Monday, August 09, 2010

Part of a part (of a big book) - Part 2

The down-side of the Indian experience is that it leaves us a little jaded for the rest of the world. James Elroy Flecker’s lush verse drove me to the gates of Damascus. And to disappointment, because I have seen the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri and there can be no comparison. The giant dome of the Hagia Sofia is slightly less awe-inspiring when one has seen the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur. Everywhere one goes, one has to fight the inner voice of Mark Twain’s hayseed who’d been there and seen that.

It’s not just the diversity in the culture, nor even the weight of 5000 years of history. The sheer physical differences are sometimes difficult to comprehend. In the 50 Celsius summers of Vizag or Bhopal birds drop dead from the sky, at the same time that soldiers in the upper reaches of Leh need fuel to melt their drinking water. Every school-going child in India is aware of the contrasts from west to east, the sere stretches of the Thar desert (a friend from Bikaner told me he had never seen rain till he was four!) and the sodden slopes of Cherrapunji. The Himalayas, which beggar description even when seen from a hundred miles away, or from a porthole at 38,000 feet. The festering mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, heavy with tropic heat and the ever-present terror of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The boulder-stippled, sinewy ravines of the Seonee river in India’s heartland, flowing through the tawny meadows and shape-shifting trees of Pench. The Sergio Leone landscapes of the Rann of Kutch and the Victorian propriety of pensioners’ colonies in Mushobra.

On the west bank of the Hooghly in Bengal, a thirty kilometre stretch is a lesson in the history of colonization. Bandel Church was built in thanksgiving by a shipwrecked Portuguese trader, and the Marthomite cross is testimony to its origins. Chinsurah, farther down the river, was a trading post for the Dutch. Some of the older residents of Chandannagar, just south of Chinsurah, still hold French citizenship and receive pensions from the French government. The Institut de Chandernagore on the Strand still runs classes in French and has a library of books on France. In French. More relevant, perhaps, is the institution of Lords Bakery, which may be the only authentic boulangerie within a thousand miles. Travelling farther down, Rishra, once a German trading station and indigo factory, still has a neighbourhood called Alemaanpara. Srirampur was Frederiksnagar under the Danish East India Company, before the arrival of the two Williams, Carey and Ward. By the middle of the 19th century all these towns were under the rule of the Viceroy of Her Majesty’s Government in India. All except Chandannagar, which remained a French territory until ceded to India in February 1951. This anomalous enclave also played a part in India’s freedom movement – as French territory, it was a haven for the young revolutionaries pursued by the British Govt. in India. Memories of five countries from the Continent, all to be swamped by a sixth.

Bloodlines of the earliest recorded invaders live on in remote pockets of the Himalayan foothills. The village of Malana in Himachal Pradesh is closed to outsiders. The locals claim descent from the Greek armies (more probably Seleucus’ men than Alexander’s) and have their own distinct religion. The language of the Drukpa, a polyandrous tribe in Ladakh, is different from the regions surrounding them, and it is surmised that they too (like the inhabitants of Nuristan across the border, famously celebrated in The Man who would be King) are descended from some wandering arm of the Greek forces. Ladakh itself, marked with chortens, fed on thukpa and tsampa, is a little echo of Tibet. In the ’80s, the Sports Authority of India picked boys from the obscure Siddhi tribe in Andhra Pradesh to train them as distance runners. Turned out they were relying on genetics, because the Siddhis are supposed to be descendants of Ethiopian warriors brought over by the Nawabs of Hyderabad.

They were all here once. India holds them still.



Milo Minderbinder said...

Some parts of interior Maharastra, esp the Marathwada region like Dhule and Nandurbar look more bleak and imposing than the Australian outbacks.
Also, you forgot the two-humped Bactrian camels found in the small valleys along the Manali-Leh route.

Chronicus Skepticus said...

Oh very nice! I had no idea *this* was the book you were in.

(We got a review copy and quietly put it aside - too many review books, not enough reading time. But I *will* pick it up now.)

30in2005 said...

I am not reading any of the parts of your bit of teh book on the blog. I fully intend to buy a copy of the book when I am in India and November and relish it over my New Year break a month after.

But I must admit I read a few lines (how can one not if it is RIGHT THERE) and it looks fab. Very excited. Congrats - you deserve it as your writing is excellent!!!

TalkingHead said...

Will it be available online somewhere? Do post if it does? Also are you only going to post excerpts from your book ? Who's the lazy one now...;-)

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Milo, let's go see those camels.

Chronicus, danke. Picking it up would be good exercise, considering its size.

35, flattered. But I'm sad you'll ignore my posts.

TH, I never denied that I'm lazy. Shall post a LOT of old / published stuff over the next couple of weeks.


Soma Ghosh said...

Can keep adding to that list of wonders that come together in a crazy cacophony called India. Was mesmerized by the Kanheri Caves, tucked away amidst the greenery of a national park.

The book, it must be available in Crossword in Mumbai? Or do we get to attend another launch here?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Soma, there IS some talk about a launch in Mumbai. Let's see how it works out.