Blind Faith Part 2

On returning to Panjim after my day trip to Old Goa, it seemed as if Saint Francis Xavier – the so-called Incorruptible Saint – was a universally loved figure amongst the Goan Christians.

Then one evening I met a couple who definitely did not revere him.

Perhaps better said, they met me.

 

I was staying at a small, family owned, hotel. There were 5 rooms. These were on the second story, at the top of a long creaking wooden staircase. The owners, a middle aged couple named Soares, lived on the ground floor. In the backyard was an open, thatch roofed shelter with tables and plastic chairs. Breakfast was served here and also evening meals (which had to be ordered in the morning). Near the shelter was an area of grass and against a high wall, a riot of ferns, creepers and palms. This was a fine place to stay, it was quiet and in a secluded back street.

One evening however, it was far from quiet. It was nearing Christmas and festivities were on the agenda. There was a family get together – or rather, an extended family get together – held in the back yard. Trestle tables were set up in the garden and food and drink made available to everyone. Most of the other western tourists staying at the hotel opted to go out for the night. There must have been around 20 people there, including some boisterous kids. Some of the older people I noticed spoke Portuguese. Most of the others, middle aged and younger, spoke Konkani, a language originating in Southern India. Most Goans were conversant with English although rarely fluent.

There were two people there that night who were certainly fluent in English. I had heard about Antonio and Isabella from the Soares. They were a family success story. And they, I subsequently found out, had heard about me because of the lively account I had related to the  Soares about my trip to Old Goa.  

 

Antonio and Isabella had left Goa in their late teens, gone to university in London; he had a PhD in biochemistry and she in sociology; later they moved to Portugal, where they were living at the outskirts of Lisbon. They were middle aged and dark skinned but with some obviously Portuguese features. Antonio was a bit overweight, wore gold rimmed glasses, was clean shaven and had a crop of thick curly hair. He wore neat slacks, an open necked blue shirt and an off white cotton coat; Isabelle, still beautiful despite her years, wore a long floral dress with long sleeves, earrings, and necklace; her long black hair was tied up in a bun. Their clothes were simple but were good quality; expensive and purchased in Portugal, not India.

On first appearances, ironically, Antonio and Isabella stood out because they were as well dressed as the pilgrims I had seen a few days before in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa……

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Blind Faith Part 1

 

Old Goa.

I went there on a day trip.

No big plans, just take it easy. Hang out as the tourist.

All I wanted to do was look at some old churches.

 After two torrid months of travelling around central India and seeing a lot of temples and mosques, I thought a few churches would be a welcome diversion.

There were three of them in Old Goa. They were old: 4 centuries.

Yep, an easy day for me. 

Leastways, that’s what I thought on the way out there…..

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The Tombs of Hyderabad – Part 1

 

 

I went to Hyderabad to see a graveyard. 

It was no ordinary graveyard. 

There were 12 tombs built on a stretch of land at the outskirts of the city. They were old, the oldest constructed 5 centuries ago and the most recent, 2 centuries. They were built to house the remains of a succession of Moslem shahs (and their wives and children) who had ruled Hyderabad until the arrival of the British in the early eighteenth century.

Each tomb was a scaled down version of the Taj Mahal (which is another way of saying that the Taj was an adaptation of an architectural idea long in existence before it was built). There was a big dome supported by a solid, rectangular building with arches and columns. The size and grandeur of the dome reflected the wealth, power and pretensions of the Shah who reigned at the time. The smallest dome was 20 metres high, the largest, over 40. On the floor inside each building, directly under the lofty ceiling of the dome, there were stone coffins on the floor. In the bigger domes, there were galleries of recessed alcoves.

Most of the inner sanctum of the dome was space, emptiness, shadow and silence. These tombs were classic examples of the genius of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture transposed to India; there was a beautiful combination of elegance and disarming simplicity. They were impressive architectural works especially considering when they were built and the technology available.

I imagine that during their construction, they were cocooned with the same network of bamboo poles tied together with rope which you can see today on any modern construction site in India – and were plied by the same army of workers, emaciated village peons, moving back and forth across the precarious looking structure like ants. 

These dome tombs were the relics of Islamic rulers who spent a good part of their lives preparing – and building – for their deaths.

Westerners often romanticised the Taj Mahal and saw it as an expression of love; inside the sanctum were the graves of the Shah Jahan and his favourite wife. But in reality, the Taj was at least as much about death as it was love. It was the most magnificent example of an Islamic tombstone from the hundreds of them scattered around India.

And it cost so much to build that it bankrupted an empire.

 

 

To reach Hyderabad’s tombs, I had to get a scooter rickshaw and travel from one side of the city to the other.

It was not a pleasant trip.

Like in every big Indian city, the traffic was chaotic and noisy, and the air pollution was stifling. A day spent breathing the air in Hyderabad was equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes. In more than a few Indian cities today, the air pollution is worse. 

It took me an hour to reach the tombs.

On the way, I passed dilapidated buildings and apartment blocks, dusty shops and stalls: a chaos of squalid structures of every size and shape devoid of anything remarkable or elegant. I covered my face with a handkerchief in a vain attempt to filter out the pollution.

Sometimes the scooter rickshaw pulled up next to a bus or a truck and I got covered in a thick black cloud of diesel exhaust.

Finally I got there.  

There was an ancient stone wall and behind it, trees. The trees were a welcome sight after the urban desert of the city. I found myself in an oasis of green and, relative silence. Following a shady road, I came to a metal box which was the ticket office, where I paid an entrance fee. Rounding a bend, I saw my first dome. There was something mesmerizing in the size and symmetry of that massive half globe, garlanded with carved lotus petals around its base, a spire on top, rising high above the tree tops and illuminated by the bright sun. This was the first tomb – there were eleven others back among the trees. 
 
Centuries ago, the domes had been set in a garden Paradise. Between the tombs there had been tended gardens and hedges, pools and canals. It was a different scene today. There were no gardens. The pools and canals were dry. Scattered about was the detritus left by Indian tourists; paper plates, plastic bottles and wrappers, styrofoam cups etc. There were lower caste women whose job it was to sweep away the leaves that fell on the paths and in the immediate area around the tombs. But it wasn’t their job – it wasn’t anyone’s job – to clear away the trash. So it didn’t happen. 

It was hot, near 40 degrees Celsius; I took it easy and spent my time walking from one tomb to the other and taking long rests in between.

 

 

One tomb which interested me was the first one ever built; it was a good 30 metres high and housed the remains of a certain Sultan Ibrahim. He was a Turk, raised and educated in Persia, who turned up in the present-day Hyderabad (then known as Golconda) in 1520 with an army and defeated the local Hindu kings and started building the fort. He also played a leading part in bringing down the powerful neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Vijenegar, the remains of which are today one of the most famous tourist attractions in southern India. So this Ibrahim was where the Muslim domination of the Hyderabad area began. Dotted on the stone pavements outside his dome were flat black slabs of marble marking the graves on his favourite wives. I cannot imagine that this Ibrahim, despite his classical Persian education, was a particularly savoury sort of character. The Islamic invasions of the subcontinent were extremely brutal. The force he represented was one based on the certainty of his cause, his religion, and his absolute conviction that the infidel deserved to die or be enslaved. 

Those who came after him, foreign invaders, built exquisitely beautiful architecture – and administered a reign of terror upon the majority Hindu population including the systematic abduction of their young women to fill their harems. This continued for a good 400 years until the British appeared on the scene. Men like Ibrahim who swept in the from the west and occupied large sectors of India, brought with them an energy and fanaticism which was missing in an India paralysed by the caste system and depleted by endless dynastic rebellions and wars. 

In time however, the Moslems fell prey to the same disease – and were easily pushed aside by the British. 

 

Going from tomb to tomb, one problem which I kept running into was young Moslem couples who had chosen a tomb as a lover’s rendezvous. The young men were dressed in short sleeved shirts and trousers and had sports shoes and cool sunglasses. The young women were clad in long black cloaks with a black headscarf – or black burkas.

What was it like wearing a long black cloak and headscarf or a burka in the Indian heat?

In the centre of Hyderabad, I had seen many women wearing burkas. I’d stopped at a few shops selling burkas and related ‘modest’ clothing and noted that they were made from nylon or a mixture of nylon and cotton.

Black Nylon? In this climate?

In Hyderabad the temperatures hovered around the high 30´s – and higher – for most of the year.  

Wearing black nylon in that sort of heat must have been, at the very least, uncomfortable – if not outright torture.

Most of the women also wore black gloves.

This garb seemed to me akin to the old Chinese custom of binding women’s feet – or in Europe and America – when women had to wear whalebone corsets, fastened tight, to give them an ‘hour glass’ figure. It reeked in other words of something belonging to another era – the era of Ibrahim, for example.

I continued my trip around the tombs of Hyderabad and as I did so, my thoughts turned to a scene from the day before at the hotel I was staying at.

Suddenly I found myself in the modern world, rather than the ancient, turning over a whole plethora of questions confronting the Moslems of Hyderabad today – and not only them, but the world’s Moslems in general. 

 

 

The Tombs of Hyderabad Part 2

 

 

It was a problem.

Wandering between the tombs of Hyderabad: time and again, tracking through the hot sun, I’d arrive at a tomb, looking forward to the shade and cool it offered, like an oasis in a desert, and find myself disturbing a young Moslem couple who had chosen the tomb as a lover’s rendezvous.

Their reaction on seeing me, a tourist with a camera, was invariably the same: flight.

As far as I was concerned, they didn’t need to fear me and they certainly didn’t need to flee in panic.

I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want that feeling. On the other hand, I was here to see the tombs.

Sitting in the shade of a tomb, the image of a teenage man dressed in a short sleeved shirt and trousers and sports shoes and sunglasses and the woman in a black nylon burka, a scene from earlier in the day came to mind.  

 

The hotel where I was staying in Hyderabad wasn’t luxurious or expensive by western standards – but by Indian standards it was certainly middle class. On the ground floor, opposite the reception counter, was an air-conditioned restaurant with tinted glass windows and lots of heavy wooden tables and chairs. Fixed to one of the walls at the end of the dining room was a large flat screen TV set.

The food was very good and especially around lunch times a lot of people from outside frequented the restaurant. All of them, it spoke for itself, were middle class. There was a mix of Hindus and Moslems. Invariably, in the case of the Moslems, the women were clad in either burkas or niqabs, but the men and the children were dressed in western style clothing.

On the TV was the usual run of Indian soap operas, stock market updates, news and blitz advertising. Waiting for my order, I struck a conversation with a Moslem man on the table next to mine. He was on holiday from Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a doctor in a hospital. His young wife, a pair of eyes staring out from a burka, busied herself with the children.

He talked about the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia in a tone of hostility. There were so many of them; they formed a caste of privileged, wealthy, authoritarian rulers. The rest of the Saudis were lazy and pampered by a welfare system. Foreigners did all the work he said, from the most menial tasks to the advanced technical and professional jobs. At the hospital where he worked, a large one, all of the doctors were foreigners and so were the nurses (many of them Filipinos). We got talking about his job. It was a good job he said, it paid well. But he was counting off the days before he had saved enough money and could leave. There were lots of Indian Moslems working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States he told me, and especially from Hyderabad. No one wanted to live in the Middle East, just earn money and then come back to India.

Whilst we were talking, ads appeared on the TV featuring beautiful women dressed in western, often revealing, clothes promoting toothpaste, deodorants, washing powder – and apple and mango flavoured condoms. The sexualisation of the Indian media was proceeding at a rapid pace. Scantily clad Bollywood babes could be seen everywhere in every media format, from magazines to TV to billboards. 

I wondered about how the Moslems who frequented that restaurant regarded the all too explicit adds. Didn’t they clash with their ideas about women and modesty?

It seemed bizarre to be in a restaurant where women clad in burkas manoeuvred food into their mouths whilst up on the TV screen were images coming from a very different kind of world.

Of course the commodification of women by a commercially driven mass media had many negative sides to it. It was easy to understand that religious people – and not only Moslems – had serious objections to this blatant invasion of our lives by the profit motive. The over sexualisation of life thanks to the advertising industry brought with it some obviously very negative consequences. There was the danger of reducing women to commodities, things, this in a very different way to traditional, patriarchal societies. In the West, one could ask serious questions about the role played by the advertising and porn industries in defining our ideas of gender and women.

I had a feeling that the insistence on women secluding themselves behind a wall of black nylon was a way of avoiding a whole plethora of complex issues, this in the name of resisting modernisation.  For how long could women be denied the right to develop their talents and decide their own role in life? And what about gays and transgender?

The doctor from Hyderabad was critical of Saudi Arabia because he saw it as a parasite state inhabited by a lazy population. Yet he was not opposed to the puritanical, better said, reactionary form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.

I was tempted, but resisted the temptation, the raise this issue.

 

There was nothing in the Koran about women having to wear the burka or even, long black nylon dresses. There was nothing about women being subservient to their men.

This was purely a cultural interpretation and one vigorously promoted all over the world by Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis role in financing its feudal version of Islam called ´Wahhabism´ (or sometimes, ´Salaafism´) was well documented. It was a problem in Europe, as well as Asia and Africa. In one nation after the other, reactionary versions of Islam had emerged as a direct result of Saudi interference – a recent example being the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia. Once home to a tolerant version of Islam, in recent years it had fallen prey to fundamentalism. Attacks on minority groups such as the Christians, Hindus and Buddhists had escalated; gays were caned in public and women encouraged to practice ‘modesty’.

When people criticised Saudi Arabia for its disgraceful human rights record, it protested loudly about foreign interference in its affairs. Yet it saw no problem in interfering in the affairs of other nations by funding fundamentalist mosques, imams, schools, universities and media.

In the past, empires rose and fell on the basis of the armies they could field. Today, money and media were the means of power. In this respect, Saudi Arabia was exceedingly powerful. Home to the two most holy sites in Islam, Medina and Mecca, and sitting on the world’s major source of high grade oil, Saudi Arabia formed a major obstacle to any attempt by the world’s Moslems to modernise.

The only western nations which had ever dared criticise Saudi Arabia were Canada and Norway.

For the other western nations, oil spoke more loudly than human rights. In the problems of fundamentalism and terrorism they were complicit.

 

 

 Late in the afternoon, after walking around and studying each tomb – hot work to be sure – all I wanted to do was to find a quiet spot and sit down.

I walked behind one of the biggest tombs, where there was a corridor of land between the columns and archways at the base of the tomb on my right, and a belt of dense forest on my left.

Rounding a corner, I came upon yet another canoodling couple. Before I could retreat, they jumped up and fled. They had been sitting against the wall of the tomb, behind the columns and arches and right next to each other, their bodies touching. They had been holding hands.

In her free hand, the girl held a purple flower which the boy had plucked from a nearby bush.

There wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t invite them back and offer to leave – it all happened so quickly.

Within seconds, they were gone. I felt sorry for them.

How nervous they must have been.

Why?

Because secrecy was a part of the magic of a lover’s tryst?

Or because I was a foreigner?

Questions appeared in my mind like the ants foraging around on the ancient floor of the tomb in search of food. 

Perhaps this young couple  – and the others I had seen around the tombs – were taking some rather large risks.  

I couldn’t imagine that their parents and family would be very happy about the idea that they were pursuing this kind of clandestine love affair. In India, marriages were arranged. Seen from our western perspective, there was something naive, almost puerile about a couple of teenagers furtively arranging a tryst at the tombs of Hyderabad. Put into their terms however it might be an act of rebellion, one fraught with danger. Perhaps these young people were the pioneers of a new kind of love. Perhaps there was a break with tradition here.

Which was why they were so scared of intruders.

Questions and more questions, hanging in the warm air, silent yet inescapable.

Ah! Time to put it all aside. To resign for the day.

I sat down at the spot where they’d been sitting. 

The tomb was on a low hill. In front of me was a view of an area of forest and a larger dome rising above it. The air was filled with bird song. On the right side, at the end of a gallery of columns and arches was a view of another dome in the distance.

As the sun hovered near the horizon, a big, orange red ball, I quit for the day and luxuriated in being a tourist, alone at the feet of an ancient tomb.

That young couple had chosen the spot where I was now sitting for a reason. It was secluded and directly in front there was a fine view of a large dome, rising from above a blanket of green.

 The scene before me was to be savoured. The sun began to set, lighting up the ancient dome in a flaring orange.

From a mosque somewhere in the outskirts of Hyderabad he call to prayer went up, a haunting musical lament which echoed in the distance.

 

 

 

Welcome to India!

 

My flight into Mumbai was delayed by two hours in Singapore.

Arriving at Mumbai airport after midnight, my plane had to bank for twenty minutes before it could land. In the airport, there was a breakdown at the baggage belt. It was 3 am when I got through customs. I bought a ticket for a prepaid taxi.

Emerging from the airport, passed hundreds of people, I found myself alone staring into the warm night holding a piece of paper for which I’d paid four hundred rupees but now seemed worthless.

In the distance, under the dark silhouettes of trees were rows of dilapidated, beaten up taxis. There must have been fifty of them.

I walked over there and looked for the number plate of the taxi on my piece of paper. Finally found it and after the driver ostentatiously welcomed me and put by bag in the boot, he announced that he couldn’t start the car.

Could I get out and help him to push start it?

 

On the way into Mumbai, the driver had to stop to get more fuel.

Why he didn’t have enough petrol in the first place was something I would have liked to ask him if he had spoken more than a few words English and I, more than a few words of Hindi.

We pulled into a ramshackle looking place with a few beaten up looking petrol pumps covered in dust. Nearby, cows peered at us dolefully. The driver turned off the motor before getting out of the car and so of course, after he had put more petrol in the car, I had to get out whilst he got in – and push and push to get the car running again.

It was 4 am in the morning and I had a long flight behind me and I was not fucking amused.

 

Arriving in Colaba, we drove down narrow streets lined with old apartment buildings. He lost his way.

Of course at the airport he had given me the impression that he knew exactly where my hotel was. In actual fact, he had no idea where it was. He stopped at regular intervals to ask for information from the few individuals still wandering around on the abandoned streets at that ungodly time of the morning.

And yes, of course, at one of these fact finding stops, the car conked out again and I had to get out give my driver another push start –

I was having to push start his taxi because he didn’t know where to go…huh?

 

At 5 am, I finally arrived at my hotel, very jaded and very tired. 

On the pavement stood a young man whose job it was to stand there all night watching everyone who came and went in and out of the hotel. 

My first reaction was to be very short and direct with him.

But he spoke good English and he was very nice. 

I struck up a conversation with him.

He was from Orissa, one of the poorest states in India. Like so many others, he had come to Mumbai to find work. Every night, from 8 pm to 8am, he stood on the pavement. He shared a room with nine other young men. He said it was ok, five of them worked at night, five during the day, so the room was never too crowded. He had no education, but within five months of arriving in Mumbai  and meeting westerners he had learned enough English to hold an extended conversation. He asked  me the normal Indian questions – how old I was, whether I was married, how many kids I had and so on. He was amazed to discover that I had no  caste, wasn’t married and had no kids (‘don’t you like children? who will look after you when you get old?’).

After talking to him for quite some time, I went inside the hotel. After filling out some forms – ‘some forms?’, one hell of a lot of forms – I climbed narrow flights of stairs up to my room on the fourth floor, had a shower and passed out…..

 

Two hours afterwards I was wrenched out of a much-needed sleep by ungodly noise, a terrible cacophony.

What the bloody hell?!

I was not a happy man. I was in a mood to kill someone. 

I looked out the window. 

I couldn’t see anything. To the left of my window there was a dingy apartment building  with rows of barred windows and on the flat roof, a bevy of crows dancing around.

To the right of the building was a clear view of a major road. My eyes  focused on the road – and then I saw the cause of my misery: marching along the road were young Indian men dressed as Scotsmen with knee-high white socks, yellow kilts, blood-red shirts’; some were blowing bagpipes and others, bashing drums; still others were blowing horns, trumpets and trombones. 

My anger evaporated. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. 

After the Scotsmen came groups of school kids, immaculately turned out in their uniforms: blue trousers and dresses and white shirts.

After them came an elephant. 

Even in my tired, depleted state of mind I had to smile and wonder: 

Where else in the world this possibly happen? 

Welcome to India!!!