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Stephen Scourfield Writing

Charming India

In India, storytelling, verbal embroidery, clever and often fearless use of English and, well, even misleading someone for the sake of spinning good homespun yarns, which might have amused the Mahatma himself, are intrinsic cultural sports.
“Sport! We did not do very well at the Olympics. Three medals, I think.” Pradeep shakes his head scoldingly. Only three medals from a nation of more than a billion people. Then he instantly brightens: “But what we are very good at at the moment is chess. We have the world champion and the youngest grandmaster, I think.” He rolls his eyes, to emphasise the incredulity of the situation. Imagine that?
I can. I still treasure a years-old sports page from the Times of India, which has a rapid chess story placed next to a Formula 1 report. It gave me one of my greatest insights into the depth and breadth of the Indian mind, sensibility, appreciation and humour.
S. (Sethuram) Pradeep is the guide leading travellers on The Golden Chariot — a luxurious purple snake which stops each day so that its international guests can plunge into the swirling history and contemporary life of the south Indian State of Karnataka, and then eat dinner on board and sleep soundly in our known beds before the train moves on to somewhere else. From Bangalore to Mysore, Bandipur National Park, the island town of Srirangapatna, Hassan and on up to Goa before returning to Bangalore. Even the name “Bangalore” itself has a story, of course, says Pradeep, who changed his first name to Pradeep from Tito, which his grandmother had insisted on because she admired the former Yugoslav ruler. There must be a story behind that but Pradeep, also a singer in two of Bangalore’s blues bands, obviously doesn’t want to tell it today.
He wants to tell the story about Bangalore, which locals seem to insist on not calling by its new name of Bengaluru and absolutely insist that I do the same.
“In a time lost before real history, a prince was hunting in the area and got lost and an old woman took him in and fed him,” says Pradeep. In appreciation, he named the village “boiled beans”— derivates of banga, lore.
Bangalore. This is part of the Tollywood set (the Bollywood film centre is Mumbai, or Bombay, and nobody can tell me why it’s “Tolly” here), a centre of the information technology boom, expanding rapidly.
A city where big brahminy kites sit on roof edges like pigeons, horses and carts mix with lurching buses, the traffic locks four-abreast but somehow wriggles its way along. Of black and yellow Bajaj RE auto rickshaws, Royal Enfield and Hero Honda motorcycles, white Morris Ambassador taxis and Atlas bicycles with dozens of soccer ball-sized coconuts hanging off them. Of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, Islamic mosques and Christian churches, cheek by jowl. Of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva god triumvirates. The father, son and holy ghost. All sewn into its long and complex histories, and its present. Sun visors on big Tata and Ashok Leyland haulage trucks espouse “Praise the Lord” and “Baby Jesus” and “Lakshmi”. . . “Live and Let Live.”
At the big bull Hindu temple, under the flourishing radicles of a Ficus religiosa tree, a sign aptly entreats that “Kindness is the root of righteousness”.
In the 97ha of Bangalore’s Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, couples find quiet spots and seem to create their own bubbles of intimacy. Indians know how to find privacy among a crowd, and how to respect it. The men’s pressed shirts and thin white pants and the women’s bright salwar sets of pants, kameez and scarf show the seemingly infinite Indian ability to immaculately launder.
It’s a laid-back scene and, as one popular local story goes, Bangalore is such a laid-back place that a local buying a banana off a street vendor asked him how much it would cost to have it peeled for him.
Ha! Laid-back? “That’s laid-back,” expounds Pradeep, loving the story.
In India, you can get a story — or a poem — even from a list. It is a two-hour drive from the city of Mysore out to Bandipur National Park and I plug in my iPod speakers, let Ravi Shankar spiral in my head and just watch India pass by the coach window.
Bright Tamil temples, mosques. Infant Jesus church, the Carmel English school, Ashya Ashram.
Rice paddies, sugar cane, harvested by hand. Sunflowers and castor oil. Lentils, millet and maize. Mulberries for dyeing Mysore silk.
Ibis, black with red heads, groom paddies that look like a bald head plugged with green tufts. Shepherds guide sheep flocks along the highway and buffalo pull top-heavy carts and ploughs. The harvest festival lasts three days, with the last dedicated to the cattle and buffalo that work alongside the human toilers. They are bathed and thanked and revered.
Cattle. Always cattle. On the roadsides, sprawled over the junctions, on the roads.
Dark green paint, bright shrines, stone walls. Saris of turquoise, yellow, cerise, purple, and the same dark green of government uniform. Big and shining silver water pots on their heads. Their children in immaculate white.
Washing slapped on the concrete near the irrigation channel and spread down its banks to dry. A man squats in a ditch to urinate.
Roadside shrines and restaurants —“Veg” and “Non-veg”. As much a religious, philosophical and political choice as dietary. Xerox everywhere —“Two minit (sic) walkable distance”. STD-ISD phone signs, and everyone on their mobiles.
And more hand-painted, wall-size signs — Macho Male Underwear, in a land of men who continually adjust their dhotis, picking up the ends and folding them to a shortened knee version among the cow pats, and Mycem Cement for a nation of intrepid and courageous concreters. Walls everywhere, with a handmade look and wavy tops. Flat-roofed buildings left with the steel rods poking out of the top.
Brickmakers sift red dust as their kilns drift smoke and the countryside is tooth-picked with fence posts hand chiselled from granite. Men work railway lines with crowbars and, in preparation for a highway, tree roots considerably bigger than their homes have been dug out by hand.
It all passes by in a drone and the wild spiralling of the sitar.
And then, amid the Mahindras and Piaggio three-wheel pick-ups, suddenly the road stops. Or at least it stops for us, because someone has dug it up. The driver displays the admirable Indian trait for manoeuvring vehicles (especially big ones) through impossibly tight spots, and the purple-shirted Golden Chariot boys jump out and show the equally endemic Indian trait for shouting streams of advice and instructions.
There are apparently plenty in government who believe it is fundamentally wrong to fix India’s often appalling pitted or virtually non-existent roads. If you do that, their logic goes, people just drive faster and kill themselves. Why would you spend so much money on that? Better for them to have bad roads and be forced to drive slowly. There is a certain unarguable, if rather Indian, logic to it and it is widely quoted that India still has fewer deaths on its roads than there are from snake bites.
“I tell guests that when they are visiting India they will need three things — lots of patience, a good sense of humour and to expect the unexpected,” says Pradeep. “When you see how India works, sometimes you think this is not a democracy — this is chaocracy. But that’s another story.”


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