Another World

We have just returned from yet another trip to India, a country that continues simultaneously to delight, confuse, entertain and alarm.

In Bombay (as locals still have it), we met up with American and Australian friends. That was a complete surprise for one of them celebrating a “biggish” birthday and starting with a bang, because Diwali fell the day after we arrived.

The festival of lights reaffirms the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and is typically marked by firecrackers and lanterns. This year, though, it seemed more muted than usual.

All the markets were busy as ever, the fabric markets in full swing and big throngs outside the fireworks shops.


But when we all trooped over to Marine Parade and Nariman Point, it was all a bit sedate. The crowds were no bigger than for an average weekend night, and relatively few of the residential buildings along one of the world’s most expensive property stretches carried the traditional Diwali lights. There were numbers of people out, of course – this was India, after all. But it was not massive.

Taxi drivers all suggested their business was slow because consumer confidence was subdued. That became a theme over the next three weeks – despite all the razzmatazz, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian economy is slowing, and mumblings are mounting.

But Bombay was its usual wonderful self and our friends discovered the riches of fabric store, Fabindia, that began almost sixty years ago as a means to preserve traditional weaving and has grown into a massive and colourful shopping venue. In fact, at every subsequent destination Fabindia became a target.

Bombay is massive – Maximum City, as Sukhetu Mehta’s excellent book identifies it – but it works well enough. The architecture is remarkable, the energy palpable. And then there is Bollywood, so it was instructive to see our friends come to realise the power of film there and the stature of stars like Amitabh Bachan.

On the plane up I had watched Thugs of Hindostan and enjoyed it thoroughly despite its OTT trajectory, and was surprised that it had “bombed” so spectacularly. A Bollywood friend’s explanation was simple – Indian audiences had already seen Pirates of the Caribbean!

That was just another indicator of how India is becoming mainstreamed into the global economy. Netflix is now doing joint productions and Indian actors are appearing outside India more frequently. Watch this space as the Indian and Chinese film industries both become more globally significant.

And I still think Thugs is a great hoot.

From there it was on to Udaipur that remains one of my favourite places, improved as ever by staying somewhere like the Jagat Niwas Place, overlooking Lake Pichola and the fabled “Lake Palace”.

The power was switched off every time we left the room and the hot water was finite, but the service was fabulous and the views terrific, especially from the roof at sunset with a Kingfisher beer in hand.

Getting to the hotel was an adventure for our friends. A van met us at the airport and navigated the almost forty kilometres of roadwork into Udaipur, then transferred us and luggage into three tuktuks for a circuitous journey via the choked and narrow market lanes. It was all for effect – last time there Sandi and I went in by taxi – but great fun.

That night we all walked around to the other side of the lake and the Ambrai restaurant that sits on the water and serves excellent food. It was so good our friends insisted on returning on a subsequent evening.

Over extended bargaining (that included discussions of politics and life) I made new friends with a jeweller and a Kashmiri fabric trader. Both told me business was slow, and had been even over Diwali. Udaipur was crowded with tourists domestic and foreign, they said, but the Indians were not buying. The jeweller said that his shop was normally crammed over Diwali when he needed extra staff – this time round even his normal staff had little to do.

The next stop was Kochi in Kerala, currently my most favourite place in India.


We included it on the itinerary to show our friends the great differences between north and south India – down here there are as many churches from a variety of denominations as there are temples and mosques. Like the famed Chinese fishing nets, these churches betray the region’s long affiliation with the trading routes pioneered by the Portuguese and followed up by Arabs, Chinese, the British, French and all the rest.

And these days Kerala has an added impulse.

If you’ve ever been to Doha, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the rest, then there is a fair chance those Indian workers you encountered came from Kerala which has something like a 97% literacy rate. Those educational standards serve the state well. India annually takes in about $US 82 billion from Indians overseas. Almost half of that goes back to Kerala where those remittances represent 35% of the state’s GDP (India’s national average is only about 3%).

That makes for some interesting social patterns. We stayed at the excellent Malabar House in old Kochi where the GM was born in Kerala but brought up in the UAE where he got into the hotel trade then returned to Kerala just a year ago to find the change of pace substantial.

This is part of the new India and its global diaspora that propels Narendra Modi into those Rockstar excursions to performances in places like Madison Square Gardens and the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

My GM friend was finding business slow, too, but not just because of the economy. In his case, that was aggravated by climate change.

Last year the monsoon brought massive floods to the state. About 500 people died, a million were evacuated, and roads, railways, bridges and all the rest took massive damage that still remains. The roads into Kochi from the airport remain under reconstruction.
That monsoon season is normally June to September, but this year was late and extended well into October and November that hit the tourist industry hard as flights were cancelled, tour groups disrupted with participants opting to go elsewhere. So when we emerged from a Kathakali dance demonstration into pouring rain, it was no surprise.


There were still people around, however, all attracting attention from tuktuk drivers who all receive “petrol vouchers” and (if sales eventuate) and commission from the mostly Kashmiri traders who run the tourist-oriented shops.
Those Kashmiris are another signifier of the new India. Some have been in Kerala for fifteen to twenty years, having fled their home state because of the disruption caused by the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict. Now they are incensed by Modi’s abolition of Kashmir’s “special” status guaranteed constitutionally in 1947.

Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims alike are incensed India-wide, even in the south. The move is seen as yet another move in a creeping Hindu nationalist grab from Modi and his federal BJP government in wake of their crushing victory over the Congress party in the most recent elections.
Bombay had been interesting in that respect, too. State elections in Maharashtra delivered no majority party, with the BJP in a standoff over a possible coalition with the Shiv Sena, another Hindu nationalist group. That went unresolved and the state is currently under President’s Rule from New Delhi.
From Kochi we went an hour further south to Alleppy and the houseboats that have evolved from the riceboats that used to ply the Kerala backwaters and their 1,000 kilometres of navigable waterways hemmed between the hills and the Arabian Sea. This area has long been and remains one of the Indian rice bowls, but as newer means of transport evolved the boats that once carried rice now carry tourists who add significantly to those remittances sent home by expat Kerala workers.

We had all decided on having five full days on a boat, and our Indian “advisers” were unanimously agreed that was way too many – do just an overnight, they said, you’ll be bored rigid otherwise.
Wrong. None of us wanted to leave when that final morning arrived. The crew on Spice Routes boat Tamarind was fabulous.


So was the food. Every day was different, the birdlife teemed, there were interesting moments – like stopping into a waterway shop and picking up giant prawns for dinner.


There was always something to do or watch, and we were scared to switch attention off for fear of missing something. It was tranquil, photogenic and incredibly relaxing.

But leave we did, with every intention of returning, and a highlight on that final day was a visit to a genuine handloom fabric store jammed full of locals, we were the only foreigners in sight. There were some traditional handloom weavers on site, displaying incredible skills that are in serious danger of being lost forever as India changes.

This was the India outside the modernised and modernising cities, and a reminder of just how different the place can be – we enjoyed all that as we relaxed for an afternoon at the Purity resort owned by Malabar House on the shores of Lake Vembanand.

Everyone should try that sometime.