May 2014.

I've bought a campervan as a 60th birthday present to myself, made some curtains and a patchwork quilt, waved goodbye to my family, and set off. My aim is to explore the coastline of Britain, anti clockwise, starting in Kent. I have no idea what will happen.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Taj Mahal

Having said how efficient the trains are in India, the next one I got on – Varanasi to Agra – was six hours late. I had planned this last section of my travels carefully and booked myself on a train to arrive at 5.45am. I would put my case in left luggage at Agra station and go straight to the Taj Mahal and see it bathed in early morning light. Then I would see the Fort, wander about a bit, and get a bus to Delhi. Simples.
Instead I arrived at 11.30 when the sun was high (except it was overcast) and I felt horribly crumpled, tired  and dirty. I paid a taxi for 4 hours to take me on a tour, locked my case in the boot, and Rashid was my excellent guide.  
“Madam,” he said to me (better than Aunty) “when you walk through that arch and see the Taj Mahal, for a moment your heart will stop.”  And he was right. It is just the most breathtaking thing you can imagine – milky white marble raised up so the backdrop is just sky. Even on a slightly dull day it takes your breath away. If you have seen it you will know what I mean and if you haven’t, put it on your list.
Then I had lunch and a minor detour to a workshop where they make inlaid marble in just the same way as the marble at the Taj was inlaid 350 years ago... and then to the bus stop. Five hours later, with a/c set to superfrost, I arrived back in Delhi and met Hari my Sikh taxi-driver friend who had put me on the train at Delhi Cantt 10 weeks ago. He wasn’t in the best mood, not just because my bus was an hour late, but because “Madam, my brother is in trouble..” His brother had been stopped by the police for having no license.. which might have been sorted with a bribe, but his insurance was out of date too...   So we stopped under a flyover and Hari went with his license to try to sort it out. I stayed in the car.
Hari insisted that, for the inconvenience, he would buy me a beer. No really, Hari, I don’t need a beer (it was getting on for 10pm) “I have turned off the road for the beer shop now,” he snapped, “do you want two beers?” No, really, please just one, a small one. It was a Kingfisher beer with a red label marked strong.. and it was. So Olly greeted me back at the flat – very tired and grubby, dragging my suitcase and clutching a can of strong lager...  Home in 3 days.

Mother Ganga

Varanasi is the spiritual centre of Hinduism and I was there at the beginning of a big Shiva festival. The place was awash with bare-footed pilgrims, walking from the station, bathing in the river, laughing and praying.  It ‘s mainly the young men who are dressed in orange - many wet from the river - jogging, eyes front, holding bamboo canes at shoulder height hung with  offerings of flowers and beads and incense burning, and heading for the Golden Temple.
I couldn’t exaggerate the importance of the River Ganges - Mother Ganga – she is a goddess to Hindu people. For the living the waters of the river will wash away sins, and for the dead to have their ashes cast upon her water is the most direct route to heaven. There is the irony. It is hard to equate the Ganga’s cleansing powers with water that runs completely off the pollution clock..  it teems with sewerage, dead bodies and waterborne diseases. Efforts are being made to clean the river, but like everything in India, it is the scale of the problem that is so daunting.
You see all manner of life here – people bathing, praying, doing their yoga, washing their clothes, gossiping, – it happen all along the ghats. (Ghats are the areas wide stretches of steps down to the waters edge which, in Varanasi, are all along the west side of the Ganga).
The first evening I was taken, along with Tony and Tina from Taiwan (Taipei!) to walk to the burning ghat.  Three or four fires were burning out, and a new one, unlit, had a body on it and was about to be ignited. Wood is stacked all around – burning goes on 24/7, about 70 bodies a day. Three tall, old buildings around the ghat, blackened by soot, are hospices where sick people who have no family and nowhere to go are fed and looked after...while they wait.
The bodies, wrapped in cloths and bound, are carried down on bamboo stretchers, through the warren of backstreets behind the ghat. They are immersed in the river before being laid on a fire. There is constant activity going on all around – relatives praying, ashes being raked and tipped into the river, new fires set up, people milling about, cows wandering down the steps, dogs chewing bones... There is no smell - just a lot of choking smoke - Tina kept her surgical mask on throughout. It was an extraordinary experience, but I found it strangely reassuring - that to a Hindu death is so much part of life, an exciting next step for them.

Haridwar to Varanasi

The journey to Varanasi was pretty seamless..  a taxi from Rishikesh (first a motorbike ride across the rattly bridge, my suitcase on a separate bike this time) to Haridwar, and a two hour wait on the platform. The train was waiting, but locked. Indian trains are quite spooky, especially in the dark, great big rusty hulks with faceless square engines. They may look a bit clapped out and are dirty inside but, so far, they have been amazingly efficient. An hour before departure a passenger list appears by the carriage door.. and there, by the light of the full moon, was my name.  Good. And when I got on board I realised what all those plastic cans had been for... there were as many litre cans of Mother Ganga as there were home-bound pilgrims on the train.
I had been fretting mildly in the taxi about this journey.. the loos mainly, and the fact that I could only get a top berth, and my legs were so stiff. When I got off the motorbike in Rishikesh I had discovered a hole in the back of my (luckily quite voluminous) trousers and couldn’t tell how big it was, and the thought of clambering up that ladder to the top bunk...I am enough of an oddity already without such an added worry.  It isn’t just the gymnastics involved in climbing the ladder, but there is virtually no headroom when you do get up there. I decided to try to forget about the whole in my trousers, and it worked.
My companions (6 berths) were a couple who had been visiting their son in his ashram in Rishikesh. Professor Mukherjee is a retired head of philosophy and maths from St Xavier’s College in Kolkata and his wife had a terrible cough, and wept to leave her son – they only see him every 2 -3 years. He came on board to say goodbye, and had a magnificent beard, a vivid orange turban and shiva beads around his neck. There was also a sourfaced woman in a glittering sari whose family were in the next door compartment and she had obviously had a row with her husband. All offerings they brought to her of meals and snacks were refused and she didn’t speak.  The other two berths were men who slept most of the way and worked on their computers. One helped me my choose lunch - veg curry with rice and dal (again) - 40rps.
The arrival time into Varanasi (or Banares) wasn’t clear. I thought  it would arrive at 1.45pm, the ticket inspector said 4pm, someone else said 3pm. So when I scrambled up the ladder again at 11.30 (we had an early lunch) to read my book, I asked the Professor to alert me if he heard any talk of arriving in Varanasi.. (Approaching stations are not announced and the name on the platform is always written large in Hindi and small in English – but by then it would be too late anyway, they don’t stop long.) “Quickly Madam, come down now, Banares is coming,” the Professor was jumping up and down and tugging at my blanket, and I was sound asleep.  I gathered myself together and waved goodbye to the Professor, hauled my case along the train and made it - to a celebrity welcome from all the porters on the platform.
The hawkers and hasslers are really bad at Varanasi. Taxi drivers will try to stop you going to where you want to go and tell you of a better place. But I said no, firmly, I wanted Hotel Alka. They said the trouble is Hotel Alka is in the old part of the city and there is a long walk at the end because the roads are too narrow for cars. They were right - it was a long walk - but luckily the taxi men came with me and carried my case, still trying to persuade me to stay somewhere else. But Hotel Alka is good – it’s at Meer Ghat, near to the main burning ghat – and it is right on the river with a lovely terrace. My room is large with a little balcony. Magic.
(written Sunday 17 July)

Monday, 18 July 2011


The rain started as I was stepping off the bus in Haridwar (from Sahrampur) and I went to look for a taxi to Rishikesh. (I was booked into a Yoga Centre.) “You want taxi?” asked an old man repairing a rickshaw. “Yes, to Rishikesh.” He nodded.  I sheltered under a verandah with a man selling bananas. I bought a banana and his friend came to join us. We had the usual Where you come from ? Nodding.  Smiling. You alone Aunty?  (I do wish they wouldn’t call me Aunty). Eventually a rattly old Ambassador arrived. “Rishikesh? 750rps.”  “Is that your best price?” I asked feebly. “Long way, fixed price.” Ok. Then banana man’s friend said “Why you no bargain?” Because I couldn’t be bothered. The taxi took an hour.
Rishikesh has been famous for yoga and its many ashrams since the Beatles stayed there in the Sixties with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. There is a huge Hindu festival happening at the moment and hundreds of pilgrims clad in orange are arriving every day to worship Shiva and bathe in the great Ganga river. 
The town is on both sides of the river with two pedestrian suspension bridges (jhula) crossing it. The taxi dropped me on the west and I needed to be on the east. He carried my heavy case down very steep wet stairs, (“Be careful  Aunty!” Thanks.)  and I walked across. The bridges are about 4’ wide and you walk on wide slats of concrete which rumble . It was quite exciting with the rain pouring down and the river racingfg beneath. Pulling my case wasn’t so easy, with motorbikes and cows and hand-carts to negotiate and pilgrims stopping to take group photographs. 
I rang the ashram from a shop and they sent a motorbike to pick me up - him, my vast case, and me. (‘Please God don’t let me tip this thing up, or go shooting off the back...’)  And so, safe and sound, I arrived at Rishikesh Yog Peeth. It was Sunday, so no classes. My room was in another hotel, round the corner. Not The Ritz, but it was fine, with a fan and private bathroom.  Several students were staying in this annexe and the only drawback was the narrow path which lead there from the centre, and negotiating the cowpats in the dark after supper.
Classes are at 6.30am and 6.30pm. Most students were on a 6-week teaching course and I joined a 3-week course, but only for 5 days. It was great, but hard as I haven’t done any yoga for 10 years and was by far the oldest person there...  Not my finest hour, but I want to carry on with it. I had two ayurvedic massages – excellent , particularly the second because I was quite seized up after a couple of days. .. It was SO hot and the classes called for maximum exertion... most days I had 4 or 5 showers  - cold, no hot water.
Electricity is unreliable in Rishikesh – as in lots of places – and one night when the power failed and the generator also went off I woke boiling at 4am and wandered outside. Just as hot. A foam rubber mattress can feel like a griddle pan. It was quite a job keeping pace with the hand washing. Apart from over-heating, I loved it – for those who want to take their yoga up a notch, visit .
Annette, a pianist from Austria and my neighbour, and I explored the town and paddled in the ghats where others bathed. The whole place was buzzing with activity and people selling spices and souvenirs and ayurvedic remedies... and hundreds of plastic containers . Why?
 I visited an ayurvedic doctor– lovely Dr Arora – and, without boring you with the details of my bodily functions, think I really made life-changing discoveries... (!) The other thing that kept me busy was organising my onward trains.. not wanting to be caught out as I had been getting from Jammu to Rishikesh.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Srinagar - Jammu - Haridwar

I decided to go by road from Srinagar to Jammu (no train at Srinagar) because the road through the mountains is beautiful. There are buses but the guidebooks advised share jeeps which leave early in the morning from outside the Tourist Centre.

I had had dinner with Hamid and Zahid (who had taken me to see all the weavers) and their family  on Friday night which was such a lovely evening – they are the most hospitable and gorgeous people. They had told me I should not go for a Somu (Tata), but try try to get a Tavera (Chevrolet ) – I went in a Toyota. It was fine. There was much discussion (in Kashmiri) and the upshot of it was that I should not eat anything except black tea and perhaps a biscuit. "Oh, it's that winding..?" "It's 300km, half very winding, half not quite so winding." Ok.

I got in to my Toyota Qualis just before 6am and eventually we had a carful (8 passengers) and the luggage strapped on the roof and left at 6.35 in torrential rain.  I had been advised to sit in the front – certainly not in the side-facing seats in the back – but it felt very snug while we were waiting, with nice Sikh telecoms engineer who was in front too, so I decided to move behind. That turned out to be a good decision as the 2nd passenger seat in the front was the hardest to sell and the telecoms engineer was very tired and noddy and fell asleep on the man who took the place. I had two slim men in the middle row and there were three more in the sideways seats in the back, one of whom had a terrible cold, or nasal troubles, and made a hideous noise all the time he was awake but was quiet when he slept. Out of 8 passengers, three were Sikh, one was foreign and one was a woman...

I am glad I wasn't in the front. The driver was brilliant (he got us to Jammu unscathed) but there is SO much traffic on the route – convoys of army trucks, jeeps, lorries – you just have to pass where you can. We stopped for breakfast after an hour (none for me thanks) and I looked at the shops – selling mainly nuts, dried fruit, shawls (mainly acrylic as far as I could see) and cricket bats. Kashmir is famous for its willow, and cricket bats.

The army convoy we had passed on the way up from Srinagar didn't stop for breakfast and, as we were getting back into the car they drove by...  So we had to pick them off again, one or two at a time. It's disconcerting when your driver rocks backwards and forwards as he passes a lorry going up hill, blind corner approaching - plainly wishing he had another gear. After 4 hours we stopped for lunch (no, still not hungry) and the loo and eventually got to Jammu after 8.5 hours.

I thought Jammu was a hellhole – but that is probably because I decided first to go and get my train ticket for Haridwar (I was told it left at 10pm so I had 8 hours to spare) and then go and find an internet cafe and something to eat...  Why did I not book the ticket in Srinagar? I don't know, but suffice to say I spent two hours  going from one ticket counter to another – Haridwar train completely full – and pleading with the Station Master and nearly coming over funny in his office (still nothing to eat). I ended up getting a ticket on the Delhi train to go to Saharampur (arr 6.30am) and from there I could get a bus to Haridwar and a taxi to Rishikesh. Lesson learned..

I had spring rolls – so oily I have probably blocked half my arteries, but rather delicious - and 2 lime sodas in a beastly hotel near the station. I got a rickshaw from the hotel and found a porter. The head porter said 300rps – I said WHAT? I have never paid more than 120rps before and though it isn't a lot of money, sometimes you just get fed up with always having to pay 3x what everyone else pays because you are foreign. .. (You can tell I wasn't in the best mood..) He said the chap would take my case for 100rps but wouldn't wait and put it on the train. OK, deal.

I was early anyway and the train wasn't due for 25 minutes.. so this adorable boy coiled his cloth on his head and put my case on top and I followed him up three flights of stairs, a ramp, and down stairs to platform 3 to where my carriage would stop. I thanked him and gave him 20rps extra...  Quite a miserable wait... dark, tired, rats everywhere, stink of pee, such poor people waiting. They seemed happy enough..

Eventually the train drew in and we made for the doors (those with reservations in sleeper class),  but the doors didn't open. Suddenly from nowhere my porter reappeared - to help me get my case on the train. How lovely of him. He couldn't open the door either, so he removed part of the window and climbed in and unlocked the door from the inside. It was pitch dark, no lights. So he got his mobile out and shone the torch bit until we found my berth.  I could've kissed him.

Once under way the journey was uneventful . The train was filthy and had no a/c, but fans and it wasn't too hot. I got eaten by midgies, but slept a bit and because I had had are much too little to drink, I didn't want the loo. Good, because it was another hellhole.
Arrived Sahrampur  6.30am, right on time. Took 2hr bus to Haridwar and then a taxi to Rishikesh..



Go to Kashmir..

What can I say about the Kashmir Valley? Other than you must go. It is a beautiful place, the Lakes are fascinating and the people are delightful. The crafts they produce are breathtaking – shawls, carpets, embroidery, papier mache, carving.. Most importantly it is only 1.25 hr from Delhi by plane – easy. It is completely different to anywhere I have been before  - it is mountainous, Muslim, cool, the food is different too – lots of meat, quite spicy. Very little alcohol, so get your own.

The war between India and Pakistan, which have had such a catastrophic effect on this lovely region, is quiet now and, Inshalla, peace will reign. But of course militant attacks can happen at any time – around political anniversaries or if a politician makes a provoking speech...  there are websites to look at, is one, or the BBC. Then, if all looks calm and you happen to be in Delhi, or Rajasthan, pop up there for a few days.. They so badly depend on tourism.

After Rajasthan I found Kashmir wonderfully cool. July is high summer, a lovely time to go there, and their high season (April  - August). The autumn is lovely (ask a Kashmiri and they will tell you all the time it is beautiful!) – particularly November when the chinnar leaves are red. Chinnars, plane trees but huge, are magnificent and protected – and there are lots of other beautiful trees. It snows late in December until the end of February – and it can be very cold and the snow deep – but the shikaras continue paddling about on the Lake until it freezes over. (Gulmarg, 1.5 hours from Srinagar has very good skiing, go to Nedous Hotel.) Spring, March until April is - of course - beautiful.

There are lots of houses being built – I am talking mainly about Srinagar, but other places too – so hopefully people are confidant about the future. All houses old and new have corrugated iron roofs – I presume so the snow shoots off easily – and they don't have guttering.. because the gutters would get pulled off by the snow.  It is hard for me to picture anything but the Lake glistening with summer sun..




I am in Gulmarg, up in the hills an hour and a half from Srinagar, staying at lovely Nedous Hotel. Gulmarg is really a winter resort with, I am told, some of the best off-piste skiing you could wish for. The highest cable car in the world goes from here (9000'), to 11,000' and then on to 14000'.

But now it's summertime and the focus is on the meadow (Gulmarg literally means 'Meadow of Flowers') – a huge green expanse which blooms with daffodils in March, followed by lupins and now daisies. The great-grandfather of the present owner built Nedous Hotel in 1888. He brought lupins from England and over the years the seeds have blown all over the meadow.

Lots of local holidaymakers are here enjoying the cool air and the scenery. There is a golf course and a children's park which is popular but most Indians seem to like to wander about or sit on a grassy bank and natter. They also love riding the ponies which are everywhere.. everyone rides – huge men whose feet almost touch the ground, and ladies in saris - bouncing around on these very sure-footed but not very big ponies. It is possible to hire larger ponies and trek in the hills which sounds lovely but I haven't done it.. I have stuck to walking . You really feel the altitude when you go up hill. Back to Srinagar today and heading for Haridwar tomorrow.
(written 7/7/11)

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


When I was in Delhi, when I first arrived in May, I went to see a shop called the Kashmir Loom Company. I met one of the partners, Samina, who showed me their pashminas and I said that I would like to buy a couple before I returned to England, and if I went to Kashmir could I see where they are made? She said of course I could and I emailed her before I left Jaipur.
So, yesterday, Hamid, one of three brothers who run the Kashmir Loom Company with Samina, picked me up at the houseboats and we had the most amazing day. We went to see the weavers,  (left top) and the ones who weave with lots of coloured wools in different needles so it looks the same front and back (bottom). The finished article is shown too!
We went to his house where his mother (seen with Hamid)  showed me how to comb and spin the pashmina wool. We also went to see his uncle who makes papier mache - exquisite fine work, and more crewelwork embroidery.
Hamid and his brothers employ many outworkers to work to their designs and it seems that these incredibly talented and creative workers, after many years in the doldrums with the militancy troubles and lack of both exports and tourism, have a really thriving business again. They looms are set up in their homes... everything is done by hand. "They work how they like, not in a factory," Hamid said. "You need a good environment, some cool breezes coming in, good natural light."
"We don't stop buyers coming to see the work, people can go direct to them if they like. The weabers are committed to us for the work they agree to do, but they are free."

So if you wonder why a real pashmina costs a lot of money, I can tell you why. The raw wool has to be bought in bales then it is combed, and combed again, and washed, washed again, and spun. Then the weaving can take 2 or 3 weeks. If it is embroidered, this is done entirely by hand. Everything is done entirely by hand. Some big shawls, which are entirely covered in embroidery, take 3 years to make. Then they are checked, checked again, washed, washed again. Then checked... then sold.
"Of course we could make shawls for a fraction of the price if we used machines," said Hamid, "but then what would these people do?"

Mr Abdul Gani

Today started with a head, neck and shoulders massage from Mr Abdul Gani, arranged last night. I wasn't sure how this would work because he is of course Moslem and women/flesh... but  he looked a trustworthy sort, and comes regularly to the houseboats. I asked Ramzan if perhaps I could have hot water after my massage... oils, etc? I might need to wash my hair? No, Ramzan said, no oil in your hair.

So I had had tea and was ready for Mr Gani when he arrived at 8am. He sat me in a dining chair and draped a sheet over my shoulders (I was wearing a sleeveless top) and began the most vigorous rubbing.. like the most enthusiastic washer at the hairdressers, but it went on for a long time. "Good?" he said? "Very good," I said, hanging on to both sides of the chair. After more than 10 minutes he bent me forward and did my spine. He wasn't bad, but it was odd - massage through clothes with no oil. Luckily in the forward position I could brace myself and not get thrust off the chair. Then my arms were squeezed and pushed.  I felt truly alive at the end of it, thankful that Ramzan had stoked the boiler for hot water, and that I had some conditioner to de-tangle my hair...

Kashmir Day 2

I didn’t have the best night.. largely due to the  mountainous supper of Kashmiri chicken with rice and vegetables, followed by banana fritters. ..  on top of those doughnuts. I didn’t shut my curtains, so that I would open my eyes in the morning to the view across the lake. But I was woken at 3am by dogs barking a mile away across the lake, which was followed by the amplified call to prayer from several different directions that bounced round the lake at 4am. No matter, I had enough sleep.
I asked for poached eggs and a mango for breakfast and they arrived - with a plate of pancakes, honey, and a basket of special Kashmiri breads... This has got to stop! Laughing, Mr Butt says he likes all his guests to put on weight while they are here.  Here is one obliging guest..
Then Lassa arrived. He is the most enchanting man... owner of ‘Stranger in Paradise’ – the shikara you see in the last blog. He took me out for an hour on the lake. He speaks brilliant English – also quite a lot of French and Italian I think - in a strangely lilting voice and has the most amazing smile.. He is a fund of knowledge about the lake and the people who live there and the birds.. “Lassa, is that a pied kingfisher?” “Yes please, Madam.” “Lassa is that a grebe?” “No please Madam... a young moorhen.” Silly me.  “Madam you see the ladies there? They are gathering the leaves of the Marsh Marigolds to feed the cows. Very good for milky cows.”
 I have also been out today with Mr Butt’s son, Niwas, to see incredible embroidery being made –shawls which take 3 years to make - and crewelweavers.  Designers from all over the world have their designs made here... someone from New York has a line in crewel (chain stitch) fish which are being created in a garret in the old part of Srinagar. Incredible fine craftsmanship... they have also created a Noah’s Ark rug which would look amazing in a modern seaside house – on the wall I think. It’s 10’ square.
Back at the houseboat Ramzan had timed the boiler perfectly for a hot bath before supper.

Kashmir Day 1

Here I am in Srinagar staying on a houseboat looking out across Dal Lake – something I have long dreamt of doing. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is. The shining, mirror-flat lake, the mountains beyond, the birds, the people... and the houseboat. A few fishermen, two to a boat, are quietly paddling their elegant kishtee, fishing for carp, their voices crystal clear across the water.  Huge kites circle overhead, hunting for supper, and there are egrets and kingfishers, herons and terns flying about.
When I told the  taxi-driver at the airport where I wanted to go, he chuckled and did a little head-wag. “The best house-boats.” he said, and we were off. It was sightly overcast, with a gentle cool breeze blowing. Not cold, but not hot either. Bliss.  
I got such a greeting when I arrived from Gumal Butt, owner of Butt Clermont Houseboats, that I felt truly special.  He rang me in Delhi, then we spoke at the airport, and he was waiting for me when I arrived with a huge bear hug.  We walked through his gallery of photographs and press cuttings. So many people have stayed here.. diplomats and film stars, Lord Mountbatten, Ravi Shankar, George Harrison,  Michael Palin... and me. But I am sure that, proud as Mr Butt is of his celebrity guests and the praises they have heaped on him – everyone probably receives much the same welcome. He just loves people and is smiling, welcoming, warm – nothing seems too much trouble. We walked through his garden - of which he is very proud, it dates back to Mughal times - to the line-up of houseboats, each with a boiler outside and an overhead pipe to the bathroom. I meet Ramzan who will look after me, who explained the plumbing.
My houseboat has one double bedroom – some sleep four, one sleeps 10. They are spacious and comfortable, decorated with intricately carved cedar wood, antique furniture, crewel weave curtains and chaircovers and silk rugs. My table was laid for supper and a vase of dahlias and gladioli from the garden. Gumal Butt and I drank cinnamon tea from bone china teacups and I polished off most of a plate of the most exquisite little doughnuts.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

A trip to the cinema

Everyone who visits Jaipur and reads their guidebook will probably know about the Raj Mandir cinema. It is famous, has film premiers etc. It was built in the 1970s on art deco lines, it's all lilac and pink meringue inside, and plush seats. Krishnangi Smriti's foster daughter, 12, and I went to see Ready, a new Bollywood film with Salman Kahn, a big star. It was lucky we arrived in good time because we queued for half an hour for tickets... the place wasn't packed, but there were still hundreds of people there - it was a Monday matinee.
You don't really need to speak Hindi to enjoy an indian film..   there is a fairly basic formula I think (though this is the only film I have seen all through and on the big screen) - There's a beautiful girl, a handsome man who she doesn't fancy at first but then she does, a huge baddie (perhaps several), mafia-type baddies who frown a lot and drive about in big cars with tinted windows, a goofy fall-guy who is the butt of a lot of jokes, lots of misunderstandings and lots of laughs - custartd-pie humour, and dancing. The men have to be put straight on matters of the heart by their long-suffering wives who sit together and gossip and look lovely.
I thought it was great - film-goers here like to be 'transported' by cinema. There is lots of audience participation, hollering and laughing at the good bits, a 10-minute 'Pee break' - comes up on the screen - where everyone does if they have to, and can get refreshments etc. The film finishes with a good dance routine - if I could criticise I would say there wasn't enough dancing, but maybe that was just me.


This is Sonu my taxi friend in Jaipur. He is a very smiley fellow and talks good english - non-stop. He likes driving english people best "I like the french/germans/italians etc. But not so much. They don't speak so good english." No Sonu, but... "You. You make me very happy." I am sure I do - I pay him over the odds, and he has taken me to all the places where he gets a rake-off. "No worries, you don't have to buy. I just take you there and they give me little something for my children." Once I thought we were visiting a home for deaf and dumb children which he kept talking about, but it turned out to be another jewellery shop. Grrr (Not so good english after all!)
It irks me most that I should be irritated. After all, a couple of hours in Sonu's taxi only costs 350rps (five pounds). So we carry on and we have a laugh.
On a couple of occasions I have been driven by his cousin - both of them squeezed on to the driver's seat (below)- and I couldn't understand why, except Sonu said his cousin likes to practice his english. But I think it was because Sonu couldn't get his rickshaw that day. Most drivers (70%) he tells me own their rickshaws and the rest rent them. Sonu pays 175 rps (2.50) for a ten-hour shift and then hands it on to someone else, and he pays 300rps a day for diesel. On a good day he would hope to make 1000rps+ - a not so good day 600. So it seems churlish to quibble over the odd 50rps..
Yesterday I said goodbye to the children and came by train to Delhi. I knew it would be awful saying goodbye, they are such a great lot of children. It was worse than awful. When I left I was in tears and so was Smriti. Sonu put my case in his auto and took a couple of photographs of me with the children and then we set off for the station. There was none of his chirpy chatter, he didn't talk at all. He just said when we got to the station that he thought I ought to come and live in India, and I could go back and visit my family once a year..!

Thursday, 23 June 2011


There are thousands of Non-Government Organisations (NGO) in India.  It is one means by which people feel they can make a difference to social issues, healthcare, education, etc.  Faith is an NGO, and the students who helped the children with their computer skills at the technical college are in the process of forming an NGO. So many people are doing their bit to help the poor of India.
I went to a lovely 30th wedding anniversary party of friends of Smriti and Surendra. The couple are doctors – Meeta a pathologist, and Ashok an opthamologist – and most of the guests were doctors too. I met Dilip and Tanuja Chandra there who run a homestay (B&B). He is an architect who is involved with an NGO called Alternative Development Centre, which runs schools for street children.
Yesterday I went to see Dilip and Tanuja and he took me to one of the schools. These children are the poorest of the poor. They live in small slums under fly-overs or on patches of undeveloped land. They might be living there for the long run, or they might be immigrant families who have come in from villages to work on building sites. Many of the adults are addicts of some sort and yesterday the mother of one of the children was very drunk (a very jolly drunk!) and stunk of whatever home-made hooch they drink. But they are very keen for their children to learn and the adorable children were working hard with the chalks and slates.
The children range in age, I would guess, from 4 to 14 – the younger ones in particular were very grubby with matted hair and filthy clothes. One girl, in bright a yellow/green top (bottom left of picture) was married – she is 12. Child marriage is illegal, but it still goes on – the kudos of having a daughter married is still a big thing. The children were learning letters and numbers and stood up and recited nursery rhymes etc for us. The idea is that they should at least learn enough to get by, simple writing, counting money, etc  The problem is that their family might move on to a place with no such school, or a job might come up for them and then they won't come any more.
There are two pairs of teachers funded by Alternative Development Centre and both pairs do two 2-hour sessions each day to cover the four schools. They all sit on mats on the ground and there is a big school trunk which the teachers bring with the pencils, paper, chalks and slates. The children get a good lunch when they have completed their two-hour class.
Who knows what will become of those children as they grow up..  but at least this simple school might give them a better chance than their parents’ had, and enough self-esteem to keep them off the hooch.

It rained hard today.. I am told this is just 'pre-monsoon' but it seemed pretty monsoon-like to me. Despite the fact that everything is floating up through the drains, the air is wonderful after rain...

Jaipur, last Friday

Last Friday I went, with my hotel inspector’s hat on, to see The Raj Palace, a sumptuous hotel on the north side of the old city. I went with Suriendra Singh , who is a cousin of the owner. We were shown around the exquisitely restored Palace by a man in white shirt and black jodhpurs. The 38 rooms and suites are very luxurious and decorated with specially commissioned furniture and artefacts that the owner has collected to reflect life for a royal in the 18 century. The bed-linen comes from Italy and the Maharaja’s Presidential Suite is decorated with gold leaf and has a computer in the bathroom to remember guests’ body temperature so the bath water will be just right for their next visit. The whole refurbishment has been done with incredible attention to detail and though it verges on being over the top, it isn’t. We ate like kings under a dazzling Swarovski chandelier and there were rose petals floating in the fingerbowls.
After dinner the car was waiting in the courtyard, and we set off back into the Jaipur traffic. The town is busy at 11pm, people like to be out when it’s a bit cooler - and the street vendors are busy, the cows eating from the take-away packets on the piles of rubbish (their second stomach has obviously adapted to a diet of rice, a little imported grass, cardboard and carrier bags). As we left the main drag to go down a slip-road, our headlights panned a wide stretch of pavement, and a dormitory of sleepers were silhouetted against the pink structure of the fly-over. Some were lying on the typical low beds with a string mesh base, some slept on the floor and some were sleeping on their bicycle rickshaws. It was only a fleeting glimpse and I am not sure if it is where people live or just somewhere they rest up before a nightshift, but they were certainly having a different evening to the one I had just had
Earlier in the day I had gone with the children to their monthly check-up at the hospital. We went by the No. 6 bus and then walked in a crocodile a short distance, snaking through the traffic to the SMS Hospital. It was 12 noon and stifling hot. We were headed for the ART (AntiRetroviral Treatment) Department and had to pass through A&E – a bloodied motorcyclist was being stretchered out of the back of an ambulance – down a long wide corridor and up a flight of stairs. The floor was covered in rubbish and the walls were "splattered" – the washroom just indescribable. The SMS is the public hospital – ie for the masses and, I am told, they just don’t care or know to treat the place properly. It was built by the last but one Maharaja of Jaipur - and it is the biggest teaching hospital in the state of Rajasthan,  with top research units etc. (and particularly for HIV/ Aids).The doctors were totally professional, and that  is what matters. But I was shocked by the state of the place.  
As always, it’s a question of educating the people – and where to start? People are trying but it’s a monumental task with such a massive underclass in such a vast and expanding population. Bring back my rose-scented finger-bowl.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Journey to Faith

I am staying while in Jaipur with Smriti who runs Faith, the children’s home
where I am volunteering. She lives at Jagatpura which is on the road to
Agra, and her husband, daughter Ambica, 20, and foster-daughter, Krishnangi
who is 12. The journey to the children’s home with Smriti takes only about
10 minutes by car, but for a week Krishnangi and I have been going in
together a bit earlier than usual because the children have had computer
class. We go on a bus every day to a technical college where some students
volunteered to help the children.
Krishnangi bangs on my door at 7.30 to make sure I am ready and I assure her
we don’t need to leave until 8, when I have had my breakfast – tea, a mango
and a small banana. (It’s a mistake to have a heavy breakfast, autos don’t
have much suspension.)
We collect water from the fridge and walk for 10 minutes up to the main road
and along to where the autos wait, under the flyover.  The road is quite
busy and runs alongside a railway line. We pass a man repairing  tyres, a
few shacks selling things, a tethered camel, a stone works, and a water
hydrant where the tractors towing water tanks fill up. It’s a walk of about
1+k. Buses park up under the flyover, there’s a rusty wrecked van where
people congregate and drink *chai*, a vegetable stall and half a dozen autos
waiting for a fare. A few days ago we got a ride with a nice smiling man who
started the auto from the back with a rope like a mowing machine, and now he
waits every morning with his rope, ready to go.  It’s 50rps to the
children’s home because Krishnangi negotiated the fare and she is dark, when
it’s just me I pay a bit more.
I am pretty clear on the route to the children’s home now – I think – but
not so confident getting back from other parts of Jaipur. There are no
street signs that I can fathom, or road markings and I navigate mainly by
the huge advertisements for education that are painted on to walls, the
sides of buildings, the sides of flyovers - with their telephone numbers and
websites. ‘PHYSICS’ black on yellow is where we drop down to the flyover on
the way home and I know I am almost there.
traffic, women sweeping the roads and camels towing building materials,
guiding the auto around potholes big enough to bury a cow in, sleeping
policemen, and piles of rubble.
Soon we are approaching sector 6 Malviya Nager where the children’s home is
- we are on a big dual carriageway and I can see the big glass mirrored Gold
Souk coming up on the left which means we will sneak through the central
reservation and nip over to the inside of the oncoming traffic for the last
100m. Then, level with the Gold Souk, we turn in (ANOOP’S CHEMISTRY and
HOTEL DART), immediately right again, go left and take the second right.
We’re there.
 Education is prized above most things. Sonu, another friendly auto driver
(who speaks good English), says ‘No college, no knowledge. Lovely jubbly!’ I
am not sure what the standard of basic education is like – I would guess not
great, though the children at the home, the ones who read with me, seem
pretty good. Like most things, it’s a question of who gets it.
An American wrote to some friends  trying to describe living in the world’s
largest democracy – of it’s sheer enormity, the haves and the have nots, and
the contrasts in India. If you look at the top 300million people here
(roughly equivalent to the US population) wealth is distributed fairly
similarly to wealth in America. The trouble is that in India, under that
bar, there are 900million more people... It’s a staggering thought.

Saturday, 11 June 2011


I have now been at Faith, the children’s home in Jaipur, for almost a week. There are 16 children and they are a great bunch – 4 girls and 12 boys. Kushal, who is 20 and gave up his job in the hospital to work at Faith, lives there and looks after the children.  And there is a housekeeper (Aunty) from Bengal who has just arrived, and her husband. Everyone else volunteers, two Indian boys today, and a Belgian girl called Pauline who has been here for 4 months and leaves soon. Here is a picture of the children looking at photographs of their holiday in Goa on Smriti's laptop.
All the children are HIV positive except Gotam who has full-blown Aids.  Smriti Singh started the home 6 years ago and she loves and nurtures them all. She is full of hope for the children, and says medicine is improving all the time. Every day when she arrives in the afternoon they all rush out and hug her and touch her feet and she spends 2 or 3 hours talking and laughing with them. They are a very happy and healthy-looking lot. Except Gotam.
She is immensely proud of the children (she says, 'no not proud... pleased’ but I say she should be proud!) because they are doing so well. Most arrived from hospital in a pitiful state, with painful sores and broken skin, and now have just a few scars. One boy has some sort of tumour growing on his neck which is being treated but otherwise the children look unbelievably fit. Gotam is the exception.  I think he is 8 but he is miniscule, he comes up to my waist and his limbs are like sticks.
Smriti has been telling me that everyone must spend time with him because he is much better than he was. He can walk about and sit up, though he spends a lot of time sleeping. And if no one pays attention to him, he gets sick again. The other children are so sweet and play with him and lie down next to him. He is a little Prince.  In April he spent several weeks in hospital with an infection, but he pulled through and is getting stronger. In two weeks I will go with them to the hospital for their medical checks. They have immunity strengthening/anti viral treatment. At the home they have vitamins and some have individual medicines.
Lunch arrives every day in a van from somewhere - here is Aunty doling out dhal.
The house has an open downstairs room with a kitchen behind and also at the back is a bedroom where some of the boys sleep. There is a bathroom off it. The bathrooms aren’t great –they are clean, just basic. I just hope I can wait until I get back to Smriti’s house..
Upstairs there is a room where the girls sleep (and another bathroom), another where the older boys are, and a work room – for homework I think but it’s holidays so I haven’t been in there. There is another flight of stairs which I think is storage and I suppose where Kushal sleeps. There is no garden, just a little bit of yard behind the kitchen, but they talk about the park where they play. It’s just too hot to go there at the moment.
Smriti has a strict duties rota – everyone helps to clean the bathrooms, fold the laundry, put out the mats for lunch, help serve lunch, fill the water for the air cooler. Yesterday extra help was needed because the water in the house ran out. A tractor arrived towing a water tank and hoses had to be hoisted up to the roof and also downstairs through the house to the kitchen.
On Friday and Saturday we did computer class which involved going in a bus to a technical college, arranged through an NGO, for students there to help the children with computer skills. The first day was a bit of a riot, but yesterday we were stricter..! Today is Sunday and a day of rest.

More on Gujerat

This blog is posted from Jaipur, almost a week after I left Gujerat....I  have had trouble getting on line.

The day I went to all the villages was long and tiring – poor Hari the driver looked exhausted when we eventually got to Gondal. I think he’d driven about 320 miles which on these roads is even more arduous than sitting on the M6.
Rajkot, just before Gondal has lots of factories- engineering and electronic - and people flock there for work. At 8.30 pm it was teeming with people buzzing like ants on 2, 3 or 4 wheels, or on foot. When we got to the edge of Gondal we stopped for a few minutes at a railway crossing – great waving, and hoots of laughter at the sight of me from the 15 people in an open autorickshaw alongside us. Then a thump on the window on the other side. Most people tap and look hungry and it breaks your heart, but this was a thump, and a young strong-looking, black-toothed woman in a blue sari asked for money. She is the only person who has ever looked aggressive.. Later I asked Hari was that a man or a woman? and he said ‘Not man, not woman, there are lots of them.’ Hari and I could make ourselves understood well enough, but I didn’t feel we could tackle trans-gender issues, so I left it there.
Me in the salt
Hotels in Gujerat are either ‘Heritage’ which means they are owned,  or have been owned by a Royal or a Rajput and have a bit of history about them (and sometimes rather dodgy plumbing) or they are ‘Business’ which means they are characterless. In rural areas there are ‘Camps’ which means they are little cottages, often round, and there’s  a central office/restaurant. The Orchard Palace at Gondal came under the first category – huge airy rooms, nursery furniture and clanky wardrobes, and perfectly comfortable. The Maharaja lived nearby – the hotel was built for the guests of one of his forebears – and he has an amazing collection of vintage cars. I was shown each one – (Not by him, I missed that one!)
Salt is big business in Gujerat and I went to Little Rann where much of it comes from. Little Rann is nearly 5000sq km of flatland which is an incredible wildlife sanctuary. Importantly it’s home to the Wild Asiatic Ass – there are lots of them but this is the only place they exist.  I was taken there by the manager of the place I stayed in, Rann Riders. Much of the flatland is flooded with water from a borewell and after a couple of months, salt has formed. People go and live out there, working the salt flats, scraping and raking and gathering the salt. They had just left when we went out because the monsoon is on its way and salt production will stop until September.
I had lunch with the Maharaja of Dronghadera, known as Bapa,  about 2 hrs from  Ahmadebad (main city of Gujerat). He lives in a beautiful palace, slightly crumbling. We talked in a spare bedroom because the a/c was most efficient there – part of the zenada where his father’s, or was it has grandfather’s?, wives lived. Bapa read chemistry at Oxford and had great tales to tell. His brother came in briefly to say hello - he is a Professor of Anthropology at a US university and had a group of American students staying in the Palace.  Bapa’s daughter and son in law and their two children live there too and we had a wonderful lunch talking about India and maths and about eating, or not eating, animals.
Driving into Ahmadebad was a bit of a comedown, but arriving through the suburbs of an expanding frenetic city at the end of a long day is never going to be good. The litter is indescribable - plastic bags and cartons mainly - piled up in filthy heaps. Plastic is everywhere in India, filthy old carrier bags all along the roadside, hanging out of trees, it was even caught in the few bushes dotted over Little Rann.
The next day I had a taxi ride/tour to see the town. I started by buying breakfast for a cow. Lots of people do this - 10rps, and it gets the day off to a good start. I visited an amazing 15century mosque, and The Calico and Textile Museum which is absolutely fascinating- said to be the best textile museum in the world. But we weren’t allowed to take water in and the tour lasted nearly 2 hours with no a/c.  I was fearful of swooning into the needlework. It was 43c when we got outside.
I left early this morning for the airport, bound for Jaipur. Some ponies and goats were running frantically the wrong way round a roundabout as my taxi sped through town, pedal to the mettle, leaning on the horn. Hey ho. I arrived safely in Jaipur at lunchtime.

Images from Kutch

The textile painter, the bell-maker, the wood-turner and the embroidery ladies.

Saturday, 4 June 2011


I left Mumbai on Wednesday and have had 3 days in Gujerat. Not enough time - I love it - but I will just have to come back. I have had an a/c car and driver (Hari Singh) which seemed like a bit of an extravagance when I booked it, but I  couldn't have covered the distance any other way, and it has been 43c on occasions, so a/c vital.
I flew in to Bhuj, in the Kutch area in the west - it's flat and dry, known as the wild west - and met Hari and drove down to Mandvi on the coast.There is the most incredible shipbuilding industry in Mandvi - beautiful wooden ships - big boats, one was 153m long - which are mainly sold to the Middle East. Sadly my camera battery ran out as I was walking up the ladder so I can't show you the inside. The beams across are vast timbers -25m? long - which are bought in from Malaysia, otherwise they are made from Indian trees. Then on to the beach where I stayed in a tented camp - a big tent with a/c in  a beautiful resort with miles of beach, see pic.
I can't remember if I have said it enough, but I am here totally out of season, so all the places I have been to are devoid of foreign tourists (Indians have been on holiday, but not so much now) and maintenance work is underway before the monsoon breaks. Then the tourists come in August/September through till March, post rains, with new roofs etc. The beach camp was lovely - comfortable, charming. Beautiful birds flying about and some small antelope scuttling about in the bushes. The only other guest was a character from Evelyn Waugh, a German who had been there for 2 months, working on a power plant nearby, with another 3 to go.
The Royal Palace at Mandvi, is home to the Maharaja of Kutch. A really pretty Palace, built from Jodhpur sandstone in the late 19th century, surrounded by pretty gardens and then scrub and palms and the sea . There isn't much to see inside, if there were riches they have been sold off. Just half a teaset in the dining room cabinet, but it had great charm - faded family photographs and hunting trophies - a stuffed tiger in a glass case -  and shiny colour photographs of the crew of a famous Bollywood film which was made at the Palace. There were signs warning of fines (50rps) for sounding your horn outside, 100rps for spitting and on the way up the steps to the roof there was a sign on the door saying #000 (first figure scrubbed out) for 'opening this door'. It was tempting, for a peep at the Maharaja in his dressing gown, but it could've been expensive. He lives most of the time in Mumbai but was actually 'at home' when we went - his jeep in the courtyard with the royal crest for Kutch, Courage and Confidence.
Then we set off on a tour of all the villages (Kutch is famous for its craftsmen) and saw people doing the most beautiful embroidery, painting, block printing, making bells.. I saw the lot and felt quite panic stricken as everyone pulled out all the cloths and bangles and bells and carvings... but they don't mind - they are such lovely smiley people. The women are so beautiful and colourful and industrious. (I might blog about the craft, it deserves more, but I am tired with scramble-brain after seeing so much.
There is a great feeling of activity and - almost - prosperity. (Gujeratees have a reputation for being industrious and entrepreneural.) Agriculture is big and tractors looked quite new and shiny ploughing up and down the fields - more than can be said for the traffic on the roads..! And they have sophisticated irrigation - a vast canal is being built across the state and there are bore holes which water is pumped from. Considering how mind-blowingly hot it is, trees etc are very green. They grow cotton, corn, millet, bananas, mangos, castor oil, vegetables - and there are even more cowes than before.. and buffalo. Lots of lorries with milk written on the side - they must be refrigerated or the milk would be yoghurt after a couple of miles, but the tankers don't look too hi-tech.
Roads are good in parts too - terrible in others. Vast stretches of new tarmac (no white lines) and a central reservation sometimes but you can drive either side of that..  Often the new road meets the old one with such a step that it throws your insides out and then you are likely to meet a herd of cows/buffalo/sheep walking back from grazing in the fields, and just setting out across the highway (stepping over the central reservation) with a man waving a stick.
(Nicki sent word from Mumbai - it poured with rain the day after I left.)
It can be incredibly difficult to understand what people say, and to be understood. We are all speaking english, but not quite the same english. Hari's english was moderate, and he obviously thought the same of mine. It's annoying because you can miss a lot..
More of Gujerat to follow.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

More Mumbai

Yesterday I drove around Mumbai - (I didn't drive, you understand, I had a taxi) - and went to look at The Taj Lands End which is the new one north of the main city, at Bandra. It is incredibly smart - I went to look at the shop because the receptionists at the main Taj Palace Hotel in South Mumbai have the most incredibly beautiful saris specially woven in Benares. Someone within the Taj group realised that the old Benares weavers were fading out and need investment, so started this incentive to get them going again. One of the projects is the new sari, and I want one! I was told that The Taj Lands End had them in their shop. They didn't! They did once, but no more. So then I decided to go and look at the area north of Bandra and in particular a trendy hotel favoured by the Bollywood crowd. I wasn't star spotting, but wanted to see the place you understand.

It takes ages to drive anywhere because the roads are so congested (luckily taxis very cheap) and I felt so shocked when I left the slick security and luxury of The Taj to drive, within minutes, through the worst and smelliest slum area - it was just around the corner. Somehow you never quite get used to the devastating contrast of the haves and the have nots...  it quite takes your breath away. People living in corrugated tin boxes, a terrible smell - fish added to the usual slum smell because this was a fishing place - and grubby children and scrawny dogs in narrow alleys. People sleeping, flies buzzing and just the general smell of utter poverty. Then we are in Bandra, one of the richest suburbs, and on the way to Bollywood.
The hotel was ok - slick and Swedish - nice. North Mumbai has such a totally different feel to the tourist/old Raj feel of South Mumbai.There was a young lad in the hotel from Yorkshire - he had combat cut-offs and a flat tweed hat - and was obviously part of a film crew. I wanted to ask him what he was doing but he was talking with someone and then he was gone.
In the afternoon I thought, for something completely different, I would try to find the Banganga Tank - the last surviving sacred bathing tank apparently, dating back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. To get there we drove through Malabar Hill, the smartest suburb full apartment blocks with shiny marble name plates and private little palaces, government homes, all with security guards with guns and great big gates. Sonia Ghandi I believe lives here somewhere.
It was clever of the taxi driver to find the sacred Banganga Tank, the road leads off Malawar Hill and down a straight narrow lane, impassable for two cars, with people living in tiny little houses on the road and up little alleyways. Their clothes hang on string lines against the wall, not because it's wash day, but because they are aired there and there is no room to hang clothes anywhere else.
We found the tank (see above) and saw people praying on the steps and children and ducks swimming in the thick green water. Buildings have grown up all around the tank. Some children (see pic) were playing 'housie' - bingo - in the shade. I sat with them for a few minutes and then got back in the taxi and we wound our way back to the richness of Malabar Hill.
This is my last day in Mumbai, I am heading for the domestic airport, to fly to dry and barren Bhuj in Gujerat. I might not find internet connection for a day or two.

Friday, 27 May 2011


Nearly all marriages in India are ‘arranged’ to some degree. And most people, both young and older, say it is a system that works.We were talking about it today - Nicki, Rosie, Billy (pictured left) and me. We had been walking around Crawford Market and the Fabric Market, and ended up having lunch in a lovely little deli place behind The Taj Hotel.
Nicki went to the engagement breakfast party this morning of her personal trainer’s niece. She had to be there by 8am and it went on for quite a long time -  there were various ceremonies, parading of the couple,  future in-laws introduced formally, and a ring exchanging ceremony.The upshot of it is that after today the couple will be allowed to spend time alone, getting to know each other. They have only met a couple of times before and are getting married in October.  Nicki said she was a very pretty girl – 24 - and he was a bit older. It isn't like a 'child bride' situation any more, and couples don't meet for the first time on their wedding day - parents recognise that girls want an education and they want to work. But usually at 24 the girl will say she thinks it is time... and then the wheels begin to turn - spin. Shrieks of joy from the family and prospective husbands are sought –  age, background, prospects and horoscopes are all crucial.
We went on to The Taj Hotel and visited the jeweller in the shopping arcade who Nicki knows and discussed the subject of marriage with him. “What do you call it,” said Nicki “with modern arranged marriages, when there is some choice in the matter? It isn’t just a short list of one...” “It’s just an arranged marriage... like I had, 23 years ago,” he said, looking perplexed, with the warm smile of a happily married man.  “But of course they can say no.” Ah. They can say no, just not too many times. “My nephew had to say no,” said the jeweller, “ it was most unfortunate. “  Oh? We asked about the technicalities... “Well, she was just very..  heavy,” he said. “Others had turned her down too.” Oh, poor girl. “The trouble is they just get heavier,” he said, slim hipped with his silk tie and diamond ring. The pretty ones are ok - they can afford to be choosy.
Tonight I am staying at The Taj (and what a truly fabulous hotel it is, more of that another time) and, sad creature that I am, dined alone at the Lebanese restaurant, Souk. I had mixed mezzes first followed by something prawny. The waiter pointed at what looked like a piece of over-cooked asparagus sticking out of the pickles dish. “Mind that one,” he said, “very hot.” Thanks. You don’t want to be dining alone when you experiment with pickled green chillies.
There was a young couple on the next table. She was probably... 24? (maybe younger), very attractive,  confidant, wore western dress, and a big sparkler on her ring finger. She spent a lot of time texting. He looked quite unsophisticated, 7 or 8 years older than her and dead nervous, wriggling his feet around the chair legs. When she had finished texting she talked animatedly (in English), jabbing her finger to emphasise what she was saying, and he nodded a lot and spoke very little. She couldn’t finish her dinner and asked for a doggy bag. The waiter brought the bill and put it in front of her, and she passed it to her companion. They are getting to know each other, and I expect they’ll  make a  go of it.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Three days in Mumbai

In Mumbai, with kind Nicki and Grant Elliot in their very comfortable apartment.
I just thought that over the last couple of days I/we have done three things in such total contrast. And that is what always seems so striking about India – the contrasts. On Monday Nicki took Billy & Rosie (also staying at the moment, they have been travelling since February) and me to the Breach Candy Club. It is a bit of a gem in this frenetic, dynamic city that never sleeps... a true old colonial swimming club with an indoor pool, and a vast outdoor one, right on the edge of the Arabian Sea. There are hand-painted loungers and the Ladies Wash Room (changing rooms, showers, loos, oodles of space) made me think of Kenya. Lunch was excellent on a wide first floor verandah overlooking the sea and then we swam in the enormous pool – Rosie and I quite sedately, Billy more acrobatic off the diving boards.
Then yesterday we did a walking tour through Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s ‘official’ slums. Official because it is recognised by the Government, there are streetlamps and schools and hospitals, a million people live here in a space measuring  less than a square mile.
Once a mangrove swamp which dried out and became a vast dump - the town is literally built on rubbish. Some families have lived here for 3 or 4 generations, muslims and hindus together – not always happily.Tiny rooms with whole families living in them – sewing workshops by day, homes by night.
The appeal to residents is that it is slap in the middle of Mumbai, a prime inner city location and rents are cheap. Between two railway stations, the commute in to work is easy.  (There are those who are keen to develop the site.. documentaries made, but will it ever happen?)
In truth it is a square mile of narrow lanes and paths, factories, shops and houses and open sewers. The water supply only comes on for 3 hours a day. Hygiene is marginal and disease is rife – there are 1500 residents per loo.
Many people work in Dhavala in the hundreds of single-room factories that are run by a mafia of businessmen. Turnover is said to be in excess of US$600million. Sewing machines make beautiful dresses, jeans and luggage, we saw wooden shrines made from cheap broken furniture. Some of it is pretty horrifying – not much health & safety – Dickens comes to India. There are stinking tanneries, and potteries with smoking kilns. We saw paint tins being cleaned, hammered back into shape to be sold back to the manufacturers; aluminium melted and turned into transportable bricks to sold to someone further down the line; and every conceivable sort of recycling. Bundles of cardboard cartons, recut and resold. Plastic – cups, bottles, toys, cartons - is chewed up in homemade shredding machines and made into little pellets to be manufactured into cheap toys. Blades spin, fans turn, sparks fly. Small children were carrying huge patched sacks of plastic and sorting through computer parts and broken food mixers. Nothing is wasted.
They are all so quick and busy and smiling – shouting ‘Hi, Good Morning, What’s your name?’ They are proud of their work. We all felt pretty gobsmacked, mincing our way through all the grime – flipflops, big mistake –and really feeling the heat. I heard myself singing  Jim Reeves’ “I hear the sound of distant drums..” at one point – it must have been the hammering of the tin cans – and immediately dived into a shop for more water.
Then today I went up to the new part of town, Bandra Kurla Complex, where Trident have a huge and dazzling hotel. Many banks and corporates are abandoning the old southern part of town, and moving up to the open spaces of BKC, close to the airport. The Trident is a businessman’s hotel  - everything he/she could possibly want is there, and it’s really modern and smart – and about 2km from Dharavi.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Meeting a Maharaja

 I met HH Maharaja Gaj Singh II when I was in Jodhpur. The introduction came from a friend in London, Daphne Dormer, who is truly a Certain Woman, and has been working in PR for many years. I met Daphne in the eighties when she did the PR for The Chelsea Gardener on the King’s Road. She is very well connected and has many good friends in India – and she has been incredibly kind and helpful to me over this trip.
 I stayed at the wonderful Bal Samand Palace, one of the royal family’s summer residences which overlooks a beautiful lake, 10km outside  Jodhpur. One of the drivers, Bhoma Ram, was the person who met me at Jodhpur bus station at whatever time it was in the night when I got off the bus from Jaipur after the terrible time getting the ticket, etc. I was dazed and confused and generally pretty exhausted and grubby, getting my case from the luggage bit under the bus and when I looked up there he was, cool as you like, in his grey uniform with a burgundy red beret with a brass vulture cap badge – Rathore uniform.
It was also Bhoma Ram who drove me up to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, part royal residence, part Taj Hotel. It is very grand and the most super-luxe place to stay in Jodhpur and you feel pretty royal arriving with security, turbaned door-men bowing -you get those in lots of smart places, but here there is a huge, elegant portico and red carpet up the steps. The palace sits on a hill overlooking Jodhpur – vast and built in the 1930s in art deco/rajput style out of honey-coloured sandstone and marble, with a 100ft cupola in the middle –and sweeping lawns.
I met the Maharaja, known as Bapji, in a drawing room in the royal apartments and I confess I was a little anxious. He may not be royalty now, but it still feels pretty royal. I waited for a short while – the room is elegant and comfortable, not overly grand, decorated with lovely Indian miniature paintings, family photographs, coffee tables with piles of books stacked with a slide rule. He arrived, escorted by a wildly yapping Jack Russell terrier and a servant, and he could not have been more charming. Everyone says the same – one of those people who makes everyone relaxed, easy to be with. We talked for more than an hour and had a drink and shared a delicious bowl of puffed, spicy grains in a silver bowl.
For much of his early life HH was away from home, apart from holidays, educated in England from  the age of 8 to 22 (he is 63 now). When he came back he had no career as such – and no power, all having gone in a drawn out period after Independance. He obviously had a great time away, and there is a wonderful photograph of the child of the sixties returning home in 1970 – huge crowds gathered to welcome him back. And he has remained immensely popular ever since.
After Independance many of the traditions in India had faded into the background, and the career HH carved has been largely focused on culture. He set up the trust which runs the Mehrangarh Fort and museum (the largest visitor attraction and a definite ‘must see’ in Jodhpur), and highlighting the festivals – Diwali etc.  Five years ago RIFF (The Rajasthan Folk Festival) was launched, to highlight Indian music (not just folk), and Mick Jagger is patron, and the Sufi Festival has taken off too. Sufism is having a great resurgence in India and Sting is the patron.  HH has also developed royal palaces and forts into Heritage hotels over the region.
Two young Englishmen arrived – more frantic barking from the dog – to discuss a Guards’/Eton polo tournament in Jodhpur inDecember. More drinks, more eats, and then we all left. Polo is still huge in India and the royal family are great enthusiasts despite the terrible fall the Yuvraj Shivraj Singh, Bapji’s heir, had in 2005, from which he is slowly recovering.
So, while many a Maharaja has faded into oblivion since losing their royal status – plenty sadly falling prey to the excesses of life – here is one who has not.

(This is posted from Mumbai... from Jodhpur to Jaipur and then to Mumbai)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Supper on the train to Mumbai

7.10am and approaching Bombay. Sam my brilliant little laptop is on the little table that flaps up between the bench seats. Some hours ago this was the spot where Mr and Mrs Ganoosh had supper. They have just got off at Borivali, and so has Nathalie, a really nice girl from Frankfurt who shared our carriage – the only European I have spoken to in 2 weeks.  Our other companions were a mother and daughter, full house.
We all got on the train at Jaipur at 2pm and Mr Ganoosh barely drew breath!... About their homes in Jaipur and Bombay and London W1 close to Selfridges (actually that one is his sister’s) and their sons in America. And his job (he’s retired now) in the property part of The Times of India, and the state of his health. But he mainly talked about how his country was going down the pan. “America is an honest place, this is not. I am Indian and I say it!” he shouted. “These people are not honest.” 
A man came down the carriage shouting chai, chai with his urn and a column of paper cups. Mrs G wanted a cup and handed over her money. Then Mr G went berserk, shouting at the man. It appeared to be about the level of tea in Mrs G’s cup. It was topped up again, and then again.  The shouting was deafening – only from Mr G, chaiwallah very cool, smiling. (Indian people (men) often get extremely animated, shout and wave their arms, and I think there’s going to be a punch-up any minute... and then notice that the person they are addressing is smiling and nodding. No problem.)
“You see!” said Mr G when he had recovered, “that is exactly what I mean! They are dishonest. They take full price but they only give half a cup. I could have lost that man his job, and I told him so too.
At  9.15pm when  I was thinking I might hook up the middle bunk and take a sleeping pill, crumply carrier bags were brought out from under the seat containing food in plastic pots and bags, paper plates and cutlery. The most amazing  selection of curries and pickles, orange, purple and green,  and all that goes with it: rice, chapattis, little plastic pots of spice and salt were lined up. 
“You see in India,” smiled Mr Ganoosh, “we like to take time over our food, to enjoy it. In America they all eat so fast". (Nathalie and I had ‘Meals on Wheels’ which was good, though not up to Mrs G's standard:  we had curry, dhal, rice, chapattis, pickles - for 65rps, ie less than a pound). Mr G asked our man to bring extra veg curry to go with his meal.  He also  likes extra salt and plenty of (very hot) dried spices to accompany his food. When he had barely started he left the carriage and returned some minutes later with a small pot of oily, dripping vegetable curry. Then he tucked in. “My wife and I like different food. We have been married for 46 years. We fight every day. But we stay married and it is good.”
He ate every scrap of dhal and pickle, it was dripping down his chin and to his elbows. (I offered one of my Sensitive Baby wipes but thank you no, he had tissue.) Then the catering man came back with a box and was sent away with a flea in his ear. I asked Mr G what was in the box..? “The vegetable curry! I ordered it and paid for it, but the man was too slow, I had to get my own.”
After dinner Mr G strolled down the train while Mrs G cleared up the debris. “It’s such a lot of work,” she said. “It’s very tiring and he is very particular, and then the food isn’t right. It’s never right.”  I think I would have kicked him!
Then we got settled for the night. Off to the loo (stainless steel Indian loos preferable to porcelain I think), I popped my pill, and dropped off to the soft moaning sound of Mr G trying his best to get comfortable,but what with the sunburn he got from riding in a rickshaw yesterday, and a very sore hip...