This morning I saw an elephant on the road. It was at that point that I realised that I was really somewhere else, in a different country that I had never visited before. I’m here in India.
I was being driven with a group of colleagues between Mumbai and Pune; I will be in Pune for the next two weeks to teach in a school on observational astronomy. We will observe some part of the sky, there is a research project to be done, some interesting objects to observe. The telescope is a two hour drive north from here, in the mountains. We will spend a night there, under the stars.
How to describe an arrival here? India is unlike any place I have every visited before, different in scale and sensations and taste and colour. Arriving at the airport in Mumbai and finally leaving the terminal building, the first impression one has is that of odour, of smells, a rich, heady mix of scents which is unique and not at all unpleasant. There are the palm trees and lush vegetation. But unlike in Honolulu, one does not sense the ocean, although it is not far away.
Our hotel was only short drive from the airport, and we arrived very late at night, so I only glimpsed a few things from the windows on arrival, once were past the concrete and brick of the airport – incredible small decrepit building which looked like they were built to last perhaps a few years. People sitting the dirt at the crossroads, in the dark, eating and talking. All the cars and rickshaws, something from the 1950s. The rickshaws are essentially indentical to the ‘ape’ they have in Italy — they are small three-wheeled vehicles with a two-stroke engine.
At the hotel, impossibly, it was already 2AM although in France it was only 9pm in the evening. For me, this is a well known-effect of travelling by airplane, of continents crossed without effort, no time for transition. My hotel room was in a well-worn state of affairs, but that did not perturb me. Upon our arrival there, a smiling man in a red turban opened the door for us. No simling man in a red turban has ever opened a door for me before.
The next morning, this morning, I looked out my hotel window and found the lanes and alleys around our hotel suffused by a rich yellow light, sunlight filtering through the smog of Mumbai. I glimpsed crowded, dense streets, but it was already time to leave. Our two-hour drive from Mumbai to Pune was astonishing. It’s true what people say about the chaotic nature of driving in India, but I feel strangely unthreatened by it. It has none of the aggressive character that it does in France, for example. The nearest point of reference I have is Naples, but all this is Naples times a millon, in sheer scale and energy. And the vast variety of transports too…
The outskirts of Bombay contained some of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Imagine kilometer after kilometer of slum housing, grey buildings crowded together, each hardly larger than a garden shed, narrow streets, all this stretching to steep forested hills in the middle distance, with heavy clouds hanging overhead. Not a single trace of colour in all that. Imagine all of that, then at the same time, imagine a million billboard advertisements for luxury housing and cell phones and computers. India is moving directly to a post-industrial society without ever actually industrialising. Of course seeing all this, seeing many in incredible poverty, makes one think again about how relatively fortunate one was in one’s choice of life and birthplace. Things of course that one is not able to choose (and Ireland in the 1970s wasn’t exactly the most luxurious of places to be born into but still).
I will write more in the next few days; now I am too tired to continue. I should say something however about the immense good nature of all the people I’ve met here since I arrived, their hospitality and good grace. And the excellent food!
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