From the very start of this project in November 1999 in terms of distance I’ve travelled a very long way. In terms of an education and the many emotional traumas I have experienced along the way I think I’ve travelled even further. First Grandpa died whilst I was in Kerala South India, then Nan died last year and just four months ago we lost my father. My longing to be back in India has never been stronger.
Of cause at the moment I have a little boy who I adore being with and he is the only thing that stops me from packing my bags a leaving. He is the only reason for me being here.
Grandpa would have loved Max. This is a portrait taken of Grandpa sitting on the wall at Bishop cottons school Bangalore As I look back it was such a happy time.
Aware I have not paid due attention in showing more portraits taken whilst I meandered around India, and I could certainly been accused of blather as I’ve talked so much recently about my ‘interesting’ last decade.
So; here is a portrait whilst I was recovering from an ear infection in South Goa. Ok, Ok I was having a good time whilst recovering from an ear infection in Goa. Who would have thought that morphine tables could make you sleep for two weeks?
I’ve noticed a lovely little tradition in Goa; one day each year when the Banjara women collect money from foreigners on Palolem beach. These women are commonly known as India’s wondering gypsies.
I have yet to nail exactly where they come from as I’ve met with these ladies all over India.
Now this cannot be a centuries old Indian tradition can it? I’m fairly sure that tourists weren’t found in India before the 1960’s. Am I wrong?
These ladies own small shops. They make and sell cheep clothes to old hippies at Anjuna flea market. They bargain hard! On this day one day of the year they collect money spend it on alcohol and get pissed at the beach with every one else.
I’ve been told by many that India absorbs other cultures in to its own. There is a feeling of ‘well, if those foreign women can do that then so can we’. There husbands don’t seem to complain.
‘They can make you so paranoid’. These words were whispered to me.
Mid September 2002
Back then New Delhi still slept at night, but my introduction was loud and frightening. As if the hunt had begun almost as I arrived.
In the year before I left home, warnings became more frequent and direct. Not from my inner circle of mates but from dodgy blokes I’d befriended along the way.
Life had dealt me an eclectic mixture of interesting associates. There were journalists and informers, police officers and drug dealers, publicans and private detectives. Mum once said ‘be careful who you mix with in life’. I should have listened.
My journey started from Birmingham Airport close to home in the West Midlands. I was happy and relieved a new chapter in my life was beginning. I had wanted this moment. I had dreamed of it.
Most of my fellow passengers got off in the United Arab Emirates where we’d had a short stop-over. When we eventually landed in New Delhi I was almost alone, I collected my rucksack quickly from the baggage area and passed through immigration. I felt really good.
India is different, normal rules do not apply. On arrival you do not just hail a taxi outside. After I changed Travellers’ Cheques for rupees I went to the government-controlled pre-paid taxi booth where I ‘secured my taxi’. I didn’t think much of it, but I noticed two portly officials exchange my driver three times before we were allowed to leave.
I felt relaxed. More relaxed than when I’d first arrived in Mumbai three years before with my elderly Grandfather. I was not a newcomer to India I was aware arriving here alone could prove challenging.
Though I had been offered the middle seats I chose to sit next to the driver. Slight of build and dressed in regulation khaki uniform. We said ‘hello’. My knees were jammed against the plastic dashboard.
The pungent odour of post monsoon New Delhi filled my nostrils that evening. It has a unique smell quite unlike any where else I’ve ever visited. Whilst not entirely unpleasant it permeates your soul.
‘New Delhi, sir?’ ‘Connaught place please’ I said confidently, pretending I knew my destination.
We joined the Old Gurgaon Road.
Even early in the morning all manner of traffic occupy India’s streets. Cars and taxis auto-rickshaws, Lorries, along with bullock-driven carts, jostle for space.
My young driver thrashed the engine, hogging the outside lane for the first few miles, refusing to be bullied from position.
It was then I became aware that the chase had begun. I heard the sound of distant sirens. Police?
If I was their prey, their intelligence must have been spot on. I saw the red and blue flashing lights grow brighter, bouncing off every surface within the white Suzuki taxi van.
I looked over my right shoulder and tried my best to peer through the small square window in the back of the van. I couldn’t see much. I leaned out of the window. I saw it was police.
I glared at the driver. He didn’t seem bothered, he gave a gentle Indian head shrug but I was panicking. I’d just arrived in the country and now I felt on edge. Were the police after me? There weren’t any drugs in my luggage. I hadn’t smoked anything for months. Had I been set up? Had the driver switch been planned?
The intermittent glow from over-head orange street lamps made visibility inconsistent, the disorientation of this only made my anxiety worse. As the police vehicle swerved menacingly behind us I pleaded with the driver to pull over.
Hotels and guest houses of all standards and sizes lined our route. Stray dogs and street dwellers lurked amongst the shadows.
Words that had first been uttered in a Midlands pub were now ringing loudly in my ears. ‘These people can find you anywhere’. I’d been told.
The police car passed us. I was safe I thought, but immediately the chase began afresh. This time they were definitely after me.
Another police car caught up with us. My driver once calm began to panic but sensibly this time he pulled across the expressway and stopped. A police officer ran from his vehicle screaming at us. At this point I raised my hands in the air. He shone his touch in our faces in anger he smashed it against our windscreen. The windscreen shattered.
A huge lorry that was travelling at terrific speed passed within inches of the police officer, our taxi shuck. It was so close it caught our breath as it passed. More police chased behind. Of cause they were not chasing after me.
There was a moment of quiet before my driver put his hands to the top pocket of his shirt and he pulled out a Beedi. He struck a match, breathed, lit it then inhaled.
Welcome to India I thought.
Looking back, I guess the warning was quite clear.
‘A man never feels truly alive until he is hunted.’
At the time, it came out of context. In my local, the pub where I felt comfortable and safe. From a man I considered a friend.
I was drinking a pint of draft Guinness. The landlord was a grumpy middle age man I had known since my late teens. I remember him slender younger but over the years he had allowed his girth to spread and the misery of his life told tales across his face. He had been collecting beer glasses from the empty tables behind me and I was leaning with elbows pressed against the bar.
It was tea time and the pub was quieter than usual he turned his head in my general direction and spoke those words that still haunt me, more than a decade on. Softly, for my ears only.
I felt he knew something. That he had a vague knowledge of my past and of my future. He seemed pleased with himself. I was left trying to work it out. Only now am I starting to appreciate what he meant.
Whilst visiting pilgrimage sites in India I always start my day eating an omelette that the chef makes using two eggs and always comes accompanied by two small slices of slightly sweet square toast (separate butter). The omelette arrives laced with fresh green chilli which helps to wake the sleepy morning tongue and it is a healthy and filling breakfast option when there are no pigs living nearby to supply the protein. I prefer eating at Non Vegetarian restaurants in India though I do enjoy vegetarian food sometimes. One would have has to force me kicking and screaming into Pure Vegetarian eateries.
Whilst staying in some of the more devout Hindu places of pilgrimage on the temple town circuit, sometimes even finding eggs can prove problematic. When you do eventually stumble across the odd egg or two they are offered to you by the waiter with a secretive whisper in your ear and then served to you quietly in the corner of a room out of view as if they are illegal drugs or smuggled alcohol and yes I am aware of local sensitivities concerning the consumption of some food types but I learned many years ago in India ‘Sab kuch milega’. Or as the Hindi saying transcribes in to English ‘everything is possible’. With that said and as a general rule of thumb the more sacred the town you find yourself eating in the less likely you will be able to find a full English breakfast and yes you can get ‘full- English’ in much of India. Thankfully India absorbs cultures and caters for everyone.
The days always start slowly in India, boys and girls in smart uniforms brush their teeth from outside water taps before heading off to school whilst soapy men squat next to metal buckets that clank together noisily as their vigorous body washing begins and as is repeated in countless other towns across India, cows that at first glance appear to belong to know one roam dusty streets where they rummage through rubbish collection points burying their snouts deep into an unhealthy combination of plastic bags and rotting vegetation where they search for any left over morsel of food they can find.
For the last couple of days I had been enjoying the company of a young British woman called Jessica who was heading in the same direction as me. We met each other at Bangalore city train station whilst buying tickets for Hospet and after our over night train journey we then shared the cost of the 13km auto-rickshaw ride to our final destination of Hampi where we then shared a small room, it makes perfect economic sence!
Hampi is an ancient temple town that is located on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in the southern state of Karnataka. It is not a well-kept secret, it is visited by thousands of foreign and local tourist who travel here each year to loose themselves in the faded splendour of its temple ruins, ruins that were painstakingly carved centuries before out of the moon-like boulder strewn prehistoric landscape.
I had travelled to Hampi once before and to get lost amongst its lunar panorama is reason enough to visit again but to stumble across and then climb up hidden ruins that spread out for mile upon mile is also unforgettable and well worth a second look. That morning before we started our day’s exploration we walked a short distance from our guest house and we found a typical family run restaurant called Nandi named after Shiva’s bovine chariot. Jessica and I entered through the open door and we sat down on one of the plastic chairs ready to order our breakfast. The restaurant was empty, we were the only customers.
Tourist restaurants across India that cater for the long-term European traveller are cheep and cheerful simple affairs, stone floors plastic chairs and tables, a fan that may or not work. Found hanging from walls on loose hooks will be framed photographs of deceased relatives, images of Indian Idols or any number of Hindu gods, whilst slowly burning incense sticks perfume the air. Adorning another wall will almost certainly hang a large out-of-place plastic banner with a either a photograph of snow-capped Himalayan Mountains or a beautiful Goan palm fringed beach scene or a soaked Keralan house boat caught in a monsoon downpour, photographic clichés that help to reinforce the Indian tourist departments’ ubiquitously used slogan ‘Incredible !ndia’.
Jessica and I waited for the waiter…. And we waited a bit longer. We were in no rush and we sat talking together patiently. After about ten minutes the waiter appeared from the kitchen door and when he finally noticed us he made his way from behind the counter the short distance to our table. He was a small middle-aged man and he was wearing a clean and freshly pressed white shirt and black trousers; he looked slightly surprised to see any customers at all. I knew what I was ordering so when he asked “what would you like to eat sir?” Men in India are always served first; I replied straight away “I will have an omelette with toast please and a coffee, thank you.” And Jessica said “and I’ll have the same please, coffee also.”
The waiter wrote the simple order down onto his note pad he politely nodded his head towards us thanked us both very much and he walked back behind the counter and disappeared from where he first came. Jessica and I waited and talked. We waited and we talked a little longer. Jessica and I were in no rush we carried on chatting until a full twenty minutes had gone by without either of us catching a glimpse of the waiter again. And then, an extraordinary thing happened.
A large white bull that had been wondering around outside the restaurant walked in through the door. The bull made its way to our table in the middle of the room, it stopped for a few seconds checking out the empty restaurant, it turned its head from side to side ignoring myself and Jessica before it continued on its way towards the counter where it stood and waited……… It waited some more.
The bull stood quite still, its only occasional movement was flicking its tail from side to side to remove flies that had been drawn to its shitty arse hole, this twitching movement allowing the occasional rear glimpse of its magnificent pair of low hanging testicles.
The waiter appeared from the kitchen door and when noticing the bull he immediately turned around and doubled back on himself into the kitchen. The bull waited patiently moving only to scratch one of its horns on the counter top. Sounds of a knife Chopping on a wooden board came from inside the kitchen and five minutes passed before we saw the waiter again, when he did eventually returned from the kitchen he was carrying a small mountain of mixed salad that was piled high on a shiny steel platter.
Having travelled in India for a number of years I explained to Jessica that once whilst on an increasingly desperate hunt for Imodium tablets I had stumbled across a Cow that was lying down inside a chemist shop where subsequently it transpired that it was allowed to escape the scorching midday heat on a daily basis, but that was in the Holy city of Benares and nothing surprises me in the Holy city of Benares but until this point in my lengthy travels across this great country I had never come across a bull being served a mixed salad in a restaurant whilst I was seated and waiting for my breakfast.
The waiter placed the mixed salad on top of the counter infront of the waiting bull, he then turned around and went back through the door disappearing once more into the kitchen from where he came. Jessica and I then watched the bull as it slowly munched its way through the fruit and vegetables of which for any bull anywhere in the world was a very healthy start to the day.
The bull cleared the food from the metal dish with its dextrous probing slimy black tongue making double sure that it had consumed every piece of vegetation the waiter had served onto that shiny plate. Once happy all of the food was finished the bull did a remarkable three-point-turn managing to avoid every empty table and chair in the restaurant. The bull walked straight past where Jessica and I were sitting ignoring us once again and missing us both by inches, It then sauntered out of the restaurant. There was a short silence between Jessica and I, the sort of silence that occurs after all remarkable events.
I looked at Jessica as much to break the silence as for anything other good reason for speaking and I said “I wonder where our Coffee is?” She replied agreeing with me that it seemed to be taking a long time “Yes, it has been a while hasn’t it.” Jessica and I sat there waiting.
It was another ten minutes before we saw the waiter again and when he did return from the kitchen both Jessica’s patience and mine had worn a little thin the restaurant was empty and we were desperate for our cups of Coffee. When I saw that the waiter was not even carrying our coffee let alone the two omelettes I felt I needed to make a small complaint. I raised my hand in the air like a child who trying to grab the teacher’s attention and I pompously said “excuse me, now I’m not being funny but you took our order down over thirty-five minutes ago and it was only for a couple of cups of coffee and two omelettes you are not exactly busy and we haven’t had either. A bull wonders in off the streets it walks straight to the counter and you serve it almost immediately.”
The waiter looked directly towards me and he replied politely in a calming hushed ascetic tone “Yes sir that is true but that bull comes in here to eat everyday.” With a slight smile and half an Indian head wobble he turned around and headed back towards the kitchen pleased I am sure that he had reminded a Gora that being a tourist and human does not mean automatic preferential treatment over regular customers especially when in temple towns and the name of the restaurant is Nandi.
NOTE 1- After taking advise I have chosen to use the more acceptable Hindi word Kinnar as reference to India’s 3rd sex, rather than the general word ‘Hijra’ which holds disrespectful colonial connotations and I admit I’ve used for years.
NOTE 2- I must also make a note to myself some time very soon. I must not start any more blog postings with ‘whilst sitting and gently rocking on a train’ but as it is true, here goes.
Whilst sitting and gently rocking from side to side on an express train bound for VT station deep inside Mumbai’s frenetic sense arousing suburbs I heard the ominous ‘triple hand clap’ of the Kinnars’ as they made their way along the carriage towards where I was seated.
They were still some distance away and with my ear finely tuned I could tell by the amount of hands I could hear clapping there were a group of Kinnar approaching. This provocative on-mass approach was a clear signal to me. There was the probability of gang intimidation the definite use of some very provocative language and behaviour and the possibility of a smidgen of sexual molestation, aimed predominantly at vulnerable young men. I have been witness to a number of testicular squeezes on board a train on a number of occasions and I was hoping that once they realised they had a foreigner on board, and that being an unknown quantity for them, I would most probably be spared both the sexual assault and daylight robbery, I’ve only had my balls grabbed once. I could cowardly sit back and watch as my fellow male passengers deflected most of the flack away from me. Women are always spared the intimidation and humiliation!
The train was somewhere between the local stations of Kalyan and Thane well inside Mumbai’s commuter belt, the perfect hunting ground for Kinnar to find their prey and collect revenue whilst people are on their daily commute into work. As for me I realised that this could go one of two ways, they would either giggle at first then completely ignore me or I would be picked out for special treatment. This day I got the ‘special’ treatment.
Since sunrise I had been sharing the compartment with four young men and two young ladies, I myself had been on the train for over 24 hours whilst my six fellow passengers were newer arrivals, having boarded the train on its slow approach to the city. The four young men had huddled together on the two single seats next to the isle and were sitting on top of one another in a comfortable early morning embrace as young men often do in India. The two young ladies were sitting opposite each other inside the carriage peering through the metal bars of the trains open windows, their faces partly covered by their sari in a polite discreet manner this helped keep their faces free from dust but also enabled them to hold a private conversation together.
The jingle of bells from gold ankle bracelets grew louder as the bare footed Kinnar announced their approach. Heavy stomping of feet accompanied by rhythmic finger clicking and their oh-so-soft hollow hand clapping along with the occasional loud bang of a tabla let everyone know they was coming. An inexperienced foreigner who was travelling on an Indian train for the first time could be forgiven for believing the train had been boarded by a troupe of female dancers dressed in traditional rural village costume from deep inside the deserts of Rajasthan. Not as was the case, by a group of hairy legged transgender ‘males’ who had nothing more traditional on their minds apart from relieving people from there hard-earned Rupees.
Within Indian culture the Kinnar (who are also known disrespectfully Hijra) have a magical persona and can perform religious rituals at weddings and at the births of newly born boys, they can also bestow blessings for good health and can earn a handsome living when working for the upper classes. Most Kinnar see themselves as neither men nor women but as a separate 3rd sex and life for the many different ‘types’ of Kinnar can be as complex and as troublesome as it is fascinating. Many Kinnar are also sex workers.
Almost all my encounters with Kinnar have been happy ones and for most of the time they have been a brief enlightening experience for me. My encounters with India’s 3rd sex have usually been filled with many jokes and also lots of questions. I have asked them questions and in turn they have interrogated me. Only once, an isolated incident close to Hosur in the southern state of Karnataka have I ever had a proper ‘run-in’ with a Kinnar, when I felt under pressure to hand over money, that on that day, I just did not have and the altercation ended up with a brick being thrown at the rickshaw I was travelling in. That was the only time a meeting with a Hijra could have turned really quiet nasty, my auto rickshaw man quietly and wisely advising me not to retaliate. He said Hijra sometimes have bad days.
Almost out of nowhere and as I sat remembering my slight rickshaw-altercation some years before, that very moment, a ‘diva’ of Bollywood poroprtions burst through from behind her entourage and freed herself from her hand clapping and dancing friends. She was wearing an electric blue and quite revealing chiffon dress that flowed almost to her ankles. The neck line was plunging allowing just a tantalising glimpse of her red laced Bra and she had a huge fake Safire necklace which lay against the a growth of stubble on her chest. Stubble that I estimated was shaved off roughly a week ago.
There was no doubting her intentions she took one long and lingering look in my direction she sauntered over to where I was sitting and sat down next to me she put one hand firmly on my right knee and in a voice that could pass for an Indian version of Ertha Kitt she stated very deliberately with eye to eye contact “I-am-in-love–with-you-darling”. She purred after she said this to me.
She asked me. “What is your name darling”? I replied with deliberate eye to eye contact that my name was Jason. She replied back in the voice of a purring Indian cat once again “My-name-is-Cheryl-and-I-love-you”. It was at this moment for a few brief seconds I actually flirted with assuming the identity of a generic and bumbling Hugh Grant type of character, stumbling through a dictionary full of apologetic words with an English boarding school stammer. I thought against this option though and decided to front this situation out without using an alternative persona for cover.
Also at this point in the journey I honestly sensed that there had been a sharp intake of breath from everyone else in the carriage swiftly followed by a huge collective sigh of relief. I definitely felt that the atmosphere had been lifted and everyone else in the carriage were actually thinking, Ha! Let the foreigner take all of the flack this morning.
Cheryl asked me politely “What is your name and what do you do”? I told her that my name was Jason and that I was a photographer. Before I could catch my breath she exclaimed loudly ensuring everyone in the carriage could hear “Jason-I-Love-you”. The young Indian men adored the attention that was being lavished upon me and not upon them and I admit now that I was slightly flattered by Cheryl’s advances but only slightly you understand. I told Cheryl that as we had just met I did not believe that she really loved me and that may be it was possible it was only a little lust she was feeling. The young men on the single seats were laughing out loud now and the ladies in the open window seats were also paying more attention to the commotion we were making in our carriage.
There are never ‘normal’ journeys into Mumbai on the train. Life in India is never simple but today’s encounter with Cheryl was less normal than other. Cheryl and I had quickly turned into a comedy double act aboard that train, we had really clicked and I told Cheryl that she should have her own show on prime time television. Cheryl was born to be a star and I do believe that in any other country she could have fronted her own cable TV chat show, she was an enigma. I remember thinking at that time that Indian prime time television may not be ready for Cheryl just yet.
I am not easily shocked. I have been in some situations that some people might find uncomfortable and others even questionable but the refreshing thing about being in India is that however long I spend within India’s cultural grasp she always pushes the boundaries of what might be considered socially acceptable to the absolute limits. In India I imagine clearly defined rules but in India I find these rules can be bent and even more fluid and surprising than many supposedly liberal western communities.
Cheryl was pulling no punches. She said to me “I know that you love me and I know that you want me” and I told her categorically that I had absolutely no sexual interest in her at all but I did think she was very funny. Cheryl was like a mongoose in a death grip with a serpent though, she would not let go. Cheryl made her intentions quite clear again and with the universal and provocative hand gesture she openly offered me some light hand relief. Cheryl said we could go to the toilet. I told Cheryl that although she was dressed as a woman I was aware that under her blue chiffon dress she was almost definitely still a man and that I really had no intention of finding out. I was not about to be tossed off in a toilet by a bloke in a blue chiffon dress on a train in India even thought I quite liked him-HER. I said to her quiet defiantly , I’m just not doing it!
The two young ladies who were sitting in the window seats were laughing at us whilst her troupe of fellow Kinnars’ listened passively from the next compartment. So I turned towards the young Indian men expecting their support, Cheryl wasn’t taking ‘NO’ for an answer. I turned to the eldest and smarter dressed of the young Indian men. “You wouldn’t go off to the toilets and pay to have, with a nod of my head, ‘that’ done to you would you?” and without any hesitation he replied “yes, why not?” I asked the next man “would you?” He also replied yes. All four of the young men confessed that if it had been offered to them they would all go off to the toilet to be tossed off by a Kinnar on a train. The two young ladies in the window seats were holding their sari over their mouths and were giggling loudly.
I asked the first man again. I said I can’t believe it; you would have no problem going off with Kinnar to a train toilet? With a cool shrug of the head and in his lovely confident Mumbai accent his said “Ya! why not? Same feeling!”
The only thing that really shocks me to this day about that mornings encounter was the honesty of those four young men and that how sex with a male prostitute was so readily accepted in front of virtual strangers. Imagine that on the Birmingham to London cross-country line.
Before Cheryl left I did manage to write down her phone number I was desperate to meet up and take her portrait but I swear and I know you will not believe me I lost her mobile phone number and I never met her again and that is the sad truth to this little tale ended. Honest…..
Jason Scott Tilley
Whilst travelling for so many years across India I always felt a very real sense of peace, I felt that India was the correct place for me to be and that though some periods of my life may have been way out of control and were the consequence of hard work, heavy drinking, drug use and mixing with some seriously dodgy people, everything in my life up to that point seemed to have conspired in my favour and had brought me to an unexpectedly stunning period of living.
Even though I might only be briefly passing through the organised chaos of a vibrant mega-city, where on an hourly basis and whilst not in the confines of cheep spartan rooms, over time I had learned to dodge the wing mirrors of auto-rickshaws erratically driven by skinny mad men and I had acquired the skill of avoiding the dangerous horns of oncoming bovine traffic and I jostled, shoulder to shoulder like a local, with the hurried hoards who had to compete for every spare inch of space, in this mayhem and in India I always felt a true sense of home.
I was also equally at home whilst relaxing and living for weeks at a time breathing fresh mountain air in quiet Himalayan community’s, completely understanding why my Great Grandfather chose to build a cottage retreat in the hills of the Deccan plateau where he could escape the summer heat of Bangalore.
Whilst I was being rocked from side to side sitting next to an open window aboard a steady moving train, the hot dusty breeze drying taught skin on my always sun tanned face I honestly believed that I belonged to that specific moment in place and time, inextricably connected to a country and to family members who were born and who had lived their entire lives in India many decades before but had long since passed away.
Stories had been expertly woven together over the course of so many years using our family’s cherished oral history and our much loved family photograph albums and were recounted to me with a great passion by my Grandpa that I felt I was able to take refuge with family spirits of the past and prepare myself for an increasingly uncertain future.