MEMSAHIB JATAYU-INDIAN DIARIES
1 st May, 2006: May Day in Kerala
God's own country has been communist for the past fifty years.
"The devil's own people," one's Malayali (Keralite) friends say, which is rather unfair because unless totally pissed on toddy – legless in Kerala – the Malayali is a calm and benign fellow.
Yesterday the streets of Trivandrum were festooned with red flags: the Mohatma monument at No. 3 Mummy's Colony looked like the Kremlin. Long convoys of auto-rickshaws emblazoned with red flags snaked through the highways and byways of the capital, like a rather sinister Congo line.
There was no time for celebration, however: the entire country was gripped by an unfolding drama involving an Indian engineer who had been beheaded in Afghanistan, by the Taliban. During the morning hours every very news channel in the state not showing cricket showed live footage of the poor widow and her family collapsing with grief as the news came in. Heart-wrenching coverage – anyone watching was reduced to tears. By noon the story took a startling turn: a much prettier and younger second wife appeared, with a nine month old baby girl. Grief was etched all over her face. One Foxtel-inspired news channel took to doing split-screen, reality T.V. day-old widows (Hindus don't spare the details).
By evening, discussion panels were popping up all over the media to dissect the unfolding saga.
"I don't want any money, just for my daughter to be recognized, and for us to go to the funeral," she pleaded, very convincingly.
"Second wife now demanding part of the US$ 150,000 'compassion package'," reported all the newscasters, as the coffin arrived at Delhi airport, draped in the Indian flag.
Sonia Gandhi, the President and the Prime Minister all sent their condolences as the Chief Minister of Andra Pradesh visited the official wife's family in Hyderabad.
By 8 p.m. HEADLINE NEWS channel had their screen split into three: the coffin arriving at Hyderabad airport; the first wife being bundled into an ambulance after a suicide attempt (poison); and the second wife playing with her baby in a hotel room nearby.
Only in India.
3 rd May, 2006: Surayanarayan’s cremation; the bulldozing of a sacred Darga Tomb in Hyderabad
The cremation of tragically-slain new national hero Suryanarayan corpse was a grizzly affair. The poor second widow, wailing in a pink sari, baby on ample hip, was the most tragic figure in a tragedy of Olympian proportions. She was ignored by all the first family which added insult to injury.
"But they knew I was his second wife for the last 4 years," she annunciated perfectly, projecting, through floods of tears, past the ranks of junior newsmen to the bleachers at the ghat. "And now Manuja (the other wife) treats me like this despite all her promises. They are lying." "The first wife will receive all of the compassion packages the government has declared," the television anchor interrupted.
None of the Indians interviewed (mostly Hindu) or any of the news channels poured scorn on the Islamists, as the source of this terror.
"We will continue to aid in the reconstruction of Afghanistan," said the president.
Meanwhile, interspersed with footage of the cremation were live images from downtown Hyderabad, of the bulldozing of a dargah (Moslem saint's tomb).
It was referred to as an "encroachment", on the new town plan.
"Many Hindu temples and senior ministers homes have likewise been removed" the anchormen explained calmly.
Indians are very careful not to light the tinderbox of religious tension.
The times put the Surayanarayan drams on page 14, out of respect for the distraught widow, hounded till the brink of suicide, one suspects.
Front page were updates on the sinking condition of the head of the Opposition (BJP's Mahajan) shot by his brother 11 days ago, and the founding of a new BJP party (initials only the same) by firebrand deposed M.P. (Mz) Uma Bharti shown strapped to the new yellow and orange sun-emblem party flag, eyes enraged like a zombie on toddy, in a temple near Delhi. She looked like Kali incarnate (the devil wears a sari).
Am off today to Vishakapatnam in Andra Pradesh, where my Balinese Commandoes await stories of the Great Ketewel Cremation (see strangerinparadise.com).
Aum Shanti Shanti Shanti
P.S. I just rang the operator at the Taj Malabar to try and get the first name of Suryanarayan (I forget and I can't find it in today's paper and I'm late for the airport!): "Madame, do you remember the first name of Suryanarayan murdered in Afghanistan, please?"
"Room number please, sir."
3 rd May 2006; across India in three easy steps
I have finally caught up with ghinko pinko journalist Mark Forbes horrendous Bali piece, entitled " ABANDONED BALI WAITS IN HOPE, in the Sydney Morning Herald, May Day 2006 (SHAME ON YOU CONRAD FORBES).
"The candles flicker on the seafood restaurant tables like the stars over Jimbaran Bay".
He's not homosexual Mark Forbes but he sure helps them out when he's busy.
The only Balinese in the story are masseurs and waiters.
Sanur is putting up 12 security cams. (Forget the last six weeks of fevered ceremonial activity – Melis, Tawur Kesangga, Pengerupukan, a pedanda's cremation, all more amazing than ever before – by 95% of the community, re-asserting that Bali is as strong as ever).
Tourism is not the backbone of Bali as Forbe's asserts. It’s an honoured guest, a tenant even, that still pays the rent, which funds the very UTAMA ceremonies. At any moment Bali could cancel the lease, send all us outer islanders packing, and return to an idyllic, if materialistically diminished lifestyle.
The piece is written from the typical narrow Australian worldview of Bali as an cheap exotic getaway.
Forbes father Cameron, a career journalist, is at present writing a book on Bali. It will be interesting to see what he churns out!
• • •
Yesterday I travelled from Kochin, a port in Kerala, across India to Vishakapatnam, a port in Andra Pradesh (well below Calcutta) inthree hops. At each stop I interviewed airport personnel about the fate of the poor second wife of Kasula Suryanarayan, the tragic victim of a Taliban murder plot outside Kabul a few days ago.
"Under Indian custom the children of the second wife are not recognized if the marriage was not registered," said the station manager at Kochin Airport.
"But they are recognized in the eye's of God," I replied.
"The law is an ass" he countered In Bangalore I asked the re-check-in lady – in India one has to leave the terminal, when in domestic transit, even on the same carrier, and negotiate a few construction sites and spittoons before re-entering the departures section – could not comment of the veracity of the grief etched on the second wives face in all the perfect interviews she had given through floods of tears :she had not seen any news on television -- she was too busy.
From Bangalore to Hyderabad I read India's excellent weekly news magazines – OUTLOOK EXPRESS and INDIA TODAY. Both magazines had dramatic cover stories on the shooting of the leader of the opposition Pramod "Never say Die" Mahajan who was shot by his younger brother at home in Mumbai ten days ago (Mahajan has been on life support in a Mumbai hospital since then). It seems that the younger brother was insanely jealous of his elder brothers fame and fortune and was driven to this insane act by his brothers gross insensitivity – demanding that his younger brother arranges meetings with him thru his p.a. only which came to a head that fateful morning ten days ago, when Pramod would not even look up from his newspaper when his brother was pouring out his heart in Mahajan's living room.
Pride goes before a fall.
The other magazines I read were VIBES – a Mumbai-based news supplement, inside the Mumbai edition of the Times of India, directed at young urban trendoids – and TIME OUT an excellent spin-off of the London original (now defunct). It was full of sharp journalism – the type for which Indian journalist, like Amitabh Gosh, are becoming known as the best in the English-speaking world – sadly interspersed with Bollywood-friendly valley-girl patoise-like, "( I mean, duh)". One article, "Kochin – on two Rupees a bay", by Ruben Daniels, winner of the recent Taj Holiday travel writing contest run in partnership with Taj Hotels and Indian airlines, sponsored by the Times and Taj Holidays had a host of great lines:
"Some may call it nepotism, but I applaud Kerala for choosing Gosh as its tourism development director."
"...And pretentious Kottayam (land of letters, lakes and latex)."
"Does there exist a mode of transportation gentler or more pleasant than a two Rupee ferry ride? Maybe if Bombay were administered by communists (i.e. a different set of Malayalees (Keralites, Ed.). (Kerala has been communist for 50 years, Ed.)) wed have a two-Rupee ferry service here too."
"The thing to do was ask some hardened comrade with a coffee palsy."
• • •
At Hyderabad airport I grilled the sweet but fierce Sahara Air Lounge manager: "Don't you think the second wife has a case? Was it right the way the first family snubbed her totally at the cremation?" ( India's REALITY INSTANT WIDOW T.V had done an extraordinary interview, pyre-side, with the distraught second wife, nine-month old child on hip (see yesterday's dairy).
"They don't need to respect her," pronounced the Sahara iron-maiden. "But neither do they need to insult here."
You could rule a large country with female Indian executive lounge and Taj Hotel front office managers, I reckon. (The men can co-opt the international cricket commission. Ha!) (I throw this in to see if my guest editor this week, Bengali intellectual S. Guha, is actually reading these!!
9 th May, 2006: Pramod Mahajan's cremation, the Vadodara communal strife and a natural cure for prickly heat
Changi Airport, 9th May, 2006....just in from Hyderabad Airport, India's only airport with a heart, and a night spent with a glamorous Moslem family in the pointy end of the plane
The begums got off the plane this morning carrying everything that wasn't nailed down -- blankets, SQ coat-hangers, toiletries...the lot: it’s the first time I've had any competition. And they were so old world glamour -looking before we left India, with their Boutros Gali matching husband's, Hyderabadi hooked noses and glittering diamond earrings...it just goes to show.
"If Richard Carlton was anything," bleated the mini-Sydney Morning Herald cover story I scanned at the bookshop, he wasn't a shade of grey, he was a primary colour". So ends the life of one of Australia's great investigative journalists.
Tough-faced Chinese are scurrying everywhere. I go to look for my Tropical Garden Design book at W. H. Smith and don't find it, just a shelf of pot-boilers on Feng Shui for your Maid's Room and Zen Ways not to have a garden.
Only last night I was on the roof garden of the Taj Banjara, in downtown Hyderabad, cavorting in the nude with Martand Singh, my taste guru, and the Rajmata of Gwalior, trying to rid ourselves of prickly heat in the first monsoon shower.
Earlier in the day on the west terrace of the Falaknuma Palace I ate ten pieces of the Nizam's own carrot cake, which had cute little marzipan faux-chillies on their perfect vanilla icing. I had tried to excite all the Taj project people and the Princess Ezra about my recent discovery that the descendents of the 15,000 Abyssinian and Sudanese and Yemeni 'guard' that the Nizam had bought to Hyderabad in the early 19th century still lived in the beautiful parkland barracks that the Nizam had originally bought for them. No one was remotely interested. The area is now called BARKAS for those interested.
Martand 'Mapu' Singh is the ultimate gentleman aesthete and cultural warrior. So many of India's great restoration and museum projects – particularly in the textile and jewellery areas – were guided by him. He invented Anggawastru chic for Rajiv Gandhi (i.e. the wearing of ultra natural, natural dyed cotton traditional attire, in white, all the time) – the ultimate Dandhi does the ultimate Ghandi. He chaperoned Jackie O around the Taj Mahal. He built the fabulous Calico Museum in Amedabad. He knows every one in the land, has an infectious giggle and loves to talk shop. On our first meeting at the Taj Banjara, where we were both staying by chance, he told me how the famous BALIYATRA ceremony in Orrissa is actually held by the Keling people. "Orang Keling" in Indonesian means a southern Indian but this could be stretched up the Coromandel Coast to Bengal if you are dotty and Javanese enough. As India's first trade contact with Indonesia was probably from people near the ancient Buddhism University of Nalanda in Orrissa-- such as the Keling people – when Buddhism was introduced to Indonesia, through Sumatra, in the 8th century.
In East Bali there is an important Brahmana-Buddha village called Buda Keling. "Lawah Keling" in Balinese means "liar". Mapu was not in the least phased by this! Nor were the Taj gang – with whom I test ran the tale – amused.
I got to ask a million questions about the weeks incredible news events. It appears that Mahajan was having an affair with his brother's wife, and that he was not an agnostic as the media has suggested but an Hindustva (Hinduist), He must have been a good Dad judging by his son's forthright bearing, right from the moment his father's death was announced till the lighting of the funeral pyre at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, an event covered live by the nation's media. The commentary at the cremation had been incredible: like BBC's radio coverage of Queen Mary's funeral, meets Shoba De.
"He was, above all, a sound-bite warrior" sort of thing.
The funeral itself was grand in scale but a bit basic in decoration, when one is used to the full-bodied Balinese versions with all their ritual and music and stagecraft.
Cries of "Vanke Mataram" (long live the mother country ( yikes))" were yelled out by the "sloganists " as the pyre was lit.
The Suryanarayan funeral was much less regal. The new second wife had been denied access onto the funeral processions lead vehicle, so her relatives sat down in front of the mini-van. They were almost run over.
"Eventually the police took her to the cremation" reported The Hindu, "reportedly at the family's behest.” That afternoon the president's wife visited the first wife in intensive care where she has been since her suicide attempt. The story was barely picked up by the media.
The other news that consumed the nations extensive television-watching and paper -reading hours was that of the communal (read religious) riots in Gujarat, after the govt. had rather insensitively demolished a functioning dargah – without first moving the Sufi saints spirit – with a giant crane and Godzilla jaws, in Vadodara, Gujarat state. After 20 Moslems were torched for protesting the BJP Chief Minister Modi – on whose watch the horrible train slaughters had happened 6 years ago – allowed the army in, after his police had stood by and watched.
"The army are not in Vadodara just to do a flag-march," reported the head of the Armed Forces.
"The army are in Vadodara to do a flag march only," replied Maharastra's Chief of Police.
A theme of the week was brave Indian women in extreme grief giving extraordinary interviews through floods of tears, addressed to the camera, on NDTV's Reality 'instant widow' 'T.V.