The typical Indian bus resembles scrap. It is made of metal sheets, generously dented, perhaps a metre wide. The sheets are joined one to another by rivets, and this leaves a visible seam – covered and reinforced, in places, by a strip of dull-silver steel. It has rectangular openings positioned along its sides. The openings resemble windows, but cannot be shut. Three horizontal bars, or two or one, dissect the openings, and appear to serve an only incidental purpose: the bus gets enormously full, so full that people clutch and ride its bloated sides, using the bars as convenient handles. It is also chronically overused. The steel strips spring away from bus’s sides and protrude at sharp, bent-metal angles, making the vehicle look as if it is, quite literally, bursting at the seams.
Three men are normally employed inside the typical Indian bus: the driver, the conductor and the conductor’s assistant. The driver hunches over a large steering wheel. He has brisk hands, hands that swerve, hoot, smoke, grind gears, swirl. He knows his vehicle is amongst the largest on the road. It is his advantage. The driver’s seat is crudely sprung. It bounces, because India’s roads are bad: narrow, potholed, often congested. The typical Indian bus covers about one hundred kilometres every four hours.
The conductor is normally middle aged. He has risen to the position. He organises banknotes between the fingers of his fist. He instructs his assistant. The people outside the bus, clutching its sides, pay the conductor a negotiable fare. This money is his, a bonus. It might or might not be shared. The bus has a maximum capacity, officially set, but ten to twenty extra people are routinely squeezed into the isle. The conductor, because the crowding is so routine, can pilfer only some of these fares.
The conductor’s assistant works mostly as a tout. He shouts loud, difficult to hear destinations. He bangs metal sheets or blows a whistle. The driver understands the thud and whistle, the assistant’s sounds, and knows to stop or start the bus, or, guided by dot-dash trills, to reverse it into a narrow berth.
Our bus from Madikeri to Mysore was typical. A land of rolling hills and rice fields moved beyond the openings at its sides. Above the windshield, to the driver’s left, a sticker told us to “Smile Please.”
A bald, bespectacled Indian man nearby muttered in English to his son. “Buddy, sit down. Please buddy.” He did not sound patient. He sounded worn thin, tired. The son stood unsteadily in the aisle, sullen faced. In front of his father there was an empty bench, but the boy preferred to stand, clutching a pole, riding the potholes. The father removed a handkerchief from his shirt pocket. He wiped sweat from his bald head, turned, smiled at Claire and I, turned back. The smile, an apology, became a grimace. “Buddy, the roads here are not good. The bus does not have good brakes. If we stop suddenly or go over a big hole you will fall and smash up your spine. Or cut your head open, and bleed. Please buddy, sit down.”
“Ah Dad, I won’t fall,” said the son. His accent was Australian. It explained the odd scene: the English, the insolence and the fretting father. Fathers on the typical Indian bus do not fret, nobody does, and sons are not normally insolent. The pair were NRIs: Non Resident Indians, allowed a small identity card and a special acronym; allowed to enter India without a visa and work.
The father seemed uncomfortable, nearly hysterical, in the land still nominally his own. In Madikeri, he had skittered on and off, on and off the bus, securing luggage, seats, snacks. He wiped sweat constantly from his brow and accorded other passengers an awkward, scraping respect. I thought, because his accent was Indian, that he might have been born and spent his childhood in India, perhaps somewhere nearby. He might then have been a part of the educated, car-owning, driver-hiring elite. The family he had left in India, the family he might now be going to meet, did not travel on typical, clattering buses; but time in the more egalitarian West had made him forget, and he now looked, and seemed to feel, out of place.
The bus stopped at a ragged, nowhere station. Passengers left to find a toilet or tea and, through the half-barred openings, bandit monkeys swung into the unoccupied seats. The animals scurried squawking through the aisle, and picked at plastic and abandoned fruit, and hissed.
The father slunk along his seat and sat rigid at the opening. The son, still standing, took half steps to the right. A monkey stopped, squatted. It inspected the boy. Eyes wide-open – afraid and fascinated – the boy inspected it. “Don’t touch the monkeys buddy,” said the father. And his voice cracked. “They are wild animals!” The monkey’s arms dropped to the floor. It ambled towards the boy. Another passenger, a man with a greasy black moustache, noticed. He swung an empty hand at the animal, a human hand that could, and often did, hold and throw a stone. It bared its teeth, but left.
The bus entered Mysore at night. It passed the maharaja’s palace, outlined by 97,000 bright light bulbs. The bulbs shone in lines of independent dots, and made the palace seem bare: like a hollow frame, or prop; like an image – as we looped through a traffic circle, a statue at its centre installed between carved pillars and a golden dome – from an Indian fairytale, or theme park. The image was appropriate: Henry Irwin, an English architect, designed the palace after its predecessor burnt to nothing in 1897. Mysore was, at the time, the seat of a princely state, and that gave Henry Irwin theme park, fairytale ideas.
The princely state, under Britain’s Raj, allowed a feudal lord – often a maharaja, sometimes a nawab or nizam or rana – some, mostly internal control over his chunk of India. The chunks, big, small and in between, were many: in 1947, before independence and the end of princely states, 565 had representatives in a chamber of India’s legislative assembly.
The princely state was a neat compromise. Britain avoided petty wars and had its pre-eminence acknowledged. It gained a puppet maharaja – an ally, perhaps, against his mutinous peers – and found a figure to attach to its most romantic ideas of Eastern excess. The maharaja rode elephants and hunted tigers. He kept a harem and had a thousand servants. He wore feminine clothes, even makeup, and had strange, mystical beliefs. He was carried on ornate palanquins and cooled by peacock feather fans. He was an idea, the epitome of exotic, and the man that I thought had inspired Henry Irwin.
The light bulbs, said our guidebook, shone once a week: on Sundays between seven and eight. The bus had arrived in Mysore at seven. It stopped at the central bus stand a few minutes later. I moved our luggage to an auto-rickshaw and pre-paid; the driver pulled a rectangular black bar and the engine buzzed. He drove us up a straight road, past monuments and concrete shops, through the same circle, palace lights still twinkling behind it, and hurriedly to a hotel.
The hotel room had switches and plug sockets rusting above the bed. It had hot water in the early morning, grey blankets, a fluorescent light bulb and a landscape painting framed by dust. It was near the palace but was overpriced; we accepted it and went quickly out.
Food and balloons were being sold at the palace gates. Barely head-high and ornamental, like those of a suburban home, the gates opened below an enormous, grooved arch. The palace, this Sunday, had the theme park’s sense of collective fun. A crowd outside considered cut watermelons and candy floss hung on iron frames. Inside, families moved about happily stunned by the lights. A young woman, purple sari pulled over her crossed legs, leant over a body-sized sitar and plucked the beginnings of a raga. Men pawing cheap cameras stopped us and asked bashfully for “one snap,” then called family and friends, threw their arms around us, and took three.
Ninety seven thousand light bulbs went off. A more generous, sensible light covered the palace. It had colours again: yellows, greens and earthy reds. And depth. People stopped, regarded the building; many turned towards the gate. Only the raga went on, its beat now frenzied, near disjoint and a belated conclusion.
We left, passed food vendors shouting a final price, and idled in the nearby roads. All the way around the trapezoid block, almost directly behind our hotel, I noticed a noisy basement, suggesting beer. We entered immediately, and were led by a miniature man – not a child, not a dwarf, but a man not higher than my hip sporting a perfectly formed moustache – to a table, its top a splatter of peeling plastic.
The basement shut in smoke and shut out light. It had low ceilings, embattled fans, and a big, roughly square floor, full of tables. It was busy; men – only men – shared tall bottles of extra strong beer, or mixed water and Indian whisky in grubby tumblers. At the table next to us, Tibetan monks in red robes slurped a saucy chicken chowmein. The menu listed naan bread, ‘non-veg’ Punjabi curries and ‘Chindian’ dishes: fried rice, American chopsuey, chilli chicken. It promised that the restaurant did not intend “to take advantage over a Full tummy or fuddle headedness!” and reminded us that “to err is human, but to forgive is divine.” I was sceptical. I remembered Mike, on the ferry from Aqaba to Nuweiba. As did Claire. He had suggested we avoid eating meat in vegetarian countries. Particularly, I supposed, at dark, smoky drinking dens. I ordered two tall bottles of regular strength Kingfisher. Claire continued to scrutinise the menu.
Beers near empty, we decided to eat. Another miniature waiter – his child’s face also belied by a thick moustache – took our order: naan, chicken kolhapuri (the spiciest curry we had so far found) and a mutton handi. Mutton, in India, meant goat.
Indian food, by now familiar, did not excite me until it arrived at the table. And then, when it did, my hands were a blur – right, grasping bread, pushed against the spoon held awkwardly in my left; right moved bread, now steeped in oily red sauce, to my mouth; left, spoon now discarded, extended to clutch a cold, cooling beer – until the meal was greedily complete.
On a steep green hill two kilometres south of the maharaja’s palace, the Hindu Goddess Chamundeswari is said to have battled and slain Mahishasura, a demon king. Mysore, once Mahisuru, is said to have been a part of Mahishasura’s kingdom – and it has inherited his name. The hill is called Chamundi, after the goddess, and in the 17th century a temple of unusual power and importance was built upon its top, around a 12th century shrine.
A thousand stone cut stairs lead to the temple, interrupted, about halfway up, by a tarred road. It took Claire and I by surprise after five hundred slow midday steps. Busloads of noisy, not-sweaty pilgrims rattled past, and looped along contours, away, to a parking lot on the hill’s top.
Past the road, in a clearing, men juiced sugar cane beneath a monolithic statue of Nandi, a much venerated bull. Pilgrims – the sweaty purists, out-of-puff – stopped here, made offerings, rested, and bought the cloudy green sap. Nandi, again according to our guidebook, is a symbol “of power and potency, justice and moral order.” He is a vehicle, the magical animal that carries Shiva, perhaps Hinduism’s most popular god.
The vast bull-shaped rock is coated in a paste of coconut charcoal and ghee; a splash of bright-eyed white separates black body from blackened pupils, and allows Nandi to smile, and see. Long orange garlands – marigolds, already a little withered by the heat – had been fastened to the big bull’s neck, or placed in bundles at his feet. A brahmin in loose, gold-trimmed white, rang a sturdy bell – it made a solid, school sound – and positioned the garlands, coconuts or cash, offered by devotees.
Further up, boys stood above us on a saffron-painted rock that the steps bent behind, smiled, and hurled stones. I shouted a threat and passed, to emerge, at last, amongst shops on the hill’s top. A line of carts had been rolled in front of the shops. From these, proprietors sold hairclips, hairbands and bracelets; but now, because the sun hovered overhead, business was slow, and the proprietors sat underneath the carts and chatted, or slept.
Our shoes had to be surrendered at a stone paved square, far from the temple’s entrance. A roughly torn piece of cardboard was thrust, with dead flowers and a newspaper bundle, into my hands. I needed the cardboard to collect our two out-of-place pairs of shoes. The flowers and newspaper bundle, a pile of red powder inside it, were to be offered inside the temple.
The temple has a seven storied gopuram. Eyes rise easily along the slim pyramid, but stop, briefly, at all of the seven increasingly narrow stories, to consider seven large breasted goddesses, crossed legs party uncurled. The seven stories are mentioned often – our guidebook added that the gopuram is 40m high – and must be considered exceptional; but the gopuram did not seem to tower that midday, perhaps because it cast no shadow.
A queue, close-packed inside a barricade, bent about the temple’s lower floor. The male pilgrims wore a uniform: a black lungi (an ankle length piece of cotton, wrapped around the waist) and a strip of saffron above the knee: a black skirt and an orange mini-skirt, and bare chests. At the barricades open end, we let ourselves loosely into the queue, waited, and decided to eat the bananas in my bag.
Claire, standing behind me, could reach the bag; I did not have to remove it from my back. I stooped, she unzipped the bag and rummaged through it. The queue shuffled slowly forward. We did not. Two blackened bananas found, Claire zipped the bag carefully up. A space had opened in front us and, as I moved forward to occupy it, two men carrying a boy crashed past. The men looked smugly back at me. One placed the boy triumphantly on his shoulders. I said nothing.
It happened again a minute or two later. Our camera was not allowed inside the temple and had be put away. Again I stooped, again Claire unzipped and zipped up the bag. And again a small space opened in front of us. Three young men clambered over the barrier and inserted themselves into it. I muttered, stumbled angrily over “manners” and “civility,” but was ignored.
The barriers continued up to, and surrounded, the central shrine; but the queue degenerated immediately at the temple’s entrance. The pilgrims became insensible. A woman knelt, ecstatic, moaning, and rubbed small, silver footprints. A man prostrated himself, pressed his bare chest to the dusty floor. People stood on his extended limbs. The man that had pushed in still carried the boy on his shoulders. He rushed forward, and the child’s head slammed against a low arch. The child cried, but was ignored.
At the shrine, a khaki uniformed policeman tapped pilgrims into neat, seething lines. His other hand, the hand not grasping a lathi, banged a metal donation box. It made a metallic thud. Thud-two-three-four. Thud-two-three-four. After every thud, the line moved.
Thud. A pilgrim was pressed against the barrier, not too near the shrine. Two. A brahmin, back turned, swirled a yellow flame. The pilgrim cupped his hands, imagined the warmth, and moved it to his head or heart. Three. An attendant sprinkled holy water into the pilgrims cupped hands. Four. He drank the fuller drops, pressed the remaining moisture into his hair, and was done. Thud. Two. Three. Four.
I noticed a man past the barriers, an elaborate caste mark painted on his forehead. He stood beside a woman and a child. The man chatted to a brahmin, inside the shrine. He had trousers on, and a collared shirt. He possessed a combination of money and caste that enabled casual access to the divine.
The barriers forced us clockwise through the temple. The roof dissolved, and disorder continued under the hot high sky. I noticed more women now, women I had not seen in the line. Many must have lingered, to gather the blessings they could not buy. A fire burnt in a concrete bin, beside an uncrowded shrine. The women discarded incense packets into it, or lit pills that produced acrid smoke and a little flame. The pills, once lit, were placed on the shrine. Hands, again cupped, groped the acrid smoke.
A holy man, body swathed in a lurid orange, stopped us near the exit. He held out a finger dipped in ochre paste. It invited us to stop, and participate. Pressed against our foreheads, the finger would leave an ochre mark, a tilak. In his other hand, the holy man held a plate. On it, bronze deities presided over a pile of Indian coins. Accepting the tilak meant payment, a contribution to the man’s collection of coins.
I accepted, as did Claire, and placed ten rupees on the plate. A note. The only note. The holy man’s assistant – I had not, until now, noticed he had an assistant – said, “not enough for two. Ten rupees for one. Twenty rupees for two.” I don’t remember speaking. Angry, dizzy and confused, Claire and I left.
I sat down outside, unhappily, on a short brown grass. Boys stopped a game of cricket to demand pens, sweets, biscuits or South African money. The instigator, and most importunate of the three, fingered a new cricket bat. All the boys had nice, clean clothes on. I told them to leave us alone.
The man who had thrust a dead flower and newspaper bundle into my hands chose this moment to appear. “I am taking my lunch break,” he said. “You must pay me. Fifty rupees. Now.”
The amount was ridiculous, intended to insult. The man had refused payment, and refused to take the items back. I had discarded them inside the temple, just before stamping out. I told him he could have two rupees, to return the insult. “Twenty rupees,” he said, and I laughed. It had become a bargain. The man was young. Perhaps my age. He wore tacky sunglasses, too big for smirking his face. I shouted. He shouted. Claire shouted. The man, outnumbered, stomped away.
The ochre tilak, still wet, itched between my eyes. I rubbed it off.
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