Banyan Tree Adventures: Travels in India

Banyan Tree Adventures: Travels in India

by Keith Forrester


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785358081
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 12/14/2018
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 824,791
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Keith Forrester is a retired academic from the University of Leeds, who worked an educator for voluntary and non-profit organisations throughout Europe and North America. Keith has spent long periods of time visiting India over the past six years, immersing himself in Indian history and culture and writing his new book Banyan Tree Adventures. He lives in Leeds, UK.

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An Introduction

An unusual month?

One of my favourite venues in Bombay (now renamed Mumbai) is the Oval Maidan in the southern business district of the city. Like most Indian cities, Mumbai does not have too many open public spaces but the Oval Maidan (or 'ground') together with the Cross Maidan across the road is one such space. Renovated and run by volunteers since 1997, the Maidan is 750 metres long and usually features half a dozen overlapping cricket games involving teams in matching outfits – sometimes white. This important recreational space in the centre of busy Bombay is surrounded by palm trees and today is protected by the newly-painted steel fencing. Entrance to the Maidan is limited to two gates halfway along the park which join the always busy pathway across the park. Seating within the Oval Maidan amounts to a few benches, invariably occupied. At the end of the day with all the matches completed, out comes the elaborately decorated watering lorries pulling trailers loaded with six-foot nets to fence off the cricket squares and a team of groundsman to attend to the pitches – all very professional. Grass seed and soil are scattered across the cricket squares, carefully watched by waiting groups of pigeons.

In the midst of the noisy crazy bustle of the Colaba district in this most southern stretch of Bombay, the Maidans provide a rare oasis of relative calm and orderly activity. I have spent many an hour usually in the cooler late afternoons sitting on the red dusty ground with my back resting against one of the palm trees watching simultaneously three or four cricket games and even, to the amazement of myself and bewilderment of local Mumbaikars, a game of touch rugby. As it is usually in the months of January through to April that I visit India, all that I need for my Oval Maidan trips is water and shade. It helps of course if you enjoy cricket which I do, even though the experience is a little different to that of Headingley in Leeds, Yorkshire.

However, it is not only sporting goings-on within the Oval Maidan that is of interest; it is also the surrounds of the park. These seem to encapsulate important aspects of the city's recent history. Immediately to the east for example, and halfway down is the Big Ben-like Rajabai Clock Tower rising from the Mumbai University Library. Built in 1874, the university looks very much like one of the older British universities. To the left of the university is the imposing Bombay High Court, still very much in business as the numerous black-gowned employees congregating outside the tea and coffee stands testify. The Old Secretariat housing the offices of the Maharashtra State's chief minister and other top officials adjoins the university and is similarly built in the same Gothic-style buff-coloured stone brought in from Gujarat. Walking along the street – Mayo Road, now renamed Baburao Patel Marg – is a little intimidating with the towering Gothic architecture all protected by heavily armed military police personnel at every entrance. Across on the opposite, western, side of the Oval Maidan is Queen's Road. It is the Queen's Road residents who are today responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the Oval Maidan. Back in the 1920s the British reclaimed this part of the southern Bombay peninsula from the sea and extended the land some 700 metres through to the famous Marine Drive. The Maidan was established as a recreational ground and was used as a dog and horse showground (naturally!) in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century before falling into disrepair. So today, it is to the Queen's Road residents that I owe a debt of gratitude for my many hours of pleasure and indolence spent at 'their' park. Walking along Queen's Road underneath the magnificent row of sprawling Banyan trees that line the middle of the dual carriageway, the Victorian art deco buildings provide an arresting political footnote to the pretentiousness of the occupying powers' architectural tastes and styles when contrasted with the dark Gothic monuments on the opposite side of the Oval Maidan. The matching Victorian art deco housing alongside Queen's Road, and built by the local Parsi community, still retain their rather wistful colonial names such as Fairlawn, Palm Court, Belvedere Court and, of course, Empress Court.

Wandering around the Oval Maidan looking for something to eat or on my way back to my nearby hotel, I pass a number of other favourite landmarks – the cubist inspired 1940 Parsi community's church (the Bhikha Behram Well), the 1889 colonial Western Railway Headquarters with its mix of Gothic and Indian design, the art deco Eros cinema and, of course, Churchgate station. Although not so grand and dramatic as the nearby Victoria Terminus – now renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), Churchgate has a more local city feel despite being one of the busiest stations in the world. There is a coffee bar opposite Churchgate which I often visit in the evening rush hour to watch the hundreds of thousands of commuters rushing to catch their trains out to the suburbs. The other attraction at this time of the evening is the beginnings of the night market on the pavements around the station – out of nowhere, hundreds of traders appear spreading their blankets or sheets of plastic on the pavements and selling everything that the passers-by never really wanted until they saw the cheap prices. Indians must be amongst the most impulsive consumers anywhere gauging by the crowds that quickly gather around each patch of blanket or plastic. On some of the smaller backstreets around the station are numerous street families with their tidy bit of pavement fenced off with pots and pans and with the barefooted children running around, immune to the traffic or walkers attempting to share the pavement.

I have often wondered why it is that I enjoy so much this little corner of India. It helps obviously that I enjoy watching cricket (and even managed to catch the opening games of the one-day Women's World Cup cricket championship in February 2013 at the nearby Brabourne Stadium). It might also be due to a certain smugness on my behalf arising from the hot dry weather of Mumbai while the rest of Europe struggles with the cold and the snow. There are possibly more serious reasons. Sitting there in the Oval Maidan, there are the sounds and the sights of the 'new' India, of a country and economy on the move, and at the centre of this movement is Mumbai (or Bombay as the city is still commonly known). Modern skyscrapers with prominent advertising displays are visible from most vantage points in the Oval park. And of course, there are the traffic, noise, smells and sheer mass of people moving around the Maidan that suggest everywhere energy, activity and purpose. It is not without reason that Bombay, and more generally India, welcomes politely a steady trek of European political leaders with their eager crowd of business personnel in tow. A certain weariness but national pride characterises the press reports of the visits. This picture of modernity, however, contrasts somewhat with the very visible images of the recent imperial colonial history; the British were here, expected to be here forever and constructed buildings, industries and infrastructure that were designed to make this an economic and political reality and, also just as important, to remind the local population of this fact. Perhaps for me, it is the cricket in the Maidan together with the surrounding British Gothic architecture that keep the historical imperial past a continuing part of the modern. On the other hand, it might be my own colonial childhood in central Africa that foregrounds this past with the present. Whatever the reasons, few countries that have experienced the colonial domination and oppression inflicted on India by the British have, it seems to me, managed to encompass this history with the contemporary in a way that is the case in India.

This is a book about the historical and the contemporary in India but also it is about visiting tourists' experiences and views of this India. When I first visited India in late December 2003 with Susan and our three young children – Jack, Jim and Alice – it was on a short ten-day visit that was the beginning of a longer three-month adventure to a variety of countries in Southeast Asia and South America. It was India, however, that for me had the greatest impact. I don't think that any of us, like most first-time visitors, will ever forget those first few days wandering around the Colaba district in southern Bombay. The noise, the sheer volume of people everywhere, the traffic and tuc-tucs, the colours and the heat limited our walking to around an hour or so: rest and appraisal was necessary. It was exhilarating if a little scary. Urban understandings and expectations were challenged, often collapsed and then had to be revised.

Talking to other tourists in Mumbai and later in Goa, another unexpected feature became apparent. Most of these overseas tourists had visited India many times and were very knowledgeable and enthused about particular parts of India and different aspects of Indian culture, history and politics. I was staggered. While we pored slavishly over our guides to the country, these tourists appeared to be visiting encyclopaedias. They had been all over the place in this huge country, were knowledgeable about particular peoples and places, and seemed well versed in making sense of the stories from the daily newspapers. Since that first visit in 2003–4, Susan and I have returned to India some five or six times visiting different parts of the country on the wonderful train network and, always, seeking guidance from local people as well as these overseas tourists. Slowly, we are becoming more familiar with little bits of this complex, contradictory but absorbing country. Slowly we are acquiring friends from different cities that we have visited and, slowly, we are getting more familiar with the newspapers, journals and more popular authors. It is always 'slowly' because we are never in a rush and, anyway, India can't be rushed but is best enjoyed at a snail's pace.

This book then is about India. It is not a guidebook; there are many such books already available. They are invariably all good and are excellent for getting you about on a restricted timescale with different places and sites to cover. It is not a sightseeing book; again, numerous such books are available, nor is it a diary or travelogue-type of book. Not only are there many such popular travelogues but there is an enormous amount of popular literature about historical and contemporary India written by local authors, journalists and scholars. Any perusal at the literature available on the plastic sheets spread out on the pavements in the great Indian cities (and especially, Bombay) suggests a culture that takes the printed word seriously. Many of my most enjoyable reads about India have come from the recommendations of these street sellers. They know their stuff.

For foreign visitors to India or those simply interested in understanding more about the country, it's not only books. The 'serious' journals and magazines that are available dwarf the equivalent output in most European countries, and certainly Britain. Sometimes it seems that India has bookshops like we have banks or estate agents on our high streets. Some of the journals I have noticed over the years are getting more difficult to get hold of. The excellent monthly journal of politics and culture The Caravan, for example, used to be available literally 'on the streets' but is now more difficult to spot. Of course the street vendors will get it for you on a regular basis if they trust that you will be back next month. Similarly, the sparky, opinionated, polemical but always readable Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is a favourite search for me when in India. Most good bookshops usually stocked the magazine but today it is more difficult to find. I suspect that the EPW was always poorly circulated and instead depended on its readers seeking out the current edition – an unusual business model. On the other hand, perhaps it is a case of the digital format slowly replacing the hard copy text. The numerous weekly or biweekly news commentary magazines by contrast still remain available everywhere – a wonderful variety reflecting different perspectives and content. For anyone from abroad interested in keeping abreast of developments in India, there are no excuses beyond the problem of time.

So this is not a guidebook or a travelogue on India. It is a 'tourist' book in that it uses and discusses the Indian experiences and views of non-domestic travellers in their explorations and adventures around this huge country. As mentioned above, when we arrived in India for the first time in 2003–4, I was surprised to meet other tourists who had visited the country many times, had visited different parts of the country over the years and who were pretty knowledgeable about aspects of culture, politics or the country's geography. Eventually in 2013, I decided to record a number of informal discussions with this group. I was becoming more interested in India, was reading more about the country and had visited a number of areas and cities in the country. What, I wondered, did these tourists find interesting in the country, why did they keep returning and where had they been? These questions interested me and, I assumed, would be of interest to a wider audience. They would open up issues and parts of the country that we didn't know about or hadn't visited. The people I talked to were not a particular sample, carefully selected to represent certain characteristics. Instead they were the opposite – eight or nine people who happened, in the main, to reside in the same homestay in Goa as me and who had visited India a number of times. I had met most of them before but not everyone. In Sany's case for example I hadn't met her before, but over breakfast one morning heard her talking to some local workmen in Konkani, the local language of the western coast – fluent, flowing and confident Konkani. I was most impressed. Where, I wondered, did a person from just outside Paris, France pick up this language and what were her experiences of India? So I asked if she would mind if we had a discussion around her times in India and that I recorded it. Thankfully, she agreed. Listening back to the tapes reminded me it was less a 'discussion' and more a case of me listening to her in an apprehensive silence. She seemed to enjoy the excuse to sound off on all the frustrations that had accumulated over a few years. In the main though I had met with the interviewees before 2013 when I did the interviews.

So it was very much a 'non-scientific' series of discussions with these foreign tourists. I have used their observations and experiences throughout the book but especially in the next two chapters. Their comments and observations have provided a springboard as it were for me to bounce off and to add my own commentary and experiences. Above all though I learned from them a lot about India. They had done things that I hadn't or had been to places I wouldn't be visiting. The discussions broadened my understandings, introduced me to new topics and, sometimes, forced me rethink my own experiences. Very briefly the people I interviewed were:

• Gina (with her partner Mick in the background) who has visited India some 24 times. She first came to India in 1991 because of the Gulf War. It was either going to Africa or India – India won. Gina is from Britain and works part-time in a post office.

• Steven is a chartered accountant and works in the City of London. Like Gina, it was in the early 1990s when he first came to India. Since then he has returned to the country many times.

• Andy has been to India 8 or 9 times, usually for quite long stays of 2–3 months. Andy works as a care assistant in Britain but likes to get away from the British winters as often as possible.

• Janet and Mike have been to India about 8 times and usually stay for about 6 months at a time. They own a caravan park in Colorado in the USA, probably "like a Hill Station here in India". Their park is high in the mountains at around 3,000 metres and during winter is closed due to the depth of the snow.

• Sheila and Tony who first arrived in India in 1986 have returned 20–30 times. They have been elsewhere but "nowhere else filled the gap". Sheila and Tony live near us in Yorkshire, UK and it was they who first suggested we visit India and them, on our trip with the children in 2003–4. Both Sheila and Tony have traditionally worked on a part-time basis (in education and landscape gardening) back in England.

• Helle Ryslinge is from Copenhagen, Denmark. She is an actress and filmmaker who has been to India "many, many times". I didn't know Helle before I interviewed her. I met her as she was staying next door to me in the homestay.


Excerpted from "Banyan Tree Adventures"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Keith Forrester.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Map of India,
Chapter 1. An Introduction,
Chapter 2. India for the first time,
Chapter 3. Fighting over the past,
Chapter 4. Konkani blues,
Chapter 5. That Empire - then and now,
Chapter 6. The 'Uncertain Glory': poverty and riches,
Chapter 7. "The nearest thing to another planet",
Chapter 8. Getting richer and its problems,
Chapter 9. The "good days are ahead",
Chapter 10. Of Tigers and Elephants,

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