.
Tomorrow there is Quaker meeting in the morning then a very important meeting of Sangam Foundation (in effect the governors of Sangam School) in the afternoon. I hope we can galvanise them into some activity in support of the school - they haven't met for years.
I have booked train tickets for a trip to Haridwar on Monday. 6 a.m. train and I should get back by 11 p.m. Then late on Tuesday I am to set off for home.
Back to TOP
Back to JOURNALS
Back to HOME PAGE