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diaphania - Page 13

  • India, April 2000

    [archive post]

    I thought I would write while I had some time, here at A's in Calcutta.

    This is an altogether remarkable house. It was built by four great uncles who belonged to the Brahmo reformist sect. The family has lived here ever since. A Nobel prize winning economist is a distant relation. A cream 3-storey 'L' shaped building put up in the 1920s where the brothers and their families could live and worship together. A's parents live on the ground floor and from his room I can look out across the verandah to a small garden lush with tropical plants. Two giant palms stand at the back of the garden. They were planted by the brothers and a cheese plant has climbed to the very top of one of them. Inside the rooms are cool and shaded, with breezes from the overhead fan and through open windows on two sides. Outside the heat has been fierce and steamy, quite different from the dryness of Delhi during my 10 day tour of the capital, Jaipur and Agra.

    The rooms are furnished with solid dark furniture that has been here since the house was built. This has long been a literary family and most rooms are furnished with high glassed-in bookcases filled with English and Bengali texts. The electrical wiring is authentically primitive, encased in dark timber trunking which runs all around the rooms and terminates in a switchboard with a battery of circular Bakelite switches.

    In one dark, cool high-ceilinged room there is a harmonium. This is the sitting room and during the day-time it is used only to receive occasional unfamiliar or unwelcome visitors. At night, Shondha the cook sleeps on the floor under a mosquito net strung from the walls and when we come in the evenings we have had to tip-toe past her curled up under the net as it gently ripples under the breeze from the overhead fan. Twice a day she has prepared Bengali specialities for us. She smiles shyly, as she spoons out spiced okra and aubergines and curd with jaggery. As dusk falls she puts up a huge tent-like mosquito net over A's parent's bed. They are away in Delhi for a family funeral and because of the Holi festival the house is unusually quiet: several other servants have returned to their villages. Upstairs live maiden aunts, cousins and uncles.

    During the festival crowds jostled and shouted in the street, covering each other with purple, blue and green powder while I spent the afternoon resting. All Indian cities seem to be constantly noisy, the streets a shifting mass of people and vehicles. Horns hoot madly and heavy lorries and ancient buses vent the fume which settles in a choking cloud wherever there is traffic.

    But Ballygunj Place is a haven from all that. Even so I'm woken at dawn by the sound of neighbours nosily clearing their throats. I can hear the gull-like call of young kites and the sharp cries of the fierce looking crows which seem to be innumerable in the city. Tradesmen visit early and from their cries I can follow the path of street hawkers as they approach and then move away from the house. During the day bells are rung and conch shells sound as people do their puja. Morning is the coolest time of the day, but more than once I've lingered too long as the sun grew hotter and hotter until it was in the 80s when I set out by taxi and metro to visit the sights.

    Ballygunj is a middle class area but even so the streets are home to the innumerable poor. I see men in dhotis washing themselves all over from hand pumps at the roadside. In a shack next to a modern apartment block live the two men to whom Shonda takes the ironing. In little cubicles at knee height people crouch by charcoal stoves cooking up sweets like rasgool and the savouries which are sold for a few rupees in a an open box made out of thick leaves stitched together. Once I saw a limbless man roll with astonishing grace on the baking, filthy tarmac, his hand reaching out for alms and a strangely beatific look on his face.

    The taxis are ancient Ambassadors, rounded and high like a Morris Oxford. For about 25p they take us on the 15 minute ride to the metro which is the city's pride. The single line is the only one in all India and it runs due north from here to the centre of town. The metro was Russian designed: the dully lit pillared platforms are almost free of crowds, the only sound the roar of overhead fans which cool me. For A, back in India for less than six months after ten years in England, it's a womb-like shelter from the chaos above.

    Today I went to the 'marble palace'. For a few Rupees a guide in a cream uniform showed me around a huge decaying mansion in a grotesquely encrusted neo-classical style. I was led in bare feet cool on Carrera marble through room after gloomy room around a large rectangular courtyard, its white painted walls decorated with swags of green Della Robbia style ornamentation. A young member of the family of Jewish Indian goldsmiths which built the house 200 years ago reclined elegantly in a blue green sari on a shaded bench in the centre of the courtyard. Statues in glass cases lined the vast ballroom. Two huge dusty Belgian mirrors at either end reflected back the room's immensity, the ceiling jostling with unused chandeliers. This was a Michelangelo and that a Rubens and they all looked like poor copies.

    In the garden boys bathed in a green pool across from a circular gazebo set against scarlet red blooms. The palace entranced me. It must be quite the greatest monument to a rich man's ghastly good taste I've ever seen. Afterwards I struggled to Rabindranath Tagore's house, where yellowing captions and dozens of fading family photos told me next to nothing about the leader of the Bengali cultural renaissance.


    The tour to Rajasthan was utterly gorgeous - I was one male among 12 women, Including the most fragile-looking Japanese girl who travelled with me to Calcutta to work a week at Mother Theresa's. The Taj at dawn has to be seen to be believed - it floats above a marble platform, the minarets stroked first by orange then gold light till the whole facade glows.

    We took elephants to the Amber Fort, where an Indian family invited me to join them at lunch and two chatty (young) boys asked me to take their photo. We visited a bird sanctuary with the most incredible wildlife - kingfishers almost the size of hens of the most intense blue. In Jaipur I had a virtual suite of rooms high in a tower, with steps to a turret with a private view of the city. Late one night I chatted for hours with the manager about Hinduism, the caste system and Gandhi's legacy.

    We saw the abandoned palace at Fatephur Sikri where the decoration combines Hindu, Moslem and Christian symbolism - including the swastik, symbol of luck. I took a photo of our guide, who had been there 48 years.

    At Agra we went to the 'Palace of the Winds' - a sheer facade of obscured windows from which the Maharajah's harem could see without being seen. We saw the giant silver vessels the Maharajah made to take sacred Ganga water to England - so afraid was of English impurities.

    And so many other things!

    Back home, the vicar asked with a kind of well-meaning vicarish concern "how was India?" - no doubt thinking of how I'd coped with the deprivation, the heat, the pollution.

    I was gripped with an awful temptation to tell him - that A had arranged an evening for a quartet of what I suppose they'd call roast beef queens (mirroring our curry queens) where I was treated like a fascinating exotic. One stroked my hand feverishly muttering "you're so white" the other urgently requested I join him at a cruising place and offered nameless orgies. The third contented himself with mild interference with my person and serenaded me with Rags about being gay in Calcutta. Needless to say the vicar would be pleased to hear I resisted these temptations (more or less!)

  • Budapest

    [archive post] Got back from Budapest, would you believe, on Sunday night. Five of us had an altogether enjoyable time. The itinerary included candlelit meals in a lakeside restaurant, Wagner opera for L1.50, and two hours in an astonishing 400 year old Turkish bath - wearing nothing but a pseudo masonic apron which partly covered the privates but left the hindquarters quite exposed.

    It's nowhere near as picturesque as Prague, but somehow more real. The people friendlier. The National Gallery is on Heroes' Square where we saw some fine Spanish paintings. Decorated Art Nouveau buildings characterise the city in a style they are pleased to call "Eclectic" which seems to mean pretty well anything the architect took a fancy to could be incorporated into the building.

    The Rudas baths is at the foot of Gellert hill, close by the statue of 'the popular queen' Queen Mary. Time Out said it was the loveliest, the most ancient, and had the cleanest water. It's quite gloomy inside: tiny star shaped windows in the domed roof send light streaming down on to the pool of hot spa water below. Five smaller pools cluster round the central one, containing water of varying temperatures. Water pours everywhere: from carved spouts into the pool and from great rusted taps. The room is filled with a great hub-ubb of conversation. Young bodies and old bodies cluster round the edge of the pools, disappearing from time to time into the steam room or the saunas which vary in temperature from hot to oven roasting. I chatted to a fellow who turned out to be assistant to the cultural attaché at a certain French speaking embassy. It was a curious feeling: we spoke in French about music. Suddenly (as his foot stroked mine) he asked me back to his house. Perhaps it would have been a kind of adventure. But I said no. In a side room off the main spa pool aimable masseurs pummel their victims off-handedly. I lay on a foam mat on a sloping aluminium table (much like the ones you see in dissecting rooms) and relaxed utterly.

    With minutes to spare we dashed over Elizabeth bridge into the town for the Valkyrie. The opera house is gliterry and magnificent - we were high up 'in the gods' on the third balcony. My first experience of Wagner, the company was under-rehearsed there were some stunning moments. Wherever we went not having much German - which is the main language apart from Magyar - was a bit of problem. From the sublime to the ridiculous - we were so starved after the opera we went into Macdonalds on Moscow Square (even M&S and Tescos are there now). I meant to order 2 No. 5s but somehow ended up with a tray of 5 No. 2s (if you see what I mean)... Also went to an enjoyable Mozart concert at the elaborate green and silver-gold art nouveau music academy. More French chat as a lady befriended me and pointed out her dashing son and his girlfriend.

    More than once we and ate far more scrumptiously gooey cream cakes than was good for us. We trekked out to a one-time monastery where they had an astonishing collection of 19th century printing equipment which I attempted to demonstrate, much to the consternation of the guard. The museum also houses a bizarre collection of womens underwear through the 20th century which would have had the building's former inhabitants in quite a tizz. And there are baboushkas still in Hungary - mostly in the museums, homely bodies in woollen stockings waiting to pounce if you so much as breathe over their precious glass cases.

    On the last day I left the others to a cable car ride in the Buda Hills to bathe at the Gellert Hotel In its heyday this magnificent place was popular with European high society. My valuables were locked in a safe deposit box and an elaborate ritual with keys locked up my clothes but my (hired) swimming costume was stolen when I spent some time in the spa. An ancient gentleman made a pass at me in the steam room, waving at me in the strange two-handed Hungarian way...

    We wandered round the Lechner's museum of applied art - a dazzling white moorish temple to Hungarian 19th century taste. At a quarter to five we realised we were due back at the hotel for the 7.30 flight home. William and Peter were fuming more or less aimably in the minibus outside. By 10.30 we were home, me clutching cherry brandy chocolates and Hungarian merlot, with a stash of memories of a busy but hugely enjoyable few days.

  • Madeira June 1998

    Back on Monday from Madeira: three days walking the levadas - the irrigation channels that cling to the Madeiran hillsides - and three days just pottering around. Bananas grow everywhere along with lots of other exotic fruit: custard apples, mangoes and the like.

    The levadas are stunning. The smell of mimosa and eucalyptus. Agapanthus and a dozen other exotica. The quiet and the views!  
    It did seem as though we were in something of a floating old people's home - most of the hotel guests were 50+ and willingly shephereded to tour buses for 'exciting' excursions every day. The hotel manager offered a jacketted reception and we could play bridge on Thursday night.

    We avoided all that (it was my first time on a proper package holiday) and did our own thing - local buses up into the hills, swim in the 30's style lido mid-morning, then got our own breakfast on the lawn. We were self-catering in a much more attractive building than the rest of the hotel (no matter how many stars it has). We also went to a mildly dire recital of piano duets given by two hatchet faced Hungarians.

    Restaurant food was pretty awful (tho we were on a budget). They practise the unsubtle art of vegetable massacre every evening in the Funchal kitchens. Broccoli and spuds boiled beyond recognition to an amorphous, mushy pulp. The main fish comes from very deep down - the scabbard is an ugly looking brute with one great glassy eye that stares up at you from the fishmonger's slab.  
    The only relief came in a restaurant where the vegetables where treated with proper respect. To the accompaniment of great bunches of flowers and Albinoni.

    We had one meal on a restaurant boat by the harbour that used to be owned by the Beatles. We were also unceremoniously chucked out of a desperately posh hotel - Reids - because I was wearing (smart) sandals and Marc brown corduroy trousers. Later we ate 'english cake' - Madeira cake - best covered in jam - at our hotel - 'your home from home' as they excruciatingly style themselves. 

    In the market there is a great bustle of fruit and veg, huge red huge hunks of tuna, and the scabbard fish. I bought one of the peculiar coarse wool mountain balaclavas the locals still wear. Many are still very poor - in spite of the million of EU money spent on roads and the like. And on Sunday we went to an almost medieval country fair in a village high in the hills. 

    We went round the Madeiran wine cellars, walked to the botanic gardens and were picturesquely pushed in a kind of snowless sledge down the hill from Monte by two gnarled old gents old enough to be our fathers.