Three weeks in India November-December 2006


I love India. I love the exotic feel of the place, the buzz, the chaos, the food, the good-natured crowds, all that life -- but mostly the people. They're friendly, positive, interested in everything. You certainly get a lot of attention, some unwelcome (from beggars) but most benignly curious; though there are occasions when you yearn for some quiet private downtime. For me it's especially nice because our open-source Greenstone Digital Library Software is widely used and greatly appreciated throughout the country, and in library circles they see me as the father of Greenstone. Of course, I'm keenly aware that the India I experience is a privileged and artificial distortion of the real thing. I'm greeted at airports, stay in nice places, am shown around, entertained, and generally treated like royalty. I probably wouldn't like it much if I had to live as an ordinary citizen.

My trip began in Kerala, arriving at Kozhikode (formerly Calicut) from Colombo airport in Sri Lanka. I was astonished to see all the Arabic labels on the luggage carrousel. There was a lot of pulling boxes off, inspecting them, and putting them back on -- Indians are so very curious about everything. People helped each other and called out to strangers. Looking around, I noticed I was the only European -- in fact, I would not see another one, even in the distance, for several days, with just one exception: a guy on my course. And I seemed to be the only one who had come from Singapore, or indeed from anywhere outside the Middle East.

As usual, I was hugely relieved to see my contact waiting as I emerged with my bags, in this case a friend, Sree, who had visited New Zealand a year before. We push our way through teeming masses and out onto the roadside. Immediately all senses are assailed: it's dirty, dusty, smells of traffic fumes, innumerable horns honk, sweaty humanity rubs up against me. The car and driver are lost in the melee, but we find them eventually. In we get, no seatbelts of course. Later I'm told they're not compulsory -- "it's still a free country, thank goodness" -- and so no one in Kerala seems to bother with them.

We drive out of the airport and down the road, honking wildly like everyone else, through coconut palms. Kerala means coconut, my guide explains. To reinforce the point we pull in at a roadside pile of coconuts, the vendor hacks the top off three, pops in straws, and we drink the cool refreshing milk. Is this OK, I ask myself, looking at his grubby machete and box of straws and thinking of those strictures back home to wash everything in bottled water. To heck with it, fortune favors the brave. When they're empty he whacks my nut in half and neatly slices off a chip of wood for me to scrape out the meat with. Delicious, if perhaps a little germy.

We drive across a bridge over a serene lake, and the vista of rolling palm-covered hills enlarges. We pass a small scrappy-looking village, and then drive through an imposing gateway, waved on by smiling guards. The campus! Winding up the hill we reach my hostel, a delightful airy cluster of rooms connected by roofed open-air walkways. The ever-smiling doorman takes my bag, leads me to my room, and we emerge on to a private balcony that overlooks serried rows of coconut-clad hills marching off into the misty distance. I'm captivated! They order a snack. How about an omelet? Yes please! But what arrives is different: warm naan with hot pickle and jam. There's juice and water in the fridge; bananas, oranges, some biscuits. This is home for a week. Now I rest, contented.

I'm here to lead a practical workshop on Greenstone. Attendees come from all over India, and from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Pakistan (these last didn't make it: visa problems). At 6 AM the first morning I decide to run through the course in my mind while talking an exploratory walk, but as I step out in the dawn half-light I'm accosted by a Muslim girl ("you are our trainer, yes?") covered all in black (must be hot!) who falls into step beside me; shortly we're joined by two friends. No solitude here! They came by train from Bangladesh, an uncomfortable 3-day journey; later I learn that her university did not fund her trip but she paid out of her own pocket because she felt her students needed to learn about digital libraries. Such sacrifice sure puts pressure on the lecturer!

The workshop is six days but Sree has thoughtfully arranged for me to take a couple off: I will begin and end the course and he and his staff will cover the middle. My driver arrives for an early start; he speaks little English and I speak no Malayalam. We career at breakneck speed through chaotic traffic for four or five hours, occasionally slowing to a crawl for potholes, pedestrians, cyclists, trucks, and cows. What happens if we kill a pedestrian, I wonder; does the fact that this trip is just for me make me morally responsible? And no seatbelts! Gradually you get used to pulling out past trucks on blind corners, flying three abreast along narrow bumpy roads, dicing with death every second of the way. On the back of the trucks is written "please honk": the air is full of honking. Indian driving seems to involve the ears (and, dare I say it, the balls) just as much as the eyes. I begin to gain confidence in my young driver: he's amazing! There is so much to look at that my head begins to hurt. Some signs are laughable: "Obey traffic rules," one proclaims; another advises "Do not check petrol tank with lighted flare."

Finally after leaving the highway and winding through a maze of streets, punctuated by an incomprehensible mobile phone call, we come to a halt in a large, empty, unnervingly peaceful courtyard near a temple. "We wait," he gestures; out we get and wait. Luckily there's a loo (I'm glad that I stuffed my back pocket with paper). We seem to be in some kind of ashram: monks (are they monks?) walk purposefully across the courtyard. I stroll to the temple; peek inside. What is this place? What are we doing here? Returning to the car an ancient dusty motorcycle pulls up beside, with a pack on the back, and a swarthy young Mediterranean traveler asks in broken English "What is this place? What are you doing here?" I have a hard time explaining that I have no idea on either count; I've been brought here to wait by a driver I can't communicate with.

We wait for ages. I'm sure we're in the wrong place. I get the driver to call Sree, so that I can talk to him in English. Just wait, he says. Off for another exploration. I'm barefoot in the temple grounds when a beautiful young Indian lady in a stunning embroidered white sari calls me by name. My guide, Sree's friend. I meet her husband, and both show me around. This is the birthplace of Sankara, an important guru who walked around India and died young. I am anointed with a smudge of vermilion on my forehead. I learn a little of his life, and we stroll to the "Crocodile ghat" nearby, a ramp down to the river where you can bathe. Aged 11, young Sankara aspired to become a Sannyāsī or celibate Hindu holy man, but his poor old mother wanted him to lead an ordinary life and give her grandchildren. Swimming in the river one day, a crocodile caught him by the leg and threatened to drown him as his horrified mum watched. Thinking quickly, he cried out that if she agreed to his plan the crocodile might let him go. She did; it did; and he became an ascetic.

We entered a stone building for a simple temple lunch. Wash your right hand by holding it under the tap outside and rubbing fingers against palm; pick a wet tin plate from the basket, hold it out for a dollop of rice (not too much, please), some ghee, a dollop of dhal, and a dollop of something else, pick out a piece of naan, and sit on a mat on the stone floor, eating hot squishy food with your right hand. I talked to the swarthy motorcyclist: he's an Israeli who has been traveling round India for six months. Clearly embarrassed by having to admit his nationality he apologizes for Israeli politics and disowns his country. For pudding, more rice with curds. Wash your hand, rinse your plate and return it to the basket. A simple, delicious meal!

I learned more about Sankara's life from a lengthy sequence of dioramas spread along a spiral path that led up a tall tower. I learn to pick out Lord Krishna, and have trouble with Parvathi and her alter ego Kali. Then we drive to a rest home for elephants, where a baby elephant is being fed from a huge bottle of milk, several other elephants stroll around, and I have my picture taken standing nervously beside one which irritably taps its huge foot right beside my tiny, fragile, sandal-clad one. These animals are apparently rescued from the forest (for example, the baby's mother had been shot by hunters), tamed, and perhaps trained as temple elephants. From there to a hastily arranged meeting -- mobile phones work overtime in India -- in the library of Cochin University, my guide's workplace. All the staff have stayed late to meet me, and we crowd into the chief librarian's room to sit and exchange pleasantries. Then there is a deafening silence: I have no real idea why I am here and despite an obvious air of expectancy no clues seem to be forthcoming from the other side. We sit smiling mutely at each other for an age. Finally my guide asks a pointed technical question and the assembled company leans forward expectantly to hear my answer. So I discourse for a while, which is what seems to be expected, the crowd hanging on every word. Finally I receive a gift -- a lovely brass oil lamp -- and am taken on a tour of the meager library, and to meet the Vice-Chancellor.

There I part with my beautiful white-sari-clad guide and two young men escort me to the old part of downtown Cochin. My driver has to explain that I am an unusual Westerner: one who likes to occupy the front passenger seat. It's already dusk, and we join the crowd strolling along the sea-front past the famous fixed cantilevered fishing nets. For the first time I see tourists: it's a shock to realize that these are the first Europeans for days. We drive past the Catholic cathedral, a large Anglican church, an ancient Jewish synagogue, Muslim mosques and Hindu temples: what a mixture! I know there is plenty of trouble in India, but by and large a staggering mix of cultures live cheek by jowl in what is usually relative harmony, a shining example for the rest of the world. Finally to my comfortable, Western-style hotel. It's been a long day. But my room overlooks a large, noisy, muddy building site where swarms of men are still working -- huge tractors, pumping out water, driving piles -- under bright arc lights that make it look like day continues. And it stays day all night, and they continue to work all night (I check at 4 AM). Luckily I'm exhausted, and sleep.

A new day, a new guide, a new friend of Sree's, a man who speaks fluent English. We drive to a nearby palace and museum, where a docent gives us a really interesting tour. There are English as well as Indian relics -- paintings of the Suffolk countryside! -- but the most fascinating object is an ornate crown from Portugal that changed the course of world history. Kerala, and in particular Cochin, found itself at the centre of the spice trade. The ancient overland route from Europe was closed by disturbances in the strategic city of Constantinople (Istanbul), and an alternative way was sought by sea. Vasco da Gama found it, sailing round the Cape of Good Hope to India. (Later I visited the very beach, north of Kozhikode, where he landed on 20 May 1498.) The natives were less than ecstatic at the ensuing European invasion, and might have rebelled, but the Portuguese king made peace by presenting the local Rajah with a richly decorated golden crown. The spice trade continued ... and the gift heralded the era of colonial rule in South Asia. Indians do not celebrate Vasco da Gama's arrival.

At noon we book a tour of the famous Kerala backwaters, choosing between a tikki tour around the harbor and a more expensive afternoon jaunt whose nature was unclear. Fortunately I choose the latter, and buy a ticket for my guide too. We lunch in an ordinary vegetarian restaurant. You buy a ticket at the door, push your way upstairs through the crowd, wash your right hand (not hands!), and await a free seat. It's packed -- mainly with moms and kids -- and it's clearly surprising to see a European face. Once seated a waiter wipes the remains of the last person's meal from the table, thrusts a tin plate at you, and a large man begins piling on rice from a huge bowl. You get some ghee, and two other waiters unceremoniously deposit dollops of dhal and something else, and in you dig. More rice, more food: it's hard to stop them. Finally, finish off with yet more rice and a dollop of curds. The food is, as always, excellent. And the hygiene? -- well, it worked for me.

The backwater tour is the highlight of my visit to India. There are ten of us, including an English couple, an Australian couple, and two honeymooners from Bangalore. We travel rough roads in a minibus for 1 1/4 hours -- this is when I realize just how expert my driver is! We had been told it would take 45 minutes, and the westerners began to mutter complaints. We turn down a dirt track and are deposited outside a few shacks standing amongst coconut trees -- a typical Kerala village, we are told, housing a couple of extended families. In the outside toilet I am grateful for the male advantage. After 15 minutes the boatmen arrive and we stroll through the forest to our craft. There are two, about the size of Oxbridge punts but with five white plastic chairs sitting on top of each.

A boatman stands behind with a long pole. He punts us silently along the narrow waterway, dense with lush vegetation: basically a coconut forest, but with many exotic fruits including pineapple, and a riot of flowers. And birds! -- including a kingfisher that poses on a branch above our heads. Occasionally a bridge crosses above us: kids are walking or cycling -- back from school, I guess. We pass dwellings and observe daily life, a man washing in the river, a child playing, girls scooping water in a pan for cooking, women washing clothes. They acknowledge us with a wave and a ready smile. Despite the glaring economic disparity, no one asks for money in any way, shape, or form. It occurs to me that I have seen no beggars in Kerala.

Everything is so peaceful! How such peace can exist in the hustle-bustle of India is a deep mystery. Just the sounds of nature, and the rippling water; occasional low voices. Once, peering into a gloomy hut, I spy a TV's flickering light. After what seems like a long time punting we pull in to the bank and disembark. Two men are fishing with a pole and string that looks like a child's improvised toy. We walk to a tea-shack, where we buy sweet, milky, cardamom tea. Across the path is a dilapidated temple complex. In the clearing a tiny shriveled women is weaving a mat. She squats so low that her bony knees extend above her nut-brown, prune-wrinkled head. This is impossible! -- flexibility taken to the extreme. She claims (in Malayalam) that her age is 84: our guide assures us she's well over 90 but won't admit it. We are led down a path through the forest to a rope-making "factory" in a small clearing. You can spin a rough rope from the hair of coconuts. First soak the nuts, then tear off the fiber, then use a crude hand-cranked machine to twist it into string, then plait the string. More interesting to me was the gaggle of children who tagged along: bright-eyed, smiling, happy. Everywhere I went in India groups of happy children would ask "hello, what's your name" and their friends would giggle shyly during the ensuing conversation.

Up early the next day for the return trip to Kozhikode. On the way we make a detour to see waterfalls ("do you like waterfalls?" yesterday's guide asked), one of which is quite spectacular. We reach them by driving a long way through a large forest park, I guess a state or national park, and it's interesting to see the strong emphasis on ecology and conservation. And education: this is clearly a hot destination for school bus trips. There are cute little monkeys here. We walk down open trails through pine -- not coconut -- forests passing groups of school children who are equally fascinated by me and the monkeys! A gaggle of teenage girls in brilliantly hued saris try and (fortunately, I think) fail to tempt a monkey to come for a cuddle. The long detour is interesting but makes the journey interminable. When I finally arrive back at the university and walk into the lab where my students are doing practical exercises, I'm enthusiastically greeted by one and all like an old friend. It's like coming home.

The workshop dinner is at a beach resort not far from Vasco da Gama's landing place, where we stop briefly en route. I travel by car with Sree and two bigwigs (the University President and VP); the others slum it by bus. The resort is gorgeous. A banquet is laid out on a beautiful treed lawn looking over the sandy beach. On arrival the Pres takes me aside and asks conspiratorially "do you like alc*h*l?" His tone of voice conveys that my answer will portend far more than meets the eye, but what? How to respond? Why, yes! -- so far I've seen no booze in Kerala. After a bit of negotiation (whisky? brandy?) I settle for a beer. But nothing appears. Everyone is served with juice cocktails; there is no sign of beer. I play my clarinet as previously requested, a few tunes under a tree in this tranquil open-air paradise, amid tumultuous applause. Am I playing for beer? -- but none materializes. Finally, just as everyone begins to tuck in to the sumptuous buffet, Pres and VP appear by my elbow and the three of us head off to a nearby ... bedroom! Along with dim lighting and a double bed are three chairs and a low table. A serving-boy brings two cool bottles of beer wrapped in a wet towel, and with much ceremony pours a glass for me. Then (long wait) he reappears with a mickey of brandy and some soda, serves the other two; we toast and drink. We're in for a long session -- they're big bottles and no one's in a hurry -- and we have a nice chat. But when we finally emerge from the bedroom the rest of the conference, having had plenty of time to demolish the buffet in that magic outdoor setting, are just climbing onto the bus for the journey back. We pick through the remains (which are still delicious) for a while, and then head off, me feeling that I've somehow missed the entire party.

One of the highlights was visiting private homes. I went to Sree's place twice; delightful experiences. He has a really nice big house in a quiet area. I remember to remove my shoes and leave them outside. We eat Indian style, with our hands; our plates are huge banana leaves. I'm glad there's a table -- I find the traditional squatting position quite uncomfortable. His wife serves, but doesn't eat (which for me is slightly embarrassing): she piles my leaf with a huge feast of vegetarian delicacies. I don't remember what we had, but there was a lot, and it was all delicious. Should I drink the pinkish water? -- Yes!, and to heck with those hygiene rules. The two girls are lovely, with excellent English; we have interesting conversations about cultural differences -- including some of my inept eating habits.

I was invited to another home a week later, this time in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) where I gave a one-day workshop. On hearing that I would be in town, Susmita, one of my students in Kozhikode, insisted that I visit her at home. I think she was surprised that I actually turned up! Again it was a delightful and memorable experience -- like Sree, she also has two kids with excellent English who are eager to communicate. She had insisted that I bring my clarinet and play some tunes, which I did; then we had fun searching for music in common -- luckily the kids found a little book of English songs that they sing at school. Susmita took us all out for an excellent meal in a Bengali specialty restaurant. Fish feature strongly in the cuisine of both Kerala and West Bengal, Kolkata's province: sea fish and river fish respectively, the latter from the Ganges. And I love it.

I was sad to leave the smiling people of Kerala for a conference in New Delhi; from there I went to another in Kolkata. All three featured entertainment with traditional Indian dancing and music. In Kozhikode we watched a particular kind of classical South Indian dancing that involves stylized hand, eye, and body movements. It's like a danced mime: each dance tells a story. I think there are 28 different hand motions, each signifying something in particular. The eyes are extraordinarily expressive: dancers open them unnaturally wide and motion with the pupils. The lead performer gave a demonstration where, amongst other things, he counter-rotated his two pupils: one clockwise and the other anticlockwise, at the same time. It couldn't believe my eyes -- or rather, his! The body movements are also very expressive. Indian dancers -- like Morris dancers -- wear several bands of bells on their ankles, but -- unlike Morris dancers -- shake them sensitively and unbelievably fast. I was told that a good dancer can tinkle every single bell independently, though it sounds impossible to me.

In New Delhi we watched sophisticated South Indian music and dancing one evening and spirited North Indian music and dancing the next, from several provinces including Rajasthan and the Punjab. In one, a woman entered carrying a huge pot on her head and danced around, balancing it. Another pot was placed on top and she balanced them both -- incredible. At each new feat the applause intensified. With three pots -- half her height -- she bent down, put her head to the floor and picked up a piece of paper in her mouth, to tumultuous applause. With five pots she stood with one foot on each of two water-glasses, picked them up with her toes, and walked as though on short stilts. With six pots -- more than her height -- she stood with both feet on the edge of a tin plate and shuffled it around in a circle. She ended with a spirited dance balancing nine pots -- one and a half times her own height -- on her head. It was absolutely astonishing.

In Kolkata we were treated to another show of song and dance. Harmonically each piece is in a single key with a monotone bass drone accompaniment much like the bagpipes, and the melodic improvisation is interesting but heavily stylized. However, the rhythmic complexity is absolutely astonishing. At one point a young singer performed a kind of rhythmic scat singing, with impossibly fast and complex rhythms, and then began a long call and response sequence with the tabla, each echoing the others' rhythmic improvisation. It was magic. On this occasion, and also after the entertainment in Kozhikode, I was entreated to play a few solo pieces on my clarinet, which were greatly appreciated -- in India it seems unusual for ordinary people to play musical instruments -- but, for me, slightly spoiled the mood that the Indian entertainment had created.

All the conferences were in nice places, with excellent accommodation (except that on arrival in New Delhi I was transported to a scuzzy hotel miles out in an uninteresting suburb for a couple of nights before the conference began). However, the Kolkata conference took place in an astonishingly luxurious resort two hours drive from the city. The complex was modeled after an Indian village, with many thatched buildings, lovely ornamental gardens, gorgeous artificial lakes on which you could go boating, and gardens where all the hotel's fruit and vegetables were grown. It did not feel at all like India to me. But it was possible, though difficult, to find a way to escape out the back into a real village, with kids and dirt and pollution and poverty. It was a completely different world.

I left the country on the eve of a 24-hour general strike. My plane departed from Kolkata late in the evening, and the following day, I had been warned, nothing would move in India. I was worried: if anything went wrong I faced the prospect of spending two days stranded in an airport with no services or transport. So I was relieved to take off for Singapore, on time and without any problems. But I want to go back -- soon.

Ian H. Witten

14 January 2007