I don’t see much of Bangalore from apart from some of the suburbs where my host lives and a bit of the commercial centre. One of the most anglicised parts of India and the country’s IT capital but feels like it’s another nondescript big city. My host Mamta and her two sisters allow me to make myself at home in their place for a few days before getting a 10 hour sleeper train to the other end of the state of Karnataka. One of the few good side-effects of British rule in India was the rail network they left behind; I’ve heard of Indians half-jokingly say that they wished the Brits had stayed on another 20-30 years to expand and improve it, as not much had been done since the colonialists left. I travel in sleeper class to Hospet for 360 rupees (around $7). While not the most comfortable, with my legs being too long for the ‘bed’ and people constantly moving past my head, it’s good enough to get bits of sleep throughout the night journey. From the town of Hospet I take a bus to Hampi, where I spend a few days amongst the temples and ancient ruins, surrounded by a strange rocky landscape. I hire a bicycle one day and brave the heat to explore the sites which are spread out over a few miles.
The train to Pune, a city three hours East of Mumbai, is booked out so I’m forced to take a sleeper bus, which takes around 10 hours. Every sleeping compartment in the bus has a wee TV screen (with no off button or volume control) which is showing some homespun cop show in the local language, Kannada. It’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen in my life, ever since the last time I watched some Indian movies in Chennai. Despite the language, it’s easy to decipher what’s going on. The main character, which the show is named after, is a high ranking mustached (99.9% of Indian men have mustaches) police officer who’s built like a brick-shithouse and struts around while all the surrounding women swoon after him, and criminals cower in fear. It has everything, from outbursts of Bollywood style choreographed dance scenes, to matrix-style special effects where baddies are kicked through walls, to romance where he serenades the main damsel, to drama where his best mate is critically ill in hospital and the camera lingers on the tears slowly streaming down his face, to farcical slapstick comedy, to a revenge fueled finale which gives way to a happy ending. This shite is played on loop for the whole journey and despite doing my best to ignore it, my eyes keep returning to the flickering light of the screen. When I doze of the noise of the nonsense enters my head, preventing me from getting a decent night’s sleep.
In Pune , I stay in another comfortable apartment block with more great hosts, Alok and his brother Vinayak, who are the same age as myself. Alok is a passionate photographer who’s just won a trip to the Balkan to take part in a photography workshop. I came to Pune on my way to Mumbai out of curiosity to visit the ‘Osho International Commune’, but staying with Alok and Vinayak proved to be a much more worthwhile experience, as we have much in common and a lot to chat about. Osho was an Indian guru who became popular in the West mainly due to his liberal attitude to sex (i.e, that sex is a good thing, a spiritual thing). I’d never read any of his books before but going from some of his quotes, he seemed an insightful thinker on human nature and spirituality. This International Centre was supposed to be a manifestation of this guru’s philosophy; a space inspired by his teachings. But approaching the airport-like security of the main entrance, I’ve the feeling something has gone seriously askew. I inquire about prices for a day’s visit at the information desk beside the the main entrance only to be told it costs 3800 rupees ($75: my budget for nearly two weeks India), which includes a morning robe (despite it being noon when I arrive), an evening robe and, bizarrely, a HIV test. I decide I can’t justify spending that amount on seeing such a hypocritical farce for the privileged. I know if I did go in, I’d spend the whole time trying to fool myself I’m not engaging in spiritual masturbation for the mind, and I’d regret it. I get out my camera just before leaving but am told by a security guard I need permission to take photos. I take a parting shot anyway before being shooed away and go off to a close-by lawn in front of one of the many luxury guesthouses in the vicinity to lie down and chill out for a while . Ten minutes later a security guard comes over and tells me the lawn is for paying guests only. ‘A fucking joke’ is the conclusion I draw as I walk back to the city centre, bemused at how such a place can come into existence.
The thought of going to Mumbai filled me with a mild dread; it’s another big chaotic city to find my way around in the heat, but as soon as I arrive it feels refreshingly cosmopolitan and friendly compared to previous Indian cities I’ve been to. It’s a strange sensation being here, as it’s the main hub for many newcomers to India…it feels like I’ve bypassed this main entry point to the country, having explored the southern states and am now coming to where I would’ve started from under ‘normal’ circumstances. I recognise many of the place-names from the popular autobiographical novel Shantaram (now the cliched book of choice for many backpackers); places such as The Gateway of India, Colaba, the Dharavi slum, Marine drive and Leopold’s cafe all bring back memories of the book. Two days of wondering around absorbing the flavor of the city where poverty and extreme wealth live side by side, are enough for me before heading north again but it’s the first place I’ve been to in India I can say I wouldn’t mind returning to.