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An epic BMW ride through southern India


In India on the road, might has right, and that ordinarily confers overall supremacy on the Tata lorry. An Ambassador with a state flag on the bonnet and blue light on top supersedes all, and the morass of traffic splits into walls of even greater chaos and turbulence. Not the red sea but surely a Moses enactment.

The day was turning out to be fun after all, and at the outskirts of the town we arrived at the high walled compound of the Kerala State Cashew Nut Corporation, ‘A Government of Kerala Undertaking’.These words are descriptive but their order of juxtaposition puts the emphasis not on location but government. From the outside it looked like a concentration camp with its ten foot walls topped with broken glass embedded in the cement rendering. I could see a tall brick chimney struggling to vent plumes of blue black smoke into the already hot and humid air. Within was a sad but interesting sight.

Built out from the compound walls were various godowns and offices. Abutting the far wall was the chimney I had seen and what appeared to be a huge oven and some secondary retort steaming away. A film of sticky black soot adhered to everything. In the middle of the beaten earth compound were three low open sided sheds with corrugated iron roofs. They were so low that I had to stoop to gain entry. The heat from the roof was intense and I could immediately discern that its low height was a cruel economy measure in the build cost, for all its occupants, women, were cross legged on the floor.

There is a marked difference between tourist and traveller. I think it is fair to say that the tourist seeks aggrandisement, pleasure in excess, and is not prepared or wants, to look beneath the veneer of a new culture or see the calamitous. Trip advisory web sites complain of warm beer and toilets which do not flush. Glossy magazines compete to elevate destinations of greater exclusivity and luxury. Tourists seek the unreal and a facet of our culture, denial, persists.

The traveller, I would submit, seeks a knowledge and understanding of this planet on which we are but temporary custodians. In this there is accepted pleasure and pain. Travellers are ambassadors for the finer attributes of their culture and importantly travellers are witnesses. It is the duty of a witness to come forward and openly declare the good and the bad.

Here the production of, and not the humble cashew, stands accused.

Unlike the ground nut or peanut, which grow like potatoes, the cashew nut comes from a low sprawling tree similar to an old Hazel. Endemic in mid Kerala they have been purposefully planted out and farmed for years to satiate our demands for this sweetest of nut. Beyond the reason of excessive western profit margins, seeded in those early days of ignorance, tea clippers and spice, the cashew in its virgin form is tougher than a Brazil, and its production to be fit for bar top or table is laborious and thus relatively expensive.

A sledge hammer would not crack one. Necessity being the mother of invention, villagers in past years had discovered that if the nut was burnt or carburized to a controlled degree, the tough shell would yield.

Those ladies sitting cross legged were working at wooden anvils with small hammers extricating the kernels. Their hands blackened from oily soot, the folds of their sarees were immersed in a sea of charcoaled shells. They were paid on the quantity and quality of their labours. Hit the shell too hard and the nut is broken within, either in half or just bits. The perfect nut is entire and called a ‘butt’.

However the result of this is not the final product by any means. The nut or what remains has a thin bitter secondary carapace which is tenacious too, similar to that skin on a sweet chestnut if you eat them raw on an October day. The solution is to steam them all, and the retort, part of that chimney complex, is fired by the waste shells. The nuts come out expectedly hot and another bank of women under their roofed oven, hand rub with deft fingers the now loosened skins and grade every single piece. They are graded butts, half butts, and brokens. The brokens generally go into the local market with possibly a liberal coating of a viral or bacterial nature.

These poor ladies on the lowest of wages are prone to tuberculosis and other disorders. Left hands or rights are not clean. The butts and half butts if suitably sized make the grade for export and are gassed with sulphur dioxide to sanitize them.

One would hope that this was the end of the case.

There is a last and more serious indictment. The Government of Kerala own many plantations, a residue from communist days. To maximise production and fill the coffers of government, they aerially spray the plantations with a cocktail of pesticides and organo phosphates, including Endosulphan. This is banned in Europe and known to cause birth defects in developing foeti. They spray in the full knowledge of this, give no notice to the labourers, mostly women, and ignore their protests. Their pay? Both in the plantations and the factories, similar to paddy work, these ladies earned about fifty pence a day.

‘I think therefore I am’.Am what? I believe we are the sum total of our experience to date. Time advances and accordingly in this flux so do we. How we react and respond depends on our hormones, our blood chemistry and our perceived cultural constraints. In the recent months my senses had been bombarded on all fronts, and like a foie gras goose, I was defiant at this disturbance to my idyll of rural harmony and tranquillity. Denial of these incursions was not an option.

At school in the hinterland of Dorset shire, during that magical and terminal era of steam locomotives down to Gillingham, and wood fired bakeries in the village, I am sure two formative events put in to question the tenure of my middle class upbringing and scholarship.

Firstly were the words of a free man, a thinker and a radical, a concise report of one man’s reaction to the sum total of his experience. This was ‘On Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill, which I was obliged to plough through for my ‘OA’ English Literature exam. It had a marked effect on me. Rightly or wrongly it seeded an anti establishment mindset and reinforced my desire for fairness in all. Echoes of my father were there, a fair man, on the level, square. There was never need for mentor.

In stark contrast the second event involved a man, a boy really, only four years my senior, unread, simple and dutiful. Writing this now, I like to think I have lived his life. He is my guardian angel, the hand of hesitation before a blind corner, a caution against the short fuse, and long wet grass on a runway.

My passion at the weekends was to cycle off and scour old farms and outlying barns for show harness and vintage motorcycles. The wind in my wheels was fused with those sweet and pungent aromas, that dairy need of hay and silage, and major product, dung. A smoke of Old Holborn seemed to compliment the vegetative process.

It was one of those beautiful summer west country days, bursting with life and progeny in the hedgerows and fields. I had use of ‘my’ prefect’s bike, a rather good racing model with ten gears. Chalky White was my prefect and I was his ‘fag’. I plied him with toast, and honey stolen from the refectory. I got the bike most weekends, a fair exchange.

On the long gentle slope towards Child Okeford I could manage a roll up, hands off the bars, and light it cupping both hands around the match and cigarette ‘in one balletic and synchronous manoeuvre’, as my flying instructor would later describe the perfect flair and landing. I had been this route many times on the way to Hambledon Hill, but blinkered by destination had not noticed a collapsed barn, overgrown with brambles, and a ‘safe’ distance from a pair of cottages.

Could this barn house the Holy Grail, a Brough Superior, the motorcycle of choice for George Bernard Shaw and ‘El Lawrence’, or an equally acceptable Wooler? This called for an SAS approach. I cycled back half a mile and hid the bike in a ditch behind the hedge.

I took to the fields and copses coming up on the barn to the rear and out of sight of all except the rooks in the elms and a cock pheasant with his harem. Tearing my way through the brambles and whitethorn I could see that some tie beam had failed and the framed timber walls had splayed and collapsed, leaving just the pitched roof intact and resting on a pile of contents.

This would require help of a similar mindset, and, trust. After all, I could be only a trapped pile of horse hair mattresses and broken furniture, from the Grail itself. This needed Hugh, a sound friend who had let me ride his bike, a Norton ES2, my first ever ride on a five hundred, in the fields of Cadbury. We would make our assault after chapel the next day. As I cycled back, I mused that I was a fortyniner striking the mother lode, or Jason sighting the Georgian shore. Surprisingly my abhorrence for Greek prep and my tussle with iambic pentameter, “Castor and Pollux sought horizons afar, and by star cut their course for a fleece of gold. Millennia have past and with craft anew, oh to sight on a distant shore, a ‘little Corinthian’ borne of fire and ne’r to know the kiss of oak”, took on a bizarre relevance. It was like the wind in my wheels, a breeze to remember.

After labouring through Kyrie Liaison and Lead Me Lord, we were excitedly off on our communion with the unknown and unexpected.

The old barn was certainly in imminent danger of total collapse but luckily an old tumble cart seemed to be bearing the weight where the walls should have been. Hugh and I shifted deliquescent bedding and broken cottage paraphernalia to expose our first find of four brass coach lamps, a carbide bicycle lamp, and an extensive array of harness and haemes. One particular piece was emblazoned with two enamelled union jacks set in a sunburst brass mounting. It looked rather military.

All in all the general contents appeared to be the entire goods and chattels of someone from a long gone era. We could only surmise that who ever had lived in the cottages, a tide farm worker, had died without issue and that this was where the result of their labours had been put. Consider a life’s graft reduced to ignominy amidst a mulch of horse hair and feathers.

Trapped on its back under an old kitchen table was a chest of drawers. It was jammed in so tight that there was not enough clearance to peak into the contents. The table was doing a similar job to the tumble cart and its removal would have brought the roof down. Perhaps this was a test; perhaps the grail was something smaller than a motorcycle? We rooted about for a suitable prop and broke out the table. The coast was still clear and our mischief unchallenged. The larger drawers contained old clothing, a Sam Brown, and a ‘battle dress’ tunic. The top two smaller drawers were locked. This was grail time! I think both of our hearts were thumping in unison fuelled by a bolt of adrenalin. It was an addictive high of excitement at revelation, and fear of our exposure. A discarded coach lamp bracket made for a suitable lever, and with gritted teeth we endured the groaning sound of tenon parting its mortice. With a resounding crack of tired pine the drawer front came away.

Out came a framed set of First War medals. Hugh’s eyes were agog. He had found his ‘cup’. Next came a leather bound book dedicated to those fallen, heralding the life and times of the local area, particularly Iwerne Minster, and given in thanks to families for their war effort. It was funded and presented by the ‘Lord of the Manor’, one Ismay of Titanic fame whose country seat had been Clayesmore, my school! We amicably agreed that Hugh would have the lamps and the medals; I would have the harness and the book. We were beginning to understand the history of all this, and lastly, finally, amidst all this detritus of the past, came the final drawer.

Almost willingly, as if in tired submission, the constraint of years was no more and I easily prized it open. The contents were minimal. Some cotton bobbins, needles, an ink well and something rolled up in a tube of newspaper. It was small and begged to be inspected. I carefully unravelled the brittle newspaper to discover a scroll, tied with thin red ribbon. It was clean and white, clearly of very good quality paper. I wiped my dirty hands thoroughly on the coarse cloth of that army tunic until they were clean again. The ribbon parted, it was a simple bow, and I reverently unrolled the scroll to reveal the Royal Arms of George V and a charge beautifully scribed in italics. It read:

Private William Henry Fisher
Wiltshire Regiment
He whom this scroll commemorates gave up all that was dear to them, endured hardship, and by the call of duty and self sacrifice passed out of the sight of men that others might live in peace and freedom. Let those who come after it see that his name be not forgotten.
George V Rex

I would not, and have not forgotten dear William who died for me. This scroll was my grail cup and symbolized and embodied the futility of man. The harness and even the book are now long gone; gone for money to purchase some wreck of a motorcycle probably crushed under a landfill near you.

The scroll? That takes pride of place on top of my ancient Collard. Now framed, next to a photo of my father on a polo pony at Calcutta maidan, two country boys, a long way from home, are together. I later researched that William had died, not from a bullet, but disease in Mesopotamia. Dis ease in today’s Iraq. Nothing has changed. He is buried in Baghdad.

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