Second Class Unreserved

 

Second Class Unreserved!!

Who would have thought it?

Me on that living nightmare!

Don’t get me wrong.

I liked Indian trains. Didn’t need First Class or Tourist Class or anything like that.

Second Class was fine.

I mean, Second Class Reserved.

Not Un – Reserved.

Hell no!

Here’s the deal for Second Class Unreserved: an unlimited number of tickets are sold. Once you have a ticket, you get on the train anyway you can. Your options are: being crammed inside a carriage like sardines in a tin or sitting on top of the roof or hanging off the side of the train along with hundreds of others.  

Second Class Unreserved is for poor Indians.

I got on that train because I didn’t have any choice. Like, none.

How did I end up on it?

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Our Lady

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‘Vailankani?’

It was a tip from Mr. Ramamurti, the manager of the budget hotel where I was staying in Pondicherry on the south-east coast of India.

I stayed there for almost a week, not because I found Pondicherry so interesting, but rather because when I arrived there I was very sick. I’d come down with a bad case of dysentery and limped into Pondicherry with no other aim than to find some place where I could rest a while and recover.

And recover I did thanks in no small part to Mr Ramamurti who brought well cooked meals and bottles of soda water to my room – and just as important, offered me his sympathy, which at the time I so desperately needed.

I should also mention that at the same time I began a course of powerful antibiotics.

 

Yes, he was a good man Mr. Ramamurti. The other tourists in the hotel called him ‘Mr. R’ and I got into the habit too.

I have fond memories of Mr. R.

He was terrible liar.

Of all the lies he told me surely none was greater than what he told me about Vailankanni.

And look, to be fair, I needed the lie……

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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.