The desert is absolute silence, building in your ears like static. When the wind picks up, it howls, a personal song. The village we go to is meant to be a large one, with concrete houses. We wander around one such house, guilty at the intrusion. What must they think of us? Each room seems purposeless: spaces that I would think of as separate, here mingle (bedroom, living room, dinning room; kitchen, storage space, garage). Furniture has no pride of place. Objects are—you find your way around them. The girl who follows us, Meena, shows me pictures of her brothers and point to the various objects of mine that she wants. Your earrings? No? Okay. Your scarf? No? Okay. Your sweater? No? Okay. She speaks Rajasthani, I Hindi. We talk at each other, pulling out stems of common terms and latching onto meaning. I tell her she is beautiful. She says ‘No’, in English, and touches Charley’s hair. She says something that sounds similar to ‘gold’ in Hindi, but when I repeat it, she looks blank.

Her mother keeps her duputta lowered around me. When she learns I am from Bombay, she raises it. How old?, she asks, and I say, 20. Easier to say in Hindi than 23. She widens her eyes and smiles. Married?, she asks. When I finally understand what she means (‘shaadi’ in Rajasthani is rounder, more accented), I say no. She is both delighted and horrified. When will you marry? she says and I say, ten years. At 30. Now she is clapping with delight, holding my hands in hers. We laugh together. Give me your number, she says. When I find you a groom, I’ll call. She disappears into the house and brings out a mobile that I don’t know how to operate. All its instructions are in Rajasthani. The keypad, however, is in English. I type my number out. I’ll call, she promises.

Ram pyaariji, God’s Beloved, waits by the side. He is my camel. He looks bored of my inadequacy (I keep slipping to the right). His rhythmic movements are lulling, the bell on his neck a song. There is nothing for miles around except disgruntled bushes, birds and endless sand. Yet each house in the village is small compared to the space that could be theirs. As an urban dweller, I wonder why they don’t claim more—but then we move on, land stretching for miles around us, and I see how pointless it would be to hoard a jewel when you own the mine.


Million Star Hotel

We’ve had three discussions now on marriage. I am unsure if this is because it is all our limited Hindi will allow, or if he is just pleased to have found a common soul. I am ‘travelling the world’, in his words, unmarried and not looking to marry. He’s been wandering the desert now for at least seven years (that is how long Ram Pyaari, his first camel, has been with him), batting off claims from his family to settle down. Each year he goes back to his village for three months, when the Thar heat is unbearable and he can no longer conduct camel safaris, and must listen to admonishments. ‘But here, I roam, I eat. I am free. We have only one life to live. Correct?’ He ends all of his sentences with this: Correct? I say, ‘Correct’, and readjust myself on the camel.

I tell him the places I’ve travelled. He says I am a foreigner only and I don’t think it is meant as an insult or a compliment—only, to him, as a fact. He tells me the people he’s met. He’s an excellent imitator: he does a range of accents for us—Japanese, English, Australian. He shows us the blanket at Australian gave him once, for his camel, and another trinket left by an American. At night, at the bonfire, he rattles off the places in India we should see. He’s seen none of these himself, ‘but I hear, you know, ji? People come and say “I like this, I no like this” and I remember.’ He wants to see the world now. Leave and explore. Like our marriage conversation, this is repeated, twice, thrice. He tells us of love stories in the desert: an Austrian who falls in love with a camel driver. They live deep in the Thar now, having opened a hotel. They hold their wedding in Jaisalmer, with desert flowers. I ask him about hotels here, and he says that, in his way of his, ‘This only million star hotel’. I like the phrase. He is full of them: ‘Camel Power, 24 hour’ and several that involve Hindi, and which I have therefore promptly forgotten.

At night, the sand turns to rock. I wake up in pain and then readjust, waiting to wake up in pain again. At one such turn, I open my eyes to the night sky. It has grown darker now, the moon travelling across, and I see what he means—million star hotel indeed. It is incredible.

When we leave, he wanders back into the desert. He doesn’t have another camel safari, not for two days. To have mastered the harshest and fiercely beautiful landscape there is, and to be trapped by it. I wonder if he ever wakes up and is sick of the view.


Rajasthani Folk Dance

He looks terrified. He mouths the words to the song as he dances, his foundation making his face look paler. He is a contrast to the dancer before him—that last man played an injured party in a duo, stern-faced and patriarchal. He, however, is all glitter, make-up and poise. When he kneels to take the pots on his head, he stiffens and I think: either he is an apprentice, or he has been forced into this.

The Hindi commentator for this show is far more eloquent than the English one. He describes this performance as ‘pot upon pot upon pot upon pot’ on a dancer’s head—an amazing feat of balance and art. He is not kidding about the pots. By the end, the dancer is balancing eight mathkis, the kind used to make biryani for a wedding. He stamps his belled feet on the stone stage—I think of the caked mud they must have danced on in earlier times—and walks on pots, dances on the rim of a tray, and holds swords with trays spinning on them as he moves. He keeps the towering pots balanced. Eventually, he dances on glass, and on a bed of needles, standing on one foot. In return, the fifteen or so people in the auditorium clap. The noise is painfully dim. And yet, we are no different from any other traditional audience, hands clapped to our mouths, horrified, delighted, in awe. When the lights come on, I have to snap Charley out of her shock.

It is only after we leave the auditorium that I wonder if it is not the dance he feared but the marble beneath his feet. And us, the foreign and urban audience. He stands on stage as we file out. He is smiling, a showman to the end, but his eyes do not leave us as we leave, one by one. We’ve paid 50 rupees for this performance. He is one of many: a Rajasthani bell dancer, a puppet show, a duo drama. His share cannot be much. I wonder why they do not charge more for the events and then think—awfully, but the thought is in my head before I can stop it—would I pay more?

Later, I tell myself that I would. Of course I would. I most definitely would. But I have thought it, and that in itself seems symptomatic. Of artisans offering us work at half price ‘because it has been a bad year’. Of the necessity of the Rajasthani cultural centre, recording art forms that are lost. Of the necessity of him having to be at this stage at all, watching us as we leave, one by one, none of us tipping.

One photo?

She is sitting on a low wall, playing with her younger brother. His eyes are lined with kohl. I smile at her—she cannot be more than seven—and she smiles back, saying ‘Hello!’ Charley and I walk on and she chimes, ‘One photo?’ I laugh and say yes. She pulls her brother into standing position and I usher Charley into the shot. I pull out my phone and then realise it is she that wants the picture. I ask, in Hindi, for her phone.

She looks down, all her playfulness gone. She looks at her brother, then at the ground, then back at me. She looks—ashamed. No. Scared. Like she has broken something and I am about to chide her. I smile again—see, no evil here—and ask for the phone. It is in her hand. I look down as I say it this time and realise it is not a camera phone.

She does not meet my eyes after that. She says, in Hindi, that the phone is her sisters’. She looks almost panicked. I touch her head and say, gently, we will move on then. She doesn’t object.

I have seen a similar look before, on a girl in Udaipur as she followed us down a street, giggling and asking for ‘one photo’. And that same chided, scared look when I ask, in Hindi, ‘With us?’

I leave the girl and her brother, baffled. It is the Hindi, then. A displacement in their minds of what I should be—a foreigner with her navy blue coat and red-haired friend—and what I am—an Indian. It is a simple realisation, obvious really, but it unsettles me in a way few other things have.

Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)

[Note: I’ve been given permission to write this blog post on the understanding that I will name it the above title. I have spent almost all of my life knowing this song, and assuming that ‘fly’ in the title referred, literally, to a ‘beautiful fly’, because women were spiders who desired the fly (see lyrics: Lucy now tells me this makes no sense whatsoever, and it means ‘cool’, which makes far more sense both in the context of the song and in the context of this blog post.]

Jaipur is a mixture of stereotypes (the snake charmer at Chandpole gate, the sacks of dried red chilli that burn your nose as you walk past, puppets and jodhpuris) and a sense of alienation that has little to do with the city itself. Travelling with my friends, Lucy and Charley, has been a new experience for me, not the least because I usually travel alone, but also because of how people react to us as a trio. I cannot claim extensive travel in India on any scale, but the places I have been to have reacted to me in two ways. A) You’re a foreigner attempting to be an Indian. B) You’re a Mumbaikar, and are about as knowledgeable as a foreigner. And yet, my status has brought with it perks I never noticed until this trip. The ability to disappear for one. To blend into a crowd, despite my obviously out-of-place clothes, and to be not looked at twice. Charley, who has glorious and long red hair, cannot do this. Lucy, whose eyes are sea green, also struggles. And I, default traveller with these two wonders, find myself a sudden centre of attention, a focus as a means of communication with my travel partners.

I cannot quite pin point how this feels. On some level, it is a strange sense of acceptance to barter with a shopkeeper in Hindi, using the usual ploys (‘What? That price?! How will I eat?’) and have him play the same game on the other end (‘Block printing Madam. Extra special. Never find anywhere else’—despite the fact that the shop next to him has the same piece on display). It is also nice to leave said shop and have your friends thank you, instead of laughing at your Hindi. I have held more conversations in Jaipur with locals than I would have done on my own. Most of these have been answering questions few of them would have asked an Indian: Where are you from? How do you three know each other? Can I take your friends’ pictures? No? Okay—can I take your picture first and then take your friends’ pictures? Some of them have been strangers who smile at the three of us and then melt with joy when I can speak Hindi, because they want to help and wouldn’t know how to in English. I’ve translated instructions from a guard in Hawa Mahal, and stood witness as my friends were blessed with scared thread, and given prasad and a tika for a Mumba-devi festival that I have never heard of, and still believe is made-up.

But there have also been strange moments. A man who caught a pigeon and shoved it in our faces while shouting, ‘I love you!’ and then followed us down the street. The autorickshaw that would not leave us alone. The resentment of several well-meaning and perfectly nice people when I’ve prevented them from taking a picture with my friends. The sudden appearance people next to us when we sit down (women and children mostly), as their partners photograph them sitting in front of a wall. The comments people make in Hindi when they think we’re all British and then their look of embarrassment when my glare shows them that I am not.

I went to a new year’s party this year, where I was called ‘white’ for not knowing what the word ‘patiyala’ meant (it is a large peg of alcohol). However, having now seen Lucy weeping because her sunblock has melted into her eye, and watched Charley spray herself with mosquito spray like it’s perfume, I think I’m pretty fly for a white guy.

Canada: Lines and Skeletons

I have been trying to come up with a phrase for Canada: words that convey its flavour, derivative as that must be for a country so vast. But each trip has a flavour to it, a certain distinctive tanginess to the cities and the people and Canada had been escaping me for a while. On the bus to Tofino, I settled on a word instead: lines. There was something safe about Canada, vast and yet simple (uncomplicated is perhaps a more precise word). Lines seemed to encompass it all. The long yellow lines on the roads that ravage the country, part of this deep-set driving culture (I am appalled by the lack of pavements in certain parts of the country); the figurative line encased in the numerous cautious danger warnings (CAREFUL: this creek can drown you during high tide; CAREFUL: high, dangerous waves on this beach can drown you OR crush you with moving logs; CAREFUL: cars drive fast on this highway); the simplicity of a line seemed to also encompass the ease of the lifestyle here, the mapping out of each corner, the apps one can download to navigate it.

I can’t remember how Mella and I got properly talking, only that she slept on the lower bunk in my hostel room. Already, Tofino is challenging my definition of ‘lines’: the idea sits less well upon its bumpy hills, its cragged beach edges that are like lost or abandoned slivers of paradise. (Although – the path to Tonquin beach is through the jungle and is a boardwalk, with ropes on either side. I laugh, thinking of the equivalent in McLeod Ganj.) Mella has lived four years up north in a First Nation’s community, teaching. She speaks of 24-hour days and 24-hour nights, of small communities where everyone knows you, of the challenges faced by one’s cultural history and the social problems one’s identity can carry. She speaks with love – I have never heard an outsider (or indeed, any of my Canadian family) speak about this land with such reverence or belonging. She would do anything to come live here (she had to leave her job and go back to England after the funds for her position were relocated) and has worked towards a degree to find a way to come here. As being a writer is my goal, this is hers. We talk for hours, a Canada I have never known seeping in through her perspective. She introduces me to Henry Roy Vickers and Coastal First Nation’s art, the red, white and black forms of animals I have seen all over. Even these I had labelled as simplistic: outlines, filled with a single colour. Now she turns to show me the tattoo on her back, an eagle drawn in the Coastal First Nation’s art style, regal and rich in history. She offers me another word to my ‘lines’, used in passing to describe the images to me. Skeletal: art that seeks to pull the bones of the animal and place it on display. I find the word perfect for her perspective. A skeletal Canada, hidden under the muscle and fat of modernity, one you had to dig to reach, and yet responsible for the structure of the whole.

Tofino: Prayers

Someone prayed for me tonight. Her name is Sarah: she’s come to Tofino from Calgary, as short vacation from the business that is her life. She brings her travel guitar with her and she sings ‘Let it Shine’ on the Tonquin beach as Mella, Geraldine and I dance in the sand, a combination of Wicca, boogie moves and exuberance. Her voice is beautiful and touches me in the same way as Lisa Hannigan and Ben Howard have.

Tonight, she asks if we are awake enough for introspective questions. She’s been reading a book, one of those self-help success books and there are four questions that she would like to try out. The questions are simple: they focus on our future, what we want most, what we have to make what we want most happen and what we need to develop and overcome in order to make that future a reality. Mella speaks about teaching and living in Canada – someday, one day. She talks about the confidence she needs, the very real obstacles of immigration and citizenship. I speak about writing but then get derailed to the anxiety that I have carried with me – what these moments are adding up to, what is the value (the ultimate value) of how I am living my life. Talking to them places the dichotomy into sharper focus, and it is Sarah who says: It is like there are two sides to you – one asking you to show down and take it all in, know it to its depth, and another that is anxious about the time that is running away from you.

After the lights are out, she asks if she can pray for us. The request is tentative but comes out of a place of sincerity, like she cannot not ask. She prays out loud. Her words are beautiful: they centre on each of us, our individual wants and obstacles and the kind of person she sees us as. This last part is especially touching: there is a clarity and focus to what she says that sharpens the lines around our bodies, deepening us from the mass of humanity. I am trying to find the words to explain what made the moment so special: the spontaneity of course, but also the intonation, soft at certain parts, stressed at others, carrying the depth of her care.

Tofino: Roy Henry Vickers (First Nation Artist)

I went for a story-telling hour with a First Nation artist, one of the most famous in Tofino. It was incredible, for so many reasons, many of which cannot be put into words. But this is what I wrote down when I came back, in an attempt to get all the impressions as clearly as I could.

This is not a blog post, because I have neither time nor words to make it such. These are only impressions. What do you recall of him? The calmness, a centred figure that carried within it an idea of knowing. His voice: “boom like”, Melanie said but it wasn’t at all – it wasn’t soft or loud, merely clear and calm, an even reel that drew you in. I noticed how he never varied his volume, not for the hushes cabin walls or for the persistent toddler that tried to talk over him. His voice remained, untouched by the external, and you tweaked your hearing to hear better or softer. I remember the story: Ben, the sea lion they saved from starvation and raised as a pet, before they let him go. The way he said at the end: ‘That’s a true story. Or most of it anyway.’ How simple the whole story was – a sea lion is gained and a sea lion is lost – and yet rich in detail, unanxious about its own importance, content in the knowledge that it was rich in importance to him. The details – the revelling in the miniscule – the size of the sea lion’s teeth, the dogs as they circled him, their planning, their eyes. Sound. The rapping of his knuckles against the desk he sits on, breaking into the air and making us jump: his cousin, knocking on the door in the early morning to say that Ben had come back, that he had found his way home. The faces he made, his body. The craning of the neck to show Ben, lifting his head; the slow titling of his torso to show how Ben hugged; the hands, showing Ben’s flippers as he pulled himself along the sand.

He says in the beginning that he hates public speaking. When people asked him to talk, he would say: “Look at my paintings. A picture is worth a thousand words.” And yet later, he says, he realised that storytelling is worth a million pictures, painting in each listener’s mind, all the more beautiful because they belong only to the person and the speaker cannot see them. “Human beings have the art of seeing with their eyes closed. We call that art visions.”

At the end, he teaches us a song in his original language. As the head of his clan, he has the right to give us this song, and having learnt it, it now belong to us, free to sing whenever we like. It’s the canoe song, sung to align the rowing of the oars, to ensure everyone moves as one – is one. He has brought a skin drum with him and he beats it to the rhythm. There is something soothing about hearing our voices embalm the air. After we’re done, he requests that we don’t clap, to not disturb the feeling we have created. “In my culture,” he says, “we say: I raise my hands to you.” Together we lift our hands to our shoulders. They automatically curve; perhaps our bodies feel the need to create beauty out of our gestures. It is a First Nation’s sign of gratitude, but also a universal sign for asking, and, in the cradle they form, for giving.

Takuminarti (Inuit Art)

I went to the Montreal Museum of the arts today. Like all glorious days, time had run away from me and I felt frustrated with the amount I wanted to do, write and see. I come to the Takuminarti art collection – wandering down staircases and up elevators – and am startled by the depth of feeling evoked in me by the tiny sculptures. Stones move, breathing into emotion caricature of figures: men carved as seals; shamen pulling fish out of oceans; two stags, antlers in the air, kissing. There is perspective here that drags the living out of the inanimate – a rawness of emotion to features that are recognisable and yet mysterious, as if the artist found only the strange, twisted and magical in us worthy of representation. I read that Inuit art is fascinated with the relationship between man and animal: the moment when the man takes the shape of an animal or the animal within him revealed (I think of a man, arched back, as a wolf breaks out of him). I wonder how they create the impression they do – that smoothness of bone as a face, sitting upon a porous antler body, offering a yellow otter and I cannot look away, ensnared by the detail that is both ordinary and extraordinary. How the pieces fit together just so, how they create a whole that is larger than the sum of the parts. It is essentially the battle I have been fighting all morning with my characters in the novel, as they flap around the page, flat, and turn back into stone.

I read the placard on the floor that says ‘Takuminarti’ is a new word coined for Inuit art. It is  derived from several dialects of different tribes, mainly the Nuvalik dialect. It means works of art so beautiful, you cannot look away.


She runs a 24-hour flower shop in some lane in Montreal; it has a narrow entrance, but is long within. It is 2am and the light from her shop creates a luminous section of pavement, white and glaring. We pass it earlier in the night and Nik pokes his head in to see if she is there. I saw bent shoulders and a broom. That’s her daughter, he said. She not here now – but we’ll bring you back to meet her. She’s a bit of a legend around here. Her shop burnt down last year and the neighbour raised money to re-build it. That’s how much she means around here.

Now the birdcages glow, reminding me of quaint shops in England. There is another pair of shoulders in there; they look the same to me, but Nik says that this is her, hair cropped short, face young (40 maximum? Not old enough to have 14 children. She shows me the pictures of the daughter she just married), eyes troubled and roving. She talks for a while about people complaining about her flowers on the pavement; the complaints wears heavy on her and she unburdens to Nik and Nihal like they are old friends. Nihal introduces me as the friend from India, and she peers at me from in between the gap they create; I smile, and say hello, and tell her I have heard much about her.

She tells me, in her broken English, that I must make my mother proud; work hard, maybe find a job in Montreal, but never forget all that she’s done for me, and where I come from. Then she guides me in, a short leading twitch of her fingers, and pulls out a small beaten red box. This is for you, she says. I open it; it’s a small twisted Chinese dragon sculpture. It bring strength and luck, she says. Use.

I offer money, but she smiles and shakes her head, patient. Money like toilet paper. You need, but too much – what you do? You throw away. On the way out, she pulls out two tigerlillies, and hands them to me, also for free. They are remarkably resilient, and last for a week after. She tells me to come back, and I say I will, I am here for two weeks. No, she says abruptly, working her way around her limited English. Not now. You come back a year later. You go be stronger. Better. Beautiful. Go find yourself.

I wrote to someone recently how writing gives everything purpose. But I forgot to add the flipside of this – taking what feels exceptional and kind and writing it into something that seems common and usual, part of all the literature you’ve read and clichés you’ve encountered. Perhaps both effects come from the same skill – the universality of a language. I read back on this and can see it as far more ordinary than I felt in the moment. Then it felt serendipitous, a stranger reaching out from the circle of her world to touch mine. Here, the magic dies in words, live as it might in memory.