Tax Office and the Trail of the Banana Pancake
- our man in India
people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they
didnt want to be there in the first place or at least want to be
somewhere else - somewhere better'.
"Are you are telling
me that travelling is a complete waste of time?"
Jan was a wide-eyed backpacker from New Zealand who couldn't quite believe
what I was saying. He was "doing India" by journeying along
the well-worn banana-pancake circuit. He had his set-list of places to
visit and things to see - because the guide-book said he must, and was
probably ticking them off with a pen and gained immense satisfaction from
having done so. He began his day early, clutching his book (and pen),
and returned hours later after having gone through his tick-list, and
having achieved his daily quota of sights. I answered his question in
a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner by saying, Yes, thats about
it. Look at the banana-pancake circuit. Its just an endless stream
of westerners passing through the so-called hotspots of India on their
way to nowhere in particular. They spend a few days in a once-in-a-lifetime
must-see spot, and then move on to the next once-in-a-lifetime must-see
spot. They seek permanent excitement and pleasure, but after a while it
all means nothing to them. Excitement and pleasure are best served in
small and temporary doses otherwise they become meaningless."
circuit is mediocrity personified. Its a safe trail of easy to see places,
and relatively few backpackers venture beyond the confines. This is disappointing
as some of the best places and better experiences are to be found beyond.
The pancake trail is lowest common denominator travel; the
easily digestible route for the mass backpacker in transit, and the Lonely
Planet guide-book is one of the books unwittingly responsible for creating
or sustaining the phenomenon. In William Sutcliffes classic Are
you Experienced, the Lonely Planet guide is referred to as the
book, the bible for backpackers - and thats the problem. Too
many unimaginative travellers treat it as the definitive word in travel.
The pancake-circuit consists of towns or areas within cities that have
hotels and cafes aimed almost exclusively at foreigners - and banana,
chocolate, honey and any other form of pancake you can think of is usually
listed on the menu. Its quite strange really, because in my entire
life, Ive never seen a banana pancake on a menu in any place back
home; and what's more, had never eaten one before I came to India.
Pushkar, Manali, Udaipur, Hampi, parts of the Main Bazaar in Delhi, and
particular streets in Varanasi form part of the circuit. They are all
listed in the book (and other books beside), and are great
places to hang-out and meet other westerners. They tend to make the travel
experience in India more bearable. But many become trapped in these traveller-ghettos.
They have become popularised by the guide-books, and are a sanitised world
developed for westerners. Too many pass through like headless chickens.
I was talking to Jan in a pancake-type street café in Mamalupuram,
a dusty, sun-baked coastal town about 50 kilometres south of Chennai.
He continued to listen to my rant - After two or three days in a
must-see location, a lot backpackers get bored of the place,
their own company, or of other backpackers. They feel compelled to move
on believing that the next hot-spot will be better than the last, and
the people there will be more interesting.
Their journey continues in a self-delusory mode, because as soon as people
get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they didnt
want to be there in the first place or at least want to be somewhere else
- somewhere better. The problem is that some seek a permanent high from
doing the circuit.
this guy doing here if he feels like this? Why doesnt he do
us all a favour and go home
Jan was probably thinking what I was thinking about myself - Whats
this guy doing here if he feels like this? Why doesnt he do us all
a favour and go home If he was, he was too courteous to have said
it. He countered by saying - What about those people who come here
and spend weeks or even months in one spot, doing courses on meditation,
yoga or something like that? They cant be described as running around
like headless chickens.
That was the cue for me to whine about one of my favourite topics - A
lot of those types are trying to find themselves. I always wonder where
on earth did they lose themselves. If they had lost themselves in England
then that would be the place to search. Why come half way across the world?
And if they had indeed lost themselves, then who are they now? If they
dont know, then who does? They are completely bananas - probably
as a result of pancake overload.
Jan was on his first big trip away from home. He was overwhelmed by India
- well at least by what he was seeing of it - the palaces, forts, and
temples along with the everyday chaos and colour that bombard you in the
streets. Give him a couple of months and "temple-fatigue" will
have set in. He wont have reached my heady standards by then, but
hell be on his way - perhaps.
My attitude was the end-product of an eight-month trip and I had been
out too long. Ten trips to India in as many years would place a strain
on the most ardent of traveller; and it had. It was time to leave. I went
to Chennai to the main tax office to obtain a tax clearance certificate.
This form supposedly proves that you have not been working in India during
your stay. Its a useless piece of paper really, because no one has
ever asked me for it on leaving India. But I thought it was best to be
safe than sorry.
On the fume-belching bus from Mamalapuram to Chennai, I must have had
two or three separate conversations with local people. Each one was the
same. What is your good name sir - How old - Married?
- What is your job and so on; a mind-numbing daily question
and answer ritual based around my status. So I was happy to find something
different when I got to the tax office - the one place more than anywhere
else where you would expect to be asked such questions.
Tax offices are foreboding places - officialdom (babudom, to borrow an
Indian term) running riot, but I was pleasantly surprised. I entered the
room designated for foreigners and there she was - a cow of a woman -
in the nicest possible sense of course. Many women in India remind me
of the street cows found in every town and city. They stand exuding serenity,
surrounded by urban chaos, and have a certain understated dignity. They
glide along almost unaffected by the brutality of the urban world, and
possess a certain presence that western women tend to lack.
The tax officer in question engaged me in longest conversation that I'd
had with an Indian woman in eight months (or should that be, the only
conversation?). That probably says less about my social skills and more
about the general position of women in India. It was the most interesting
and unusual encounter Id had for a long time. This was a woman who
didn't care to engage on a trivial level. She was deep.
She compared the nature of patriarchy in India with elsewhere, and talked
about the petty vindictiveness of bureaucrats (babus). I suspected that
her expertise on these matters stemmed from first-hand experience, and
was the result of her having been a casualty of both on a daily basis.
Then she surprised me by talking about, of all things, permanency and
disillusionment. She told me that we all seek permanency in our lives,
but as soon as it seems to appear we want something else. So everything
is just temporary. Even disillusionment is temporary - intermittingly
peppered with moments of happiness (perhaps not, as it always comes back
I realised her expertise on this subject was probably also based on first-hand
experience. It was perhaps the result of her having seen and spoken with
so many jaded western backpackers who had passed through her office over
the years. This was a woman after my own heart. She was enchanting. I
got the impression that she wanted to be somewhere else, but felt trapped
forever inside tax-office hell or babudom. The most frustrating thing
was that she knew it, and couldnt do anything about it.
I left auto-rickshaw choked Chennai clutching my tax certificate and headed
to Delhi to fly home. After a 36 hour train journey, I arrived totally
shattered and checked into a hotel. It was full of westerners, no doubt
bloated with pancakes. I read my Lonely Planet guide and pondered about
the permanency of disillusionment, the temporariness of happiness, the
disillusionment of permanency, and the happiness of temporariness. It
was an absolute nightmare. I decided to go to sleep. I suddenly felt enclosed,
and woke up sweating and gasping for breath. I had dreamt that I was trapped
forever inside a giant banana pancake. The most frustrating thing was
that I knew it, and couldnt do anything about it.
© Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India, 2002
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