1979 India: A second sip of the Subcontinent. Including ‘How I discovered Sarod’.

1979 India: A second sip of the Subcontinent

Including ‘How I discovered Sarod’


Monday 26th March

Ariana Afgan Airlines flies me over Istanbul (massacres in the streets, a coup d’etat in the making); stops over in Teheran (Shah just deposed, Iranian revolution in progress); and then Kabul (where chaos reigns and I’m wondering if those sounds I can vaguely hear outside the aircraft might be gunfire). It’s miles of desolation below us, grey snowy mountains marching off forever. It’s strange to reflect that just four years ago I crossed all those landscapes beneath me by roads that are now off limits to travellers. Then we cross the brown-streaked lands around the Indus and reach Punjab, a jumbly patchwork of coloured squares, interspersed with straight watercourses and villages radiating roads like stars. It’s a toy landscape complete with inexplicable splashes and stains where a child might have spilt food over the model.

It takes a few moments, after I disembark and step out into Delhi’s heat and flies, to shake off the culture I’ve just left. Taxi drivers mob me and insist that the buses are not running today; I’m panicky and looking out for other Westerners to cling to but the few there are are quickly gone on their own imperatives. Then memories of Pakistan kick in and I hit the ‘slow’ button, lean back against a wall, light a cigarette and answer all queries about my needs and immediate destination with a relaxed wave of a hand as if I’m simply not planning to go anywhere at all. That’s a signal for general relaxation and soon I’m exchanging friendly talk and smoke with a group.

Taxi down to a guest house on Fire Brigade Lane, just off Connaught Place, where travellers rent rooms in the old servants quarters back of the gardens. The strongest impression to hit me yet: the exotic smells, flowers and leaves of this garden. Some of the plants seem related to ones I’ve seen in England but flourishing on some stronger energy. I head off round the corner for tourist information, maps, telegram station on Janpath. More impressions: so nice to see beautiful and beautifully dressed women everywhere, free and alone; and also compared to Pakistan, don’t these Indians seem a touch less pushy? I just had to witness with amusement a Sikh guy ripping me off for Rs30 with his ‘magic’ tricks and his charming smile. I couldn’t stop myself. Remembering the lovely dahi of Pakistan, I search for it, but no one seems to understand my appalling accent, so I get the guest house people to fetch me some. I’m surprised: India doesn’t feel ‘spiritual’ if that’s what I expected; in fact it feels more earthy, more ’this worldly’, more abundantly alive than England.

I sit around with some fellow travellers but they seem somehow younger than me, and going through something I’ve already been through. I’m grateful for their company, and Pink Floyd on the cassette deck and wonder if I’m really as different from them as I feel?

Tues 27th

After a mostly sleepless night, crazy mind churning, I wake up to the sound of sitar, a Japanese guy called Yuji playing it in his room. I ask him about it, put my fingers on it, get the address of his guru in Benares. He practices all day and I envy him his dedication.

I drift into a Hanuman temple on Janpath. To the sound of the ringing of the temple bell, and with my back to a pillar, I get carried away to a dreamy place. A steady stream of devotees – young and old, Western-dressed and sari-clad, near-naked sadhus, children in arms – bring flowers, ring the bell, light incense and murmur their prayers towards the idol. I feel so much peace inside to participate, even if only by observing, in the merit of their devotion. Outside there are kids I give sweets to, beggars I give paise to, beggars I don’t give paise to and it feels like everyone I meet here is God.

Walking towards Buddha Jayanti Park, head down studying my map, I’m interrupted by Lawrence. He’s walking the same way, he tells me and as we walk he relates his story. He’s a Christian from Tamil Nadu who spent ten years in jail for accidentally killing a man who threatened to throw his Bible out of a train window. In a rage, Lawrence, a trained boxer, clocked him and the fellow died instantly. He’s been out of jail seven months now, he tells me, and been turned down hundreds of times for jobs because of his Christian name. He shows me a letter offering him a job in Kashmir to start on 1st April.

“But, Sir. How can I possibly afford to go there? The train fare alone is 30 rupees!”

I look him up and down, his old clothes smart and straight, his references and a pen in his top pocket, a Times of India under his arm. I wonder how he keeps it all together as I hand him forty.

“Sir, I will write my wife and tell her of you. Only today I wrote and told her I had not found the money for the train. She will be overjoyed!”

We drink Thumbs Up at the Park Café, talk about religion and life. He reminds me so much of John from Circle Trust (an ex-prisoner I befriended in London three years earlier while working for a charity), his build and face, even down to the boxing. Life has been hard on them but somehow hasn’t hardened them or made them cynical, even if they are both a pair of old cons! So what if this story is mostly blarney, there must be tens of thousands of others for whom it’s true. Can anyone in Europe imagine what it’s like to have two pounds stand between a job and a life roaming the streets looking for work?

“Sir, I am weak now, for I only eat once a day. But if not for you I would have walked ten miles each way today to try to get an advance on this job to pay fare.”

I give him my address and wonder if, as he promises, he will contact me in a month once he is settled in and his wife and daughter have joined him. Then I stroll, dazed, amongst the colourful blooms, butterflies, parakeets, feeling like I’ve stumbled into paradise. The squirrels, with the marks of Rama’s fingers along their backs, twist around the tree trunks, peafowl promenade along the carefully clipped verges and the warm sun envelops me. I feel flooded with joy to be in India’s embrace as I lie on a path and watch scarlet blossoms and palm leaves dance against the pure blue of the sky overhead. Young Indians gather around me, find me funny and give me a cigarette.

I take a bus back, crammed in with a diversity of characters, hurrying to get to a film. A mistake: I get irritated and sweaty and anyway am too late for the show. A long cool lassi refreshes me as I watch a Japanese traveller buying a sitar and check out prices myself. But I can’t really imagine burdening myself with a material possession at this time and actually see all that extra unnecessary thinking is cutting into my awareness of the here and now.

More street scenes as my sandal breaks and for Rs5 a street cobbler fixes it on the spot. In England that would be a “Sorry, we’ll have to send it off for repairs”, or more likely a throw away. My first sacred cows, wide-horned bulls, taking up pavement space; two bullock carts full of gaily-clad village folk blocking the road. Chai (35 paise) at a roadside stall, my few words of Hindi greeted with smiles, laughter shared. Old people still use “ath anna” here for fifty paise, from the days when there were sixteen annas in a rupee.

Evening waiting for Dagdha to call, feeling insecure. Will she come? And if she does how will travelling together be? I fill in the time talking to Simma, a Stratford-on-Avon girl just out of school. Since arriving last year at the height of the monsoon, she’s been volunteering at a kindergarten in a small village in UP. Her portrait of the village inspires a strong urge in me to find out more about the lives of the 80% of Indians who live outside towns and cities.

Wed 28th

Hardly any sleep again due to late night talkers, so early morning I take myself off for a nap in the Hanuman temple. I wake up to watch the Hindu world go by: wiry, well-muscled labourers rebuilding around me, shifting great baskets of rubble hour after hour, dark-skinned and graceful of movement, seeming like giants or gods in their fluidity of motion; a neatly-dressed middle-aged man meticulously setting out his mat, blanket, candle, flowers, incense and holy book and reading quietly to himself; an orange-robed sannyasin, complete with beard and flower garland, making a great fuss of setting out his own place next to him, chanting mantras and then reading haltingly but loudly from his own book; first fellow is obviously disturbed but just makes a calming motion towards his neighbor with his hand whenever it gets too much; sannyasin shouts disapprovingly at two girls talking and giggling in a corner, pointedly indicating middle-aged man’s book and saying “Gita, Gita”; girls present me with prasad, bananas with ghee and black pepper; sannyasin puts orange mark on my third eye; I wash it off as I leave.

Nearby is the gaudy new and huge Laxmi Narayan temple, devoid of atmosphere or worshippers (though I daresay many will turn up when it comes to an auspicious day for begging the goddess for monetary favours!). I go to watch Shyam Benegal’s “Junoon” which features Shabana Azmi again (I’ve seen her in his “Ankur” and been bewitched by this portrait Indian village life) and has me on the edge of my seat in fear, excitement and tears. A young Orissan helps me with bits of the plot I can’t follow.

Evening I go down to the PO to phone Dagdha’s hotel in Poona and – joy! – I’m told that she left for Delhi today. Desperate to get some sleep tonight, but it looks like my sugary diet of fruit, curd, ice cream and lassi (which is all I’ve managed to get down today) is not going to allow it. A midnight attack of subhjee and chapatti does the job!

Thurs 29th

Up against the walls.
Of fear, as I walk on the Yamuna floodplain, looking for the ghats. Super hot day, aggressive dogs (rabid?), scores of persistent children demanding baksheesh. Their elders stare at me from their straw and plastic shacks, which they share with their cows, from hollow, uninterested eyes. I’m uneasily conscious of my pocket fat with money and retreat quickly back to the familiar Delhi.

And of worry and over-emotional reactions. Where is Dagdha? I wait for the 8pm Punjab Mail to come in at the station, desperate for her to be on it. Then freak out that I only left her a phone number here so call her Poona hotel again and leave my address too. And mindfuck that perhaps the number came out scrambled on the telegram I sent her…….?

If only I knew when she was coming I could relax, because there’s so much I want to do here. I make lemon tea on the gaz canister stove I brought with me, eat curd all day and pass the time with other travellers.

Fri 30th

I feel tired on waking and retreat from the glare into reading John Stewart Collis and gossiping. As I walk the streets I’m aware that already I’m beginning to not see and not wonder, so caught up am I in my petty thoughts and plans.

Spend an hour and Rs30 on that bottomless pit, the Indian telephone system, trying and trying to get a line to Poona, taking turns with a couple of Indians who are also not getting through. Again I wait for the Punjab Mail, and a hint of bitterness arises that I should have to wait for her into the second of these valuable four weeks. But I tell myself it is my faulty planning that’s to blame, and it’s the same with the single gaz canister I brought that is now running out.

Sat 31st

Resisting a strong urge to mope sluggishly, I walk around Old Delhi for seven hours. At Rajghat there’s Gandhi’s samadhi, where despite the Mahatma’s lifework getting Indian people to take responsibility for hygiene, the toilets are filthy. I continue along the Yamuna again, this time more relaxed as I have only Rs30 in my pocket, but feel intensely the cutoff because of language. A few corpses are burning in the ghats and a few onlookers, but no sense of ceremony, despite the pyre-men diligently dripping on the ghee. Further on the Ladakhi Buddhist temple is nearly deserted, although there are monkeys and vultures as well as beautiful green birds. Boats are being poled across the muddy river to the further bank where straw huts and racks of drying hay hang shimmering in the heat haze. Timeless but hardly romantic: unlike the tourist photos the reality smells of shit.

Old Delhi bazaar brought back the very best memories of Pakistan, bustling and wealthy with things being sold. I fuel myself with fresh watermelon juice and bidis and have enough energy left for a late afternoon yoga class suggested by a fellow resident Greet from Belgium. It’s all haste and hotch-potch, no comparison to what I’m used to in Canterbury!

Wondering continues but there’s nothing I can do. After all this is India where a multitude of things are just waiting to go wrong. Where is Dagdha?

Sun 1st April

I continue hanging out with Greet, passing time as we both wait (her boyfriend is due soon from Europe), by going to a lecture by a friend of hers who is a Gandhi-inspired nature cure type. A charming fellow with bright eyes and ready smile, he gave us some basic yoga philosophy and me my first experience of sitting at the feet of a guru. We left as bhajans were starting up to go to an air-conditioned restaurant and eat as much as we could from the salad bar for Rs12.

There is a strange sense of inevitability about Dagdha not coming; I just can’t seem to imagine seeing her any more. The news is that…..

(Here the diary ends mid-sentence and from now on I have only fragmentary memories left, which include the seminal moment when I meet sarod).

Amjad Ali Khan’s outdoor concert.

A massive marquee set up in a park, crowded with folk eating, gossiping, taking care of noisy children and in between times paying attention to the music. We sit on carpets on the ground and the artists come and go for hours. At some point in the middle of the night a handsome man in his mid-thirties, dressed immaculately in white kurta, unveils this shiny silver beast of a stringed instrument and knocks my socks off with his playing. I study the programme notes, which refer to lots of people who’s names all seem to be Ali Khan. I retain the name Amjad and the word sarod. My decision is made: this is the instrument I am going to learn to play.

Dagdha arrives.

Somehow we find each other by leaving notes at the Post Restaunte and it turns out that she has been in Delhi for days looking for me! The next weeks are busy with intense processing of our relationship. My innocent Kentish mind is deeply disturbed by her tales of the high jinks of which she has been part around the Ashram in Pune. We must have settled something though, because some decision is made that she will go back to Pune and then return to England to be with me.


We take the train to Pathankot and the bus to Chamba (3 ½ bone-rattling hours, Rs13). After a few days there we walk up to the lake at Khajiar (then brim full to the trees’ edge, now – 2016 – merely a puddle). Of the climb up I remember only looking down the long slopes of terraces below and blessing the shade of the few remaining forest patches. (It’s more than a thousand meter climb and twenty kilometers of distance, I see now from Google Maps, so no wonder I felt the impact of the heat and scale of it all). Further lessons in Himalayan scale take place once we have settled in at Khajiar: my English conditioning says: ‘We’ve come up so high and are now in the forest, therefore there must be just a bit more to go before we come to clear ground and a spectacular view’. Wrong of course; we huff and puff up through the trees, only to find more terraces and farms above us, and beyond the next ridge what looks like more of the same.

We contemplate the exciting looking trek from Chamba via Brahmaur to Dharamsala but are told the route is still snow-bound.

McLeod Ganj

More buses bring us to the bustling hippy zone of McLeod Ganj, where I embarrass Dagdha by getting utterly stoned and wandering the bazaar making a fool of myself. (Perhaps I am getting more and more disturbed by her revelations?). I bump into Sid and Jill, last seen when we squatted together in a tiny vicarage in North London three years before, from which they announced they were leaving for India. We stay at the comfortable government tourist Hotel Bhagsu, which gives us a bit of privacy and distance from the frenetic travellers scene. We enroll for a few days at lectures at the Tibetan Medical centre, visit the usual visitors spots and that’s it. No memory at all of returning to Delhi, parting from Dagdha and flying back to college in Canterbury. And no photos either.

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