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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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We spent a couple of days exploring Central London while we stayed in a hotel in Victoria. On the day that we checked out of our hotel to go down to Hastings, we ran into Maria, our friend from Kovalum, when we walked into Victoria Station to stash our backpacks. It was an amazing reunion for I can't imagine what the odds were on running into a friend like that in the middle of London. She invited us to stay at her flat in Westbourne Park whenever we were up in London. She had a beautiful baby boy now, Luke, the result of a quick romance in India the previous year. As we walked past Buckingham Palace together, we were just in time to catch a glimpse of the Queen sweeping by in her Rolls Royce, having just opened Parliament.

We made a first trip down to Rye to see my mother who was doing well and spent a few pleasant days down there before taking the train back up to London to stay with Maria. By this time, we could judge to the day the optimum time to spend with my family down on the coast. We got some immunization shots for this trip and started to look around for a good deal in round-the-world plane tickets. At the end of our first week in England, we took the boat train to Holland and arrived in Haarlem in the evening. My old friend Chris met us and whisked us off to his flat where we met his Dutch wife Ivonne for the first time. Our lives had changed incredibly since Chris and I had lived together at Mount Mad all those years before. But we had managed to stay in good contact since then, seeing each other from time to time. It felt wonderful to be in Haarlem for it was a lovely old town full of interesting buildings, canals and cobble stone streets. The central square held an ancient Cathedral, which was surrounded by an open-air market, and most of the center of the town was closed to cars.

The Dutch are perhaps the best that Europe can offer. They are an educated, highly sociable and liberal people. Further more, they have the habit of leaving the curtains of their windows open so that we caught continual glimpses of Dutch life. Often it seemed as if we were looking into paintings by the Dutch masters of the eighteenth century for we could see people eating, hanging out together at night, reading and watching television. There really did seem to be a close and direct link between time present and time past. We got on very well with Ivonne. She, like Chris, was a musician and sang with him at his regular gigs at a nearby restaurant. They lead rather quiet lives and both studied music seriously at home where they had a simple recording studio. Ivonne was studying the piano and her lessons were subsidized by the state. Chris was working on an original cycle of electronic pieces with the quest for the Holy Grail as his theme. I've always been a great fan of Chris' and have often thought that he was the most gifted of all my friends. He had always been supremely unambitious however and quite content to work away slowly and privately on his various projects which rarely seemed to reach any kind of larger public.

Catherine and I made a couple of trips into Amsterdam, which was half an hour away by bus or train. We caught a free Dvorak concert at the Concertgbow and had a late night out at the Melkweg Club, reliving my memorable night with Marie Luz and Phillip so long before. This time we heard Baaba Maal and his wonderful Senegalese band. It was very exciting African music and the performers did the most acrobatic and energetic leaps and dancing that I'd seen in years. We heard Chris and Ivonne sing at the Camelot Restaurant too, an appropriately named place I thought for the last English Knight and his Lady to be performing. We loved their program of traditional and original songs. I spent a couple of days looking for a gallery to take my work but considering that it was the Dutch who first introduced batik from their colonies to Europe, there didn't seem to be much interest. Finally I found a small gallery in Den Haag which took some of my pieces.

On the day that we arrived back in England, Margaret Thatcher finally gave into pressure from her own party and resigned as Prime Minister. Following a short power struggle, John Major, an equally reactionary Conservative politician took her place and life went on pretty much as before. I found it all very depressing and resolved to move on as soon as possible. We finally found inexpensive round-the-world tickets which took us to Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Bali, Sydney, Auckland, Hawaii, San Francisco and finally to New York. The tickets had to be used within a year. Our flight to Delhi was booked for December 11th and this first step of our trip was on a Russian Aeroflot flight via Moscow.

But before then, we had other visits to make. The first one was to Wales to stay with our friend Richard whom we had got to know on our last trip. The train from Euston took us to Shrewsbury where Richard picked us up and took us to the little village of Llanfyllin in Powys where he was living with his girlfriend Jacqui. We found ourselves cooking a big curry that evening, in fact we somehow found ourselves cooking curry almost every night that we were in Wales. The village and the green Welsh countryside around us were quite lovely but relations at the house were a bit strange and strained. Richard and his girlfriend were fighting bitterly in their room all the time. We would listen to them rowing upstairs continually. "You bastard, how dare you talk to me like that? You just treat me like complete shit! Whose house is this anyway? You rotten bastard!" went the furious voice upstairs. Then a smiling Richard would pop his head around our door and ask us if we'd like a cup of tea and a plate of crumpets. It was a bit too weird and we'd escape by striding off into the Welsh countryside to take damp walks along the twisting lanes before the cold of winter drove us back to the fireside at Jacqui's house. But it wasn't all conflict while we were there. We met some very nice neighbours and Richard took us to a wonderful waterfall and lake nearby. This was the lake where the famous British war movie "The Dambusters" was filmed in which the English pilots dropped bombs that bounced across the water like skimmed stones to destroy their German target.

It was good to get back to Maria's house in Westbourne Park and to spend a few more days in London. We picked up Indian visas and hung out with friends. Howard held a ''Blues" at his Brixton house when he turned his house into a club for the night, sold drinks and hired a Jamaican DJ to play incredibly loud Ragga music all night. Catherine and I danced there for most of the night and ended up falling asleep there at five in the morning. We made a final trip down to Hastings to stay at Kate's flat and to spend a few days with my mother. This time we had a good visit but got back to London just in time for winter to really arrive and snow to start to fall. It seemed like the perfect time to be traveling on to the East.

We had bought tickets on a Russian Aeroflot flight to Delhi because they were the cheapest to be found on the market. The Indian travel agent warned us when we bought them that Aeroflot flights were pretty Spartan. "Basic" was the word she used, I believe, but we figured that we'd be alright. If we could handle the bus ride from Katmandu to Gorakhpur, we could handle almost anything, I thought. When we bought our tickets, we carefully specified that we wanted vegetarian meals and mentioned it again when we checked our luggage at the Aeroflot counter at Heathrow. Somewhat obsessively, I said it again to the attendant as we surrendered our tickets and were shown to our rather narrow seats. The flight was very full and the plane seemed very old and battered inside. But the flying was impeccable, we had a flawless take-off and I soon settled into my book. There was no movie on the flight, nor did we have headsets for music. When the first meal was finally served and I requested the vegetarian meals that we had ordered, the steward told us that Aeroflot didn't serve vegetarian meals. Our meal consisted of a potato, a little sauerkraut and a bread roll.

Our short stopover in Moscow was a real eye-opener. We couldn't leave the Airport but had about six hours to wait there. The first thing that struck me was that the whole airport was incredibly dark. There only seemed to be about six lights on in the whole place. Most of the main spaces were dimly illuminated while the edges of the rooms and corridors were unlit. Even more revealing, the toilets didn't look as if they had been cleaned lately and none of them had seats to sit on. This was an International Airport! All the facilities were very limited; there were no choices on the menu in the restaurant and not much for sale in the Airport shop. Poor Russia, it was obvious that the country was going through hard times. Of course subsequent events bore this out. And if Moscow looked bleak, our next stop, Tashkent, in the far South East of the vast country was almost shocking. We arrived there in the middle of the night and were ushered into what seemed to be a large empty aircraft hanger where we stood around numbly for hours waiting for our connecting flight. All I can remember was seeing a pack of semi-wild cats foraging around between our feet.

Delhi was a welcome respite from the rigors of our Aeroflot flight and we felt pretty grounded as soon as we touched down there. I should mention that our landings, like our take-offs were faultless and that those Russian pilots certainly knew how to fly. Delhi was a lot easier to deal with this time that our last arrival there. We took a taxi straight into Connaught Place and checked into the Ringo Guest House near the very center of town. Ringo's was a much-recommended Travelers' hotel where we were immediately made to feel very welcome by Mr. Singh at the front desk. It was a smallish place, up on the third floor of a building with little rooms off a central courtyard. There was a simple kitchen and we had access to the roof and views of the City. My only criticism of the place was that the mattresses were so thin that it felt like we were lying on a hard stone floor to sleep. But it was worth it for the hotel was full of interesting people. Travelers from all over the world were staying there and we walked straight into a good social scene. So we spent a few days getting acclimatized to India again, did some sightseeing and looked around the Red Fort for the first time. We even went to another wonderful Indian circus. I cruised the vast underground market at Connaught Place for new music and came away with a great collection of tapes of qawwali music, Sufi inspirational music that featured ecstatic vocals and frenzied drumming.

I had an interesting experience one day whilst sitting in Ringo's courtyard writing letters. There was a young woman sitting near me, all alone and a little apart from the crowd. I intuitively knew that she was terribly unhappy and in some kind of trouble. I sensed her pain, finally went up to her and asked her what was up and if I could help in any way. Her name was Judy and she was from England. She told me that she was working as a nurse in Southern India and had just received news that her father was terminally ill with some kind of cancer. She had left her job and was in Delhi trying to get a flight back to England as soon as possible. She was obviously overjoyed to have somebody to talk to about her feelings and her situation and we included Judy in our activities for a couple of days until she managed to get back to England. We've stayed in touch over the last few years and although her father died shortly after she got back to Wales, she's since met a nice man, got married and has had a baby. I made a good friend and we'll run into her again some day. The experience helped me learn to trust my intuitive senses even more.

At the end of a week, Catherine and I took a bus out of Delhi, across the plains of Uttar Pradesh and back up the mountains to Almora. We didn't stop there this time but jumped into a taxi and arrived at Tara's half way up the hill to Kasar Devi after dark. It was great to see the Tewari Family again, as good for them as it was for us and we found little changed at the Guesthouse. Tara had a new son, Gudu and a young Indian woman was staying in the room next to ours. Otherwise it was pretty quiet up in Papersali. There were few foreigners around and it was growing cool up there. Winter had already arrived.

Kasar Devi had haunted me since we had been there, for I had had my best experience of India there on our last trip. Up on the ridge, we were far from the noise and the hassle of the city, the air was clear and smelled sweet and the people always kind and friendly. And there was always that view, the one that was in my head so often, of the snow peaked Himalayas floating up there in the deep blue void of the valley and the sky. The mountains definitely had some strong attachment for me and going back there only rekindled my passion for them.

As soon as we could, Catherine and I walked back up that now familiar road to Kasar Devi up on the ridge and drank in that unforgettable view. There seemed to have been some new building since we had been there two years before and there was a new cafe, a couple more houses and a few foreigners living up on the ridge. So we made our walks along the paths winding along the hill, drank tea and enjoyed the view. We took nearly all our meals at Tara's this visit where Som was still running the kitchen and Lalu the store. Although we didn't meet Mukti, our neighbour, at first, we could hear her distinctively musical voice and saw her motorbike in the road outside.

When we finally did meet her after a couple of days, we both liked Mukti immediately and I believe that the attraction was mutual. As the days passed and Christmas approached, we got to know each other and spent a lot of time together. She was a little older than Catherine and turned out to be half-French. Her mother had been an ethno-musicologist collecting field recordings in the area when she had met Mukti's father who came from an old, rich Brahmin family. He had to more or less break with his family when he married Mukti's mother. The family had owned a lot of property in Delhi and was extremely well connected in the upper echelons of the Indian Government. So Mukti's parents had bought an old estate at Binsar in this Kumaoni region of Uttar Pradesh and Mukti had been born up there. She'd gone to a posh private school in Rajasthan where her relationship with the son of the Royal Family had had to be terminated due to Mukti's mixed nationality and consequent lack of caste. She'd tried a year at University in Oxford but had dropped out when she realized that she wanted to live and work in Binsar. The year before she had come home to become a social activist there.

Mukti was involved in a number of projects there, had started a self-sufficient community for lepers and was working to create a women's carpet weaving cottage industry in the villages of the Inter-Zone area between India and Tibet. She had succeeded in having the land around Binsar designated a protected Sanctuary. Whilst in the middle of this latter project, she had inadvertently been propelled into national prominence. Mukti had lots of high governmental connections as I said and had had an interview with the Minister of the Interior. She had wanted to talk to him about the local Mafiosi who were continuing to cut down trees at Binsar. In the course of the interview, the Minister had invited her into his back office to discuss the matter further. As soon as they had gone into the next room, Mukti had seen that it was a bedroom. She had been thrown onto the bed by the Minister who told her that he was going to teach her a lesson for meddling in the matter and had attempted to rape her. She had escaped and run through to the front desk where she had poured out her story to the secretary there. Mukti had wanted to take the whole matter further and had found that difficult at first. But eventually, with the help of the Prime Minister, a family friend, she had brought the Minister of the Interior to court. When she had told her story, the Minister had been exposed as a liar when he denied the incident and he had lost his position in the Government after holding the position for years. In the process, Mukti had been in all the newspapers and had come to exemplify the new feminism in India. She was attractive, very intelligent and a woman of action. We all became great friends and she invited us up to Binsar on Christmas Day to see the house and the estate and the view from up there. There was no road into the property, which was up on the side of a mountain, and the house was accessible only by a winding path. It had a breathtaking view of the Tibetan border, which wasn't very far away. Mukti showed us the path that the shepherds took when they moved their flocks down from the higher grounds in the Winter. She had made that trip with them and promised to help us make the journey sometime.

On Christmas Night, Tara piled us into his ancient jeep and drove us down the hill to visit the homes of all his Christian friends. We ate strange sweets and got a little drunk on some unfamiliar drinks. It was a truly unique experience and served to bond us all closer together. On New Year's Eve, we rented a TV, a VCR and some atrocious Indian movies and watched them with the entire Tewari family up in Mukti's room. Tara got extremely drunk and ended up with his head on my shoulder confessing undying love for me. It felt both silly and moving.

The new year, 1991, began with us on the move once more. Tara bought us Himachal caps as presents, Catherine made beaded earrings for all the women of the household and we said fond farewells. Mukti came down to Delhi by bus with us, and Catherine and I checked back into the Ringo Guest house. We got to spend a couple of days with Mukti in Delhi and she took us for a wonderful meal at the Woodland Restaurant where we met her mother before taking them both back to Ringo's to show them my batik. I was not only traveling with my portfolio but with a bunch of recent batiks on this trip.

There was the usual fascinating bunch of people around Ringo's, Clive from Scotland and Titia from Amsterdam whom we hung out with. We met a young man called Adrian who was actually bicycling around the world. We applied for Thai visas and decided to make a trip to Rajasthan to the west, a state that we had missed on our first Indian visit. So we said good-bye to Mukti once more and caught a bus for Jaipur.

It was a rather long tiring ride but I managed to sleep most of the way, only waking up to take a bicycle rickshaw to the Evergreen Hotel which must have been quite splendid at one time but was looking pretty funky by 1991. Jaipur seemed to be a dusty, noisy, typically Indian city with rather more hustlers than usual.

But it had its good points. The old city, which was surrounded by a fortified wall, had a very impressive broad main street full of interesting shops and we visited the famed Palace of the Winds there. The Palace was basically an interesting facade full of little windows which could be reached by a myriad little passages and steps from behind. It had been the women of the Palace's viewpoint on the world. We explored all the backstreets of the Johari Bazaar and the next day, took a bus out to Amber Fort which was quite fascinating. One began to get a sense of the days when such forts guarded the outer reaches of the Empire. Nowadays the enclosed courtyard of the fort contained monkeys and elephants instead of soldiers.


Actually the high point of Jaipur for me was probably a night out at the fabulous art deco Cinema, one of the biggest and most opulently decorated movie houses that I've ever seen. We went there with a group of friends to see the latest smash hit masala movie called "Thanedaar"-"The Inspector". It was a predictable tale of two brothers, one who went bad while the other became a fearless agent of truth and justice, a policeman. By the end of the film, the bad one redeemed himself and the two brothers were finally reunited. It was very colourful with lots of beautiful women, lots of action, a song and a dance or two or even five - and the heroine was killed at the end, of course. This movie had India's first digitally recorded soundtrack music and I was amused that the principal song was a highly discofied version of an African dance hit called "Tama" by Guinea's Mory Kante. During those two months in India, it was hard to get away from that song which seemed to be playing wherever we went.

Jaisalmir, out on the edge of the Western desert which lay between India and Pakistan, was our next destination. It was a beautiful medieval town, which had been a major stop-off point on the old Silk Route long ago before the transport systems changed. The town itself, which was walled and heavily fortified, was raised up on a little hill and a small town had sprung up on the flat desert floor, which lay all around it. As we approached by bus, it could be seen from miles away and the high walls reflected pink light in the setting sun. We quickly checked into the Swastika Hotel just inside the Manin Gate and set off to explore the town. All the cobbled streets lead us upward towards the top of the walls where we found more shops, restaurants and hotels. We went round the big Jain Temple at the top of the Fort and discovered that there were real-as opposed to Tourist- restaurants just outside the walls of the town. From then on we ate all our meals out there. On our second day, we were taken out to the edge of the desert for a short camel ride over the dunes. It was a terribly commercial scene with Indians trying to sell us everything under the sun and we both felt pretty uncomfortable about it. But the camel ride was fun, I could indulge my Lawrence of Arabia fantasy and we resolved to make another trip to the desert soon.

Against the backdrop of the desert and this lovely old town, the crisis in Kuwait suddenly exploded. Sadam Hussein's occupancy of the Kuwaiti oil producing area had provoked the UN retaliatory forces into action and when the deadline for Hussein's withdrawal passed in mid-January, George Bush ordered bombing raids on Iraq. I vividly remember when the first news of the Gulf War came through, for Indian fighter planes screamed backwards and forwards across the desert sky all that day. We watched groups of Indians collecting around radios in the streets to catch the first reports of the war. In the hotel that night, a tense and sad audience gathered in front of the small black and white TV to watch the first broadcasts about the conflict. The Indians didn't take sides in the war but universally mourned the outbreak of such heavy violence in the nearby countries. Unlike America, which we later learned was treated to a blow by blow filmed reportage of the war from CNN News, we were half-starved for information about the progress of the war. Being in another part of the world, we saw the conflict from a very different viewpoint. There were no American heroes nor was there a media barrage attacking the monster Hussein. Rather there was a general feeling of pain and fear that the Near East was involved in yet another devastating war. Delhi Airport was reported to be closed and all flights out of the country were cut 25%.

As is common in all big cities in India, we found a Bhang Stall right in the center of Jaisalmir. Hashish was illegal in India but the hemp plant with similar properties was fairly freely available. We soon realized after watching the action around the stall, that many of the town's inhabitants were high all the time. We watched the hemp plant being ground into a green goo by a family of young men and then being cooked and served up in the form of different candies, in drinks, with hot chilis and even fried in batter as tempura. The old men of the town popped by regularly to take a moist green ball of the bhang and swallow it straight before going back to work. We tried it in a drink like an evening cocktail and climbed dreamily up to the top of the fortress' walls to watch the sun float downwards like a great pink football and slowly flatten out and disappear out there in the desert.

Our camel trek was short, sweet and sore and I walked stiffly and bowlegged for days afterwards. We eventually decided only to make a one-day trip. That turned out to be perfect and quite long enough. We left early in the morning with a small group including Mark and Bridget from our hotel and two small boys who came along to help out with the camels. My camel was a grotesquely ugly beast called Lalu. She smelt very bad, farted and belched continually and would turn her neck around to leer suggestively at me from time to time as we swung along on little tracks across the desert. It was pleasant to be so high up from the ground and to be able to see so far from that position although there wasn't that much to see in the desert. Mostly I seemed to be plodding along a little track looking at Catherine's back and the swinging rear end of her camel. We came to an old temple complex and looked around there for awhile. We weren't really surprised when a bunch of Indians came out of the shadows to offer us bottles of Limca, a truly awful lemon drink, biscuits and even toilet paper. One of the few changes that we'd noted between our first and second trips to Indian was that toilet paper was now for sale everywhere. Whereas the Indians continued to wash themselves in the infinitely more ecologically sound and practical way using water and their left hand, there was a growing market in India now for toilet paper. We refused all offers of bargain supplies and continued our odyssey across the desert, stopping only for a packed lunch in the shadow of some old ruins. Even there, we were assaulted by cries of Limca! Biscuits! Cigarettes! and Toilet Paper!

As the sun began to sink once more over that painted desert, Lalu seemed to come back to life. She had dragged behind the other camels quite noticeably all day and suddenly took off in the direction of the fort. Straining to get back home as fast as possible, leering and grunting and slobbering over her huge dripping cud which hung out of her mouth half the time, she lead the group in a large circle and soon we could see the walls of Jaisalmir to the east. As we got even nearer, Lalu picked up more speed and was soon almost cantering towards her home, her stable and presumably her supper. By the time we arrived back at the fort, I was tired and my legs and thighs ached but I had grown strangely fond of my camel and her unsubtle ways.

The long eighteen hour bus ride back to Delhi via Jodhpur passed quickly. With the help of half a Valium pill, I slept almost all the way. It was probably just as well because whenever I awoke, the bus seemed to be traveling at a dizzying speed across the desert. The driver obviously took pleasure in overtaking other vehicles on terrifyingly tight corners and reminded me how dangerously most bus drivers drove in India. We were always reading and hearing about massive accidents in which buses turned over and fell into gorges killing all their passengers. But our good luck looked like holding once again.

Back at Ringo's we found ourselves once more part of a group of fascinating fellow travelers from all over the globe and were thrilled when Mukti showed up once more looking for us. So we spent one more wonderful night with that fascinating young woman with whom Catherine and I were both half in love. It was actually a mutual admiration society and we've stayed in touch with her ever since. Mukti has offered us work in India. I could work on one of her cottage industry projects and could help to start up a batik business near Binsar. Catherine might work to set up a Youth Center for Indian teenagers, something which could go far to bridging the gulf between the sexes in India. Mukti has told us to consider her house as hers and to come back there whenever we could. Recently she got married to the Indian Army's 800 meters running champion and has had a baby. I think often of Kasar Devi and that view of the Himalayas and can't wait to get back to see Mukti and our friends in the mountains.


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