Adventures on an Indian Visa (week 13): Visakhapatnam
My first full day in the Telegu-speaking Visakhapatnam, or Vizag for short, was pretty cool. I like the vibes of the place. It turns out the cityhad beens conquer’d by the Vijayanagara Empire in the 15th century, i.e. it was ruled from Hampi, & so I felt some natural kinship already.
On joining in my obligatory, get-to-know-the-locals cricket game with some young Indians, I was befriended by seventeen-year-old Sameer. He was a likeable chap & very keen to hear of life in the West. He’s a Muslim to boot, & invited me to his house in the old port quarter of Vizag to meet his parents, who were quite simply lovely, & fed me like a trooper. Its mad, they literally all live off sixty quid a month – & Sameer just receiev’d a student grant for the same amount to last the whole year.
He & his sister are quite academic – hoping for better lives I guess – & we even discuss’d Shakespeare. It amazes me how the young Indian ploughs through the complex densities of Shakespeare like dull oxes ploughing the tough soil of Elizabethan English. However, seeing as they speak four languages fluently – Urdu at home, Telegu in the street, English at school & Hindi to other Indians – I guess they can handle the obscurer corners of Shakespeare’s lexicon.
After a congenial couple of hours, Sameer then pointed me toward the only library in town. Ran by the Ramakrishna Movement’s ashram, it flew like an angel into my literary lap. It’s time to get mi head down & absorb this wonderful country thro’ words, as well as experience.
Woke early to a glorious morning! Being so motivated by the weather & my exotic location, I attun’d myself to my vocation & plugg’d into the universe, setting myself some kind of daily routine, which has just been conducted thus:
5.30 AM: Wake up
6 AM: Walk to train station to get English newspaper, calling for poori breakfast on the way back
7 AM: Watch movies in bed playing guess the swear words – they silence the voice & put stars where the word should be on the subtitles. Despite being English language films, I think they put English subtitles in to help Indians learn the language.
10 AM: Internet café for an hour of work
1 PM: walk to an internet place near the sea for a couple more hours of work
4 PM: The library opens where I hit the books – but only one at a time. They are all held behind locked up glass cabinets, & you have to sign each book in & out every time you use it. The library is on the beach road & my session is divided by trips to the kiosks on the beach for these beautiful samosas & ice cream cornets
8 PM: Walk back to my hotel, chomping on various street foods as I go
9 PM: Two & a Half Men on TV for several episodes, cups of tea, & sleep
I have just play’d witness to the rather colourful Sankranti festivities of Andhra Pradesh. They are spread out over three days & are just so cool to wander about in. Today, the first day, was called Bhogi, which began at the unearthly hour of 4 AM. It is then that fires are lit across the city to banish evil spirits in the same way we burn sage when exorcising a house. I duly set off out into the darkness at four, & went on a tour of the neighbourhood’s ‘bhogi’ bonfires. The first one was just a guy on his own burning two four-by-fours in a shack, his mate snoring beside him. The second was a largish affair of long poles – but the clientele were clearly ruffians, one of whom was being beaten with a brush by an ancient woman half his size defending a bit of rope netting.
The third fire was a wee one, with a lone man boiling a large pot of water. Nearby was a chai stall doing its first business of the day, & by him a guy standing in front of piles of blue crates full of plastic sacks of pasteurised milk. The fourth fire looked like an oil drum, burning by a temple, but on nearing it I realised that it was a load of rubber tyres stacked in a tower, with wood inside it, belching off thick black smoke. The fifth fire was a family affair, at the crossroads of two narrow, Mediterranean-style streets, dominated by this fat controller guy who kept bringing wood out from nowhere to add to his massive pile.
The festivities were disturbed regularly by rickshaws & scooters trying to squeeze thro’ gaps in the road. Walking down the street I pass’d some startlingly psychedelic patterns chalked outside the houses. Then further on, the sixth fire burnt above me – on a bit of concrete sticking out from a half-built house. There was no-one sat by it, but it added to the scene. The seventh fire was on a mainish road, by a temple to Durga – the goddess perched on a tyger – & was predominantly women. I thought this would be a good place to stop, then, with seven being such an auspicious number; the Hindus have seven holy cities, rivers, etc, & the chicks were kinda hot too! This fire was pretty big & was built within a chalk circle, coloured in with flowers at the points of the triangles that formed the circle like Nepalese peace flags. I shared the moment with a Western girl from Luxembourg (her German boyfriend was asleep) & we silently watch’d the great pieces of wood turn reptilian in the flames.
From then it was pretty much the same routine as yesterday, but of course passing thro’ streets full of burning embers. At the end of it I got an email from Charlie. He’s doing very well, apparently, writing his memoirs or summat. Anyway, the plan is to meet him in a place call’d Puri in a couple of weeks or so, which is north of here in the state of Orissa. From there we’ll hit Calcutta then head up to the Himalayas together – should be fun now he’s calm’d down somewhat!
A blazing hot morning on the second Sankranti day, the events of which celebration made the sky resemble a multi-coloured spectrum of wafting confetti, with paper birds filling the azure spaces over the city like the Luftwaffe over London during the Blitz. In the middle of all the smiling kids, however, I got myself all poignant. There was this sad wreck of a man sleeping – shaking actually – on the pavement. Perhaps he was dreaming of a time when he ran tho’ the streets with his own Sankranti kite as an innocent, fun-loving boy, long before life struck him to so lowly a state.
On Vizag’s promenade there is a cool monument with tanks & planes & even a submarine, which is a memorial to this war India had in 1971. I’ve never actually heard of it before. It only officially lasted a couple of weeks, but up in Kashmir has never really stopp’d, with frequent skirmishes over the LOC (Line of Control) established at the end of the war. One of the results was the establishment of Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, which now broke away from Pakistan. In the months leading up to the conflict, the Pakistanis were proper rapist butchers, so it was definitely a good war to fight. In announcing the Pakistani surrender, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared in the Indian Parliament:
Dacca is now the free capital of a free country. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. All nations who value the human spirit will recognise it as a significant milestone in man’s quest for liberty.
The last part of the Sankranti festivities occurred with a mad street party thrown to the local tutelary deity, Lord Balaje, a curious little black fellow who one sees everywhere. It was a bit like Notting Hill Carnival, & indeed there were loads of speakers belting out tunes top volume to the heaving mass of Indians wandering thro’ the streets. A street was lit up Blackpool illuminations style, with dolphins & green bars puking illuminous light onto the scene. All the kids had these wee vuvela things which gave out a dreadful shrieking sound – a bit like one of mi exes having a strop. There were loads of stalls – porcelain dolls of the gods, sugar cane – & a heavily decorated ox (called a gangireddulu) getting all four legs onto a little wooden stool while his keepers played drums & trumpet. There were cardboard boxes of chicken chicks spray-painted in pastel colours, there was a guy with a set of weighing scales charging a rupee a pop. There were corn-on-the-cob sellers fanning the cobs over hot coals – I tried one & it was very tasty indeed!
This was going to be my last day in Vizag before I set off north, so I thought I’d get back in the travel zone on the trains – I haven’t been on one since I pull’d into Chennai a couple of weeks back. So, I thought I’d have a little practice run, & this morning I found myself 15K north of Vizag at a place called Thotlakonda, a hill which houses the ruins of a 2000-year-old Buddhist complex. They weren’t particularly impressive, but the views were, of the gold-lined ocean below & the rolling upland greenery of the Eastern Ghats behind. The road to sea level was lined with blossoming trees, a very lovely walk which recharged the poet in me. At the foot of the hill I caught a bus which swept me along the ocean drive back to Vizag – which strangely enough felt like home.
With is being such a lovely poet’s day, I suddenly began to formulate a hybrid kind of sonnet using the Sanskrit measure I was studying in the library, which I’ll use as the mould for my Orissan experience – that’s, 15,16, 17 syllables worth of line. Here’s my first effort using the ‘Indian Sonnet’ form;
I’d been studying at the Swami Vivekananda library
Of how the tumbling Sanskrit couplet first utter’d by Valmeeki
& so, choosing its nuances to explore in composition
I left Vizag’s fair vibrancy on a morning’s musing’s mission
With my subject now the Buddha, or at least his teeming influence
I’m certain Jesus merg’d his teachings at an eastern confluence
Boneshaking bus pass’d Rushikund, tree-fill’d beaches, Goan hills,
& dropp’d me off at the colourful foot of Mangamaripeta
From where I climb’d a pleasant hill flank’d by pretty pastel blossom
Another Lingala Konda, another Gopalapatnam
Stood red & ruin’d where Ashvaghosha’s plays were once enacted
& like the Hill of Pigeons, the sacred rains cistern extracted
With views of hills & skies, & the breeze & an ocean sunrise
Far from Siddhartha’s vision, an aloofness to aid his demise.
So after preparing loads of notes for my poetic cruise around Orissa, I shall be starting in earnest at 6.50 in the morning. I’ve got to conduct a six-hour train journey through apparently beautiful scenery, including passing thro’ the highest train station in Asia. Cool! I’ve got my rough route worked out & one of the places I’ll be calling in on is a Maoist hot-bed. They are a secessionist group who have been fighting for their rights & lands against, well, less the Indian government, more the corporate conglomerates.
The bodies keep coming out of the forest. Slain policemen wrapped in the national flag; slain maoists, displayed like hunters trophies, their wrists & ankles lashed to bamboo poles
Sounds like an awful lot of fun!
This morning I left Vizag by train, steadily climbing up the west side of the wooded Aruka valley, with the views growing spectacular by degrees. Every time we hit a tunnel, a huge cacophony of screams & yelps uttered forth from the Indians – in the end I realised they were playing with the tunnels echo-systems. After a few hours we hit Asia’s former highest railway station, Shimilguda, at 997 meters above sea level. It was usurped of the honour in 2004 by, I’m guessing, the express railway that links China & Tibet. From there began the steady drop into Orissa & Jeypore thro’ a landscape which look’d increasingly like the Highlands of Scotland.
As I railway’d out of Vizag for to write poetically
Verses concerning Kalingan Kings mix’d with state modernity
Above breathtaking beauties, rising on the valley’s western side
More stunning than the Niligris, only a mile or more wide
A thick white bank of fog & cloud eagerly envelop’d the line
& I found it very wonderful for this world, sweet world, still mine
I’d nearly died on Andaman, but today my eyes were seeing
By Boddavara, steep hill-slopes perfect for a spot of skiing
But far too lush vegetation, as if the Cumberland fells
Had time-warp’d through to Jurassic days, as today the tunnel yells
Of giddy kids exhilarates climbing to Shimiliguda
Asia’s former highest station, a summerhouse for Garuda,
Beyond Aruka, scenery seems less savage Scottish sister,
We sierra thro this Spanish spaciousness of South Orissa
After the comfortable hotel at Vizag I’ve opted for a bachelor’s lodge in Jeypore; with my decent but basic room costing a quid a night. It’s a bit noisy at times, but I like the fact there’s no TV – a lot more conducive to literary endeavouring. This mental peace, however, was counter’d by experiencing the JAI CHITTAMALA Music Band Party. Witness a ramshackle sound system on four wee carts being dragged through the streets of Jeypore. On the heavily decorated carts were speakers & generators, plus a techno style djembi player & an eight-pad electro drum kit player. Providing the music was this cross-legged moustached guy & a Yamaha keyboard playing all sorts of celestial swirling sounds.
Walking alongside were a couple of singers, huddled like MCs at a rave. One was about eighteen, & his groove-surfing melodies were better than both Ian Brown’s & my own voice put together! Amazing stuff. On both sides of the carts were an assortment of snare players & trumpeteers, while directly in front & behind were the dancers. In front were a bunch of wee boys pulling off some amazing moves including cartwheels, while at the back were all the older men doing a lot of stuff with their hands. To the side of these were all the women, slowly walking & made up to the gorgeous Indian max – very hot – including the curious nose-bling that Orissa seems to be the home of. Behind them rode the reason for all this fun & frolics, a very handsome man, again decorated wonderfully, sat in an ambassador car, either on his way to, or coming back from, his wedding. The whole experience compell’d me to pen the following sonnet.
MANI WEDS SUKANTA
A wedding is a display of wealth in the garb of showcasing our culture
It begins with an advert, on the internet increasingly
& discreet meetings to appease, spreading concord through each family
Then a swirling bull of energy erupts in flashing lights
Emanating from the envelopes of seven hundred invites
When disco beats down lane & street leads the groom thro Sakhipara
To his deer-eyed, lotus face of a bride, opening with mascara
It is a beautiful ceremony on an auspicious day
The priest presents which parts of the Vedas in Sanskrit he should say
Their hands are bound, happy promise of prosperity & children
Then the newly-weds share their joy midst many benign presences
Where women shimmer glamorous as the lads dance with aplomb
All hoping to avoid the pitfalls of Matrimony.com
“It’s all a lovely fairytale!” “O! the couple fit like a glove!”
“Well, its not long now, I hope, until their platinum day of love”
Jeypore town itself is not that big; its size & the way it peters out into the countryside reminds me of Wigton in Cumbria. However, what a countryside! On one side it’s a level plain stretching as far as the eye can see toward the state of Chittargarh. On the other is this wonderful horse-shoe of wooded hill, at the heart of which is this great hydro-electric dam. I took a walk over to it one day & came across this giant mace-wielding statue of the monkey god Hanuman, like a little slice of Disneyworld had been planted in India.
Back in Jeypore, one can find a shambling old palace in the centre of the town. You can’t get in, but can look down on it from neighbouring rooves like a sepoy sniper during the 1857 siege of Lucknow. There are also some proper filthy bits including this school whose playground is essentially a rubbish dump. Then there’s this old ghat, completely choked by weeds & rubbish. Still, I thought, I’ll take a wee walk round. En route I encountered 6 men having dumps, & had to avoid a thousand human faeces – not that nice an experience actually.
I met a really nice guy at the local internet shop, Niswa, whose name means world in the Oriyan language. We’d got on famously & he’d been playing me loads of Indian dance music, some of which I’m adding to my disco set. In return I gave him a load of western tunes, the like of which Jeypore has probably never seen. He says he’s gonna dish ‘em out to all his mates – so DJ Damo’s gonna be a big name in the Eastern Ghats, I hope.
He’s also invited me out for dinner tomorrow at a swanky local restaurant, which is really nice of the guy. Yeah, Jeypore’s great!