Re-entry Reflections and Christmas Grace

Questions on return and listing what I missed, monochrome adjustments and memories; Christchurch collapsing, mountain meditations, and living the feast of grace.

After an 11-hour flight from Bangkok, I stepped off the plane in Auckland on Saturday afternoon, 8 December.  I had 20-30 new books (depending on how you classify books versus booklets) in my case and a shoulder bag of wooden Christmas presents.  None caused any problem at immigration, though should I have ticked “been on a farm” on the border control form of the NZ Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries?  As Mark Twain said, “India is one vast farm” and I dodged goats and cows most days.  As we drove home I noticed how rigidly conservative New Zealanders are compared to liberated Indian society: everyone here religiously follows those ornamental markings on the road.

I’ve heard that reverse culture shock when you come back home is often harder than the first culture shock of travel.  Some of the American students from St Olaf College dreaded being asked on return how their trip was.  How to compress the physical and spiritual journey, the multi-month barrage of experience and emotion – I filled several pages in my diary every night – to a 30-second sound bite for a non-travelling socialite?  Perhaps this is why, though on a humbler scale, those who see mystical visions are often left speechless and silent.

The St Olaf Orientation Handbook (aka “the blue folder”) had some good questions for “a thoughtful return”: How have I changed?  What am I most or least looking forward to?  What lessons have I learned I never want to forget?  What will I do with the experiences I’ve had?  Or will we return to our comfy homes, as one student gloomily predicted, and our lives will be no different?  After returning to the States, one girl was scared at how little she seemed to have changed on the outside, although she felt different inside.

So what have I noticed or thought about in my first weeks back?  I began with a list of things to take next time:

  • sellotape to repair much-used maps.
  • cotton wool to plug ears on the street, as do many locals.
  • a smaller face mask covering just my nose, to be cooler and permit smiling.
  • talcum powder for itchy sweaty skin.
  • a bigger camera memory-card.
  • NZ coins and photos of home to show kids.
  • cards with NZ scenery for thank-you notes.
  • a small AM radio for English news or info – India didn’t have many FM stations.

And here are some things that I wished I could have taken, or what I missed about NZ while I was away:

  • wandering barefoot to our local dairy to buy a loaf of bread.
  • walking down the road without constant assault from beggars, hawkers and auto-rickshaw drivers.
  • breathing fresh air, without stinging eyes.
  • turning on the tap for drinking water, or accepting a glass without anxiety.
  • fresh salad sandwiches for lunch, unlike the high-fat, low-fibre Indian diet.
  • performing daily tasks without conscious effort, like catching the bus to work.
  • infrastructure that works: switching on a light, lifting the phone, withdrawing cash from an ATM.
  • communicating in English.
  • friends and family.
  • solitude and quiet.
  • my own functional office computer.
  • the efficient, well-stocked uni library: so many more books I want to read! For a start, to help make sense of it all, I’ve taken out Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: the Strange Rise of Modern India (2006).
  • jogging through bush tracks in the Auckland Domain or along the waterfront.

On one of my first homecoming runs grey-green waves were blown against the black rocks and Pohutukawa trees were bursting into red blossom.  It is also called the Christmas tree, which reminded me that it was nearly the biggest event of the Western year.  I noticed I’d not noticed many decorations or much of a festive feel.  I took a closer conscious look as I pounded by and perceived some skinny strands of faded tinsel hanging like stray cobwebs in most shop windows.  A few artificial trees had a tired glimmer.

But where was the colour?  Where were the flowers?  Where were the banana leaves and chunky garlands on passing vehicles?  The drumming and firecrackers like cannons?  India’s assault on the senses has raised my sensory threshold: words like “colourful” now seem bleached of meaning in Auckland’s muted monotone.  A friend who has just returned from the Chinese winter had the opposite impression, and commented how colourful New Zealand seemed.

When singing carols on the steps of my church, the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle, I remembered choirs in Chennai singing the same songs (see here).  The Tabernacle runs a Christmas display which many school children visit.  On the “Bethlehem Street”, sacks bulging with white rice and red barley took me back to Indian markets – until I saw the cardboard to which thin layers of beans were glued.  And I’ve now seen Nativity-like scenes for real: families living alongside cattle and goats in shacks like a farmyard barn.

At communion I caught myself reaching for the bread with both hands, forgot that I had left India, and tore off a portion with my right hand alone, making a mess of the crusty loaf (bracing with my middle finger left a deep hole) and bemusing my neighbour.  Around the corner from church, the New Age “Third Eye” shop sells incense, devotional articles, and Indian idols – I can now identify many more.

As usual, I spent Christmas in my mother’s birthplace of Christchurch, a city of about 300,000.  In the taxi from the airport, we passed elderly residents weeding and watering their gardens.  Christchurch is known as the Garden City, and I’ve often thought that it would be a pleasant spot to retire – a “Pensioners’ Paradise” one might say.  Both epithets were applied to Bangalore a decade or two ago.  What if Microsoft were to move a head office to Christchurch and one third of a million people were pumped into the city every year – as Bangalore has experienced?  Where would Christchurch be in a decade?  I imagined a Bangalorean scene of gridlocked roads, crumbling infrastructure, and the few remaining flower beds wreathed in smog.

From Christchurch I headed West up to Arthurs Pass National Park for a few days of tramping.  I hoped my fitness would be okay: I’d had little formal exercise the last months.  But traversing the refuse and rubble of Indian footpaths in the smog was like tramping in low-oxygen conditions!  The tiring journey between sheltered compounds or air-con interiors in India resembles a hike through rugged terrain and rough weather between the refuges of tramping huts.  I loved the solitude and clean mountain air, though some Indian reflexes continued: I felt a little nervous at eating from wet dishes.

The handclapping experiment at the Art of Living centre (see here) and the Indian emphasis on meditation has shown me again that I’m seldom if ever conscious or present or awake.  Trying to be mindful, I sat and contemplated a mountain stream.  Through the ever-changing surface, long ripples swaying like a veil, I glimpsed tranquil pebbles on the bottom, like the timeless reality behind the tumultuous mask of maya.  In places the water flowed deep and serene, at others it chattered with joy as it bubbled and splashed around rocks in its path.  Why so content?  Why so cheerful?  I asked myself where it was going and the answer came, namely, the sea.  In my reverie I had stumbled on a great image of the mystical goal: to merge with the eternal One like a stream in the ocean.  Perhaps the sages of India, meditating alone in the forest or by a holy river, came to this illumination in much the same way.

I have heard it said that there are two ways to view life: as a fortress or as a feast.  You can operate by tight control, or accept whatever comes as a gift of grace.  India teaches you to enjoy life’s banquet.  You can’t precisely control the day’s schedule; you rarely know what’s going on.  You have to rely on the grace of God and the generosity of people, such as friendly locals who communicate your destination to an English-less auto driver, or direct you to the right bus and where to get off.  Every day I would sally forth, not knowing what adventures I would find or people I would meet.  You need to balance scepticism of smooth-talking cons with openness to genuine hospitality, the wariness of a sceptic with the wonder of a child – in the words of a Jewish guru, being wise as a serpent yet innocent as a dove.

India is dirty, chaotic, confusing and exhausting.  But it is also alive.  The West, by contrast, can be quite sterile – physically and socially.  Where life is safe and under control, you are less open to grace; when our hands are full, it’s hard to receive life’s unexpected gifts.

One great gift has been the many prayers, emails and encouragements I’ve received while away.  I’ve survived the Indian adventure!  My malarial medication continues for another week – 30-days post-travel – but the life-broadening effects of this trip will ripple on much further into the New Year.

20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbour.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.
Mark Twain (or not), in the St Olaf Global Orientation Handbook


Royal Birthdays and Sporty Buddhas: Serenity in Bangkok

Clogged lungs and quiet streets, 7-Elevens and temples, saffron monks and lemon kings, sweet and salty feet.

I had a smooth flight from Bangalore to Bangkok on Sunday night, but with little sleep.  Beside me a large Indian gentleman forced me into the aisle and a small girl behind whacked my seat should I dare to doze.  On arrival I took a taxi to my guest house. With variously-shaped glass buildings soaring all around, it seemed like the 21st century after Indian cities, where I saw few skyscrapers.  A hazy red sun was rising at the end of the street: the beautiful side of smog.  (See my Bangkok photos here)

I was impressed by the wide, smooth highways.  Mini-bus utes chugged along with two rows of passenger benches on the back.  Motorbikes carried multiple passengers without helmets, but the streets were free of litter and potholes.  I hardly heard car horns and many drivers indicated before changing lanes.   First-timers in Asia come to Bangkok from the West and complain of the chaos.  Returning from the other direction, I was surprised to find how quiet and peaceful, clean and tidy, an Asian city of 10 million can be.

My parting souvenir from India was a smoker’s wheeze – I wondered how many cigarette-equivalents of pollution I consumed per day.  An article in the New Indian Express, “It’s Getting Harder to Breathe” said 20% of Chennai adolescents suffer from wheezing, so I’m not alone, and perhaps 1/8 of premature deaths in India are due to air pollution (Luce 2006 348).  In Bangkok I was never conscious of fumes.

On the street kids played badminton (instead of cricket in India), while their elders relaxed in shady cafés over chess.  Guys lovingly polished their bright new cars, often pink.  India’s mangy street curs all looked much the same to me, but here there is a range of dog breeds, often with collars, as well as many cats.  There are no bars on windows against human or monkey intrusion.

The Thai people seem so laid-back.  A few blind beggars in town shuffle along with speakers playing music on their back, donation-box on their chest, but they never approached or harassed me as in India.   I saw the high-tech IT-Square mall and browsed the narrow lanes of the amulet market: round medallions, figurines of copper, brass, silver or gold, shining plastic or faded terracotta statues of Buddha or Hindu gods to hang around one’s neck.  Nowhere did proprietors pounce; in fact they hardly noticed me.  Rather than fighting off every passing auto-rickshaw’s offers of “help”, I had to wave down taxis and their drivers always switched the meter on.

Everywhere you look is the red-orange-green logo of 7-Eleven superettes, and Thai Buddhist temples or wats.  Soaring red, gold, blue roofs with shining glass tiles.  Black Buddha statues were slim and athletic, unlike the East Asian laughing Buddha with his belly like Jabba the Hutt’s.  They were covered in fluttering square-inch leaves of gold foil, scented with buckets of burning joss sticks.  I was overwhelmed by the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  It’s a riot of dazzling statues and glittering glass, soaring gables and gold stupas.  Respectful dress is required: pre-warned, I’d worn socks in my sandals to cover my feet, while bare-legged women are lent wrap-around sarongs at the gate.

Saffron-orange robed monks are also everywhere, from venerable sages to lads blowing soap bubbles: an apt symbol of a faith that teaches the fleeting of all things.  Another monk was up a ladder, wiring fluorescent tubes around a huge royal portrait.

The Thai are very religious and they love their king.  December 5 was His Highness the King of Thailand’s 80th birthday and I read all about him in my Thai Airways magazine.  He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch (61 years) and a gifted polymath: saxophonist and jazz composer, regatta-winning yachtsman, agricultural experimentalist, eradicator of diseases.  He is deeply loved by his people who display his portraits in schools, shops, houses, billboards.  Many people wore T-shirts of lemon yellow, his birth day’s colour.

His Highness seems the picture of a true king, as if from a legend.  His list of accomplishments sounded like the biblical King David and King Solomon rolled into one: victorious general, harpist and songwriter, student of nature and sage.  I will use him to introduce my sermon next Sunday on the Magi from the East visiting the baby king Jesus.  But I occasionally found the adulation disturbing.  In a black and white newsreel, for example, an old Thai lady placed her head beneath the king’s foot.

The following day I caught the Chao Phraya River taxi boat into town, past many more temples and corrugated iron huts.  I wouldn’t swim in the brown, weedy river, but it was less aromatic than Indian equivalents.  I tested the four Thai condiments of salty fish oil, sweet chilli sauce, sour chillies and spicy-hot chillies on chicken fried rice as I overlooked the river, watching water lapping through the wooden floor planks.

Thai culture is heavily shaped by pre-Buddhist belief and practice.  There are many little spirit houses with fruit and incense offerings.  Temples had murals of the Hindu Ramayana epic and I’ve seen many Indian elements, like greeting with hands together as if in prayer, and not touching or pointing with the soles of your feet.  An Indian story tells of a holy man sleeping in a temple.  The priest reprimanded him for lying with his feet pointing towards the idol and he replied, “God is everywhere.  Where is he not?”  He was a courteous man so he changed position anyway.  Such was his holiness that he woke to find the idol had moved to again stand before his soles.

Mud and Silicon: Growing up in Bangalore

Boiled beans, brave hares and anti-British rockets; pensioners, prangs and Frogger; camera curiosity and wobbling ambiguity, lakeside laughter and David’s departure.

The city of Bangalore has come a long way.  Around 1100 A.D. a king was lost while hunting and sheltered at an old lady’s cottage.  He named a new settlement, so the story goes, for the simple meal she gave him: Bengaluru first meant “Village of Boiled Beans”.  400 years later, a local chief saw his dog chased away by a hare.  He was so impressed by the bunny’s courage that he built a mud fort on the site.  His grandson erected four watchtowers on surrounding hills, dug tanks to harvest water, and a real town was born.

In the 18th century, a powerful Muslim ruler moved in, Tipu Sultan.  I visited his botanical gardens and palace during my last week.  The “Tiger of Mysore” allied himself with France and hated the British.  He built a life-size model of a tiger mauling a British officer, complete with internal pipes to sound the Englishman’s groans.  He invented rockets that shot swords from wheeled launchers and trained his troops to calculate angles for targets up to a kilometre away.  He once forced the Duke of Wellington to retreat (he regained his honour at Waterloo).

The British defeated and killed Tipu Sultan in 1799, and an army cantonment was established at Bangalore, as you can still see on a map.  I caught the train to and from Cantonment Station, stayed at a guest-house on Infantry Road, marched past the Parade Ground and down Brigade Road.  Civilians were also drawn to the elevated town that represented “India without its scorching sun, Europe without its snow”.

At Independence in 1947, Bangalore’s population was only 600,000.  It was called the Garden City, the Pensioners’ Paradise, a tranquil escape from centres like Bombay.  From the 1990s, however, international IT companies moved in.  Bangalore became India’s Silicon Valley and the population has boomed to 6 million or more.

Peter Colaco Bangalore CoverIn Bangalore: A Century of Tales from City and Cantonment (2003) long-term resident Peter Colaco reminisces about the changes he has seen (see reviews here and here).  In his youth the city was a quiet hill station, “a lazy little place… space and grace personified” where he rode his bike down open roads with no traffic lights.  In 1958 there was only one horse-drawn carriage left.  Now the streets are a nightmare.

I arrived in India with trepidation, fearing theft and sickness, but statistically my greatest danger was traffic.  A Bangalore Traffic Police “Road Accidents Awareness” sign reported 395 fatalities and 2719 injuries from 1 January to 31 May this year.  In three decades I’ve never witnessed an accident in New Zealand, but in two months I have here.  In Bangalore a car pranged an auto-rickshaw.  Surrounding auto drivers leapt out to berate the motorist.  In Hyderabad a motorbike hit a pedestrian.  The latter limped off cursing and the former lay on the ground as my auto-rickshaw pulled away.  And in Chennai, walking down the street because the footpath was fenced off, my shoulder knocked in the wing mirror of a van.  Fortunately it was moving slowly.

I’ve come a long way since I first stumbled in shock down the Whitefield roads, but crossing streets continues to be fun.  It’s a sort of live action Frogger game, except the traffic doesn’t always travel in predictable straight lines.  Intersections are often governed by a muddle of both lights and a policeman directing.  One time I thought a wide road was clear.  Half way across, a wall of motorbikes and rickshaws bore down on me.  I started to slowly back off as they swerved to both sides of me, then just stood still and prayed!

No one has mauled me as Tipu Sultan did the Brits, although hawkers and auto-rickshaw drivers have come close.  At first I felt awkward when people asked how much my camera cost.  I mostly say I’m not sure: it was a gift from my parents.  Which is true, but I know it cost several hundred dollars.  And I know a simple meal costs me 60 cents at a CBD café and locals could eat for less.  I estimate the price of my camera might feed a family for a year.

In their shoes, I’d be fuming at the injustice and launching rockets like the Tiger Sultan did, but they show no resentment.  Indians are simply curious about the sort of details we mostly don’t discuss – like how much you earn.  Most people here seem content, grateful for what they do have, unlike Westerners who have so much and envy others who have more.

In fact the camera has been a bridge to friendly encounters.  I’m shy about photographing people (especially women, most especially covered Muslim women) and always ask or gesture for permission.  They mostly wobble their head in reply.  I’ve heard the Indian head-wobble can mean “yes” or can mean “no”, or maybe “don’t know”, or convey other subtleties that leave me unclear, but there is mostly a smile.

A few stall holders object or want money, but many more love being photographed.  Some ask for a click when my camera isn’t even out, or run up to join their neighbour in the frame.  In the flower market, a man gave me tea and a button-hole rose, then begged for a photo, although I said it was too dark.  “Please sir, you’re breaking my heart!”  Going digital is wonderful.  Both children and adults love seeing themselves and their friends cluster around to point out a “brother” in the camera screen as an “Indian monkey”.

As well as sharing their friendship, I’m beginning to taste their frustration.  This country has so much potential and so much is wasted.  On my final day in town, I went to see Ulsoor Lake.  Fountains were playing among the artificial islands, but the shore line was fenced off.  I found a little park with a playground, hedges and shady seats, but the gate was locked.  A few fishermen dangled lines from the concrete area outside.  Pedal boats floated unused, covered with leaves, inside a dilapidated boat shed.  The place could be so nice with so little work.  In another park, where bats hung from trees, I noticed a sign for a laughing club – I’d heard but scarce believed that people gather early mornings just to chuckle!  Maybe it’s the only way to survive.

After being away for three weeks, bouncing down the dirt road of the Ecumenical Christian Centre felt like coming home.  I was even back in my same corner room.  I relaxed among the familiar faces, though missed the Minnesotans, and relished the green grounds.  A new sign had appeared with a challenge for India and the West – a list of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins:

Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, worship without sacrifice.

The last nights I was invited to two staff homes and found myself eating alone at 7pm – locals don’t eat till 9 or 10pm.  They asked whether it’s the case that in the West we need an invitation to visit someone’s house, you don’t just pop in.  I was sad that it’s often true – we rich are less hospitable – and that they’ll never afford an air ticket to see for themselves.

Bangalore has come a long way in two decades.  So have I in two months.  At the airport check in, I saw a minor squabble over the ambiguous queuing.  I wasn’t surprised – don’t these Indians know this is India: why expect a tidy order?  I was afraid I had packed too much, but the industrial kitchen scale at the ECC must have overestimated my weight.  My luggage wasn’t bursting as much as my brain is after all I’ve experienced here.  I could have bought a few more books.

Railway Bazaars and Marketing Marigolds

An emporium on rails and gullible crafts; ominous veges and arty pomegranates; cubes of pineapple and cones of peanuts, pyramids of colour and garlands of carnations.

My stomach recovered for Tuesday’s Chennai-Bangalore Brindaven Express.  When the British commissioner made this trip in 1862, the railway only went part way so he completed the journey, his diary says, with “14 hours of severe jolting in a hearse-like transit carriage”.  By 1895 the line was finished so I went the whole way in six hours.

The seats were hard but the ceiling was studded with fans so the trip wasn’t bad.  I browsed my 5 cent Indian Express paper and was entertained by a stream of entrepreneurs, some blind, who jostled down the aisle like a mobile $2 shop.  They offered drinks – coffee, tea, tomato soup, soft drinks – and sustenance – foil-wrapped breakfasts, Indian snacks, potato chips, avocados.  Wary of re-aggravating my stomach, I bought only safely sealed chips.  Everyone discarded their cutlery and containers out the window, lining the tracks with plastic and paper.

The carriage bazaar also sold ornamental accessories like bead necklaces and flowers, and devotional essentials like wooden gods.  There was in-flight amusement galore – Rubik cubes, story books, plastic kids’ rattles and guns – and if I grew tired of the circus of sales, there was the scenery outside.  Stations sailed past with spray-painted stencil signs canvassing votes for engineers’ unions, some platforms with more dogs or goats than people.  Glinting gold-green coconut palm trees shaded grass huts.  A golden wheat field was neatly trimmed up to a line of bright working saris.

Beggars joined the hawkers on board as we neared Bangalore, so I was doubly glad to have a window seat.  As I queued for a prepaid auto-rickshaw at the station, bystanders restrained two guys from blows – a villainous driver getting his deserts?  I spent three more nights at the church guest house in Central Bangalore.  My room had the verse, “My grace is sufficient for you”.  With lower temperatures, as winter approached and I was back up at Bangalore’s 920m, I dreaded the cold shower but by grace it ran hot for the first time in two months.  (See more Bangalore photos here and here.)

Back on MG Road, my snake vendor friend recognised me, and the same eternally hopeful hawker still flew his boomerang helicopter.  It never returned to his hands but crashed among parked cars every time.  A bronze Shiva danced on shop steps before a larger statue of his consort Parvati, alongside store dummies modelling the latest Indian blouse-skirt-scarf combos.  Fleeting fashion and eternity: does filthy lucre or Shiva’s dance make the world go round?

With home-coming and Christmas approaching, I catalogued craft shops.  Assistants pulled a fine Pashmina shawl through a finger-ring, or revealed the secret mechanism to open magically-locked wooden caskets.  They showed me carved lattice-sided elephants or camels, “pregnant” with a smaller copy inside, sometimes a third “baby” nested inside that.  One claimed I was his first customer after two months holiday, drawing a finger along dusty shelves as evidence; if I didn’t buy it would bring bad luck.  An entertaining story, so I bought a wooden triplet of see-hear-speak no evil monkeys.  (I mostly purchased from fixed-price emporia to avoid rip-offs and bargaining hassle.)  Another entreated me to buy something, anything!, as he had no money for his bus fare home – he raised his arms and invited me to verify that his pockets were empty.  Unlike with street hawkers, in a shop you can enjoy such performances and then leave when bored without being followed.

Striped prayer mats dried on a white mosque balustrade, archways reflected in the courtyard pool.  A bearded man in dark skullcap and white baggy pyjamas sat on his motorbike conversing by cell phone, in front of a “no entery” sign on the one-way street.  As I ate lunch, two women gossiped and giggled at the next table, then finished their meal, rose and tied on black veils.  I was taken aback by their sudden faceless anonymity.  On the street I was warmed again by a wrinkled smile, remaining teeth stained dark red with betel juice.

In the older part of town the whole sidewalk was an emporium.  Shoe shining.  Crumpled clothing smoothed with a coal-filled iron.  Names engraved on a grain of rice.  Rows of water bottles, cigarettes, jars of sweets below fluttering silk head scarves or magazines.  Gleaming brass or silver lamp stands, single, double or triple tiered, topped with spikes or peacocks.  Blankets, tables, carts were spread with a medley of trinkets: combs, hairclips, tooth brushes, razors, nail clippers, cotton buds; underwear, socks, sweaters, beanies; cell phone covers, mirrors, padlocks, pens; colonial coins, fine bead necklaces, brass pots and idols; neat rows of rings and jumbled polished stones.

There were plenty of snacks.  Bread rolls with jam, a cart of potato chips.  A woman in a crimson sari scooped peanuts from a sack as big as a toddler’s paddling pool into cones of rolled newspaper.  Bicycles bulged with coconuts like bunches of huge hairy grapes, the tops deftly lopped off by machete and replaced with a drinking straw.  Sugar cane rods were fed into grinding cogged wheels and the juice trickled into a glass.  Slices of tomato, cucumber, pineapple and melon looked refreshing, but I saw the vendor rinsing them with water to prevent drying and, I feared, add fresh bacteria.  (See market shots here).

It was fascinating stuff, but my goal for the afternoon was the Bangalore produce and flower market.  I had broken my compass in Chennai and it was too overcast to get my bearing by the sun, so I wandered off track into an industrial neighbourhood.  Overall-clad workers were loading trucks, arc-welding or cutting metal with gas torches.

Despite such side trips, I soon found the veges.  I edged through the river of haggling customers, rushing saris, munching cows, trying not to stumble over artistically piled carrots, carefully balanced avocados, overflowing hemp sacks of rice, grain or fiery red chillies.  Pomegranates were sliced in flowering polygons of shiny crimson seeds.  Rows of stainless steel bowls with vibrant pyramids of tikka powder, for cosmetic decoration or ritual anointing, presented every tint of the rainbow like a kindergarten poster of colours.  I was nervous of bumping them in the crush.  Dull square tins held half-excavated cones of ochre, olive, orangey-brown – what a friend called the “masculine range”.

Workers posed for photos with their basket hats, like Mexican sombreros with high upturned edges, as I entered the concrete building.  I passed people sitting in piles of petals, threading buds with nimble needles.  Then I found the mezzanine floor that ran around the vast hall and overlooked an ocean of blossoms.

Piles of orange marigolds, crimson carnations and white jasmine, heaped and scooped onto scale pans.  Garlands coiled in baskets that could hold a man.  Some monochrome, of uniform species, others striped like candy cane.  Men drew them forth like botanical snake charmers.  It was the psychedelic zenith of my India trip, a temple of the spectrum, a saturated summa of colour.