2nd November 2017 , By John Ascott | Leave a reply
It’s an odd thing sitting on baggage on an Indian railway platform at 1am waiting for a train that is already 3 hours late, and already 24 hours into its journey. These stations are lively places, even at this time. Hundreds of people mill around, living there, waiting for a train – perhaps eventually both!
Others lay fast asleep on blankets amidst broken paving. Not the broken sleep of westerners in an airport, deep sleep. Undisturbed by the announcements blaring non stop, all talk as if trying to make up for a lack of actual activity (Detractors might say Modi is much the same).
And tell me this: how on earth are there cows even here! I thought cows couldn’t use stairs?
Perhaps unsuprisingly few of my friends have been keen to cycle with me. But one, let’s call him ‘the dragon’ is travelling round the world by train, piece by piece when holidays allow, and was more than happy to do north India by rail with me.
I found the dragon late morning waiting for me at our hostel, sitting in boxer shorts and a Panama hat on a bed strewn with the contents of a rather small suitcase, eating museli (no milk) from an improvosed cardboard boarding ticket cone. I figured we would travel well together.
We would loosely follow the millenia old Grand Trunk Road – a sort of south of the Himalayas silk road from the Pakistani border in the West into Bangladesh in the East. It’s a route that aches with historical significance.
Our first stop, Amritsar in the far north-west: formerly at the heart of undivided Punjab, now sitting on the Indo -Pakistan border. Famous for the reflective golden temple – the centre of the Sikh faith. It is also infamous as the site of the Amritsar massacre in 1919 when the British General Dyer ordered his, of course non-British soldiers, to fire on an Indian crowd.
The site is now a well maintained memorial garden with a wall where many of the bullets lodged themselves. Each of the holes circled in white paint. Many, with military precision, torso height; Some higher up and to one side, picking out those who were trying to clamber free. As Dyer himself said, he was trying to teach them a lesson and would have used his machine guns if he could have got them down the narrow street.
To be frank, I never think of myself as particularly nationalist – it’s the image in your mind not the line on the ground that separates people and my memory is full of wonderful times with foreign friends. Nevertheless, when it is my compatriots who have done something bad it does jar in a rather particular way – a clash with my patriotic image of a fundamentally decent people. That feeling isn’t there when another country has done the atrocity; then there is only the feeling of tragedy and that bland sad reflection that, well, of course bad people do bad things.
A short 5hr shunt along the rails brought us to Chandigarh: a model city, commissioned and built from scratch after independence in line with Le Corbusier’s architectural vision. A grid plan of a city with designated, numbered sectors for the governmental head, the parkland lungs, the residential body and the industrial limbs. Straight, wide avenues, allowing good circulation around the municipal body. A stark contrast from the labyrinthine bazaar alleys of amritsar clogged full of stubborn rickshaw-walas and pedestrians clambering around them!
Chandigarh feels like an experiment even 50 years on. A little sterile perhaps. But it works. The parks remain neat and clean, the roads flow well with minimal beeping and remarkable road compliance.
And yet if it is un-Indian as some crictise, it is certainly inhabited by Indians, living Indian lives, albeit as a convenient out of Delhi home at the foot of the Himalayas with property prices to match. So why do Indians, that chaotic bunch, behave differently here? Surely it is a great example of how context matters?
Switching it round: London often feels light years away from India yet a crammed tube trip to Oxford Circus followed by a scrimmage through the crowds might give you the gist. At Christmas the lights might even give a slight Diwali flavour! Take away the pavements and traffic lights that tell us what to do and you might even find a little more beeping too!
All trees grow to the light, majestic with sunlit space, contorted in the competitive shade. And yet with people we do seem to prefer the clinically moral good person, bad person categorisation of the world. I have no doubt, if I cycled in London like I do here even I would condemn myself as ‘a bit of a dick’ yet hopefully it’s not that black and white? (No comments please!)
A big shift again as we moved on to Lucknow, its complex past-to-present clear in the rough and tumble station and bazaar, the mosques and imambras of its Muslim past and the British colonial buildings.
Amidst the colonial lagacy is the ruined Residency, the stage for the famous residency siege during the variously named 1857 Indian Mutiny, Indian Uprising, or First war of Independence. The Residency – the seat of British shadow power in the Indian states in the vein of ‘don’t mind us, maharaja, excellency, but do be a sport and pass all your decisions by us, dear boy’ was held under siege with the British contingent and those Indian troops who remained loyal fighting for and often losing their lives, outnumbered by the enemy until relief arrived some months later.
I was surprised how little by way of walls or defences there were. The Indians were kept from succesfullly storming it by the mental barriers of fear and assumed superiority, or so a passionate Indian guide and historian told us.
Back in Amritsar we had also attended the Indo-Pakistan Wagha border ceremony – the one where brightly clad soldiers from the two countries famously aim to outdo each other with the height of their goosestep. It is wonderfully petty: The Pakistanis build a giant flagpole, the Indians hold a dance party of unveiled women. The atmosphere is of a sports spectacle – crisps and ice cream – pumping music and comperes inciting the crowd. Hours of posturing before a ritualised and perfunctory handshake.
None of the small group of westerners could quite tell how light-hearted it was. Clearly it was a show in which both sides were complicit and cooperative if also competitive and confrontational. But it was a little odd being among a chanting crowd even though they were extremely friendly and curious with us and seemingly even proud to have us attend – selfies all round!
Yet if this is entirely light hearted, this is far from always the case. People here seem to count grievances since pre-history but only ascribe responsibility for their actions since independence. Ancient wars were heroic, historic wars someone else’s responsibility, modern wars defensive and provoked.
England to me feels like an old man – perhaps a little proud of his long though now past career and explaining away any dirty laundry with a casually dismissive ‘I was young and naive then and times were different‘. India by contrast sometimes responds with a more childlike ‘it wasn’t me’ or ‘he started it!’.
It is a country still struggling to understand and define itself and sometimes seems most comfortable in the confrontational rhetoric of Independence and Partition where soldiers and policeman are never killed always martyred; of a plundered past rather than a squandered present. India simmers on this persistent flame.
With another late night sleeper train crawling to meet us that evening, we were grateful to find a dingy liquor hall complete with a few of Uttar Pradesh’s Diwali-eve revellers and their near incomprehensible slurred conversation and boisterous selfies. So, dulled by a beer or two, stupified by never ending waiting and calmed by the silence of the often stationary train, we two were certainly very different from our London Underground selves as we passively sat in our sleeper births on the slow journey to Varanasi.