Amritsar : adolescent odyssey


Susumu set off by railway from Delhi to Amritsar. It took several hours despite the train going at quite a pace. I stood in the vestibule with the door half open. A very welcome breeze came in. I enjoyed the view – greenery as far as the horizon.

I wrote my diary on the train. I wish I could find that!

I saw a Sikh soldier comb his hair. He took his turban off and let his hair down – it went down to his waste. This is the only time I have ever seen this.

I chatted to some passengers and deliberately called the Punjab – ”Punjabistan.”

Towards evening we arrived at Amritsar’s main station. We took a cycle rickshaw to the Golden Temple. We had read that tourists could lodge there for free. It would certainly save money but we were not that hard up. Moreover, India was a very affordable place for us. We got to the Golden Temple and there was a dispute over the fare. Had it been so many rupees in total or so many each. It was not a heated argument. A Hong Kong Indian was passing by an he interpreted for us. I thought this dispute was not worth it. Let’s just pay what the many asks. A policeman came along and this plump PC Plod said that the fare was what the rickshaw driver said. The Hong Konger said we should stand our ground. If we were right then we must insist on paying what was originally agreed. In fact even Susumu caved in.

We walked along into the pedestrian precinct leading up to the Golden Temple. There was a little office there. Virtually every man there was visibly a Sikh – as in beard and turban. They instantly agreed to let us stay. We were led through and archway and they pointed us to a door. We opened door and there was a little courtyard – maybe 10 m long and 5 m wide. There were several foreign tourists lolling there. Rucksacks lay propped up against the wall. Sleeping mats were on the floor. There were three small doorless room leading onto the courtyard. This was to be our home for the next three days. It was perhaps the roughest accommodation I stayed in but it was one of the most enjoyable places I stayed at.

That evening we had  a look around the famed Golden Temple. Hari Mandir is the holiest site in Sikhism. We walked alonG the  white stone path. It was almost luminous and too smooth. I almost slipped on it. Unlike Her Britannic Majesty I did not wear my socks. There were quite a few people milling around considering it was dark. We passed through a gateway and saw the tank. Indians use tank in the old fashioned sense as in to mean a pond or water container. (Of course tank can mean a military vehicle too in India. Bear in mind that tank  – as in the weapon – was only invented in 1916. They used the word tank for this secret weapon to hide what it really was. The British Army told people it was just a  vehicle for transporting water).

There was a huge pond and in the middle of it was the golden temple itself. Yes, much of the holy of holies really is gold. There was a walkway all around the shores of the tank. On the far side of the tank there was a bridge to the temple. There were buildings surrounding the pond. Sikh psalms echoed out over sound systems and rebounded off the white buildings all around the tank. In these buildings there were offices, prayers rooms, libraries and so on.

There was an American girl staying there. She has milk white skin and was very buxom. Nice! She was a New York Jewess and destitute of any indoor voice. Her father was an attorney and a doctor. Her family cannot have been short of greenbacks. What was a JAP doing in this place? (JAP – Jewish-American Princess). She must have been after a novel experience. I shall call her Golda.

I also met Nathalie. Nathalie was a Mancunian a few years older than me. She was of average height and slender, surmounted by mousy brown hair. She was more than typically nubile for one of her age. She had dropped out of university and was bumming around India. Nathalie was traveling around India with Sarah – if I have her name right. Sarah was a 19 year old English girl. Sarah was a lanky strawberry blonde. She was tolerable looking but must have been exceedingly clever. She was due to read Medicine at Oxford. One would never get it from her unassuming manner. I met her at Oxford once and then so far as I was concerned she sank without trace. By the way Sarah, can you check my cholesterol?

The Hong Kong Indian chap was also staying in our little courtyard. It was for foreigners only. Ain’t that a bit racialist? Well it was by citizenship and not ethnicity. I am not sure of the nationality of this bloke. Keeping us apart from the Indians was probably so we did not scandalise them with our immorality.

There was a couple from Slovenia. I shall named them Josip and Senka. They were about 25 – so quite old in my book, at that time. Both were slim and one had a goatee. I will let you guess which. They were chirpy and spoke superb English. We discussed the bombing of Yugoslavia that had gone on not long before. Yes, somewhere called Yugoslavia existed at that time. These two were in a quandry about it. Josip spoke of the Kosovars, ”their human rights were being broken.” ”No,”, Senka corrected him, ”their human rights were being abused.” Their ENglish was that good that they squabbled over minutiae such as that. Josip went on ”the issue is not so simple as it was presented.” They were the first Slovenians I had ever met and they left a favourable impression.

There was a lavatory in this place but I could not bring myself to squat down for number 2. I would take a cycle rickshaw to the Italian restuarant near the station – a journey of 20 minutes – just to take a dump. I would have some bread to justify my presence in the ristorante.

I dared to shave without a mirror in the Golden Temple complex. Would a sardar whip my razor away in a frenzy of religious righteousness? One must not scrape the hair from one’s visage! The Sikhs did not seek to impose this on others. It was only for the Khalsa – those Sikhs who were observant.

I went to look at Jallianwala Bagh. This is the site of surely the most horrific and shameful epsiode in the history of the British Raj. In April 1919 Brigadier General Dyer ordered his troops (Gurkhas) to open fire on demonstrators at this public garden. The official death toll was 379. That is almost certainly a considerable under estimate. There was a commission of inquiry. Dyer confirmed that none of the crowd had firearms and nor had they attacked his men. He was asked if he could have use an armoured car with a machine gun on the crowd – would he have done so? He said, ”Yes, I probably would.”  He had refused to order a warning shot in the air despite one of his subordinates suggesting it. His soldiers deliberately blocked the only exit to this park.  You cannot deny that Dyer was honest. However that is the ONLY good thing you can say about him. The wall at the rear of the park was too high for most people to make it over to escape. Some of the people were killed in a stampede to get away. Some people have tried to defend Dyer by saying that 5 British civilians had been killed the day before. Moreover, protests had been temporarily banned. This is no excuse. Dyer knew exactly what he was doing when he commanded his men to open fire on civilians. He knew most of the crowd were women and children.

This was surely an act of mass murder. It is a disgrace that Dyer was not prosecuted for it. He was forced to retire but that was far too mild. SOme Britishers even delivered an encomium to him.

I read how after the massacre he was blessed by Sikh priests at the Hari Mandir. This seemed so outrageous as to be unworthy of belief. I have seen a newspaper article from 1919 which has convinced me it was true.

Ireland does not like to remember that Dyer was Irish. The governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer was also Irish. Edward Harry Reginald Dyer retired to England and died in 1927. O’Dwyer had strongly spoken up for Dyer and said that killing hundreds of Indian civilians was the right thing to do. O’Dwyer retired to London. In 1942 Udham Singh went to London and tracked him down. At a meeting of the Asiatic Society in Caxton Hall Singh approached O’Dwyer and shot him dead. Singh made no attempt to escape. He was hanged for killing O’Dwyer. Singh has since been reinterred in India with much pomp.

Jallianwala Bagh is mainly an open space. It is not large now – I suspect nearby buildings have taken over some of the original ground. There are a few trees but the soil is mostly barren. I suspect that is because so many people walk there. It is hard by the Golden Temple. There was a small exhibition about Indian revolutionaries and the massacre. A display on Mohamad Ram Singh caught my eye. He took a name for each of the three faiths of the Punjab. He wished to stress their unity.

I felt no hostility to me there as a Westerner. It would not be right to ill treat me for my race but I expected that some people would feel animus towards me owing to the massacre.

I dined in one of the communal kitchens near the Golden Temple. The Sikhs feed people for free. It is all vegetarian fare. One has to cover one’s head.  In restaurants around there no meat was served. It is holy ground. It was daft. How come you can eat meat a mile away?

I saw a billboard in Amritsar which had an excellent slogan – service of man is the true service of God.

We walked around the Golden Temple. We queued to go to the holy of holies. People immersed themselves in the tank but did not swim in it. I saw huge gold fish there. People bent down to touch the floor as the entered the temple. Was this worship? I was in a quandry. DO I do that? Is that courtesy or apostasy? In the end I decided it was the former and I followed suit.

The interior of the Golden Temple is not wonderful. It is certainly not dull or horrid. It is small and there are a few images of Guru Nanak an others of the ten gurus who led the religion for its first 100 years or so. They often fought the Muslims and some of them were martyred in the most horrific fashion by the Mughal emperors. Some bearded Sikhs in white shalwar kameezes sang their hymns. A Granthi chanted orisons from the Guru Granth Sahib – their holy text. Another man fanned him with a feather fan. A podgy chap played the squeeze box. I never found their religious music to be stirring or to inspire meditation. Perhaps I am just unaccustomed to it.

Outside on the white walls there were many memorial texts. These memorialised Sikhs who had since passed away. Some would be to army units. ”This plaque is to commemorate our brave jawans of the Sikh Regiment who most nobly laid down their lives for their beloved Mother Indian in the Second Indo -Pak War” and so forth.

I led Nathalie and Sarah there after I had been there myself. Sarah slipped on the smooth white stone near the gate to the whole complex. She was not badly hurt.

On the bridge to the holy of holies a young man touched Nathalie;s back. I paused. Do I say something to him? Before I could interject she smiled at him contemptuously, ”funny yeah.” He was amused. Nothing else happened. It was not exactly sexual harassment but then men and women do not touch each other in India unless they are family or married. This made Nathalie feel uncomfortable – it invaded her space. It was not a privy region of her body. She and Sarah later told me they were much more worried about rape in the UK than India.

A lot of people slept on the floor around the tank. Many youths gathered there. I heard the army was recruiting more men. There had been intermittent fighting against Pak that year. No one spoke of full blown war.

That evening I went to the Hari Mandir again with the JAP and a few other tourists. I knew more about the place and Sikhism than any of the others. A group of Sikh boys gathered. They were fascinated by us and turned on by the girls. Golda was excited but perhaps felt menaced. ”Stop it already!” It was an unseemly outburst so far as Indians are concerned. Young women in India tend to be very demure. Golda had no reserve even by American standards. An older Sikh gentlemen politely told us that our presence was problematic and we were attracting too much attention. Would we mind leaving and coming back another time? He was very diplomatic and reasonable. We acceded to his request.

I had a long conversation with Golda. I referred to her country as the USA. She disliked that. Say the US. She was studying at Yeshiva University and she was a passionate Zionist. I was sympathetic towards Israel at the time but in our dialogue I made many criticism of Israel. I hope I was not too hard on Israel. She said it was right to Zionists to take that land. ”The Arabs have lots of countries.”

Later I was alone in a room reading. Nathalie came and lay down a few metres away. She started chatting to me in a coquettish manner. She sweet talked me and nudged closer. I moved closer to her. I was taking the bait! I became very turned on. I moved to kiss her but she pulled back. She strung out the seduction. Then finally she let me snog her. Then she moved off. What a piity. There was nowwhere to shag her.

Later I went to a restaurant with Nathalie and Sarah. Two more British girls came along. I shall name them Marjorie and Clare. Marjorie was short, porcine and plain. She had a Brunhilde hairstyle and was reading Medicine somewhere. She was still fuckable. Clare was leggier and much better looking. I do not especially go for tall ones. Clare was at Cambridge and had won a journalism prize. That was funding her trip. She was self-effacing and scintillating. I made not so veiled references to having snogged Nathalie and said how she fancied me rotten. Nathalie was having none of it. I was crass. What good did I think would come of it?

Nathalie left the next day. I kept in touch by email. I hoped to meet and shag her but never got to. Perhaps tjat is a good thing. She had told me she took drugs sometimes. A couple of years later she was living in Oxford doing a Drama course. I contacted her but she chose not to meet me. She was living with a boyfriend there.

After three days in the Golden Temple our time there was up. That is as long as one can stay. We made a small cash donation. It gave me a very positive opinion o the Sikhs.

Susumu and I went to the station. We got  very early morning train to Delhi. We were on wooden seats.

A little boy and girl came to perform. The boy had a moustache painted on. These kids were aged about 8 and they did a song and dance routine. I found it annoyimng at stupid o clock but Susumu thrilled to it. He said in Japan they could make a lot of dosh.

There was a little park not far off. Apart from that there was nothing to see.

About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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