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visitors since May 12, 2002
May 30, 2002
Looking at this from the perspective of a cow
(The fifth bit)

The next day I crossed the border into India at Atari, the only border post in the world named after an early model of computers. The first thing I noticed about India was one of the senior customs officers. She was the first woman I'd seen in a position of power since leaving Italy. And she had long, beautiful hair, which I suddenly found myself intrigued by.

The second thing I noticed about India was its smell. This was clearly a different country: there were flowers everywhere, and all kinds of exotic smells in the air. And when I changed some money into rupees, I noticed something else: some of the smaller notes also smell. India obliges you to consider your health, and it remains the only country that has made me wary of its currency.

The interesting thing about the this border is what it must look like from the perspective of a cow. Pakistan is a meat-eating, Muslim country, and it also makes and exports leather products. India is a largely vegetarian Hindu country, and it regards cows as sacred.

So, to a cow, this border represents a cataclysmic divide. I'd never really considered what the world looks like to a cow, but this seemed an appropriate place to delve into bovine metaphysics. I started looking closely at all the cows around, and on both sides of the border. To my surprise, they demonstrated a curiously calm cowness. The Indian cows weren't celebrating and the Pakistani cows weren't cursing. Every cow I saw was just getting on with the business of being a cow.

The delusional illusion: the Golden Temple is not India

From Atari it was but a short ride to Amritsar, the Sikh holy city famous for its Golden Temple, an incredibly beautiful place. I'd timed my journey to be there for the full moon, and it was an astonishing sight to see it rising over the water in the centre of the complex. I found myself sitting there barefoot looking at it above the temple. I was surrounded by pilgrims; beautiful music was playing (albeit on a Casio keyboard), and the whole journey seemed to have been worthwhile.

What I loved about the Golden Temple was having absolutely no idea what was going on. I watched the sunset ceremony in which senior religious figures, assisted by several very beautiful young women, reverentially put their holy book to bed. Having done this, the large crowd were then gently ushered outside, which seemed reasonable. How could anyone, even a book, get to sleep with so many people around?

The Golden Temple was clean and well ordered and very beautiful, which led me to the outrageously misguided conclusion that the rest of India would also be clean and well ordered and very beautiful.

As far as illusions go, this one was appealing, and I was certainly keen to live under its comfort for as long as I could. But I was robbed of it by the simple act of not closing my eyes and leaving for somewhere else immediately.

In the street a few minutes later I was spotted by an old, bearded man who was clearly exceptionally pleased to have seen me. Really exceptionally pleased. He was over the moon and far away. On a scale of happiness from one to ten, he was rapidly approaching infinity, and threatening to go nova.

But, when I said hello in English, it also became obvious that he couldn't communicate his immense pleasure using any language that I could understand. And his intergalactic level of excitement was starting to unnerve me, so I started to walk past him. This forced his hand: he had to do something to express his feelings, and quickly. So he suddenly moved towards me and ... rubbed my stomach. I managed to give him a smile as I kept walking, but a very strange feeling remained for a long time. I had arrived in India, and a local representative had rubbed my stomach.

It was a useful indication of hard it would be to completely insulate myself from this country. A little later I saw an auto rickshaw being hit by a truck, which luckily I got to see from inside the auto rickshaw.

When I realised that the truck was going to hit the rickshaw, I panicked. I shot out my hand and grabbed the rickshaw's solid metal frame. A second later, the truck hit. Because I was holding on so tightly, a shock went through my hand and snapped something in my shoulder. Meanwhile Alipali, my travelling companion, had taken a different approach. Realising that we weren't moving all that fast, she simply relaxed and waited to see what would happen.

She responded to the crash by bouncing a little in her seat and then calmly brushing off all the broken glass. We asked each other if we were okay, and then she said something that I've never forgotten: "quick! We're tourists! Take my camera and get a photo!"

It's now years later, and my shoulder still hurts. If I ever write a self help book, I'm going to call it "How To Stay Tense and Increase Your Pain."

This episode happened in Chandigarh, the one place in India that I was determined to dislike, and which I ended up rather enjoying.

Huge chunks of sterile concrete

Chandigarh was designed by the famous French architect Le Corbusier, and by his standards it's an incredibly rare piece of work. Not because it's good, but because he actually got it built.

The main part of the city is a typically misguided sterile arrangement of hideous blocks of concrete. In the West this would be regarded as "ugly" and "inhuman," but in India the effect is somehow different. Sure, it was still astoundingly brutal, but the huge chunks of sterile concrete were somehow managing to impose a sense of order on India. Several decades after Le Corbusier's concrete was opened for traffic, India still hadn't found a way to reduce it all to chaos. In a perverse kind of way, I somehow came around to admiring that.

Chaos is the key word to describe India. And soon as you arrive in the country, you become aware of the presence of a vast, ancient culture that stretches in all directions before you. You also rapidly discover that the twenty-first century has arrived in India: its ancient culture is no longer isolated. So being in India raises the obvious question of what happens when an ancient culture stumbles in the era of cyberspace.

Well, the main result is an incredible amount of noise. India is the noisiest place on the planet. By the time I left, I was firmly convinced that India had invented noise.

It would be calmer to go for a stroll inside an erupting volcano. Just walking down the street here is an open invitation for hearing loss, psychological trauma and a sudden desire to go somewhere intensely, profoundly boring. Every single vehicle on the road is constantly blowing whistles and beeping horns. Even the little cycle wallahs - who can't afford bells or whistles or horns - just yell at the vehicle ahead of them. It's ridiculous.

I wore earplugs the whole time I was there. I even needed them in some of the hotels: one continued to provide noise of a slightly musical variety at every hour of the day and night. So India is like the Goon Show, as produced by an entire country, and broadcast at the same volume as a Deep Purple gig. My ears were still ringing by the time I got back to Australia.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:53 PM in the Dog Biscuit category | Comments (0)
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