I'm back in Paris. I returned from Mumbai on Tuesday morning. This afternoon, I made my usual circuit around Paris to make sure that everything is still there, that everything is as I remembered it. I ate an entrecote and drank wine, had a heavy chocolate dessert and cafe, went to bookshops and saw a film. Paris is still Paris, whew. But I have left a lot unwritten about India.
Last weekend, you see, I attempted to break out once more from the pleasant campus of IUCCA and see the land. To see the country. I hired a car, and, of course, a driver: one does not drive on Indian roads, even if one has been to Marseille. Oh no. I had decided that I would visit the ancient cave-temples of Ajanta and Ellora, a few hundred kilometers north of Pune. From what I could gather, this was certainly the sight to see near Pune, if one could get there.
A few hundred kilometers might sound like not so far away, but on Indian roads, this is very far indeed. Leaving Pune at 7AM, we reached Ajanta only by 2pm in the afternoon. My driver was a very gracious man of incredible driving skills (my gosh! we didn't hit that truck!). Despite our numerous brushes with large slow moving vehicles I didn't once feel threatened or frightened, kind of remarkable really. At certain points in the drive, I became sleepy. What normally happens in those circumstances is that one's eyes begin to feel heavy, and heavier, you begin to feel more and more relaxed, almost on the point of sleep and the BEEEP! You are startled awake to see directly before your eyes beautifully painted truck tailgate with the words 'HORN OK PLEASE' written on it in large colourful characters (and usually 'India is great!' beneath that). Repeat this process about a hundred times.
After about sixty kilometers from Pune, there are no more roads. Or rather, the beautiful four-lane motorway that brings goods and people to the countless factories around Pune comes to and end, and there is in its place a small road, one lane in each direction. Every kind of vehicle imaginable to man is allowed on this road, and I was certain that over the course of the next two days I saw most nearly all of them. Horses and carts, carts and cows, rickshaws, trucks, scooters, motorbikes, trucks, men with carts. Men on horseback. All of these my driver skillfully dodged, accelerating fearlessly on blind corners and steep rises.
How to describe the countryside? After the endless built-up expanses of Pune, desert: dry empty land, scrub, hills. But this was the only stretch of land that was truly empty, and it seems to be only ten or fifteen kilometres. For the rest of the journey we were never very far from houses or villages. And that's the very strange thing too about India: no matter where you find yourself, in whatever remote part of the country you are in, there is always, always someone walking by the side of the road. I often wondered about these people. Where were they coming from? The last house was many kilometres behind us. Where were they going to? The next village along was not that close either. At one point we saw a long line of people dressed in bright orange robes striding purposefully through the dust. These people, it turned out, were pilgrims making a trek to a temple which was at least a hundred kilometres distant.
Then of course there were the villages -- for the most part, a chaotic jumble of shacks and narrow streets, always teeming with people. At night, as we passed through one village after another, it seemed that many places had almost no lights at all, despite the fact there were many people in the streets and shops. The odd bulb here and there cast a dim glow, or car headlights swept across the buildings for an instant like a lighthouse rays, but there was nothing else. In many rooms facing the streets I glimpsed people sitting singly or in small groups in darkened rooms, silently waiting. Once again, I found myself wondering the purpose of all that.
Of course, the poverty was astonishing. How hard people have to work to gain their livelihood. People with hammers compacting burning asphalt on the roads. Families firing bricks on open kilns under the burning desert sun. People welding in the middle of the street. People knocking down buildings with (practically) their bare hands. And of course all that stuff to be moved and hauled with carts and animals or of course incredibly overladen trucks. Everything I saw seemed to be this dizzying mixture of intense activity and lassitude; and nothing seemed to have a time where it started, or finished. From the start of the trip at 7am until I crashed onto my hotel bed at 10pm in the evening I could see little difference in the numbers and quantities of people on the roads and in the streets. For those that worked, the work continued without end. I remember standing in a vacant lot at 9pm on a Saturday evening and watching an endless stream of traffic on this road a hundreds of miles from anywhere in particular. I thought absently of Europe, and Europeans, their privileges and how different their Saturday night would be from the one I could see around me now.