Our Travelogue

Our second honeymoon was a tour of Tamil Nadu by bus. One night in a TN tourism hotel in Kanyakumari, we woke suddenly. Rats were nibbling at our toes. This is true. I don't know whether this is a commentary on their hungry state, or the savouriness of our toes. But the next morning, we found they had chewed through one of our bags. No toes in there, so what were they chasing? We left the hotel ASAP. Our toes are intact, thank you for asking. Also on that trip, D got into a fierce argument with a bus conductor, all in Tamil. D's Tamil is so pathetic that his friends laugh when he speaks; but to this day V holds up that argument as "proof" of his proficiency in the language. DON'T READ THIS LINE, IT SERVES AS A BREAK BETWEEN TRAVEL STORIES. D writes: Probably our favourite trip together was to Cuba, truly a country for the heart. So beautiful, so passionate, yet often so sad. On our last night in Havana, I went to a small bar while V paid our hotel bill. A couple sat down at my table; the man began telling me I could "dance" with the woman, who was staring a little defiantly at me from across the table. In my halting Spanish, I said no, I didn't want to "dance" -- I mean, I knew what this was about. "She'll teach you if you don't know how", he said, while she continued to stare at me. No, I repeated, and anyway I'm with my wife who will soon be here. When V walked in and I greeted her, both looked at her and then back at me knowingly. You see, V could pass for a Cubana, and this pair now assumed that she had snared me before they managed it, that's all. But then V started talking, and her even more halting Spanish told them that I was telling the truth. That's when they relaxed, and just began talking about themselves. Turned out he was her husband. Unable to make ends meet at his jobs, with two kids to feed, he was forced to pimp his wife. It damn near broke our hearts. It said some things about this tragic country. DON'T READ THIS LINE, IT SERVES AS A BREAK BETWEEN TRAVEL STORIES. V writes: There is a postbox there. On a tree. Crooked, with the paint peeling. And a name written across it crookedly. I love it. A postbox is enough to make me dream. When full, there's so much to expect. More so when it is empty. It's like a house ... an old house, which has known many people. And this one is perfect. Wooden, against a tree, with the paint peeling. Enough to make me dream. Enough to make me happy. I walk past it and step over the stones and climb the smooth stairs. Then I ring the doorbell and come back to lean against one of the huge, cool, elegant columns. There are two to choose from -- that one I chose the last time. This time, this one. But I haven't noticed : Sharmila is smiling from the doorway. The twins are there too. And Charlotte, near the window, summons me in. She has lived in this house for 64 years, she says. She looks at me through eyes that are now smiling chinks, amused at my surprise. "We've had a lot of fun here," she says, "with these children growing up." Which reminds me: I ask the twins about the jam session on the terrace. I had seen them just a couple of days earlier. A guitar was strumming somewhere and I heard a song. I looked out, expecting to see just the dusty terrace: it's lovely mosaic work, the mango tree hanging protectively over one side, the small intrepid banyan saplings sprouting out of the cracks in the concrete. So when I looked out, I saw it all, the mosaic, the tree, the saplings. And I saw them: Guitar and drums and four young faces out on that dusty old terrace. We asked if we could take pictures and we did, humming along as they sang old songs, of yearning and goodbyes. That night, it was not I who sang our son to sleep. So today, I ask the boys, what was all that about? -- "Oh, a farewell to ourselves," says Anil. "We're leaving." (Desolation spreads). "The builders have got the house, we've got a flat." Now I know that this house will come crashing down. This old, old house. They will break it. They will tear up the mosaic and bring down the columns and push in the walls and pull out the windows. The house will collapse... ... and it did. Charlotte went to the new flat and so did Sharmila and the boys. I think about them often. And about the house. And the postbox. The postbox! I run to the window and look out. There's no mosaic, no columns, no stairs ... just a looming grey mass and the mango tree, splattered with cement and paint. And on the trunk ... I hold my breath, I crane my neck to look, but I can't quite see that far from here. So I run down the stairs, out of the building and into the street. The postbox IS there. Still crooked, the paint peeling. But it does not make me dream anymore. Or happy. It just isn't enough. DON'T READ THIS LINE, IT SERVES AS A BREAK BETWEEN TRAVEL STORIES. D writes again: In Thalassery once, I find myself watching an energetic football game. The players are doing the old shirts and skins thing that I remember from the days when I played basketball energetically. (As opposed to now, when I don't play it at all). This is how I come to know that the most energetic and skilful player, in two teams' worth of swift footballers, is a man whose belly resembles a beer keg. Gives me hope for when I next step on a playing field and lug my belly about. He doesn't score, but he directs his team like a master, pointing here and there, placing pinpoint passes exactly where he points (though sometimes not, just to keep the shirts guessing). He also runs like crazy, often seeming to be all over the field. I don't stay long enough to know the final score, but in the time I'm there, the skins score twice. Almost as if he were conducting an orchestra en route to a splendid finale. At one end of the field, there's a basketball game on. I watch a sequence where a guy grabs a rebound at his end, dribbles upcourt refusing to pass to any of his open teammates, finds his way right under the other basket with players all around, then makes a smart pass ... straight off the court into the bushes. Now that guy could have used the concert-master with the belly. But I digress. This field is actually, famously, the spot where cricket was first played in India -- yes sir, and that's Thalassery's claim to fame. The low building on the edge of the football game indicates as much: "Municipal Stadium. 200 years of Cricket Celebration." They began in the early years of the 19th. Though there's no cricket on today, there's a strip in the centre of the ground that's reverently enclosed in blue plastic mesh strung up on poles. That's the pitch, though it sports the somewhat rundown air the rest of the field does. Just outside, in a sadly overgrown and padlocked little patch of garden, is a magnificent black statue. Dr Hermann Gundert (1814-1898), hand placed on a lectern, looks sternly out and away from the ground that must have existed when he lived in this town. Maybe that stern look is an indication that he had no time for frivolities like cricket. This is the man, after all, who put together the first Malayalam dictionary. There is a Gundert Foundation School in town, preserving his memory. (Gundert was also grandfather to the great German writer Herman Hesse). The Doctor cuts an arresting figure, silhouetted against the sky as it goes dark. From behind him, I hear a shout of triumph. Someone's scored again. A spot-on pass from the concert-master, once again? No doubt. I'm off to get me a beer. Gotta work on that belly. DON'T READ THIS LINE, IT SERVES AS A BREAK BETWEEN TRAVEL STORIES. For weeks afterwards, whenever we got a phone call, Surabhi would wander over. "Amma/Appa," she'd say softly, looking up at us, head tilted way way WAY back, "please tell them, monkey cratched me." Now we're both firm believers in obeying little-girl commands, so we'd tell our bemused phone interlocutor how a monkey -- not just any monkey, but a great handsome bounding langur with a swishing long tail -- yes, how this monkey "cratched" our daughter. For her, it was simultaneously the scariest and the most memorable moment in Dandeli. Here's what transpired. One afternoon, Surabhi played on the balcony while her mother lay reading in the shade. Her bro and father were inside, watching "The Sound of Music" on the family laptop for the 187th time. (We get the feeling it's his favourite). Suddenly, D hears little girl screaming in terror. Then, her mother. A long lithe langur had leaped nonchalantly onto the railing, inches behind our daughter. By way of saying hello, it had reached out and touched her scalp. (That was the "cratch"). Late on the scene as always, D burst through the door to the balcony, bumped into yelling wife holding bawling little one and frantically trying to enter the room from the balcony, caught a glimpse of grey monkey bounding over the railing and up onto the roof. When he got there, he stopped and looked back. D shook a fist at him and flexed a bicep. Seemed the least he could do. Show him who's boss once he had left. No damage done, luckily. Perhaps the langur was just being friendly. But we are now heartily sick of telling people on the phone that a monkey "cratched" our daughter in Dandeli. As, we imagine, are they. DON'T READ THIS LINE, IT SERVES AS A BREAK BETWEEN TRAVEL STORIES. D writes: Hotel Nilam (Family Restaurant) in Pandharkawda in eastern Maharashtra is the kind of place that sticks colourful plastic flowers on the tables, lurid waterfalls and sunsets on the wall. Also a poster of a smirking couple with, in large letters in one corner, an inexplicable "OPY". My driver Manish and I walk in one evening for dinner. "Pandharkawda dal fry, the best!" Manish had said, so that's what we plan to order. There's a family at one of the tables, but nobody else. The young waiter comes over and says, apologetically, that we can't sit here. He glances over at the family, turns back to us and offers this stage whisper: "Family room!" "But there's nobody else here!" I say. "And plenty of empty tables! Don't you want our business?" "Yes," he says, "but not here. Family room, family room!" "All right," I say, and point to Manish. "He's my brother, so we're family. Now can we stay?" Manish butts in, enlightening me on the essence of the situation. "Kya hai, uske liye aurat ki bahut zaroorat hai." ("If we want to pose as a family, we need some women badly.") Waiter nods vigorously. "But don't worry," he says. "We're cleaning up the VIP room for you." "But we're not VIPs!" I say. He ignores me and shepherds us out the door, into a large space with several empty tables and chairs. "Can we eat here?" I ask. "But this is not the VIP room!" he wails in distress. This is not going anywhere, so we just sit down. The dal fry is superb. DON'T READ THIS LINE, IT SERVES AS A BREAK BETWEEN TRAVEL STORIES. When we arrive at our berths in the Dadar-Chennai train, we find we're sharing the "compartment" with 5 middle-aged women and a tall young man, all Tamil speakers. A few minutes pushing bags under the seat and getting some water, and now the compartment looks like a Dali painting. The women are all sitting just as they were when we came in, but now they are each holding a gleaming silver-foil plate. In fact, a glance up and down the coach tells us that nearly everyone has such a plate and is waiting. In another few minutes, two men come around with two buckets. They ladle onto the plates mounds of what looks like cabbage, and generous dollops of coconut chutney. One carries a packet, from which he offers sugar to the ladies. They begin eating. The men move on to the next compartment with buckets and packet. It's like Chennai begins right here, like a soft old sock, even before we've moved from Dadar. The muffled announcements from the PA system outside are in Hindi, but inside everyone speaks Tamil, the young man reads a Tamil magazine, the servers wear the familiar veshtis folded to half-length, and the women eat in that comfortable Tamil style -- rolling up small savoury morsels on the tips of their fingers and setting them on outstretched tongues. Every few seconds, we hear "Saar, ongollukku?" and "saapad?" and "idli-sutney?", fainter as the men move further, but clear in the silence born from eating. Why would all these people not do what we did, eat dinner at home and catch the train? Because they know what we have stupidly forgotten: food on the train is part of the journey, yes even before we start. Indeed, for the entire 24-hour journey, the servers store their large vessels on a dedicated upper berth. Food needs a ticket and reservation too -- so hmm, what did the entry on the reservation chart for that berth say? A server brushes past, carrying a great steaming pot of -- what else -- coffee. DON'T READ THIS LINE, IT SERVES AS A BREAK BETWEEN TRAVEL STORIES. D writes: Falls Road in Belfast is Catholic, Shankill Road Protestant. "I'm from the Shankill", said Norman, driver of a rattling black taxi who first took me through the areas. That is, he's Protestant. For these are ghettoes in every sense: each is entirely homogenous and nobody, but nobody, crosses the line. ("Wouldn't even dream of it," snapped Norman). Not that there's any way of divining all that if you didn't either know, or have a friendly taxi driver to tell you. In every normal respect, the two neighbourhoods look entirely alike. The same shops, the same bus-stops, the same schoolgrounds. Like any working-class, sometimes run-down, areas in any city in Europe. Of course, I did say "normal respect." But these are not normal areas, and being so, nothing is subtle. A large wall marks the divide, plastered with appeals for peace. (But also this question: "How can we have peace when there's reason for this wall?"). In the Shankill, British flags flap in the breeze everywhere. Red, white and blue are also everywhere, down to the road signs and the edges of the pavements. Yet eye-catching as all that is, it is by no means the dominant sight in the area. That distinction belongs to the wall murals -- some 50 murals in the Shankill, probably a similar number around Falls Road. And it is the murals that -- with their counterparts on Falls Road -- left me downcast after my walk. For it is not a normal thing, not a thing of joy, that an entire side of a building is painted with the figure of a man, sometimes two, in a black mask, holding a long and deadly rifle. Such are the figures that come to mind when you think "terrorist." Yet here they are, ten times larger than life, up on these walls and in your face, examples by presence and slogan to a generation. An ubiquitous Latin phrase, "Quis Separabit" ("'Don't Separate Us'", Norman explained, meaning from England) "Lest We Forget" and "For God and Ulster" are some of the slogans. I read and think, what God? WE'LL STOP HERE. In 1993, the mathematician Andrew Wiles announced that he had solved one of the greatest unsolved problems in Mathematics, Fermat's Last Theorem. Wiles presented his results in a series of three lectures at Cambridge University in June that year. At the end of the final lecture, he wrote Fermat's Last Theorem on the board, said "I will stop here," and sat down. Like Wiles, we'll stop here. Happy trails to all!