India 5: caves and custard apple variants

February 6, 2010

John McCarthy writes:

Tuesday 2 February: Bombay (or Mumbai)
Steering a sailing boat you are forever moving the tiller or wheel. To counter the effect of wind, current and waves and keep going straight you have to make constant and sometimes quite large adjustments. Steering a car on a tarmaced highway you should need only to move the wheel a smidgen to keep on track. So it’s a bit alarming that our driver from Bombay airport swings the wheel between 10 and 2 o’clock just to go dead ahead.  Mind you, his Fiat taxi is so old that it’s a wonder it goes at all. Still even if we’d been in this year’s limo we’d have got to the Gateway of India no sooner. The traffic in the capital of Maharashtra state is at times as fast and furious as elsewhere, but for long stretches it just crawls along.

On one of the faster sections — along a boulevard running beside the Arabian Sea — we overtake a car with a sign on its roof announcing that it belongs to the JB Driving Academy. The young man at the wheel looks utterly terrified. And no wonder, learning to drive in these conditions must rank as one of the most difficult ways of gaining a licence in the world. I hope that the poor lad gains some sense of security from the neat and camouflaged ear muffs he is sporting. It is s source of constant confusion to us that so many people — mainly men –- are wearing these aural warmers in India’s oven heat. The car has bits falling off it — testament to many bangs and scrapes — and though I can’t see the instructor’s face, I imagine it to be deeply lined, permanently twitching and munching on handfuls of valium.

We see the Gateway and have lunch in a famous cafe, Leopold’s. The leading story in the English language newspaper is about a political spat caused by a spokesman for the right-wing nationalist party Shiv Sena, that Maharashtra should be kept for the Marathi’s and that all the ‘foreigners’ who come to seek their fortune in the city should not be catered for. His political opponents are keen to jump on this and call it rampant, racist regionalism and insist that the ‘foreigners’ are all Indian citizens and as such should be allowed to live wherever in the country they wish.

It was the Shiv Sena who changed the city’s name from Bombay to Mumbai in 1996. Being a PC kind of guy I’ve always used the new name. But Tania tells me that very few Indians do — preferring to stick with Bombay.

After Leopold’s, a hectic place filled with tourists and locals and one of the places shot up in the terrorist attack of late November 2008 ,  we manage a bit of shopping before heading back to the airport in time for our flight to Aurangabad.

Wednesday 3 – Thursday 4 February: Ellora
No two ways about it, the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora is a wonder. Going around you find yourself sighing over a lovely statue and then have to draw back and remind yourself that this piece was carved from the living rock, as was the room it is in, as was the entire temple. The imaginations behind this and the 33 other cave temples and monasteries — some Hindu such as Kailasanatha, some Buddhist and a few Jain — must have been vast and inspired.

We spend two days at the caves and have two contributors, one speaking on the Hindu caves and one on the Buddhist. They both insist that the architect were divinely inspired. After telling us about the history of the temple, our Hindu contributor insists on taking me right to the farthest corner of Kailasanatha to some carvings hidden by workmen’s’ scaffolding. It features Lord Shiva flirting with a young woman. Even in the gloom one can clearly see that the artist has caught exactly the girl’s demure, blushing, upward glance at the god.

Our interviewee on the Buddhist areas is an architect and he tells me that his own work is inspired by the place, and specifically by its connection with and respect for the world around it. He says that Ellora reminds him that his ego is not important and that he should leave himself open and humble in the hope of finding the right way forward on his building projects. He would like to achieve what the designers here did and ‘reveal the beautiful structures that were already there, waiting in the mountainside to be discovered’.

On our way out of Ellora we come across a company of monkeys. With grey coats, black faces and very long tails they sit under the trees demanding nuts and bananas from the tourists. They scamper up and, with very long fingers, snatch any offering from the palm of your hand. Tania tells us that these are langur monkeys and that they are fiercely territorial. So much so that they are used to scare off other monkeys from the government buildings in Delhi.

As the sun sets over the Deccan our driver Ballagee takes us home with a very un-Indian and cautious driving style. We stop at a fruit stall and as well as apples, pears and figs, buy some things I have never seen before. A large, smiling woman with very dark skin and a dark mane of hair slices up fruits for us to try. One is a small round fruit a bit like a hairless kiwi but with brown flesh that has the consistency of a just-ripe plum and tastes of caramel. Another is a large, knobbly pink fruit with a soft, creamy texture. The first is a chico, the second a custard apple, or, as Tania puts it, ‘custard apple variant’.

The light is almost gone as we leave the woman with her piles of fruit under a makeshift tent. Almost immediately we hit a traffic jam. It turns out that two trucks have crashed head on. We later learn that six people died in the smash — on their way home from a wedding. It’s a great relief, after the carefree flamboyance of our southern driver Chaundru, that Ballagee is very careful.

Friday 5 February
On the train from Manmad to Bhopal, we have four bunks in an AC Two Tier coach. While the carriage is pleasantly cool, its double-glazed windows are very murky, giving the passing countryside a fuzzy appearance. This and the curtains that shroud all the bunks create a rather cosy, introspective atmosphere. Three of our bunks are on top. As I write this post Ian is sleeping in one, Tania in another and all the kit is lashed down on the third. Seb and I sit on the fourth — on the lower tier. A couple of hours ago a man appeared down the narrow corridor handing out meals. We had a pretty decent veg curry. Every quarter of an hour or so someone comes through offering cold drinks, fruit, sweets or hot tea or coffee, with the cry ‘chai, masala, chai!’

There are two other bunks in our area, containing a family with a sweet little girl. Unfortunately when Ian and I grin at her she bursts into tears. Fortunately her parents and grandparents think this is very funny. They chat, share fruit and play with the little one and then settle down for a sleep.

It feels as though we have entered into a small, self-contained world that is speeding across the endless plains of Maharashtra and beyond into Madhya Pradesh and the city of Bhopal, our jumping-off point for the Buddhist site of Sanchi.

Many thanks to Ian Serfontein, as so often, for the photos.

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