A superb travel book written by Rock during his stay in India is filled with pieces and photos to explore. Without books like these we couldn't travel this far.
November 25, 2006 - New Delhi
Airport, 6 o'clock in the morning, the setting looks like the villain's secret in an old James Bond. My girlfriend Vijaya, a Southern Indian girl, suddenly emerges amid the hellish din of car horns and Hindi pop spewing from crackling old radios. We drove twenty kilometers with a taxi driver who speaks English I cannot understand and drives in the middle of the road, at top speed amongst the disorderly mass of rickshaws, other vehicles, kids pissing, humpback cows eating trash from the night before, rickety buses, aging bums, squeaky bicycles, students in uniform, a legless cripple on a skateboard, wooden carts from another century and the classic ambassador car originally designed in the 1950's.
Cultural shock. Delhi and its hordes of sickly kids wandering the streets, buildings with Gotham City like architecture, crazy traffic, gurus draped in pink silk adorned with swastikas, gargoyles, crooks of all kinds, Sikh temples and gigantic Mosques on the square where hundreds of families live like the Middle Ages, in makeshift tents, and sickly goats. It's a permanent jump in time, like Back to the Future, without the DeLorean, for free. I watch the latest video from Jay Z on MTV at a Burger King. Beyond the window, a mother and her children look for food in the garbage while a herd of buffalo migrates downtown. At the exit, a kid comes up to me, "Your a lucky guy man...Indian women are the best. You want some smoke? Marijuana? This is my business, man..." Twelve years old and already an experienced convict.
December 3 - Agra
Tourists from around the world flock to the Taj Mahal, as with us. There are coach buses of Germans in shorts, redneck Americans, and Japanese with the latest Nikon SLR; they all come to pay homage to the old lady in white. But no one stays too long. Despite its 6 million inhabitants, Agra is dilapidated and dusty, and really has nothing to keep the tourists here.
The tension between Hindus and Muslims is palpable. The former suspect the latter to use their sacred cows in kebabs when the cows cross into the Muslim quarters. In that area, the old look me up and down, and call me 'American', the school children come to perfect their English with me, but I cut short my visit to Madrassa when I see a professor teach the Koran to the little boys with a cane made from ox ligaments.
The young guys on the corner are interested in us, as we're with Vijaya, who is French and Tamil. Their eyes widen when I tell them we're not married, something that is unthinkable here: "In India you can't have the milk with the cow," as they say. Most of the men will have a woman chosen by their family based on their dowry, but the majority, eternal virgins, will never marry. Many girls from poor families never reach puberty because, as they also say here, "Raising a daughter is like watering the garden of his neighbor..."
I grab an old rickshaw to go to the train station. A sinister cop cuts off the driver and goes to the front, the brakes stop working as we approach the intersection of the main boulevard, we hit a car, two, three, I hang in there, four, five, six cars and we finish our course impaled on steel beams sticking out of a truck. I'm raging at what this cop did, but the driver exploded his collarbone against one of the joists. Amongst a crew of deafening engines, shouts and horns, we get out of the car, groggy, the driver, writhing in pain and pissing blood. Drivers of the hit cars approach us, surely to make sure we haven't broken anything, right? No, they encircle my driver and stick him with a slew of barrages, yelling at him. The guy, defeated, encircled. Here, there's no insurance, no "zero hassle, zero blah," you break, you pay. And if you're poor, you pay in slaps in the face. Tolerant, philosophical and non-violent India is a myth.
Bombay Victoria Station
December 10 - Varanasi
Yes, here it is...the pictures you have seen on TV. The city of a thousand temples, walks along the Ganges, the guys in orange robes smoking chillum, the sound of ritual bells, pilgrims descending from the four corners of India to pay homage to their gods by taking a bath in "Mother Ganga". Well, all of this is folklore.
There are bands of monkeys everywhere crying hysterically, stray dogs emerging from the mountains of trash at every street corner, old men trying to sell shit to the international hippies on their "journey" to Kathmandu: "Good manali for you my friend!!” Then, in a gigantic marble temple, the big festival in honor of Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and their homeboys begins (It’s incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, Hindus have more than 1500 Gods, most avatars or incarnations of the 3 named above). The Sadhus in tattered orange dreadlocks (the local version of Rasta, devoted entirely to the gods and living mostly in the forest) ask me for money every 20 meters and I reply in French "Go get a job, lazy!" (Indians told me their friends become Sadhus to avoid an arranged marriage or simply to not have to work). The pilgrims, in a trance, find a thousand and one creative to express their devotion (by whipping up blood, by squatting a hundred times over, or by deciding to raise an arm, never lowering it).
On the banks of the Ganges, two plazas are dedicated to cremation, broiling 200 bodies per day (or throwing them directly to float, depending on how they died). Hindus come here to die, to be cremated, and to have their ashes dropped into the sacred river. According to their beliefs, they break the cycle of reincarnation, and finally reach Nirvana.
Small stakes were raised every 2 meters. Four or 5 bodies burn every half hour from dawn to dusk. Overlooking the scene, small balconies with benches make sure you do not miss the show: The smell of smoked meat as sandalwood ignites the hair, skin breaks and reveals the inner layers of the body, the fat melts. For members who are deformed and dislocated, cremation attendants push the body around with big sticks and break their legs at the knee to put them in the fire. Kids play cricket or kite 2 meters away from this giant barbecue. The family of the deceased seems content, their grandfather has finally found peace and nobody is crying. A stray dog, its hair filled with gray ash, snatched a toe or finger and ran off with it to chew in a quieter corner.
Rock - Santa Cruz - Bombay
Rock - Bombay
Bosny - Spraycans
15 December, Calcutta
At the Calcutta train station, an image of the city scorched by the sun and black dust, with starving children, half naked, competing for a few rupees emerges right away. Above them stands a huge sign with an Indian, fat like a samosa, in a three piece suit, topped by the phrase: "Obesity, the new Indian problem"
As in all major Indian cities, extreme poverty and an arrogant well-nourished middle class meet. A collision of Westernization and third-world wretchedness, the social divide is more evident than anywhere else, fueled by the dehumanizing caste system, yet "officially" abolished by Gandhi. If, unfortunately, you are born in the gutter, you'll end up most likely, as your children, in the gutter. Among Hindus, the curse of the lower castes is transmitted genetically. Even more disturbing here - the state of Bengal is communist as evidenced by the gigantic statues of Lenin and Mao - the posters of the party bearing the likeness of Stalin or the daily demonstrations in the center of the rich Bengali capital (here, even prostitutes appear).
Crazy contrast between the filthy slums of the western and central parts of the city: From an exotic and humid jungle emerges American-esque skyscrapers and old, faded, Victorian buildings, rendered porous by successive monsoons. The young, ‘worldly’ crowd frequents fashion bars, nightclubs and upscale restaurants. Their parents, representing the highest caste, threw me scornful looks. Me, the depraved outcast, accompanying, without marriage, an Indian darker than them...This is a daily scene of everyday racism in a country composed of 80% Hindus and 15% Muslims (Sikhs, Jains and Christians share the remaining 5%), organized into hundreds of carefully prioritized castes, none of which ever mingle.
Gao Devi - Andheri - Bombay
Calcutta kids, smile now die later
December 24 - Chennai
Christmas in the tropics, 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, with palm trees and a blazing sun. I'm at Mercy Home, the orphanage where Vijaya spent the first years of her life; it's been recently converted into a convent and hospice for people with disabilities and people who are dying.
Me, a child of the suburbs, not even baptized, who has always celebrated with his family in a typical way, I witness a Christian ceremony in Shakespearean English, surrounded by old Indian nuns and the local, lower middle class Tamil.
The priest, accompanied by his chorus of virgin singers, led us singing, among others, a country digital version of "Merry Christmas Jesus Christ" and a 1990's dance version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas". Imagine, TR-909, and early acid synths, all of it, interspersed with pieces of the true life of Christ (grand gestures, penetrating, squinting eyes, smiling ultrabrite, falsetto, morale for 5 year olds...and a performance by actors in the vain of Tony Danza) Unreal!!
Tired, I feebly attempt mass in Tamil (the local language) on the Indian side of the church. Amongst the religious images are paper mached animals in fluorescent colors. A packed crowd of 300 Tamils turned on me like it was the night that Jesus had finally decided to make his big comeback. Yet, I am clean-shaven... The next day I told that to 18 year old girls, aspiring nuns and always cheerful. They began to laugh and tell me that others - the Indians - are jealous of my blue eyes and call me "the pure white beauty".
January 1 - Bangalore
Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of the sub-continent. They make your computers and manage the customer service hotlines for companies around the world. The richest Indians, who took advantage of the recent economic boom in the region, reserve tables in the many upscale restaurants and clubs of the city for New Year's Eve and Day. I decide to spend my time on the street, amidst the crowd.
At 10 pm, with a counterfeit bottle of Smirnoff in hand, I squat on one of the benches along Mahatma Gandhi Road, the main shopping street of the city. One million Bangaloreans march in ranks before me, 99.9% are guys, young, mustachioed, half drunken; they dance and sing. At midnight, a street, 200 meters by 20 meters, surrounded by heavy metal barriers and cops, obviously not very relaxed, sticks in hand. The parade is forbidden to women, too dangerous for them to find themselves amidst a sea of people, crammed with testosterone guys and bad whiskey, stuffed with Bollywood types where babes inaccessible like Priyanka Chopra, Preity Zinta or Aishwarya Rai dance half naked. Like everywhere else, there's singing, dancing, and pushing. I try to take pictures.... It's impossible. One guy starts to run, then two, three, ten. Within minutes everyone runs, it is 12:15 am, and cops charge, dispersing the crows with great blows of the stick in the mouth. A hand grabs my t-shirt and pulls me down quickly to the sidewalk; a cop generously gives me hell, not understanding why I'm here. Beside me, a young Englishman with an Arsenal jersey on, could not join this party. While he weighs 170 lbs, he's blond and has shoulder-length hair: It's too risky for him to mingle with the crowd of frustrated men. His look is really too...feminine.
January 10th - Goa
A 15 hour train ride through the dense jungle and thick as Kipling, smoking, eating chips and chocolate, sitting on the steps of the Yeshwantpur Express, revealing the backdrop of green valleys, palm trees, exotic birds, waterfalls and quiet buffalo grazing in rice fields. It was a living postcard.
Welcome to Goa, the country's most permissive and decadent state. Under Portuguese rule until 1961, the native people retained certain traditions imported by the colonists: Alcohol and the Christian faith. The Goan drink feni, a local alcohol made of coconut or cashews, and eat beef (a heresy in a country with over one billion Hindus that revere cows), the girls were in bikinis on the beaches of fine sand and the hippies that came to smoke manali in the sixties never left. Forests of coconut palms arise, and every 200 meters, small Catholic churches, whitewashed, with old-fashioned images conjuring up Mexico or western technicolors appear.
This could be paradise on earth, like the tropical beaches of Calangute and Baga in St. Tropez or the Caribbean. Every ten meters, speakers, and souvenir shops, nightclubs spitting euro-dance pulsating at +1000 Db. This corner of the coast is overrun by packs of English straight out of a film by Ken Loach: oozy nightclub bouncers, overweight, shaved heads and tattoos like convicts that had too much fun with a bic pen.
Two beaches, two atmospheres. Further down there's Anjuna beach, home to "full moon parties" and a historical stronghold for beatniks, dreadlocks and other travelers that consider themselves "world citizens". The perfect place to OD on the beach, buy a Bob Marley t-shirt, bootleg trans-goa CD or fabric made my Kashmiri children. It's dirt-cheap.
While heading back to my place, I came across a band of young Indian nationalists. One is wearing a red t-shirt with a swastika printed on the chest, tilted to 45 degrees on a white circle. His buddy is wearing a t-shirt with a cross of iron and a swastika on the back. Adolf Namaste. Gandhi turns in his grave.
January 24 - Mumbai
Mahim is a neighborhood in the economic capital of India. I stayed with Dennis, a 78 year old Goan who reminded me of Paulie from Rocky. He spends his days watching cricket sipping on his bottle of scotch.
Today, I lose myself in the city, which has "officially" 15 million people. I would tell you double that. Anyway, how do you estimate the population, half of whose inhabitants live in the slums?
Architecturally, it's a huge mess of sumptuous villas (movie studios are north of the city, and although the price per square meter is more expensive here than on the Champs-Elysees, the millionaire Bollywood moguls are building palaces), red building projects like Brooklyn, huge skyscrapers on the waterfront, bigger slums and makeshift dwelling on the pavement, where a whole family of peasants who have fled rural poverty live, stripped of everything, in the midst of exhaust gases and rats that swarm at dusk. There is not enough housing for everyone, and they are 500K new people moving here each year. They all make offerings to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, in the hope that it will give them a better tomorrow.
I drag along in the "chor bazar", literally the "thieves market", bric-a-brac and freakishly old appliances, parts of cars and Hindi pop culture. I sift, for hours, through mountains of dusty old 33 rpm and 60's cinema posters. The price is up to you, and I must stick firmly to the price, or I might be made a fool to pay so much. But hey, it's been two months since I bought loads of vinyl from Delhi to Bangalore, so I'm starting to get by trading: "You have some R.D. Burman, Kalyanji Anandji or Laxmikant Pyarelal records? Like Anamika? Yaadon ki baarat?" The 60's Bollywood soundtracks, it's my drug and my knowledge of music from their youth makes them nice and want to tell me about their Muslim grandpas vinyls or "gramophone", as they say. I do my best to find what I want from Haji Ebrahim, an old man who's a dead ringer for the Ayatollah Khomeini. He seems happy to fill gaps in my garage-funk Hindi collection.
Tonight I am invited to dine with Clinton and Dominique Cerejo. He is a composer, arranger and singer in Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood (meccas for film in southern and eastern India) and she was a playback singer for the biggest blockbuster Hindi. She just doubled for Aishwarya Rai in Dhoom 2. In his studio, Clinton explained Indian music production: There are 4 produces who compose a film score, five songs and background music - all in three weeks. A film averages 3:30 hours.
When I returned to Mahim, this neighborhood, is so warm in the morning when the schoolboys and girls go to study, when their mothers in saris make their daily trip to the market, which all turns slowly to a ghost town as soon as twilight envelopes the day. Late at night I go to make collages, 100 meters from Darhavi, the largest slum in Mumbai. I coat the walls with paste in the middle of stray dogs, bums, families of untouchables who sleep on the floor, guards armed with bats, rats and junkies fried on... it was stressful.
Local Police - Mumbai
At 5 a.m., the adrenaline dissipates and I go to bed, but I'm so happy. Tomorrow, I take the plane to Paris, return to France, dull as it is, the monotony is comfortable, my friends are there, and yes my cat too.
Original text By Rocky Rock
Photos: Rocky Rock and Vijaya Leloup
English Translation : LindsayT