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A snapshot of India on a very long walk

“The Earth teaches us more about ourselves than all the books in the world.”

All the clichés about India are true. Clichés always are. But there is so much more. There always is. India: so vivid and loud. Energetic and mad. Charming, ingenious, squalid and callous. In my head I see all this. I suspect that anyone who has been to India and not just stayed in an International hotel will do too. But I fear that if you haven’t been to India then I am going to fail you. I don’t have the capacity to bottle the extraordinary essence of India. This is a pity as India is among my favourite of all countries, even though I have seen little of it.

My first impressions of India, like generations of travellers before me, were intense and conformed to stereotypes. The filth, the chaos, the poverty, the stupid driving. The bright saris, the delicious food, the instinctive, gentle civility.

After a few weeks on the road I’m settling in to India a little and getting used to how things work. I sit in the shade at a street stall drinking chai. The day feels oppressive. Heat. Dust. Noise. Glare. Stares. Music. Engines. Cell phones. Car horns. I need to hide from it all for a few minutes.

A lorry beeps Silent Night loudly as it reverses. Oh, the irony. There are grubby finger marks round doors and half-removed bill posters and election flyers on half-painted walls. There are crates of empty glass bottles awaiting collection and strips of shampoo sachets hanging above shop counters. Bicycles squeak by, daring to compete with the lunatic drivers. They all have old sprung saddles, rod brakes and a bell.

I flick through a newspaper, mostly reading the small articles and adverts. In the same way that I chose to walk an unglamorous slice of India, I prefer the small oddments of news rather than the main, attention-grabbing, Taj Mahal-esque headlines.

  • There have been surprise checks at various government offices to improve punctuality and attendance of staff. All officials were found to be absent from the Chemmedu Agriculture Extension Centre and Sericulture Department Office.
  • Health officials have been directed to take steps to appoint a driver for their ambulance.
  • An unknown, destitute old woman was mauled to death by stray dogs inside the grounds of the City Hospital.
  • Polling has been peaceful bar stray incidents of violence, rigging attempts and group clashes. A district general secretary was hacked to death.
  • A politician campaigns with the promise of free colour televisions for all. Asking a rally if they thought this was a good idea, he received “thunderous applause instantly.”

I buy a glossy magazine, my curiosity piqued by the first hint of laddish culture I have seen in India. The magazine is expensive, £1.50, almost as much as I pay for a night’s lodging. I don’t think I’ve yet met anyone who would spend so much on a magazine. It is simplistic and aspirational. Its wealthy, urbanite readers are playing at being Western. On the front cover is a pouting babe in bodice, knickers and suspenders. Articles in the magazine include “10 things we bet you didn’t know about porn!” and “Drink smart: we tell you how.”

I turn to the advice pages.

Question: “Should western commodes be kept open or shut when not in use? I’ve read stuff about women wanting the toilet seat down while men want it up or something like that? What’s the right funda [sic]?”

Answer: “Western toilets should be kept shut. There is a lid, right? Use it!!”

Meanwhile an old television is playing in the shop behind me. It’s showing a glamorous horse racing event heaving with beautiful, rich Indians trying to look European. This too is so far removed -several generations removed, I imagine- from what I have experienced in my narrow slice of India. I really hope that, as more and more people rise out of poverty, India does not just copy Western fads and trends.

Move just a few streets away from the centre and a town quickly feels more like a large village. Cowpat discs, to be used as fuel, dry outside homes painted with brand logos like Vodafone. Cows amble the streets, munching on rubbish. People gently and reverently touch the animals’ flanks as they pass. Children play with homemade kites. This is a different world to the town centre and the television. They do things differently there. I accept the folly of trying to make generalisations about a billion people, from billionaires to beggars, scattered across thousands of miles.

This is from Alastair’s latest book, There Are Other Rivers. Much more about his globetrotting adventures on his website

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