Mad dogs and an Englishman
Confessions of a young, wild ’traveller-not-a-tourist’
Immediately after completing a three-and-a-half-year journalism apprenticeship in England in 1973, Christopher Maddock set out on an overland trip from England to Australia. It ended up taking eight months through 17 countries. Calcutta in India was one of the most unusual places he visited. Now a Budapest Times staffer, he looks back and prepares to visit again for the first time in decades.
More years ago than I care to remember, I threw myself around India, travelling thousands of kilometres all over the vast sub-continent, from Kashmir in the north to Tiruchirappalli in the south, Bombay in the west to Calcutta in the east.
A backpacker on a budget, travel was usually by steam train, without tickets to save money, sometimes standing for hours in packed third-class carriages, sometimes sitting in the open doorway amid black smuts from the engine chimney stack. I hitch-hiked from Kashmir to Delhi. In Varanasi two bicycle rickshaw drivers fought in the street over my meagre fare.
Accommodation was the cheapest of cheap hotels, with stone rooms containing little more than a charpoy, which is a wooden bed with a rope base. The mattresses were thin and aged and undoubtedly unhygienic. So was the bedding. Bathrooms and toilets were generally “squatters” and not nice.
I don’t remember bottled water being around like it is today, and anyway, who would be crazy enough to buy water, even if you were always scared of the local tap water? In blistering temperatures I barely maintained myself on small clay pots of chai (tea) or occasionally a local bottled fizzy soft drink.
Food was in primitive restaurants and Delhi belly was a constant threat. As Nöel Coward memorably recorded, Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun without a hat. No health insurance. No bank card. Pre-laptop, pre-mobile phone; communication with home was via poste restante, which might hold a letter from mother or brother.
This was no spiritual journey in search of a Great Truth or the Absolute. This was a callow, brash young man ploughing onward. India was country number 10 (Yugoslavia was one country then, not six) on an eight-month overland trip through 17 countries from Dover in England to Darwin in Australia. This was a traveller, definitely not a tourist.
The rules were simple: spend as little as possible on a limited budget, never fly unless forced and beware of the locals, who all wanted to rip you off because even though you had a backpack, stayed in crummy hotels, ate and drank poorly, travelled third-class and were washing your clothes in sinks overnight, you were still obviously far richer than they were, right?
Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan were cultural challenges for a British-European but India eclipsed them all. I saw my first dead person: an emaciated body with rigor mortis on a street in Varanasi, with family members begging around him so they could buy wood for a cremation by the holy River Ganges. Bicycle rickshaws were often seen heading for the same place, with wrapped bodies on board.
I stayed at the Hotel Relax in the Varanasi cantonment, supremely relaxed with a chunk of opiated hashish (this was the hippie trail). One night I asked the Indian sleeping in the corridor for a drink and he flicked on the light in the kitchen to reveal more cockroaches than you could ever think possible, all over everything.
There were the ageing Harley-Davidson motorbike rickshaws in the middle of Delhi, with hand gear-change on the petrol tank. In Kashmir, later a dangerous political hotspot avoided by tourists, I stayed in a wooden houseboat on a beautiful lake amid the serene Himalayan foothills. Kingfishers flashed by as I paddled round in a shikara, a sort of local canoe, amid the most magnificent scenery between London and Sydney.
Cows, dropping their crap, were free to roam crowded, dirty city streets. Ash-covered, near-naked holy men wandered. One, a devotee of Kali, his body painted black with a bright red tongue and carrying a trident, scared the hell out of me as he approached and ranted menacingly before departing.
The occasional elephant wandered through. There was a man with a “dancing” bear, snake charmers with cobras in baskets and, one memorable day, a man levitated on a busy street. He lay on the pavement, put three sticks across his torso and then was covered with a cloth by his assistant. As he rose, the cloth rippled down so that you could never actually see under him. Either it was genuine or by some superhuman effort he pushed himself up off his haunches, raising his concealed arms and the three sticks to a horizontal position, giving the illusion that he had levitated under the covering.
Well, it was India, the most fantasmagorical of travel experiences. Of course there was five-star India too but it wasn’t for backpackers.
Red forts, the Taj, dying French junkies who had no repatriation, Ambassador cars, smoking beedis, man-power rickshaws; it was all a stunning visual and sensory extravaganza. This was 1973. It was a couple of overwhelming weeks in India then escape to Nepal to chill out. Recover, and back to India for another pounding couple of weeks before visiting Sri Lanka. Back for a final couple of weeks in India culminating in Calcutta – oh, Calcutta!
Calcutta was full of East Pakistanis fleeing the war and the streets were full of garbage because of a strike. It was a bizarre scene, as refugees poked among the garbage for tomato skins or other food.
Then on to Burma, South-East Asia and Australia. I returned to Calcutta a couple of years later and the refugee situation had eased but it was still an extreme sort of place. My third and final visit to India was in 1980, only to the northwest.
Now Bombay is Mumbai (but Bollywood isn’t Mollywood), Calcutta is Kolkata. The Indian middle class has grown considerably and embraces modern-day global-village wonders such as shopping malls, SUVs and IT marvels.
Yes, the years have passed and destiny has somehow delivered me to The Budapest Times. Now I am going back to India for the first time in 34 years, just for a week and just to Calcutta/Kolkata, perhaps the most brain-twisting place in this brain-twisting country. Older, yes. Politer, yes. Wiser, hopefully.
What will it be like? Will India be changed? Of course, though I hope not; not too much, anyway. I should like to find it exactly as it was.
For the answer, now read Snake charmers have gone but the ‘charm’ remains