In December and January of 1983, my parents travelled to India, using a Lonely Planet guide which, according to Dad, was the second of their books ever released. My grandparents came over from New Zealand to take care of the farm while they were away. My grandfather, an accountant in Christchurch, said that it was the hardest he had ever worked, while my grandmother took me to school on my very first day. I stood close to her side and looked up at her as she spoke to Mrs Woodley, hiding my terror. When my parents came back, we painted ‘Welcome Home’ on a sheet for them, and they gave us silver anklets and a puppet each - two wooden ladies in saris for Sister and I, and a wooden man in pantaloons, playing a pipe, for H.
Thirty years later, I boarded a flight to Hyderabad for a conference on Patrick White organised by the Association for the Study of Australasia in Asia. I stayed in a plush hotel with a bunch of other delegates from Perth, Sydney, Singapore, Johannesburg and Christchurch, and was very glad of that, otherwise the culture shock would have done my head in before I’d even got started.
The conference was great, with fantastic papers from the plenary speakers Bill Ashcroft, Fred Cheney AO, Lyn McCreddan, Suvendrini Perera, Kirpal Singh, John Barnes and Mark Williams. Our Indian hosts were generous and kind, and the food they gave us was excellent. I and a handful of other people sadly had some money taken from our wallets by a professional pickpocket, but I was reluctant to go to the police about it to claim my insurance because it would have been so much bother for our hosts, when they had been so good to us.
I also had another launch of Entitlement, this time by the gregarious and energetic Lyn McCreddan, who did a wonderful job. To my delight, I presented on a panel alongisde Meira Chand, whose novels The Goassmer Fly and Last Quadrant had been among the first adult novels I ever read when I was 13 or 14. Mum had been going through an Asian phase and left them lying around the house, along with Han Suyin’s The Crippled Tree which I attempted, but which defeated me.
Ours was the last panel of the conference, so it was just as well that we were writers and not hardcore intellectuals. I ended with an exhortation to the conference participants, as champions of White, to help other readers dispense with the notion that he was too difficult to enjoy. I don’t think he’s a difficult writer, I just think that he takes time, as do other authors such as Kim Scott or Alexis Wright.
I stayed on a few days after the conference to look around Hyderabad, and the culture shock began. I saw the Charminar, a monument and mosque, and the mass of people and noise was overwhelming. Being with two other white women, we stood out like a sore thumb. The next day I visited the tombs, where the air was hazy and quiet, and reminded me of wats I had seen with H in Thailand. I also bought some pale pink pearls from the markets, and realised, when I got home, that they were so cheap I should have bought more of them. However my handbag and jewellery situation is rapidly approaching saturation point (not so much with the frocks or shoes), so there wasn’t really any need.
The following day I flew to Delhi for a tour with Intrepid, which began in Old Delhi. If I was freaked out in the centre of Hyderabad, this was even worse, with so much traffic and the press of bodies, and being a Sunday it wasn’t even busy. I was shown a Sikh temple, and the kitchen where they made food for whoever wanted it, rich or poor, and was taken through the cramped and winding streets, which had a lacework of electrical wires overhead.
‘What happens if there’s a fault?’ I asked the guide, looking up at them.
‘Then, it is up to god.’
I laughed at that.
We made our way to Jama Masjid, the largest Muslim temple in India, where I was made to put on a pink shapeless monstrosity to cover my clothes, though I had taken care to dress modestly. My guide was very friendly, but became a little too so towards the end, asking if I lived alone, and telling me that I looked very feminine. He meant no harm, and I left him with a copy of my novel, then the driver took me on to Agra.
By this stage it had become clear to me that I was the only person on the tour! The driver, who was a lovely, kind fellow, was constant throughout, but new guides met me in each city. On the road, I was overjoyed to have time to read, not least because I ‘d been saving up A Dance With Dragons just for this holiday. I told the driver I wasn’t very chatty, and that he could put the radio on if he wanted to, but he preferred silence I think.
I was up early the next day to see the Taj Mahal, and was delighted to find that my new guide was extraordinarily handsome. The Taj was gorgeous too, of course, and it was nice to wander and sit for a bit. I was then taken to the Agra Fort at which Shah Jahan, who had built the Taj for his wife, was held prisoner after being deposed by his son Aurangzeb. ‘There is no kin in kingship,’ the guide told me, which made plenty of sense.
The next morning we drove to Fatehpur Sikri, a city built by Emperor Akbar in 1569 and then deserted after 15 years because they had run out of water. The tour was very quick - I was taken up there on a rickshaw, shown Jama Masjid, a mosque, and then encouraged to buy trinkets (which were pretty, so I didn’t need much persuasion), and taken back again. Altogether, we weren’t there for more than an hour, and the driver was surprised.
‘It should have taken hours,’ he said. I replied that yes, the guide had moved very fast. I also hadn’t been able to understand what he was saying as his accent was fairly strong, but that didn’t bother me so much as I read up on it later. The driver spoke to the tour operator, who said they’d been concerned about us getting to Jaipur on time. This was complete rubbish, as we drove off and got there with hours to spare. On the plus side, it meant the driver could get away early to see his rellies, as it was Diwali. Later, I checked my Lonely Planet, and it said to leave aside half a day to see the buildings and gardens, but I hadn’t seen any of the latter, only the mosque, so I was very unimpressed.
However, I loved Jaipur. The Amber Fort up on the hill was breathtaking, as was Sheesh Mahal, the Hall of Mirrors within it, which was made up of a mosaic of tiny mirrors. I had used up three memory cards by this stage, and had resorted to my phone’s camera. While driving out of the narrow streets and back into town, I saw the same puppets for sale that my parents had brought back three decades before.
My guide for Jaipur was the best of the three, being a very kind, pleasant and knowledgeable person. It was an extremely hot day and he took care to stand in the shade as he could see I was struggling with the sun. He showed me around the City Palace and the Observatory, which was just astonishing. I couldn’t get my head around the methods of calculation that he explained to me (mostly because it was hard enough to contend with the accent, and the science on top of that), but found the structures so imposing and graceful. After that I wanted to look at gemstones, and ended up haggling with a man who had a hissy fit because I drove too hard a bargain, but sometimes impoverished writers are forced to extremes, and we were both happy when I walked out of the building with a dark blue sunstone.
There was a long drive back to Delhi the next day, at the end of which I gave the poor, exhausted driver a giant tip. My plane didn’t leave until midnight so, at the conference organiser’s suggestion, I rang up the Delhi representative of the ASAA who, to my amazement, collected his wife, who was a doctor, drove me to the Australian Embassy and arranged an interview with the deputy high commissioner. We talked about the conference and I left them with a copy of my novel, and was told that if they’d known I was coming, they could have organised some interviews with the local media. I was surprised; I’d had no idea it was de rigueur for writers to visit an embassy, & told them I was still learning the ropes. That evening, my Delhi hosts took me to a book launch at the cultural centre, which was just lovely, as I felt like a fellow academic, rather than a tourist.
In the taxi on the way to the airport, there was a marching band dressed in white suits playing in the middle of the road. Two seconds later, we passed a bus where a small boy was vomiting out the window, leaving streaks down the side of the vehicle. It pretty much summed up India: chaotic, strangely marvellous, and unforgettable.