India’s Secret

6th January 2019

Stalin has brought me coffee. My kind of coffee. Because Stalin is my kind of man.

He noticed, over the first four mornings, that I was abstaining from India’s bitter beans. ‘I have some Nescafé at home, sir’, he said. And that was that. The next day my caffeine IV route was reestablished. No more hotel tar.

I had assumed that I was mis-hearing his name, which was surely rooted in some Tamil god to which his devout family was aligned.

But I misheard nothing. My waiter’s name is Stalin. And he has a brother called Lenin. Their father is a communist.

Here I am, on my second trip to southern India, full of micro-ambitions and busy as a bee with a micro-agenda.

I am practicing the art of stay-put travel which consists of answering questions of ever-decreasing proportion.

What is the most interesting South Indian town? Which is its most interesting neighbourhood in which I can become local? Which is the most colloquial of hostelries where I can become resident en permanence? Having located this, which is the table in my chosen hotel’s open-air courtyard which I can claim as my own sovereign territory? One that I know, and Stalin knows, belongs to me and me alone?

I have answered these questions. They have led me to the town of Pondicherry (Indians lovingly call it Pondy) on the Bay of Bengal, to its French quarter called White Town, to a hotel called Dune de L’Orient. Mine is the third table on the left as you enter the tree-shaded restaurant courtyard.

Choosing to travel by this manner has personal roots. Roots in the advice of my beautiful friend Gilly who told me, sometime in the early 1990s, that since signing the divorce papers she had always holidayed alone in the same small French village. Because, she explained, when the café owner knows your choice of brioche your morning must start well.

It is interesting how throwaway comments of one person can become inspirations of another.

There are roots in my life experience too. I have spent so many years hopping and jumping and careening around the world. Mostly for work, but often for play. It has been a rich and stimulating path. Pausing to reflect on it all, I discover that the only pictures I am interested in, figuratively and literally, are those with people. Temples, snowscapes, sunsets, Taj Mahals…they all pass me by. But the people fascinate. Who was that man, again? How did I meet her? Where exactly were we then? What is it we said, at that moment?

Through the eyes of the people peering out through twenty year-old Kodaks and the mines of memory, I remember these tiny human experiences; stacks of single moments in single places and the individuals who created the magic within. In standing still, I stand connected: to people, emotion, possibility.

Bollox, you may say. You’re just reframing laziness, you may add. And you might have a point. But stillness is the calling of our age – wedged as we are at the end of the 21st century’s first exhausting score.

Ours is a global age with access to information and ideas, rendering us uniquely powerful. And yet, this delicate humanity in our bones makes us vulnerable too. The digital era is built on ones and zeros, but mankind’s era is built through living, vibrating, mutating cells. Having learnt how to dominate the world, the great frontier is now its opposite: how to be subsumed by it.

‘Would you like pineapple, sir?’, Stalin asks. He knows my fruit proclivities. It is some days now that he asks me questions the answers to which he already knows.

Although one thing remains a mystery to him. I can see him, sometimes, querying me with his eyes. With my strange rhythm and rituals unlike most other guests, what exactly am I doing here? He is too polite to ask, and I too demure to offer an explanation un-pressed.

Such things can wait. For the moment, I continue to ponder what it is that so fascinates me with India, and how this crazy-making sub-continent can possibly work.

Lingam School of Motoring is based in downtown Pondicherry. It is only because I’m walking the roads at 6.30am that I am aware of its presence. The sight of one of its student cars on the street, cautiously taking a left turn, makes me spontaneously smile.

The instructing crew at Lingam must feel like the first Sheriffs of the American west, tasked to bring order to a lawless, wild place. It would be impossible to give driving instruction at midday. India’s roads are a febrile cesspit of insanity at that hour. Reality would impinge too much, and the driving student would surely enter a fugue state of utter submission.

Lingam instructs at 6.30am because it knows that rules-based driving dies a death on every road, kerb, intersection and unexpected gulley of noontime Pondy.

To my European eyes, driving habits here are a total fucking disaster. But as I stand still for some days, my pupils dilate. I acclimatise.

For several days now I’ve been walking the town’s roads, brushing by mangey nameless dogs and fetid proudly-named canals, with my head held high. Footpaths don’t exist here, of course. The authorities tried them once, but the motorbikes immediately took over.

I have discovered the essential Indian secret to life, distilled in their attitude to traffic: do exactly and only what you want. Your responsibility is to signal your personal intent. Then, off you go. Do it.

Tooting the horn is mostly reserved as a signal of admonishment in Europe, after the event. In India, it is the writing of a plan. The cardinal rule of driving (or Lingam Codicil, as I refer to it) is that there are any number of rules. The whole driving thing works because everyone wants to emerge alive on the other side of their journey.

Being Irish, I am used to my life being mediated by laws. As a society we agree how things are done and we institute a system to make it so. ‘A government of laws and not of men’ was a rallying cries of John Adams during the American Revolution. In the west, when we fall out, we do not fall out with our neighbour, we fall out with the law. Progress by way of the scales of justice is an idea with wings. But it is surely not the only idea.

Life in India is more direct. Each person is free, living cheek by jowl with the next free person. Law is a living creation here, enacted spontaneously and with mutual consent. It is the law of this moment, on this street, because we agree upon it. We communicate our intent through our trajectories, and our horn-sounding. And then we see it through.

In Pondy, I could cross a hellishly busy street blindfolded and reasonably expect to arrive safely to the other side. I will get there because my trajectory will be clear, my erratic progress monitored, and my blindfold an unremarkable accessory. The community of road users would pick up my signals, weaving around my blind intent.

Walking home from a chat with friends in the Muslim quarter, where the vegetation is bountiful and the neighbourhood oh so peacefully quiet, I become obsessed with speculation regarding Stalin’s family.

Does he have sisters? If so, what female communists would his Dad have named them after? Indeed, were there any female communists at all?

And what of further brothers beyond Lenin? Trotsky is surely a beloved member of the family. I quickly run out of Commie steam, briefly considering that another might be named Rasputin. But I rescind the thought. It could not be Rasputin. He was a lover of the Russian Queen, for god’s sake. Every Boney M fan knows that.

But my fevered sibling-speculation breaks before I reach the hotel. I forget to ask him. Nor does he ever ask of me what exactly I’m doing here.

And so it should be. These tiny mysteries should persist. At this little table, on this little street. In this little part of Pondy.

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