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Travelling through time...
Colin Todhunter

The spirit of travel is not about getting from one physical point to another, but about embarking on the road to nowhere

I lay on my bed reminiscing about 1960s Northern England where I lived as a child. It must have been about midnight and I thought about terraced houses and smoke stack chimneys rising in the distance down by the docks, and rag and bone men crying, "Any old iron", in sing-song wailing voices as they walked the streets. Of course, there were also parents, family, and friends. Nearly all of those old working class streets have gone the way of the bulldozer, and the people - most are still alive, but a few are now dead.

Then my thoughts drifted toward where I was - India. Images began to flood my mind in the form of temple elephants, road-side vendors, film music, power cuts and generators. I could see foamy mouthed bullocks pulling carts, sky-high kites being flown by children from rooftops in Delhi or in blue walled Jodphur, and puja being offered on the banks of the Ganga. Then there was the almost silent air-conditioned swishness of Spencer Plaza on Chennai's Anna Salai (Spencer's is India's biggest shopping mall). As I lay half asleep, half awake it was clear that they had their own unique resonance; some obvious and abrasive, others more subtle and lilting. Nonetheless each possessed a certain commonality - they were the sound of the present.

And then I thought of the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Sun Temple at Konark, the Vijayanagar ruins at Hampi, Bodhgaya were Buddha achieved enlightenment, and the Kailasa temple at Ellora, carved out of the very mountain where it sits. The full weight of history hung heavy as I lay thinking about the great monuments and sites of India. And I remembered virtually every face that I had seen on the street during the day just gone. All of what I saw, from the temple at Konark to the people on the street, had one thing in common. They were echoes from the past; products of labourers, rulers and of great-great grandparents now long gone.

For me, the echoes grow louder with time. The further into the past people and places become, the sharper the significance and memories of them are. Phrases uttered by people no longer here or no longer seen, now seem more haunting and clearer. The expressions of history, manifested through palaces, monuments or the dull, grey streets of Northern England, appear more significant and meaningful than they ever did before. And because the reverberations of the past are stronger, the appreciation of the present is greater. Maybe, I have just learnt to listen harder.

When I step foot on the street once more, in front of me will be a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured saris, dupattas, marigolds, and all of the paraphernalia that I associate with India - with the "other", with what is different to what I once knew. But then I will turn around and look toward my past, and realise that it has caught up with the present and hitched a ride to India. It will not be such a heavy burden though. In fact, it will make the journey that much more interesting than it would have been than if I had travelled with youth alone.

For some who travel, the experience is all about seeing the sights, mentally ticking them off some list, and all accomplished within a fixed timescale. I have met people who adopt this approach and then tell me that they have now "done" this or that country. It all seems a bit too calculated, suffocating and tedious. Through memory, the past is always present; and through our constant anticipation of it, so is the future. Whereas the past can be a comforting companion, for some the future can be filled with dread if there is nothing to control it - control of the unknown. And what better way to constrain the future is there than to adhere to a highly rigid and predefined travel itinerary? It is the safe way to "travel"; a kind of second hand sanitised version where a true sense of exploration is lost.

Travel is freedom. The spirit of travel is not about getting from one physical point to another, but about embarking on the road to nowhere - a future shrouded in mystery. When this happens, the future seems inviting, and the present becomes more engaging. No physical end-point is required; just a willingness to live in the here and now. Time implies a future and past, but really, there is neither - only the now. And travel should be about the now - what takes place in the present. It is all a state of mind. The past and future are virtual reality. The present is all we have, soaked with echoes from the past and electrified by anticipation of the future. So the aim is to make the most of it by letting yourself be transported to somewhere else, somewhere different in both time and space, body and mind. It can be a difficult place to get to, but that is where I am headed. See you out there?

British Paranoia, Bollywood Fame
"Samosa?". I thought about cockroaches and shook my head vigorously.

This is a story about television and fame and begins in the unlikely setting of a humble eatery in South India. I was famished and stopped at the first street-side cafe or dhaba that I came across. It looked cheap and grotty, and it was cheap and grotty. The cook was frying pieces of something in ghee in a huge, blackened wok-type container or Karais near the entrance. As I entered, he looked up and wobbled his head from side to side in acknowledgement, then shifted his glance back to the wok. I noticed that before immersion, the bits of food had already been fried, possibly hours or even days ago. I thought of blocked arteries and heart-attacks. Maybe he was just making sure that the food had lost none of its super-saturated fat flavour.

He was wearing a T-shirt that had probably once been white. But that must have been a long time back. It was now layered with grime. His protruding belly indicated that it had seen more than its fair share of excessively fried tit-bits over the years. Strangely enough, there wasn't a bead of sweat on him. It must have been 35 degrees outside, but the flaming stove cranked up the temperature to about 40 inside. I was dripping before entering and was now absolutely oozing. I pointed to the ceiling fan. He obliged by switching it on. I was the only customer and sat at one of the four tables. They had obviously been cleaned quite recently - no doubt with the oily rag next to the sink judging by the greasy wipe-marks.

I would not have thought it possible but the walls were covered with even more grime than he was. The floor was blanketed with dust and discarded pieces of food. Hygene must have been a long lost concept to this man, but then again that suggests that he had discovered it in the first place. A guide book may politely describe the surroundings as having "character" or "charm"; others might say, filth and cobwebs. The mosiac of flaking paint and patches of dirt on the walls was interrupted by a board containing around ten light and fan switches, and a shrine with a model Ganesh situated on a shelf. I did not want to look at either the walls or floor for too long for fear of seeing hoards of roving insects. Eventually I did look but didn't see any. How could such a room be insect-free? That is when I got worried. Maybe that's what he was frying!

He said something to me in Tamil and guessing that he wanted to take my order I replied "meals". "Meals" is the catch all word that usually implies rice, and various vegetable dishes and dips. I knew instinctively that there would be no bits of fried "thing" that he could slip in. I would easily detect them. He lifted a "thing" from the vat of oil, looked at me and shouted "Samosa?". I thought about cockroaches and shook my head vigorously.

A few minutes later a banana leaf was placed in front of me, which I sprinkled and wiped with water using my fingertips, then rice and various dishes were set out. As I began to eat, someone else came and sat at one of the other tables, smiled at me and said "Good morning". Then he said something to the cook in Tamil and turned to say, "Are you famous Hindi movie star..." - I interrupted by saying "Sanjay Dutt". He laughed, the cook laughed and I groaned inwardly while smiling.

I must hear someone tell me that I look like the Bollywood hero Sanjay Dutt about four times a day. The person telling me always thinks that he is the first person ever to have told me. But it is a something of a rarity to be told this in Tamil Nadu. And it is very rare to be asked if I am actually Sanjay himself. As if Sanjay Dutt is going to be eating a rice meal in the kind of grot-shop that I was in. Anyhow, the Tamil speaking world has its own film industry centred in Chennai, and Sanjay or Bollywood are not as big in Tamil Nadu as they are in other parts of India. Alas, on this particular occasion Tamil Nadu provided little sanctuary.

If I had ten rupees for every time that someone has said that I look like Sanjay Dutt then I would be as rich as Sanjay Dutt. Apparently, according to half of the Indian population, I look like him. There may be a slight resemblance, but surely not enough to merit the almost constant barrage of "You look like famous Hindi movie star...". The only other occasion when someone asked if I was him, as opposed to just saying I looked like him, was on a platform whilst boarding a sleeper train. There was as much likelihood that Sanjay would be travelling in an ordinary second class sleeper as there was that he would be eating in a street cafe in Thanjavur.

I suppose being told that I look like a film star should be flattering. If I was told that I looked like Brad Pitt or Mel Gibson back in the UK then it would no doubt feel good. Unfortunately, feeling flattered is a phase long since gone. The Sanjay thing has become rather tedious and my response is now accompanied with an inner sigh, and a smile to hide my exasperation.

In India I am famous without really being famous, yet back in England I am on TV everyday. I walk down the road - I am on screen. In the railway station, I am on screen. And in every shop on the high street - yes - I am on screen. Some people would give their right arm to be on TV, but not me. I am not talking about the type of TV that everyone watches in comfort or for entertainment, but the kind where someone gets paid to monitor and evaluate your every move. I'm talking about Closed Circuit TV. The almost ubiquitous arm of "law and order" that has found its way into every nook and cranny of public life in the UK.

CCTV came into its own when people's rights were being stripped away in the name of producing a "flexible" and "cost-effective" workforce. The legacy has been a permanent underclass of people who cannot "pay their way". They couldn't become fully paid up members of the consumer society - they were sacrificed on its altar. Now they are surplus to requirements, the "not really wanted" generation whose spending power is minimal. It was impossible to wall them in on their housing estates, and I guess that at one time or another this had been considered, so CCTV became the next best option. The authorities regard them as a drain on welfare resources at best and as a potential threat at worst. In order to root out the "unsavoury" elements, everyone in Britain is now on screen. We are all under suspicion. British paranoia at its finest. A case of being on screen, but without the fame.

As I scooped the last bit of rice into my mouth, I looked around the cafe and thought that sanitised British high streets and CCTV were a million miles from the tropical, banana leaf world of South India. And I thought that Sanjay would probably have been luxuriating in his five star world somewhere. I have all of the attention and "fame" but without the fortune or wealth. But it could be worse. I once saw a Hindi film and one of the main actors had a shaven head with great tufts of hair sprouting out from his ears. At least people do not tell me that I look like him. Or worse still, Karishma Kapoor! (A female star for those who don't know.)

Being a westerner attracts a fair share of stares in India. It is bit of an ego boost to be looked at all the time. But the stare factor goes way above and beyond the norm for a Sanjay look alike. And the feelings of self-importance that it brings are a lot different from the negative ones associated with the gaze of CCTV in Britain. All the world has become my stage. But on which stage would I rather be? There is the Sanjay-friendly one where I can revel in pretend fame. And then there is the paranoia inducing one with life being lived through a lens. A good old slice of Bollywood pretend fame, or an unhealthy dose of British paranoia? There's no contest.

© Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India 2002
- The Madras Diaries
Traveller Tales on the Road in India
a new book by Colin Todhunter
available now
£4.99 or $11.99 CND
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Read Colin's Collection of India Stories now available, with new unpublished additions in Hacktreks first work in print.

Colin Todhunter in India
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Colin Todhunter in India
He had met a woman in the hotel, and was totally mad about her.

From Copenhagen to Byron Bay:
A tale of two women
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"In India first you get married and then you work these things out", he said with amazing casualness.

Poison Kiss
"There will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says...
Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.

The unique experience of going
to the gym in India

Colin Todhunter

Me, God and Jerry Seinfeld: spaced out in India
Colin Todhunter

I got the impression that he thought he was a living God. He was lost in space.

Chennai Tax Office and the Trail of the Banana Pancake
Colin Todhunter
'as people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they didn’t want to be there in the first place or at least want to be somewhere else - somewhere better'.

Back to the Future on Triplicane High Road
Colin Todhunter

I found women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair, but not both together.

More Journeys in Hacktreks

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