30 Mar Walking India – an intro
The following has been adapted from the introductory chapters to Full Moon at Sunset, a book I wrote about walking the length of India in 1996-97…
‘Once you get the message, hang up.’ Ram Dass
I arrived in the country at an interesting time, when political commentators from around the world first started referring to India as ‘the economic superpower of the twenty first century’.
Bombay was indeed booming. Less than one per cent of the Indian population pay tax but over ninety per cent of the government’s total tax earnings are generated in this one city. Eighties style ‘yuppiedom’ was flourishing; Mercedes, BMWs and mobile phones were a common sight and property prices had just overtaken Tokyo to become the most expensive in the world; a million dollars would barely secure a one bedroom apartment in south Bombay.
It was certainly hard to find cheap accommodation. All I could afford was a decaying, tatty room in a seedy Colaba guesthouse. Despite the peeling plaster walls, the grime-encrusted windows, the incessant squawking crows and sepia-stained sheets, this room would play a very significant part in my life over the next six months. On arrival from London however, it felt like the cosmic armpit of my contracting universe.
I sat down on the bed and lit a cigarette, suddenly overwhelmed. Not only did I feel totally alone, I was also anxious about what lay in store. At times, I felt certain that I was going to die; at others, convinced that there was no alternative. My goal was the ‘death of the ego’, but I had little idea of what that might entail, or what it even meant. I had problems identifying what the ego even was. In fact, I wondered if what I was engaged in doing would do more to strengthen that which I wanted to weaken, than help to undermine it.
This paradox would be with me whenever I walked. Was I doing this to try and prove something, either to myself, or to other people? If so, how could it possibly advance ‘me’ towards that which I was striving for? Was it not reinforcing the very thing that I was trying to overcome? It would be many months and many miles before any answers to these questions appeared. And when they came, it became clear that I had spent my whole life looking in completely the wrong direction.
I planned to spend my ‘acclimatisation week’ in Bombay, after which I would take the train down south to Kanyakumari, the starting point for my pilgrimage. As part of my preparation, I resolved to stop smoking and imbibing any form of intoxicant. How was I ever going to ‘get enlightened’ while drinking beers and smoking twenty Marlboro a day? To distract myself from nicotine withdrawals, I started a punishing yoga schedule, forcing myself out of bed at dawn and pushing my body into all manner of twisted contortions that it was most reluctant to co-operate with.
The fact that I had resolved to walk two thousand miles through rural India started to sink in. Was this really such a good idea? Apart from trudging through the deserts of northern Sudan some seven years earlier, I had little experience of long distance trekking. One thing I had decided was that thick socks and heavy walking boots were out of the question. Instead, I opted for a pair of leather Birkenstock sandals, convinced that in the hot and humid conditions, the open air-conditioned style of the shoe was infinitely preferable to the sweaty, smelly confines of a hermetically sealed walking boot. Most people took this decision as final confirmation of my total derangement and irrefutable madness.
I knew that I had to travel light and, having had previous experience of camping in India, dismissed notions of carrying a tent or sleeping bag. Part of the attraction of camping is the option of enjoying beautiful landscape in relative solitude. As I had discovered several years before, finding a private campsite in India is nigh on impossible, until you penetrate one of the few remaining forests, or trek into the Himalayas. As much as I love India and her people, I did not relish the idea of trying to meditate in my tent every evening while surrounded by the entire population of a village. Since I would be travelling through one of the most densely populated countries in the world, I knew that a town large enough to have a hostel of some kind would always be within a day’s walk.
Apart from the clothes that I stood up in, and an extra pair of underpants, my mini-knapsack had little room for much in the way of a wardrobe. In addition to my passport, notebook and a toothbrush, I carried little else in the way of personal effects. During the week that I left London, BBC Radio 4 became aware of my plans and leant me a Sony Professional Walkman to record episodes from my journey. My bag immediately tripled in weight, since I needed to carry cassettes and batteries as well. Since my plans for ascetic travel had been so severely compromised with modern technology, I decided to bite the bullet and add a Nikon FM-2 camera to the list, along with requisite film, filters and lens cleaners. All told, this came to about nine kilos in weight.
Anxious about the daily target of twenty miles, I decided to take a long walk across Bombay. In view of the Divine Mother theme for the journey, it only seemed appropriate to head for the Mahalakshmi temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of Wealth.
The first blisters had appeared by the time I reached Marine Drive, less than a mile from my guesthouse. Black leather straps were rubbing the tops off my toes. It was fiendishly hot. Sweat was cascading down my body, squelching into the cork soles of my sandals and making my feet slip with every step. I shrugged off these discomforts as ‘early teething problems’ and resolved to enjoy my stroll along the seafront.
The scene that confronted me, however, had little to recommend it. Destitute children were playing in a section of concrete pipe while their mother struggled to cook rice over a fire made with scraps of newspaper and sodden palm fronds. A naked old tramp was defecating amongst the rocks, surrounded by piles of sickly yellow excrement. On one side of me, frothy brown water lashed against the shore, depositing piles of plastic debris; on the other, clouds of black diesel fumes billowed across the street. But this was the city, I reminded myself. This was Bombay. Things will be different in the country.
The Mahalakshmi temple was a taste of things to come. I arrived in time for arati, the morning ritual. Devotees filed into the inner sanctum, bearing garlands of jasmine and marigolds, threaded together by women outside. I was persuaded to part with fifty rupees for a single white lotus, conscious of the extortion but too hot, sweaty and disorientated to bother with the requisite haggle.
Somewhat bemused by the activities of the temple – the clanging bells, the swooning gasps of the pilgrims as they were confronted with the idol, the ritual observances and the muttering of mantras – I allowed myself to be swept into the inner sanctum. A wide-eyed priest, stripped to the waist and the sacred brahmin thread draped across his shoulder, grabbed the lotus from my hand, deposited it at the base of the shrine and then demanded some money. Embarrassed by my non-familiarity with Hindu temple protocol, I fumbled with the belt at my waist as the young couple behind me looked on and tittered. I produced a hundred rupee note, which the priest snatched from my hand before saluting me in the traditional manner – palms placed together and raised towards his bowing head.
I stumbled out of the temple, dazed and confused but convinced that I had placated the Goddess and made an auspicious start to my pilgrimage.