Things Get Better

Etawah has no right to be part of the Tourist Office’s Heritage Arc. Utterly unsuited to foreign travellers, the police deemed it necessary to return with me (after I had visited the station to fill the mandatory travel form) to St Mary’s School where I was sleeping for the night, to guard me (although the only threats I have encountered are hordes of selfie-seekers). I was out of Etawah by 6.30 the following morning anyway, as the ten hours spent there was about 9 hours too long, but the school’s hospitality was fantastic as usual. 

What you staring at? Featuring 10 year old guy smoking a lot of hash

Anticipating the challenge of backing up a 140km day with a 170km day to Kanpur had actually excited me for a few days, and I jumped back on the Grand Trunk Road with a weird sense of grit and exhilaration. Stopping frequently at dhabas for chai or sugar cane juice, a couple of proprietors managed to convey in broken English that a western couple were a few hours ahead of me on the road. The wonders of Facebook have enabled me to track them down, though because they headed south from Kanpur rather than north to Lucknow, there was no chance of catching them. Growing steadily used to large groups silently staring at me, lunchtime was now a regular naptime: hooking a leg through the frame of my bike and using panniers as pillows, I would sprawl flat out in the shady interior of a roadside dhaba, refuel, then hit the road. 

Literally the only picture I took in Etawah. Bad place. Sad!

As with Etawah, Kanpur had been rather disingenuously included on this heritage arc, although I took such warnings regarding the most polluted city in India with a dash of optimism – it, along with Lucknow, had been the focus of my history thesis at Oxford and I was keen to see it ‘in the flesh’. I would later visit La Martiniere school in Lucknow whose students fought for the British in 1857, thereby making history as the only school in the world to receive battle honours. Until the arrival of the new Principal, their involvement (and the complexity of allegiances in 1857) had been completely off limits in polite discussion due to its perception as anti-nationalist, leading La Martiniere’s Bursar to describe India as being ‘in a constant state of denial’ about the events of 1857. Kanpur supported that view somewhat, with both massacre sites (the Mutineers killed defenceless European at the still eponymous Massacre Ghat but it was the systematic butchery of captive women and children at Bibighar which provoked international outrage) giving little indication of the atrocities. The brooding silence and lack of even an informative plaque maybe enhanced the pathos I felt, but it can’t do much to inform the uninitiated, local or tourist. 

The British Residency in Lucknow, which was besieged for 5 months in 1857

Heading north to Lucknow took a bit more willpower, as the last few days had zapped my legs and it felt counterintuitive to head north when my route demanded I head south east towards Allahabad. Being the capital of the state that I had spent weeks in already, and with the added allure of seeing more of my thesis’ backdrop, Lucknow succeeded in tempting me north. My first experience of Lucknow was as a witness to an almost fatal near-miss involving a large ‘cherry-picker’, whose huge cantilever arm folded back into the vehicle, strutting out over the busiest road in Lucknow, and the protruding arm promptly ripped through the roof of a fast-moving rickshaw, nearly decapitating the passenger. It was almost funny, except the utterly oblivious cherry-picker operator seemed to have little sympathy with the rickshaw driver who had just lost days of earning his living. 
Another surprise on arrival was when I sat down at the renowned Lucknavi fast-food restaurant Tunday Kababi to be joined by a white guy, who as a Cornell University PhD student examining the implementation of welfare reform in rural India was full of fascinating insights and recommendations. Other than the brief day with the two Sams in Agra, I hadn’t spoken to a non-Indian for over a month, and I must say I rather enjoyed it. Heading back to my hostel, I scooped up a bag of fresh jalebi, hailed a crowded rickshaw, jumped in, explained my destination and paid on arrival all in (very limited) Hindi, and I felt like I was really getting to grips with the demands of navigating India. That night, like every night, a huge Hindu wedding was going off. That night, unlike every other night, they were launching ginormous fireworks into the night sky from just outside my hostel window. Completely unable to even think about sleeping, I wandered through the crowds of beautifully dressed, but for some reason stern-faced, Hindus as the festivities ramped up. Not only is no expense spared, but there seems a general need to outcompete other weddings on the night, and the result was an absolute crescendo of noise and colour. 

Straight Outta Lucknow. Underground Hip Hop Scene

The following day, I found myself chatting to Deepak, a 22 year old from Lucknow heavily involved in the growing Lucknow Hip Hop scene. As a ‘Britisher’, and indeed now a ‘Londoner’, he wrongly assumed that I knew everything about hip hop, but I managed to sound vaguely informative in response to some of his quiz questions about ‘the scene’ and he invited me behind-the-scenes of a Hip Hop Dance Battle. Not quite what I’d planned for the afternoon, it was an epic experience, with incredible dancers (known, I’m told, as ‘poppers’) and recommendations for where to ‘catch the scene’ in Calcutta. 

The Asti Mosque at the Bara Imambara

 What was meant to be my final morning in Lucknow featured the end of a glorious record for me. Over the course of the two times I’ve visited India, I’ve rather smugly retained a 100% record when it comes to avoiding Delhi Belly. This record is now in tatters. To add insult to this grievous injury, the record ended about an hour away from the safety of my hostel as I explored deep into Old Lucknow, the former capital of Avadh, the Shi’ite kingdom in contrast to the Sunni Mughal empire I’d been exploring over the last week. Making a pun about Shi’ite mosques seems too untasteful even by my standards, but let’s just say I was not well at all. 
In India, cows walk on water
Little bit of England in the heart of Allahabad

Now turning my attention south, and to rejoining the Grand Trunk Road at Allahabad, I split the 240km into two by stopping off at Raeberali. Not much to see, but I found a bar for a few beers and to watch the cricket highlights. Maybe due to the previous day’s brief illness, the intensifying heat or just a gradual accumulation of the miles in my legs, these two days were absolutely shattering, and so on arrival at my new host’s home in Allahabad, I made a quick beeline for a local tandoori chicken shop, scoffed the lot then promptly went to bed at 8pm. Despite the slightly surprising guest appearance of a rat skittling around on the concrete floor of my room in this basic (but ever so welcoming) home, I slept like a log, rising early to smash a day of sites and to get my bike pannier rack finally replaced (after 4 botched welding jobs). Allahabad does not feature all that prominently in glossy tourist brochures, but it’s well worth a few days. I will tick off the headline sites of Sangam (where three rivers supposedly meet – other than the Ganges and Yamuna, the Saraswati is an invisible mythological river) and the Fort early tomorrow when I set off for Varanasi, but today was full of awesome surprises.

Khusrau Bagh: the Hindu tomb sits peacefully beside two Muslim tombs. Family life was not so peaceful though: the mother killed herself in despair at fight between her son (blinded by his father) and husband

I suppose the trip thus far has three major themes: Mughal, Independence and the Present. I’d enjoyed the rich tapestry of history in between these layers but they seem the most prominent. All three of these themes were on wonderful display in Allahabad: the beautiful Khusro Bagh exemplified the finer side of early Mughal architecture and religious toleration (set against a gruesome backstory of familial fratricide and suicide), Nehru’s beautiful home-turned-museum showcased the Independence Movement in action, and the nearby University’s students noisily engulfed me in Holi celebrations. All in all, Allahabad represented a fantastic rest day, one that reinvigorated me for the coming days, strengthening both morale and resolve as both had perhaps flagged over the last few days. 

Smile it’s Holi (nearly!)

The highs are bringing an incredible sense of exhilaration; the lows also offer their own grim satisfaction. In truth, I’m finding the going harder than I envisaged and the regular donations I am able to pass directly on to Save A Child really provides an incredible boost. If you’ve enjoyed the blog posts so far, please do consider chucking a small amount towards my donation total: Together, we’re raising a great sum of money for an awesome cause. I often try to remind myself of the India away from the magnificent buildings and tourist sites, and to think back to the disadvantaged children at the institutions in Delhi and Calcutta who, through the support of Save A Child, are being given a chance to participate in India’s exciting next chapter. 
Also, a great quick read from the Guardian, published a couple of days ago: It is written by a fascinating political figure, a member of the now maligned Congress Party who represents his home state of Kerala and has written extensively on the paradoxes and complexities of India: past, present and future. One side of a complex debate, but definitely made me think. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s