Heaven or Hill?


Our first experience of travelling around Nepal began early one morning as we made the journey west out of Kathmandu towards Gaunshahar, a small mountain village in the centre of the country, where we would be working at a school for a couple of weeks. We left around 5am, leaving plenty of time for what we had heard might be a chaotic and challenging journey.

Travelling around Nepal is a vague and nebulous affair. There are many, many buses, but no such thing as a bus stop, nor a timetable. Whatever route you are taking, the general rule seems to be that most buses leave early in the morning, so best to turn up before breakfast time. If you are going somewhere major then there may well be buses going through the day, but they’ll probably taper off after lunch time, dependent perhaps on whether somebody with a bus reckons it’s worth their while to make a run that day. If you get there at the right time – ideally when one bus has just departed, and the next is yet to fill up – then you will be given a seat. Once all the seats are filled, the driver’s assistant will judge how many more people can be squeezed in, with buckets, planks, cushions and carpets laid out to seat a few extra, and a final couple of able-bodied souls will squeeze into the remaining standing room.

Once on the road, progress is inevitably slow – the roads are rough and rutted, and in many areas permanently congested for most of the day. After a few hours of bumping along, at some point there will be a rest stop, at a roadside restaurant/shop seemingly chosen based on the driver’s personal preference. On this particular journey, we were headed for Besisahar, a town in the centre of the country, between the main cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara. We heard that Besisahar had seen rapid expansion in recent years – previously a small village only notable for being the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit trek, it had become a sort of an Inverness, the only metropolis in a large and scenic rural area.

On the bus we pass through endless quarries and dust, and see glimpses of impossible mountains. We chat to a Nepali man who works in Dubai and Bahrain and only gets home once a year (‘It’s too short, I miss my family’). Clusters of corn are drying on racks, tiny goats lep about, women are washing, men brushing their teeth, spitting. Out over the ridge visions of mountains drift in the clouds. Terraced fields glow with golden mustard flowers, vibrant tatties, children on yellow buses. In the stifling heat which makes me mind drift and my heart miss a beat we swing uphill forever. Nepali pop music blares from the on-board TV, narrating stories of love lost and found and denied, pensioners doze, the door clatters open and closed. 

Our journey to Besisahar was apparently unusually fast and smooth at only six hours long, and we arrived in plenty of time for the one daily bus up the mountain to Gaunshahar. After treating ourselves to lunch, we wandered over to the waiting bus and got on with a few minutes to spare. We then waited on the bus in intense heat for an hour as locals lackadaisically filtered on board, and the driver repeatedly got into his seat, thought about setting off, and then got off again. When we eventually did move, we stopped again around the first corner. The driver beeped his horn, and another man hurried out of a shop and onto the bus. He opened a compartment, removed a handful of remote controls and pressed several buttons, at which a TV mounted behind the driver’s seat sprang into life and began blasting saccharine Nepali pop songs at high volume, accompanied by their melodramatic colour-saturated videos. The sensory assault of the on-board entertainment system may have been intended as a distraction from the perilous journey up the mountain, as the rickety old coach wobbled and struggled up and around hairpin bends for another hour – but eventually we arrived at the village.

We help make dinner scrubbing gnarly tatties and chopping moolas, and meet the other volunteers. An ex-lawyer from Chile who swears a lot, a French girl who doesn’t know where she is going, a Danish man who has already been everywhere and another a German. They introduce us to evening ‘sharing and appreciation time’ (a bad sign, but we go along with it.) This is like a volunteer factory, we are all the same. Quit ma job man, want to see the world ken?)

Our fellow volunteers at Heaven Hill Academy were from all over – Brazil, France, Australia, Germany, Chile, Denmark, and we seemed to fit a recognisable pattern. Most had spent time in India before coming to Nepal, and were working at the school for a while before going on to spend some time trekking, just as we were. However, there were some ways in which we differed. We learned that most had chucked in their jobs in disgust or despair and decided to travel the world – one had been an accountant, one an auditor, one a lawyer, one an administrator – and were now embracing their new hippy lifestyle wholeheartedly after years of feeling constrained by the man. We couldn’t entirely join in with this ethos, sheepishly admitting that we’d both quite liked our jobs back home, and weren’t seeking spiritual enlightenment in Asia, just exploring new cultures and different parts of the world.

Neither were we able to muster much enthusiasm for the crowd-pleasing, toothless scraps of music, art, conversation and culture that drift together to make the shared campfire fodder of the travelling set. I left the UK with a vague impression of Ed Sheeran as an inoffensive redheaded singer who was popular among my old school pupils – now I have developed a full-blown allergy. It is doubtful whether Bob Marley will ever recover from the overexposure he has suffered, his omnipresence becoming a clichéd running joke. People volunteering at a rural school in Nepal don’t generally want to engage in a critical and analytical discussion of educational theories or funding models, they want to have fun with the cute kids, flirt with each other and feel good about themselves. And I don’t want to be cynical – they were all good people with good intentions having a good time and doing good things. But, just… Bob Marley around the campfire turned out to not really be our thing, any more.



The mountains are enormous and elusive, they’re like huge gods crouching, watching. At breakfast, the founder and headmaster of the school appears. He tells us we will be moving stones today, and then demands money for his new classroom. ‘We ask all the volunteers to donate something, you can choose’, and he shoves a list of items he needs under our noses. We are already paying 500Rs a day each to stay here, plus extra for lunch, on top of volunteering.

We arrive at school to choruses of hellos and namastes and rounds of high fives before standing for the national anthem, which one wee boy belts out harshly and passionately with eyes screwed shut. Some of the others are less enthusiastic. We introduce ourselves to the teachers, who eye us wearily and warily. I help the German guy with Grade 3, who are good craic and insist on stopping the lesson every few minutes to have races outside, sing a Nepali song or listen to their classmate recite his newest English love poem: ‘My love, we have known each other for three weeks, I walk to your village and in one week we will be married!’

Teaching the kids was one of the highlights of our time there. Since I was the only volunteer who worked as a teacher back home, I was mostly given the ‘Grade 3’ pupils to teach – the oldest and most advanced class in the school, aged between 9 and 12. In some ways it was just like teaching back in Scotland, and in some ways very different. The kids seemed delighted to come to school every day, which was one major difference, but their attitude to uniform was familiarly hit-and-miss. While the whiteboards, markers, pencils and books were fairly similar, the mud floor and bare stone walls were not. And while their English grammar understandably needed some help, they surprised me with a vocabulary which may well rival many kids of a similar age brought up in English-speaking countries. On the whole though, they substantiated my impression that kids are pretty much the same wherever you go: some shy, some bold; some honest, some sly; some more into books, some more into sports. Seemingly universally, sweeties take on a mystical quality engendering the strongest of emotions, and the possibility of doing something more ‘fun’ than what you’re supposed to be doing is worthy of more effort than it would take just to do it in the first place.



On our day off T and I head up the hill, zigzagging until we find a path we like. Suddenly the trees are speaking to us! ‘Namaste! Namaste!’ Wee lads are up the trees, hacking firewood! We come to a ridge and follow it north, pausing at hidden temples, adorned with garlands of dried flowers and straw, to peer inside. The floor is littered with offerings, wee oil lamps, flowers, red paste. The mountains tower behind rhododendron trees, the first red flowers just appearing.


The headmaster tells the story of the creation of Ganesha. ‘Shiva likes to smoke the marijuana, you know? A lot he smoke, and then he sleep, for many days, weeks maybe even. One time he smoke a lot a lot, and he fall asleep. Anyway, Shiva wife Parvati, she having a shower. And with all the dirt that come from the shower she make a statue, and she put in the doorway. And so this statue come alive, and is a guard. So then, Shiva he wake up and he go to his house. But this guard, not letting him in. So… Shiva very angry, and cut off the guard head! And he go into the house. Parvati see Shiva and she ask ‘How you get in? I put a guard in the door?’ And Shiva, he say, ‘I cut off his head!’ Parvati she very very sad, she cry, and she say ‘Why you cut off his head? He is my son.’ Then Shiva see some soldiers coming, and he say to them, ‘The first thing you find, that is alive, you cut off the head, and you bring to me.’ And the soldier go into the jungle and the first thing they find is elephant! So they cut the head, and bring to Shiva and Shiva put the head on the body of the guard and he come alive and he is a god, he is Ganesha!’

A wee boy in school pretends to be Shiva. ‘I am Shiva!’ He shouts, showing his muscles. ‘I am power!’



Reading The Three Little Pigs to some of the young kids. They are genuinely scared of the wolf, and cower when he knocks on the door. The French girl reads, ‘Well then I will ‘Hoooof and I will poooof and I will blow your house down!’

‘You are very fat!’ A wee boy says to me. ‘Well, you are very thin!’ I reply.

‘What is your name?’ ‘Cat.’ ‘Cat? I am rabbit!’ one shouts, and ‘I am mouse!’ ‘I am tiger!’

As we walk through the village a lady shouts from her shop ‘You are couple? You are married? When you will get married?!’



Shivaraatri. Shiva’s birthday. A huge bonfire roars outside the temple, chants come and go from within, the cow is adorned with flowers and red paint, huge quantities of marijuana, men singing and dancing on the path home.


The fire is still smouldering.

At night I think it’s raining, but it’s just an unusual wind in the trees. I go out and see more stars than I have ever seen before.



Walking in the quiet morning and it’s already hot. Mountains clear beyond the pink blossoms and oranges. A strange paradise, where every day is the same, every meal is the same, there are no young men, the old men are drunk, the women are working, and the children are (mostly) happy. The kids learn about the five senses, and climate, and spelling. Some of them skip to a hundred. Grade 1 do races, and I play rock, paper, scissors with the wee boy with a broken leg.

In the evening, the mountains turn pink and then fade in the dust. We play music under the holy tree and a drunk man staggers past, demanding that we dance.

Later, the headmaster says; ‘I know this a man, I know him. Many men like this in the village, very many. You must be a careful of him, a little bit…. The future is not bright for these children, I don’t know what will happen to them.’

The headmaster tells us that both private and state schools in Nepal still use corporal punishment liberally, and that this was one of his reasons for setting up Heaven Hill Academy. ‘You cannot hit the child’ he says, ‘inside him is a little man, and he remember, and he hit others.’


On days when school was closed, our job was to pitch in with building the new classroom, and there were a lot of these days because, since Nepal became a secular republic in 2008, the religious festivals of all major religions are observed as national holidays. The school  started a few years ago with only very small children, and building work had essentially kept up with the oldest class, as they moved into a new classroom each year and new nursery-age kids arrived. 

These days largely involved manual labour, but in a surprisingly fun way. There was a fairly large group of volunteers, and it gave great satisfaction to form a team or chain and see a huge pile of rocks move from one place to a more useful place, or a patch of ground cleared, flattened and prepared to become a new classroom. One day we had the fun job of collecting empty beer bottles from the whole village, and then fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle to form an insulated floor for the new building, before concrete was poured in. We used the school’s PA system to play music while we worked, and there were plenty of breaks to chat about where we’d been and would like to go, and to learn words in each other’s languages.

The undoubted star of these days, though, was not one of the volunteers, but a local man named Dillu. Dillu was not an obvious labourer – tiny, scrawny, and seemingly constantly drunk. The headmaster employed him partly to help him out, as there didn’t seem to be any other work for him in the area. His payment was partially in food. But this man could carry more than anybody, even the massive French rugby player who had worked on construction sites for years and must have weighed twice as much as Dillu. He would carry 50kg bags of cement – probably heavier than he was – using just a piece of rope pulled over his forehead, and he’d do it all day long. It took two of us just to help get the sacks onto his back, but he would ferry them for hours with a smile. He was delighted when it was volunteers’ pizza night and we made some for him, and one night when we were asked to share what we were thankful for that day, the French builder was almost overcome with emotion talking about the marvels he had witnessed working with Dillu – ‘zis fucking guy! He is incroyable!’


Almost back in town after a walk we see a band of white-faced monkeys, just outside the village. Suddenly, the village lads come hurtling down the path screaming and shouting. The monkeys leap from the trees and flee in terror. A wee one takes a huge jump from a tree just behind us, about 40 feet high, and lands with a crash on his side. He doesn’t move. ‘Fuck, I think he’s dead!’ The lads are still running towards him, screaming, and miraculously he picks himself up and lopes off into the forest.

The Chilean tells us about Iran around a camp fire. How it’s a dry country, so the youngsters party with no alcohol, and recite poems in the dark. ‘Are there women?’ ‘Of course there are women. I stayed with some. A few. I actually had sex with one’ he whispers. ‘And the bread in Iran, is huge, huge, so good, beautiful, just beautiful.’


Final Dahl Bhat. Unemotional farewells. We are perched on the edge of the spare tyre in the back of the jeep, hanging onto the metal frame. As we bump over the bridge into Besisahar my bum goes completely numb and man glancing up from the road sees us flying about and bursts into laugher!

The driver pulls up beside a wee micro-bus which is about to depart. He screams out the window in Nepali ‘…. Kathmandhu?’ T jumps out and it’s the end. We have been together  every day, for three months, but now I won’t see him for a week as he is traveling back to Scotland for a family funeral.

I wait on the side of the road. Strangely alone. A bus casually pulls up about every five minutes, but none of them say Pokhara. Then I see a bag on top of a micro-bus which looks just like T’s bag, and then T himself is knocking frantically at one of the windows and he manages to pull it open and is just beginning to tell me something when it pulls away. ‘Goodbye’ ‘Goodbye!’ The bus disappears into the dust and I feel a lump in my throat.


Kathmandus and don’ts!

From the activity on our blog you could be forgiven for thinking we had disappeared into the Indian ether. Perhaps we have joined an ashram and at this moment are teetering on the edge of enlightenment, or maybe we fell prey to an international jewel hoax and are withering away in an Indian prison, or maybe we are clutching our sides after months of Delhi Belly, too weak to move, too weak to write.

In truth, we left Delhi in early February and made our way to Nepal…


On the overnight bus to Delhi, the winding darkness makes me sick, and the man next to us snores to high heaven, while his wife, swaddled in her sari, dreams peacefully. I can’t sleep. At a checkpoint on the motorway I look out the window and see a huddle of men sleeping in the back of a truck which speeds off into the night.


When we arrive in Delhi it’s 5am and still dark. At a junction we see a worrying car squashed by a jack-knifed truck and wonder if the driver survived.

We are exhausted after the terror of the snoring man, and fall into a hastily arranged bed at our friend Firoz’s guesthouse. The toilet is leaking and as we pull up the blankets I put my foot in something squidgy in the bed. Luckily, it’s only the remnants of the previous occupant’s dinner. (Pre-digestion!) We are woken a few hours later by a clattering at the door. Firoz is explaining to someone (presumably the occupant) why there are two people in his bed. We make a hasty exit.

In Lodhi gardens an Iranian drummer comes up to us; ‘Are you musicians? Where are you from? Don’t tell me you play traditional Scottish music?!’ We nod. ‘Ah man, I love that stuff. How long are you in Delhi for, do you live here? Or just passing through?’ ‘We’re flying to Kathmandu tonight I’m afraid!’ ‘Oh well, if you are ever back here let me know, maybe I can get you a gig!’

From the plane we see Delhi huge and sprawling, in all directions, forever. It sparkles orange in the haze, and seems to rise up into the sky.

We flew out of Delhi airport in the dark, exhausted and full from our three months in India. We knew we were flying towards and around incredible mountains, but they were completely invisible to us. The flight attendants brought us curry and beer, and we landed late into the night in Kathmandu.

The place immediately struck us as peaceful, friendly and quiet, low-key and relaxed. Where Delhi airport had been hot, loud and teeming with travellers on an enormous scale, Kathmandu airport was cool and calm. After India, the terminal reminded me somewhat of the airport in Barra, or a CalMac ferry port – small-scale, a little run-down, and nobody too worried about that or anything else. The carpet was a little shabby, the desks were wood panelled, the card machine wasn’t working. No visa organisation required in advance, just turn up, have a chat and get a stamp in your passport. Friends who later joined us in Nepal fresh from Scotland reported feeling similarly upon arriving in Kathmandu as we did about Delhi – but coming from Delhi, Kathmandu was a peaceful haven.

It was well after midnight when we finally arrived at the Airbnb house we had booked, staying with a family in the north of the city, but one of the family’s daughters, who had to get up for college at 5am, came out to welcome us anyway. It was only herself and her granny living in the house at the time, and the next morning they filled us in on a bit of history over breakfast, both family and Nepali. The granny came from a small village further west in Nepal, but her son had moved to Kathmandu to work as a journalist (currently posted in Myanmar, where the rest of the family were during our visit), and she had come to help look after the children. While Kathmandu has grown rapidly, and is still doing so, 85% of the population of Nepal still live in small towns and rural villages. Country living is still very much the norm, and everyone who lives in the city has family connections in the farms or mountains. They were wonderful hosts, despite the granny not knowing any English whatsoever – she got her message across with gestures and taught us our first few words of Nepali, while her granddaughter Samu’s English was completely fluent. They offered to make dinner for us as well, which is how we got our first taste of Dal Bhat, a constant presence during our time in Nepal.


We walk into town, but we can’t get across the busy street. Two colourfully dressed grannies grab us and pull us over, laughing on the other side.

Everything is covered in dust. It swirls up from the road in great towers, everyone is coughing and spluttering and spitting. It’s like walking back in time. Women with wrinkled faces sell dried fish by the side of the road. Carts of vegetables – peas, cauliflowers, tatties, onions, garlic, orange ginger, wee carrots, great brown tubers, long white courgettes. Shops selling gold Buddhas, and bronze pots and pans, rope and every outdoorsy and hippie item imaginable, all under a canopy of Buddhist prayer flags. 

Smells waft along with the dust. The dank smell of the ‘river’ – stale washing powder, plastic, sewage, incense, fumes, spices, fresh meat, dead and alive chickens, fresh and dried fish.

A man kisses his toddler’s hand over and over. Schoolgirls take selfies at the temples. A sadhu nods to us. Dogs sleep in piles of rubble, on the pavement, at Buddha’s feet. A scraggy white cat, pink blossom, knackered looking buskers scratching away on a sarangi, women selling orange flowers, lighting oil lamps, deities on wee shrines everywhere smeared with red and orange, huge mounds of clay pots, great tangles of electricity wires. 

Although it shouldn’t be remarkable, it was refreshing to see women out and about everywhere we went – working in shops and cafes, chatting and laughing with each other, riding mopeds, getting their shopping. After wandering the streets of Kathmandu for some time, we made our way towards Durbar Square. As Samu had explained to us, this was the traditional royal palace area of the old city, until Nepal had got rid of its monarchy, only ten years previously, after a long civil war. Now Kathmandu Durbar Square is a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of the main attractions in the city, but it suffered huge damage in the massive earthquake of 2015, and restoration work is still very much in progress. The richer and brasher nations of the world seemed to be waging a passive-aggressive aid war in the hoardings and scaffolds that surrounded the ravaged ancient temples – ‘US AID – proudly restored by the American People’, ‘Restoration work carried out by the Chinese Government’, and that sort of thing. The UK government appeared to be sponsoring a small information board. We saw huge fierce stone gods, a Hanuman statue smeared in oily orange, tiny fairy houses built into the roots of an old tree, risqué carvings in the eaves of the temples, incredibly detailed wooden door and window frames, bigger than the doors and windows themselves. A beautiful place, with its sense of majesty after centuries of veneration doggedly holding on, but deeply damaged by the disasters which had befallen it in more recent times.


After travelling through Nepal for over a month we return to Kathmandu just in time to see the first ever Nepali St Patrick’s Day parade! Five girls from Northern Ireland and one older man, marching along shouting “Namaste St Paddy’s Day!” Later we buy the most extortionate Guinness of all time and chat to a guide we met while trekking about being a porter and working in the mountains.


A friend of a friend takes us for an authentic Nepali breakfast in a wee shack full of old ladies spitting. We have spicy tatties and chickpeas, and a sweet deep fried battered thing wrapped in fried bread. It’s beyond sweet, like eating a toffee as a big as your hand. And tea. Stupas, and prayer flags and dogs, and Buddhas, and monkeys. It’s hot. We walk over a grey excuse for a river, filled with rubbish. ‘When I was young this river was beautiful clean’ the friend of a friend mentions. ‘And from the top of the hill you could see the whole Kathmandu valley, the hill was covered in trees. But now, with the dust…’ We walk down the far side of the hill to a dirty green pool surrounded by monkeys. It’s a monkey swimming pool! The wee monkeys fling themselves in from all sides, emerging gleaming and sodden and skinny, scrambling back out, hauled up by bigger monkeys before flinging themselves in again. Just for the fun of it. One tiny monkey clings nervously to the edge of the pool and dips one foot in to test the water. Dogs lie in the shade.

We flitted among the cafes and restaurants of Thamel, surrounded on all sides by the same rotating items of tourist tat – felted trinkets, embroidered bags and cushion covers, supposedly marked-down outdoor gear, commemorative t-shirts, incense, thangkas, tea, hats – and above, by the ever-present Buddhist bunting, the prayer flags which seemed so reassuring and important when spotted high up on a mountain top, but here were simply an aesthetic indicator that you were deep in tourist territory.

On the day our friends left, we went to visit Boudhanath stupa, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world, on the outskirts of the city. As in Dharamshala, large numbers of Tibetan refugees had settled here, bringing their religious devotion as well as their food, clothes and languages. The huge pure white dome of the stupa is topped by the firm but benevolent gaze of the Buddha eyes, which watch you as you complete the mile-long kora – the clockwise procession made around Buddhist holy sites. We stopped to see the temple behind the stupa, bringing sights, sounds and smells which took us back to our first days in Dharamshala and our nunnery. Monks hummed and chanted, banged drums and cymbals and blew conches, blessing the marriage of a young couple who sat in the centre of the temple. Huge golden statues of Buddhas and deities stood around the edge of the temple, in front of bookcases of holy texts wrapped in bright cloth. Offerings were piled at the back of the room, while detailed murals depicting teachings lined the walls around the door. Now we were nearing the end of our time in India and Nepal, and it seemed fitting that this place felt so familiar to us – without ever visiting Tibet, the country and its culture had proved to be a constant presence in our travels throughout India and Nepal. The closest we would come to it would be a glimpse of some snowy peaks during a trek, when we were within a few miles of the border. Here in Kathmandu it was present once again.


T is ill.


So am I. 

We eat orange mentos and stare at the ceiling, trying not to be sick. I go into Thamel in search of plain food. All the streets look the same. I sit on the side of the road as the dust swirls and the hippies amble by. A man throws a jug of water onto the dust. Another tries to sell me mini chess set and a banana., In the guesthouse we spend hours in the bathroom where the water from the tap runs brown, or sometimes yellow. In the end, still feeling wobbly, we decide to go back to the mountains.


After spending a few weeks in the mountains, we return to Kathmandu for a couple of days, before flying back to Europe. We walk to Pathan Durbar Square. Intricate door jambs, smeared ganeshas, monkeys posing, tourists in lanyards talking loudly, piles of rubble, an enormous bull bent in worship, dust, a cat the colour of dust.

Walking through Thamel a man with a pock marked face jumps in front of me. ‘You buy flute? Yes, very nice flute, flute, flute, flute?’ I actually do want to buy a flute. He has various bamboo and wooden flutes in a satchel and I try some. Naively, I ask if he has one in D. He grins. ‘D? yes, yes, D very good. This D and this.’ He hands me two random flutes and I look suspicious. The man selling mini chess sets appears from nowhere. ‘Oh yes, this D’ the chess man agrees. I play The Bag of Spuds and the two men clap and we haggle and I walk away with one bamboo flute and one wooden flute decorated with silver bands, and a wee toggle on the top end.

Of course, when we check on the tuner, it turns out both the flutes are in A. ‘Feck, what use are two flutes in A?!’ As we are walking home the man pounces on us again – ‘You buy flute? Nice flute!’ ‘I already bought a flute from you! And I need to swap it!’ I try every flute in the bag as the man looks on bemused and emerge puffed and triumphant with a huge bamboo flute in D!


Last day in Kathmandu. Walking to Swayambu. Headless chickens and chickens with heads, glittering slimy fish piled high, red bundles of innards, bones, bones, bones, sandals, sparkly dresses, men with wooden trolleys, smoking, one light illuminating padlocks, keys, pencil cases, toilet plungers, brushes, a lady selling tatties and garlic, men on bikes with watermelons and mangos, shops full of shimmering fabric, ladies discussing saris, a man with a moustache buying a bag of meat, a hopeful dog. Dusk at the monkey temple. A man feeding biscuits to the monkeys and puppies. Old cailleachs lighting candles, young lads doing press ups, monkeys swinging on prayer flags, tourists taking ‘serious’ photos, locals tossing coins into the middle of a pool, dogs stretched out under the stupa, the sun setting in the dust, candles lit in prayer. 


Agra: Egrets and Eejits


We found our coach to Agra, although not before unintentionally filling one of our final India-bingo slots. While C went to look for the petrol station that was to be our bus stop, I spotted three lads riding an elephant down the motorway. With tuk-tuks and vans swarming around them, they ambled over behind me to their own refuelling stop, a patch of grass.

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After being politely informed by a very nice hotel two minutes from the Taj that in fact we were not booked in with them, but with another hotel by the same name, and then after a bit of a hunt to find this less prestigious address, we got there. Then we went back out for a wander. The street sellers were the most annoying we’d encountered, but we were also getting very good at ignoring them. We took a side road down past the Taj Mahal on a whim, arriving at the river behind it just as the sun began to set. It turned out to be one of the all-time great spontaneous detours. We ignored a big threatening looking gate to get down to the bit of temple and waste-land by the river, and then talked to a boat man who at any other time we probably would have ignored.

By the shores of the Yamuna rubbish is enmired in sludge, glum egrets perch on coiled barbed wire, pink and orange petals stick to the mud and float out into the still water, swallows in their thousands are reflected like insects in the river, the sun is setting behind the Taj Mahal. We wander over to a man bailing his boat, agree on a price and hop in. It’s made of metal lined with wood, he steers with a long bamboo pole, a wee shrine at the stern, a dubious packet of bread at the bow. There’s no one else on the river. The Taj Mahal is magic reflected. It feels good to be on the water. The boatman points down the river ‘Delhi that way. This good?’ A flock of egrets take off, a fish rises, a puppy prances along the shore, three peahens scuttle by, oystercatcher-like-birds wade in the water. It’s calm, and quiet. Relief. We have seen it! We have seen the Taj Mahal from a wee boat in the middle of the river at sunset. I mean hell, can it get much better than this?!

We sit on the steps to the wee shrine as bells ring, chanting to Ram comes in bursts. An agile brown puppy leps up the steps and eats a bone under a bicycle, a monkey flees with a chapati in its mouth, a lady all in shawls goes down to the river and feeds the dogs and the birds, another monkey wipes seeds into little piles then bends down and nibbles up the lot.

After this, blissed out, we wandered into an excellent dhaba (Hindi for, roughly, “greasy spoon”). Only a few hundred metres from the Taj, this place had a sort of invisibility cloak by lacking any garish lighting, English writing or aggressive touts, and only Indian people sitting at its terrace. The food was incredibly cheap and incredibly good, and the people incredibly friendly. The whole evening showed that, even at one of the most popular, touristy attractions in the world, with a bit of pluck and a bit of luck you can have a genuinely great time. Up early tomorrow to go inside the Taj itself!


Well, the pluck-luck combination paid off again today! In the end we dismissed the plan to get up early and queue for several hours. Instead, we slept in and then went for brunch, eventually arriving at the gate around 11am. There was barely a queue! The poor Germans we met in Amritsar advised us to arrive before 6 and queue for five or six hours as they had. Even then, they said, it had been too smoggy to see much and the main mausoleum had been closed. We spent 15 minutes queuing and then were in, it was a warm, sunny day, busy but not stupidly so, access all areas. We even managed to surreptitiously pirate a tour guide’s spiel by tactically choosing the right bench. So we spent a lovely few hours there marvelling – it’s absolutely beautiful, but there isn’t a whole lot more you can say about it!

It’s busy, everyone is in their finery, sparkly hats and floppy hats and big heels, pressed trousers and silk dresses glittering with sequins and golden thread. I wait for T to get through security, and chat to an Australian lady who camped through India in ’78, ‘there was none of this then, well I don’t remember it, I only remember the Taj.’ She tells me her two sons are currently doing a rickshaw race for charity, and accidentally scuffed some paint off a lorry, the driver of which then slapped them around the head and demanded $1,000, they gave him Rs2,000 and fled. ‘But if you’re ever bored, google rickshaw race, it’s crazy!’ And with that she left with her husband Pat.

“I aways say, it’s the most beautiful building in the world. Our poet Tagore he called it ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity.’ It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal (the other two wives only political marriages, no children) after she died giving birth to their 14th child. (8 died very young, 6 survived) From the behind, from the river, it’s 91 metres high, and I am telling you it took 20,000 men 20 years to complete. It is made of white and yellow marble, from near Jaipur. After Shah Jahan died in captivity, this was in Agra Fort, his body was floated down the Yamuna river and buried next to his wife.” A guide pauses for breath, his group look dazed “I always tell people, I say, it’s very easy, you see, it is a building of love, he really loved her, yes arranged marriage, but 95% of arranged marriages they work out, love marriages only 25%. Nowadays the towers are closed, this is because in 1996 two young couple from Chennai went up to the top and throw themselves right into the river. You see?” He pauses again “The outside it is decorated with floral patterns and different sacred scripts from the Quran, it is identical on all the sides, but different script.’

It is mesmerising, from every angle, perfect whichever way you look. Its symmetry is calming; domes, riddled with geometrical stars, curving inwards and outwards, lotus and jasmine flowers clamber up its walls in great sweeping arches of semi-precious stones, a crescent moon sacred in both Islam and Hinduism perched on the roof. It is perfect as a whole, and each tiny detail is wholly perfect.

At sunset we walk amongst dusty dunes, body swerving amorous couples. We see peacocks courting and the Taj Mahal over a sea of trees and a hoopoe scrambling in the dirt.


The Taj Mahal is closed on a Friday. The incessant shopkeepers and tuk-tuk men read newspapers by the side of the street. It’s quiet. Lines of dogs stretched out, sleeping in the sun. We walk down a road for the craic. Through a wee village where a toddler in dirty pants holds a massive knife in front of his face, two tiny baby goats nibble by the side of the road, everybody stares and shouts ‘hello!’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘We’re walking, just walking’ This is strange, but accepted.

On a bit and two men on a motorbike pull over, the motorbike man weaves slowly next to us. He decides ‘Scotland’ means ‘England’ and seems happy with that. We visit a Ram temple with him, but cannae go in because of the dreaded shoes, he insists on some selfies. Then he points down a wee lane – ‘this river, this back Taj Mahal, this photo, photo!’ Up the lane is a little village, the man tries to get his wife to take pictures with us, but she is fully veiled and not inclined and neither are we. Wee boys half dressed scamper after us, a very pregnant goat munches next to a man selling puris. A young girl in pigtails is making earrings with her Granny. Down a sandy path and we are at the Yamuna and the Taj is reflected in the still water and it’s still beautiful. Suddenly, something hits me on the neck, it’s just a bit of a stick, but I don’t know who has thrown it, and there’s a big group of men and boys walking towards us down the river, the motorbike man shouts at someone, but I don’t wait to see and we walk quickly back up the path, past the smiling pigtail girl and her Granny and the wee boys washing and the goat still munching, past the great turf-like mounds of cow pats drying, and thatched roofs. In the next village we are accosted by wee boys and bigger boys again, one comes up to me and says ‘nice boobs’. I tell him to ‘fuck off’ and he does. Everywhere men stare and women don’t. Every day I try not to be prejudiced against Indian men, but every day my prejudices are affirmed.

Fed up of being on edge and on guard all the time, we plodded back down to the relative peace and safety of the river bank from the first evening. We sat there for over an hour, barely talking or moving, calming down and observing the behaviour and rhythms of the animals – shoogles for supremacy among the rubbish-dump dogs, monkeys and cows, both passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive; cyclones of birds over the river; groups of buffalo and goats gently grazing on the far side. Finally it was time to go – packing up the bags again, stuffing everything into a tiny tuk-tuk, and waiting once more for an overnight train to take us to a new part of the country.

A Close Shave in Delhi


First train to Delhi cancelled. Second train delayed by nine hours. We pile into the unreserved carriage. People sit on the luggage racks above us, in the aisle, on each other, anywhere. The lady next to us gives us some peanuts. The man from Bombay opposite says in Gujarat they only eat salads and that’s why they are so pale, in Chennai they eat lots of masala and that’s why they are called ‘black diamonds’ (or does he say ‘demons’?). He laughs uproariously and tells us he has just returned from Russia where he was commissioning a gold mine. He says Russian girls are very beautiful and Indian wives are becoming more demanding.

At every stop chai lads pace up and down the train rumbling ‘chai chai chai’ ‘pane a bottle pane a bottle’ ‘puri puri puri’ ‘samose samose samose’. We get what turns out to be a deep fried sandwich and a wee paper poke of spiced peanuts with raw onion and lime.

Two bodachs sit beside us, one wrapped in a massive shawl, the other in an orange turban with a massive spear. The spear man has wild eyes, and stares at me fiercely. I stare back. A girl in an orange jumper and green dress comes onto the train and pushes people sitting in the aisle out of the way so she can do a handstand. A pregnant lady all in red smiles at her. As we get closer to Delhi more and more people pile on. The Bombay man sees us watching the incoming crowds, shouts ‘India is the second biggest population in the world!’ and laughs heartily again.

Out the window I see giant puddles of water and rubbish, street pigs with ravens on their backs, cricket games, fires, a huge Nestle factory, dirty egrets, a man walking amongst yellow mustard seed fields, cows on the railway tracks. There is a latent smell of pee everywhere.

The train pulls into Delhi. A kind Sikh man plonks my rucksack onto my back and to shouts of ‘cello cello cello’ we are out!

Motorway elephant and palm squirrels – wildlife of Delhi


A long, long walk through Delhi today. Choosing one of the biggest cities in the world to indulge the flaneur’s urge might not be the best idea, but we saw some amazing places. First to Connaught Place, the central spot of New Delhi, its wide shopping arcades crammed with brand names, hawkers and wealthy tourists – and we even spotted a Marks and Sparks. Then, more authentically, to our first Baoli, or step-well, a deep chasm cut into the earth hundreds of years ago until they hit ground water, then elaborately decorated with natural motifs and religious icons. They are dramatically beautiful, inverted buildings, and sure to provide a cool place to shelter from the heat of the day if you can find one!

After this we visited Jantar Mantar, another impressive piece of building which would be baffling if you weren’t told what it was. To walk around it feels a little like being in a surrealist painting or MC Escher print – staircases lead to the sky and then stop dead; shadows overlap as they fall through the latticed bars of a circular tower with no door but hundreds of windows. In fact, before modern mechanical instruments were invented, this was a state of the art observatory, designed and built with painstaking precision to measure and calculate the positions, paths, sizes and speeds of stars and planets.

From here we walked past the massive, sprawling Indian parliament and associated ministries, and then along a huge boulevard to the India Gate, which I assume must have been named after the Indian restaurant round the corner from my grandparents’ house. This section of the walk was uncannily like walking along the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, right down to the eternal flame and armed guards around the monument.

So far, my walking masterplan had been a success, but hubris got the better of me; I didn’t know when to stop, and it became a case of walking too long in the sun, rather than flying too close to it. The next destination was the marble shrine to Hazrat Nizamuddin, a Sufi saint. From the map it looked like it was just down one straight road, but this turned out to be several miles long and a busy dual carriageway with only intermittent pavement and no safe way to cross. The shrine is full of the perfume of flowers, elegant decoration and holy chanting, but by the time we got there we were dusty and knackered, and C was rightly unimpressed at the exclusion of women from the innermost shrine. We left quickly and dispirited, hardly even buoyed by the now-familiar relief of finding your shoes still where you left them. To top it all off, in my desire for a bit of comfort, I neglected to haggle for the tuk-tuk we took to Lodhi Gardens, after we had agreed we would ‘play the game’ a bit better.

The gardens cheered us up right away though, starting with the street food at the entrance. We arrived at the perfect time, just as the sun started to go down, and wandered contentedly around the intricately adorned tombs and peaceful open spaces there. Tired but satisfied, we headed for home.

I am swept off the metro in a crowd of leather clad Delhi-men, there are no women, they have a separate carriage because it’s not deemed safe for them to travel in the same carriage as men. After being elbowed and trod on I fight my way back onto the train and proclaim ‘This country sucks!’ A man overhears me, raises his eyebrows and shrugs with a small smile. But, in some ways, it does. This is not a good country for women. A country where women have been burnt for not paying their dowries, a country where women are habitually abused at home, a country with traditions of sati and purdah, a country where female foetuses are so often aborted that the population is thrown out of shape. It’s a misogynist’s dream of a country, where men can do what they like and even when they do something wrong it’s a woman’s fault.



Sad news received from home this morning – my Nonno (Italian for granddad) passed away in the early hours at his nursing home in Alloa. On top of this, other illnesses in the family mean the funeral arrangements will take some time and everyone’s stuck in limbo – all very cruel and difficult. I am thankful that C and I had a good last visit with him before setting off, sharing memories from his time in India 70 years before. As we wondered what to do next, starting to think over some hard questions that would be with us for the next few weeks, we ordered breakfast to the room, and what arrived — three plain butter toasties, one jam one and three cups of tea — while functional as a breakfast, was confusingly distant from what we thought we had asked for.

Thrown into slow perseverance and acts of continuing. T very sad. He is going home for the funeral, not sure if we should both go, and if we do, would we come back? Or should I stay here and wait for him to return?

We go to the National Museum and see old games of Jain snakes and ladders set out in squares of nine by nine with ivory playing pieces, where the snakes represent vices like anger and lust and the ladders are virtues like gratitude and humility. The aim is to reach the moon, representing the upper realms of enlightenment and moksha, freedom from the cycle of suffering.

We learn that painters used to feed sunflowers to cows to make their dung yellow which was then used as pigment (like Chef’s Table’s Dan Barker feeding chickens red peppers to get eggs with red yolks!).

We see the relics of Lord Buddha and I rejoice in learning about the wonderful Sharan Rani, a world famous Indian musician who dedicated her private collection of Indian classical instruments to the museum. There are gopichands, ektaras, and teentaras (meaning one-string and three-string), rudra veenas, a rare right-handed-swirl conch shell, massive flutes, wee flutes, flutes with elephant heads, snake charmers’s flutes, Bengali bagpipes, bone trumpets, inlaid sitars, gottuvadyams, rababs, sarangis with hundreds of strings, dilrubas with harmonic strings, tanpuras, ouds with comic faces, sarods with glass and metal finger boards, banjos that look like typewriters, drums of all dimensions.

We see demon masks, and ducks adorned with jewels; we see betel boxes, and boxes for bees, boxes for tiffin and boxes for pendants and bangles; we see head hunters’ hats adorned with the hair of hunted heads, and shadow puppets of Rama and Sita. We see early Buddhas and old Buddhas and Buddhas still to come, Buddhas in thangkas and gold and wood and stone, Buddhas that look Roman (2nd C A.D) and sit under trees and smile and frown.

Before heading home, we found an authentic Italian restaurant, honouring nonno through going for a good meal out — which he said was his second favourite thing to do –toasting him with a pizza and a big glass of red wine.



After being deflected by locked gates, adamant men and falling trees we make it into the Jain Bird Hospital at Chandhi Chowk. ‘Only vegetarian birds are admitted, although birds of prey can be treated as outpatients.’ It’s a no shoes scenario. We walk down a narrow marble corridor lined with wee cages on the right and big open air cages on the left. A group of green parakeets rummage slowly around a huge tray of carrots and lettuces. A man squeezes past us with a box of small grey chicks, and even smaller light brown ones. Some pigeons scamper around while others huddle away, their necks bent, their eyes staring wildly upwards, their tail feathers wrangled out of shape.  A lone turkey struts along a window ledge. A huge white cockerel pecks, a cage of budgies chirp in blue and green and yellow and white, intermingled are wee brown birds, one with hardly any feathers. A pigeon with his wing in a sling, a tiny parakeet bare but for his wings, another pigeon pacing on the operating table, and, as we leave, a small parakeet covered in sores and hardly any feathers shivers in a cardboard box, newly arrived.

Then we struggle through the spice market, huge sacks of nobbledy dusty yellow turmeric roots, long long quills of cinnamon, bags of rose petals, and chilis, and star anise, and sneezing men carrying massive bags on their heads.

On our way home this evening we spotted a barber, and having been meaning to get a shave, I popped in. The shave went according to plan, and we had agreed on 100 rupees – but afterwards the guy asked if I wanted a face wash. I honestly answered “not really”, and when he insisted I asked if it would cost extra, which he waved away nonchalantly. I naively thought it might just be a quick application of aftershave, but after 15 minutes and the third coat-and-rinse, I was getting very suspicious. By the time I thought to speak up, another 15 minutes later, I had on a clay mask which refused to dry, even after he turned on the fan and wafted a magazine over me. I was getting impatient, and when he washed off the clay and started to suggest hair oil and head massage I stood up and called it to a halt. He scribbled on a bit of paper and showed me a figure around 1000 rupees, inevitably leading to aggrieved voices on both sides. C appeared from her patient kerbside wait, and with a bit of stern help from her we put 200 in his hand and marched away – nobody followed us, so he must have felt he got a fair deal out of it in the end.

The Golden City

In early January 2018 we visited Amritsar, the Golden City.

We came to Amritsar on our first Indian train – it lived up to expectations by being 4 hours late, but otherwise was not quite as crazy as we had expected it might be. No chickens or goats, and at least a perch for everybody. I found myself reading about a Pakistani painter and his experience of the partition of India, in an article including reproductions of his nude paintings alongside sensitive political ideas. I tactfully angled it away from the gigantic, serious Sikh men sitting next to me. As soon as we stepped off the train a man with a huge sword hanging from his belt started talking to me in Punjabi; I nodded along. The station hall was thronged with men swaddled in identical grey-brown wraps, turbans and big beards. Outside it was so foggy that we had no idea where we were, and we followed up our first Indian train with our first tuk-tuk. Our aged driver brought along a young navigator-cum-interpreter, but neither was sure where we were going, and the ride through the night-time mist was both thrilling and terrifying. They dropped us vaguely near our airbnb, and we wandered our way through the streets, guided on the phone by the host. When we found the house, everything suddenly changed for the better – a bed, a real home, and fresh hot food ordered specially from the man’s restaurant round the corner.

On the approach to the golden temple the scene became very different from anything we had seen in India so far: marble everywhere, wide pavements, elaborate beautiful buildings, matching signs on shops. It seemed like a sort of Indian Champs-Elysees. When neither of us could figure it out after a few attempts, a kindly woman stepped in to tie a head covering on over my curls. The ubiquitous guards armed with spears were too smart for our queue-jumping plan – even in your bag, no shoes are allowed into the complex.

The dirtiest and cleanest my feet have ever been! Inside is a secret world. Drums and chanting seem to come out of the marble, in nooks and crannies everywhere people are reciting, men stand by the side of the pool undressing before plunging in for a holy dook. Sikh guards armed with enormous spears, curved swords and axes walk amongst the tourists. Orange heads bob everywhere; praying, bowing, eating, taking selfies. The marble floors are cold and strangely sticky, the brown rope rugs harsh on the feet.

Inside the complex was strikingly beautiful. The temple itself was not as big as I had expected, but intricate and resplendent. The floor all around the holy lake is made up of panels of geometrically patterned marble floor, never repeating a design. More gorgeous marble on the walls: simple black line patterns bordering elegant and vibrant fruits and animals.

The holy lake reflects the shining temple from anywhere you stand. After walking slowly all the way around, soaking it in, we joined the queue to enter the temple itself – a solid crowd pacing slowly across the bridge towards the gilded doors. Once inside the lavish space we discovered that the music constantly playing outside was being broadcast live from the temple – gold plated drums and harmonium accompanied by chanting. As people shuffled through they threw offerings into the centre of the room, where men used their swords to rake it into piles and stuff these into large metal boxes.

A lady prays hard, hands folded, pushing into my back. A world of gold; gold hammered onto marble with gold rivets, fans painted gold, gold wiring, gold handrails, gold shimmering everywhere reflected above and around us, eyes glittering gold. It is beyond decadent, completely over the top, and astonishingly beautiful. From an upstairs window we look out across the ‘pool of nectar’, below people sit cross legged, praying. A woman holds a sleeping toddler, who wearing an elaborate red turban. Inlayed into the marble are birds and deer and oranges and mangoes being sliced with knives, surrounded flowers, vines and tiny mirrors.

In the Langar hall there are men for everything. Men to give you a plate, men to give you a spoon, men to give you a bowl. Men to point you, men to offer you a bit of rug next to them, men to bring you dhal and sweet rice, men to throw you chapattis. The room is huge and it’s packed. They feed 100,000 people a day here, it’s open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. In long rows people sit cross legged, as men with buckets of dhal and rice pudding pace the lines. The man next to T points; ‘This is your wife? We are wearing our fake wedding rings, so we nod. Any children, we shake our heads, he looks disappointed ‘not yet!’. I copy the women opposite me, trying to improve my dhal hand eating technique. Outside a man pours us chai from a huge metal tank and we sip away. The man from inside joins us, and so does another who demonstrate through hand gestures that his wife has passed away, he is fifty-eight and he has a son who is married.

Later we climbed Baba Atal, a nine-storey tower with views across the historic city, and—after a solitary climb through the deserted building—a sudden room full of chanting worshippers on the top floor.


‘Excuse me, Mam!’ ‘Yes?’ This is the tallest building in Amristar, you must go up!’ So, we climb Baba Atal covered in pigeon shit with beautiful views down on a reflected Amritsar. A green parakeet lands on top of a giant spear, a man below feeds the pigeons, a women in a red sari walks quickly across the geometric mosaics of the floor, an older lady stoops into the muggy brown pool and pours water on her head, giant carp flicker about her feet.

At Jallianwalla Bagh, a harrowing memorial to those massacred by British forces in 1919, and an important stimulus in India’s struggle towards independence, we are still asked for selfies.

In 1919 the British army under Colonel Dyer (himself under the Lieutenant-General of Punjab O’Dwyer) opened fire on a gathering of civilians in a laneway in Amritsar, killing nearly 400 men and boys, and one baby a few weeks old. Another 1,200 were injured. People tried to escape by scaling the walls on either side of the lane, or by throwing themselves down a well. A tall boy in glasses is enraged, ‘why didn’t they do something?’ O’ Dwyer was assassinated by Udham Singh in 1940. Udham Singh was sentenced to death and hung.

Men trying to sell us small bejewelled waistcoats, trips to Pakistan, rooms, fidget spinners, glow sticks and ice-creams. One man shouts; ‘parrot, parrot, parrot, parrot’ incessantly. He has a niche market, selling small plastic green parrots in small plastic cages!

The golden temple reflected and sparkling at night is the most magical thing I have ever seen.

Almost back home for the night, we came across a long line of beer bars, trendy American-style places, heavy on the pro-beer rhetoric. We enjoyed our first beer for two months in almost-convincing surroundings, the only differences being that they were oblivious to the real meaning of the word ‘pint’, and there were a couple of lizards lazily crawling over the brick walls.




Jaipur Literature Festival: From Charlotte Square to Diggi Palace

We intended to rise early and make our way to the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival in plenty of time to register, find our way around, maybe get a coffee and have our pick of seats for the start of the talks. We didn’t manage it, exhausted from overnight travel and lingering illness, and grateful for the joy of a proper bed and a kitchen we could use to make our own food. This was probably more in keeping with the bohemian spirit of the event in any case, and set a pattern for the week — sleep through the first talk of the day, make some porridge, hop in a tuk-tuk, turn up mid-morning, pick up a cappuccino and make it just in time for the first thing you really want to see. The atmosphere was very much like Charlotte Square during August at the Edinburgh Book Festival; even more packed, and much warmer, but with the same big tent bookshop, refreshment stalls, book signing queues, and lanyard oneupmanship. The festival is co-organised by North Berwick’s very own William Dalrymple, who, after writing a number of insightful books about India, has earned the life of a literary maharaja here. Over the course of the festival we saw an incredible range of excellent talks from faces weel-kent and less so, and when Willie himself appeared at the very end to announce some of the highlights of next year’s programme we immediately began to wonder if we could possibly make it back to Jaipur for next January.


The Daily Tuk-Tuk

We begin with an auspicious recitation from the Rigvedas and ‘Eating God’, a collection of Bhakti poetry. The Bhakti poets were on such intimate terms with their God that they could laugh at him, insult him, make love to him, eat him. The editor, Arundhathi Subramaniam, herself a poet, says she draws strength from this poetry as it went against social norms, questioning everything, something vital for India’s women today. Gender roles are reversed, gods become human and humans are divine, love is fluid. This poetry of seekers explores eroticism, longing, yearning, rage, loneliness and divinity, and is especially strong in the female voice:

Better than meeting

and mating all the time

is the pleasure of mating once

after being far apart.

Also prevalent is the idea of the body as a temple, as something divine in all its forms. 

…If menstrual blood makes me impure,

Tell me who was not born of that blood.

This blood of mine fertilises the world.…

Later in the day we see Rupi Kaur, who came to Instagram and Facebook fame as a poet and artist when Instagram repeatedly removed pictures of her showing menstrual blood. Her debut collection of poetry, ‘milk and honey’, was America’s top selling book of fiction in 2017, and she is a big deal in India. They love her. The audience — mainly young Indian women — are ecstatic, as she performs pieces from her first book and her second collection ‘the sun and her flowers’.

it is a blessing

to be the color of earth

do you know how often

flowers confuse me for home

Her poetry talks of race, immigration, womanhood, bodies, sexuality, sexual violence, rape and love. It is simple, to the point, floral, sometimes hard-hitting, hardly ever deep.

how is it so easy for you

to be kind to people he asked

milk and honey dripped

from my lips as i answered

cause people have not

been kind to me

It’s not, I don’t think, very good. But maybe that’s not the point. 

Due to the controversy surrounding the film Padmavaat a scheduled event is cancelled and replaced with India’s favourite Delhi girl Mallika Dua. The audience are wild and she is funny and smart. She is known for her witty posts on Snapchat and Instagram and discusses the hardships of finding an apartment where your landlady will let you bring home your boyfriend, being a modern Indian woman, drinking sparkling wine and why she isn’t married.

Women, violence against women, women in science, women in positions of power, women and the law, women and art, women and poetry, young women, tribal women, Indian women, women writers… the festival is alive with these ideas, and yet the queues to get into the festival are predominantly made up of men.

One idea that is not widely stressed is that of women and class or caste. There are very few women (I think) of lower class at the festival. The whiter your skin the more likely you are to be on a stage, taking about your work. Sujatha Gidla, the Dalit author of ‘Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’, alone seems to represent India’s Untouchables. An international socialist, she speaks out against Gandhi, against capitalism, and talks about how Untouchables still live in segregated villages with little access to education. She looks uncomfortable.

Mamang Dai, a poet from a tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, discusses the ideas of women and work and Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist working on dark matter, talks of all the women scientists who were left unrecognised while their male counterparts were awarded Nobel prizes. Angela Saini points out that the prevailing ideas in our patriarchal society influence science funding. She cites an important study on male and female brains, which supposedly proved a biological difference between genders but was in fact fundamentally flawed. We treat children differently from the day they are born: boys get trucks, girls are given dolls, she stresses. A wee girl next to us sits on her daddy’s knee, playing with a worn-out barbie. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the head of a bio-technical firm, emphasises the necessity for women to be in positions of power in science.


One of the venues – just like Edinburgh

As seemed appropriate to our current adventures, we attended a few sessions related to travelling. In fact, before one of these sessions I bumped into Hugh Thomson, a travel writer who had been one of the guest speakers on the Moniack Mhor travel writing course I discussed in the previous post. One theme that emerged from the various speakers’ remarks was the idea of ‘same same but different’ – that as much as you experience and learn about new cultures, landscapes, stories and traditions in travelling, you also discover how similar the dynamics and needs that underpin societies are. Redmond O’Hanlon appeared to be a boisterous Victorian explorer, and gave a stirring reading of a Congolese guide’s furious condemnation of Western and Christian hypocrisy in viewing their beliefs as perfectly reasonable but tribal Africans’ as barbarous and ridiculous. William Dalrymple echoed this idea of misplaced religious certainty in the words of a Greek-Orthodox-monk-cum-conspiracy-theorist he had met in the Holy Land. Hugh Thomson told a familiar story of government incompetence and heavy-handedness in the reasons why his expedition to Nanda Devi was such a rare opportunity, and why his book on the subject was only now coming out in India.

Pico Iyer spoke passionately about how moving to a simple Japanese apartment after his Californian house burned down had allowed him to adopt a quieter and more contented lifestyle, where distraction-free mornings and evenings stretched out languidly for his enjoyment. (He also spoke about how his friendship with the Dalai Lama since infancy had affected his thinking – a prominent theme of the week was just how privileged and unbelievable the lives of many of these authors were.) On the last day William Dalrymple, Nicholas Shakespeare and Redmond O’Hanlon — all of whom knew the man personally — give an affectionate and ribald tribute to Bruce Chatwin, whose notorious name cropped up repeatedly during my travel writing course. For many years shunted from the canon amid accusations of embellishment and inaccuracy, they want to rehabilitate him and reassert the cult status he once held, and while I sympathised, they sadly didn’t hold the festival rapt – the only question at the end came from a confused lady looking for the following session about elephants.

In a strange twist of reality we find ourselves sitting on the ‘Bank of Baroda Front Lawn’ listening to Adam Nicolson talk about puffins. It’s surreal. Nicolson does his utmost to engage the audience in a topic which is, understandably, pretty obscure to them. He talks with aristocratic passion about the fate of seabirds, which are in rapid decline. He draws the audience in with cute pictures of puffins, fulmars in flight, bird skeletons filled with plastic, and statistics showing the ratio of bird brain size to bird monogamy. He reminisces about childhoods in the Shiants (which his father bought) and emphasises that these beautiful creatures should be saved for their own intrinsic worth and not just because they are a vital part of the earth’s eco-system, keeping the oceans alive and fertile.

In a discussion of nature writing Alexandra Harris talks of her fascination with weather, Adam Nicolson aptly regurgitates his passion for seabirds and Hugh Thomson recollects walking through England. They posit that the recent explosion of nature writing in the UK, sparked by Robert MacFarlane’s work, is due to the nation’s detachment from and destruction of the natural world.

This idea is further dealt with in speedy and heart-breaking depth by Victor Mallet, who travelled the length of the Ganges from source to mouth. ‘It is still a living river’ — he emphasises the note of hope — ‘we can still save it.’ He talks about the constant pollution pouring into the river; raw sewage, chemicals, fertilisers, rubbish. People see a distinction between the river as a spiritual entity which they worship, and a physical entity for which they have little regard. They don’t connect the spiritual and the physical and they should. He discusses the political systems and corruption which mean that, despite many grand plans to clean the river, none have come to fruition. He talks about seeing river dolphins, India’s responsibility for the creation of super-bugs and mass pilgrimages of over 70 million people. He speaks of the political nature of silt on the border between India and Bangladesh and of great stretches of river where no water runs at all for weeks at a time. But he is hopeful. ‘You don’t actually have to clean a river. You just have to stop putting rubbish into it and it will clean itself.’


Alka and Dinesh, our hosts in Jaipur

Another topic which popped up again and again throughout the festival was the current state of India. This was no surprise – the subject has been on the minds of many people we’ve met around the country. One will tell you with pride that India will soon have the highest population in the world, while another will lament the lingering power of old conservative men, and a third will stress the revolutionary modernity they see as sweeping the nation. Cleanliness is a major preoccupation, with some hailing the progress that has been made while others lament the litter and pollution that affect large parts of the country. One thing that has become very clear is that India is a vast country not only in terms of area and population, but in many other ways – culture, landscape, climate, religion, language, education, wealth, age, gender, caste, class and many other factors are spread across a huge spectrum and make it impossible to talk consistently for the country as a whole. India is acutely aware of its international reputation in terms of efficiency, corruption, cleanliness etc., and major efforts are being made in difficult circumstances to modernise and improve the lives of its citizens; at the same time, India is rightfully proud of its unique cultures and traditions – one speaker spoke of being the oldest extant civilisation on earth – and resists the idea that progress necessarily means Westernisation.

The most prominent current such campaign is Swachh Bharat, meaning ‘Clean India’, a nationwide drive to dispose of waste responsibly and encourage sanitary personal hygiene habits. At the talk I attended on this subject, everyone agreed on the principle, but nobody could agree on the causes of or best solutions to the issue. Education, caste, overpopulation, corruption, legislation and comparison to other countries were all fervently supported or attacked, with no clear outcome – seemingly a microcosm of the situation across the country. More specific areas of conservation and culture were discussed in talks on saving the Ganges and India’s neglected stepwells, incredible structures which we’ve seen a few of, and the same conflicts arose again and again. Many better-off Indians already live a life of comfortable modernity, and one talk I saw on ‘Youth and the Age of Anxiety’, featuring an ex-heroin addict turned writer and a child psychologist, made me feel that the lifestyle and concerns of middle-class people across the world are in many ways more similar to each other than to their own poorer compatriots, as did hearing the internet comedy sensation Mallika Dua, or watching the crowds of young Indians attending the event. Finally, we attempted to attend one session on English-language elitism and the public use of Hindi, but had to leave when it turned out the whole thing was in Hindi and we wouldn’t understand it – absolutely a fair cop!

Zakir Hussain, I mean how many times have people heard him, and still they want more! It helps that he is so handsome. Well he is!’ I smile. I don’t want to tell her I have neither heard or heard of him. He is India’s most famous tabla player, and according to the professor next to me ‘the world’s greatest percussionist.’ He played with the greats — Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis — and talks about growing up in a multi-religious India. Getting up at 3am to study tabla with his father, learning of the spirits and myths that make music, going to the mosque for prayers at 6am, and an hour later trotting over to the Catholic school. There was no contradiction in all of this, it was just part of life, he says. When he was a baby and brought home from the hospital his father whispered tabla rhythms in his ear, instead of a prayer.

Of course, there were also a few talks which dealt more directly with literary matters, and we enjoyed a few of these. On the first afternoon we went to see Tom Stoppard being interviewed on the front lawn, as you do. The questioning wasn’t up to much, but he drawled on amusingly about writing and the difficulty of letting a play which you have perfected in your mind be interpreted differently by actors and directors. A big panel discussion on ‘The Art of the Novel’ included Amy Tan, Michael Ondaatje, Helen Fielding, Joshua Ferris and Chika Unigwe, and was encouraging if daunting on the subject of bringing something so substantial into existence. Another panel on book adaptations followed up on many of the same ideas with many of the same people – Stoppard, Tan and Ondaatje all appeared again, alongside Nicholas Shakespeare and Mira Nair. They spoke about the challenges and rewards of making your written work into a film or play – among the happy few who ever manage to complete a novel, these were the further lucky few whose novel is then picked up by Hollywood!

One of the last talks we saw was an eclectic but engaging ‘Between Genres’ event – four books and authors who were worthy of a showcasing, but lacked any obvious thread to tie their work together. Nupur Paiva, a child psychologist, spoke eloquently on families and relationships in modern India, with a real understanding of what children need from their parents – primarily honesty and support. Sujatha Gidla talked about the rare experience of coming from a Dalit family and yet gaining a university education and moving to work in the USA, the disadvantages in contacts and resources she had experienced as a result of her caste, and her powerful convictions about workers’ unity, Marxism and the injustice of the caste system. Lathika George told a romantic but important tale of the ups and downs of the lives of rural farmers across India, and Humphrey Hawksley, the only fiction writer on the panel, linked all these threads – family, class and the land – in promoting his latest future-counterfactual novel, about Inuit people living on an island disputed between America and Russia.


It’s a hard old literary life

The Closing Debate on the last afternoon of the festival is packed. The topic: #MeToo: Do men still have it too easy? One of the founders of the #MeToo movement, Ruchira Gupta, starts the debate. She is fierce and inspiring and eloquent. ‘Do men still have it too easy?’ she asks. ‘I can’t believe we are even asking this question. Men DO still have it too easy.’ Women, from the moment they are born, if they are even born, face harassment, sexual violence and inequality. She cites cases in India where women were raped while bystanders did nothing, raped when they were already dead, she talks of honour killings, sex trafficking, and emphasises a case where a judge found a man convicted of rape not guilty because the woman had protested with ‘a feeble no’. ‘A feeble no’, he said, ‘is a yes.’ 

‘Do you consider women to be human beings? If you do, you are a feminist’ concludes Bee Rowlatt. Pinky Anand talks about the power of law and its place in protecting women. Sandip Roy says most men are not criminals, most men are not rapists, but that this is a movement which must involve all of us, and being a passive bystander also makes you guilty. Manu Joseph causes controversy when he says he feels uncomfortable in the new world order where everything is P.C. and you can no longer tell a woman she is attractive. But he faces an inevitable backlash.

Vinod Dua, a well-known journalist and Mallika Dua’s father, stresses that, until these ideas filter through from the class of English-speaking intellectuals to the Hindi-speaking working class, until there are co-educational schools, they cannot become reality.

These are the ideals and ideas of the future.