TRK

 

 

TRK

 

Part I –   The Journey begins
Part II –    Facing No Man’s Land – End of the Journey?
Part III –   End of an Era for India or A tryst with Destiny?
Part IV –  Wrath of Mount Ararat
Part V –   Manna from Heaven
Part VI –  Hobson’s Choice
Part VII –  Dreaming History
Part VIII – Bohemian Interlude
Part IX –   Italian Odessey
Part X –    Down and Out in Paris and London
Part XI –   Journey’s End


Journey to Elysee

Introduction

 

I was weaned on the stories from the travels of Marco Polo’s : a travelogue by Rustichello da Pisa and Marco Polo, describing the travels of the latter through central Asia, Persia, China, in the 13th century. This classic describes his journey along the silk road and remained for me the ultimate, a paradigm, the journey of my dreams .
My other inspiration came from reading about Hsüan Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who left China for India in the year 627 A.C., stealthily, as it was then against the law to travel abroad. He survived the rigors of crossing vast deserts and mountains and, narrowly escaping death, he passed through the central Asiatic regions of Turfan, Karashahr, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bactria. He kept a journal of his unique experiences and observations during this 19-year journey, which later became known as the Hsi-yü Chi. Then there were more contemporary travel writers, Victorian adventurers who went as far afield as South America and Africa, crossing the magical Saharan, Nubian and mid Eastern deserts. I was young and there was much to do and much to see and I wanted to live dangerously.
And so, I left Delhi on foot with a friend, bound for Paris.
It seems that travelogues as a genre are a favorite and much esteemed form of literature with illustrious past and contemporary practitioners. One is under the pressure of a historical and literary imperative to render a fine account of one’s own journey. This is a difficult task since I kept no journals and rely entirely on what I remember after some 40 years.
If there was one thing that we discovered during our 40 days on the road, it was that total strangers could be unbelievably kind and hospitable, whereas people you considered to be your friends and well wishers could turn hard hearted, unkind and inhospitable.

I.

The Journey Begins

 

As a junior reporter on my first job in the sumptuous wilderness of New Delhi I was sent to interview a young man called Irshad Panjatan by my Chief Reporter Om Narayan, a smart if laid back Uttar Pradesh character. For those of you who do not know, Irshad Panjatan was a uniquely gifted mime artiste in the mould of Marcel Marceaux. He had hitchhiked all the way from New Delhi to London via Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Italy and France and Germany. Irshad earned money by performing his unique art of mime in local schools and colleges. He had an easy time traversing half the globe both ways, getting written about and interviewed by local newspapers along the way and had a bulging Press cuttings folder to prove it. His audience realised that mime broke through the boundaries of language and indeed needed no language to communicate. He seemed to be in good health, none the worse for the months he had spent on the road with a rucksack on his back. He even offered to write to his brother in Anakara (in Turkey) – an economist seconded by the UN to the Turkish Government, offering us an interim shelter and care.
Here was my dream ticket to Paris and London! I had no special skills that would earn me my keep. I was 21, reckless in spirit and burned with ambition to be a great writer supping with the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Andre Gide Andre Malraux and James Baldwin on the left bank of the Seine. Who knows, I might even end up marrying Francoise Sagan who shot to international fame with her slim 100 page novels: Bonjour Tristessse (Good Morning Sadness) and Un Certain Sourire (A Certain Smile). Just repeating the names of these novels sent shivers up my spine. I used to boast that I knew every street of Paris like a lit up map of this great metropolis in my head. No one could stop me now. I had to lay my plans so carefully that even my parents would not hear of my departure until I was safely ensconced in a garret in the Vth Arrondissement, overlooking Notre Dame.

For a while it seemed fate had its own interventionist strategies. I was struck down with Jaundice which turned my eyes bright canary yellow, and sent my body temperature in to high Fahrenheit numbers. I was in bed for a month, eating saltless, spiceless bland bowls of gruel. I brain fevered at night with scenes of my planned Odyssey. As soon as I could stand, I was back planning my solo departure for Europe. A kind friend, cartoonist O.V.Vijayan insisted I move in with him in to his Defence Colony bungalow under his watchful eye and rest and recuperate. Another well connected friend Najmul Hasan, an elegant cultured Aligarh scholar turned journalist offered to help me get my visas since he knew the Consuls in respective embassies and it would be a doddle if he were to take me along.
Years after my hitch hiking adventure I let everyone believe that I carried my clothes and accessories in a glamorous rucksack. In fact, I bought myself the largest suitcase I could find in one of the pavement shops in Connaught Circus, cast in a black plasticised cardboard-like material to help me take a cargo of all my favourite books (The Serpent & the Rope by Raja Rao; Lawrence Durrel trilogy; Collected short stories of Nabokov; Faulkner, William Styron, Norman Mailer oeuvres; Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, the list goes on). I also planned on taking a thousand pages of my own yet unpublished writings and my correspondence with several well known writers and friends. I had little by way of tinned food, attractive items like Gillette blades which would have been eminently exchangeable for cash on the way.)
Fate intervened again in the shape of Subhash Chopra, then a reporter for Indian Express, later an eminent journalist. I had just attended a Press Conference for some new venture and was waiting for my bus in the dark to take me back to the Fleet street of New Delhi and found Subhash waiting for the same bus as our respective newspapers were in adjacent buildings. When I mentioned to Subhash that I was packed and ready to leave for Europe by road with just three UK pounds’ worth of Forex cash, a trunk full of books and a crazy dream in my head, Subhash was virtually trembling. He made a request that I delay my departure by a couple of weeks so that he could get his parents’ permission and blessings to accompany me and cancel his pre-planned easy route by boat to Genoa or Marseilles and a train journey to London. Prudently he even had a UK work permit and visa. I was not averse to having a companion and did not realise then that without Subhash, I would not have survived the journey, as my skinny arms were too frail to carry a massive case all the way to Europe with no money and all the hazards.
I still remember the crisp spring day at New Delhi train station when some 50 friends and well wisher acquaintances turned up to send us off on the first leg of our journey. I still feel tears pricking my eyes as I remember the faces: Atul Cowshish a Statesman reporter, who shared the room with me when I was bed ridden with jaundice, Anil Saari, the poet and cine theorist, O.V.Vijayan, Krishnan Dubey, Hindi journalist, Cecil Victor, fellow reporter and a multitude of Subhash’s friends. I believe there was even a note from Nirad Chaudhuri wishing me well (I had got to know him), but I never saw it. Some one had kindly paid for two train tickets from Delhi to Wagah border with Pakistan, from where we assumed we would commence relying on the good will of passing lorries and cars to take us deeper and deeper in to our journey and nearer to our destination. We were just not prepared for what was in store for us at the India–Pakistan border, at Wagah.

II.

Facing No man’s Land: End of the Journey?

 

Little had we realised as our train left Old Delhi for the border at Wagah holding our two tickets generously gifted by a caring friend, that we would be unceremoniously turfed out of the train at the Indian side of the border whilst the rest of the amused passengers would carry on into Pakistan. We were the only two mad hatters being forcibly disembarked, mercilessly watched by the Indian immigration and customs officers in their officious khaki uniforms. What we imagined was a simple border with a line drawn in the sand with two adjacent prefab buildings and their respective border controls. What greeted us as we were processed by the moustache-grooming Indian authorities was a vast mile wide no man’s land with the Pakistani border post a mere dot in the great distance in this featureless landscape. Our high spirits vanished when it dawned on us that we would have to cross this barren land on foot half-carrying and half-dragging our suitcases in the cruel sun. One could easily imagine a bemused group of Pakistani officials who had never seen anything like this sight of two stragglers walking the this imaginary gauntlet like in a Western movie and dragging their belongings. I imagined binoculars and perhaps guns with sights being trained on us as we walked this distance. Subhash and I debated if this was worth the risk and whether to return to New Delhi and re-plan our journey.


I cannot remember how long this perilous walk across the border took us. Finally we were ushered into a prefab building with iron bars, crowded with a self-satisfied group of officials who could not work us out. They scrutinized our passports whilst a junior official demanded the keys to our extra large suitcases and proceeded to open them and start rummaging through our belongings. I do not believe they had seen so many books being carried by any traveller. Subhash had several copies of a book he had written and published. I recall this had a solid chapter on Indo-Pakistani relations. The fact that we had a valid visa cut no ice with the chief official who made himself comfortable and started reading the book on page one, chapter one with a fresh cup of tea and his feet on the table. Were we smuggling seditious literature in to his country? Our passports showed us to be journalists. We cowered in a corner trusting fate to save the day. Subhash was interrogated from time to time to elucidate a finer point in one of the chapters of his book: what exactly did he mean by “ thaw in relationship” and so on.“ We may have to confiscate these books” said the official and “ and ask you to walk back to India, the way you came”
Hours and several phone calls and animated conversation with their HQ later, we were casually dismissed with a wave of a hand with no further interest in us. We repacked out bags as well as we could and wondered how we were going to Lahore, the first next big stop off on our journey. I remember boarding a local shuttle train service to Lahore’s grand station and having to pay for it using our depleting £3 of foreign exchange. I kept trying to improve our morale by remembering loudly that we were running alongside the famous highway that Rudyard Kipling makes the centre of action in Kim. A traveller’s romance with the new world could not be extinguished by so trivial a difficulty.

Our routine which was to become established was to leave our suitcases in the left luggage department of a railway station where it was most secure and set out to explore the city we were in. We headed straight for the coffee house which we had heard was a haven of Pakistani intelligentsia, writers and poets and hacks and political rabble rousers, in other words very much in the mould of the coffee house in New Delhi where most of our time had been spent. The contrast could not have been greater: we were doubtful if there was a single journalist among the crowd we saw, dressed not in customary shirt and trousers but in desi shirt that reached the knees and baggy billowing pyjamas. There was not a single woman present in the motley crowd and it seemed no one spoke English. We were apprehensive about approaching strangers and declaring our identities. We backtracked to the station with a new plan.

Subhash and I hatched a plan to approach the station master at Lahore and obtain permission to spend the night on the benches in the waiting room normally reserved for travellers with valid tickets. We had a major surprise in store for us. The station master, a larger than life Pathan was pleased to see two Indians and unceremoniously invited us to stay with him and partake of his hospitality. We were to spend two days with him enjoying fine home cooked rich Punjabi cuisine and he would show us the sights including the great Fortress and Shalamar gardens that Lahorians were justly proud of and the magnificent Badshahi mosque. We talked openly about Indo Pak relations under General Ayub Khan’s rule late into the evening over steaming cups of tea. We wondered about commonality between India and Pakistan and concurred that as brothers of the same cultural and ethnic roots, we must remain friends and not adversaries. During the day we wandered round Lahore, apprehensively as the town folk seemed caught in a mediaeval time warp: this did not help us let down our guard and announce that we were Hindu Indians in Pakistan.

Our generous host was to put us on a train bound for Quetta from where we had planned to take a two day’s two night’s journey to Zahedan in Iran through a moonscape of deserts and mountains accompanied by an army of cross border smugglers. We were bypassing Afghanistan altogether.
I did regret not having gone to fabled Kabul. One sees Kabul in one’s mind’s eye, then, as a polyglot bazaar, teeming with scheming money changers, bandookwallas, local Mafia godfathers, European hippies hunched over steaming tea cups in dark cavernous teashops, rows of run down buses parked tightly against one another. I overstate my Indiana Jones sinister perspective. A Delhi friend of mine who worked in Kabul for a couple of years in the 60s did describe it as a University town with a dusty dignity of its own.
We had no tickets.. just the commanding verbal authorisation that we would be travelling free to Quetta from Lahore. We hoped that this would resonate enough with the station master in Quetta and result in further free tickets to Iran’s border town of Zahedan. There was trouble ahead as we had nearly run out of our meagre foreign exchange even before we had left Pakistan behind with 6 more countries to cross and 38 more days to go. Most shocking news of all awaited us in Teheran on the 27th of May 1964…….,
Part III: End of an Era for India or A tryst with Destiny?

 

III.

End of an Era for India or a Tryst with Destiny?

 

We had been lucky in Lahore. The station master of Lahore main station had stepped out of line and hosted us for two days and shown us around Lahore’s landmarks and finally put us on a train to Quetta as a starting point for a long unending train journey to Zahedan in Iran, bypassing Afghanistan altogether. We carried no tickets, just the verbal authorisation permitting us to travel up to Quetta and find our own way to the weekly train to Zahedan. Quetta was indeed a heavily evocative name for us..

At nearly 6000 feet above sea level, surrounded by formidable mountains, Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan, the gun province, as it came to be known. Quetta is one of the most important military outposts in Pakistan. The borders of Iran and Afghanistan meet here.

Before the massive earthquake of 31 May 1935, Quetta was a bustling city, with large multi-storied buildings.. After the great disaster which killed almost 40,000 people, Quetta houses were generally rebuilt as single level dwellings. The name Quetta is evolved from kwatta, which means a fort in Pushtu, the Baluchi language.

I vaguely remembered what was almost a nursery rhyme, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Story of Uriah which began:

Jack Barrett went to Quetta
Because they told him to.
He left his wife at Simla
On three-fourths his monthly screw.
Jack Barrett died at Quetta
Ere the next month’s pay he drew

Lahore mainline station is a Raj monument and so was our steam train. If you did not have the travel bug before, the sight and smell of one of these great trains would make you weak at the knees with an angst for travel on one of these dinosaur beasts snorting steam. The train was predictably packed with Baluchi and Pathan families equipped with with an assembly of kitchen utensils and often goats and sheep. They preferred largely to squat on the floor of the train and use the seats for their cargo of pots and pans. A sort of grim hostility pervaded our carriage; perhaps I was imagining it. Quetta held its own compelling terrors. A wild West town, I imagined , populated by an ungovernable constituency of gun totting warlords and their entourage.

We arrived in Quetta, to a deserted platform hours later. Our weekly train it seemed had been delayed and would not depart till the next day, an auspicious Tuesday. This was going to be our first experience in finding a safe sleeping shelter on a narrow bench in the station for the night. We were dismayed that we had not thought of carrying a minimum of bedding. I reassured myself that this was no worse than a scouting trip in to a jungli wilderness and therefore full of excitement and not danger. None of these reassurances helped. A self appointed station watchman came in the middle of the night and poked our sleeping human forms with his long barrelled gun to discharge some obscure duty he had to observe.

The day dawned, the train arrived and we were on board. Very soon we realised that this was not going to be a free ride. Our last remaining forex funds were used paying the ticket inspector for two 3rd class tickets to Zahedan. We were pleased and surprised to see an English speaking German young man and his girl friend in our carriage. The German companion remarked how very unusual it was to see a couple of Indians doing an overland journey. He mostly saw young Europeans and Australians and New Zealanders.

I cannot recall if this was another steam train or diesel. Early sight of a barren mountain strewn landscape with moon craters was the beginning of an unending vista of more of the same to come. We saw no villages, towns or settlements along the way.

No wonder it took us two days to reach Iran border: I do not recall our train picking up speed beyond a gentle trundle with frequent unexplained stops. What sustained us was good conversation with our German fellow travellers. I seem to remember my pulling out Thomas Mann’s novel and discussing its hidden meaning and allegories and symbolism. He described to us how Europe was emerging from a chrysalis of moral inhibitions into an uninhibited sixties of free love, humanism and political liberalism replacing the right wing establishment. There was a renaissance and return-to-nature movements. These conversations left me in a state of high excitement and I felt that I had a tryst with destiny that had somehow taken me on the crest of this wave and would land me safely on the shores of this new era.

We spent some time wandering up and down the winding train, intrigued and unable to work out what our fellow travellers were doing on this train. Almost all of them seemed to be carrying a vast load of baggage, wrapped into unusual shapes, occupying every nook and corner of the train. It was as if the shopkeepers of Quetta were on the move.

As we approached the Iran border it became clear suddenly who our fellow travellers were, as the train slowed down as if on a secret signal and human bodies with their baggage started rolling out of the train, protecting their baggage as they trundled safely off the train, completing the remaining border crossing on foot, running with their backs bent parallel to the ground. Here were traditional cross border smugglers, risking their lives in the great name of free enterprise.

We arrived at Zahedan – a modest outpost station and hummed to a halt with half the passengers already gone. We bade good bye to our German friends and wished each other good fortune and safe travel ahead. We checked in our bags at the left luggage office and walked into the town. I caught a glimpse of Subhash and myself in a large mirror in the market we were traversing on foot and was shocked to see two unrecognizable dusty human forms, much in need of a shower and food and drink and a comfortable bed. A few halting enquiries revealed that there was no local newspaper and therefore unlikely to have a contingent of Iranian journalists willing to look after us. Still, we found out that there was a local radio station and headed straight for it. We were soon to be on air as two Indian guest journalists delivering our thoughts on Indo-Iranian relationship going back in to history. These were the days of the Shah of Iran. Our host, a young dark red haired Iranian kept hushing us with a silent gesture of a forefinger on his lips if our conversation wandered off line and it soon became clear that there was an overwhelming sense of paranoia as if every word spoken indoors within walls and behind closed doors was being monitored and listened to by the Shah’s secret service and by informers. Once the interview was safely out of the way, our young host made further gestures to indicate clearly that we were going to leave the building with him and we were going to have lunch with him. As we entered the bustling market again, our host relaxed and gave us a potted history of how the Shah had stayed in power by unseating the elected democratic government led by the legendary figure of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. The majority of the population yearned to have Mossadegh out of prison and back in power as their leader.

The street market was heaving with fruit and cheese and rumali roties – a famous Persian bread which the shop keeper slung over his shoulders in large batches, and the smell of aromatic Iranian tea sent us into paroxysms of hunger. Soon we were in the safe haven of our host’s private apartment eating succulent stew with our fingers, mopping up the juices with a piece of this smoky rumali roti, followed by fragrant pilau rice, cucumber salad, fresh yoghurt, fruit, coffee and Iranian sweets that would easily outclass their Punjabi equivalent. We picked up courage and acquainted our host with our financial predicament and he happily let us have a shower and change of clothes. We were to spend the night at his wonderfully decorated apartment talking candidly about our mutual history and cultures. Next day he put on a bus that was to take us all the way to Teheran, some hundreds of miles away.

Our host intimated to us that he had spoken to the driver of the bus, and as guests of his country our journey would be free. We had no money left to pay for such a journey in any case. Our driver, a theatrically sneaky looking character had other ideas and let us know 30 minutes out of Zahedan… Our host had also reassured us that he had already sent a radio message ahead to the Ministry of information about our arrival, saying that we would be met on arrival. Subhash reassured me that he had an Indian diplomat friend he had met and looked after in Delhi and we would be staying in his luxury flat in Teheran. But little did we know that we would be homeless and penniless and hungry in Teheran!
Part IV: Wrath of Mt. Ararat

 

IV.

Wrath of Mt. Ararat

 

We had been feeling upbeat and triumphant as our host, the radio journalist in Zahedan, had put us on this bus and obtained an undertaking from the driver that as guests of his country, we would be travelling for free. Half an hour in to the journey, fellow passengers could barely contain their resentment at our freebie status. Some were turning round to fix hostile stares on us, and we noticed that one or two had got up to go to the driver waving their arms pointing an accusing jabbing finger at us. We did not need to understand Farsi to work out what was going on. Soon the driver pulled up and stopped off the well surfaced black ribbon like road and theatrically hoisted himself upright, tweaked his moustache a couple of times, nodded his head and came up to us holding on to the straps hanging from the ceiling like little child swings. He put out his large half open hands as if demanding something. I think his monosyllabic mumble was “paisa, monnaie, paisa”. As far as I knew we had no money left except a few coins and here we were in the middle of a featureless desert. Irshad Panjatan, the famous mime who had done this journey before, and whose example had inspired us would have had no problem with communicating with this hand wringing, hands proffering buffoon. Our suitcases would be slung out any minute now, his gestures seemed to indicate, with resonant single tone approvals from the rest of the passengers who seemed to sigh in unison. Subhash had enough of this. His emollient phrases in English had little effect. Then he pulled a rabbit out of the hat: he had in the depths of his pockets a secret cache of some 100 US Dollars which he had not told me about and waved a ten dollar bill in front of a now openly drooling driver. I had an immense sense of relief running through me as the spectre of being evicted in the middle of the desert disappeared.

Subhash seemed peeved and displeased that he had been called upon to save us both from certain eviction. Tension was beginning to build up between us and I was learning the hard way a valuable lesson in sharing, having to participate in disagreements, asserting one’s own perception of events and win an argument but not lose a friend. This was to occur time and again, and it is just the sheer generosity of Subhash which kept our friendship from harm and alive to this day.

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We dozed and dreamt like cats napping in the sun. The driver had the radio at full blast, a mixture of what seemed like a Persian version of yodelling and recitation, interrupted by the DJ with portentous announcements. We heard passengers humming again, almost in unison once more and unbelievably all faces were turned towards us, this time it seemed in some sort of collective sympathy and commiseration, uttering a word I could not recognize: “Nero, Nero Nero”. Soon enough the driver was pulling off the ribbon road , hauling himself up and heading towards us in little swings. He came up to us, wrung his hand, made repeated exaggerated bows and said “ Nero Nero Nero dead, Nero Morde”. He clasped our hand with both of his and kept up his consoling chant. Nehru had just died and he had heard the news on his radio. Intuitively, we understood and felt a deep shock as we shook his outstretched hands.

Jawaharlal’s Discovery of India written initially as a series of letters from prison to his daughter Indira changed and shaped my world view and my core values: these had to do with humanism as against jingoistic nationalism, fierce dislike of fascism in all its benevolent outward appearance, freedom of speech and an overwhelming and enduring respect for the democratic process.. India had shown the world how the largest democracy with a multi religious constituency could survive and progress without cyclical military interventions, civil riots and so on. The true father of the nation was no more. We were in a state of daze as the fellow passengers seemed to hum a dirge to a slow clap, a funereal song perhaps from some historical musical archive of Persia.

Teheran seemed a sumptuous city with the Shah’s palace perched on a hill top overlooking the city. We had left India and her squalor, slums and beggars far behind now. Perhaps, the Shah was after all a benevolent father like figure, a bit stern perhaps, maybe a slightly self deluded monarch who coveted the Peacock Throne. The markets were heaving with Persian treasures, a noisy Indiana Jones tableau, a bit I thought like Chandni Chowk in old Delhi, without the squalor.

As we disembarked and bade goodbyes to our driver and fellow passengers who were now friendly, we were met by two smartly suited Iranian officials from the Ministry of Information, wanting to know which hotel we had booked ourselves in and offering to take us there in a luxurious American limousine. It took all our skills to re-assure our hosts that we were staying with our diplomat friend and would look forward to seeing them in the morning, bright and early for their guided hospitality the following days.

We decided to be a bit reckless and took a taxi to Subhash’s diplomat friend’s apartment in what seemed an exclusive part of Teheran. Our friend was not at home but his housekeeper was overwhelmingly welcoming and soon we were feasting on Persian sweets and savouries and drinking tea in a semi ceremonial elaborateness: displaying our pleasure at each bite of a sweet, pretending to drool recklessly, stopping oneself at the last moment. The apartment seemed spacious and grandly furnished. Soon our host was back and jumped as if he had stepped on a snake, when he saw us. “Subash Ji” – he rasped, “what on earth are you doing here? Who invited you? You cannot be serious.” He gestured at his housekeeper to remove forthwith the tea and sweets with a sweep of his hand. “You cannot stay here. It is not convenient.” We were ordered off the floor to collect our luggage whilst the housekeeper looked utterly crestfallen by the turn of events. Subhash set down a half eaten piece of a delicious pastry and we followed our friend to the door and thence to his car. We had no idea that we would be driven to the local Sikh Gurudawara which had a code of hospitality never to refuse shelter and food to strangers as long as they were prepared to bed down on the floor of the temple and eat whatever was available, which turned out to be home cooked Punjabi food. The remaining 5 days in Teheran, we had to play a painful charade worthy of a Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon movie, preventing our State hosts from discovering our predicament.

We were not to know that we would make wholly new friends of a group of Teheran University students and spend with them some of the sweetest evenings of our stay, whilst spending the days with our State hosts being shown their grand iconic monuments, their dams and hydro-electric projects; interviewing their political leaders in august Majlis building. Each night we asked our hosts in their American limousines to drop us at the corner of the street (too narrow for the limousine as it turned out) so that we could retreat to the Gurudawara to spend another night on the floor..

The days that followed showed us the greatness of accidental friendships which reach across barriers of race, age, and religion. I am pleased to say that after some 40 years Subhash is still touch with our student friends in Iran. Apart from a glow of friendship I still feel for these long lost and absent friends, I do not recall much detail of this sunny friendship apart from photographic vignettes of our Iranian friend’s mother doling out wonderful sweets and tea, treating us as her own sons. We would discuss politics sotto voce in the University cafeteria, or walking around the souks of Teheran (an Arab word not used here). Then there was a surprise of the final grand gesture from our student friends who bought us two rail tickets to the Iranian border with Turkey. This departure reminded me of being sent off at Delhi by some other friends. In spite of setbacks and fears, we had had an easy passage so far.

Moored in its biblical silence, Mount Ararat was waiting for us on the border of Turkey, in an apocalyptic storm, amid driving rain and thunder. It was not in a benevolent mood as it might have been when Noah beached his Ark on its peak. We were thrown out of a bus in the middle of the night in this mountain pass and all we could see in the darkness was the red bleep bleep of the American radars perched on the highest reach of the mountain, being the eyes and ears of American military might…………..
Part V: Manna from Heaven

 

V.

Manna from Heaven

 

We disembarked on the border between Iran and Turkey and crossed over without the customary interrogation and threats to turn us back. Turkey had had several military coups in the recent past and Adnan Menderes the prime minister, and the president of the country had both been hanged by the military who were the power behind the new government. It was a sunny afternoon and we stretched and stood around kicking our heels in the dry dust of this Turkish border town in an arid desertscape. We were also hungry not having eaten all day during our journey from Teheran to the border with Turkey. Subhash remembered that we had a large piece of bread in his shoulder bag and fished it out triumphantly. “Kini, Khana, Pina” he said without irony. We were however in for a disappointment: the bread had turned hard as stone. After a bit of unsuccessful struggle to break a piece, Subhash put it back in his bag. We would not jettison it.

We were in a non descript border town and there would not be a university where we could waylay unsuspecting students into playing hosts to us. A cold biting wind smelling of rain kicked up whirls of choking dust. We needed a plan of action to get further transport to Erzurum, the next interim town on the map. Our Iranian friends had thought out a plan for us. They had provided us with a small placard made up of card board with words written in Turkish introducing ourselves as two journalists on their way to Europe by road from India in need of free transport, hostelry and nourishment. We were meant to show this to anyone likely to be of help. Having failed to rouse a response from the locals who gave us a wide berth, we decided to walk in to the lion’s den: what better than the local police constabulary? We had instant response and help. An inspector accompanied us to the local bus station, and with commanding gestures asked the driver of a bus headed to Erzurum to take us on board for free. The magic had worked, we were safely on board with our luggage, still nursing our hunger. We were apprehensive, having recalled the hostility of fellow passengers on our bus journey from Zahedan to Teheran. It was dusk and storm clouds were gathering in visible but distant mountain passes surrounded by unnamed mountains. A fellow passenger pointed out to a black monolithic presence in the distance and said respectfully, “ Ararat mountain, famous mountain, dangerous mountain… people go and people don’t come back.” Subhash and I looked at each other in total disbelief. Here was where some say Noah’s ark and his improbable cargo of every single species of life on earth had landed at the end of the Great Flood. We recalled that the old Testament plays out the incredible if implausible story of Noah and his Ark.

It is not really difficult to imagine the Ark on the flooded horizon wending its way through a biblical landscape with spires of forests showing above water, having collected all living species for Noah’s great genetic bank. I remember thinking that mountains in the distance always look silent even when torrents of water charge down valleys and passes, in a pyrotechnic of thunder and sheet lightning. Soon we were submerged in the rain as the bus chugged its way up and through the valley in to mountain passes. The road seemed just wide enough for a bus and we could not imagine how two buses travelling in opposite directions in an ink dark night would negotiate past each other without one of them plunging helplessly in to the abyss.

Whilst I was immersed in these speculations and partly remembering the ecstatic orchestral strains of Benjamin Britten’s Opera, Noye’s Fludde which I had heard in New Delhi, at an event hosted by the British Council , a restless group of passengers had been lobbying the driver to disembark us since we had not paid for our journey. The bus was now making a perilous passage through its winding mountain geometry. The driver pulled up the bus at a tilt to the mountain wall and proceed to the luggage rack. There he deftly extracted our dirty and damaged suitcases and slung them out of the bus with no approach made to us to see if we would be willing to pay up. Subhash made helpless signs that some money might be forthcoming but in vain. Minutes later we were unceremoniously pushed off the bus virtually clinging to lumps of wet earth which stuck on the wall of the mountain and turned to liquid mud as we tried to get a purchase on some solid object to steady ourselves. I had never before experienced the true darkness of any earthly place, where even a lone star might light up the land. I started to cry hot tears of anger and fear. I was so profoundly grateful that I had not travelled alone and there was the stolid comfort of Subhash’s presence. Ever an optimist Subhash had an idea. He took out the rock solid piece of bread from his knapsack with his mud stained hands and held it to the pouring rain long enough for it to soften. .

This was indeed Manna from Heaven! With the grateful comfort of the piece of bread in our stomachs, we surveyed the scene. It was truly cosmic. We could see Mount Ararat’s silent profile with lightning drawing and re drawing its contours in the velvet black darkness. Then we noticed something else which belonged to the world of science fiction. There were red flashing lights scanning the skies and the land in a fan shaped movement. It occurred to both of us simultaneously that we were looking at American radars perched on the peak of Mount Ararat like a beacon enshrining Noah’s success in preserving the genome bank of life on earth. We gasped in shock and awe.

Hours later a large cattle transporter lorry came up the pass and we stood in its path like rabbits dazed in the headlights, signalling the driver to stop. He turned out to be a long distance truckie with an unexpected cargo of horses in his charge. This gentle giant of a driver gestured that he could take us up to Erzurum if we were prepared to share the space with these lithe horses in the back of the transporter. We agreed with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I still recall this unique experience of sharing a confined space with pungently odorous beasts who kept up neighing and letting out wind and shuffling noisily on their metalled hooves. The horses were badly distressed by the thunder and lightning outside and soon it was clear that several of them had got loose from their restraints of ropes and some were opportunistically attempting to mate. It dawned on us that as a mini stampede began to unravel, it was just a matter of time when all the horses would be free of their restraints and we stood little chance of saving ourselves from being trampled by these magnificent beasts in a collective frenzy. Although a fashionably vocal agnostic, I began to pray for a miracle. We called out and screamed for the driver’s attention in vain. Even without the cataclysmic thunderstorm, he could not have heard us.

The lorry seemed to come to a stop. The driver jumped out of the cab and came round and opened the tarpaulin wind cover to enquire how we were faring. I think he quickly realised that we had been minutes away from serious injury if not death. He had not stopped for us. In the midst of nowhere in this mountain pass was an all hours tea shop in a trailer with a few long distance trucks parked precariously side to side, nose to tail, and their drivers drinking tea. Our driver retied the now calmed horses one by one and offered to take us in his cramped driver’s cab and to our great cheer offered to buy us some tea. The rest of our journey to Erzurum was uneventful.

My memory of Erzurum is faint, except for the large dusty square we found ourselves in, with a large impressive mosque at one end where we took shelter. I remember thinking as we crossed the square dragging our luggage that we might have looked like a couple of pin headed matchstick men figures in a L.S.Lowry painting of a square in Manchester with a couple of suitcases at our heels.

Our next stop was Ankara, capital of Turkey where we were to receive the most abundant and totally unexpected hospitality from a near stranger with great conversation and wonderful food in the company of some of the free thinking intellectuals, economists, bohemian writers and artists of Turkey.

We were truly Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, always unaware of the danger, a gift of youth.
Part VI: Hobson’s Choice

 

VI.

Hobson’s Choice

 

Turkey was full of history, but we were unaware of it. Even the mesmeric names of its cities and towns meant little to us. We had been on the road perhaps for two weeks since we left New Delhi, with no beds to sleep on, nowhere to have a shower.

As we travelled west, the terror of Mount Arrarat and the bleak unfriendliness of Eruzurum was a distant memory, although we were not much closer to Ankara. In Turkey distances are formidable. We ferried ourselves and our bags from town to town, selling a few Gillette blades I had to some curious youths for cash. I cannot recall how many days or how many hops it took for us to reach Ankara, nor where we took our nightly shelter. We used the same successful routine of turning up at the local constabulary and showing our placard identifying ourselves as journalists representing India…. the local cop would take us to the bus station and put us on a bus bound for the next big town and we repeated the routine. I think we often got thrown out of the bus once we were out of town. We had no money other than Subhash’s little remaining cache of dollars. This was the paradox of the state of our identity: strangers and our hosts assumed that we were senior Indian journalists doing a well funded journey by road to prove it could be done. In retrospect the image of two emaciated and tired Indian young men dragging heavy suitcases does not sit easily with the way we were perceived by our benefactors. Through piecemeal journeys, using the same formulae, the final part of our free journey into Ankara left us outside the city boundaries at a military camp where the driver was delivering a payload of chickens and what looked like geese and turkey and guinea fowls in crates. We had by now worked out that it was safer to sit cramped in a driver’s cab than being pecked or stampeded by farm animals.

It seemed like a massive army encampment with the traditional sentry box and a couple of soldiers lounging around smoking cigarettes. We had high hopes of food, shelter, a loan of money and good conversation in Ankara; Irashad Panjatan, whose own overland hitch hiking trip we were emulating, had a UN economist brother living in Ankara. We had been assured by Irshad that his brother would be only too pleased to have us as his guests for as long as we wanted. Since I cannot recall his name I shall call him Arshad and his wife Seema. Our calamitous experience in Teheran with Subhash’s diplomat friend made us apprehensive

It was seven in the morning. The soldier on duty at the sentry box finally let us make the crucial phone call to our prospective host. Once again I pushed Subhash to the front. I knew his excellent honorific Urdu idioms would do the trick. A miracle was about to unfold. Our host Arshad Saab assumed that we were two friends of Irshad staying in a hotel somewhere in Ankara. Grandly, he invited us to join him for breakfast. He had several of his friends who happened to be some of the intellectual elite of Ankara joining him and would be delighted to meet us. How would he take it when we turned up on his door step, worse for wear, in mud caked shoes and clothes, evidently unwashed, with two battered suitcases in tow? Would he turn us away, outraged and shocked at having been misled, or offer his traditional hospitality without batting an eyelid? We persuaded an off duty soldier about to drive home to drop us off at Arshad’s apartment in one of the wealthy suburbs of Ankara.

Arshad opened the door: we could see five or so handsomely but casually dressed friends seated around a grand round table. They all showed remarkable composure at our bedraggled appearance. “Ajayi Ye” (Welcome. Come on in Sirs) Subhash Sab, Kini Saab,” Arshad said kindly, assessing the situation quickly. He then introduced us to his wife, an economist herself, an ex student of Sapru House in Delhi and the London School of Economics, young, dressed boyishly, casually in jeans and a short sleeved shirt. Arshad called his maid servant… “You must be tired after a long journey. We will wait for you to freshen up” He turned to his maid. ”Run a bath and a shower for them” he gestured. Legendary Hyderabadi hospitality was on display. We were given fresh kurta pyjamas (a size too big for my 8 stone frame) and Arshad, his wife and their guests waited, beaming bonhomie for us to be ready and join them. We wolfed down a king’s breakfast and slowly unravelled our story. There were squeals of laughter and disbelief from the guests when they heard parts of our story. They liked in particular our story about travelling in a lorry full of un-tethered horses and made us repeat it. Subhash and I had tears of gratitude pressing behind our eyes, which would have been appropriate but we were too polite to shed them. Conversation turned to arts and literature, social issues, the freedom of the press, and carried on for several hours.

We were stone broke and debated if we could bring ourselves to ask Arshad and Seema for a loan. There was no way we could do that to some one who had done so much for us already. We had another ace in our pack. I had a letter of introduction from a very senior journalist in my New Delhi newspaper to a Col. X. in Ankara. We casually mentioned to an alarmed Arshad that we intended to call of this Colonel “for a chat and to pass on the greetings and good wishes” of our friend in Delhi. Arshad looked grave and scratched his chin. “Are you aware”, he said in a low conspiratorial voice “that Col. X. is under house arrest?” He got up and pulled out a copy of John Gunther’s book Inside Asia, turned the pages and found the reference he was looking for. Col. X. it seemed from Gunther’s description was a key player in the coup which brought down Adnan Menderes’s Government and saw him hanged. He had now fallen out with his other military colleagues. We would be running the gauntlet of Turkish military intelligence if we attempted to call on the Colonel. It was not a risk worth taking, Arshad seemed to say. This was a classical Hobson’s Choice. We desperately needed new funds. What were we going to do?
Part VII: Dreaming History

 

VII.

Dreaming History

 

Whenever I recount the story of our meeting with Col X, my friends tell me that it is a figment of my imagination, a false memory deeply embedded in my mind that I nourished into being. My friend GVK in his Blog to Blog said that my account was “stranger than fiction”.
When my journey began, and as we walked across No Man’s Land at Wagha border, took a two day train across a barren mountainscape to Iran accompanied by smugglers as fellow travellers, befriended students and fellow scribes in Iran, crossed over in to Turkey watched by a wrathful Mount Ararat when we received our Manna from Heaven, were we dream-walking alien space in an alien time? Did we imagine all this including our quandary over our visit to Col X? GVK has a point.

Even if this was an imaginary encounter, I have a need to recount it, because Kafkaesque it may be, it is real to me.   Also I believe that youth and    blind risk taking go hand in hand. I believe that we called on Col. X eventually one morning without the knowledge of Arshad and Seema. First we had to pass the gauntlet of edgy soldiers posted on both ends of the street where the salubrious single storied house stood. I had a letter of introduction from a very senior journalist in my New Delhi newspaper to a Col. X. in Ankara. Our letter of introduction was closely examined by the two soldiers and their walkie talkies crackled to life. Finally our letter of introduction was handed back to us and we were allowed the visit Col. X. who seemed reflective but very pleased to have heard from his Indian friend. He knew that his present incarceration was a mere temporary nuisance, an inconvenience that would not last. He explained that he was a consul in the Turkish Embassy in New Delhi when he made his friendship with my journalist friend. We had strong Turkish coffee and ghee laden pastries filled with almonds and pistachios and pine nuts and ate and ate with open delight. We skirted politics and talked mostly about his time in New Delhi.
Finally, the time came to leave when both Subhash and I blurted out our need for a temporary loan because of our “circumstances”. Col. X. responded with remarkable sang froid. Surely, he said, it would be no problem to help out “friends of my friend… Pick up 50 dollars tomorrow from my daughter who works in down town Ankara.” he said with considerable kindness in his voice. Subash and I stepped out in the street in full view of the two soldiers who seemed to be swirling slowly on their heels. We were sweating in the bright street of Ankara suburbia and raised our arms and clapped our hands to indicate victory. Subhash told me years later that he returned the loan on our behalf once he was earning in the UK. Recalling this “imaginary” event, I still get goose bumps on the back of my face and neck.

Seema, our host drove us around Ankara – a thoroughly modern bustling city – in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle which drew a lot of attention wherever we went. We visited the University where she taught, met her colleagues and were made aware of the intellectually bohemian atmosphere which prevailed in 1964. Ankara, we felt, could be in Europe and you could not tell the difference. Arshad and Seema in spite of their high ranking jobs and the social class they belonged to, were down to earth, kind and non judgemental. Finally, we bade good bye and Seema drove us, our battered bags and all, smelling clean in laundered clothes with a full breakfast in our stomachs to the highway that would take us to Istanbul. We never saw them or heard from them again, and looking down the telescope of time, I wonder where they are ..
The smells and sights of western Turkey give you intimations of Europe to come. You glimpse vistas of its towns nestling on hill tops, basking in the sun, sheltering Mediterranean shrubs and trees and herbs with their intoxicating scents. We saw the miraculous spectacle of skeins of white geese flying West in vast formations. They were headed the same way as us.
Once a capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul straddles the Orient and the Occident. The waters of the Great Bosphorus, shiny and blue and black and deep, full of hooting tugs and launches and ships and power boats exude the energy of commerce and of ordinary human life. Evenings, locals occupy a vantage point on the grassy knoll overlooking the Bosphorus, their picnic baskets laden with sweet pastries, lying on their sides with their heads supported by a cantilevered arm, just dreaming the history of a Constantinople brimming with treasures.
We spent our days loitering in the shadows of great Greco-Roman and Ottoman monuments: names roll off the tongue, Hagia Sophia, (the Church of) Holy Wisdom, now a museum with its unreachable firmament of a roof, Topkapi Palace, the ancient Hippodrome. We circled and circled Ahmet III Fountain that stands at the entrance to Topkapi Palace. We walked under the Aqueduct, the Galata Tower, Rumeli Hisari, the European Fortress. For us it was history with a face but we knew not its stories…….
Often at night we had to wait for a bed at the youth hostel which would not take non members until the last moment. I recall both of us at its doors sitting on our respective suitcases, in the hope of a bunk bed for the night. Our foray into the University in search of students to provide company and play host to us just did not work out in Istanbul. Fortunately we had a little money and slept in a hostel, where in the morning one had to shave in a mirror less bathroom looking at one’s silhouetted reflection in the frosted window panes. Istanbul might be heaving with treasures, and its souks with lusty food stalls and oriental silks, but we had had enough of it. We yearned for a Europe, clean and free of bazaars and souks, but egalitarian, democratic, welcoming. Greece, the land of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates was waiting for us. This was also the land where democracy was formulated in its senates and the teaching agorae of great philosophers. “We will be in Europe at last”. So we crossed the Bosphorus and headed for the border with a yearning in our hearts for a Europe we had travelled thousands of miles to see. Seeing Topkapi Palace recede was a huge burden off our chest.
We had no inkling that our visas to Greece meant little to the border immigration officers. The Greece we arrived in was not a democracy. But Greece, we remembered, was ruled by a paranoid military regime. How welcoming are such regimes to down and out travelling journalists?
Cold and cavalier and unfriendly, the immigration officers held us in a windowless room for hours whilst phone calls were made to Athens with frequent double syllable threats (Go back.. you go back) that we would be turned back to Turkey. Agitated and thirsty and sweating, we awaited our uncertain fate and prayed …..
Part VIII: Bohemian Interlude

 

VIII.

A Bohemian Interlude

 

Let me recap: when my journey began, and as we walked across No Man’s Land at Wagha border, took a two day train across a barren mountainscape to Iran, with smugglers as fellow travellers, befriended students and fellow scribes in Iran, crossed over in to Turkey, watched a wrathful Mount Ararat when we received our Manna from Heaven, did we imagine all of these “stranger than fiction” events? Did we really face a Hobson’s Choice in Turkey? Do historical monuments which seem so timeless Dream History ?

Having left Turkey behind, anxious to touch European soil, we were once again in the no man’s land of a Greek Customs and Immigration building, held in a windowless room with cold walls, just a bare table with a few painfully uncomfortable chairs. It seemed to us that Athens was twitchy about journalists arriving on their borders, especially from a geopolitically inconsequential country like India. We felt like a couple of Konrad Lorenz’s zoological specimens whose fate was being discussed within our earshot. Finally there seemed to be a decision. We would be given laissez-passer through Greece as long as we promised not to stop anywhere except to change from one bus or coach to another, primarily undertake not to go down to Athens at all but bypass it.

Exhilarated, we were back on the road again and were greeted with a few rousing Eurekas from a collection of truck drivers who were standing around in their khaki uniforms with company name badges, and rolling cigarettes or just kicking dust and chatting. Some of them offered to take us as far as they went and promised to find us further transport. Their halting English was good enough to engage in male banter with frequent references to Greek women as being the most beautiful in the world. One had to agree with the well travelled drivers of such behemoth vehicles. Greek women we caught glimpses of from our cradle seats in the drivers cabin were indeed doe eyed, alabaster skinned, swingingly buxom as they sauntered slowly but fully aware of the effect they had on men surveying them with their predatory eyes. I dreamt of being a European citizen, being in love with such a sensuous Greek beauty.
As if viewing a magic lantern story page we passed cities like Alexandropolis and Thesalonika. We had sudden glimpses of monasterial towns drowsing on a quiet perch off the Aegean sea, caught for ever in flowing sunlight. At dusk, home lights of a new town would appear as we descended, and the drivers would break out in a nomadic gypsy song and shout eurekas. We would join in with clapping hands held above our heads, singing our own instant non-Homeric odes.

I do not recall how many days it took us to cross Greece, but it was finally time to exit this mythical land of Cavafy, Seferis, of Kazantzakis, and Zorba the Greek and of course the Homeric Odes. Yugoslavia beckoned, with the expectation of meeting some of our old Delhi friends who were studying modern Art at a Belgrade Art school as part of an exchange program between India and Yugoslavia. We had heard that in spite of Communist rule and forced frugality due to shortages, students lived a Bohemian life, casual and louche, sitting for hours at bars watching the world go by. Money was in short supply and forced the students to eat horse meat stew as a staple, washed down with cheap beer and strong Arak.

Crossing over to Yugoslavia we saw a sea change in attitude. Yugoslav immigration officers smiled and warmed up to us when they saw our Indian passports: India and Yugoslavia were part of a union of non-aligned nations with the five edicts of Panch Sila
1. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty
2. Mutual non-aggression
3. Mutual non-interference in domestic affairs
4. Equality and mutual benefit
5. Peaceful co-existence

that we learned at school. The “neutralist magic” of these bonded several countries in to a make believe union of minds and hearts.

Tito Nehru Bhai Bhai they declared and then realising Nehru had died very recently apologised and hugged us as at a funeral. One of the officers broke rank and started to sing an Indian film song whilst others clapped and turned on their heels. Names of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Nargis were repeated like a mnemonic rune. We had coffee and sweet biscuits and even a surreptitious offer of a Vodka. We were given a much thumbed map of Yugoslavia, given advice in dos and donts, mostly by ambidextrous sign language.

Our next stop was Skopje which will always be remembered for the big 1963 earth quake and the thousands who died. This monumental quake had unpicked the masonry of its ancient stone buildings. Blocks and blocks of stone lay strewn where they had fallen. We decided to make a stop to pay our respects to the living and the dead. We made our way to what looked like a well patronised cafe with crowded tables outside in the midst of an olive grove. As soon as we sat down, we were approached first shyly and then with increasing boldness by farm labourers whose faces lit up at the mention of India. Once again there was this routine of conveying of their condolences at Nehru’s passing, and then the zest for life expressed through singing Indian film songs from Awara and Char Saubis.

Yugoslavia was a country with a big heart. Ordinary citizens we met all looked alike, broad shouldered Slavic frames with big grizzled sunburnt faces, Moslems, Croats or Serbs. Islam came to Yugoslavia with the Ottoman conquests. They sat and ate together, Moslems judiciously avoiding alcohol and pork meat whilst sitting next to each other in cafes. They even intermarried. The ethnic cleansing tragedy that engulfed Yugoslavia was still in the distant future.

We soon discovered that we could not refuse the hospitality of these simple folk which consisted of plates and plates of charcuterie (sliced salami sausages), fried eggs fortified by Arak, pale white in tall chipped glasses which kept getting re-filled to a chorus of encouraging clapping from even those who had not joined our table. We were the centre of attention. My last memory of this occasion was of my collapsing under a tree in slow motion, gurgling like a child, throwing up some of the breakfast, seeing the face of our unshaven host close up as he wiped my mouth with what seemed like a dirty wad of a handkerchief. I had not been able to stand up to the 90% proof Raki meant for stronger stomachs……..

What saved the day was Subhash’s trouper like presence of mind , and his greater strength and ability to absorb and hold his liquor. It was time to go back to the highway, he whispered as he pulled me up from my bed of leaves, hauled up by my armpits. He half dragged both our mighty suitcases and me at the same time. Shoulders hunched at half a trot, carrying both our luggage, he helped me make our way back to the highway. This will always remain in my memory as a miracle. I began to address my travelling companion as St. Subhash, the Saviour, much to his embarrassment. Last thing I remember is collapsing in the back seat of a two door sports car with Subhash none the worse for all the drinking, engaged in convivial chat with the driver as we sped down the black ribbon motorway towards Belgrade.

We were planning on staying with my Delhi artist friend Rajendra Dhawan (R.K.Dhawan) in his small one bedroom flat trying to evade the watchful eyes of the landlady who lived downstairs with her mouse like henpecked husband. She exercised her power by doing Gestapo style inspections of the property daily at unexpected hours of day or night, apartment by apartment, as if looking for girlfriends smuggled in for a bacchanalia the previous night, for any signs of transgressing the law that she laid out. Dhawan and his friends had unkind things to say about her, naturally, aggrieved by her conduct. We waited and waited in a street corner cafe for the coast to be clear and the landlady’s lights in the downstairs window to be switched off before smuggling ourselves in, shoes in our hands, past her front door where her caged canary would often detect us and start squealing a high pitched disapproving alert. Out would come our harridan in her satin silk dressing gown, sharp tongued, threatening to call the police for infringing the law of her country. One night things went a bit too far and ended in a rather amusing slanging match between Dhawan and the landlady. If my memory serves me right, this is how it went..

Landlady: Kucha Mina, kucha Mina (emphatic gesture with her forefinger pointing to the floor (it meant: “House Mine, House Mine”)

Dhawan: in Serbocroat: “Not your house, not your house.. Tito Mina, Tito Mina – Tito’s house, Tito’s house”.

As a matter of fact there was little or no private ownership and in a sense all property belonged to Tito as the chief key holder of the State. This taunting declaration by Dhawan had the most miraculous effect on the landlady. She cowered as if struck in the face, and simply withdrew to her room, never to trouble us again. We came and went as we pleased. The landlady’s husband who was always pretending to be watering the plants in his window box dressed in his singlet, sporting scrawny tattooed arms seemed peevishly pleased with the outcome and grinned at us with his tobacco blackened teeth, flashing a gold crown.

Belgrade was a truly beautiful city, with its great squares bearing the names of its socialist “heroes of the revolution”, its gardens and its Turkish fortress perched at the top of a gentle incline. From this panoramic vantage point you could watch the Danube and the Sava spreading their glittering arms around the girth of the city. Belgrade seemed it had been there for a thousand years. One night, back from a trudge around the War Memorial cemetery, we sat in the gardens and watched the lights come on in new Belgrade like the distant arm of an asteroid belt, soft as silk in the glowing summer heat. You felt you could reach out and almost touch it.

We mused how we had spent almost all of our cache of dollars, so bravely borrowed from Col X in Ankara, by being generous in buying rounds of drinks for old friends and new acquaintances. Spending a reserve of money so recklessly without a thought for tomorrow is a characteristic that marked most of my financial conduct for several years of my youth.

We had made ourselves at home in Belgrade and we were reluctant to tear away from such an agreeable life. If only we could capture ourselves in a freeze frame of time, our week in Belgrade would be a prime candidate for nostalgia. Dhawan himself had a modest bursary which he had overspent and it was time for us to to move on. We bade good bye to a collection of friends and boarded our bus to Zagreb in Croatia on our way eventually in to Italy.

We did not for a second think that we would be without shelter and little food, other than an old loaf of bread and that we would turned out of the grand Railway station and be forced to spend the hot sultry night dipping our feet in the cool waters of the Rialto canal in Venice, whilst the Italian world would be feeding its gargantuan appetite at the familial dinner tables of Venetian restaurants all around us.
Part IX: An Italian Odessey

 

IX.

An Italian Odessey

 

When my journey began, and as we walked across No Man’s Land at Wagha border we did not realize how weary would become of the whole enterprise and feel both homesick and, at the same time, long for an end to our journey. We had travelled two days by train across a barren mountainscape to Iran, with smugglers as fellow travellers, and then we had been befriended by students and fellow scribes in Iran. A week later we had crossed over into Turkey, encountered a wrathful Mount Ararat. It had felt like receiving Manna from Heaven, soaking the last remaining piece of bread in the torrential downpour. Yugoslavia had been big hearted and we had re-energised ourselves in the company of our old friends in Belgrade. Our journey had now to continue:

We did not stop at Zagreb, the Croatian capital as we became aware of how seriously we lacked funds and how difficult it would be to arrive in a strange town and force hospitality from strangers. Our aim was now to get to Paris, my dream destination, where I believed I would be welcomed and looked after by my patron and honorary uncle MVK, a famous Indian journalist. Travelling from town to town, importuning for free rides and food was no longer romantic or adventurous. I had lost some 15 pounds in weight, my socks had not been changed for two weeks, so that they were practically glued to my skin. One arm was covered in what looked like infected eczema. Our clothes were stiff with dirt. Our eyes were hollowed by tiredness . We fell asleep even standing, leaning on a lamppost

To European onlookers, we probably looked like two refugees from a region ravaged by famine and war as we dragged our luggage behind us wherever we went..

And yet the approach of Italy filled me with dense and obscure desires. It represented to me the dark and the sensuous whether in literature, landscape, poetry, painting or food. Names resonated: Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio the provocateur with his ambivalent sexuality. Botticelli’s wistful Venus rising out of a seashell, every man’s dream, Rome’s via Veneto. the wish fulfilling Fountain of Trevi – as I remembered them from a romantic comedy Roman Holiday featuring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in a cinemascope vision….. these cinema images crowded my mind for attention…

The only literature I can claim to have read other than Alberto Moravia novels was Alighieri Dante’s Inferno in an abridged translation, and then, leaping centuries, The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa about an Italian prince. Alberto Moravia’s novels were about the elite aristocracy and their sombre perversions behind closed doors. This half digested fare has a distorting effect on the perception of the country you are about to cross.

Soon we were in Italy and passing the Adriatic town of Trieste. I can recall no more than red roofed houses clinging on to the hillside and the silent bustle of feet of the shoppers crowding the streets. Then we were in Venice, with a loaf of bread and precious little money…
Venice is a city honeycombed by a hundred canals, some mere backwaters others, like the Rialto, adorned by massive sculptured bridges and dotted by vaporetti (water taxis) and gondolas and lined along the embankment with restaurants, bars and shops displaying exquisite jewellery and expensive gifts.
Venice1 Venice-canal1

Venice canals
Photos :©  Dom/asia-major.com
There were sumptuous covered markets, heaving with a thousand cheeses, fresh and smoked fish and hams, a dozen variety of breads, liqueurs and wine, pastries filled with exotic fruit and nuts, vast display of fresh vegetables and fruits, and the universal smell of fresh roasted espresso coffee. Drinking dark espresso in tiny ceramic cups in a single gulp expresses the Italians’ zest for life.. You see lines of clients standing at these espresso bars facing large gleaming coffee machines spurting steam, not lingering but entering, ordering an espresso, quaffing it noisily and leaving the bar all in just a few minutes. One could effectively mime or choreograph this very Latin ritual. I could not help yearning for the heady coffee aroma from home. I remembered my coffee addict father who bought coffee beans fresh from a Coorg coffee exporter, fastidiously roasted and powdered it himself and brewed it with stop watch timing. He got us all addicted. We did not have the money to buy and taste one and be a true Venetian.

We also longed to be on one of those gondolas, stretched out against oriental damask pillows, sipping sweet liqueurs and munching on Italian delicacies to the strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There would be troubadours on the banks singing medieval madrigals, and ceremoniously bowing as the gondolas with their occupants passed……

We walked up to St.Mark’s Square through narrow cobbled winding streets, past restaurants packed with the locals, mostly families. It was truly unbearable watching them swab food off their plates with chunks of bread or luscious pasta and fill their ravenous gargoyle mouths with them. It was a veritable torture from the perpetual hells of pretas, the hungry ghosts. . We sat by the quay watching the evening bacchanalia unfold in gondolas with drawn lace curtains, with some of the activity going on plainly visible. Here we ate our remaining pieces of bread soaked in a paper cup of water each, grateful for the passing comfort it gave us.

We then headed in search of a bench we could sleep on and found the magnificent railway station with a near empty waiting room full of unoccupied ornate benches opposite the Rialto bridge. There was piped music of the operatic strains of Mario Lanza singing Caruso, and it all seemed wonderfully inviting. We settled down for the night and fell asleep but not for long. Soon we were being poked by the batons of the local Polizia, asking us for our train tickets which alone would qualify us to spend the night in the waiting room. Two young policemen, with their motorbike helmets still in place giving them an intimidating presence, kicked the wrought iron legs of the bench indicating that we were not welcome in this Spartan waiting room. It was midnight and the revelry in the cafes was still in full swing. Reluctantly we dragged our suitcases to the edge of the canal and sat on them with our feet in the water, a cooling if bracing experience. Subhash and I talked about our time so far and how weary we were and why there could no longer be any pleasures of discovery in this journey. At 5 in the morning when the first light of day broke through the iridescent glow of mist over the canals, some of the revellers we had seen earlier at their window tables in restaurants were staggering down narrow alleys, headed for home.

I was to learn later on in life that taking a holiday in Venice , Florence, and Siena is like being a time traveller temporarily inhabiting Italy’s medieval times once ruled by dynasties of bankers. The Venetian bankers along with their banking brethren in Florence, Sienna and elsewhere, gave the world of banking some of its best known terminology and useful financial instruments, dominated the world of European trade for four centuries from their august palaces, and financed the bloody crusades of the middle ages.

I was immersed in history, architecture that defies description and an incredible treasure of art. I recalled to Subhash the longing I had felt as a youngster in an Indian village for Renaissance Europe, its museums and its palaces and cathedrals. My resource then was an abridged Encyclopaedia of unknown provenance, as its binding and cover pages were missing; and a travelogue by the Kanarese novelist, aesthete and polymath Shivaram Karanth, Apurva Pashchima, The Incredible West.

Although these cities look and feel as if preserved in aspic, they were full of tourists. It was impossible to get into a museum or the most famous Academia picture Gallery in Italy, as the queues snaked round the corridors of this monumental structure even at nine in the morning. We had to content ourselves with a couple of picture postcards which we dutifully sent to our parents in India. Our money did not stretch to purchasing a glossy calendar of Botticelli paintings.

There were, it seemed, thousands of young Japanese girls in fashionable European clothes displaying a very European body language making up most of these line-ups. Instead we hung around a bookshop full of unattended books and browsed through a coffee table book of the 18th century Venetian paintings. Our disappointment at not being able to get into the one of the galleries was somewhat assuaged.

Venice is a city that should be lived in; not just visited for a few days. However it was time for us to move on, destination France.

We found our exit from Venice, a maze though it was of canals, and found ourselves in a massive long distance transporter headed for Milan. and Turin. This was a gigantic industrial landscape producing hundreds of thousands of Fiat motor cars sustaining the Agnelli dynasty.. There was little point in stopping over as we had no money and little likelihood of finding friendly hosts. It was getting harder and harder to get a hitch and we stood for hours waving our thumb to uncomprehending drivers headed for the Italian border. I could see in my mind’s eye two oversized dusty ragamuffins dragging two suitcases, bent against the prevailing wind and smoke, careering along the hard shoulder of the motorway, waving our thumbs. Bafflingly, no car with French number plates deigned to stop for us.

We must have waited sitting on our suitcases on the speeding edge of the motorway outside Turin for several hours into the night before a young Italian in a two door sports car who wanted to relieve himself spotted us and pulled up. He was going across only as far as Grenoble and we were welcome to share his car.

We had not prepared for the awesome drive through the Frejus tunnel under the Alps which sat majestically straddling several countries in southern Europe. The tunnel is 14 Km long and whizzing through it in a sports car is not for the faint-hearted. We clung to our seats as the G Force and invading closeness of the tunnel walls with no familiar co-ordinates grabbed our senses and our accelerating bodies.

It was the early hours of the morning, dewy and fresh as we pulled into historic Grenoble in the foothills of the great Alps glimmering in the sun. Our driver dropped us off in the middle of a handsome mediaeval square with a colonnaded city hall at one end. It made one realise that all French architecture is on a grand scale, Paris being the apotheosis of this architectural paradigm. The fountain was playing dowsing some historically significant statuary and a mass of colour of well tended flower beds dotted the square, painting a pleasing tapestry of bright colours.. We sat by the fountain, refreshed by its spray and breakfasted on a remaining loaf of bread that we had rescued from an Italian restaurant dustbin.

The AlpsThe Alps
Photo © Dom/asia-major.com
We were in France at last, the land of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, not forgetting the bloody revolution and the guillotine! There were several days ahead of us still before we would enter Paris, notionally the end of our journey. More surprises and shocks awaited us. How would MVK, celebrity journalist and my honorary uncle and patron react to us when we arrived on his door step, hungry, ill and dirty, carrying our dilapidated suitcases? Will we be fed and praised for our courage and sleep in comfortable beds or would we be heading for shelter under the famous Parisian bridges spanning the Seine to the strains of Juliette Greco song Sous le Ciel de Paris (Under the skies of Paris) and share our shelter with notorious gang of clochards( tramps, vagrants and alcoholics who live and sleep on the streets with territorial fights between them for a space under the shelter of the bridges)? We had several surprises in store for us in the great city of Paris…………..
Part X: Paris!

 

X.

Down and Out in Paris (and London)

 

(With apologies to George Orwell)

We were finally in France on the home run to Paris. We discovered why not a single French driver would stop for us and give us a lift. The French car insurance prohibited the driver of a French car from giving strangers a lift and in the event of a claim for injury, would refuse to pay. No driver was prepared to take that risk. A Scotsman gave us our next lift out of Grenoble to the edge of a small town north of Lyon. We were warned not to find ourselves outdoors without shelter during the night as it was not unusual for dogs to run loose in the town and villages, and they would tear apart any person foolish enough to be wandering around. All we could find in this little town, was an unattended rail station and vast farms with stone outbuildings with windowless walls and the smell of slurry and hay

It was getting to be dusk and we were anxious to be indoors. But there were no farmers to be found. All was eerie silence with the occasional sound of a dog barking. We remembered Sherlock Holmes’ The Hound of Baskerville and felt even more anxious. Finally we spotted a stocky, and surly farmer who was about to shut the main gates. Using my school French, I made my case for shelter in his barn and some food for the two of us. The farmer agreed reluctantly, provided us with a blanket each and a loaf of bread and some water. He said he wanted us gone by the morning. We fell asleep on top of a stack of hay covered in blankets reeking of diesel. Early in the morning, we tiptoed out of the farm and discovered we were in fact on the edge of a larger town, a much scaled down version of Grenoble. We could see old ladies peering at us through the blue slats of their shutters. People on the street with bread baskets covered in check gingham tea cloths stopped and stared at us and whispered sideways even if they were alone. This sort of bush telegraph seemed to have its inevitable conclusion. A policeman on a motorbike pulled up and asked us to accompany him to the constabulary. This was a rerun of our experience with the Greek immigration services: incomprehension at our status as Indian Journalists found wandering with two suitcases in the middle of France with no money. We felt like aliens from a different planet.

Hours of fruitless interrogation later, we were dropped off on the Lyon to Paris highway by a police car. We were in luck. An Italian driver who lived in Paris gave us a lift with the good news that he was driving the 460 km all the way to Paris. We were welcome to share his car. This indeed was the home run we had been praying for.

The Italian driver dropped us off in Quartier des Italiens in Paris close to the entrance to the metro. Using an underground transport system for the first time is both intimidating and exciting. We staggered on to a moving escalator with our suitcases threatening to escape our grip. It must have been 7 in the evening. People in a hurry pushed past us casting unfriendly glances and often swearing “merde” (“damn” is a polite translation of the word) as they negotiated the narrow space past us. Once in the hallway we were faced with a bewildering array of tunnels and a few maps on the wall. I had boasted to Subhash that I knew the lay out of the Paris metro and could direct us to my “uncle” M’s apartment in the Cinquième arrondissement without problems. The tunnels were dimly lit as if in some science fiction nether world; as they moved, men and women looked as if made of smoke and could move through each other like transparent holograms. “Parlez-vous Anglais” produced a loud dismissive NON….We were headed for St. Germain des Prés – up market Left Bank in Paris, and I felt I knew its streets and its brasseries with their famous clientele like one knows the contours of the face of a lover. It was a surprise to see so many Africans on the metro and in the streets. It was France’s colonial inheritance from North and West Africa. It added a touch of intimidation and glamour in my mind.

We were at our destination and above ground finally, walking the famous boulevard St. Germain, passing la Coupole, the legendary café where the same window table was always occupied by Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and their friends like Albert Camus, sipping a consommation. I was disappointed not to have caught sight of any literary celebrities. Window display of Seafood platters, the size of a king’s crown glistened their moist enticement to passers by. There were American voices on the street in search of a restaurant they had read about in their Baedeker guides or the Paris Review for an evening of conviviality. Would I catch sight of James Baldwin, the celebrated black American novelist whose book Fire Next Time I had carried all the way in my suitcase? What about Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, Gertrude Stein and a young Normal Mailer and the ghost of Scott Fitzgerald? And Picasso and Matisse and Dali? I could only walk this street with reverence in my heart, the literary golden mile in anyone’s book.

A few more enquiries from friendlier faces and we were standing in front of the building where uncle M had his apartment in Rue Pierre Nicole. This would be my dream come true. To live in Paris and rub shoulders with celebrity writers, both French and English and American. To live in a garret with a skylight for a window and to write that definitive novel like The Great Gatsby. M would shelter and feed us – so we hoped, lend us clothes and money, introduce me to his literary friends. I would chat with his American writer wife over a drink in La Coupole. We were up the stairs with our suitcases flying ahead of us like in a fairy tale, light as feathers, bounding two steps at a time. I checked and re-checked my little address book to ensure we had the right street and apartment number. The corridor outside the door of the apartment was dimly lit. You could hear a hubbub of voices coming from inside. With trepidation, with my heart pounding I pressed the door bell.

Voices from inside the apartment seemed to stop in unison, suddenly. Minutes seemed to passed, although it might have been mere seconds. The door was then opened and M stood there, his face in shadow, evidently unable to recognise me. I spoke my name in a trembling voice and tried to explain why we had not warned him of our arrival. There was a long silence. “HOW dare you” said M in sudden controlled rage. “How dare you leave India so irresponsibly without telling your parents! They are now blaming me for this. How dare you expect me to provide hospitality! How dare you even come up these stairs and interrupt a cocktail party I am giving for a few close friends to night!” He paused and ruminated. “Go away and sort yourselves out.” I tried in a feeble voice to explain that we were penniless and had not really eaten for a while. Could he not provide us shelter until we sorted ourselves? “Sorry I cannot be responsible if you engage in irresponsible acts and expect someone else to pick up the pieces.” “ Sorry Uncle M” I stuttered. “I am sorry too, but I have to get back to my guests.” said M and slammed the door shut. Thirty seconds passed and I burst out in tears.

This is the right part of my story when I need to explain why in retrospect I realise that MVK owed me no obligation of kindness or hospitality. M, contrary to the general impression I created was no blood relative, although through tenuous reconstruction of various family trees and through a marriage of my elder brother I could perhaps lay claim to my right to call M an uncle. M accepted my using the honorific “Mam” (uncle) placed reverentially if somewhat intimately before his first name. I was a university student when I first got in touch with M who was then a correspondent for a major Indian English language daily in Bonn. I had sent him a shamelessly pleading letter enclosing a 100 page novella I had been working on, asking for his critical advice and his help in finding the first rung of a career ladder as a novelist. M must have been touched by this unsolicited cry for help. His American wife, a literary critic was agreeably impressed by my work. It was meretricious like spun sugar, derivative pastiche that borrowed stylistically from Faulkner, Saul Bellow, William Styron (my favourite book then was his Lie Down in Darkness), Nabokov and our own Raja Rao – the narrator of whose Serpent and The Rope was my alter ego: living in France with a French wife, and talking endlessly in dialectical riddles.

M replied to me with kind words, saying he trusted his wife’s evaluation of my writing, He was going to speak to a influential friend of his who was the patron founder of a new English language daily in New Delhi and I might be offered a job as a staff reporter. M made this miracle happen and completely changed the course of my life. Touchingly he bundled and sent me some 50 magazines, all the way by airmail from Bonn: mostly past editions of the New Statesman from London with its distinguished panel of writers like Karl Miller, Stephen Spender, V.S.Pritchet and our own Victor Anant. On a visit to India, M and his wife made the effort of seeing me, speaking encouragingly, renewing his promise to recommend me for that job a thousand miles away from my South Indian fastness to the glittering metropolis of New Delhi. Soon after, I had a letter from his famous friend offering me that job. Beyond this great act of generosity, M owed me nothing and looking back he is blameless in his shutting the door on me.

I now reflect on my own duplicity in committing a similar act. Years later when a few strangers claiming to be friends of my Indian family turned up at my London home, I turned them away with mock indignation, and harsh words – unconcerned that they were without much money and had a poor grasp of English. They were confused, in dire straits and in need of help.

M had his own values and principles about personal responsibilities and acted accordingly. It was a much needed wake-up call.

Subhash was once again stolidly comforting. Through my veil of tears street lights in St. Germain des Près looked like fair ground illuminations of coloured glass bulbs and like a rainbow in streaky fragments. We crossed the street full of celebrity-chasing American tourists to a park across the street and set down our suitcases. We were in a highly distressed state and I could not stop crying. Curious passers by stopped as if to ask if we were alright and quickly changed their minds and hurried along. A young man with car keys looped and twirling on his forefinger stopped firmly in front of us and asked us who we were and why I was crying. He seemed so astonished by our story – that we were two Indian journalists, penniless and without shelter or food in a cruel unfriendly city like Paris. He was a German in Paris. He scratched his chin and reflected for a while. “Come on” he said presently, “ come with me”. Without further words we followed him to the underground car park. He drove us to what looked like a cheap hotel near Gare du Nord, a million miles away from swanky St. Germain. A couple were checking in ahead of us. The man was a scruffily dressed North African and the woman wore a sleeveless summer frock. One could not help looking at this plump young woman as she stood behind her escort, one arm raised and folded at the elbow, lustily scratching her armpit with its array of little soft curls of hair. This vignette was straight out of a Degas sketch with its erotic undertones. It was clear to us that this was no ordinary hotel but a place where rooms were rented by the hour. Our saviour paid for a night’s accommodation and assured us that the morning breakfast was included. He thrust some French franc bank notes in our hand, saying “that should buy you a Jambon – a ham roll for tonight”. With that, his car keys still looped and twirling round his forefinger, this stranger, this kind benefactor disappeared down the street to his car and was gone in a flash. He never gave us his name or his address and we never saw him again. In my dreams that night I kept hearing doors opening and slamming, and beds ventilating on their carcase of springs.

By morning, my optimism had come back. I had other friends in Paris. What about Inderjit, the Delhi painter and a colleague of Dhawan who had hosted us in Belgrade so generously. Inderjit lived in a studio flat in a hotel with a watchful concierge. He was pleased to see us. We laid our cards on the table, and Inderjit was moved. We could sleep on the little floor space he had as long as we kept a low profile and helped him cook the daily staple of rice and dhal and the occasional luxury of a Dhahi Khadi with vegetables in it. There would of course be the French baguette (crusty bread) to fill the spaces of a rumbling stomach. We hugged and kissed Inderjit on an impulse and swore to repay his hospitality in the near future, when we would be settled in London.
Avenue des Champs-ElyseesAvenue des Champs-Elysees –
Photo © Dom/asia-major.com

Then for a day or two life was all sweet and happy. French croissants and coffee in the morning, heated on the small stove in the corner of the bedroom; we washed our cups and plates in the little basin next to it with a plastic label in French warning the user NOT to flush solids down the sink as the plumbing was made of very narrow bore pipes. Lunch would be a ham roll in the company of Inderjit’s artist friends from Ecole des Beaux Arts and Nadia Boulanger’s music school and the odd philosophy student from the august Sorbonne. There would always be a kind friend who had just received his monthly bursary cheque and would recklessly buy us all a round of drinks, mostly cheap red wine in carafes. Evenings, we would retire to Inderjit’s small flat and cook our rice and Dhal. Sitting in the shadow of the great Notre Dame with a glass of wine in one hand, life could not be sweeter.

Subhash had other plans. One evening he made up his mind to leave Paris, however agreeable for the time being and head for London, his final destination, and look for a job. I felt angry, orphaned, abandoned and bitter. I thought that all those days and weeks when we were on the road to Europe, when we were starving, Subhash had prudently clung on to his tiny stash of money. I knew my thoughts were uncharitable and unfair but they welled up in me and ended in a bruising argument before Subhash left Paris one morning. I sulked and stayed in the flat and refused to see him off at the station. I refused to hug him and thank him for saving my life along the way. I felt utterly alone and cried noisily, and theatrically in the apartment in front of a mirror as if I was rehearsing for an acting part. Since then Subhash has assured me that he was as broke and penniless as I was, but had replenished his cache of few extra dollars by selling a piece of Indian silk he had brought along, to Inderjit’s French girl friend which she intended to turn in to a luxurious blouse and a scarf. I was too blinded by my anger to realize this at the time. I know I was insensitive and wrong and trust Subhash has forgiven me, generous man that he is.

My travails were far from over. I would still be homeless, friendless and heading towards the bridge spanning the Seine for a night’s shelter. I would once again see my romantic rainbow fragmented through stereoscopic tears. And I would no longer remember Juliette Grecos song or its melodic line. Inderjit had been hinting that he needed privacy to see his French girlfriend from time to time and I was the gooseberry in the middle. Everyone seemed to ask why did my well placed uncle not help me?

Then I did something Inderjit could never forgive, and provoked him to throw me out one evening and summarily withdraw his hospitality…….
Part XI: Journey’s End

 

XI.

Journey’s End

 

I was finally in Paris, my Mecca, and had endured 40 days of overland travel with no money to get to it. I had a map of Paris in my head, each known name of a street or an arrondisement connected to a famous writer. Whilst my kind host Inderjit was at the Ecole des Beaux Art, I would get up late, help myself to a strictly rationed portion of French baguette, get ready, and then, without the help of a map, wander around these famous streets. That is how I came to walk down the Marais, where Balzac had lived and where his Comedie Humaine series of novels had their genesis. I rediscovered where Maupassant wrote his stories, where Emile Zola conceived his novels of human passion and human crime on such a grand scale. Flaubert, Molière, Gide, Malraux… they had all lived there at some time. I had read all these writers, voraciously in my Indian village home, sleeping on a cotton bedroll on the floor, with an oil lamp for light, deep into the night, unable to put down a book whose pages kept turning, unfolding new raptures.

It is impossible to describe both the euphoria and the disappointment I felt wandering in Paris. At the back of my mind, I knew that my predicament was very serious since I might have to turn back again when my French Visa ran out, by road once more and this time, all alone. Subhash had left Paris and gone on to London, confident of finding a job as a subeditor in a regional paper. I was deluding myself that things would work out in the end and all would be well.

Galleries LafayetteGalleries Lafayette

Photo © Dom/asia-major.com

When my hours and hours of walking around Paris and peering at its shrouded courtyards, often magically illuminated by a shaft of sunlight failed to lift my spirits, I went and sat in a window seat in a Brasserie by the river side and saw the pleasure boats filled with tourists pass almost within arms’ reach . I remember I had Jean Cocteau’s The Testament of Orpheus in my hand but I had no desire to read it. In a state of slow burning depression and anxiety I retreated to Inderjit flat for my re-heated lunch of left-over rice and Dhal. I was too depressed to eat alone. Without thinking I flushed the remaining rice on my plate into the sink only to realise a second later that I had done the unthinkable and blocked the narrow gauge drain. A warning not to do so, written in large letters on a yellow plastic board hung by the sink. Inderjit appeared shortly after and was puce with rage. It was hard enough for him hiding my presence from the Concierge, and now I had blocked the drains of the whole of the second floor. Inderjit exploded into a flurry of choice Punjabi swear words. I was no longer welcome to sleep on his floor. I had my marching orders. The only place I could go to for shelter and a bed, I was told, was the Youth Hostel in Pigalle in Montmartre, famous for the Lapin Agile, the night club where Edith Piaf and a multitude of singers sang their famous chansons. Inderjit flung a ten francs bank note at me and a ruck sack to carry some essentials and pushed me out of his apartment. Whilst I hung around hoping he would change his mind, he was still burning with a cold rage and his door remained firmly shut

I was unused to carrying a clumsily large ruck sack on my back and having to make a dash through the half doors that closed access to the platform as the Metro train arrived. These gates were unique to the Paris metro and prevented a last minute tide of passengers flying into the train as its own doors closed. I was not agile enough and got trapped with one door slamming shut on my sternum and the other pressing on the ruck sack on the back. My fingers were jammed on top of the rucksack in a vain attempt to pull the bag through. Alarmed fellow passengers tried unsuccessfully to free me. The train pulled out of the platform and I was released as the access gates opened again.

This was a discouraging omen. Pigalle Metro station was deserted except for a few Algerian women squatting on the floor busily sorting their wares of beads and bangles. The street outside was deserted too and it was hard to find anyone to ask for directions for the Auberge de jeunesse. French spoken here from the smoky throats of Pigalle habitués was pretty much impenetrable and seemed a world away from the polished elocution of Montparnasse. Finally I managed to piece together what I did not want to hear: the Youth Hostel had been closed for several years.

An hour later I was back sitting forlorn and depressed at an empty aluminium table on the pavement of a cafe drinking plain water being watched over by a surly waiter. This was just a block away from Inderjit’s hotel. I kept my face down, hoping Inderjit would be coming down the street and seeing my predicament forgive me and take me back. A smartly dressed Indian Sindhi gentleman stopped by my table and asked if I was from India. He was a trader, he told me, who had been living in Paris for a year and did not enjoy his experience. He had a gold watch with small diamonds set in the gold strap designed to look like a bracelet. I noticed he wore a shiny expensive looking suit and his shoes were polished and gleaming. His cheeks were pink and he smelt of fresh eau de cologne. He casually picked up the book I had on the table, a Cocteau perhaps or a Anouilh play. There was a chasm that separated us that no bridge could conceivably span. I dozed with open eyes when another pair of shoes stopped by my table. I shielded my eyes from the evening sun and looked up. It was Inderjit. “What on earth are you still doing here, hanging around?” he said in an irritated voice. I explained that I had indeed made the journey and found the Youth Hostel to be closed. Inderjit noticed that the fingers of my hands were covered in dried blood which I had not noticed myself.

He presently sat down saying: “Oh Kini, oh Kini, you bastard” and ordered two beers. “I cannot take you back, at least not for tonight” he said and paused. “My girl friend is staying overnight”. He picked up my ruck sack and indicated that I follow him. It was getting dark and the streets were full of revellers. We passed the Café de Paris, a nightclub that gaudily displayed mammoth posters of scantily clad women kicking their legs up in unison. We pushed our way though a sea of bodies and turned off into a narrow cobbled street. Inderjit indicated again that I follow him. We stepped into a derelict looking building tall and narrow, blocking all light. There was a reception desk and a black receptionist with bulging eyes, dressed in jeans and a tea shirt with a logo of a winged leopard. He spoke in guttural French which made it sound like German. This was indeed an unrated doss house, a hotel pompously called Hôtel du Rivoli, where down and outs could find a room for just a few francs. Inderjit checked me in, paid for the night. “I will see you tomorrow,” he said in a soft voice and patted me on my back. “You better have a good exit plan by then”, he said. He stopped and turned round as he was stepping on to the street… “You might as well come for breakfast and meet my girl friend”, he said. “Have a good night’s sleep”.
I climbed the six flights of stairs as there was no lift, to an attic room no bigger than a single bed and a skylight above it. I stood on the bed and peered out expecting to see a sea of zinc roof tops gleaming like frozen waves in the dark. I had a wonderful surprise in store. I was staring at the famous roof of the Notre Dame, it seemed just a couple of feet away. If only I could open the skylight, I felt I could reach out and touch the legendary cathedral. I felt redeemed and in a state of exaltation just standing on the bed feeling this primeval architectural force. Even Alexander Dumas could not have conceived of this looming view from the skylight. One had to be destitute and living in this divine little space to see this miraculous sight.
I had my exit plan in place by the time I turned up for breakfast at Inderjit’s. It was eleven in the morning and his girlfriend was still in bed wrapped up in blankets pretending to be asleep. The room smelt of sleep, intimacy and coffee. Awkwardly I sat on the corner of a chair and helped myself to a coffee and flaky croissants lush with butter. Inderjit was pottering around the little floor space in his bare feet. He sounded magnanimous as a king about to grant large favours. I explained my simple plan: Inderjit would go to his art school then on to the Sorbonne which had some thousand students and stop any and every student who crossed his path and show them a leaflet explaining my brave journey to Paris by road and asking for financial help to get me off on the last leg of my journey to London. “This won’t work. I can tell you that for nothing”, he raised his voice scornfully. “Students are poor and cannot spare a sou (penny) in mid term. Besides when they hear the whole story, they would all ask why your uncle is not helping you”.

Reluctantly Inderjit decided to give my plan a try. I expected him back late afternoon. “No way would this scatterbrain plan would work. This is like begging and I am embarrassed even to ask”, he had said in parting. Instead of waiting in the flat I decided to pay uncle M a visit in his office.

An unexpected host appeared in the form of Basrur who was the director of the Indian Tourist office in Paris and who happened to be a friend of uncle M . I was sitting as usual in the armless chair in the lobby, at a distance from uncle M’s large desk and two phones. It appeared as if something had been worked out between uncle M and Basrur. Uncle M whilst continuing to appear disapproving and unhelpful had in fact reached out to me through his friend. I was to stay with Basrur in a quaint but spacious flat above the Indian Tourist office for a few days whilst he arranged for a return train ticket for me to London. If I managed to settle in London, I would return the unused portion of the ticket for a refund and in any event refund Basrur the cost of the ticket.

I rushed back to Inderjit to tell him the good news. Inderjit was back already. He had a big surprise for me. He had gone to the Ecole des Beaux-Art most reluctantly to make a collection from fellow students, certain in his mind that this would fail. Instead virtually every student he had encountered had been moved by my story and had donated generously. There were several hundred francs in his little bag to give me. Inderjit handed the bag over for me to touch and handle the franc notes. We headed for the bar to celebrate.

“You won’t believe it”, he said, still playing with the franc notes. “I had to stop asking, because I could have collected twice as much. Everyone I spoke to was moved by your story and opened their wallets”. “You lucky bastard, Kini”, he kept swearing.

I had a surprise phone call from Eli, uncle M’s wife, who had an aura of kindness about her. She asked me to meet her at uncle M’s office in the morning. I turned up in his office one morning and sat meekly with my hands folded between my knees on an armless chair. Uncle M was busy on the phone. From time to time his large doleful pensive eyes would focus on me as if he was formulating comforting words but unable to speak them. Presently Eli, his wife appeared in the door way, dressed in a green top and slacks, friendly and seemingly restrained from speaking as she felt. She reached out to shake hands with me, but realising I had awkwardly hidden my hands between my knees, she touched both my shoulders in greeting. I half stood up and folded my hands in a Namaste. M was still on the phone talking economic numbers of GATT trade talks of what was to become the European Union, scribbling notes as he spoke. I realised he was interviewing on the phone some luminary of the GATT treaty. M’s wife got presently restless and broke into M’s telephone marathon. She addressed him by his first name; “I am taking Kini for a coffee to the bar round the corner. We will be back soon.” Uncle M got up, his phone still glued to his ear. He walked round his desk, towards the ornate coat stand and took out his sumptuous hay coloured gabardine trench coat and swung it off its hook and handed it to me. “I am told it is cold in London. You will need this. Keep it”, he said, still holding the phone to his ear. “You are generous”, said his wife without sarcasm, but in a sharp voice.

Eli and I sat in a window seat of the Brasserie for a long time talking about museums and art galleries in London where admission, unlike in Paris, was free. Elinor insisted I should make the most of this and of the British Library as these were the ultimate anchors of culture. It seemed to me that Eli was trying to do or say something. Finally she seemed to make up her mind. Casually, she opened her purse and handed me several dollar bills. “That should tidy you over in England for a while”. I protested in sheer amazement at the size of this generosity and tried hard to refuse it. “Consider it a loan until you are able to earn and return it” she said and patted my hand as my fingers curled round the greenbacks.

Suddenly I was unbelievably rich, or that is how it felt. I had a return rail ticket to London from Basrur, the Indian tourist office chief. I had a pile of dollar bills in my top pocket from Eli. I had several hundred francs that Inderjit had boldly collected from his fellow students who had generously opened their wallets. My idea that no one would miss a few francs but that, taken together, it would amount to a significant sum had worked. I left the cafe with Eli and on an impulse kissed her on the cheek like I had seen the French greet each other. I walked down Boulevard St Germain wearing uncle M’s shiny soft gabardine trench coat with its dandy epaulettes, and the elaborate James Cagney waistband knot which secured its vastness around my 8 stone waif thin frame. My shoes were splitting on the side, heck, I was on top of the world.

Inderjit was waiting for me with a fresh batch of rice and dahl and he had even gone to the trouble of making a cucumber raitha and dug up from some corner of his cupboard a savoury mango pickle. There was half a bottle of red wine left over from his dinner the previous night with his girl friend. We ate and ate and smiled at each other in triumph. Guiltily I hid the fact that Eli had given me a small fortune in dollars which was burning a hole in my top pocket. I had a return train ticket to London which I did not tell him about either. I had casually laid my new gabardine raincoat across Inderjit’s bed as a flag declaring my new found affluence and independence.

A few days with Basrur were pleasant as we discoursed on literary and cultural and socio-political subjects. I paid a final visit to uncle M who seemed bemused by my change of behaviour, less respectful and more bold, as I sat in front of his desk instead of cowering in a corner with my hands between my knees.

My long journey was finally coming to an end. I was leaving Paris and the grand Haussmann architecture of Rue de Rivoli and the Champs Elysées, the wide boulevards of St. Germain. My mind was once again concatenating long Proustian sentences, a word game I played with myself, which I believed kept my creative mind alive. One afternoon I clambered aboard a long shiny black train at the Gare du Nord, bound for London with my large battered cardboard suitcase full of books, my writing and my dreams. This suitcase had a life of its own and survived in the gloom of a London attic for a further 30 years. My carriage was already full of a school group of Scottish girls in tartan skirts and blazing white shirts with an emblem of an egret stitched on it. They stood by the door singing Auld Lang Syne in a shrill voice waving little paper flags as the train pulled out and plunged through the Parisian suburbs towards England.

END

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London Letters >>

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