India 08, India 09

It’s been a while.

In mid-September I flew to India for the first time in five years, using a rag-tag collection of budget airlines that led to lots of checking myself in and out of airports and hanging around waiting for connections. I spent a long time in Darwin airport (thanks, Jetstar!), which is pretty tiny. It does have a Red Rooster. But it wasn’t open.

I travelled around updating the Orissa and West Bengal chapters of Lonely Planet’s India guide; it was my first LP authoring job, and it turned out to be pretty exhausting work. I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but if nothing else the whole experience will help me to be a better editor for LP, knowing how things work from the author’s point of view.

People keep asking me what the highlights were, and I’ll pretty much say ‘Darjeeling‘.

Anyway, the whole trip made me think about my ongoing relationship with India, the country where I lived in from 1980 to 1987. This seems to be the way it works:

When I’ve been away from India for a while, I start to miss it. I go into an Indian grocery store and breath in the smell of methi and agarbathi and Lux soap and I nudge Chris and say We have to go to India. Every time I eat a dosa I get teary. I start making holiday plans (or, more recently, get myself an India-related job) and get more and more excited and by the time I’m on the plane I’m almost shaking. When I land in India I get a taxi to my hotel and I wind down the window and feel hot gritty wind in my hair and I’m high, I see goats eating posters off the walls and open drains and huge billboards with Mithun Chakraborty advertising steel rods. It’s all so familiar, and I think I’m really home, at last.

The feeling of familiarity stays with me, but the high disippates. I rediscover all the reasons that travel in India can be hard, especially if you’re on your own and you look different: the staring, the petty bureaucracy, the humidity, the touts, the fact that nothing is ever straightforward. Then I feel all this white liberal guilt for feeling frustrated, which winds me up even further.

Eventually I throw a little hissy fit, somewhere along the line. This time it was at Kolkata’s central train station, late in the evening, after my train to Bhubaneswar was mysteriously cancelled. My bag was heavy, the station was heavingly chaotic, and I was sent from queue to office to queue to unhelpful ticket officer in search of an alternative train or ticket. At one point, when I was sent to the end of another long queue, I started to blub, and saw the words I’M NEVER COMING BACK in capital letters in my head. When I eventually reached the front of the queue and was told I was in the wrong queue, I lost it and shouted I’ve been sent to seven different offices and everyone tells me something different! The man behind me in the queue said very calmly and earnestly, Oh but madam, that is India.

Eventually the trip comes to an end, and I’m happy to go home, and I think Well I got it out my system this time, and by the time I get on the plane I’m almost shaking with excitement. I get back to Melbourne and get high on shopping in supermarkets and drinking out of the tap. (Also, this time I had a loved partner and dog to return too: extra happiness.)

Given the usual pattern, in about six months we would be walking past an Indian video shop in Sydney Road and some familiar Hindi hit would blare out and I would say Oh Chris we have to go to India. But this time, for the first time, I’m going back while I till have bad memories as well as good ones.

The Australia Council in its wisdom has given me some funding that will let me research in India and take some time off work to write (or at least start writing) another book. This time I’ll be starting in Ooty and then travelling up the east coast from Chennai to Kolkata.

Loosely, the subject matter is the life and death of Australian missionary Graham Staines, but it’s not a straight biography – it will be more a travelogue in the style of Women of the Gobi. I’m off in late February, and have a loose itinerary already, but I’m open to suggestion about places to visit. Anyone with any ideas about religious sites/figures on the east coast (especially where different religions are working/worshipping together) please drop me a line!

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