Not poetic, no climax, just a couple of turns of the peddles and my last day of cycling in India is complete. Thinking back to the start it began with no fanfare either. The journey of several thousand miles really does start with a single step, and ends with it too.
Nevertheless, I’ve been in India long enough to know the importance of ritual. I indulged in a certain flourish as I dropped into the bin my formerly padded cycling shorts with holes (patched, mostly) where there should have been none.
The last day was tough. If it had been my first I would have postponed it. Perhaps. I woke up hungover after far too few hours sleep. Blame Nagaland, another tribal state.
Long a headache of independence seeking insurgency in India’s right temple, it is increasingly known for the Hornbill festival: traditional tribal dances, a menu of insects, dog and silk worms and a rock festival fuelled by rice beer.
Here you see the spears and headresses that you would associate with the tribal moniker and only a couple of generations separate genuine war-dancing headhunters from mobile phone entranced youngsters. In fact the festival seems as much about clinging to a culture that is in danger of fading away as showcasing an untouched heritage.
Admitedly it is festival time but I felt a certain purpose or energy in Nagaland. A small example: The signposts on the way up the frankly atrocious but soon to be majorly upgraded road to the mountains forgo the usual safety rhymes: ‘safe drive, safe life’ or ‘this is highway not runway’, or my favourite: ‘don’t mix drink and drive’ (put the cocktail shaker away!). Instead they have inspirational self help hints: ‘in life if you come to a fork in the road, take it’. These compete with the more religiously infused: ‘how can we say we love Jesus while destroying the environment’. Or the straightforward ‘Jesus loves you’.
In fact I find a cohesive energy in the whole of the north-east and not because it is uniform. Far from it. But there is a sense of a north-east regionalism, born perhaps of not feeling typically Indian, or of feeling a little forgotten by the rest of India, or simply by a certain geographical isolation. Thailand and China feel a lot closer here.
Nevertheless the motorcade and body guards of the chief minister – toting the meanest submachine guns I have seen in the subcontinent – and the chief minister’s speech at the festival (education, opportunity, but also a need for those outside the mainstream to return to the fold) hint at the rebellious faction that still plays within a number of the hill areas of the north-east.
Unseasonal rain turned the Rock festival into a bit of a mud pit. Very familiar! Though I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a Jonah. The late night rice and daal dinner at the only place open, a railway station waiting room, also felt familiar. And so too did getting up early, somewhat automatically, in a little pain, to cycle this final day.
Broken roads, coconut palms, houses straight out of an old-school Indian picture book…In truth a certain normality has finally set in…Women collecting wood from the forest, a farmyard’s entire cast wandering the street. Do people honk less or am I just desensitized – or more deaf? I notice differences more and more against a baseline of India than a baseline of the UK.
Appropriately on this last day as so many others a stop at a roadside stall – crisps for bunting, fizzy drinks for decoration – a purchase, and a chat in broken Hinglish led to the gift of a couple of bananas to fuel me on my way. If there is one great universal in India it is these stores – Coca-Cola and Lays reaching everywhere, even to places where the government and much of modernity might seem far away.
A few days in Kaziranga National Park was my reward: The broad flat wetlands dotted with grazing deer, rhinos, elephants. And water buffalo too; wild, with horns curving proudly, broadly, spanning metres, rather than the timid, stunted, introverted horns of their domesticated cousins in the villagers’ fields. It hints at what the North-East must have looked like before the mind-boggling population growth of the the last 100, 50, even 10 years.
In these last days I have half a head thinking of home: family WhatsApp groups full of snowmen and present plans. I have half a head still in India full of new details, people and plans even in these final days; some retrospective, start-to-finish summary thoughts starting to tickle round the edge. And staking a claim for the future, I have half a head in China. No wonder my mind feels a little jumbled, a little between world’s, a little full!
You will no doubt ask me what I think of India. Right now it’s like being asked about a friend – the off the cuff answer, true but banal: ‘yeah great guy, interesting, we’ve shared some good times; has a few weird habits though.’ But I have plenty more to tell in time.
And what next? The plan was always to discover India and China separately, independently, but these months in India will inevitably colour and inform my time in china, and vice versa my time in china may recast my thinking of India. An unavoidable comparison – though instructive too I would think.
But still I try to approach China afresh. Perhaps it will be easier after the short sorbet of UK life to cleanse the palette. But the spices in India linger long; the raw onion served with every meal has a habit of hanging around. This won’t be the last I write on India.