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Sunday, September 16, 2001

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Abroad in South India

MY name, at least in India, is One-Pen. My wife's, by proxy, is Two-Pen. That is what Indian children call us, anyway. "Hallo, One-Pen" greeted us on the waterways of Kerala, in the villages of Tamil Nadu, up the mountains of Karnataka.

Well, that is fine. It has a poetic ring. Though we were often disappointed by not having enough biros to dispense to small eager hands, and we are not that naive that we do not suspect a fair amount of those pens are grasped by fingers of budding entrepreneurs, those children are part of the rich tapestry of India that draws the touring feringhi.

Being British, my wife and I share a fixed smile of colonial aplogia. We are not sure if we are especially liked or disliked. Wherever we go, there is a Tipu Sultan reminder of the Empire. Our generation in particular, born at the end of Empire when the Brits were still proud, and subsequently flagellating ourselves for the sins of colonialism, are in a curious dilemma.

Munnar neatly encompasses this: my wife traces, with affection, the outline of her uncle in fading photographs in the High Range Club where he spent his leisure hours away from managing the tea plantation. A curious nostalgia for an era we never experienced - and would not want to.

Having been driven through Rajasthan in an Ambassador, we opted for the same method in Southern India. We simply have not the courage or skill to drive ourselves. Indian driving is very special, a combination of kamikaze piloting and diplomacy.

In England, to overtake in the face of an oncoming lorry would be to invite, in the event of survival, "road rage" of monumental proportions. To even cause a car to slow down invites a mouthful of foul-mouthed expletives: in India, there is a tolerance that confounds us.

Our drivers were multi-talented couriers, shepherding us along roads that required constant vigilance, answering endless questions with patience and tact, introducing us to aspects of Indian life that no coach tour could cater for. Raja, toting us and our bursting baggage from Chennai to Periyar, taught us more about Southern India than our Lonely Planet guidebook could even hint at. Our opinion about some temple Brahmins is decidedly shaped by Raja.

We are tourists on limited time: the real India that exists apart from the expensive hotels and awesome temples, will escape us. Perhaps, because we can stop where we like and - with Raja's help - meet who we like, we will penetrate the surface a little deeper than the packaged tourists. Sometimes a hotel, such as Fishermen's Cove at Covelong (near Chennai), might be just adjacent to a village: it is a sign of something amiss that few of the hotel clients will take that short walk to an Indian reality.

It is the beggars and hustlers, of course. That frightens many tourists. Handing over a few rupees is not begrudged and it is a naive and surely stupid tourist who feels he should not part with some money. It is a sensitive subject and full of warnings and portents. "Do not encourage them" is the prevailing mantra but when you are about to spend more on a meal than many will earn in a month, you are inclined to part with some dosh.

In truth, it is the hawkers who present the most problems. There are few sites a tourist can visit without constant pestering. It is simply not possible to carry back all the souvenirs on offer, however wonderful, however cheap. Having visited India many times, if I had bought everything offered, I would live in a bazaar in England, with a warehouse attached.

Sadly for the hawkers, for whom we have no ill will and plenty of understanding, our own Indian communities in England provide a comprehensive trade in imported Indian goods - so much of what is offered is already in our homes.

So we approach tourist sites with some apprehension, knowing we will be hit hard as soon as we get out of the car. This induces a longing to be left alone, to be allowed to wander at will. We are far more likely, then, to be willing to bargain when we make the approach (though we would prefer not to bargain at all but merely pay a universal price).

Moan, moan, moan. Blimey, guv, why come to India if all you can do is moan?

Because of the colour, because of the beauty. In the land and the people. The hardship of life, both in the cities and the country, cannot cancel out qualities such as natural grace and gentle humour. Nor the colours of a sari, the jasmine in gleaming hair, the long-lashed eyes of the children. I know these are cliches, I know that this is a view through my rose-tinted spectacles (a bargain price of Rs. 50 in Madurai). But this is the image that remains on the back of the retina in England: India seen through the filter of tourism.

Because, too, of the temples. Brihadishwara Temple, at Thanjavur, is immensely exotic to the Western eye and to be taken by Raja to the temple at night, with no moon, crowded with worshippers, was the sort of experience you do not get with the package tours. Pleasing, too, not to have to wear socks for once: our bare feet on sun-drenched flagstones lead us to carry out a curious lizard- step dance, a clumsy tribute to the dancing Nataraja, while we attend dutifully to our guide.

Oh, let me have a final moan. For a Brit, getting a visa to visit India is a pain in the passport. The phones to India House in London are never answered, you have to queue outside in cold weather to get a ticket to queue inside for several more hours and the whole system is ramshackle and unwelcoming. Plus, because I am a book publisher, I was given compulsorily status as a journalist and my visa time was reduced by half. On the one hand, the Department of Tourism is trying to woo us: on the other, the visa department is blowing us a raspberry. No more moans. It is not that easy to keep us away. We are on our way back.


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