Yves in India Blog: Day 10 & 11

2008-10-20 00:00

Saturday in Ahmedabad lays waste to the company as a farewell present from Bangalore gives most of us a bout of Delhi belly. Siki and our guide are confined to bed, and Zingisa should be but joins the rest of us as we wobble wanly onwards.

We head off with our escort on a road where the traffic behaves in a recognisable manner, but it may be that the bow wave of the lead army car has cast aside the usual debris of Tuk-Tuks and motorbikes and bicycles that normally clutter the way. At every traffic circle a line of brown uniforms emerges to halt oncoming cars to give us free pass. (I read in the paper later in the day that a tractor driver was roughed up by police for not deferring sufficiently to the passing cavalcade of the chief minister).

We arrive in Gandhinagar, at Akshardam, where there is a magnificent temple of Lord Swaminarayan. We're enjoined to "enjoy and preserve the pious atmosphere", but told not to bring eatables, not to spit, wear disrespectful clothes, bring pets, take pics, shout slogans or abuse, carry tape recorders, smoke or chew tobacco or take snuff. The temple is of carved sandstone, completed in 1992, and a wonder to behold. Since we couldn't take pics I can't show you, but it ranks with the best we've seen and the immaculate gardens surpass anything else. We're taken through a sort of Disney show of the sect, including a movie called Mystic India shown in their own Imax theatre. Narrated by Peter O'Toole, it offers a grand sweep of the spiritual tradition of India. The final show stop is the Hall of Harmony where the tenets of all the major religions (no murder, no stealing, no false witness, no screwing your neighbour's wife) are summarised.

As we leave we can't help noticing how green the town is, and "Clean and Green" turns out to be a slogan of the Gujarat state where we are. A 40-year programme of tree-planting that gives citizens individual responsibility has borne fruit. One of the newspapers leads on a story offering a Rs2000 reward to anyone with information on a sapling that has been hacked in front of a block of flats. The clean atmosphere is achieved in part by the Tuk-Tuks (or autorickshaws as they're called) running on compressed natural gas rather than petrol. The afternoon takes us to the Gujarat State Petroleum Company, where to our embarrassment 18 members of their top management and a newspaper photographer await our arrival. Hospitality is done in grand style here but we weren't expecting this kind of treatment.

One last stop on the way home is to meet the Chief Minister of the State Modi. We wait for an hour or more in the guest bungalow making small talk and drinking tea, until we're driven to his house where a banquet of treats is placed before us. Delicate stomachs protest as we force ourselves to be polite, but non-partaking would have been glaringly obvious. Mr Modi turns out to be a dynamo, from the BJP, who clearly doesn't suffer fools gladly but who is hailed as a "visionary". He's been a driving force behind the state's petroleum industry, and he shows us grand Dubai-like designs of a city being planned from the ground up to become a regional IT hub. We ask about the indidence of Aids: WHO figures, he says are high, but they're not accurate and just provide the basis for Big Pharma to peddle their drugs. In reality, he says, the figures "are less" because such behaviour isn't part of the social custom.

9pm and we get back to the hotel exhausted and tumble into bed.

Sunday morning finds us strong. The gym attendant asks me if I'm a cricketer. I'm flattered but say no. The hotel is in fact crawling with cricketers from the lucrative local league. We recognise the bowler Dizzie Gillespie and former Zimbabwean captain Heath Streak in the orange strip of the Ahmedabad Rockets. The papers are full of Sachin Tendulkar's run record, as is TV.

One stop only today, as flight schedules have been changed so the visit to a milk-producing plant that's run entirely by women is cancelled. We do go to the Gandhi Ashram on the River Sabarmati, from where he launched his liberation movement in 1917. I sit on his mat in his bedroom, where the guide says Mandela, too, sat when he visited. We walk on clouds. Facilities are humble and rudimentary, as expected, and the tour of the museum of his life brings home what an extraordinarily great man Gandhi was and how he could only have been produced by India. I'm impressed that the info slides don't skirt around the thorny questions of his relations with his family, whom he forced to pay their way when they came to visit and who were banished when they refused to have anything to do with "untouchables". His fraught relationship with his wife is also tackled head-on. His legacy of the pursuit of truth is clearly taken seriously around here.

Above: Gandhi's house at his ashram.

Above: Moi in Gandhi's bedroom where he worked. The spinning wheel on the left symbolises his philosophy of self-sufficiency, and on the desk in front are the three See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys.

Above: Light effect of a perspex cutout of Gandhi.

Sunday afternoon, we leave for Mumbai. We approach across a patchwork of what look like paddie fields before the forests of shacks emerge on an unimaginable scale. It's 35 degrees as we land at 4.30, and as we step off the plane the smell of poverty knocks me back: that sour-urine, stale-socks smell of desperation that had been missing in Ahmedabad (India's most prosperous state). We launch back into the maelstrom on the roads across town to our hotel, whose grandeur exceeds even that of the Oberoi in New Delhi.

Above: Mumbai shacks from the air.

Read the Yves's blog: Day 12

Read Yves's blog from Day 1.


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