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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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Two days later, I found myself flat on my back in St Martha's Hospital in Bangalore. Our train ride down from Margao in Goa to the city of Bangalore was uneventful but painful. It had clearly put too much stress on my leg, which had become enormously swollen. When we decided to have it looked at in the local hospital, an extremely overbearing doctor had insisted on admitting me for observation and treatment. So there I was, sharing a room with what seemed to be a terminal patient who clearly wasn't doing at all well and was unconscious most of the time. All my dealings with the doctor left me angry and frustrated. He was an older man whose rather arrogant old style attitude said that he was an omnipotent doctor and that I was an ignorant tourist. I lay there plotting my escape and waiting for Catherine to find us a nice quiet hotel where I could recuperate for a few days.

A resourceful person under pressure, Catherine had found us a comfortable room in what was for us, a rather upscale hotel. It was there that we were to spend a week while the swelling in my leg slowly subsided. It was strange to drop off the India Trail so completely but that was exactly what we had to do once I had managed to extricate myself from the Hospital. That turned out to be an incredibly complicated process. I finally just left after struggling with the red tape for two hours and still not being able to complete the correct procedure. What on earth did my grandmother's maiden name have to do with my health? So we hid out on the fifth floor of the Berry Hotel for a week and my leg gradually got better. It was a strange period for us both although photos we took of one another at the time show us looking tanned and handsome. I remember that I lay flat on my back for three days reading "Of Human Bondage". I cried uncontrollably when I reached the end of the novel and Philip found redemption and final happiness. It could have been Maugham's beautiful writing or a tinge of nostalgia for old England in an alien situation. It could just have been the antibiotics. After a few days in bed, I sat out on our balcony most of the time and watched the family of ten Indians who lived on the pavement across the road from the Hotel as they ate, groomed one other, slept and probably died.

But I managed to stay alive and, feeling somewhat better after a week, we took a slow four-hour train ride down to Mysore, the center of the incense and sandalwood trade. We could smell the scent of sandalwood as soon as we entered the city, which was obviously a great tourist center. We had come down to this area with an idea of visiting the big Animal Preserve in Bandhipur but we learnt that all the animals had gone south into Tamil Nadu due to the drought. I became really depressed in Mysore for I was still on antibiotics and our hotel was not one of the best. We discovered that a good or a bad hotel room could make a lot of difference whilst traveling. I was feeling tired of interminable bus and train journeys, of new towns and of nameless Indian hotels. I felt that I would scream if I was awoken one more time by the familiar early dawn chorus of our Indian neighbours as they noisily cleared their throats and spat. And I needed to escape from the consumerism that was often the backdrop for our trail. I needed to find somewhere quiet to lie low for awhile. But we managed to see the fabulous Maharaja's palace and I shot some great photos in Mysore's famous market.

Ernakulum, back on the coast, was our next stop. Although neither of us was feeling terribly well, Catherine had developed another cold and I had managed to replace my leg infection with a painful lower back condition, we managed to do and see quite a lot of things there. We went to a Shiva temple festival with great music, ten elephants dressed to the tusks in silver, gold and multicoloured cloth and a distinct feeling of exotica in the air. We also went to our first Indian circus in Ernakulum, the wonderful Gemini Circus, which was three hours of non-stop quick acts. There were acrobats, clowns, some bizarre animals and an incredible bulimic woman who drank gallons of water containing goldfish and climaxed her act by vomiting it all up. It was all great fun but one could spot all the foreigners in the large audience very easily. They were the only people to applaud the performers for the Indians apparently had a tradition of silent appreciation.

By mid-January 1989, we were on the move once more, traveling down an inland waterway on a boat going to Quilan. The journey took us right down the west coast of India, through a channel running parallel to the sea. When the little boat started to fill up with local Indians, we climbed up onto the roof for the rest of the trip. There we met up with French Jacques and his Japanese wife who turned out to be close friends and neighbours of my friend Jerry in Anjuna. We left the boat near Trivandrum way down on the South coast almost at the very tip of the Continent and took a taxi down to Kovalum the following day.

Kovalum was another beach resort scene, a little like Anjuna but much smaller and much less developed. It had a small but beautiful beach with a big lighthouse at one end and a line of cafes, restaurants and small clothes shops stretching down to the other. There were numerous little guesthouses and bars hidden amongst the palm trees off the beach. Dozens of tiny paths through the sand connected this little community together. It was incredibly hot with a blue-green sea that stretched away forever. We took a very basic room at the Vijay Home, a couple of minutes from the beach and settled in for a month's stay there. My leg was still troubling me and I couldn't go into the sea the whole time that we were there. I went to see the "Beach Doctor" who dressed the wound for me daily. I was suspicious of him from the beginning for he was just a bit too smooth and good looking for his own good. It is strange what cues we men operate on. I did wonder what a qualified doctor would be doing working out of a small shed behind a cafe on the beach. When my wound refused to heal, he went on to diagnose me as having a diabetic condition which was very upsetting. For a few days I faced the rest of my life as a diabetic, never able to eat fruit again. Eventually I was warned off the doctor whom I realized was trying to take me for every penny he could. My wound was eventually healed by some new Australian friends that we met at the Vijay. One of them, a photographer called Geoff, told me about his experiences in the Australian Outback where wounds were always slow to heal. There, instead of the usual practice of leaving cuts open to the air, he had learned to seal them off as thoroughly as possible in order to prevent further infection. So I tried that and within three days, my leg started to heal. It was a useful lesson and a technique that we've used since. We were soon hanging out with a nice bunch of people in Kovalum who have since become close friends of ours.

I met Maria, from Trinidad and London, on the doorstep of our room one night as I sat there trying to come to terms with my newly diagnosed diabetes. She was very sympathetic, became a good friend of ours and will reappear in my story later. Geoff and Liz were a pair of Aussies from Brisbane whom we eventually went to visit on a subsequent trip to Australia. We met Howard on the beach one day, discovered that we had a mutual love for Reggae and African music and that he was stranded in India without a penny. I liked him immediately but as I heard myself offering to lend him money, a small voice inside my head was saying "You fool! Why are you doing that? You'll never see a penny of it again!"

It wasn't a huge amount of money and in the end I had no regrets. When I called Howard up in London a few months later, he invited us over to his house in Brixton, "on the Front Line" as he called it and repaid the loan even before he offered us a cup of tea. We've traded music over the years since then, I think of him as one of my best English friends and stay with him whenever I'm in London.

Life was pretty easy on Kovalum Beach. We went on long walks and discovered the picturesque fishing village beyond the lighthouse where the fishermen seemed to live on or beside their painted curved boats. We watched twenty men work for an hour to haul a fishing net in, saw what a tiny catch they made and realized the extreme precariousness and simplicity of their existence in Kovalum. Whole families worked, ate, defecated, lived and died there on the beach and had done for generations.

On our walks we would see 'Communist Party of India' posters and slogans everywhere, for Kerala is a communist controlled province. It is the region of India with the highest literacy rate also. Around Kovalum, speakers were hung high in the trees and radio music was broadcast to all the workers. There was a granite quarry by the road that we used to walk along to go to the local Post Office and we would watch the huge gray rocks being brought down by the men. Then they were broken up by hand by women and children using hammers and increasingly fine sieves to reduce the rocks to gravel for use on the roads. It was a painfully laborious task which never ceased to amaze me. It illustrated once more what a labour intensive society India was.

I tested negative for diabetes at the hospital in Trivandrum and was put onto my fourth course of antibiotics. Fortunately, sealing off the infection was working very well and my leg was doing much better. I stayed away from the beach doctor after that. Life continued to be madly social and we spent most of our days as part of a small crowd of fellow travelers. I still had to stay out of that crystal clear seawater but the company was good. Catherine and I were going through an especially good period in our love affair. After four or five weeks on the beach, when I began to feel fitter, we realized that it was time to move on again. Kovalum was an ideal spot for rest and relaxation and we hoped to go back there sometime. Unfortunately, I've recently heard that one day the police arrived there in force to throw out the foreign visitors at the cafes and guest houses. The entire sea front had been demolished to make way for a new modern tourist development. Such is the way of the world these days.

We had thought of going South to Sri Lanka but reports of the killing of tourists and the on-going civil disturbances made us decide to turn inland and head north east by bus to Madurai.

I was keeping a record of our trip in an Indian diary that I had found. At the bottom of each page, there was a little saying or thought for each day. I always found them incredibly funny. Had they been all written down consecutively, those sayings would have made a pretty entertaining book in themselves. That day as we drove up to Madurai, my thought for the day was "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread". Sometimes the sayings were charming like "Always be a little kinder than necessary" or "Man is the only creature that blushes". Or needs to" or even "Take everything seriously except yourself". Sometimes the sayings were incomprehensible like "In married life, three is company, two is none" or, on a similar theme perhaps, "They dream in courtship but in wedlock wake". How about "What an antiseptic is a pure life", "It is a royal thing to do good and to be abused" (what on earth did that one mean?) or one that I particularly liked, "The most beautiful women are the ones who like us”? Or even quite apropos at this very moment, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money"...

The light was dazzlingly bright as we headed North again and we found that we had to take siestas every afternoon to avoid getting headaches. Until then, we had more or less stayed away from temples, anxious to avoid the heavy tourist scenes surrounding them. But Madurai was very interesting. It was a town built around an immense temple, which was a whole city block in size. Each corner of the temple had a massive, heavily decorated gopuram tower, literally covered with intricately carved figures of different gods and goddesses. There must have been nearly a thousand statues on each gopuram. There were four gates into the temple, which had an open yard all around it, a covered central space containing a great bathing ghat and numerous forbidden inner sanctums. As soon as we entered the outer courtyard, we came upon an elephant that would kiss one on the top of the head with its trunk in return for a coin. This was religious big business and the temple was packed with people, families having picnics by the ghat and pilgrims from all over India. There were plenty of tourists like ourselves who were sneaking photographs of everything they could see. The atmosphere was as far from that of a western church or a conventional religious center as I could imagine. For many families, the temple was a place to spend time together, to play, eat and even sleep and the experience was obviously very central to their lives. A western church or a cathedral is generally architecturally and aesthetically constructed to send one's attention, mind and soul upward in a heavenly direction. But the dark and dense atmosphere of this temple somehow compressed one's mind way back down into one's body, which was a rather disconcerting experience at first. The air was heavy and aromatic. The light, rather than illuminating the corridors, slipped through the gloom to subtly emphasize the dark and to occasionally pick out a statue or a side sanctuary. We both found the temple quite fascinating and spent the whole day exploring it. Before we left the following day, we were irresistibly drawn back there and spent another morning walking through the dark chambers, breathing deeply of the air of long past ages, still present in the air of today.

From Madurai, we took an easy bus ride up to Kodaicanal, another old Raj hill station high up at seven thousand feet. It was a little like NainiTal and was a big Indian tourist scene. It was a small town spread out around a lake with hills to climb, horseback riding, boating on the lake and some not so good restaurants. There was nothing much to do at night after dark. I remember our stay at Kodaicanal as being a very pleasant period for Catherine and I. It was a place where we walked, read and spent some good downtime together away from the India Trail. We found a very nice little new room on the edge of the town and met a young man called Jesus who would deliver his mother's homebaked brown bread, homemade jams and peanut butter to us every few days. It was a lot cooler at seven thousand feet and we had to dress up well at night, which was a welcome respite from the heat of the South.

The Kodai Music Festival was held the first week that we were there. It was mostly bad heavy metal music played by Indian bands but I thought it ambitious to have tried to put on a Festival here at all. By the lake, under our tree for shade, we could hear hard rock guitar riffs and Hindi tenor rock screeches echoing across the water then bouncing back from the hills beyond. I photographed birds and waterlilies and we climbed up the hill behind the town to look at the Observatory perched up there. But there wasn't a lot to see. In the evening, the Christian Lent Festival started up as if in competition with the heavy metal music. An Indian brass band played its weird jazz-like, military music, some fireworks were let off and there was a big procession. We ended up back in our little room with the music from our tape recorder turned up high to try to drown out the confused cacophony by the lake. We settled into a comfortable routine pretty easily, enjoying one another's company, reading our novels (I finished "Anna Karenina", Catherine was reading "Women in Love") and taking long walks around the lake. There were very few other Westerners around and we mostly kept to ourselves. I found a little camera shop where the broken light meter on my camera was, at least temporarily, fixed. The Indians are really amazingly clever people. Never having seen a Canon AE 1 camera before, they took my camera completely apart, figured out how it worked and put it back together for me. I was charged $8 for the work, although I later found that the repair had been brilliantly but incorrectly carried out. Alex, the owner of the shop, took a real liking to us and invited us back to his home for a meal one full moon night. There was an eclipse too, which I spent a long time photographing and got very excited about. But the situation at the house over the meal was a bit uncomfortable and we escaped as soon as we could. Alex made his obviously hungry family hold back while we ate and his poor wife didn't get to eat at all. Both of us felt pretty bad about it. Then Alex wanted us to take on the role of godparents to his kids which we might have been happy to have a shot at, were it not for Alex's overzealous Christian energy and his inability to understand that we weren't Christians.

After nearly two weeks we moved on to Madras. A couple of days later, we took a bus down the coast to a small temple town called Mahabalipuram, which was by the sea. We had flights booked from Bombay to London for the middle of March and decided to rest up there for awhile. We had become rather addicted to looking at Indian temples too.

By this time, we had been on the road in India for several months and were starting to slow down and plan our next move. Kodaicanal had been a pleasant and romantic interlude for us and although Mahabalipuram wasn't a particularly interesting place on the face of it, we had a very good stay there. The little town had been a religious center for almost two thousand years. It was full of seventh century temples and huge statues, all carved out of solid rock. There were life size elephants and a long avenue of big sheep, weathered and rendered almost smooth by the wind and sea air. We found a fabulous big rock with a relief carving showing mythological stories. There was quite a big Indian tourist scene there too and a community of fishing families who lived on or near to the beach. But rock carving was still the main industry there and we could hear the chip chip sound of rocks being worked eighteen hours a day. Little carvings and large and small statues were for sale everywhere. We found a quiet modern hotel room and settled down to a couple of weeks by the sea before we headed back to Bombay and the West.

The beach itself was pretty interesting and we would spend our days halfway between a shore temple with its little spires and animal carvings and a nuclear power reactor situated about three miles from the town. Standing between the two, it wasn't immediately clear which was the temple and which the reactor. I couldn't help thinking that humankind was always desperate to believe in one god or other and that different ages had found different gods. By this time, my leg wound was pretty much healed up but somehow I wasn't drawn to play or swim in the water there. Heaven knows how efficiently run that nuclear reactor was and what was being leaked into the sea. One day, reading alone on the beach, Catherine found herself surrounded by a crowd of young Indians who refused to leave her alone. There was nobody else around at the time. They encircled her, pointing at her and making rude comments. One of them even ran up and touched her sexually which upset her terribly. Like most Western women traveling in India, she had been harassed from time to time and was growing tired of this objectification by the frustrated Indian men. From this point on, we knew that it was time to take a break from India, fascinating though it still was to us.


But Mahabalipuram had unexpected charms. We found a restaurant called the Mamalla Bhavan serving the best thalis we had eaten in all India. A thali is a large plate or, in some parts only a palm leaf, covered with a smorgasbord of different curried dishes which one eats with rice, chapatis or breads. As soon as one's plate was empty, a waiter would load it up again so that one could eat as much as one wanted. This particular restaurant had a large selection of wonderful hot dishes, delicious lentil dal and strange, exotic, oh so sweet desserts. We used to eat there almost every day.


We met a Scottish friend Alex from Kovalum and took a bus to Tirukkalikundram with him. This was another ancient temple where we had to climb five hundred stone steps barefoot to get to the temple at the top. We noticed that there were a group of porters with huge wicker baskets sitting around at the foot of the steps. They were apparently there to carry the very sick, the very wealthy or the very overweight up the steep climb on their backs. From the top, the view was stunning as we looked down on a vast temple complex with a central bathing ghat laid out below us. We even, rather unwillingly, took Poojah that day. That is, we had a red "third eye" painted on our foreheads by an over zealous priest but I scrubbed mine off as soon as I could.

Catherine and I found a little local tailor who made clothes for us from old silk saris that he had. The clothes were incredibly cheap, (a shirt cost me a dollar) but as often was the case in India where you got more or less what you paid for, they weren't terribly well made. We would take a leisurely breakfast every morning in the back garden of the nearby Village Restaurant. From there we could look across the little pond between the restaurant and the beach to a little community of palm leaf covered huts where the fishermen's families lived. It looked like a scene straight out of Africa to me. We would watch the families drawing water from the pond to drink, watch them washing their clothes, their children and their animals and even fishing for freshwater fish in its murky waters. One lovely little aspect of life in Mahabalipuram was the intricate patterns that each woman would make on the ground in front of her doorstep every morning. They were very beautiful designs to ward off the evil deities, always made with a single continuous line of white flour and were drawn afresh and different every day.

We walked down the beach for a couple of miles one day and discovered the Silversands Tourist Resort. Here we learned that they put on classical Indian music concerts every night which were open to the public. In fact the Resort ran a taxi service into the town to pick people up in the evenings and take them to and from the performances. The musicians played in an incredibly romantic setting, under palm trees by the beach. We went there several times to sit on the sand out under the stars to listen to veena, violin and sitar music, which I love. There never seemed to be many people at the Resort, so it seemed as if the musicians were performing exclusively for us. The following week, a group of very pale and overweight Russians showed up who were somehow able to take a vacation in India with their equally unhealthy looking wives. The owner of the Resort was extremely accessible and friendly and invited us back there anytime. We liked it there for it was surprisingly low key and not at all expensive. However it didn't feel very much like India either.

By the end of our stay in Mahabalipuram, I had finished "Anna Karenina" as well as "Out of Africa", "Captain Hornblower" and "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and had started on "Fandango Rock'' by John Masters. It was time to take the bus to Madras where we would pick up the train for Bombay. We managed to spend a day and a night in Madras where I picked up some cassette tapes that I'd ordered. We went to see another circus, the Rayman Circus, which turned out to be exactly like the last with lots of quick acts, strange animals and another bulimic woman routine. Once again we stayed at the travelers retiring rooms at the Central Station and found ourselves on the Dadar Express for Bombay the next morning.

It was March 10th and to the end, India managed to surprise us. We might have been sharing our compartment with an interesting academic, with more Westerners or even another soldier like Subodh. In fact we found ourselves sitting nose to nose with a country family of six who were laden with and living out of four huge sacks of possessions. They piled them up in the center of the floor and kept pulling out different curried dishes from their depths. I thought that it was probably their first train ride for they certainly didn't know about tickets or reservations. But they were friendly enough and kept smiling at us. We were lucky to get little hard wooden window seats for the thirty-hour train trip up across the Central plains and ghats of India back to Bombay. It was actually a pretty tiring but uneventful ride. All I can really remember about it was passing through what looked like a post-Holocaust landscape with a string of ruined or half-completed nuclear reactors. They somehow reminded me of a Salvador Dali-esque broken-eggshell painting.

We arrived in Bombay a few hours later than scheduled and after checking back into the Seashore Hotel by the Port, spent a last night in the City on a mad present buying spree which was very exciting. We ate a last late supper with the International Set at Leopold's. We even managed to talk our way into American Express after hours and picked up a wonderful collection of letters from friends all over the world. We were starting to plug back into the system again. Our last day in India was spent looking around the Prince of Wales Museum, on a long boat ride around the Harbour and on more shopping. We had a very long wait at the Airport before catching a late night flight back to Gatwick via Dubai and the United Arab Emirates again.


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