Well, the virtual trip is taking longer than TheEye expected. India is a big country and there is a lot of ground to cover. Two posts and we have only been to Bombay. SO much more.
Oh, the pressure…
TheEye will have to cram a lot into a short time, so let’s get the show on the road and select three (well maybe stretch it to four) of her favourite destinations. It’s very subjective, so no grumpy comments please, about why she left out Hampi or Jaipur or Goa. To each his own.
In no particular order we will start the journey in Madras (now Chennai) and lunch at the Madras Club, founded in 1832, the second oldest surviving club in India, where mulligatawny soup was invented. The Club has a timeless gracious ambience. After a G&T or fresh lime soda, served on the impeccably manicured lawn, by waiters in white uniforms, we tuck into a delicious lunch. But eat up fast, to allow time for a whip ’round the city before moving on to Pondicherry.
On the road, we pass wedding processions, funerals, temple celebrations and small market towns.
Pondicherry had several European settlers, but finally, the French established a prominent fortified town and its influence remains, even though they left in 1954. There are many French-speaking Indians and children attending the Lycée. The French side has spacious boulevards and well-tended parks and buildings. A murky canal separates the French and Tamil Indian sides. The Indian side is well…Indian. Potholes and general chaos, once-elegant buildings in need of restoration. Architecturally, the focal point of Pondy is the fine Sri Aurobindo Ashram, founded by the Indian philosopher and yoga guru, and its Golconda Hostel designed by George Nakashima in the 1940s.
But please hurry, we mustn’t be late for our visit to Auroville – a huge complex consisting of houses, businesses, restaurants and shops. A self-contained mini town. It maintains a flower power atmosphere combining Marxist – flavoured socialism with an international community of artistic and creative well-heeled individuals.
You are lucky TheEye has good connections and is able to take you inside as the centre is cloaked in secrecy and they don’t make it easy for outsiders to infiltrate. The golden dome of the Matrimandir dominates and it’s necessary to go through many hoops to be allowed inside and attend a ceremony.
I am sure you will agree that the highlight of our time in Auroville is the studio of Aurelio, a maker of incredibly creative musical instruments and experiencing his ‘musical bed’ which helps relaxation and soothes the head.
But sorry, none of you will be able to lie on it as we are off again, but not before dropping into the Cluny Convent, famous for embroidery (Have your cash at the ready because, of course, we are shopping). The handwork is exquisite.
Then a speedy hello/goodbye to Anita Fernandez Goubert, a modest but extremely talented woman, with a rare and instinctive natural aesthetic, also a wonderful cook. You will fall in love with her gorgeous Tamil house and wish to stay and eat more of her delicious food. Sorry, not possible. It’s a time thing.
Next with the help of TheEye‘s magic carpet transportation service (MCT), it has to be Calcutta. Not most people’s choice, but you will thank TheEye for bringing you here. It still remains one of the last truly Indian cities.
First, tea at The Fairlawn Hotel (doesn’t travel makes you tired and thirsty?) but sadly Violet Smith, the charismatic Grande Dame, died aged 94 in 2014. TheEye will be happy to tell you about the talks she and her travelling companion, T. had with Violet. Clutching our hands tightly in hers, a glass of sherry by her side, there would be indiscretions aplenty about famous guests and the animosity between herself and her daughter in law. Violet was loved and feared by her staff, but what a character?
We can’t be in Calcutta without visiting The Marble Palace. TheEye loves this mad place, which takes eccentricity to a new level. Built in 1835, for the Mallick family, it’s as grand as it is curious. Marble draped halls overstuffed with Victoriana – glassware, game trophies and paintings which include examples of Rubens and Reynolds and Murillo. But the ‘piece de resistance’ which keeps TheEye returning, is the ballroom, with its vast number of candle chandeliers – filthy and encrusted with dust. It’s all very ‘Mrs Haversham’. Time stopped still. Members of the family are still in residence.
Calcutta is known as India’s city of culture – the great Bengali poets, writers and artists came from Calcutta and, of course, there remains the legacy of Mother Theresa. Her Homes are still functioning and we will see if we can visit the children’s home. It’s a heartwarming experience. TheEye‘s friends Sunita and Naresh Kumar still live in the city in a beautiful apartment filled with Sunita’s paintings and many paintings by their friend, the famous and prolific artist M.F.Husain. The Kumars are known for their incredible hospitality – but we mustn’t arrive early. Never go to an Indian dinner party at the time you are invited. Drinking (usually whisky) for maybe a couple of hours with no snacks, not even a crisp and when food is served buffet-style, there is a stampede to grab a plate, load it with food, eat and leave.
We leave the steamy city for the cool mountain air of the Glenburn Tea Estate (an hour by car from Darjeeling). Dear fantasy travellers, you don’t know how fortunate you are to be avoiding the hazardous, ‘real-life’ three-hour car journey from the nearest airport at Bagdogra. The winding mountain road, plunging 1.200-metre slopes and the alarming sight of approaching trucks driving at speed. Give way – never! It’s a horror story. But all is forgotten when the tropical green forests, rows of verdant tea bushes and snowy peaks of the majestic Kanchenjunga Mountains finally come into view. Glenburn is a serious working tea plantation. Sipping tea with dainty cakes and savouries on delicate bone china plates, you will be enchanted. An unselfconscious time warp which could be phoney like a set styled for a Merchant-Ivory costume drama, but it’s the real deal. Bedroom suites are individually themed and the garden is full of cornflowers and sweet-scented roses.
TheEye will show her soft side and not drag you away. We will stay the night and do some hiking down to the banks of the Ranjeet River on winding paths through clusters of painted houses, village shops and many shrines. Healing plants, fruit trees and wildflowers on either side of our track. Sikkim is across the river and if you want a hair raising experience you are welcome to walk across the rickety wooden wobbly bridge to the dreary border town. But don’t expect TheEye to come with you. She did it once and was traumatised, particularly when she made it to the other side to see a sign saying ‘This bridge is very dangerous – go at your own risk’. Thanks for the warning, but a little late.
You have been ‘allowed’ a couple of restful days, so now where should we go?
TheEye is avoiding the more obvious destinations – Delhi, Kerala, and Rajasthan (which she loves, but you can do that on your own, one day, someday, she hopes?).
TheEye thinks you will enjoy the nightly Arti ritual of light, prayer and song in Rishikesh. Get your Karmas in the right gear, don’t be cynical and you will find it a moving and impressive event…for a short time.
And now TheEye will say goodbye. She hopes you enjoyed your high-speed tour through India. What a shame you couldn’t bring back some wonderful purchases. Her travelling companion T. was overwhelmed by the choices. Oh, the problems of life!
TheEye will not subject her fellow travellers to her trip in Orissa – definitely a low point. But if you want to know where not to go – read the final instalment. We will meet again once you are rested and it’s all aboard the Flying Carpet for Japan.
The Low Point