Damien Enright on India…
Father, mother, and two boys, one of twenty, one of eleven, we flew into Kerala with three weeks to spend on the holiday of our lives. India is an adventure. Train travel in awesome. Moans of adolescent boredom are never heard.
In the south, flooded paddies stretch away like rows of huge framed mirrors. Slim women, in lines of colour, plant the shoots; beyond them the maturing rice is green as a dream home lawn. Ponds and jheels pass, great rivers with ancient barges and high-prowed boats. Men in white head cloths tramp behind big zebu cattle pulling wooden ploughs. Half naked boys ride water buffaloes. At level crossings, knots of brilliantly dressed girls wait for the train to pass.
In India, all along the hundreds of miles of empty sands that stretch down the Western Coast, fishermen pull in their primitive boats through the surf, and haul their nets from the shore. The boats are made of coconut palm planks, sewn together with cord, not a nail or bolt used throughout. Sometimes, waking early, I would hear their chants and walk through the coconut palms to the beach.
Eleven million passengers are travelling on Indian trains at any given minute, day or night. 2nd class, two tier, air-conditioned, is the place for people like us, decent fellows, who like to meet other decent fellows and their wives. The compartments are private and, in the evening, after the steward-wallah has made up the beds, curtains are drawn as passengers prepare for sleep. At breakfast time, they are opened once more and we walk abroad and meet the neighbours. We stroll to the door at the end of the carriage and open it and sit on the sunny foot plate, watching India unfurl.
On a Goa beach, we re-rent our pleasant rooms amongst the gardens and the hovering sunbirds, with balconies and en suite bathrooms at £6 per night. The village, in the coconuts alongside pristine miles of sand, is a place we know, having been there two weeks before. The beaches we lived on in north Goa twenty one years back are utterly changed, lined with beach shack restaurants, crowded with package tourists, infested with traders….
Dolphins were a regular feature off the beaches of Goa, on the western shores of India, on the Arabian Sea. Almost any morning – particularly in windless weather – we could see them switch-backing in pods over the mill-pond surface five or six hundred yards from shore. More amazing was the flock of flying fish I saw one evening off a beach in tropical Kerala, breaking the surface all around me as I stood chest deep in the sea. I say “flock” because they behaved more like birds than fish.
The great marshes of Bharatpur in Rajasthan, world famed as a wildlife sanctuary where one can see a half a million birds, has much changed since my wife and I spent three days there twenty years ago. Then, we rented a forest hut within the park and shared a communal evening meal with the half dozen other visitors, all ornithologists far more practised than me.