Since childhood I've had a mad fascination with India, obsessing over Sabu, Jungle Jim and Ali Baba movies and Rudyard Kipling's books. As soon as I had the wherewithal, the freedom, guts and brains to leave my homeland, when I was 22 in 1972, I flew to India and have been going there ever since. It's a kind of madness where I get lost in the jungles, mountains, cities and beaches, have the ultimate in anarcho-mystic adventures, and forget my existential worries for awhile. It's reckless, irresponsible and flaky but it thrills me no end and I'd have to be dead to give it up.
Whenever the train is 5 hours late or the bus breaks down on the side of the highway, when the power fails for days on end and the crowds stampede down the stairways, or the internet crashes and I moan, "Kya hua?" (what's going on ?), I'm told that nasty truism, "This is India!" and I can only reply, "Incredible!" THEY are always announcing, "Economic growth is 7 % every year!" It makes me worry that India might collapse under Her own burgeoning weight, nothing seems to work, everything is dug up or falling down, and yet India carries on regardless, not just as a "functioning anarchy", to me it's methodical madness that has to be endured as well as enjoyed.
One night in Mumbai I was out for a walk with my friends and had just stepped off the shopping concourse at Colaba when out of the shadows stumbled a totally naked woman, sans pubic hair, who raced madly up onto the footpath and seemed to bounce off the walls before running towards the bright lights of the bazaar, body flip-flopping, mind gone. Somewhat stunned we marched over to Marine Drive and sat on the sea-wall to get a breath of Arabian Sea air. Another lunatic staggered past dressed only in his grungy underpants, the dazed look of a zombie on his dark face. The Electric Co. had cut the power to Mumbai's biggest mental hospital at Thane for unpaid bills and the inmates went berserk and ran terrified from ward to ward trying to escape the darkness. Some of them possibly had escaped into the public at large, or maybe they'd been set loose to give the city a taste of what they're up for if THEY continue to neglect giving humanist succor to desperately needy places like "mental hospitals". (Three days later the State Govt paid a part of the outstanding bill to have the electricity turned back on.)
Relaxing, facing the wonderful skyline of the Bay of Mumbai and the sky-scrapers of Malabar Hill, my friend decided to roll a joint and I said, "I don't think you should do that here, the police might see you." Just as he was replying, "Don't worry, the police can't touch us, I was born in Mumbai and I know how to talk to the cops...", two nasty cops snuck up behind him and grabbed him forcefully. He just had time to throw the joint into the sea before they spun him around and, as he was about to say, "Hey, buddies, I'm a fellow Mumbaiker...", he got a godawful slap across the face that spun his head around. As the two thugs in uniform dragged him over to their cop-car I said, "You deal with it, I warned you! This is your city, talk your way out of it, I'll meet you later." I strolled casually away, the cops not daring to lay their mitts on a precious firangi who hasn't been caught doing anything amiss. At the car they harangued my mate then took all his money, a few hundred rupees, the incident giving me the willies and shattering my complacency.
We met up at the Gokul Pub in Colaba, my most favourite watering hole in India. Across from us sat A. with his middle-aged Italian buddy, a grumpy homo who has a "thing" for fat men in uniforms and A. was connecting him up with a devious old cop he knew, the two fatties squeezed into their table and gazing hungrily at each other...yuk! Cops! They're like Rakshas, (demons) with handle-bar moustaches and great dark baggy eyes, (they are low-paid, abhorred by all, they eat bad, are sick and take their dyspepsia out on everyone), the two fatsos were welcome to eat each other, the variegated fetishes of this world always astounding me. I noticed several obvious (swishy) gay men patronising the pub, nobody blinking an eye, tolerance in Mumbai gaining ground as only a few years ago Gays were much more underground and secretive.
I myself had finally joined forces with my best mate of 7 years, a Muslim named Mohammed, who is my companion, bodyguard, minder, guide, go-for and the joy/ordeal of my soul here at the end of my life, like Johnny Weismuller with his turban-clad side-kick in "Jungle Jim". He was over his sadness at the murder of his non-friend, Jhavood, it seems the villain had been having an affair with a married woman in Delhi and the husband had bumped him off in a jealous rage, whether any justice got done I don't know. The next day M. took me to Haji Ali's Mausaleum on its' little island out in the Bay of Bombay, in front of the Tomb sat a group of Sufi musicians singing songs of mystic adoration to the man whom nobody seems to know much about, Haji Ali, except he'd gone on pilgrimage to Mecca and was a great Muslim Saint from long, long ago. I got high on the "Thief of Baghdad" vibes, IT doesn't need a GOD to underpin it all but I understand the jumbled attempts at coming to terms with living in a world so AWESOME it's made sacred. My mate teaches me patience for others' crazy beliefs, "everyone has the human right to believe what they will" is one of the basic credos of the bright atheist.
Weary of roaming the streets of Mumbai like feckless French Situationists looking for the city's quintessential spectacle, we trekked into deep Maharashtra to a hill-station, where no cars are allowed and you have to walk the last few kilometers to the top or ride a horse. Here the mountains of sandstone have been rounded like a goddess's breasts or sharpened into giant pyramids by wind and water, you can see vast misty distances, it's magical, like all Nature can be, a bandit from the 18th century might ride out of the jungles any moment, these hills were the hide-outs of many Maharashtran rebels against the British Raj.
In the morning, sitting at our window calmly eating breakfast, a hairy hand suddenly parted the curtains and there on the window-sill sat two huge bull-monkeys, their fangs bared grotesquely as they lunged forward and snatched at the omelettes in our mouths. I instantly swept up my pillow and banged them both hard in the face like you do in a pillow fight, the beasts fell backward out the window in shock and we finished our food most satisfied.
Then we heard a lot of shrieking and, looking out the window, saw a hapless young Indian girl upon an ornamental bridge struggling with a monkey on her back pulling at her hair and tugging at her handbag. She threw it off but it leaped upon her again and really tried to tear her face open. She screamed and writhed and eventually flung the horrid thing into the murky pool below where it squawked and shot off like a fury, the girl splashed wet and bedraggled. Then she tidied her hair, laughed and toddled off, all in a day's outing at this wild wild east, weekend Mumbai-cowboy town. It made me realise one more reason for the patient, stoic, tolerant, "carry on all-suffering" attitude of the general populace whom I've watched on the buses, in the crowded stations, by the road-sides: Indians are constantly under attack from the innumerable monkey tribes, their food taken, items broken or stolen, their hair torn and flesh scratched, so not much else fazes them either, (except us Aussies, it seems.)
We went on many soothing walks in the jungle, bird-calls ringing thru the tree-tops. We passed a group of youths out on a gambol and they asked me the eternal question, "From where you are coming?" "Australia," I replied hesitantly, for we've been getting very bad press lately over the so-called racist attacks against Indian students back in Auz. They grumbled to each other in Marathi, "Let's go bash him up in retaliation!" My mate, ever vigilant, overheard them and yelled, "Don't even think about it. It's got nothing to do with him. He is my guest." They sauntered off but it left me annoyed with the beat-up the Indian media have been giving Australia, and everybody's been jumping on the band-wagon to join in with the bitch, politicians in the Foreign and Home Minister's Office, Shiv Senna right wing hooligans and Bollywood patriarchs.
Everywhere I've gone the man on the street has asked me about this problem against Indians back home, ("I hear you're murdering Indian students in Auz?!") and I've tried to explain to them the realities of today's big world. First off, how can there be racist slurs when Indians and Aussies are of the same race, Caucasion? (Round eyes, narrow noses if you believe in such definitions.) I'd call it xenophobic/moronic if some white trash gave trouble to anyone of darker skin. Australia welcomes all races to come live there and most Aussies are trying hard to get a suntan and turn brown, to the point of getting skin cancer. Where I agree Aussies can be collectively racist is towards our own indiginous Australians, the Kooris, and that's because we're guilty about our history with them, killing the majority, stealing their land, demolishing their cultures. We have such different paradigms of what this universe consists of we just can't seem to live together harmoniously. Many of us Aussies are working to improve this however.
And what about the crime statistics in America or England, nobody gets slapped there? Compare the attacks against Indians with those against Aussies themselves, we all suffer from crime, I myself got bashed up 6 months ago by a fucking ICE zombie. And with Indians having more money to spend they are traveling the world in greater numbers and so are more likely to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. (And make no mistake about it, I'd get between any bastard and his/her victim getting hassled for the colour of their skin.)
Indians themselves are obsessed with their skin colour and think that's what we pick on them for. If you look at the class-pyramid here in India you will see light-skinned people at the top, Bollywood/TV has only wheat-complexioned actors, the few darkies get villain roles, and dispersed ad nauseum thru the turgid dramas are advertising commercials for skin-lightening creams. And if you look at the bottom rung of society, the rag-pickers, road-diggers and rock-breakers you will see only very dark people, they toil like slaves.
My friends often moan to me about how ugly they are and when I say, "But why?" they inevitably reply, "Because I'm black! I'm so dark it's shameful!" I enthuse, "Black is beautiful, and don't you forget it!" They look at me somewhat assuaged but I know they're not convinced. I see Shane Warne on TV with a cheesy grin trying to placate the Indian hordes, "We really miss you... we really love you." For all the hand-wringing grief of the Press nobody else in all the length of India hassled, threatened or ill-treated me on knowing my nationality, they were the usual hospitable, good natured, caring, jolly, curious, friendly people that I've always found them to be.
What's the bigger picture, I wonder? Are THEY trying to psyche Auz out for the next big cricket match? India takes the game very seriously and is determined to stay on top of Australia, they don't seem to be over that fight Harbinj Singh had with Ricky Ponting 3 years ago and the Mumbai crowd aping "Monkey, monkey" to Mathew Simmons, the Pacific Islander, that revealed India's own pathetic racism. But there's got to be greater reason for the egregious finger-pointing at Auz. I noticed India has just opened it's 18th nuclear power reactor and is probably highly desirous of Australian uranium but we've refused to sell it to them, and we do sell it to China, which pisses India off no end. (Yeah, yeah, India refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but that didn't stop China from flogging nucear technology to it's favoured lackeys like Pakistan and North Korea.)
I don't think it should be sold to anyone as some of it will surely end up in weapons programs but if we're going to sell it then we should sell to India also as our countries have always been good friends and are in fact next door neighbours across the Indian Ocean. India feels herself surrounded and threatened by China and her proxies in Pakistan, Tibet and Burma and possibly sees Auz as being in China's pocket too and THEY are maybe trying to tell us, "Look, we are adding to your economic prosperity just as much as China and we can withdraw it if you don't be a good friend and give us what we want." It's all a pity as Auz and India have much in common, i.e. both are free-market pluralist democracies and both are fluent in English, and there's an underwater land-bridge connecting them, the two countries are part of the same continental plate. WE WERE BORN TO BE FRIENDS.
When our idyll on the hilltop was over we caught an ornamental train back down the mountain and back to the city of Mumbai, and in a cab at a traffic intersection a beggar came to the window, his shirt sleeves empty, his arms gone. I was suffering from charity-fatigue and ignored him, he turned and walked off and I could see his arms folded behind his back under the shirt. Aha, a trickster! Then an old man rushed the cab, he thrust a very skinny 3 month old baby thru the window and held out it's horribly burnt arm, the hand twisted into a shapeless claw. I gagged but then thought of the kids in "Slumdog Millionaire", it wasn't their fault they'd been crippled, feeling a kind of sad-guilt I gave him some coins and my friend yelped, "Don't give him anything, he probably burnt that baby's hand on purpose!" "How horrible!" I groaned, "but still the baby might get fed from a bit of that money, it's woes are real." Then I flashed that maybe the burnt hand could also have been a trick, water-soluble glue and clever make-up, but what the hell, India is a land of hard-edged illusions and still I hoped the baby would get fed.
While in Bollywood what else to do but get your pants pissed in laughing at a bad movie so off we went to a classic Hindi cinema-house called the Eros at Churchgate Station to see Salmon Khan's mock-epic "Veer". He tried to do a cross between Russel Crowe and Sylvestor Stallone, only coming across as bug-eyed effete and flatulent. It got off to a good beginning with armies clashing, sword fights and train robberies but after 2o minutes it descended into hours of ludicrous poncing about Victorian London in snappy suits with white-beauties in diaphonous gowns floating, twirling and drooling upon him, (it was hard to work out the actual era as the period costumes kept chopping and changing from Victorian to '20s flapper.) It was so bad we laughed and laughed, especially when the light-skinned heroin came on with her card-board performance, an insipid, saccharine melody played as her signature tune for the rest of the movie, over and over, till I became quite bilious.
The movie churned on and on, finally ending with a tedious fight between father and son, then Salmon-face getting pierced by an arrow and dying in his pop's arms, all very Freudian but does Salmon, the writer/producer/hero actually get the symbolic meaning of the shaft sticking him? At one point early on in the film I felt a hand creep thru the seat and grab my left tit and then a voice say, "Uncle, please sit more down in your seat." I looked behind and there was this hick slouched low and he wanted me to also slouch so he could see better. "No!" I spat imperiously. Next I felt two hands pressing down on my shoulders trying to force me down into my seat against which I wriggled and pushed, up and down, up and down like a yo-yo, me finally yelling, "Fuck off!" and he desisted, moving to the next seat where nobody blocked his lazy view.
The next piece of drama was in the boring movie, an ugly old red-faced British bureacrat came on screen spitting chips, "You horrid Indians! You're dirty, lazy, ugly, stupid creatures with your cows, dogs, pigs, monkeys walking in and out of your huts. You are all disgusting!" The theatre went dead silent. Then fish-faced Salmon Khan got up and heroically spewed a tirade, " You call us Indians dirty, lazy, ugly, stupid with our cows, dogs, pigs, monkeys! Bloody bastards! If we are so bad what the fuck have you British been doing in India for 150 years, cleaning it up?" The hall broke into an uproar, cheers, whistles, stamping of feet, clapping of hands and cat-calls of "Kill all firangis! Bloody bastards! Down with whities!" Now I really cringed in my seat, it was all my nightmares come true, I whispered to M. that I dare not go out during interval as the crowd might tear me to pieces, the only foreigner in the place. But when I did sneak out for some popcorn the film-lovers all laughed with me, we all got the joke, it's just movie fantasy.
After the movie M. took me deep into the Colaba slums, to the fishing village by the sea where we sat by temple to Shirdi Sai Baba and he told me stories about growing up there. He took me to Nariman House, the Jewish refuge that got shot up by the Mumbai assassins, the rabbi and his wife murdered, and he showed me the bullet holes the murderers shot in many walls thereabout. Apparently when the firings and bombings were heard by the locals, a bunch of layabout drunks, who usually spend their days gambling, drinking and arguing, got all fired up angry that someone should dare attack their enclave and so they charged over en masse to where all the action was exploding at Nariman House, in their drunken stupidity hoping to take on the terrorists. In response the Jihadis tossed two hand-grenades into their midst, blowing a few away and injuring the rest with shrapnel. All victims of the attack got compensation by the State, including the foolish drunks, they got one hundreds and fifty thousand rupees each and now swan about on magnificent motor-bikes, better than the rest of the villagers, heroes of 26/11, the rest of Colaba seething with resentment and jealousy at their strange good fortune.
Eventually I had to leaved Mumbai for one last trek in the high Himalayas and I journeyed up into the foothills but before I could go further I got a phone call from Auz that my mother was dying and I should come home to be by her bedside. I sat by the River Ganges and felt deep sadness at our estrangement and those few years in my childhood where she really tried to look after me, staying with my father whom she didn't love and who brutalised her. The Ganges is a magnificent natural phenomena that's given sustenance and joy to humanity for thousands of years and as such needs no extra plaudits but She also looms large in the collective psyche, the Indians have made a Goddess of her, Ganga Ma, the myths of Her fabulousness are legion, and thus She is able to really to impress, to influence, to flow thru one's soul, for we all live in the MIND.
I felt I wouldn't make it back to my mother in time so I did my own personal prayer of send-off for her, I placed a palm-leaf bowl into the current of the Ganges with flowers, incense and burning candle in it, at first the eddies brought it back to me, over and over, as if my mother didn't want to leave me, wanted to stay in this world. But I determinedly pushed it out and finally the offering floated away down stream, I was letting my mother go, setting her free, and the burning candle disappeared into the sunset. I learnt that my mother died only a few hours later. Yes, the Ganges River is very powerful in spirit and so is India, life and death writ large. I was up in the mountains but the plains called me back down, back to Auz, and thus I went, forlorn but exuberant.