The Cold Caller (2)

Part 1 can be found here.

For a couple of days, the incident was always at the back of my mind, but slowly I began to forget it. It must have been about a week later, when they called me at work. I had just put down the receiver after making a sale, when the phone rang.

‘Hello, David? Or Sahil, should I say? I thought that you’d forgotten me.’

‘Who is this?’

‘Don’t you know? Can’t you remember? You called me last week. My name is Williams.’

‘I…’

‘I thought that I would call you to let you know that my computer is running absolutely fine.’

‘Oh…’

‘I really appreciate your concern, though, but it was unnecessary. So I’ve saved myself some money, haven’t I?’

We are taught that if we have a difficult telephone conversation, then we should try to take control, and so I tried that now, as if the caller was just another difficult customer.

‘Mr Williams,’ I attempted to sound far more confident than I actually felt, ‘might I ask where it is that you are calling from?’

‘Can you not remember? Oh, I suppose that you have so many numbers to call. Mine is a Delhi number, Sahil. Do you remember it now?’

‘There is really no reason why I should, Mr Williams…’

‘As I have just told you, I really do appreciate your concern, and I am pleased to find that you are so obviously such a kind and conscientious fellow. I am sure that, in turn, you will be pleased to learn that because of that I am going to be taking a keen interest in your career, so I will be keeping a close eye on you from now on.’

The line went dead.

Like every other line in the building, my telephone was simply an extension number, so there would not really be any point in my getting it changed. The caller might have asked for my extension, or they might have requested me by name. There was no way to find out which it was. For a moment, I thought of telling my supervisor what had happened, but decided it would sound foolish and he would probably not believe me, anyway. I’m not sure I believed what was happening at that point, either, but I did feel a little scared.

Two days later Mr Williams called me again. This time, his tone was rather different.

‘Hello, Sahil. This is Mr Williams here. Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘Look,’ I tried, ‘where did you get hold of my number?’

‘You are not answering my question, Sahil.’ His voice was soft but unpleasant. ‘Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘I don’t think that is any…’

‘Do you know, Sahil,’ he interrupted me, ‘that many people do not like aggressive salespersons calling them up and trying to coerce them into making purchases? Trying to get them to part with their money for no good reason? I have been thinking about that, and I have decided that a nice fellow like you really should not be in this line of work.’

‘I am not going to be lectured at by you!’ I said hotly. ‘I demand that you tell me…’ I realised that the line that I was talking to was dead.

That evening he called me at home, on my mobile. Often, if the caller display indicates a number withheld, then I don’t answer. This time, though, I did.

‘Sahil,’ said the familiar voice, ‘I hope you are thinking about what I have said to you.’ Desperately, I stabbed the button to end the call, and then stood in the middle of the room, staring down at the phone. I couldn’t think clearly; I just felt an awful panic. ‘This is stalking!’ I thought to myself. ‘And no one would believe me if I told them!’ It was no good my thinking it was impossible for him to have my mobile number, for he clearly had.

My phone rang again maybe another dozen times that evening before I switched it off completely. Then, in the morning, I noticed that I had one voicemail message. Although I knew who it would be from, I still listened to it. It was very brief.

‘I wouldn’t want you to get hurt, Sahil.’

I tried my best to act as though there was nothing wrong at work, but I found it very difficult to focus. All went as normal, however, until the afternoon. I had been back at my desk for no more than five minutes, and just put down the phone when it rang again. I hesitated and then, as it might well be a supervisor calling, I knew I had to answer it.

‘Hello, Sahil. Do you think that you can hide from us for ever, then?’

Us! I shivered, and my mouth became very dry. I looked around desperately, noticed that a supervisor was nearby, and silently I beckoned him over. I thought that if I could keep the caller talking, and hand the phone to my supervisor, then ‘Mr Williams’ would at the very least say something incriminating. Unfortunately, though, just as the supervisor reached me, the phone line went dead.

Final part to follow.

The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

Review of You beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

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First, a disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book with no obligation to post a review.

A psychological crime procedural novel set in Delhi, You Beneath Your Skin quickly paints a vivid picture of the streets, drawing the reader into a dark and desperate world. Although Indian society is divided into the haves and the have-nots more starkly than many, here the two worlds soon collide.

The central character, Anjali, is the divorced mother of a teenaged boy with a form of high-functioning autism that makes him extremely challenging and demanding. She is having a long-term affair with Jatin, who is both the Special Commissioner of Crime in the Delhi Police Force, and the married brother of her best friend, Maya.

Jatin has been charged with investigating a crime supposedly committed by an opposition member of Parliament, but while the government want a conviction, the politician has friends who will pull strings to ensure it is hushed up. The crime under investigation never made clear, but this conflict has resulted in pressure being brought on Jatin to have the case dropped. On top of this, a series of brutal murders are being carried out in the slum areas of Delhi, and although there are elements of the police and the wider establishment who don’t consider them worth investigating, Jatin and his team are determined to track down the perpetrators.

As the tension increases, and the investigations unexpectedly threaten to draw in more of the central characters, one of them is suddenly the victim of an acid attack. And from now on, there are two main storylines, one being the on-going police investigations into the murders, and the other following the victim of the acid attack and the search for reasons and answers to that.

The unfolding storyline, the large cast of different characters and the continuing atmosphere of menace is handled skilfully throughout. Both the brutality both of the criminal underworld and of the police themselves is an ever-present threat, as is both the desperation felt by the poor and the sense of privilege and entitlement by the rich and powerful. And throughout it all, the misogyny intrenched in Indian society overlays everything that happens.

Damyanti Biswas is a Delhiite, writing with the knowledge and authority of someone who knows their area intimately. This a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, powerful and fluent. I was hooked from the beginning, sympathising with the characters and intrigued by the twists and turns of this powerful plot.

Acid attacks are a horrendous phenomenon, scarring and disfiguring, and even killing the victim. I think that many people view them as almost ‘minor’ crimes, and assume that the victim merely suffers a bit of pain and discomfort, and a bit of damage to their skin, but these attacks can inflict injuries as terrible as the burns from fires, and cause almost unbearable pain. Yet partly because of the easy availability of corrosive liquids, they have become almost commonplace in some ways, being used as revenge for perceived slights and ‘dishonours’ as well as for gangland feuds.

This novel, as well as relating an excellent detective story, is also Damyanti’s vehicle to help bring understanding of this horror to the attention of the wider world.

I would certainly give this book five stars.

Sunday Morning

It’s hard to think that just a few days ago we were enjoying exceptionally warm and sunny days for the time of year. This morning the weather is grey and windy and wet, although it is still quite mild.

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That was then…

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…and this is now.

The cats have made it clear they are not going out this morning. One is at the back door obviously pleading with me to do something about the weather. But he always does that when the weather turns bad. And I suppose it makes sense; he knows we give him food and shelter and all the cushions he can sit on, so we must be gods and can therefore fix anything. Surely?

I want to write a review for a book this morning, but I’m finding it hard to get going. That Sunday morning feeling. Getting up late and taking a long time over coffee, indulging ourselves by listening to choral music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Staring out at the weather.

I am in the process of completing a long poem about a long journey – one that shaped, in many ways, much of the art I practise now. Well, not a long journey in strictly temporal terms, but a bus journey from Delhi to Kathmandu that took about thirty hours, the first of many long bus journeys I have taken in India and Nepal. Sometime afterwards, I had wanted to find a way of recording my impressions of this journey, and toyed with a few earlier poems, and then some watercolour painting, and what amounted to prose in the form of reportage, but nothing seemed to work. This led me to experiment with my painting styles in acrylics, giving rise to the semi-abstract style I have used to paint a number of Indian scenes.

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That was another then. Not the then I was talking about, but another. Quite a similar then, though.

I assumed I’d never get around to recording that journey satisfactorily.

But last month we were travelling home on a bus after dark, going through open countryside near home. I was gazing out of the window into the darkness, when I began to understand exactly how I wanted to write that poem, over *cough* thirty years ago…

And now it is almost finished, with just a bit of tweaking to do.

Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

The Past is a Foreign Country; We Did Remarkably Similar Things There

Or, following in my father’s footsteps, or something like that.

Putting up some old postcards of Darjeeling earlier this week set me to thinking. And, let’s face it, anything that can achieve that is a good thing!

I have posted before that my father spent time in India, both during the Second World War and in the days leading up to Partition. If you would like to re-read it, the link is here: My Father In India

In this post, I mentioned that when I first visited India in 1989, at least, my first proper visit rather than simply passing through on the way to Nepal, I visited the Red Fort in Delhi, taking plenty of photographs, of course.

Some while later, at home, I was going through some of my father’s photographs, and discovered that I had taken a photograph of a view of the mosque in the Red Fort that was almost identical to one that he had.

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Above: the one my father had. And, below: the one I took.

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Looking at the minaret in front of the dome closest to the viewer, it seems I took my photograph from the archway to the left of the one my father’s photograph is taken from, but otherwise we must have been standing in the same spot. My father would have been quite a bit younger at that time than I was when I visited the Red Fort, and the circumstances very different. But I’m sure that he felt the same sense of awe that I did.

Now there are mature trees behind the mosque, a couple of low hedges in front, and the creepers on the wall have gone.

Otherwise, the view is the same.

And because my father is no longer here, there is an extra poignancy to this; although our footsteps crossed and merged at this place, thousands of miles away, and we both must have lingered in this same spot and, who knows, possibly thought similar thoughts, the passage of time means in reality we might as well have been tens of millions of miles apart.

And this led me to look more closely at his other photographs.

There are not many, perhaps thirty or forty of them, but it is strange that when he was on leave in India, one time, he went with a few chums up to Nainital, and again there appear to be photos taken from spots where I have stood. The images are not the same, this time, but again our footsteps must have crossed.

I think the greatest regret I have about this, other than the obvious one that he is no longer alive, is that I cannot talk about these places with him. But just sharing them is good, even if it does make me feel sad.

A random bit of Delhi for the weekend

‘Once I leave, I am back out in noisy, smelly, confusing, squalid, hassling, bright Paharganj. When I first came here, it seemed very strange and exotic, had an unusual, exciting feel to it that was difficult to identify but was certainly the strange, unfamiliar sounds, smells, sights and feel of an unknown culture. Even the bits that were new, still seemed dirty and somehow old, as if something about them owed their existence to the distant, Indian past. This has gone and I miss it most keenly, since I keep getting a hint of it, floating unexpectedly on the breeze with sounds and smells that remind me of when I first came out here. This has been replaced, however, by something almost as precious…I feel completely at home.’ 13th November 2009
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Crowds near the Ajmeri Gate, Old Delhi

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Turkman gate, Old Delhi. One of the gates in the city walls at the time of the Indian Mutiny / 1st Indian War of Independence, it dates from the seventh city of Delhi, Shahjehanabad. More recently, in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi’s government, it was the scene of another infamous episode, when crowds protesting about the bulldozing of their houses in an effort to clear slum areas and force them out of the city were fired upon by the police, killing several of them.

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Tenements near the Turkman Gate, Old Delhi

 

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Mihrab, or Arch, in a building in the Lodi Gardens, Delhi

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Delhi Gate, in the old city near Chandni Chowk. This photo was taken in 1989. When I passed the same gate in 2009, the traffic was a whole lot worse!

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The great tower of Qutb Minar. The first of the Moslem invasions was by Muhammed, Sultan of Ghur in what is now Afghanistan, in 1192. Having overrun a large part of the Northern Indian plains, he returned to Ghur, leaving his new territory in the hands of his army commander and favourite slave, Qutbuddin Aibak. Qutbuddin decided to leave a monument to his religion that was designed to overawe his new subjects and inspire his own people, and set about building a mosque with a massive tower nearby. The tower itself is almost 73m high and is 15m in diameter at the base, tapering to 2.5m at the top.

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Decorative details of the stonework. Most artistic decoration is, as usual with Islamic craftwork, patterned work and verses from the Koran. At Qutb Minar, there are also plentiful stylised, and sometimes surprisingly realistic, depictions of plants with flowers and buds and long, winding stems and tendrils. To construct the mosque, artisans used stone from Hindu and Jain temples and many stones and panels still depict the original carvings, frequently defaced but still recognisable.

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The famous ‘non-rusting’ iron pillar. This stands in the courtyard of the mosque and was here long before the mosque was built. It was made in the reign of Chandragupta II (AD 375-413), is composed of almost pure iron (99.72%) and shows only the slightest sign of rusting. A sanskrit inscription on the pillar indicates that it probably stood originally outside a Vishnu temple, possibly in Bihar, and was moved later to this site. It would probably have had a garuda, the vehicle of Vishna, on the top. 

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Squinch-arch in Iltutmish’s Tomb. A squinch is a ‘bridging’ structure, used here to support a dome (now gone). Iltutmish was Shamsuddin Iltutmish (ruled 1211-1236), 3rd ruler of Delhi (after Qutbuddin and Aram).

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Brahminical motifs on the columns of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. These pillars were originally part of the Hindu and Jain temples that were razed in the area when Qutbuddin built his capital. It is chronicalled that 27 temples were destroyed. They would have been reassembled by Hindu craftsmen, Qutbuddin using local labour.

 

My First Long Trip to India (7) – the Final Installment!

It was much warmer down in Kalimpong. Indeed, I would be inclined to describe it as hot, although I have no doubt that most Indians would say ‘Pah! You think that’s hot?’ Possibly I wouldn’t think so either, if I had just come up from the plains, but coming from Sikkim, it definitely felt hot.

The first morning, as soon as I had finished breakfast, I took a long, hot, but extremely beautiful walk up hill through mixed forest to the Durpin Gompa, or, as it’s properly called, the Zang Dog Palri Fo Brang Monastery. It was a morning of flowers, trees, sunshine and butterflies, and for some reason I felt especially euphoric.

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The road to the monastery runs through an army checkpoint and lots of army land, and from the checkpoint I was helpfully taken partway by an extremely polite and friendly redcap and shown the correct junction. As I continued my walk, I was passed by a number of soldiers who all smiled and wished me a good morning. It was slightly unnerving, since most soldiers I had come across before had tended to adopt their special stern and unfriendly faces for me as soon as I neared them.

Later, on the way back from the monastery, I was stopped at the same checkpoint by a soldier who decided that he wanted to chat. So for some ten minutes or so, I was standing there, with him holding my hand and asking me where I came from and about my family and what I thought of India and yet, after two months in India, it all seemed entirely natural.

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What else did I do in Kalimpong? Well, I virtually overdosed on lassis, especially mango lassis. The fancy just took me.

I had a haircut.

I got some of my films developed. There was no real reason why I should, but I felt impatient and for some reason wanted to look at the ones I had taken of Bodhgaya.

I watched the last of the India / Pakistan cricket series on the TV. India won the test series as well as the ODI’s. It seemed that the whole series had been played in a fantastic spirit, and I found myself hoping that this might, in some small way, lead to improved relations between the two countries.

But I feared that I was being hopelessly naïve.

I looked around the market, which was fun – as it usually is in India. And I took a number of photos. And here I must admit to a strong loathing of the tourists and travellers that shove a camera lens in someone’s face and take a picture, totally oblivious of any offence they may cause. You see it so often. And I think it is so often a kind of western arrogance, an idea that they somehow have a right to do it.

Once, waiting for a flight at Dubai airport, I witnessed two young Japanese tourists who approached an Arab gentleman who was looking splendid in white dishdash and keffiyeh, sitting and drinking coffee. After poking the camera lens into his face and taking a couple of photos, whilst the gentleman sat impassively ignoring this rudeness, the girl had the effrontery to pull a chair right up next to him and lean into him, as the boy continued taking photos.

I cringed. I felt the entire room cringe.

The gentleman concerned drained his cup and slowly stood up, bowed without smiling to the young couple, and walked off.

So I walked around the market stalls, asking people if I could take their photos. Some said no, but most said yes.

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Late afternoon, and thick cloud was quite literally sitting on the top of Kalimpong. The ground level was warm and dry, whilst the tops of the buildings and trees disappeared into the clouds. I remember seeing this also in Kathmandu, once. It’s a kind of inversion, but I think there’s a special name for it when it occurs in urban areas.

I returned to the plains by share jeep again, and flew back to Delhi the following day.

Delhi felt very different to how it had felt a couple of months before – much hotter, now, and the lighter evenings gave it a very different feel, too. Other than buy books and walk around a lot, I didn’t do a great deal with my two days there.

In my mind, I had already left to go home.

 

 

My First Long Trip to India (2)

And so, fifteen years after my first trip to India, I was back again in Delhi.

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Eventually I felt brave enough to leave the café and go off to do my tasks. First of all, I had to sort out my train ticket, so I headed off to the Tourist Bureau (The Official One!) at New Delhi Station. But as I headed up the steps towards the office, I was stopped by a friendly chap who told me it was closed. ‘But no bother’ he said. ‘You come with me and I take you to Tourist Office where they sell you ticket’.

Before I realized what I was doing, I turned to follow him. By the time that we were out of the station and threading our way through the taxis and crowds on the concourse I had remembered that this was a common ploy to get people to ‘Tourist Offices’. Nowadays I have no problem with using them – in fact I will often seek them out to buy me tickets, but more of that later. I glanced up at my new best friend, who was a few steps ahead of me, and peeled unobtrusively off and headed back into the station.

I went back up the steps towards the Tourist Bureau. The first thing that struck me was the silence. Downstairs, all was noise and smells, colour and chaos, but up here was a big, gloomy, echoing corridor, empty as far as I could see. After wandering up and down for a while, I found the Bureau which was, naturally enough, open, and fairly crowded. Inside, whilst I awaited my turn at the counter, I chatted to a fellow traveller from England who decided that it was his task to lecture me at length on how to approach getting a ticket out of Indian Railways. Foremost amongst this advice, he said, hectoring me sternly, was keeping your cool amidst all the provocation, bureaucracy and hassle.

Eventually, he was called to the counter. They went through his application form and documents with him, seemingly finding fault with something. He lost his cool with them, and left without a ticket.

I chortled quietly to myself.

When it was my turn, I found the process fairly straightforward, although long-winded. But I left with my ticket to Gaya stashed securely in my wallet.

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Why Gaya? Gaya is certainly not a tourist destination, but it is the nearest town of any size to Bodhgaya. When I had decided to come to India, instead of limping around Britain in pain, I had come to the conclusion that instead of just travelling around for three months or so, I should at least spend some time doing something worthwhile.

We all like to think that we’re having an existential crisis at times. Okay, that’s probably not true. But lots of us do. What is an existential crisis, though? Is it simply that we are going through a time in our history when more and more of us question our role, our place in our society? Or could there be more to it than that? It certainly would now seem to be a time when many people in the west have come to doubt whether the values that they are taught are actually of any importance, and indeed whether they really have any value at all.

On the other hand, there are just as many members of that society who feel that the whole subject is just bunkum, and that those who complain about these things are merely whinging, work-shy degenerates. Sod your existential issues, mate, I’ve got a family to feed.

Is it really, then, just so much nonsense? Maybe our situation is such that we can afford to have these crises now; that we now have the opportunity to address them. When life is simply a struggle to keep a roof over one’s head and to put food on the table, then one’s priorities are very different from those with the leisure to ponder ‘life’s imponderables’. In past times, we would have had to just carry on regardless, although there were writers then who recognised and explored them, such as Hermann Hesse and Somerset Maugham. The only other realistic option, other than becoming a vagrant, would have been to completely renounce the world and to join a monastery or become a hermit.

India, though, handles these things rather differently. Hindus have a duty to seek pleasure and success and to accumulate wealth, but also, eventually, to renounce the world and seek moksha; liberation, after the discovery that the other three paths give no lasting satisfaction. This is seen in the persons of the many ascetics who wander the land, or live alone or in ashrams, having given up all worldly possessions.

Bodhgaya is in Bihar, the poorest state in India. It is also the place where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. For this reason, there are many Buddhist temples there, attracting a goodly number of Buddhist pilgrims, and, naturally, not a few tourists, and also a number of charitable projects.

And a few rogues.

I was attracted to the idea of spending time there, both to experience the temples and atmosphere, but also to work for a while on one of the projects. I did some research whilst in the UK, and arranged to help out at a project that comprised a school and orphanage in a village on the outskirts of Bodhgaya.

Smugly pleased with myself for obtaining my ticket to Gaya, I then went to find an Internet cafe and e-mailed everyone, then meandered back to a café for lunch.

Two days later, I was in Bodhgaya.

My Father in India

They didn’t talk about it.

It wasn’t as bad as the First World War, when men who had nervous breakdowns were frequently shot for cowardice, but the men of the generation who fought in the Second World War were still reluctant to talk about the hardships they had faced and the horrors they had seen.

When my father did talk to me about it, and it was very rare that he would, it was generally to joke about the fun that he’d had on leave, or, after my first visit to India, to ask about places that he remembered from Delhi.

He had seen fighting in Burma, and stayed in India right up to the time of Partition. He certainly wasn’t going to talk about either of those. When pushed, he’d clam up about Burma, and would only say that what he’d seen in India at the time of Partition was horrible.

bullock cart

I daresay he told me one or two things that I have forgotten; things that didn’t mean much to me at the time. Perhaps he told me where he had been when he was on leave and was photographed rowing a boat on a lake in the hills; almost certainly in the North of India. Nainital, perhaps? I have been there myself, now, and I’m not certain. If he had told me before I’d been out there, the name would have meant nothing to me, and so I wouldn’t have remembered it.

And by then it was too late to ask him, because he died before I returned for my second visit.

dad 1

Once he had returned to England, he never went back to India, and I certainly never had the impression that he wanted to. I guess that the bad memories must have outweighed the good ones.

I have a dictionary that he bought in Delhi, stamped inside the cover ‘Cambridge Book Depot, New Delhi’ with the price scribbled in pencil; Rs 3/12, and his signature. I also had some old Indian coins, once, that he had given me, but I’m not sure where they are now. Other than the photographs, I’m not aware that he brought anything else back. Certainly, there were never any ‘curios’. Although a part of me wonders whether there might have been once, and whether my mother, a staunch Christian, might have thrown them out after they married. But that is pure conjecture.

hill station 4

And he was interested enough to read books on India’s history. I was surprised, occasionally, on the depth of his knowledge on the subject. He was, though, always interested in history, so I suppose that I shouldn’t have been really, and if he hadn’t have been born working class, I daresay that he might have had a university education, because he excelled at school.

Most of the photos are in fairly poor condition, although I have attempted to improve a couple of the ones that were particularly bad.

It seems strange to think of soldiers as tourists, but whilst they were on leave in India, that is, of course, exactly what they were. There are one or two photos in his collection that were taken of places I have been. One of them is of a view inside the Red Fort of Delhi that differs only in the size of the tree in the picture from one that I took in 1989.

He must have stood in exactly the same spot to take that picture, some 45 years before.

What does this small slice of family history mean for me?

mainstreet poona

It does mean that there is a slight family connection to India, if not in the way that usually comes to mind. He had no family there, and had no responsibilities beyond his army duties, but just the fact of his living out there for a number of years, gives me this connection. Or so I like to think of it.

In the end, India wove its magic over me – nothing much to do with Dad, I suppose, although I expect that was in the mix somewhere. I think that part of why I may have gone out there the first time, was to follow in his footsteps. And now my family can say that they have a connection to India through the time that I have spent out there as well.