The half-caste

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In Scotland, early 70s

Britain is my country. Conceived in semitropical climes, I was borne in my mother’s tummy across the skies to wriggle feet first, umbilical cord wrapped loosely around my neck like a muffler against the northern chill, out into the world in an industrial Scottish town where the diabolical flares of oil refineries dotted the Mordor-like horizon (I still love the dystopian industrial landscape of refineries and rigs). And Pakistan is my country, where I returned, cradled as an infant, to my father’s land, where I was weaned on dhansak and rode my tricycle in the dusty garden with the Bengali boy who was my first love and who left me with a lifelong affection for the lilting accents of Indian English. And India is my country. My father was born before the political fiction of a separate Land of the Pure was invented, that allegedly sanctified place where my impure, hybrid, half-caste self grew up. He was born in India, the brotherland, he was an Indian first – and we are all one people. And, as a Parsi, Iran is my country. You could probably trace my father’s ancestors back in a wiggly line across the stretched-out diamond of the subcontinent to the Gujarati coast where a priest mixed sugar in milk to show our hosts our sweetness and then back across the sea, where my voyaging ancestors lost track of a month in their confusion, back to Persia. And you can go back further still, to some subsaharan African country, before nations and ethnicities and darker melanin-stained skins, when we were a single small tribe, all as pink as chimps, when my greatgreatgreatgreatgreataunt Lucy walked hand in hand with her daughter across the floodplain, leaving twin tracks of footprints to forever mark their journey.

We used to believe the world was rich in pure, unpopulated silences and emptinesses: that the electron was a pea whizzing around a giant echoing barn and the universe a wasteland of vacant space, lightly peppered at vast intervals by stars. But now we know that the atom is smeared full with the blur of electron clouds; that our DNA is bristling with a million macros, working, working; that our bodies are a safari park where a trillion trillion tiny animals play and prey; that the very energy that fuels us is borrowed from symbionts nestled deep inside our cells; that space itself is bulgingly heavy with dark matter; that, as Sally Potter puts it, there is no such thing as no, there’s only yes. There is no purity. Everything is swarming, teeming, crowded, crammed, overrun.

If we were pure, we would be a race of Borg-like clones, a giant ant heap, an army of fatherless virgin Athenae. But instead recombination, reshuffling, mixing, mingling, confusing of chromosomes, a game of genetic musical chairs is repeated at every meiosis. And this messy, random ceilidh, this cat’s cradle of couple swapping, is what keeps us healthy, it’s why we are a sexual species, it’s what keeps us viable and alive.

I feel that lately there has been such emphasis placed on the fictions of boundaries and dividing lines and clear separations: you white man here and black man there; you Indian here and Pakistani there; you Hindu here and Buddhist there. And the borders are militarised, policed, you cannot cross without your documents, without your proof of identity. And all is mapped out in castes and ethnicities and –stans, in sects and political groups. And to claim the identity you must conform to a standard, fit an expectation. In this narcissistic world of small differences, heretics are more hated than infidels.

And now I live in a land whose culture is famous for its rootlessness, its homesickness. “There’s no such thing as Argentines and foreigners,” a friend said the other day. “We Argentines are foreigners.” In the young nation, when tango developed, more than half of the city’s inhabitants were not native born. And the tango reflects that, a longing for a past already lost, a past that belonged not to the porteños themselves, but to their parents and grandparents back in southern Italy and Spain and the Jewish ghettos of Russia, a past longed for but not recovered, dissolved into the melting pot of the city, but still retaining its savour, like a spice adding its distinctive note to a stew. It’s a quadruple nostalgia, layers upon layers of loss: the tango singers relate the story of the immigrant child far from the old country, the childhood past and gone, the innocent first love, like my Bengali boy lost forever, and, as we listen to the singer, we evoke, with nostalgic melancholy, a golden age of tango, a golden age which was itself nostalgic, regretting its own lost idylls. And, returning full circle, we foreigners are exiles once again, pilgrims to the misnamed silverless silver land at the bottom of the world, to this young country of cows and oil, once one of the world’s richest and now in mourning for its more glorious past.

We are all mixed race, my friends. We are all messy hybridizations, misceginations, mongrelizations. We are all mutants, the products of random, promiscuous minglings. That is the nature of life. To purify is to sterilise, to kill. Our pasts, our heritages are never our own. They are always borrowed from others, from those who went before. We all have hyphenated identities. And all countries, ethnicities, skin tones, races are fantasies, arbitrary boundaries, Partitions of the imagination. We are all mongrels, my friends. And mongrels, as every doglover knows, are the best dogs of all.

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In Pakistan, early 70s
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A Second Swim

I looked down at the swirly white froth washing over my feet – striped caramel and pink from six Indian months in the same sandals – with a sense of irony. The water was bathtub tepid and the sea gathered into calm pools, fenced in by shallow banks of dead coral, despite its dried-out appearance still home to angel fish and shoals of tiny darting fluorescent green minnows and the occasional turtle. A clump of rocks to one side had been exposed by high tide and was a scuttling, squirming mass of two species: crabs in jaunty mud-and-olive striped camouflage and wriggly little fish with stalk eyes who used their fins like legs, climbing up above the water line, like their ancestors, those would-be mammals testing their brand-new lungs for the first time, those first fish to venture on land, whom Richard Dawkins once memorably described as the “brave little terriers of the Devonian.” Safely well away from the rocks in the thigh-high water, tourists floated contently, rapidly turning into lobster thermidor in the sun as they squinted down through their snorkelling masks.

This is where I should have swum to begin with. This was the perfect spot. Safe. Relaxing. With other humans around. 

Instead, the previous day, I’d blithely left my handbag on the upturned crate which served as a lounger at my hostel, well above the waterline (it seemed) and rushed back to place my glasses, which I had almost worn into the sea, as a hasty afterthought on a flat stone on the ground next to it. The sky was a curdled dark grey, but it was warm and the beach was invitingly empty. So I waded out into the curling breakers.

For a brief moment or two I just enjoyed riding the swell, like a giant water trampoline, an ocean rollercoaster. And then I felt a tug, as if some mischievous mermaid had grabbed me by the ankles, as if some giant funnel had suctioned me in and I was pulled out and sideways, swept well away from the shore and towards a rocky outcrop which had seemed distant when I entered the water and which was definitely further than I had intended to travel.

Vague memories of swimming lessons returned to me – or was it something I’d read in an article somewhere – the trick was to find the direction of the current and swim perpendicular to it. But meanwhile, the air had grown noticeably darker and the surface of the water was dimpling with fat raindrops. A storm was starting and it seemed to have given the waves some extra force, which they used, what felt like vindictively, to suck me back and throw me forward against the rocks repeatedly. Each time I thrashed my way forward a bit and then was dragged back and tossed effortlessly against the rocks again. My palms and arms and legs were painfully scraped and, at one point, I was whirled around like a bobbin, snorted water in a panic and found myself heading for the rocks, head first on my back. I just managed to cushion the collision with my hands so it was only an unpleasant bump but it felt like a close call. It felt personal. I felt as though the sea were laughing at me. With good reason.

A slightly longer gap between two waves gave me just enough time to push off the rocks and swim past the line of suction and back to shore, being pulled back with the undertow of the waves at every stroke. I stumbled up to the lounger to find that my handbag, supposedly safe and dry under an awning, was waterlogged and my iPhone (as I later discovered) had quietly and sadly drowned. My spectacles were nowhere to be seen. I cried some angry tears of self-reproach. I’m still somewhat mourning, to be honest, even though this is the very epitome of a first world problem.

But I was lucky. I was fine. I emerged from my tanda with Poseidon with only scuffed-up knees and palms and a sore wrist from the impact of the rocks, with the burning sensation of salt water in my nose and the knowledge that I was a complete idiot to contend with.

So today I walked for hours, along the water’s edge, letting the waves froth up and wet my swimsuit up to the waist, listening to the hypnotic alternating whoosh and slurp, digging my heels in, rooting myself each time the receding water tugged playfully at me. Watching the overlapping sheets of sudsy water, beaten egg whites dissolving again before they could be stiffened into meringues. Until I found a spot with shallows and calm.

It felt symbolic of my life. It may sound corny, but it really did. I embarked on an ill-advised adventure, got buffeted about and tossed in every direction, lost all my valuables, ended up scuffed and bedraggled and penniless. That’s where I am, right now. Wishing I’d done everything differently that first time round. Knowing I’ve been an idiot. But hoping that life will still give me the chance to find calmer waters. That the sea’s caress will be gentler to me. Hoping this is the midpoint of my life and that this midpoint might be a turning point. Hoping for a calmer second swim.

Note: the events detailed here happened during a trip to Sri Lanka in April 2018.

Mukhtad. In the dead days before the year begins.

Screenshot 2018-08-16 16.10.13To reach the Saher agiary (fire temple), I turned off the main street, where a guy squatted on the pavement, rinsing his Dixie-sized chai glasses in a bucket and followed a water bearer, his spindly walnut-brown legs protruding from a lunghi, bare torsoed with a huge round silver-plated jug balanced on his head and another rotund jug precariously hooked in between elbow and waist. At the top of the lane, I entered a surprisingly homely courtyard, with washing strung at one end, and old men sprawled lazily in chairs, newspapers cracked open across their legs. The Bombay sky was dove grey and topped with a thick froth of slate grey clouds. The monsoon has lingered this year and there was a cool in the air. Spots of rain were dappling my lenses, so my world was adorned with tiny glinting freckles.
I knotted a triangle of headscarf over my hair, the one that makes me look half elf, half Russian babushka. On a brick shelf, there was a pot-bellied jug like the one the man brought and, bobbing in the water itself, a smaller cup, mother and daughter, Russian dolls. I poured the water over first one hand then the other and daubed my forehead and the back of my neck. Then I sloughed my shoes off awkwardly, hopping around. I’d forgotten to loosen the fastenings and it’s taboo to touch them with your hands once you’ve entered the agiary space. “Entrance for Parsis only” the sign warned, in both English and the squared off curlicues of Gujarati.
Inside, they were commemorating the dead.
I walked around the small space first, touching my hands to the picture frames then to my forehead and solar plexus. A priest looked out at me sternly from a black-and-white photograph, his shoulders draped with a paisley shawl. There were several likenesses of Zoroaster. But my favourite was an engraved mirror with an etching of him in black and white and silver on the glass, his thick curly hair and Dr Who-like scarf trailing like pennants, a lighted taper in his hand.
There were wooden benches around the walls and I took a seat. People were reading from small prayer books. An older lady sat with her head bent over a parallel text: Avesta on one side; Gujarati on the other. Two kids were standing dutifully with folded hands. The men, children and old women sported velveteen caps; the rest of us the babushka cotton headsquares.
In front of the fire, there were two sheets laid out like picnic blankets, with cross legged priests at each corner. In front of the chubby priests in their white outfits that look so much like surgical scrubs, a set of silver platters surrounded a lit brazier. The silver plates each held an apple, an orange and a knobbly guava. There was a tray of jasmine blossoms. Orange flames licked the air.
On one side of the room, a long L-shaped sideboard was laid out with silver vases containing long-stemmed blush-pink roses (oddly, while India is full of strongly perfumed flowers, these, like many blooms that are fragrant in the west, are scentless here). The priests were chanting in resonant monotones, almost together, not quite, overlapping like a badly-directed choir, hypnotic, sounding out the nasal dipthongs and many sibiliants of a dead Persian language, open vowels rhyming, long-drawn out aan aan aaan aan and au au au aus hanging in the air, with the smoke.
The fluttering ash reminded me of another end-of-year ceremony, back in Buenos Aires where people tear up the pages of their diaries and calendars at the close of the office year and send the fragments fluttering down from their windows, whirling through the sultry summer air like a miraculous December snowshower. At year’s end, we burn away the old to ash, we rip it up into joyful showers of confetti; we remember our dead, both real and figurative, with long-stemmed roses, and then we let them go.
I set some intentions for the new year, as I sat, fanning myself with one of the square paper fans they laid out for us, eyes tearing up a little from the smoke. I have new projects ahead. I’m the subeditor of a digital magazine; I have a podcast; I’ve been interviewed several times. I’m putting my words out into the world and curating other people’s words too and I want them to be enriching. I want our publication to be a forum for calm, for reason, for sincerity in a media world of hysteria, partisanship and posturing. And I want to be less anxious, less scattered on the wind like the ash and paper, more focused.
I could have died several times this past year. Buffeted by the waves, storm tossed on that morning in Sri Lanka when I thought I might drown; mottled crimson all over and puffed up like a cobra, throat closing with anaphylactic shock just as I was helped panting onto a hospital bed in Breach Candy; and on that street in Andheri, trapped in the circle of hostile men, the most terrifying experience I have ever had. Life is fragile. I’m not going to take it for granted. I want to take each day one moment at a time and show up fully for each of them. I want to make this new year count.

India Diary. Bernie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans: Reflections One Month In.

There’s a passage in Neal Stevenson’s sci fi novel Snow Crash in which the protagonist, who has been wearing a pair of special glasses that project an idyllic image onto his rather bleak environment, finds his brain and eyes have adjusted and he can no longer see the projection, but looks straight through onto naked reality.
 
I’m having the opposite effect here in India. At first, I was overwhelmed by the ugliness everywhere: the crowds, heaps of rubbish, deafening and dangerous traffic, sewage and rotting litter and exhaust fume smells. (I was staying in one of the busiest, most chaotic and trafficky parts of Bombay, which didn’t help: it was a baptism by fire.)
 
Now, like Stevenson’s protagonist, my senses have adjusted, and I look (and hear and smell) straight past, barely registering those things: to the lime-green flashes of parakeets and the spreading canopies of mango and Ashoka trees; the stern Persian gaze of stone lamussas; the intricate wooden balconies and grassy roofs of old houses in the cantonment; the jewel-and-gold of sarees; the fragrant scents of temple sandalwood, chaat steaming in Bund-cake shapes at street stalls and cardamom chai poured from glass to glass to cool.
 
India is a huge bag of Bernie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. At first you are wrinkling your nose as you accidentally swallow fly-infested midden, stale urine and sweat-soaked rickshaw-driver armpit flavours. But soon you’ll be recognising and tossing aside the earwax and vomit ones with ease. Reach deeper into the bag. There are intense flavours of a vividness and exquisite tang you can’t yet even imagine.
 
There is everything here. Culture at its richest, more densely layered, a palimpsest of a thousand accretions. It’s an antique shop, stuffed with dusty junk, yes. But there are many treasures here, too, you won’t find elsewhere. And, in the odd spiderwebbed corner where the stray cats hide their litters, you might just spot a dusty lamp. Rub it. There are genies in the air.

India Diary: Pune Lanes

Kalyani Nagar in Pune, is a land of shady lanes, numbered 1-7 and lettered A-G, quiet little byways, where banyan trees droop their straggly split ends. The lanes are relatively traffic free. A few couples ride by, bumping along on scooters and mopeds; occasional robot-like three-wheeled rickshaws ply their trade (and kerb crawl annoyingly, crying out “where to, madam?”); women in the limp, thin cotton sarees of the working class, block printed in muddy primary colours, sweep at the dust with old-fashioned, stick-bundle brooms. Stray dogs roam (and a few defend their territory with fierce barking) and chase the pink-and-tan rooting pigs.
The lanes are lined with tall bushes in profuse leaf and flower: hibiscus trumpets dangle everywhere, in shocking pink, blush-and-white and lemon yellow; the papery blooms of bougainvillea are ubiquitous too and come not only in the familiar pinks and purples but in whites, reds, oranges, all the longwave spectrum. There are wild ladyfinger (okra) blossoms everywhere: ranging in colour from the palest lemony grey to pure chalk white. Persimmon trees are loaded with round brown fruit. And there are many other plants I don’t know the names of yet. Especially vivid is a tree gaudily decked out in scarlet trumpet flowers. There are tiger-striped tree orchids, brown and grey dragonflies camouflaged against stone walls and red-and-black beetles everywhere.
The lanes are cool and shady even in the heat of the day (and all of Pune is cool in the morning and evening, unlike Bombay where the tropical heat is unrelenting). At night, they are pitch dark. They are lined with the houses of the rich. Gateways afford occasional peeks at veranda-lined bungalows and wedding cake white McMansions. Guards doze in chairs at th entrances, stray dogs splayed out at their feet. The occasional devotee of local godman Osho strolls along, enveloped in their characteristic maroon kaftan uniform.
Occasionally, the lanes open out onto open spaces of patchy grass and dirt, where young boys are playing football and men in army uniforms are sitting smoking and shooting the breeze. Trucks offer what they call apple juice in beer mugs. They sport stylised giant apple paintings on their sides. But the juice is mango-coloured and tastes of something sweet and unidentifiable.
And sometimes the lanes branch off into a rabbit warren of chawls (the shack-like housing of poorer Indians), where women squat outside their houses over pots and men stroll around in lunghis, brushing their teeth as they walk, or lather up to shave at a cracked mirror pinned to an outdoor wall. Every ten houses or so is a tiny Hindu temple, discarded sandals lined up outside, smelling of sandalwood and clanging with bells, garlanded with marigold flowers and bearing a doll figure of Ganesh or Hanuman inside. Sometimes, a young man, naked to the waist, will form balls of paste between his fingers and stick round globs of it onto the foreheads of the idols. (I’m afraid I know nothing about Hinduism.)
There are also lovely parks, with bowered walkways. Today, I visited Empress Park. There were pot plants lined up in rows under the chaotic tropical profusion of high canopies, entwining creepers, giant cup-shaped flowers, magnolias of every hue. Gardeners dressed all in white. Lime-green parakeets flashing through the sky and, amid the thickets of trees, coal-black wild boar. Amid the rusty old greenhouses, spreading trees and rows of plants, I was reminded of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s My Secret Garden.
When you emerge from the lanes, you hit the main roads, the arteries of Pune. That’s another story. Clogged with traffic day and night, especially with a million mopeds, always two-or-more-to-a-bike. The horns blare in a continuous, deafening rhythm. Many people have scarves wrapped around their mouths and noses against the pollution. And crossing the road requires serious courage, especially at night, with no street lighting, when human bodies are just vague dim shapes in the darkness. Now that part reminds me of Bombay.IMG_4016.JPG

India Diary: The Word for World is Forest. Trail Hiking in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park

IMG_3894.JPGUnderfoot, the soil is a reddish ocre, dotted with the glistening, silver, filigree creations of funnelweb spiders, so shiny that a couple of times I almost kneel to pick one up, mistaking it for a discarded chocolate wrapper. Inside, the tiny black spiders twitch nervously as I pass. The guide gestures downwards. Hard to spot, dark grey against the leaf litter, wolf spiders are waiting to stalk their prey. A Brahminy skink, teddy-bear brown with jaunty white stripes, slithers across our path, quick as a whiplash. A buff-coloured centipede darts away into the undergrowth.

The path is lined with delicate, scalloped maidenhair ferns, edges outlined in black as if in a line drawing, leaves arranged in neat French plait rows.

To either side are stands of pincushion flowers. Tiny purple florescences peak out from fuzzy round heads of ashy-pale lilac. Ankle-high stalks bear rows of lavender coloured tulsi flowers. The pale lemon bells of wild ladyfinger open up towards the sky or hang, petals delicately twirled around each other in crinkled layers. In one, a shiny black blister beetle with a startlingly red head is carelessly scattering dark nectar. Pink-and-white coxcombs offer up their woolly neural whorls.

The flowers are alive with butterflies. Baronets in their saffron-and-coal finery; the grey-and-white tracery of common sailors; tiger-striped and leopard-spotted butterflies and tiny, fluttery chocolate, baby blue and highlighter yellow butterflies. A bundle of red-and-black striped caterpillars are tucked into a leaf, half chewed to its skeletal structure, stitched back together with threads of sticky saliva.

The guide lifts a rotten tree trunk to reveal a swarming mass of black harvester ants. In the grass, there are extraordinary sculptures of earth, spiraling inwards like a squashed Danish pastry, snakily uneven like a Salvador Dali path, shaped like the wall in Park Guell in Barcelona: their nest.

The trees are many and layered, leaves of spearmint, olive, emerald, bottle green, pinnate and palmate. True Ashoka trees and Coromandel ebonies, with their beedi-paper leaves, spread their wide canopies above us. Trees, fruitless now in the dry season, with names that promise delicacies: almond date, black jamun, fig and mango. Screw trees bear their spiral fruit and the occasional bedraggled crimson-and-yellow flower. The soccer ball tree offers its doll-sized hexagonal footballs. The Ceylon oaks have a speckled foliage, with young crimson leaves amid the green; acacia trees droop their delicate mimosa fronds. Apta leaves, which in Hindu mythology a god turned to gold to give a pupil revenge against a spiteful teacher,  are all bifurcated roundness, like a child’s drawing of a pair of buttocks.

We pass a tiny waterfall, subdued in the dry weather, dancing with pale blue dragonflies. We pick our way over the slick mossy stepping stones and sit on a round boulder above the grey water to snack. The clay-filled water is bristling with tiny, grey freshwater crabs who scuttle across the stream bed in fits and starts, as if pulled by an epileptic puppet master. On the rocks, a fishing spider waits patiently, a female with a translucent round egg sack bubbling out from her abdomen. A piece of wood is propped up against a trunk, like an mantelpiece ornament, displaying concentric-ringed, chocolate-and-coffee-coloured, plate-shaped bracket fungus.

We continue on our way till we enter a small clearing with a single, large ghost tree, peeling like a sunburned Englishman, in layers of palest dove grey, dirty white and peach. “The Britishers would hunt here. By moonlight they thought it looked like ghost,” the guide explains. In the distance we spot a herd of Sambar deer,  grey-brown bodies among the distant trucks.

The path climbs upwards and onwards. Amid the grasses and flowers, signature spiders lurk, red-and-yellow legs splayed into an X, an illiterate’s sign-here mark. We dip our heads to avoid the webs of giant wood spiders, big as a man’s hand. Underfoot, an Indian toad hops among the fallen branches. We catch him and I touch the sandpapery dryness of his warty back. The metallic sound of vibrating cicada abdomens fills the air. Grasshoppers perch on leaves in their dull brown dry season mufti. A bark mantis hangs upside down from a leaf, elbows bent in a simulacrum of prayer, hypocritical eater of lovers.

We pass a stand of straight-stemmed teak trees and the guide crumbles a leaf in his fingers to show me the chalky scarlet it yields (“in my village, we use these for Holi”, he explains). And then the path opens out onto a wide plain. Delicate, cone-shaped, pink-and-white  flowers peek out from the dry yellow grasses. Clay caves to one side are eaved with swallows. Candelabra-shaped cacti and aloe plants dot the plain. In the hazy distance, we can see the grey blocks of West Bombay’s skyscrapers, blurry against the grey-blue sky. I feel as though I were viewing them from another planet, looking down at them from some orbital habitat ring, where the last of earth’s greenery is preserved.

The path weaves further upwards. The mud is stamped at intervals with the pawings of wild boar, who dig up the wilted puce-and-khaki leaves of the hill turmeric. Spring-shaped leaf clusters of spiral ginger spot the ground and streamers of paper flower creeper leaves festoon our path. The guide delicately holds spiky Christ’s thorn branches aside to let me pass. A leopard has casually sharpened her nails on a trunk and disdainfully left us, instead of her presence, a pile of fresh, hairy scat.

The place is swarming with birds. Coal-black jungle crows circle overhead. We spot the chubby lemon tummy of the ashy prinya bird and the fluorescent yellow-and-marker-pen-black of the hooded bulbul and catch a glimpse of the long, forked, jet-black tail of a paradise flycatcher. And we hear the descending whine of the Malabar whistling thrush, the nagging cheep cheep of the lime-and-turquoise green bee eater, the piercing arpeggio whistle of the pale-billed flowerpicker, the guttural squawk of the drongo and the castanet sound of the red-whiskered bulbul. And everywhere, all the time, the tailorbird’s persistent cheep.

The path is lined with a stand of Karvi flowers, mostly spectre-white barren stalks, with the occasional late-blooming crinkled purple flower. We pass the crenelated towers of termite mounds, Disney castles of the forest. Up amid the trees, the guide points out an odd formation that looks like a series of lopsided black hats, squashed carelessly one atop the other, like those antisemitic Victorian illustrations of mercury-crazed haberdasher Jews, wearing all their hats at once: the ant pagoda nest of the rufous woodpecker.

The path suddenly ends at a birdwatching tower. We climb three flights of steps to the eyrie to be greeted with a view of Bombay I thought I’d never see: a sea of rolling green hills and, on the horizon, a sparkling kidney-shaped lake. We are in another world here. Down below, at the treeline, there is a sudden commotion, a whooping and howling and crashing of branches. “Leopard is here,” says the guide. We are too high to see if this is true. But we watch the Hanuman langurs leap from branch to branch in a panic, sleek and long-furred, like Afghan hounds, long tails streaking out behind them like pennants on jousting knights.

Afterwards, as we serpentine down the paths to spare our knees (“downhill, we walk like snake”, the guide said); as we cram, hip to sweaty hip, with twelve others, into a rickety joint taxi designed for four; as I emerge into the stream of people by the main gate and out into the deafening car horns and smoggy air of Borivali; I feel dazed. How could such a short distance, such a brief thirty minutes of time, separate two such different worlds?    

India Diary: The Sanjay Gandhi National Park: Part 1

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Borivali is more like an old fashioned, chipped-paint amusement park. Except with added lion safari.
There’s a lake with cutesy animal-shaped paddleboats. On the far side of the water, inaccessible to homo sapiens, a herd of dappled deer is grazing.
There’s a toy train running on a loop through dense scrub forest (for added stress, the ticket counter at the miniature station doesn’t open until the train is at the station and the conductor is impatiently sounding his whistle. Men queue while their wives, in jewel-toned saris bordered with gold embroidery herd children onto the train.) En route, we pass several slum settlements, right in the park, lean-tos roofed with the ubiquitous royal blue tarpaulin, women squatting over pots outside, toddlers waving at the train.
There’s a faded salmon cupola atop a hill, reached by a short trudge up steps, surrounded by shallow fish ponds like a moat. Overhead, the oval leaves of the Ceylon oak, drenched translucent with sun, doily the sky.
There’s a charming stroll garden with torqued umbrella palms, shocking pink roses and bedraggled spider lilies. Families of fat arsed monkeys sit on low branches scratching at their armpit fleas. One scatters a gaggle of skinny giggling Indian boys by masturbating at them, hissing through bared teeth. A baby leaps repeatedly for a low branch and misses. Lithe brown lizards ripple over signposts and the air is alive with tawny scallop-winged moths, baby blue and highlighter pen tipped yellow butterflies.
Everywhere, there are young couples, families, groups of guys, stray goats a nibble. The shouts of children mingle with the cawing of crows and the putter of mopeds. Along the sides of each path, women in saris sit crosslegged by guavas, peeled cucumbers, hands of bananas and wicket baskets of peanuts, roasted in their shells, for sale in paper cones. It’s India: a tiny bit of nature and a whole lot of human chaos.
But, as the train rounds a corner one of the young men lets out an excited shriek. Amid the trees I see a graceful shape. I can’t make it out from here. And it’s almost certainly not. It can’t be. But in my imagination it’s a leopard.

India Diary: Morning explorations in Goregaon

The complex surrounding the high rise block where I’m staying is a little oasis of calm in the early morning. The purple lanterns of bougainvillea and the delicate chalk white stars of jasmine (which, for some reason, is scentless in India) dot the lush green bushes by the sides of the tarmac paths. I climb the stairs to a low roof, where two old men are sitting shooting the breeze, legs dangling, on an old fashioned love seat swing at the centre of a triangle of glossy leaved magnolia trees. The muffled sounds of female voices announcing train departures blend with the hammering of the human woodpeckers, the blue and yellow hardhatted construction workers who are omnipresent here, and the chirpings, whistlings, cawings, cheepings and flutings of a thousand birds. A little black bird with Adidas go-faster white stripes along his wings is pecking at the dust. As I walk, I dislodge clouds of cabbage whites and smaller, brown butterflies and starbursts of sparrows.
 
“It’s a bit of a mess outside,” Namrata commented on our yesterday’s walk. That’s a good way to describe it: a jumble. All the beauty is to be found in the trees, rich dark emerald against the grey haze of the sky. I recognise the lush dappling of small almond shaped neem leaves, spreading into wide canopies; the droopy droplet leaves of peepuls; papaya trees with their sparse starburst crowns and clusters of dangling, udder-shaped, olive-coloured fruit. Everywhere, there is lush growth.
 
I emerge close to the entrance to the station, where a group of men in Yasser Arafat style headscarves, triangular scarf ends trailing down over burnt copper backs, are shovelling a large slag heap. The little street is lined with stalls: a ladies’ beauty parlour, shuttered still; a ‘lucky’ horoscope man; snack sellers with dangling strings of colourful square packets of salty junk food adorning their stalls like streamers; tea shops I avoid when I see the chai unattended, wrinkling over as it cools.
 
Little three-wheeled saffron and black electric rickshaws are trundling about everywhere: squat, determined little Huey, Louie and Deweys. Further down the road, I spot a long line of them, parked. Many are open at the back, revealing the granite-coloured metal intestines of their engines. Drivers are squatting by them, tinkering and mending; one is sudsing up the bodywork with a soapy cloth; another lies sprawled asleep over the back seat, bare brown legs and feet poking through a window. A stray goat licks tentatively at the paintwork.
 
I pass a huge shell of a building. Opposite, office workers are waiting for a local bus, perched on giant industrial pipes. Next door, a cat is peering through a small opening at a long row of cow sheds. Glossy black cows, each tethered to its stall by a length of rope, look out at me mournfully. In the gloom of the back of the stable, a man is sitting on an old-fashioned, three-legged wooden stool, milking by hand.
 
I pass a market. Women in limp cotton sarees and men in loose shirts and rolled-hem trousers stand or squat behind neatly arranged stacks of vegetables: knobbly cucumbers, pale yellow and red tomatoes, tiny pear shaped aubergines. Some men are carrying sacks of perfectly round potatoes heaved up on one shoulder.
 
There’s a huge midden in the middle of a crossroads. Two older women, bent deeply at the waist, are picking through the rubbish in the company of swarms of flies. Crows are perched atop some of the piles, cawing. A small heap of rat carcasses is aswarm with petrol-slick iridescent bluebottles.
 
Further along, I come to a row of chicken sellers, chopping up cuts of meat with cleavers at wooden tables while beneath the chickens themselves wait in bustling, squawking rows of cages. At the bottom of each structure are bowls of white eggs. A rooster struts around in front, glossy blue-black feathers and scarlet crest.
 
Two men sit at a large, speckled mirror as twin barbers lather up their chins and swipe off stubble with cut throat razors. A mother inspects her young son’s buzzcut at another barber shop next door. A metallic clanging of bells and the smell of sandalwood signals the entrance to a small temple, set back from the stalls. A row of discarded flip flops lines the threshold and strings of jasmine flowers hang in the doorway (from a distance, they look like kebabs on spits, as if it were a doner shop). A small herd of goats is wandering freely among the parked scooters and waiting rickshaws. A kid goat stands by a banana seller, eating the discarded peels from a bucket.
 
Set back into the courtyards of some of the high rise buildings are small rows of shops, like miniature strip malls. I spot what looks like a betting shop next to a gold jewellery sellers. Above, the building is streaked grey on terracotta. Barred windows are spilling over with frondy pot plants. Someone has hung their washing over the bottom of the metal stand holding a large poster of a pale-blue-and-white Ganesh. Another billboard, with Hindi script, displays Ambedkar’s chubby-cheeked, intelligent face. Orange flags fly the crescent moon of Islam. One green Pakistani banner flutters from a window. Everywhere, religious affiliations are clearly marked: Hindu here; Muslim there. Muslims seem to predominate. At home, an embossed Hindu swastika marks the door as I return to the quiet of the flat.