India Diary 2019.
I hadn't intended to keep a diary, but on leaving the UK, a few people had asked us to let them know how we were getting on, so I just started making a few notes. It would be a nice memory to look back on in years to come; to remember the people we met, and the stories they told us, and the little acts of kindness people shared.
Being a tourist anywhere gives only a selective snapshot of a place. We were in a slightly different position, Laila being born in India and much of her family living there. About half of our month was spent with family.
One evening, while Laila was off elsewhere, I’d been invited to a social gathering, and met a guy who asked ‘I hope you're finding India different from what you've read in the newspapers? So it seemed like a good idea to keep writing.
We arrived in Delhi on the morning of the 17th of July
A friend Gunjan had fixed us up to stay in a place called Delhi Tales in the Vasant Kunj district of Delhi. It’s run by two brothers, who also run treks in the Himalayas. Upon arrival, we had our first proper homemade meal in India, a delicious paneer curry, with freshly made chapatis, followed by garlic dal and rice.
We take an ‘Auto’ to Chandi Chowk (Moonlight Square) market and visit Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib. There is live music inside, with tabla, harmonium, and vocals. The singing celebrates the monsoon ‘The monsoon has arrived, come, my friend, enjoy the water’. We leave the Gurdwara and walk a few meters to an old Mosque, the Sunehri Masjid. Small steps lead up to the roof, shoes off, we sit and chat with an old couple. There is a nice view of the market area below.
Whilst in Delhi, we meet friends Gunjan and Suvasini for food. I wish we could have spent more time with them, but the city is huge and travel across it can be slow. Although there is a good metro, which covers many of the main city destinations.
Travel to Himachal Pradesh:
We take an early morning train from Delhi to Kalka. Opting for the cheapest seats (nothing else was available at short notice), the carriage is basic, but there is plenty of space to sit and put our bags. It’s a 6-hour journey. Kalka is at the very most northern point of the state of Haryana, just below Himachal Pradesh, our destination. There is a quota of tickets reserved for foreign tourists, available from a well hidden office at Delhi station. They are considerably more expensive than normal tickets and I’m not sure why anyone would bother.
The train travels slowly through the outskirts of Delhi, there is a woman running alongside trying to jump on. Her clothes are dirty and not in great condition, she’s obviously poor and needing to get somewhere. A couple of smartly dressed middle-aged guys reach down and give her a hand up. She sits on the floor, next to the open door and sings for most of her journey, jumping off at the first main stop outside Delhi. The carriage really fills up. A bunch of guys around our age and older sit near us. They get out a cloth, which spreads across their knees and is used as a card table. They’re all playing and having a chat. They ask if I want to play, but I don’t know how to. They get off at a town further up and we are joined by an elderly couple, who are both teachers. I love Indian train travel, it's a great way to meet people.
During monsoon, the weather can be quite extreme, and vast swathes of the landscape on our journey are flooded. Much of it is rice fields, and the water is needed for the crops to grow.
At one point the rain comes down especially heavily. People pull the glass windows down (quite a few don’t shut properly) and also close the wooden shutters. This stops the light
coming in and it's dark inside the carriage. There is a powerful storm blowing outside, and before pulling down the shutters, I’d noticed a few fallen trees. The train pulls to a halt a couple of times and I wonder if we’ll have to turn back, as the storm is so intense. By the time we get to Kalka the weather is warm and dry again. The landscape is luscious and green.
22nd July: Dharmpur
We’d originally intended to stay overnight in Kalka and use it as a base to explore the area from. The Toy train to the state capital Shimla runs from here. A few people had told us the Shimla was overly commercial and that there was a heavy military presence, so we’d not really considered traveling there, but on arriving in Kalka, we’d couldn’t get a taxi anywhere local, so on a whim jumped on the Toy train and got off at Dharmpur. It was a bit stressful at first, as we’d nowhere booked and everywhere seemed to be full, a taxi driver drove us around until we found a place called Kasauli Greens. The slightly stressful journey was worth it, as the place was stunning and the people who ran it lovely. Built on the side of the mountain, our room overlooked the valley, with high ceilings and windows from floor up to the roof, opening out onto a balcony. An infinite number of singing insects and stars filled the night sky. At sunrise the insects gave way to birdsong, peppered with dogs chatting across the valley, the occasional train whistle and regular car horn.
On our second morning, we are woken by the guy who owns the place was singing classic Bollywood songs (he's a nice guy, with a great voice).
The guy in the shop next door told us it's a very diverse region. Language, culture, and food can change every 100 km. He also said people are very friendly here. Further up the road, we meet a family who run a clothing store and beauty parlour.
They are stood outside the shop, selling grilled corn, they say they enjoy it and see it as an occasional hobby. They asked if we would take their photo. There is also a 'Dhaba', or truckers cafe, the food is top-notch, we've eaten there a few times, yesterday we had pickled cheese curry. It has an outside terrace, overlooking the valley, and is an ideal spot to sit and drink tea and try not to stuff your face too much with the delicious food. The valleys below are thick forest, interspaced with gardens growing herbs and vegetables, there are little paths weaving amongst it all, and it’s easy to get pleasantly lost.
Another day, whilst Laila had a bit of work to finish I wandered into town and got invited into a temple. About 30 women were singing and playing percussion instruments. They gave me some food and as the guy in the shop had said, everyone was super friendly. On the way back to the B&B I stopped at a tea stall to watch the sunset, the guy and his son, who I’d met the day before started playing music on their phones and we had a little dance. Finally heading back to meet Laila, the guy on the fruit and veg stall waved over and gave me a couple of apples. We're heading further into the hills to Shimla tomorrow. Dharmpur and the people there left some warm memories.
23rd July: Train to Shimla
We had one more pleasant surprise on our final night in Dharmpur; Snacks and songs with the guys who run the hotel; Subash and Pardeep. Subash said he said he was only a "bathroom singer" but had a golden voice. Starting with a Punjabi folk song about a girl who complains to her mother that a peacock is disturbing her sleep, then a song from north of the region about 2 sisters and ending with classic Bollywood and Gazal songs. Between songs, Laila and the guys discussed their favourite singers.
Dharmpur is lovely, its mostly built alongside the new road that travels from Kalka to Shimla. One of the guys told us the road had only been built a year previously and that beforehand travel through the region, to Shimla had been difficult. We got up early the next morning and took the Toy train the rest of the journey to Shimla.
On the train some young kids give us walnuts they'd picked in Kashmir. We also met four teachers from Pune, visiting Shimla on holiday too, so we ended up spending quite a bit of time with them.
26th July: Shimla
We met the four guys from the train in town the day after arriving here, they were also tourists so we spent quite a bit of time together. They're teachers so we had lots to chat about, including many perspectives on Indian politics (i sat that bit out, but it was interesting to listen and a good distraction from UK politics) A great bunch and it was
good to meet them. Shimla is built on some very steep hills, and below the pedestrianised walkway along the top of the town centre, lies a maze-like network of narrow streets and alleys, much of which is a market district. A guy in a shop , where we bought some fabric was telling us plastic bags are illegal here, and there is a 5000 rupee fine (about £60) for shops that use them.
He also explains how the city collects rainfall, so that the water can be used. The scissors he used to cut the fabric we bought were over 40 years old. Heading back to our room on the last night, we passed a temple, with a very loud, hectic festival inside, quite tired, we were going to pass it by, but got invited in, and I'm really glad we did. There was live music and a really exciting celebration. We see 2 dogs, we'd walked past them loads in the last few days, they're together all the time.
Down from the mountains, back in the hot dusty weather to Chandigarh, the state capital of Punjab & Haryana. We met an old Sikh guy on the train who told us how his family had been saved by a Muslim family during partition, and although they
live on opposite sides of the India/Pakistan border, both families have stayed in touch ever since, and attend each other's weddings and special occasions.
30th July: Gadchiroli Part 1
Gadchiroli, the small town where Laila's family lives. An agricultural region of farms and rice fields. It's currently monsoon season. Rains are late this year. Without rain, there will be no crops, many people have been saying special prayers and crops have been replanted once already. Fortunately, it's rained constantly for the last 4 days, although this has damaged bridges and many villages have become cut off and faced power cuts.
We're eating at home now, rather than in restaurants. Food is especially fresh. Milk arrives every morning from local cattle. Today it's buffalo milk. Usually lunch is a spicy 'sabzi' (curry) served with roti bread, followed by 'sadi' (plain) daal and rice. It's actually full of flavour, and has a warm garlic taste. Everything is served with homemade pickle and chutney (in this case mango and a green chutney made of raw garlic, chilli, coriander and salt). There is another side dish of a very bitter, healthy curry, that Laila says will not be found in the UK. The leaves on the tree opposite the house can also be used in curry that helps with digestion. After lunch, Samir (Laila's brother) offered a ride on his motorbike to see the local countryside, the fields are flooded, there are herds of cows, buffalo and goats, and a few pigs. Apparently some are wild and some belong to nomadic people in the region, who are the only people here that will eat them. We saw a huge snake on the road. Later we sat in the family clothes shop and salon. The scissors are about 40 years old. There is less of a throw away disposable culture here than in the UK. Again none of the shops use plastic bags. We stayed up late chatting, and just before turning in, noticed a lizard climbing up our bedroom wall. Samir chased it away with a broom and we all went to bed. In the morning Bhabi (Sister in law) took Laila to the salon for a beauty treatment. There is an on going conflict in the area, between groups that have historically lived in the forest, and government and logging companies.
Gadchiroli Part 2:
In the evening Laila and her family went to the local Jamat Khana. As people arrive there are sung poetic prayers, some are 400 years old. These are called 'Ginan' and sung in Gujarati language (There is a good YouTube playlist called Ginan e Sharif - India) I sit outside and listen to the sound of crickets and frogs singing in the evening. After the service there is homemade samosa and everyone gets on the mini bus that drops people near their homes. It's crammed and I keep trying to give my seat up to people clearly much older than me, but I'm a guest and no one will have it ("beto, beto" sit, sit)
The next morning Bhabi makes fresh chapati, served with a rich thick cream. The milk is not pasteurised, so can be gently heated and left overnight, by morning there is a deep layer of cream on top. It's similar to clotted cream and can be mixed with sweet jaggery or the green garlic, chilli and coriander chutney.
Laila, Bhabi and I go to the family shop. Laila stays whilst Bhabi takes me to the local veg market. The whole area smells strongly of fresh veg. There are beans, tomatoes, garlic, chillies, spices and some other veg I don't recognise. Bhabi says on average a family can use 1kg of chillies per week. Some of the veg are from local fields and some from Himachal Pradesh. Its still raining heavily (6 days in a row now) so there are little streams running everywhere, it's quite pretty but rain has made deliveries difficult, so prices are higher than usual. There is a smallish white cow making a circular trip around the market, taking its pick of veg as it passes by. It makes two round trips whilst we shop. No one interrupts it.
Gadchiroli Part 3:
The rain has become torrential. After breakfast we potter around at home. In the afternoon Laila and Bhabi go to the bank. Whilst they're inside I go to a cafe on my own to drink tea and practice my Hindi. I try and order a drink, but everyone just looks a bit confused. Laila later explains that most likely people speak Mahrati rather than Hindi.
We go to another cafe for freshly made samosas. They're deep fried in a huge pan, the guy scoops them out with a spatula that's big enough to use as a garden shovel. The owner knows Laila and they chat ideas for his kids to attend Higher Education abroad. He doesn't want to send them to America, because of 'Brother Trump". Normally 'Brother' denotes respect, in this case it's used with a sense of irony.
We head toward home, Laila and Bhabi stop to buy fresh coconut. The rain comes down in buckets. This has had the knock on effect of pushing up fruit and veg prices, as deliveries are difficult.
Tonight is Chaand Raat (Moon Night) a celebration of the new moon. Laila will go to Jamat Khana. Separate from Chaand Raat, I've been invited to a Datta community prayers and singing evening. Some shops shut early, and people get ready for the occasion.
There are 27 Dattatreya centres in Gadchiroli, these are in peoples houses. Meetings are at each in turn. Everyone removes shoes before entering. This is not necessarily religious, but practical due to the muddy or dusty nature of the roads. There is a bucket of water and a jug outside to wash any mud from feet. Inside about 20 people are sat, facing a shrine, with images of Dattatreya and some related guru's. There are decorative flowers, and a smell of incense. Sung prayers last about one and a half hours. Everyone sings together. Its a kind of chant, based around short repeated rhythmical phrases, accompanied by small bell percussion and clapping. The rhythms and melodies change every few minutes, I try to count beats and bars, sometimes its quite difficult. It's better to just go with the flow of the music and relax into it, unable to understand the words, but enjoy the pleasant atmosphere.
After the prayers a guy called Umesh introduces himself. He teaches Electrical Engineering in a local technical college . He asks if I find the experience of India different from the version portrayed in the newspapers, which is a version he's not comfortable with. I say I hope he would find the same with the UK. We end up having a long conversation about our jobs, music and life experiences. He explains about Dattatreya and the songs being about peace, calmness in the universe, and regardless of religious labels, caste or anything else, everyone should be treated as equal. We swap numbers and he invites me to visit the college tomorrow. He's quite into music, and we chat about it's role as a medium to bring people together. Tonight has been a good example.
The village where Laila was born, and where her parents started their first shop. The family left when Laila was 9, she's briefly visited once, 20 years since. It's 34 km from Gadchiroli, still an agricultural area, and more remote. Due to monsoon, travel is tricky. Laila says this part of India lacks the investment that has benefited other regions. Roads are flooded and often damaged. Many are being resurfaced, but it's a mammoth task. The few buses running are not on schedule. When Laila lived in the village, there was no proper road. Her Grandmother's visits from Gujarat, took a 5 day journey. First by steam train, which left her black with soot, then a local bus, boat (the town is surrounded by rivers and lakes) and finally an Ox pulled cart.
Aside from a new road, and some recent expansions, the village is much as Laila remembers.
Travelling by shared taxi, we head to Laila's cousins. Salim is on his way from work, we're greeted by Rupal bhabhi his wife and their kids. The family built the house recently, designing the interior themselves. It's stylish and comfortable. Salim arrives home, and a delicious chicken curry is served. It's far more spicy than I'm used to eating, and the rich flavour gives a long lasting warmth. Laila's Mama (mum's brother) arrives, there are emotional greetings. We have a very pleasant evening, chatting away.
Morning comes, it's dry and sunny. We head to the old village where Laila grew up. Salim takes the day off work to show us around. We arrive at Hanif uncle's shop. Uncle does not necessarily denote an actual relative, but can be a respectful term for a significant or older male. Hanif uncle often looked after Laila when she was a toddler. They haven't seen each other for 35 years and there are happy tears. We learn some family history. Her dad's first shop, was a tiny stall. He needed somewhere to live, there was an old abandoned house in the village. Believed to be haunted, no one would live there. Not fearing these stories, Dad moved in. He became known as a religious teacher, and for this reason, people believe was safe in the house. He was also poor and it was available.
Similarly Hanif uncle started with a small stall. Today he runs two wholesale businesses, supplying eggs and shoes to the district, as well as a smaller general store. His family arrived from Gujarat when he was a child. Sadly he was orphaned as a young teenager, and had to take over the shop and look after the rest of the family. He narrates an important lesson from his father. On an afternoon he'd been left to look after the stall he decided to vastly increase profit by selling a cotton vest above the normal price. Upon his father's return, and sharing what he considered exciting news, his father scolded him, telling him not to exploit people in the village. This lesson has informed his business practice ever since.
We meet Salim's brother in his shop, and stop for tea and chat. The area is a long way from major cities or tourist areas. Outsiders rarely come here, especially pale sweaty Europeans. I'm a novelty and within a few minutes groups of kids are gathering around. They pass by on their bikes, heads turn for a second look. One kid is so surprised he nearly falls off. The same kids come by a few times, they are nervous and run away when I say hello. Their mums laugh and yell to them not to be shy. We later learn, upon arrival some one took a photo and it circulated on WhatsApp, there are whispers of 'Ek foreigner '. It's all friendly and people are just curious. Throughout the day there is a regular stream of people come to chat and ask for a selfie. A growing crowd follows us around the small streets. We get invited into people's houses.
The other reason for this is that lots of people remember Laila's father. Older people reminisce 'Ah Abdul Master (Teacher) Saheb" or relate stories of how their mums looked after each other's kids. There are many childhood friends and shared happy memories. It's clear that people within the community are close.
We pass a Blacksmiths, they make farm tools. There are small fire pits and hammers. It's not exactly clear how it works, but there are 2 bikes rigged up to a mechanism, it's peddle powered, and people are keen to chat about it. The crowd are growing.
On the outskirts of the village is an ancient stone temple, devoted to Hanuman. No one knows exactly how old it is. More people are coming to see us. As we head back towards where Salim parked the car, we pass a group of young guys playing cricket in the lane. India beat the West Indies yesterday, and as lots of people throughout our trip have mentioned cricket , I congratulate them on the win. They invite us to play, it's great fun. Afterwards we all shake hands and everyone takes photos.
We're invited in to a really old house, the women are all drawing ornate Henna artworks on their arms. The ceiling is slightly raised above the walls, with a small gap. There are channels cut into it. It's designed for ventilation in hot weather.
Salim drops us at the bus stop, there are hugs goodbye and we take a very bumpy ride back to Gadchiroli.
Music Night Gadchirloli:
On the bus back to Gadchiroli a young guy makes conversation. There is a music night in town, his friends are involved, would we be interested
in attending? Its a tribute to Kishore Kumar, a highly regarded singer and actor. Of course the answer is yes.
It turns out earlier today one of the singer's visited Bhabi's salon to get her hair done, and upon finding out she has family visitors from the UK, who are also music fans, we've been kindly given guest list entry.
The hall on the outskirts of town is lavishly decorated, golden drapes cover the ceiling and walls. The stage, decorated in flowers and ornate carvings.
We're given seats at the front, and people come and introduce themselves, musicians, promoters, sound & light engineers, stage managers and other members of the production team. The sound engineer later tells us he gave up his day job a few years ago to focus on this work. He's never looked back. The musicians all work as teachers in local colleges, some in music, some in other subjects. They formed the band out of a shared passion, and play weddings and social occasions in the area. It's a treat to meet people from the same world as we're involved in back in the UK.
The evening starts with a ceremony 'Lighting the Lamp' I'm invited to take part. We place a flower garland over an image of Saraswati, a goddess of music, arts, knowledge and language (who sits with a Sitar) and a flame is lit.
There is a short introduction and the music starts. The musicians are top quality. A Tabla player and 3 other percussionists, keys, violin, guitar, bass and of course vocalists. Several lead singer's take turns with songs, and there are a number of backing vocals. The lights add a range of colours and a projection screen features clips from Kishore Kumars classic films. It's an incredible spectacle. To hear this music played so well, in such an atmosphere, actually in India is a special occasion. The crowd whoop for more between songs.
Journey to Adilabad
We drive south on the way to Hyderabad, we'll stop over for a few days to visit family in Adilabad. Laila's mum has five brothers there. We hire a friend of the brother of one of Laila's old school friends to drive. It's a comparative luxury, but both quicker and more comfortable than the 'red bus'. The journey takes a full day, and on reaching our destination, i'd wanted to give the guy an extra tip; he was a nice guy and had gone out of his way. He wouldn't take the tip as we're friends of friends, and he actually took less than the original agreed price. The journey had taken longer than planned due to many of the villages in the first part of the drive having huge BJP rallies, often blocking the road. At one point he took a detour directly through a jungle road, we didn't see another vehicle for a few hours, which is unusual in India. The road left the jungle at a town with a paper mill, the smell of rotten wet paper burns the back of your throat. Apparently the guy who owns it won it in a bet, and became a rich man.
Later we pass a farmers field and get out to stretch our legs. The farmer, who is walking alongside an Ox, tells us they grow soya and lentils.
We eventually arrive at Laila's uncle and aunt's house. It’s in a quiet area, on the outskirts of Adilabad, with only a few small roads, they grow Papaya, Guava, beans various herbs and spices in the garden. It’s very relaxing here, we spend time with family. Laila's mum has 5 brothers, and they all live nearby, so we visit them all.
Right on the very edge of the town is another temple, it’s surrounded by uncultivated grasslands and trees. The priest who built the temple lives there, and has done so since setting it up 30 years ago. He has a trainee priest with, who also is an accountant. His family were not happy about him devoting his life to the temple. Its dark when we leave, and they warn us not to walk back across the grass as there are lots of snakes.
On our last day in town, one of the uncles drives me to his farm, its muddy so we roll up our trousers and go barefoot. We're soon up to our knees. They grow soya and keep chicken. There are also mango trees, which have a delicious sweet smell. He plans to eventually keep goats too. On the way back from the farm, we pass a small temple. There is a painting of a tiger jumping on a person.