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An epic BMW ride through southern India

From Ooty on to Mysore the road takes a long descent following easy ridges in the hills. As we went down the heat came up and all changed again. We were now getting rather used to this helter skelter scene change, and knew with some foreboding that the rest of the trip would be very hot and dry until the foothills of the Himalayas, a thousand miles to the north. On the way is the Mudumulai National Park, and there we hoped to find tigger and the elusive heffalump. The park was pretty much off limits during the dry season, for the laudable reason of not frightening animals away from the scarce watering holes. At the forest check post the officers were inquisitive and friendly, it’s a Tamil trait. We talked about deer back in the garden at Wispers and badgers ram raiding the cat flap. Our work in the woods mystified them as this was the province of coolies and not burra sahibs. Only by showing them my calloused hands and distinguishing scar, did they believe our woodsy credentials, and rather warmed to these most peculiar of tourists. Out of the blue the superintendent made the unexpected offer of a night’s stay up in one of the forest watch towers. A very acceptable deal was struck and we made up a packed supper of pakoras, bhajees, omelette and chappatti, filled our water bottles, and decamped our gear into the back of a Willis lookalike jeep. It was great to be driven for a change and our superintendent friend must have had Finish genes and designs on a rally career. We crashed and bumped for miles into the teak forest and ended up at a tall, roofed watchtower, just a pitch away from a broad creek. A tall bamboo ladder took us up through a trap door onto a bare rough boarded floor. It was very basic and of course miles from anywhere. He reckoned that there was a chance of seeing tiger or leopard and that we should keep our eyes skinned on the watering hole. Calls of nature were to be done outside but not after dark. With that he left and would come by in the morning.

We sat and smoked and watched. Nothing came. Perhaps the jeep had frightened off any contenders. Darkness came, and by a few candles we munched through the goodies and drank rather metallic water from our survival bottles. We used our sleeping bags for mats and slept clothed with towels over our feet to minimize the mosquitoes. The night was really pretty quiet, but the dawn was very Tarzan. We awoke in the darkness to booms of monkeys and a surprising chorus of birds, all giving thanks for not being eaten in the night. As the light crept up I could just make out some movement at the creek. I nudged Paula awake again and we both looked on in childish excitement as a family of wild boar came down to drink. We had never seen the like of them before. We had kept pigs at home which used to wander into the kitchen and squeal for leftovers. Ours were pink and not very bristly, with a predilection for chewing live shotgun cartridges if we were shooting clays off the lawn. These were huge grey black shaggy beasts and the boar sported a fine pair of lacerating tusks from an accentuated upturned snout, all set on the neck and shoulders of a Russian Mafia don. He drank very cautiously, always raising his glistening snout to smell out impending danger and protect his little harem and rather cute offspring. My beedi smoke or a controlled fart from one of us must have alerted him to an unknown audience, and with a warning grunt they all scampered off into the thicket. The dawn chorus was winding down and pockets of birdsong scattered through the jungle became a warbling duet or solo. The morning sun was now just filtering through the trunks of teak stands and another family turned up. Otters. A pair with two cubs were working their way along the opposite bank looking for secretive fish under the overhang. The cubs were letting their parents do all the work and they were just chasing each other around in the water catching tails. They were much more confident and perhaps didn’t figure in the mammalian food chain. With weasel exuberance they came by us, and disappeared out of view, still working the bank like their cousin the ferret would work a warren. It was one of those moments.

In timely fashion our superintendent friend slewed into the clearing of our tower and off we all went for breakfast in the village and a debrief of our first night in a jungle. We hadn’t seen spotted deer or sambar, which surprised him, and the elusive big cats even he admitted were a rarity. We were happy enough with what we had seen, and quite prepared to move on for our next leg to Mysore. Either to honour his remuneration or more possibly to increase his new found income, he proffered an alternative location for the next night where tiger spaw had been seen in the forest ride. It was worth a last try even though we had to while away some time until the afternoon when we’d set off. It was an opportunity to check over the bike, clean up the points and plugs, and tighten a few slack bolts. The bike was in marvellous shape and we were on pretty good form too.

Armed with more candles, food, and expectation, we set off again on rough tracks through the forest. We must have driven for nearly an hour to arrive at a similar lone watchtower. There was only a dried up stream bed and it did not look at all promising. We were assured that game might come, following the line of the monsoon watercourse. As before we watched and waited in complete silence. Our ears were straining for that tell tale snap of a twig which tells you something heavier than a bird has misplaced its footing. We were used to this from waiting for Roe deer back home. It’s akin to fishing, not boring but meditative. The forest was eerily quiet, still, like a death zone, and getting dark.

Now in this particular watchtower the trap door was missing, and I presumed now provided an impenetrable shutter in some villagers shack. Accordingly, we were now not fortified, and the wooden steps up, a permanent fixture of the structure. Both our stomachs were rumbling, not in fear but as a result of some questionable omelettes at lunch time. Paula could not contain this any longer and as far as we were both concerned,it was too dangerous to go down for relief without a rifle or shotgun. It was not practical to squat over the access hole because all the steps would have been spattered. Her only recourse was to ease her bottom out over the window void whilst I held one hand so she wouldn’t fall out. It was quite a balancing act, diarrhoeic and comical at the same time! The manoeuvre was successful and she was able to waddle across to the steps and wash off. We both knew that we had further compromised our safety. She had effectively marked our territory both outside the tower, and for any creature with a heightened sense of smell, the staircase. Worryingly we were not the dominant species around these parts and she had made a smelly invitation to dinner, complete with directions. The prospect of a marauding Heffalump which is cumbersome and vegetarian didn’t phase us, but a Tigger did. Any agile cat would find the steps no obstacle to a meal of two.

We did not have many candles and just a packet of beedies. Our ploy was that she’d sleep and I would stand guard smoking beedies. Maybe the carnivores out there associated the distinct smell with the forest guards and would stay away. When sleep pressed I would light just one candle at the top of the stairs and wake to replenish it. This all worked well until about three o’clock in the morning when we were both woken by a God Almighty roar. Suddenly our situation was serious and our silly attitude to a perhaps cuddly, stripey, and fictitious feline evaporated at the same alarming rate at which our solitary candle was burning. This was a tiger, king of the jungle! Another huge roar maybe half a mile away had us in a mild panic. Like counting the seconds between lightning strike and thunder I deduced that maybe it was coming for dinner. We modified our strategy. With six candles left, we placed four around the trap entrance. The remainder we could break in half and cause similar effect for a while. The half a box of matches should be adequate and we would keep a reserve to set our clothes on fire as a last resort. We both started smoking beedies at a terminal rate. Every minute or so there would be another roar but it didn’t appear to be moving around. An updraught through the trap kept blowing the candles out and our matches were getting low. The situation appeared to be reaching a critical phase when the roaring subsided and the dawn chorus fired up. The last of the candles saw the sunrise and all was calm again. We were very tired.

I was lucky that my guts were just holding up but desperately needed a pee. The coast was clear and so I sauntered down, and ten yards into the teak I relieved myself against a tree and made autumnal rustling noises by aiming at the leaves on the forest floor. It was like the pitter patter of tiny feet and I smiled at the thought of those huge paws in the night. Paula woke after catching a little sleep and was still not well. She went down for a call of nature very near to the tower, and I stood watch up top so that I could see further into the jungle. As I was gazing out on to the forest, I was thinking how strange our night had been, and I was studying the teak trees. I had always thought that they were huge affairs, bigger than oaks, but here they were pretty scrawny. The dry season was clearly a tough time, a bit like an autumn, and the huge leaves were sometimes falling to the ground, tail sliding and stalling like an aerobat. Nothing much grew under them rather like a beech wood. I’m a forester at heart and a good back woodsman, so you would think a forest or jungle deeply inviting. However, I was acceptably out of my element. From my experience to date I had found the jungles impenetrable and the more open forest quite foreboding. Without leather boots and a rifle there was a real fear of the unknown. Much as the teak forest that we were within was eerily quiet, it was clearly the home of some oversize predatory cats and probably India’s three most poisonous snakes. Mornings are the time when snakes do like a sunbath before the heat of the day really comes up. With the forest floor carpeted in dappled brown and yellow teak leaves, it would have been easy to step on a Cobra, Krait, or the ultimate in serpentine size and toxicity, a King Cobra. There is no antidote for Raja Naga, and few if any village hospitals stock serum for the others. The local people rely on ayurveda and village medicine with little effect. A vial of serum costs two days wages and will only keep a year and in a fridge. Life is cheap and the Coca Cola surprisingly cold!

I was now studying the ground and in particular how the earth had dried away from the bases of the trees leaving an annular gap. Paula came back up and momentarily interrupted my musings on frailty and dirt. While she packed up our gear I went back to my morning contemplations and back to those annular rings around the trees. I was staring at the tree and leaves where I had peed, when out of that narrow void, uncoiled a large cobra, either disturbed by my urine or wanting to take a morning tan. Had I crapped there and not peed, I could have been bitten on the arse and by now be dead. It was a bloody good job that Paula had gone out in the open, and a real lesson in the practicalities of jungle survival.

We chose to make Mysore our base for a few days. We could easily ‘work’ a radius of about sixty miles on the bike and be back by nightfall. Similar to central Tamil Nadu, it has a wealth of interesting temples, but of a completely different style, the largest carved genitalia in the world and a crazy palace, not forgetting the famed vegetable market. It was also good for a dhobi or two, to launder our rank and filthy clothes. A wonderful facet of Indian hotel life, apart from the room boys, is that there is always a dhobi on hand and he’ll have your gear back clean and pressed within twenty four hours. Dhobis in general would seem to have an innate dislike for buttons. Shirts or flies, they come back either missing or shattered, due to their washing technique of bashing all garments against a suitable bolder or stone, with kung fu precision and thwacking impact. They delight in the misshapen, and their wringing technique will ensure your favourite muslin shirt comes back squarish and a few sizes larger.

We pulled up not too far from the market and stumbled on a very tidy little hotel down an alley. It was newly built with white marble floors, marble spiral staircase and large light airy windows. For the nights the proprietor was happy to allow me to push the bike into the foyer. That was a first! It was the best we had ever stayed in and still way within budget. Real India is incredibly cheap for the foreign traveller. It’s only the large metropoli that hold out for international rates and their rooms often no better.

We bundled our clothes together and consigned them to a day of torture, and took tea on our balcony overlooking surprisingly calm back streets. Flat roofed houses interconnected by a tangle of telephone and power cables had children playing on top with equally entangled kites, or women drying chillies and fuel. Some had stretched their sarees out to dry and they rippled like colourful flags in the afternoon breeze. It was far less frenetic than Madurai, perhaps not being a pilgrimage point, and somehow more together. Maybe having a benign and eccentric Maharaja was good for for the city. It was all an excellent first impression. I was going to like Mysore.

Out we went for a late afternoon walkabout and this would really become our routine during the trip. Ride, clean up, walkabout and sleep. Our destination and goal was home with never the intention of any lengthy stay. All we could hope for is that we might just capture a little of the mood of a place for a possible return one day. Language was a great barrier, with only tourist handicraft shops, Moslem jewellers and pharmacists speaking a smattering of English. We witnessed only a veneer, and had seen a little glue in the form of Samba and Anoor, but never the sub base. I was keen to understand such an alien culture and could only catch a glimpse by acute observation of their habits, manners, and social interaction.

Life on the street is colourful and mixed. Women are going about their family duties and chores, only speaking to men if shop keepers. There is no ‘Hi Mr. Shibu, lovely weather…how’s the family..mind that drain cover’. They are mostly permanent mothers and rarely work. Outside of the home it’s a male dominated society with a curiously busy work ethic, sufficient to survive the day. The strange paradox lies with the creation of filth, and caste. Stall holders repeatedly gob and clear their nostrils on to the pavement; empty cigarette packets, squeezed limes and banana skins are tossed into the street to be humanely ground into dust. I saw an elderly man struggling with a hundred kilo sack of flour lashed on his bicycle, pushing with every tired sinew and muscle, as if his life depended on it. He was barged off balance by some mindless rickshaw wallah, and all came tumbling over. The weight was more than he could ever have lifted. Nobody was concerned and nobody helped. We did, to entrail eating smiles of bystanders. In a back alley some men were clearing out a buffalo dung pit. They carried on their heads coarsely woven reed baskets which oozed and dripped near liquid manure over their bodies. White teeth shone through shit. They knew its worth but there must have been a better way. Old women, mendicants, and young girls with babies, worked the streets begging. Most were ignored, and only occasionally did I see a chai vendor toss a rupee or fifty paise in their direction. God knows what story they had to tell.

The other extreme was the shops aimed at wealthy tourists from Mumbai or Bangalore and the truly foreign if they were lucky. Mysore is Sandalwood City. The ethereal aroma of sandal joss fills the air and hawkers tempt you with exotic oils and northern spices. The main street is a procession of emporia selling carved statuary and inlaid rosewood furniture. These shops are glazed and air conditioned, cool and clean for the Gods. Rows of Krishnas, Ganeshas, Vishnus and Shivas, are at prices to suit all comers. Most purchases are devotionally inspired and a brisk trade is assured. A lure for the wealthy are huge teak elephants which vie with intricately carved screens and bone inlaid tables. The workmanship was generally good, if repetitive. A closer study did sometimes reveal plastic instead of bone, and stained rubber wood oiled with sandal, masquerading as the genuine article.

Whether sculpting in wood or stone, the Hindu artisan is obliged to follow a set of proportions, laid down as definitive, thousands of years ago. The apprenticeship takes years, and early days are spent learning to rough out the shape of deities. A carver with a little more experience refines this further and lastly the master will do the finishing and detail on the facial expression. It would be very rare for any one man to see a sculpture, regardless of medium, through from inception to completion. Demand has set in place a production process and this even applies to the furniture. Because so many hands have created a piece, singular pride has been lost and the creative process denied.

I, like many, had assumed that Asia and the Orient, was a fountain of skilled artisans, and by extension, peopled by those who appreciate art. I was shocked to find how wrong I was. In hindsight I should have realized that the great art of the east from Ankar Wat to the little temple near Hosur which we were hoping to see, was patronized by wealthy kings and not the people. They had the money, the time, and a completely different mindset from the masses they ruled. It’s a very strange notion. You are reading this book and the chances are, that you would consider your mindset not wildly different from Prince Charles or Elton John! As ordinary folk, we appreciate! Not so in India. Perhaps it is the saddest indictment of hardship and comparative agrarian poverty, that this one facet of mindset, appreciation of art and beauty tending towards orderliness, has been unattainable. It does not protect you from the elements or fill your stomach. It has no practical worth. Those who have now made the quantum leap to solvency and middle class would seem to have retained the genes of their forebears. The old practical worth of shelter and food has been exchanged for a new perceived worth of walled property, cars, gold and bakery treats. Art still does not figure and an unfathomable selfishness has the household waste lobbed over the compound wall, out of sight and out of mind. It was a sad moment to have to concede to this chaos. It was hard to accept how a culture could be so rigid and defy change for reasons of honour or fear. Reluctantly I would accept that India for the traveller, was revering its past. It has not created anything new to be worthy of awe or described as splendour. It does have the bomb, the ‘brown cloud’, and enough heavy metal pollutants in its artesian water to voraciously debilitate. I would marvel at its capacity for survival against overwhelming and self inflicted odds.

All these bizarre thoughts were buzzing through my head and I had only walked from the hotel to a souvenir shop! We weren’t even halfway up the country. India does that to you. It’s the why! Why is it so different? Why are they not like us? Over coffee and a spliff on our balcony Paula and I debated this into the evening. She was pretty horrified in general, and reckoned that the women should be more proactive. The problem there, was similar to our suffragettes. Indian ladies have no control over finances and are not independent. They cannot live a singular life. It’s catch 22. I had had many talks with Samba back in Kovalam on this topic and thought the biggest bar to change was their misplaced sense of duty, inextricably linked to money, emotional and financial immaturity.

In the west we are generally out of the house after college or university, making our own way. We may take on a host of uninspiring jobs to get by, and interact with a broad spectrum of our society. We face overdrafts and have our fair share of broken relationships before we finally settle. Our learning curve is as a result of the challenges and mistakes we make.

For the young Indian man late teens and early twenties are often bankrolled by the father. A menial job for reasons of caste cannot be entertained. Girlfriends are forbidden and marriageable age is around twenty eight. As that time approaches, a panic attempt for gainful employment which has prospects of status is put into gear. During this interim period young men are in a sexual and emotional limbo, only satiated by pornography, alcohol, and not uncommon, homosexuality. On the many occasions when a young man may have been sweet on a classmate, this clandestine affair is doomed to failure because girls are married off at typically twenty two to twenty four. Here the only option is elopement or suicide point.

Generally this celibate situation is tolerated and by proposal time they are so frustrated that any option is a good option. Dowry on the part of the girl’s family, which may bring land, a house, or considerable cash, softens the blow and our young man now has few worries until the first child comes along. If the child is a girl, for reasons of future dowry, there is now a responsibility. Two or three daughters can break a man. These marriages are not out of love or passion, but duty. For these reasons the sex might well not be anything like what those blue movies had portrayed. Early pregnancy or birth at an annual rate, may well stall relations in the bedroom. It is then that our young man may find his classmate sweetheart in a similar predicament and affairs happen. It is not rare for men to get together to pleasure themselves as they may have reasonably and innocently done during early adolescence. A mega problem lies behind closed doors waiting to shatter India to the core.

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