From Egypt to India

One of the first things that hit me when I arrived in India for the time – Mumbai in 2005 – was how similar to Egypt it was, or at least this one little part of it seemed so. Mumbai, a city of 18 million, and capital of a state of some 80 million was an Egypt unto itself. But it was the lush greenery with the lethargic humanity swarming everywhere on its streets among the animals, and filled out with omnipresent dust and humidity that did it. Coming out of the airport I felt I was going along one of the Nile irrigation canals near the Pyramids in Cairo. As we headed through those outer suburbs I could have sworn we were about to turn into Messaha Street in Cairo where I lived. India was a “wounded civilization”, as Naipaul had once said, but so too was Egypt. Both were one of the world’s first great civilizations, though its Indus culture which was contemporaneous with the rise Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt on the Nile had subsequently “disappeared”, historians say, though perhaps it merely was absorbed into Aryan civilization of north India when the Aryan tribes moved in to establish the culture that today we call Indian.

Like Egypt, how little it gave the impression of having changed. Or perhaps better put, how recognizable it may be to its past. That was my first impressions in Mumbai, during where we visited the Elephanta Caves. Situated on an island six miles from the city, it took about an hour to arrive there from the pompous and misfortunate Gateway of India, designed to celebrate British India but which only some 20 years from its opening was to be the point from which the last British soldiers left the dreamtime of the Empire behind. We had to push our way through the wall of hawkers to get a ticket for one of the boats heading there. I’ve seen hasslers and peddlers throughout the Arab world, from the good-natured Egyptians to the menacing Moroccans, but with Indians here in Mumbai it was simply stubborn, a faceless characterless tireless ability to stay on the case without beginning or end. Eventually it would end but with a sudden relenting and melting away into the crowd. That was with me; with my travelling companion RM it was different. She had more of an ability to engage them, then let them go. A child loitered on the pavement teetering left and fight as if attempting to belly-dance. I tried to walk around but knocked the child down. Helping him and offering an apology to his relatives squatting on the ground, it felt as if a human trait had cut through the stale script of relations between visitor and visited.

We arrived at night and chosen a mid-range hotel on the seafront nearby that was more interested in the droves of Indian tourists than foreigners. They seemed to forget that we were there over the three days though we turned up a couple of times for food at their rooftop café. It was another favourite destination for Indians, it appeared. One night a large table was there in celebration of some event. The women stared with apparent displeasure at us, thinking my companion was an Indian woman who had committed the unpardonable sin of consorting with a foreigner and parading her uncleanliness before the world to boot. The hotel was part of a row of grandiose colonial-era buildings topped off at the southern end with the Taj Mahal International Hotel, apparently India’s most luxurious and most famous hotel. The story goes that a local industrialist built the lavish hotel in a grand colonial-cum-vernacular style as a riposte to segregated British establisments in the city. Now it’s a meeting point for Mumbai high society, including its film industry stars. Despite all this, there was a certain seedy air along this seafront, where taxidrivers spent all night by their cars. A smell of excrement and a constant pleading from which the fortunate vainly tried to fence themselves off. Walking the streets of the area at night to stop off in a few of the local bars, youths stood around in gangs staring at the women, not least if there was hair to show. I constantly told my wife to keep hers, a striking frizzy affair, hidden.

Descended from our citadel, here we were in a boat bound for Elephanta. The city looked pretty at a distance from where its immensity became clear. Other suburbs far to its south seemed like other worlds. I noted a fair number of tourists of various origins passing by the souvenir stalls up the long steps of the hill leading to the caves. With a steep charge for foreigners and a token fee for Indians, the man at the ticket office asked Rola is she was Indian. She said no; I laughed. Shortly after an anonymous tourist walked past us saying namaste. But inside the caves we were shot back in time, back to an Egypt relegated to the scorn of monotheistic religion and only maintained for the benefit of interested visitors. A series of huge wall sculptures around one of the central figure of the Hindu pantheon, Shiva. This tradition of sculpture in West India began with the initial spread of Buddhism in India, but Buddhism was to retreat in its homeland and these wall engravings were some of the most striking such artistic form in the West. Probably dating to the period 600-625 AD the murals elaborate conceptions of Shiva as the creator, the preserver and the destroyer of the world and life – a formulation that made personalized the supreme being as Shiva, whose life had been celebrated in myth and poetry. The key symbol of the creator was the lingum, a simple stumpy large stone phallus found in temples. I had learned about Shiva’s lingum at university and was thrilled to connect that with the reality before me. As an idea, it seemed earthy, raunchy and positively ancient. To be sure, I asked one of the Indians who made a brief prayer before the object – a young man dressed in a style that suggested modern Western amour propre – what it was. “It’s his lingam, you know, that’s his pe-, p…” he said, mumbling and trailing the sentence off into nothingness at saying such a thing to a surely cynical foreigner. Aside from these two cave shrines, the sculptured murals were striking – Shiva as a dancer with eight hands, Shiva looking feminine with lotus flowers and pearls, Shiva fighting demons. He would often appear with the other two gods of the system, Vishnu and Brahma. For my ignorance, I wanted to understand how these conceptualizations work, not least to a believer today. Some placed flowers by the lingam, others had left coins. Here was an “ancient” belief system, as ancient as the gods of Pharaonic Egypt or pagan Greece, which was still alive and kicking today. The idea of such a direct line to the past, to the early days of man in recorded history was arresting to say the least. In Egypt, the Christian authorities forbade the depiction and worship of the old gods and the priesthood disappeared (perhaps to join the new Coptic clergy), then Christianity receded for another formulation of the same monotheistic idea, Islam, to take precedence; in Greece and Italy, rural worship of the old gods perhaps survived in pockets, its languages, festivals, signs and symbols distributed innocuously in the new vision embracing society, its debris still there for those who cared to look. In India, it survived – if nothing else, a testament to the stubborn ability of communities to maintain a narrative.

We decided to take in what we could in the brief time of temples and mosques in Mumbai to gorge myself on these exciting thoughts. We visited the Jain temple on Malabar hill, which to the layman looks no different from that of Hindus, hovered around the parkland where the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence stand, where the Parsee community leave their dead on stone columns for vultures to pick their flesh and prevent pollution of the elements with rotting flesh. Then we headed down to the Lakshmi temple in Mumbai is the city’s principal place of worship, a homage to Lakshmi, one of the three forms in which the female deity Devi is known, whose main attributes are beauty, prosperity and fertility. The rich have been blessed by Lakshmi, the poor have not and must have done something to deserve it. The taxi driver was a Muslim from Gujarat to the north, the scene of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims last year. We asked him about the temple we were to see and its meaning, and he was polite but dismissive about something he knew and wanted to know little about. The shrine by the sea was approachable by anyone of any persuasion. All you were required to do was remove your shoes, as in mosques. Anyone could approach the idol, which was adorned with flowers. Those that did stood, whispering barely audible prayers which could be in Sanskrit, Hindu or local language Marathi, and as they did so their hands were held as Christians do when praying. Yet when they finished, they made one prostration to the ground just like Muslims. I watched from the sidelines entranced by the interconnections. Then to the tomb of Haji Ali, which is one of Mumbai’s most striking buildings because it sits at the end of a peer. And it may well be a lovely building inside close up at the tomb of this holy man who came from Afghanistan. An array of cripples, holy men, sellers and beggars lined the path to the shrine, and the peer was full of young men strolling in the early evening. Three half-naked men with stubs for arms and legs whacked their depleted body parts onto the stone in some form of trance whose aim was to exact pity, though few paid them any attention. It did not seem the place for a woman of means to go walking, so we skipped the shrine and headed straight back past the assortment of freaks, hoodlums and food sellers to the main road. I was tempted to have a pizza-looking object – Mumbai street food is famed throughout India – but RM kept me in check. When back in Dubai I told a friend from Mumbai, a Muslim from the affluent Bandra district, about the peer scene. He just laughed at the impossible dimensions of life in India and asked if I had not noticed the men who bury themselves up to the neck in earth and sand.

Seeking out the city’s markets, we found ourselves driving down a frenetic street lined with young women in colourful saris. They sat and stood around in groups, with behind them curtains covering dingy looking rooms with bare lights and peeling light-blue walls, the ground floor of the 3-4 storey buildings lining the shopping street. In this stifling sticky heat some weeks before the onslaught of the monsoon season, one could only imagine the squalor of a session between client and prostitute in these streets, with barely a fan to cool or privacy to perform. It was dark by now and the street was chaotic. We were searching for the area with the gold shops, and the driver was heavy and impolite. Even the air was threatening. The jewellers shops offered high prices, in tune with this Sodom of a city with its stock brokers, film stars and shrines to money-making. God help the poor in a place like this, I thought.

Mumbai contains a grand museum; once known as the Prince of Wales Museum now it went by the name of Chhatrapati Shri Shivaji Maharaj (1630-80), a guerrilla fighter from Maharashtra state who had fought the Mughal emperors carving out a Marathi-language state. It was interesting that he was held up as a national hero though he fought against an empire that may have been established by conquering central Asians in the first place but which was to become a quintessentially Indian product, after which the cuisine considered the piece de resistance of Indian cooking is named. It remains considered alien because it was Muslim and the whole point of India, despite its secular colouring since independence in 1947, is that it has a Hindu majority. Despite the fact that sizeable proportion of historical India became Muslim, and especially in the north around the plains of the Indus and Ganges rivers which were seen as the locus point of Aryan Indian civilization. The creation of Pakistan was the loss of a territory that was integral to that civilization. The museum paid special attention to Mughal art, yet still Shivaji was presented as a hero, though it was not clear if that was on a regional or national level. But he was celebrated in 1974 by Maharashtra state government as well as the national government in Delhi. The museum building was one of the most striking of the Raj era, done in a hybrid Indo-Saracenic style by Brit George Wittet.

India’s trains are allegedly majestic for next to nothing. But we took the second-class un-airconditioned carriages for a 12-hour trip to Goa on the coast to the south. The open windows provided a form of natural cooling but with the cool air it came dust and humidity. The ingeniusly designed cabins had two bunks above the main bench which could be pulled to let people to lie down. A couple who appeared reasonably well-to-do sat facing each other on one such bunk by a window on the corridor side of the train. She was draped in a sari and a certain amount of gold jewellery and he looked clean and professional in a white shirt with baggy pants. Next to us we had an Englishman and two young Germans, a couple. Rola read a book in Arabic which drew the Englishman’s attention. A teacher who had lived in Malaysia for many years, he was a friendly type and helped while away the time. A group of four men elaborate dressed and made up in colourful saris langoriously stood at one end of the corridor in conversation, before parading past each compartment with hands held out for money. I only one person oblige them with anything. The landscape had been pretty uniform for most of the trip but moving into the small coastal enclave of Goa, it changed to a luscious palm-tree lined green. We got off at a town not too far from Goa’s main town Panjim. Walking past the taxi and rickshaw drivers and their extravagant rates, we found a bus waiting at the top of the road. Noisy but not rickety, it sped along through the ghost-town of Old Goa, with its giant European churches and cathedrals, and down the river Mandovi towards the town at its mouth in the low-lying hills on the edge of the Arabian Sea, Panjim.

* * *

Goa was under Portuguese rule for 456 years and as a result there are more Christians here than Hindus and in the old quarters of some of the main towns the people still speak Portuguese. One was the proprietor of the guest house I stayed in, a spritely small woman in her 40s or 50s who said she was of Portuguese origin. “We all speak it round here,” she said, referring to the district of Fontainhas. But for the fact that everyone looked Indian, this could have been southern Europe, with buildings retaining pastel shades of the Mediterranean. It was also very clean and hygiene standards in general seemed to be in a class apart from Bombay. One felt at ease here. Yet the Portuguese aspect appeared to be a veneer. There was no mistaking we were in India, albeit a more sane coastal version. The proprieter was not a fan of Hindi, the local language Konkani, or Indian rule. “It’s such a hard language,” she said, pulling a face to accentuate the point. “But Portuguese is beautiful, you should learn Portuguese.” As I took the bags upstairs she commented on RM’s, let’s say, “Third World passport”. “Hmm, we’ve never had something like this before.” My British one was better to travel on, she suggested. RM agreed.

To fully appreciate the folly of European rule here you need to take a trip to Old Goa. The site of the original Portuguese capital of their Indian possession, the colonials had to abandon the town because of malaria and cholera epidemics. The centrepiece is the tomb of St Francis Xavier, the sixteenth century missionary who is idolized by the local Christians though it was fact he who proposed bringing the Inquisition to Goa. It is the very persecution he instituted which accounts for turning the Hindu locals into today’s Christians who pray over his tomb. Schoolchildren are bussed to visit the Basilica where his body is interred, though every ten years or so it is allegedly pulled out for a public festival. The basilica, cathedrals, churches and palaces are as grand and arrogant as any you would see on the Iberian peninsula. An connected museum contained portraits, painted by converted locals, of Goa’s Portuguese viceroys, full-clothed and imperious. One picture depicts the murder of two two priests, who looked resplendently white and European, by half-clothed brown locals who feign faith in the Christian God while the priest is stabbed from behind. The anatomy of the Inquisition is everywhere. The Se Cathedral contains the same bell today that used to signal the start of the public torture and burning of those convicted of heresy. Along the road that leads down to the river there is the gate known as the Arch of the Viceroys, constructed in 1597 to celebrate the great explorer Vasco de Gama’s arrival in India. On top it has an image of man holding a bible over a figure of what appears to be a native. At the gate RM noticed two young men who had an air of the Israeli about them, and the two young men noticed her, with her scent of the Palestinian. They talked. “We might make peace soon,” the Israelis said. “Well I hope so,” she replied. It was a polite, even kind encounter. The museum in Panjim where a special section told the story of the nationalist struggle against the Portuguese up to 1961 when the Indian army overran the small territory. Goans died for the sake of ridding themselves of the European and the museum gave the lifestories of some of those revolutionaries. But the museum also contained the very table used by the officials of the Inquisition since 1560 until its final revocation in 1814 to question those who engaged in a series of practices followed by Hindus, Muslim and Jews, or newly-converted Christians deemed to have lapsed into their former ways (including possessing incense, marigold flowers, wearing Hindu costume or refusing to eat pork).

* * *

It started with an elderly lady, very red and rather large. Not what you would call attractive by any stretch of the imagination. Behind her there was another woman, white and thin. One of the beach hawkers was giving her a foot massage. You had to admire her in a way for accepting what many others squeamishly turned their nose up at, the thought of the lower-caste locals touching their body parts. But the foot massager was just the start of it. Among the rows of pasty-coloured sunbathers plonked on the sand with their newspapers, creams and beer one noticed at random points sproutings of dark-coloured locals, smiles or stares fixed on their faces as they focused on that one spot, the spot where the women had revealed their breasts. Two young men in tight tops and jeans stood near the bar and café on the edge of the open space before the sea. They smiled in secret, furtive conversation, stealing glances when they could. They briefly looked our way, wondering if the lady I was with would join this incongruous ritual of nude abandon on the liberal beaches of Goa. After some time the elderly lady got up to put on a purple sarong. Her breasts flopped down, but the ripples of flesh on her belly made it difficult to discern where they ended and the other organs began save for two faded nipples that gave the game away. She made her to the café, the Lucky Star beach bar, removing herself from the arena. The odd cow, who always seemed to me stunned by the freedom the Indians allowed them to wander where they will and the attention lavished upon them, wandered aimlessly among the tourists in the distance.

Along came a young guy, a bit of a dude, topless and hairless but with a bit of a protruding chin that made him look more comic than cool. He joined his girlfriend amid the Brits on the beach, but she wasn’t playing crossover or transgressing any invisible cultural lines. They removed themselves to sit near me in the café, ordering a sandwich and a beer in accents that sounded close to Newcastle. She had dark hair, dark glasses and sunkist pale face that made her look like Victoria Beckham. He obviously fancied himself as David. The sea view was of Indian children frollicking joyously in the sea. It wasn’t for a tan in this midday sun. It wasn’t usually until late afternoon when the sun had waned and the heat relented that these children’s parents would venture onto the beachfront to relax in the open air and eat. It was at the far end of the beech near a pretty cliff rising from a jungle-like wood that the poor children would swim. Nearby was a taxi, bus and rickshaw stand and waifs and strays with different deformities but an insouciant gait who would potter around on the beach where they foreigners did not go. The pale young woman showing her breasts was now being regaled by a banana seller. She bought one from the bundle he was dangling longingly in front of her. Then, through the array of beach chairs and umbrellas, I could make out another pair, large and reddish-white and surrounded by flesh. A heavy hand suddenly shot up, to apply a swig of the local Kingfisher beer, signalling that this was a man. I should have guessed since there was no arrangement of boys or hawkers in his vicinity.

Sometime later when the sun was close to bowing out for the day and middle class Indian families strolled along the beach, a long thin woman with shoulder-length blond hair suddenly streaked down the sand into the sea, with her hands held over her bare breasts until she hit the water. A young local man ran after her into the water. His status wasn’t clear, but he swam close to her. People strained to make out whether they were together or not, though if she was being pestered it’s doubtful that anyone would have cared. Infected by this intoxicating air, some crazed dogs ran into the water too. No one bothered them; they must be the happiest dogs in the world, I wondered. But in some unspoken manner, the beach practiced a subtle form of segregation. Brits swam with Brits, Indians swam with Indians, low-caste Indians swam with low-caste Indians.

At Tito’s the two world’s collided. Just behind the beach, it was India’s premier nightclub and place where the tensions of the day on the beach could play themselves out in a gentle denouement that for some came up trumps. The Brits danced away to the Western pop music which blared away amid a sea of young men who had the means to pay the 200 rupee entrance fee. I stood aside watching the interactions, and dodging the inquiring looks about my Indian-looking partner with the big hairdo. Older women taking younger lovers from far-off lands. I could only be so cynical, since I was similar, but in reverse. One lady with short hair and glasses and an air of intelligence had had enough. Her man had bought her a beer too far. There’s no hurrying love, and she left. Towards the end it was a familiar scene—droves of young men with nothing to do but joke and get drunk after the all the women had taken flight. Soon the monsoon season would be here and these luxuriant evenings would not be possible. There were only a few Indian girls out; young, scantily-clad, stunning – only wealth and power could afford them the luxury of a night like this.

* * *

After walking through the markets one afternoon—during which I came across a fluent Cockney-rhyming woman whose called out to passers-by, “hey, mister, why don’t you cop a butcher’s of my stuff” – I fell into conversation with a travel agent about Hinduism. I asked him who wrote the Puranas, and his response was polite but embarrassed. It was like asking a Muslim who wrote the Quran, I think, though a Muslim would not even countenance the suggestion that it was by other than the revealed word of God made text.

He was Sandip, and he explained that Brahman is not the fact God as someone familiar with the so-called monotheistic religions would conceive it, but one of the three main gods of the pantheon and known as Brahma. He almost seemed embarrassed to outline these living beliefs. He confessed that caste still exists, even among the Christians of Goa. What about Bollywood? I asked. “They never admit where they came from, say what their caste is, and they change their names to hide the signs. We can tell by the names what caste you are.” What was admirable, he said, was India’s tolerance, the secularism with which India’s founders bestowed the nation at its creation in the 1940s. “The prime minister is a Sikh, the president is a Muslim, and Sonya Gandhi is Italian!” Syncretism was all around. It was hard to tell to what faith the little roadside shrines around Goa belonged. The icons decorated in wreaths of flowers could be Mary or a Hindu deity. Hindus never try to convert those of other faiths, I pondered, it was a belief system purely for Indians. Yet some had strayed. “The wonder that was India,” to quote the title of A Basham’s celebrated history, had broken into Muslim and Hindu parts. India’s tortured relationship with its own Muslims lurked behind the noisy dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. Naipaul and Hindu extremists, and maybe many others, think Islam remains an outside un-Indian influence. Momentarily this struck me as odd. What’s wrong with an outside influence? That’s what Christianity was to the Romans and Greeks after all, who overthrow an entire belief system for its sake. Should Egypt follow its ancient Pharaonic gods? In fact, Muslims and Christians trade the same accusation in Egypt: to some the Copts are the “true Egyptians”, to others they are a stubborn minority that spoils the spiritual purity of the nation.

Many in the chattering classes make a sport of disecting radical Hindu definitions of India. One day an op-ed writer said in The Navhind Times: “Indian nationhood and nationalism like all nationalism is always under construction and consolidation. There is no such thing as a ‘natural’, Hindu foundation for it. If this was os you would not have the frenzied attempts … to artificially ‘revive’ Hinduism or ‘create’ a Hindu nationalist wave” (K.N.Pandey, “RSS: Ideology and Task Ahead”, 5 April 2005). The writer also noted the “north Indian, Sanskritised Hindi bias” of the Hindu nationalism that has been fashionable for a decade now, since adherents infamously destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya on a site they said was holy to Hindus. One theme at this time was India’s developing close ties with America – strengthening its military and perhaps ready to promote a permanent seat on the Security Council – in order to help fend off the Chinese threat to America’s predominance as the world’s premier economic and political power. “They want regional powers to challenge China before it can challenge the US,” as defence analyst Talat Masood wrote (Hassan Zaidi, “The Return Gift,” India Today, 11 April 2005). The papers carried reports from their correspondents in Beijing comparing the efficiency and cleanliness of one upcoming Asian power to another. They tutted that China has learned the value in having no overbearing security presence and has developed a more sophisticated television news and entertainment culture than India. I wanted to interject that the police state is an art form in Egypt, and independent media? – forget it.

We decided to get a flight back to Mumbai to connect to our return plane to Sharjah. Landing at the domestic air terminal afforded us a unique view of the huge sea of shanty neighbourhoods on the rolling hills in its vicinity. I had been musing over whether indeed the foreigner in India is obsessed about issues of poverty and caste, or whether, as novelist Amitav Ghosh has written, this enigmatic land continues to “pay the price of a monumental inwardness”. India was developing into a dynamic economic power, with an expanding middle class of young, well-educated professionals, so for some at least inwardness was being left behind; the poor were left to make the best of the opportunities available however they can given a social system that glorifies wealth and victimizes the weak. I thought of Egypt again. Britain occupied both nations, who, conscious of their ancient provenance and perhaps even their similar social and moral conservatism, despite the labels of different religions, came together in the 1950s as the core of the non-aligned movement of grand post-colonial hope for restitution of rights and reassumption of rightful places. All the standard indicators showed that India was doing better than Egypt; India had a buzz of emerging economy success, Egypt did not. Yet Egypt seemed to me an all round more comfortable society than here. At only 70 million, and squeezed into a narrow valley surrounded by desert, Egypt perhaps bore no comparison. But if its dimensions were in every sense smaller than India’s, the conversation between rich and poor was naturally more close-up and familiar, maybe even more convivial.

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