books – Ulysses, by James Joyce

James Joyce’s Ulysses is the book I most admire. Yet I don’t believe I have read it straight through.

I have listened dozens of times to unabridged audio versions — to relish the rich Irish dialogue.

You have heard it is an original masterpiece of language. That it’s a comic tragedy of Greek epic proportions. (I don’t blame if you skip the stream of consciousness last third of the book.)

What is it about?

A normal 24-hour-day, June 16th, 1904 in Dublin, Ireland. All my grandparents came from Ireland so I feel a wee bit o‘ kinship.

It concerns defecating, shaving, eating, shopping, coveting, whoring. There’s a funeral. And, of course, drinking.

It’s wonderful to compare the dark, savvy worldview of Stephen Dedalus with that of cheerful Leo Bloom.

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Hunter S. Thompson funeral

Hunter shooting a typewriterI read all his books & rank him as one of the most original writers of all time.

Come back with a warrant., read the doormat at the entrance to Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson’s farm near Apsen, Colorado.

On August 20th, 2005 Thompson’s ashes were blasted from a giant cannon as he had requested. The nut had committed messy suicide, emulating Hemmingway, an author he admired. He waited until after the Superbowl, football being his favourite sport, before dispatching himself.

The Woody Creek Tavern, where Thompson often had sat beneath the shaggy head of a stuffed buffalo, did good business that day.

Thompson’s longtime sidekick Johnny Depp underwrote the $2.5 million celebration. Among those paying tribute were Bill Murray, Rob Reiner, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner & Thompson’s artist-collaborator, Ralph Steadman.

The writer’s wretched persona embodied a manic, macho, paranoid, inflamed sense of outrage at the failings of his age.

He was insane. But I will miss him, one of the great characters of the last century.

travelogue – I’ll Never Do It Again – I.N.D.I.A.

India, again.

I visited here once before.  The following is the gist of a letter I sent to friends after that LAST visit. I want to see how my impressions change this time.


1995

I saw India mainly through the eyes of V.S. Naipaul, one our best living writers. Though removed from his ancestral land by 100 years and half a world, Naipaul was compelled to brutalize India in his 1964 book, An Area of Darkness. He was condemned by many for a too critical analysis. Salmon Rushdie said that visiting India ruined Naipaul as a writer.

In 1976 Naipaul revisited the same themes in India: A Wounded Civilization. Still critical, but less so.

Naipaul is clean, precise, completely unsentimental. Maughmy. His observations ring true.

Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover. … the one thing we can and must learn from the West is the science of municipal sanitation.

They do uncoil anywhere and everywhere. It is a great mingling of cow, dog, goat and human faeces. Shit dust is in the air.

I don’t mention the other usual noxious filth, open sewers, the mountains of spent trash.

Where are the sweepers? Where are the Children of God?

And disease. I just left Gujarat State where BLACK PLAGUE broke out in ’94. The government advisedantibiotics, flight, and prayer.

What personally irks me is the amount of eye disease here, of every disgusting variation. I’m told that much of this is avoidable. I saw a shapely Hindu woman walking my way — and the progressive women of Bombay are allowed to look at and even smile at tourists. I hoped to meet her gaze. As she approached I saw that one eye socket was empty.

You can imagine how I appreciate the public hawking, farting, snotting, and nose picking. Loud and proud.

I entered the National Bank in one small town; employees were spitting gobs of red betel nut on the floor.

I agree with Naipaul that Hinduism is failing India in this modern age. (I much prefer tolerant Buddhism.) Massive inefficiency, nepotism, and injustice due to the Caste System persist. Fatalism is evident; people put up with their lot in hope of reincarnation to a higher caste. Marriage is still arranged by family within caste, even among the urban educated elite.

The Indian government practices reverse discrimination, allotting jobs to specified low castes. Well-intentioned but, reportedly, problematic. Seventy upper caste students burned themselves to death in protest during a highly publicized one-week period. (One low caste entrepreneur went door-to-door in the ritzy neighbourhoods selling fire extinguishers to worried parents.)

Naipaul relates the story of a foreign businessman who educated his intelligent untouchable servant. On leaving Delhi, the businessman placed the servant in a good job. On his return he found the man back cleaning latrines. The servant had been boycotted by his clan, barred from his smoking group in the evening. Alone and unable to marry, the man was forced back to his God-allotted caste.

Widow burning? Yes. And thousands of wives die inkitchen fires every year. The husband upgrades to a new wife and another fat dowry.

Naipaul painted a depressing picture: over-population, pollution, urbanization, persecution of minorities.

The tourist is harassed by touts, hacks, and beggars. Every second encounter with an Indian is a scam. Every financial contact an attempted rip-off. Even government officials short-change.

But then I thought that I had over-estimated Naipaul. His argument is eloquent, persuasive but, perhaps, wrong.

Benares

I arrived first in mystical Benares (Varanasi), holiest and most disreputable city of India, pilgrimage site of the dying. And me in the midst of some mid-life death and aging fixation. Where better to throw myself on a pyre?

Yet I had the opposite reaction. I became Mr. Gregarious, in love with life. Some kind of zealous minor prophet. A Jewish-Canadian yoga hippie and I spent a day being nice to hawkers and beggars. (What’s your name? How are you doing? Where do you live?) He rang a bell to cleanse the air of ill-feeling.

hippie

Our strange behaviour attracted the attention of a cool Indian sadhu and soon found ourselves in the Ghat Ashram of an equally cool Swiss-French Guru. We smoked a ritual bong and talked bullshit spiritualism for hours. These Hessian journeyers seek something higher and find, usually, diarrhoea. India does, though, seem to bring out the noble best in Western travellers. It did for me.

SadhuThese sadhus look great; ganja-eyed, painted, flowered, bangled, seeded and beaded; dreadlocks, rags, and fierce tridents for the Shivites. I have a guarded respect for the true Holy men of Hinduism, some of whom are officially declared dead by the courts before setting out. One ascetic did not leave his cave for over 50 years. Many sadhus, unfortunately, have fled debt, the law, or their families who are often left helpless.

At the Ashram a woman from Boston told us that they use the term sadhu loosely in Benares. Here it means anyone who hasn’t had sex yet today. She told us that American women with gold cards like to hang here with their Indian Gurus. I wondered if she was one of these sexual adventuresses.

I started listening to Enigma and lighting incense. I read on India.

India is impossible for a list-making sort. (Those who would have things organized in India might, as well, try to straighten a winding road.) There is no reliable information. Nothing is up-to-date. Yet in my new found Buddhist acceptance, I simply embraced the non-system. Nothing works in India and yet millions get where they are going anyway. OK.

camels

Leaving the wonderful little camel town of Pushkar, I simply stood in the middle of the highway at 11 PM waiting to see how I would reach the train station 15 km away. I was not surprised when the first car stopped. The enthusiastic dentist-gent was the Olympic Judge for Table Tennis and would be going to the Atlanta Olympics. We had much to talk about. I was soon sipping whiskey at his fine house. The driver got me to the train right on time (2 hours late) and directly to the sleeper car.

Everyone loves the trains. They move 10 million people every day and employ over 1.5 million workers. I sleep wonderfully on the train but I’m a neophyte compared with skinny Indians who can dead-sleep on concrete, any time, anywhere.

Naipaul wrote that Gandhi was a magnificent failure. That he glorified poverty. That he slowed progress. That he didn’t free India. And that Gandhi didn’t change India. I disagree.

Consider that India, without Pakistan and Bangladesh, is bigger than Europe (my statement here will be refuted later) and has more different cultures, languages, and climates. Consider that Punjabis, Sikhs, Gurkhas and the many other separatists are still part of India. Who is more to credit or blame than Gandhi?

Consider that soldiers of pop-cultural imperialismlike myself make little dent here. Coke was thrown out of India recently (though they are making a strong comeback now). The kids listen to nothing but Hindi. Bollywood rules. India has absorbed every invader so far except the British who escaped. Tourists wear Indian clothes, perform Puja, and decide on cremation instead of burial.

Naipaul wrote, India is poor and cruel. All Indians are implicated. Yet this place has millions of University graduates, a highly educated elite.

The Indian culture is strong, surviving even in wintry Saskatoon.”

After 50 years India remains the worlds largest democracy — a model for other developing countries.


1998

That was my last trip to India. I was a little brutal in my critique, don’t you think?

This time Darjeeling was my first stop. The guesthouse visitors book was full of comments like,This was our favourite place in India. Darjeeling is charming. But it is not India.

Darjeeling

Separatists here would call it Ghorkaland. To me it looked like Nepal; Himalayan lands wedged between Nepal and Bhutan. About 75% of the population speaks Nepali.

You’ve heard of the famous tea from 78 aging, failing plantations here. Darjeeling is a British construct, a Hill Station. High altitude, low latitude — perfect for tea and tourists.

The quaint legacy of the British; impressive, imposing, decaying public buildings; pastries and tea at Glennaries; botanical gardens; billiards at the Gymkhana (Tea Planters) Club.

I loved strolling the pedestrian mall on Observatory Hill. It is almost unchanged since the days of the Raj. The clock towers and fountains haven’t worked, though, since the Brits Quit. And of course they took the sign with them; Dogs and Indians not allowed on the Mall.

The Toy Train still works occasionally, hauling tourists up the hill. Gricers know that this steam line has 5 switchbacks and 4 full loops.

I came to see the magnificent views of Kachenjunga floating above the clouds.

I came too to visit the famous breeding centre for that most mythical of cat — the Snow Leopard.

snow leopard

Actually, the animal prison here is quite good specializing in local and endangered beasts. They’ve had success breeding Red Panda, Tibetan Wolf, and Siberian Tiger (huge!).

Automobiles here are cute, mostly Hindustani Ambassadors, the design unchanged from the British Morris Minor of the 50s. You feel like you’re on the set of some really old James Bond movie.

I rode a battered Land Cruiser farther North into Sikkim. They have inspirational slogans painted roadside.

Better late than The Late.

My favourite was Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.

Next instalment the REAL India, the City of Joy.

Your pundit.

Rick

PS

I’m keen to read the new nasty book about Naipaul written by Paul Theroux, the most successful and controversial travel writer. I like Theroux for his amusing, paranoid worldview. Writers are like cannibals. People are their subjects.

Of course the untrustworthy Theroux doesn’t deserve to hold a candle to Naipaul.