A friend of mine once said of his girlfriend: “She has gone to India to find herself.” I tried not to say anything until he did. “Should take all of five minutes.”
I am only surprised the girlfriend wasn’t me. I have been going to India forever. And in all that time, I know I have but scratched the surface. And what am I trying to find? Well, India actually. I’ve already found myself: I am an India freak. How do you explain this kind of attachment, the feeling of homecoming to a place entirely foreign? I grew up in Ipswich – yet as soon as I step off the plane in India I breathe it in. Sure, it’s the heady smell of an open sewer masked with incense but I’m home.
Quaaludes, purple hearts and black bombers. Heaven
There are few places on the continent I haven’t been. I had a blissful time in Kashmir – when you still could – staying on a boat with a Dutch anarchist who was somehow getting his dole money sent to Srinagar. A man would come by offering toilet paper, Dairy Milk and drugs from another decade. Quaaludes, purple hearts and black bombers. Heaven. The Muslim brothers on the boat would take me out every night and gave me no hassle whatsoever. We drank and smoked while their fathers prepared for the Hajj. “We will do that one day,” they said, without urgency.
Nepal was a glory in those days too. I had an unlikely affair there with an ex-monk which made me realise I don’t really have the time for tantric sex. It takes forever.
On my first trip to India, I hit a monsoon in Bombay. I couldn’t cope, so nipped down to Goa. Look, you can have perfectly nice holidays in Goa. I have. If you like Camden Lock, trance, West London wasters, Ibiza lads and Jade Jagger, it’s great. Kerala is beautiful but now over-touristed.
I keep going back to Tamil Nadu, flying in via Chennai (Etihad have a route from London with just a one-hour stop off in Abu Dhabi and I like it: the staff on board address you by name, the TV sets are big and they have nice Acqua di Parma toiletries). Once in Chennai, I taxi down to Mahabalipuram. When I first discovered it, it was a fishing village with temples in the sea. Now it’s full of hotels and the tsunami of December 2004 has left the temples a mess. But I still love this coastline. It’s a working beach with fisherman and cows wandering between the nets. The place is often full of pilgrims in red, there to see Krishna’s Butterball – a huge boulder poised gravity-defyingly on a steep hillside – and the sacred carvings.
From, I usually head to Pondicherry which is essentially mad. It was colonised by the French, so today it’s full of Indian policemen in gendarmerie uniforms, streets called “Rue de la” whatever, and boeuf bourguignon. There are lots of chic places here: I love Villa Shanti for a drink and to get away from the spiritual seekers (and there are a good few here). This is where Sri Aurobindo’s ashram is. He is one of my faves – he was one of the first to resist British rule and it was in prison that he encountered enlightenment. He then met a French woman who they call The Mother who had a vision of an international community for all. As you do. But they actually built one: a strange alternative town of 2,000 people called Auroville. In the middle of it is a vast gold globe named the Matrimandi. It’s a kind of cult. I couldn’t possibly say what the Aurovilleans believe, even though I’ve spent weeks there. All I know is that me and my friend Dave got almost chucked out for giggling at the Star Trekiness of it all. Hippies have more rules than anyone else.
Being told by an obese mystic that I would probably die in 2019 while my daughter was there was also a little odd
On my most recent visit to Tamil Nadu I went to Tiruvannamalai, purely because I’m obsessed with people who worship Shiva. They’re mostly out of their tree, so right up my street. The town is described as a “phallus of fire”, so it’s not twinned with Penge, let’s put it that way. Shiva created the sacred mountain there out of pure light and the place is chocka with ashrams and unsmiling Europeans haggling locals down for 10p because they are so enlightened. But the Dravidian temple complex there is stunning. In one ashram a woman asked me to kiss the feet of a statue of the guru. I said it wasn’t really my cup of chai and, anyway, how did you know which guru to pick when there are so many? “It’s not like shopping, you know,” she said. Apparently they pick you. “What, even the dead ones?” I asked. Well, if I didn’t ask, how would I learn?
From there we went to Elephant Valley, an eco lodge in the hills: stunning, with wild elephants and peacocks, but too quiet and dry for my liking. One night we awoke in dead of night to horrifying noise. Beasts were at large in our room, crashing about and knocking things over. We were too petrified to get out of bed. Come morning, we encountered the creatures who’d so terrified us: loads of chipmunks.
If you want another kind of eerie go inland to Chettinad, a region full of vast abandoned mansions that function vaguely as hotels. This is also the centre of Tamil cuisine. Dosa, idli, pongal for breakfast – amazing food! Tamils have always been looked down upon for their dark skin, but they are proud of their ancient Dravidian culture. They have no time for Modi and Hindu nationalism, and many reject the caste system. I have experienced so much kindness here, apart from a weird Ayurvedic massage where they tied a teapot to my head and dripped oil on me to help with what they called my “mental disturbance”. Then there was the time when I couldn’t get a beer in Chennai. Why not? “We fear you may riot, Madam.” Being told by an obese mystic that I would probably die in 2019 while my daughter was there was also a little odd – but you don’t go to this part of the world if you want interchangeable luxury and familiarity. You go to India and lose yourself. My love affair with the place may wax and wane, but it never goes. C