Post 67 – Days 39 to 43 ‘The Last Days’

Post 67a Post 67b Post 67c Post 67d Post 67e Post 67f

Day 39. Today I to fly to Delhi. There are some hours to kill but at 8.20 am the market place below Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh fort is deathly quiet, the shop shutters bolted closed, business yet to be transacted. A few people are gathered about the tall clock tower centrally placed in the town square, but collectively, all of us are few in number. Not even the stallholders have arrived yet, their carts parked to one side, their goods securely wrapped away under black tarpaulins. In Hometown such things would be quickly stolen or vandalised but here civil respect apparently holds sway. The only activity seems to be that of a cluster of house sparrows foraging for food scraps amongst the wheels of the carts, one sparrow thieving seeds from a handful of green chillies tied to a cart wheel, the chillies and a solitary lemon meant to propitiate the gods of goodwill and to ward off anything that could be considered bad.

We drive to the fort, there finding only a small gathering of already parked cars, and a group of fifteen pigs huddled up in mutual comfort. Once upon a time a cluster of geese gave alarm, so saving Rome’s citadel from enemy capture. These pigs exhibit not the slightest concern from the trampling of our feet, any sound we make being dulled by the pigs’ snores and snuffling. The rocky outcrop on which the fort is perched is swept by wind, the air chilled, the small numbers of people gathered to view the city from this high vantage point holding coats and shawls tight about them. There is insufficient time to visit the fort itself but the hill gives ready outlook onto the pale blue painted buildings that proclaim the ‘Blue City’, the epithet by which Jodhpur is alternatively known. In the distance, low down, for here I have a bird’s eye view, jet fighters regularly overfly building rooftops. It could be a foretaste of war, but the aircraft are just engaged in training exercises. On this particular day India and its large and populous neighbours to the west and north are in a state of harmony, armed to the teeth as this state of harmony is. I do not think Mr Gandhi would be pleased. It is only ‘non-violance’ by default, an intermission in the playing out of real regional politics.

Jodhpur air terminal is equally armed, security guards, soldiers and police distinguished only by the number and kinds of weapons they carry; numerous submachine guns among them. I forget that the Pakistan border is only several minutes flying time away, Delhi, air traffic movements allowing, about 30 minutes. But here and now it is a time of parting, the driver and I saying our last farewells. He has a daughter soon to be married, in two days time, and is in a hurry to leave. It’s one of those ‘last times’ that linger for years. I wonder how the wedding went?

At last, sitting in my aircraft seat, the India Air hostesses strapped into their flight chairs, my plane waits for flight clearance from the control tower. We have already been parked in position for ten minutes, for outside MiG fighters are lined up waiting to take off. They are ancient MiG21’s, of Cold War vintage, but they serve their purpose. Their design first dates to the 1950’s, but the type was crucial for India gaining air superiority in the conflict with Pakistan in 1971. At one stage India had hundreds of them, and what’s left were not to be fully retired until 2015. Unfettered by noise abatement regulations and sundry environment protection ordinances their engines literally blast into action, each aircraft rocketing from ‘O to Go’ in seconds, screaming down the runway, disappearing almost instantly from view. I get my money’s worth. Their screaming makes the engine noise of my passenger plane look decidedly lame. It was like a Saturday night drag strip meet back in Hometown, but these dragsters have lots more grunt, and they have an unimpeded runway to play on that is about 3 kilometres long; part asphalt, part concrete and part bitumen-bound macadam.

The MiG 21’s take their turn at take off’s and landings, those landing trailing long parachutes expelled so as to rapidly arrest their speed. Parked at the side of the runway are other aircraft types; Cold War 1970s MiG27’s and more modern MiG29’s. Various transport aircraft and helicopters sit further away. All are of Russian design. A squadron of twin-engine Su30’s arrive soon after. Hometown airport just has single engine Cessna runabouts and a regional commuter passenger plane that turns up two or three times a day. By comparison to Jodhpur it’s all very uneventful.

The flight into Delhi is delayed by conflicting aircraft movements, the air hostesses assuaging irate passengers with snacks and free drinks. The bottled water was handy. The evening is spent roaming the central city boutiques, havens for the aspiring middle class chic, the highlight being a cranky lady haranguing me for money. I’d already met her relatives at Bodh Gaya and Puri. There was ample room for improving her communication skills and I tried to explain that a friendly looking face was an assured way of twisting me compliantly around her little finger; my daughters had been doing it successfully for years. I suggested she learn a musical instrument and try her hand at street busking. She just screamed in my ear louder. It was no tune I recognised. I’m certain she could relate a narrative full of life’s terrible hardship and woe, but I was over it. I searched for a pharmacy in the hope of purchasing cough lozenges. My lungs continue to be under attack from whatever microbe I am growing there. The thought of spending time in an Australian quarantine station crosses my mind.


Day 40 just happens to be India’s Republic Day. I am not scheduled to catch my home flight until early evening so I contribute positively to India’s celebrations by avoiding the centre of the city and keeping out of everyone’s way, content at exploring the back streets. By a particular privilege of timing I am able to do this in relative safety, wayward trucks and buses, and recalcitrant muggers and thugs, allowing.

In 1857, here in New Delhi, I would have been amongst the dead. In the ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857, on the 11th May, in that horrible expression of Independence, mutinying Indian regiments at Delhi turned on their British officers; and their families. Many officers were killed at the moment their mutinying troops joined the rebels, a few held out in buildings that could be temporarily defended, in the hope of help arriving. No help came. Some attempted to escape to safety, and after terrible hardships, a few succeeded. But fifty British were taken prisoner, all but six being women and children. These were kept in horrendous conditions for 5 days, and on the 16th May they were taken out and butchered with swords. On the 17th May no Europeans were left alive in the city, and whilst the massacre at Cawnpore became legend, that at Delhi has been almost forgotten.

British troops that later retook Delhi extracted a vengeful retribution, killing the innocent along with the guilty. The gods of neither side intervened.

And as I casually amuse myself in the perusal of items on offer by street vendors, unhurried and little alert to no more dire consequence than the prospect of being pick-pocketed, those deaths are so far away, and almost irrelevant.


Days 41 to 43. Dust in the aircraft engines delays my departure from Indira Gandhi International Airport, thus missing my connecting flight and obliging me to unexpectedly spend time in Singapore. There I struggle with the hotel’s ultra modern door lock technology. A simple key would have been useful. In Singapore’s old botanical garden I meet the biggest bee I’ve ever seen. The bee is completely black and is a member of the genus Xylocopa. It hovers before my eyes, uncaring of my proximity, the insect completely absorbed with thoughts of nectar. I am at the place where, in 1942, the British surrendered to the Japanese and thousands of Indians and Australians became prisoners of war.

Somewhere I read, I have forgotten where, that the undefended will live if protected by fate, the well-defended will perish if stricken by destiny. Singapore was supposed to be impregnable. Its fall exposed India and Australia to Japanese invasion. And whilst its fall hastened India’s independence, for Australia its capture resulted in the swapping of dependence on the British, to that of dependence on America.


My exit from the aircraft at Sydney is instructive in the culture of disrespect, of the art of ‘trashing’. For there, all about on the aircraft’s floor, not just in the Economy section but in the Business lounge as well, are thrown about blankets meant for the passengers’ idle comfort, and a plethora of now dog-eared magazines and miscellaneous wrappers of things meant for their temporary and casual distraction. It is really quite a sight. It is the cummulative result of people who have too much, and who care too little. There is no room for comedy or dark levity. Just weeks earlier, on the cold winter streets of New Delhi, people had died from exposure, for want of a blanket. But here in this aircraft the privileged have relegated their blankets to the category of garbage.

At the terminal gate a woman is enthusiastically waving a large Welsh flag, perhaps a welcome for long-absent family or friends. I appropriate the gesture, stranger that she is, unknown to her as I am, and restrain my temptation to inform her, nice as its prominent red dragon on a field of white and green is, that the flag only dates from the 1930’s and so it was unlikely that ‘King Arthur’, or any other Romano-British warlord, ever carried one as a battle standard.

On the final leg of my journey home I drive north from the railway station at Hometown. I pass an ever increasing plethora of empty McDonald’s food packaging, aluminium drink cans and broken beer bottles thrown from car windows into the adjacent bushland, and disturb a raven picking at the carcass of a freshly killed kangaroo struck down by a speeding truck. At a blind corner of the road several carloads of teenagers overtake at a speed far in excess of the legal limit and oblivious to the garlanded cross marking the site of a fatal accident several years earlier. In the adjacent paddocks cows graze in blissful ignorance of their eventual fate. There is not a sari of any hue in sight, but on the northern skyline I can already discern the lush green forest and mountains of my home. It is a refuge, an ashram no less, and safe within, I guess I am a ‘world renouncer’ of a peculiar kind.


So how to end my tale on a note that is relevant, something uplifting? Maybe just a poem:

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

(Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley 1818)

Other than the odd coincidence that the poem was published in the same year that James Tod became the British political agent in India, I am not certain what Shelley’s distant lines have to do with the telling of my road trip through India. Nothing perhaps,…or everything; Impermanence maybe, or the interconnectedness of experience of those who have never met. As George Harrison wrote: “All things must pass, all things must pass away” but then:

“Were there no birth, or old age, or death;
were there no separation from loved ones;
were there not the transcience of all things:
who would not take delight in life in this world?”

(The Panchatantra, Visnu Sarma)

It was a road trip I had never fully anticipated, and a pilgrimage that I never would have guessed at; even as it unfolded. Some adventures are doomed by unforeseen circumstance to premature conclusion, well short of their intended destination. Others continue to voyage in the mind endlessly past the physical constraints of their road map. India’s resplendent polymath and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranth Tagore said that “there are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t”. I was neither. Rather I took the third, not necessarily the ‘middle path’; that of adventure by coincidence. I blundered on in large degree shielded by ignorance of what lay before me, hoping that somehow I would emerge generally intact at the end. Which by the grace and good nature of those I met along the way, and those that patiently journeyed with me, I did.

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