In the morning I again wander along the ghats by the river’s edge. A small boy is flying a kite, the boy’s forefinger jigging as if for fish at the kite line so that the kite, high above, is made to first dart left and then right in the air. Elsewhere other kites, in similar tormented display and all of like design, play within the imperceptible currents of air. I have not seen so many since leaving Varanasi, and like those there the bodies of abandoned kites hereabouts are snared among tree branches and power poles, their purpose played out. Alongside the boy a brown coloured cow stands sedately, it unconcerned by the boy’s closeness and the boy unconcerned with that of the cow. The attention of the boy is held solely to that of the kite line, the attention of the cow to goodness knows what. Its horns are painted red, and about its neck is a necklace of large red and green beads. Across its head rests a fringe of tufted green, pink and faded orange fabric of some kind, this held in place by a small cord that passes about the animal’s ears. It is the first cow that I have seen decorated in such a fashion. The boy is unadorned, but his bright blue shirt, if worn in Papua New Guinea or North Queensland would be the love and desire of iridescent male Ulysses butterflies, Papilio ulysses, for, for some indeterminate reason, this sex is attracted to things of that colour. A row of haphazardly parked yellow and green autobicycles stand as a backdrop to cow and boy, and as a backdrop to the row of autobicycles are walls of neutral-grey cement upon which are hung large political posters, each one with photographic portraits of respective candidates. But the posters display no words of English and so I am ignorant of their message, ….and their promise. Above all of this flutters a flag of satin green with a golden script emblazoned thereon, two starlings perched motionless at the apex of the flag pole. There is a counter play of objects here, the inanimate in motion and the animate motionless.
Across the river is a large building painted orange that I take to be an ashram, a spiritual refuge. Near this is a second building, a Jain temple possibly, upon whose roof is a statue of a man sitting crosswise atop a statue of a lion. I could not fathom its significance, yet it seems of some grand importance. I turn away from the river and explore both the old and the new market places of the city. A great many people are lined up to visit the Mahakaleshwar temple, a focus of religious devotion dated to 1736; the original temple complex having been destroyed by Sultan Iltutmish during his assault on Ujjain in 1234-5 CE. An elephant is strategically positioned and tethered outside, its face and trunk daubed pink and white, its owner sporting a vibrant orange turban, he restful on the animal’s back. It is a ‘pay-to-photograph’ elephant, but most people pass by with scant interest, and with fewer cameras, giving little indication that the elephant’s owner will benefit from patronage on this particular day. My purse also was unkind to him, try as I did in my attempts to wedge it open in the hope of extracting the required amount of rupees.
The streets adjacent the temple are the preserve of a diverse assemblage of shopkeepers and stall vendors. There are no Woolworths or Aldi’s supermarkets here yet. Many shopkeepers sell the usual assortment of colourful plastic bangles, sachets of chewing tobacco and cheap bric-a-brac, but others specialise in metal household ware offering a selection of sparkling pans and pots, these stacked high on one another or neatly paraded on rows of shelving. Some shopkeepers sell jewellery, but enticed to their doors as I am, they offer nothing traditional, no tribal pieces, so I depart thanking the owners for their kind invitation to enter, but “no thanks.” Other businesses specialise in heavy padlocks of all manner of novel shapes and designs, but my luggage is already weighed down by enough items of metal packed carefully within, the stitching of my suitcase expanding at the seams in complaint at its burden. And I am certain my airline will have something to say, and charge a carriage premium as well, if my luggage exceeds the weight allowance. My luggage had plenty of kilos to spare when I left Sydney but I fear I am fast running out. In an attempt to constrain the weight of my suitcase I have already jettisoned a pile of extraneous tourist brochures acquired with enthusiasm during the early days of the journey. Now they are just waste somewhere.
So many shops and stalls sell the same range of products that I wonder who buys it all. I have long entertained this thought for all of India seems infested with like items of sale. Only the sellers of flowers and votive pieces who service the ‘temple trade’ seem to be assured of a ready and dependable turn over of stock. These, and particular retailers of ball point pens and dried nuts did well, for I had expended the last of my pen’s ink on my diary and was in urgent need of a replacement. I bought two pens at Rs9 a piece, the joy of my finding the pens spoilt only by a gruff middle-aged man who pushed in front of me at the counter, the proprietor failing to admonish him for the offence, and to add insult to injury by giving no indication that he was grateful for my transaction, all Rs18 of it; that’s a hard 40 cents worth in Australian currency. Besides, the covers of the ball points were somewhat dusty suggesting that, rather than being objects of keen demand, they had languished unwanted on the proprietor’s counter for sometime, possibly weeks. They were subjects of obvious neglect. So that in effect I was relieving him of stale or redundant stock, and at no discount! To console my shattered faith in Indian civility I found solace in the purchase of a useful quantity of unsalted cashews from what I took to be an open air health food store. The store owner of this establishment, and the store owner immediately alongside, sold identical food stuffs yet neither gave any indication of animosity towards one another, both, between competing sales, happily prattling away to each other on matters of joint interest. Their proximity did, however, confront me with a degree of guilt by buying from one and not from the other. It was as if I had made an arrogant statement as to the lesser quality of the second, and the greater quality of the first. To make matters worse the successful vendor was not only the recipient of my money but I gave him money of value too large for him to change, so that he had to get the adjacent vendor to provide the small bills; which vendor number two did obligingly without a hint of a non-compliant or taciturn look. So within minutes I had gone from object of disdain at the stall of the ball point pen seller, to that of a haughty tourist at the shop of the nut seller; even if the shopkeepers were totally ignorant of my self-imposed indictment and moral predicament. I carried my guilt for a good fifteen minutes or so.
I continued down streets full of hole-in-the-wall telecommunications providers and past houses whose edifices were emblazoned with the ever ubiquitous swastika. Under street poles festooned with mazes of haphazardly strung power lines I walked. And while these terrible conglomerations of electrical wiring fell far short of the bewitching intricacy acclaimed by the Gordian Knot of Greek legend, they did appear to my untrained eyes to represent a trial of circuitry and conduit complexity beyond the ability of your average electrician to unravel; unlike Alexander the Great who, when confronted with the Gordian Knot, alleviated his frustration and got on with more pressing demands of destiny by severing the knot’s threads with his sword. Although I must remind that it is generally considered inadvisable to take a sharp metal object to any form of electrical wiring. I shuddered to think of the task befalling any unfortunate Indian linesman called out to repair a dismembered electricity junction box, and I fair trembled in considering the hourly rate my Hometown electrician would charge for the job. He and some of his mates could live in India for a year or more on the takings.
The apparent intricate infamy of these powerlines was bettered only by the ugliness of ancient utility autobicycles, if I can call them that, which thundered along the roadways beneath. Though these vehicles possessed three wheels like that of the light kind meant only for the conveyance of passengers, this variety was often structured with a flat tray-back for the transport of heavy goods. They were propelled by a device claiming to be an internal combustion engine, this stuck somehow like a parasite to the vehicle’s single front wheel. Which ever way these engines operate they don’t seem to have many parts to work with. Some mechanism out of sight makes the front wheel rotate and the vehicle lurch into action, but I could not fathom by what. It had to be something more than good karma. Out from each engine ran a blackened exhaust pipe and a battered muffler, though how these managed to effect any useful function escaped me for each one seemed incapable of significantly deadening noise or reducing the belching of black smoke. These machines looked like some weird contrivance from the fantasy pen of H. G. Wells, and looked for all the world like the larval stage of the massive dreadnaught steam tractors you sometimes see at antique agricultural shows; and with the attractiveness of a weathered three-legged pig thrown in as an afterthought. If any of J. R. R. Tolkien’s gremlin-orcs from the fantasy realm of Mordor ever took to riding about in something unwholesomely mechanical, then these would likely be their vehicles of choice. Yet for all their dinosaur-like qualities these little vehicles functioned, and seemed to function rather well. They were an engineering anachronism in the world of an emerging modern India. Equally they were a marvel of ingenuity.
These thoughts are interrupted by two events. First, two funerals pass by, the bodies of the dead covered in bright cloth and flowers, the mourners gaily but respectfully following on, the pall-bearers reciting joyous chants in celebration of the deceased, every now and then casting flower petals on the shrouded bodies. Both processions could have been that of party-goers, their appearance every bit like that of a mardi-grass; just with fewer people. But the celebration of a life just begun, rather than one ended, is no less raucous for not too far distant, at the main intersection of the city were two marriage processions. By mere chance they had happened upon one another, each parade in competition as to who was the finest, the most resplendent, and the noisiest. They resolved their competitive interaction at an intersection, one parading off noisily to the left, the other just as noisily to the right. Each was led by a professional concert band of six to ten musicians, the sheer cacophony of each parade conspiring to distract me from the taking of an accurate count. They were like mariachi bands, each band troop was regaled in the brightest of costumes, distinctive hats of matching colour included, and each was preceded by a band member or two pushing a wheeled generator which powered various electrical wedding accoutrements, independent of the need for a very long electrical lead. Proudly sitting erect atop noble horses of perfect stride rode brides and grooms, behind, between, and in front of which, strode the wedding entourage. I could have joined in and no one would have been offended. The wedding parades held up traffic for kilometres. And no one cared.
Street scenes: what allures me is that the most humble abode can be ornamented with the brightest of colours, their contrast imparting all the magic of a lolly-shop; the old fashioned kind with big clear glass jars that display the gaudiness of their sugary contents. The buildings washed sometimes in lime greens, the wooden shutters of their windows mauve and rich chocolate browns, the walls with small alcoves, these serving as tiny shrines. And like a rude voyeur trying to glean the intimacies of people I do not know, I gazed closely at the modest offerings placed in each one. The high balconies of some structures seem beyond repair, the decking dangerously ajar, held at delinquent angles by rusting wire, their awnings of ancient corrugated iron sheeting, all but about to plummet down to the detriment of those unfortunate enough to be walking below. People, the young, the old, all nameless to me, live inside. Within the ruined caverns of this architecture they sing and laugh, shout, cry and make babies. They share fears and joy, hear news from relatives living in foreign lands, suffer their country’s losses at Test cricket; and in time pass from this world. Yet, from out the most world-weary of doors and windows, waft delicate fragrances of burning incense, and the rich smells of spicy meals being prepared inside.
The walls of one 3-storey building are a blue-green, a colour theme often repeated as I have found, now so worn by the long absence of a paint brush that the grey tones of its old timber command the colour scheme. In contrast to this condition, two doors at ground level, alone of all the facade of the building’s extensive exterior, have been freshly coated; one a rich sky blue, the other ochre but whose tone verges towards a hint of pink. There is a life to this building that shouts “dull and boring” to the sameness of the ticky-tacky five bedroom ghetto mansions that march out monotonously from Hometown. This building has seen better days, undeniably, but it has style, and stately character, and begs at least one photograph before I pass it by. I take several.
Just down the street I discover a hand-drawn, four-wheeled conveyance; another species of my so-named ‘trundles’, though of the unmechanised variety. It is parked unassumingly by the side of an alley, the last remnants of its yellow-green paint in retreat at the advance of its decaying wood. At its front and back, though I am a little hard-pressed to distinguish one from the other, are pairs of handles worn smooth and shiny from use; a pair for a ‘puller’ and a pair for a ‘pusher’; a simple ‘about face’ on the part of the conveyance’s operatives effecting an immediate reversal of function, and thus the grand commonsense and utility of its design. Hiding underneath are two tomatoes huddled together in fear and for comfort. They have escaped from a green grocer’s stall somewhere. At this moment I cannot see which or where, but I doubt they will survive to the approaching night, and if they do they will not last to the morning. Their conspicuous ripe-red colour does not equip them for camouflage, and even in the dark their scent betrays their presence. The hunger of bipeds, or that of the smaller four-legged beasts of the night, will inevitably consume them.
Down a second side street I find piles of neatly displayed vegetables; beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. Perhaps it is from this place of bondage that my two vegetable refugees first fled? Further along is a shop selling pots, and fake cobras made of thin beaten brass, their ‘hoods’ highlighted with matching strokes of pink paint. The same shop is selling musical devices powered by small electric motors, the activation of which sets shiny bells and painted kettle-drums to playing, each motor causing two drum sticks to beat out a tune that is both wonderfully chaotic and completely unfamiliar, the bell made to sound in ill-timed accompaniment; yet the machine is one glorious contraption.
I encounter another temple, and though a priest ushers me towards its door I forgo his hospitality and venture towards a shop whose awning is festooned with scarves of many colours and designs. The owner assures me they are all handmade in India, no product of China among them. I purchase one of dark blue edged at its ends with a hint of golden-yellow thread. Next is a shop selling pawpaws, but these are far too large to carry unaided and besides, I feel my hotel’s manager would not be amused by the transport of such a common article through his foyer. I suspect he is already taking a dim view of staff reports of fruit peelings in my room’s waste bin and my lack of patronage of the alcoholic spirits and soft drinks available at a price, in the bar fridge alongside my bed.
I am attracted by shop signs that advertise ‘Lux Cozi innerwear’, however, rather than proving to be an establishment specialising in smoking jackets, dinner suits, or disco attire, on closer enquiry and inspection ‘Lux’ and ‘Cozi’ prove to be trade marks for men’s underwear of a particularly snug cut, displayed examples of which indicated little opportunity for the future expansion of living space; ‘Lebensraum’, as the Germans might euphemistically coin it. Each shop begs entry but the signs that advertise their goods are mostly in Hindi, or at least a language whose script I do not understand. Such a disadvantage takes the edge out of the fun of bargain hunting.
In some alleyways the sun never seems to shine, the buildings at such a height, too many of which seem to be leaning outwards, and the thoroughfares so narrow that sunlight enters at risk of being trapped there until nightfall. Here, navigation by natural illumination alone seems a very risky business. But people, animals and two-wheeled vehicular traffic appear to know their way around well enough such that good street lighting, natural or otherwise, is not so great a necessity. I’m just curious how they get all the building material in and out when renovations are required. Possibly, like the vast timeless mansion of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’, it is just left to the eroding hand of time to sort out. The intricate lattice-work of several balconies hinted at a passed age of opulence and splendid purpose; now they just looked like a renovator’s nightmare. I loved them nonetheless. These decaying buildings called to me like a bunch of old tarts, way past their prime yet still knowing what the game was all about; and keen to keep playing.
But the hour of parting had arrived, and it was time for the driver to leave. He had a home to go to, and had been absent from his family long enough. A new driver would arrive tomorrow, and it was he who would have to suffer any outbursts of my perversity for the remainder of the road trip. I hoped he was a devotee of ‘Monty Python’, ‘Faulty Towers’ even. If so it would serve him well as shield and shelter.
Tired, foot sore, and stiff I returned to my room, forewent the temptation to dine out, and though mindful of the hotel manager’s possible ire, again consumed a simple meal of bananas, mandarins and brewed tea, embellished with today’s acquired cashews, any guilt I had harboured in favouring one proprietor over another gone and forgotten.
To sleep, no, it eluded me. So on this night I faltered, and secure within my hotel room I gave in to the lure of Indian television, and local channels at that, subtitled as the programs were. The first offered a documentary on community wellbeing, and the work of ASHI, an acronym for the Association for Social Health in India. ASHI is a voluntary organisation undertaking relief and charity work in Ujjain for homeless women, the abused, and those with drug addiction problems. Of particular concern was the impact and availability of cannabis. Concern about cannabis as an intoxicant is long-standing, and led the Government of India to establish the India Hemp Commission of 1893-4 to examine the entire issue of cannabis use in India. Today it is still used extensively in ‘Ayuredic’, and Greek-Islamic derived ‘Unani-Tibbi’, systems of medicine, and continues to have widespread indigenous medical, ‘quasi-medical’, and illicit use. In India cannabis finds common usage as a sedative, and in hypnotic, analgesic and anti-spasmodic treatments. You could buy it once in Australia as a part of the seed mix for small cage birds. I used to think the glazed-over look in the eyes of captive budgerigar parakeets was due to a catatonic state caused by prolonged imprisonment. Now I’m thinking it was a cannabis-induced ‘other worldliness’, the hapless birds transfixed by memories of freedom in their native habitat of Australia’s hinterland.
Prior to the First Millennium BCE, and up to the current era, cannabis has been used in India to treat a great number of human ailments, and also in religious use for the freeing of the mind from worldly distractions, and in meditation more generally. It is used in Hindu and Sikh temples but in addition to its use to facilitate meditation the drug is used to overcome hunger and thirst by religious mendicants; those living by alms. Hindus speak of the drug as the ‘heavenly guide’, ‘the joy giver’, ‘the sky filler’, and ‘the soother of grief’. During the Vedic period cannabis was described as a sacred grass. I just kept remembering the motionless man on the street, and the dementia wards of Hometown.
The second program spoke to the ‘Vikram Samvat’, the calendar system established by the Indian emperor, Vikramaditya, and popularly used in India and officially in Nepal. The Vikram Samvat is a lunar calendar, its calculation ahead 56.7 years of our standard Gregorian calendar. The foundation of the Vikram Samvat commemorates Vikramaditya’s victory in 56 BCE over the Sakas, a tribe of Sycthian invaders from Central Asia, and his liberation of Ujjain from them. Vikramaditya is portrayed in the ‘Bhavishnya Purana’ as the first great Hindu king. Tales, in various versions, featuring him in Sanskrit are found in the ‘Vetala Panchvimshati’, the ‘25 tales of the Vampire’, and the ‘Simhasana Divatrimshika’, the ’32 tales of the throne’. Vikramaditya was famed for his wisdom, fortitude, valour and magnanimity, his name given to the Indian aircraft carrier the INS Vikramaditya, once the Russian Kiev Class aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. The Chinese have an ex-Russian one too. With the demise of the Cold War, apparently they were surplus to Russian demands and were going cheap.
You just never know when these little bits of knowledge are going to come in handy.
But enough. Sleep now.