My life has not changed at all. As in the last ten years, it is blessed by the stars and eschewed by the men. Be not afraid if time passes and there is no word from me, be not anxious by the tram-station nor blue when you're playing, because I have taken my destiny in my own hands. I have thought in light-years and I have suffered in seconds.
Of course, this is the right way to write. It’s better to add ‘it seems’ to the sentence ‘the author is saying such and such’ because you can never be sure of what the author is saying. But as long as the nature of the interpretation remains untouched, it remains pure rhetoric. Brilliant theories expressed in anti-intellectual rhetoric (Nietzsche, Baudrillard) remain every bit as influential. Whether you are respectful or not, whether you add ‘it seems’ or not, is almost completely irrelevant, because all the ethical weight of the idea is carried by the way and extent to which said idea changes the world around you. You may be ostracised by the intellectuals if you don’t follow their rhetoric and write like an unsubtle oaf (see Terry Eagleton’s response to Dawkins), or you may be called an incomprehensible snob if you do follow those conventions, but the personal reputation of the speaker (i.e., which ‘club’ he belongs to) is not the measure of the idea’s value. If the idea is useful and finds its applications, it will exert influence in ways which are not necessarily in harmony with the rhetoric used to express it. In other words: if you’re willing to pass for an idiot, you can really change the world.
For what it's worth, and if anyone has failed to notice, I’ve been writing in exactly the above style for all of these meditations.
The type of rhetoric employed has no bearing on the validity of an argument. You can employ intellectual rhetoric and be wrong, and you’ll still be an intellectual. But then, in the humanities, where propositions lack verifiability, there is no such thing as being right or wrong. There is only the power of your statement and position, and the degree of said power.
The virtue of saying ‘I don’t know’ is humility. But we must be careful here: there is a very important difference between humility and what is only the rhetoric of humility.
And so we may go back to our old friend:
The correct answer is D. You do not ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ Ulysses. You belong to it, or you do not. You belong to the culture, the education, the preparation which allowed for and are simultaneously the product of Ulysses. And that’s what you’re really answering when you say ‘I like…’ (Besides, going by my personal memory of it, if I had to choose an adjective to describe the novel it would be neither ‘beautiful’ nor ‘outrageous,’ neither ‘boring’ nor ‘clever'. I think what I’d go for would be ‘bizarre’ – very bizarre. Maybe that will count for something).
According to Rorty, Kant did the same thing before Joyce but in another discipline, because you could no longer claim to be a professional philosopher if you hadn’t mastered the first critique. He institutionalised philosophy.
I should close this long sequence of meditations with the great absentee from all of my discussions: Finnegans Wake. Did I like it? Well, I have not yet read this one. I’ve been asked whether I’ll ever deign to read it. Why wouldn’t I? Not because it’s hard work, because I’ve already undergone that preparation, and not out of lack of interest, because it looks like a really intriguing text. In fact, I probably will read it, but not in the near future, and this for a reason very different from my not wanting to. The actual reason is, much more simply, that it has some tough competition to get on my reading list. Finnegans Wake, like Ulysses, belongs to a genre we may refer to as the Great Classics, or the Great Bores – those books which are simultaneously pillars of our culture and also very long and very hard. I am estimating that there’s fifty to one-hundred and fifty such books in Western literature, depending on how strict your categorization is, of which I have read perhaps ten. Now all of these books are very well publicised and all of them elicit my interest, so the question for me is not ‘should I read Finnegans Wake,’ because my answer is an unconditional yes. My question is, ‘when should I read it, and why should I read it before its peers?’ Unfortunately, there’s a few Great Classics/Bores which have been given more and better publicity than the Wake, and the ignorance of which leaves greater holes in my general intellectual culture. Consider me a consumer convinced by the competition, then, because Joyce’s masterpiece is going to have to wait. If you support this book, then maybe you should reconsider your sales policy.
There is no innocent position. Even those who claim that it is possible to say ‘I do (not) like Ulysses’ without taking positions, are already taking positions. They belong to the group who are ‘for’ Ulysses. They deny the idea that Ulysses requires preparation, because they already have that preparation – and therefore they are claiming that what they have is not ‘preparation’ at all, but the normal condition of things. People who are against Ulysses claim that they are the normal guys, who should not be expected to do the ‘hard work’ of reading it, while those who are in favour claim themselves to be the normal ones, because you don’t need anything in particular to enjoy Ulysses.
Ulysses is a mark of belonging. It asks, ‘do you belong to our clan?’ And saying that you do or do not like the novel is one form of answering yes or no. Ulysses is the keyword one needs to give to the gate-keepers to be allowed into the village. Those outside form their own clan. They need it to survive.
As an aside, one may complain that it took me more than twenty ‘chapters’ to actually start discussing the text itself, rather than its reputation. But what could I possibly write as a way of close-reading that has not already been said, and better, by the academics? As I mentioned, Ulysses has given way to a golden era of academic criticism and analysis. Other than Shakespeare, I don’t know if there’s an author in the English language with more books of criticism behind him/her than Joyce.
The intellectual world has been given a gold-mine by Joyce – that, and a password. If you read Ulysses, then you are or aspire to be an intellectual, implicitly. And so this is the clan to which the novel gives access. Of course this is why it is so flustering to an undergraduate, above all others. S/he is, after all, an aspiring intellectual. Joyce poses the conditions for that. There’s other novels which are ‘hard work,’ but they are not hard work which you are expected to do, because they are not keywords for being an intellectual. And undergraduates are expected to become intellectuals (once they graduate). After all, these other books are only ones among several; they are not the final book, they are not the key book, and therefore they are not the key-word. Ulysses is the final book; and what is beyond the final book? The reward of the books, the one you have always been seeking in all the books you have been reading, and after all, this one contains them all. The covers of Ulysses are like the gates. You can be before it or beyond it.
‘Intellectual’ is not to be confused with ‘intelligent.’ That is not what I am talking about at all. Intelligence is not a club; it is an aristocracy. As with ‘talent’ and ‘looks,’ you do not gain access to it, regardless of the keywords or exchange items you may possess. If society sees you as an intellectual, that is a position of power; if they see you as intelligent, that is a position of privilege.
The intellectual is defined by his/her rhetorical register, one which is a direct reflection of Ulysses (and, to some extents, one which was produced by that selfsame novel). This rhetorical register is one of the things they teach you in academia, alongside the critical skills (in the literary departments, anyway). It is the register you find in the writings of Derrida or Barthes. Much like Ulysses does not settle on a final anything, so the rhetoric of the intellectual mitigates all forms of finality or conclusiveness. You do not say, ‘this statement is wrong.’ You say, ‘the statement seems incautious.’ The verb ‘to be’ is consistently replaced with verbs of appearance: it seems, it appears, it would look like this author is stating such and such. When speaking of a poem or a novel, the most general and widespread synonym you can find for ‘good,’ and the only one which will always apply to all texts regardless of period or genre, is ‘subtle.’ The Aeneid is incredibly subtle, Eliot’s metaphors are particularly subtle (I have never encountered ‘clear’ as a statement of merit).
Default academic register is the first person plural. ‘We shall now consider,’ ‘we shall go on to discuss,’ ‘we cannot help but notice…’ It is the same mark of belonging as that of Ulysses. ‘Perhaps’ is the queen word of intellectual discourse. This is perhaps the greatest poem of the modernist period, perhaps the greatest intellectual paradigm shift of the century was psychoanalysis, no theorist compares to him other than perhaps Aristotle. Clearly, statements of deferral abound: I can’t give a complete answer to the questions this raises, we do not have the space to discuss the full implications of, and shit yo. It’s also custom to say that ‘the boundaries of these two issues are blurred.’
If you cannot choose words other than ones with ‘final’ implications, you suspend their value by means of quotation marks (as I’ve just done). So Joyce will be writing an ‘epic,’ and tragedy will be a discussion of the ‘truth,’ and we will be the ‘spectators’ for the unfolding of ‘history’ (this trend was very much in vogue a few years ago, but thankfully it seems to be dying out). There is never such a thing as a final, discernible reason or social use for starting a thesis. Rather, it is attributed to a candid emotion: what interests me or intrigues me or fascinates me about this proposition… (or, when you condemn it: this concerns me).
One general term to say that a text is bad is to say that ‘it is problematic.’ This leads to some extraordinary rhetorical turns. In the great tradition of deconstruction, the act of identifying the problem is already the solution. Generally, the ‘problems’ of a text are posed by the act of analysis in the first place. As ‘problems,’ they do not have solutions: but they allow for the act of staging the ‘interpretation’, which is already the redemption to the problems posed by the text. The problems themselves are retrospective products of their own solution. In fact, this is why they do not have solutions: because they are solutions in the first place, albeit disguised as problems. A rhetorical question is its own answer. Rhetorical problems are just one version of rhetorical questions. And this kind of intellectual rhetoric employs problems, questions, issues, fallacies of all sorts.
And so on so forth. A person who masters this rhetoric is an intellectual.
The last entry is coming tonight or tomorrow, fellas. A brief post to wrap it all up.
On a simpler level, a difference between Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the reason why I prefer the novel by Marquez, is that the latter makes its teleological statement through canons which are far closer to the traditional way of reading the novel – the old ideas of adventure novels, or romantic novels, or war novels. The stories within One hundred years, if enucleated from their original text and stylistically re-polished, could well become the substance for works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas or Emily Bronte. From this point of view, Marquez’s masterpiece does exactly what I am looking for in a novel, as it takes me to lands and times I could never imagine and showers me with constant wonders. Perhaps this accounts for the ease and the success with which magic realism has been picked up in South America. From Allende and Esquivel to Sepulveda and Coelho, I have yet to read a South American novelist without finding the fingerprints of Marquez everywhere. Notably, these authors are also very successful, and their books are international bestsellers (not always deserving their honours, in my view, but then the same is true of many acclaimed writers).
Mark Harkin asks, ‘What about the spawn of Ulysses, the fiendishly difficult novels that came in its wake decades after, those which weren’t really worth the reader’s effort?’ This is a funny comment – I’ve never encountered these novels that he is talking about. I know of writers who have clear debts with Joyce, but these are people whom I very much enjoy (Faulkner) or who are held in very high esteem (Gadda, Pynchon). That said, if the above statement is true, then it makes for a very obvious point of divergence between Marquez and Joyce – as I mentioned above, One hundred years kicked off a golden era for the South American novel, with astonishing peaks of popularity in the ‘offshoots’ of his writing. I’m not sure what to make of this difference either way.
Besides, there is no doubt that Ulysses kicked off a golden era for literary and academic criticism. Again, much like the Divine Comedy.
I mentioned that ‘what binds [Ulysses and the Divine Comedy] is the teleological intent, the writing of a text that includes all possible texts, and is therefore final.’ Of course, the Divine Comedy was anything but final. It inaugurated Italian literature in every way that matters, including the fact that Dante chose to write in the vulgar tongue rather than in Latin. Now this was seen as scandalous only because it grated with the teleological intent (and the apocalyptic power of this choice must have been apparent even back then). When the Divine Comedy is the final text, the language in which it is written becomes the final language. This officially sanctioned the death of Latin.
One hundred years and Ulysses are both ‘final’ texts. They represent landmarks, simultaneously ending and inaugurating literary seasons. But One hundred years does not compel you to respond. You do not hear undergraduates ranting out loud about ‘who’s crazy enough to read One hundred years from cover to cover’ or wondering why Marquez can’t just write ‘about the simple life, about expressing his feelings’. There are two possible reasons for this. 1.) Obviously, the fact that One hundred years is a novel in the more traditional sense, one which can be read by a child, and arguably an easy and entertaining read throughout. It’s not ‘hard work,’ so what is there to rant about? 2.) More likely, a cultural question. The ‘responsibility’ of Ulysses is far weaker outside of the English-speaking world. Students in France feel a greater compulsion to respond to Proust, for instance. It is plausible to imagine that One hundred years is expected reading in the intellectual world in South America, albeit with lower resistance on account of not being such hard work.
Ulysses is a story which includes all possible stories. This is, of course, what makes it hard to criticise it: your criticism is already included in the novel.
The thing is that Ulysses brings together specification and generalisation. It includes specific rhetorical registers which seem to ‘say’ something, but it immerses them in a generalised collection of voices. This means that none of the voices in Ulysses is the ‘final’ voice, the authoritative one. This is what makes the novel itself final. Any ‘final’ statement made by another novel will be included, as a possibility, in Ulysses, while any other ‘collection of statements’ will be no more than a repetition of Ulysses. Naturally this is only theoretical; the novel doesn’t actually say all that can be said, but it stages singularity on a neutral plane (specification/generalisation), and this act of ‘staging’ is what makes the novel final. Ulysses is the final stage where all voices can come and play out, even the ones which are potentially not included in the novel.
And the specification/generalisation duality makes any final judgment on the novel impossible (or ‘rash,’ as we put it in ii.). I am using ‘judgment’ as a loose term to refer to acts of categorisation. Whatever you say about it (or against it) cannot be conclusive, because the novel includes the opposite of itself. It is at once mundane and heroic, modern and classical, constitutive and satirical, normative and destabilising, idealistic and pragmatic, romantic and cynical, transcendent and immanent. This is what makes it so difficult to say ‘I don’t like Ulysses’. Because you cannot possibly qualify such a statement: whatever you bring up against it, it can be pointed out to you that the novel is saying (or doing) the opposite.
More: saying ‘I don’t like’ a novel is usually just a form of qualifying your taste. But saying ‘I don’t like Ulysses’ is never a neutral comment. It is a statement of ideology. The undergraduate who says that this novel is ‘rubbish’ is so adamant and pejorative because he is identifying his ideological position – he is waving his flags. As we said, one is for or against. There is no innocent position.
Ulysses compels you to respond. Virginia Woolf famously bashed the novel after she finished it (the prototype of the undergraduate). But the question is, why did she finish it? Depending on your edition, Ulysses is 700 to 900 pages long. Usually, if you find a book as intolerable and worthless as she claimed it to be, you don’t go on beyond the first 100 pages – not when it’s so uncompromisingly bulky, anyway. Her story is common. It is not surprising that, when the novel was published, it was given some very scathing reviews. What’s surprising is just how many reviews it was given. In their numbers, they are simply not commensurate to a novel as bad as the reviews almost concordantly claimed it to be.
Did I think that Ulysses was hard work? Yes, very much so.
Did I think that Ulysses was boring? I cannot say this of the book as a whole. There were some chapters which I thoroughly enjoyed (Aeolus, Sirens and Nausicaa, off the top of my head), and others which I did find very tedious (Scylla and Charybdis, Wandering Rocks, Circe). I had a similar experience with the Bible, another very irregular text which alternated sequences of great beauty and entertainment with real mud-ponds where movement was close to impossible.
I’d like to go back to that statement I made on people enjoying this novel intellectually rather than emotionally. Rash as it was and way off as a generalisation, I don’t feel like revoking it completely. I think what I was talking about was the way in which I enjoy novels. My favourite novels are usually brief or semi-brief ones which pack a powerful emotional punch. Animal Farm, A Broken Woman, Of Mice and Men, All Quiet on the Western Front, Portnoy’s Complaint, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These books made me cry, or they made the hairs on my arm stand on end, or they made me laugh out loud, or they sent shivers down my spine. Animal Farm made me visibly morose and depressed for a full week from the moment I put it down. (Notably, longer novels by the same authors, like The Grapes of Wrath or I Married a Communist are not quite so high in my estimation). Now the point is that I never got anything of the sort from Ulysses. My intellect was very much involved with the material, but there was never a scene where I wept, or laughed out loud, or felt my heart accelerating. At no point did the reading translate itself into visible signs on my body, other than a couple of erections in the Penelope chapter. Perhaps I’m just talking about physical reactions, but these are usually the result of extraordinarily intense emotional feelings, which are very rare when I read literature (less so with film, which appeals directly to the senses), and I didn’t get them from Ulysses. But then, I recognise that this is very subjective.
Of course, the reason why one may find Ulysses boring goes straight to the question of ‘the way in which we enjoy novels.’ Personally, I like novels which can turn me into a child again, and give me the sense of transport I experienced fifteen years ago when reading the adventure books by Willard Price or the thrillers by Michael Crichton. I want a novel to take me to far-away lands, or in distant epochs, or in the middle of bizarre and unusual characters, or at the crossroads of history. If I want more inspirational reading, stuff which makes me feel like an adult, usually I turn to poetry. Ulysses is about exactly the opposite of that type of novel. Of course the idea of adventure is in there by metaphor and intertext and reference, but the story itself (in terms of the contents of the actual diegesis), is the most mundane thing you can imagine. As one of my friends put it, “I read the novel as simply the best Everyman story there is. Leopold Bloom is even better than Homer Simpson.” This is an appreciation which I’ve heard and read many times, but alas, what works for some people doesn’t for others. I read novels to get out of the everyman and the everyday, not to revel in it. This is the reason I’m also quite indifferent to novels by Jane Austen or EM Forster, which also deal with very ordinary events. Or if a novel really has to be about situations in which nothing really happens, then I like it when it can do something like Fight Club or Nausea, and distil shock from flat waters. The funny thing is that the referent for Joyce’s novel, that is to say, the Odyssey, is the mother of all adventure novels, and one of my very favourite stories out there.
But the fact that I’m indifferent to Austen and Forster doesn’t mean that I’m indifferent to Joyce. As I said, one has to take a stance. The only way to be indifferent to Ulysses is by not knowing it. This implies not having done the ‘preparation’ which is required to read the novel. Which brings us back to point ix: it’s unfair to criticize Ulysses for requiring hard work, because if you’re interested in reading Ulysses, then it means you’ve already undergone the hard work.
You can draw an interesting comparison between Ulysses and my own favourite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Joyceans likely scoff at the idea that you could compare Marquez’s novel with the monumental work of Joyce, and there’s no doubt that the Irishman’s work is much broader in scope and technical execution. But both novels are kaleidoscopic attempts to tell a story that includes all possible stories. Both novels, too, have been enormously influential. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘magic realism’ have become household items even outside academia, and traditions of ‘experimental’ and ‘historical’ novels have dominated the scene in the English and Spanish language respectively.
Of course, in terms of sheer complexity, Ulysses far outdoes One hundred years. In fact, the only work of literature I know which compares to Joyce’s novel for breadth of aspiration and achievement is the Divine Comedy, another ‘story to end all stories,’ also heavily and carefully structured, drawing all mythologies, real or imagined, into its single narrative. What binds these two texts is the teleological intent, the writing of a text that includes all possible texts, and is therefore final.
A sequence of reflections on the question 'Do you like Ulysses?' that will probably take me the whole week. Here goes!
There’s no way of writing this as a cogent article without falling into academic discourse. I think that aphoristic mini-chapters will prove more appropriate (if nothing else, more entertaining).
Do I like Ulysses, the novel by James Joyce? I recently had a remarkable discussion on facebook with some friends (students of Joyce, all of them), and there seemed to be a tacit assumption among my interlocutors: that I do not like Ulysses. At the core of this assumption was a rather rash statement I once made at the pub, reported as follows: ‘No-one actually enjoys Ulysses emotionally, do they – just intellectually.’ I’ll discuss this statement further on. I’m not retracting it, but it’s definitely rather rash. Though of course any judgment made on Ulysses is rather rash, by default. Including this one.
Did you like Dubliners? Yes. A very solid collection of short stories, technically brilliant, very colourful and consistently enjoyable.
Did you like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Decidedly disliked it. But then, I am normally averse to autobiographies unless the writer has spent twenty years in Tibet or been in a war, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why I should give a fuck about the guy’s life. The Portrait gives no such reason, because Stephen Dedalus spends the entire novel doing nothing, and eventually decides to withdraw from religion, politics, nationalism, and everything else. Exactly what he’s going to engage with is unclear. For all of the linguistic pyrotechnics, the assumption behind the book remains, ‘my life is so important because I am an artist.’ To the point of writing an entire novel dedicated to nothing but the ‘Portrait of the Artist’, aka a self-portrait. There’s probably plenty of people who find the book’s passages beautiful, but for my own part, the feeling of circularity and narcissism (and the typical, misleading confusion between artistic maturity and spiritual fulfillment) that belie the plot are just too disturbing to overlook.
Did you like Ulysses? Well, now...
Consider the following image.
Which of the answers is the right one?
Why would I not like Ulysses? Without plunging into denial: because it’s boring. Wait – is it? There’s plenty of passages in the novel which I read with a sense of great enjoyment. It may be more accurate to say that it has a reputation for being boring. Is this reputation deserved? That depends. There is a difference between something being ‘boring’ and something being ‘hard work.’ Anyone who sees the two things as synonymous will think, legitimately, that Ulysses is boring. But regardless of the kind of work it implies, we may answer the original question: one reason why I may not like Ulysses is that it is hard work. Is that a good reason?
Be it or not a good reason, something immediately jumps to notice– just the act of discussing the novel has led me to question my ideas and standards of literature. What is it that I enjoy in novels, and what are the ethical responsibilities of the reader (why should he engage in the ‘hard work’?) – these are both natural follow-ups to the above. This points to one of the major identifying features of Ulysses – its responsibility, intended as, its capacity to call, evoke, or demand a response. You must respond to Ulysses. Whether for or against, you must take a stance on it.
This leads to the continuous jack about Joyce that you get among undergraduate students of literature. Your first two years at university are usually the age you’ll get in contact with Ulysses (even read the whole thing, if you’re the smartass type). It’s one of the most common discussions in the hood – not on the novel’s meaning or its significance, but on whether it’s good or not. The most vocal of the students are usually those who insist it is rubbish – and in my five years within academia, I’ve met quite a lot of them (did my share of protesting too, I won’t hide). Not just mediocre or generally not very good, but outright rubbish, nonsense. They rebel, even fiercely, to the idea of having to do the ‘hard work.’ But this is the point – they have to respond. They need to qualify their rejection. And the pressure goes both ways – students are pressured to justify themselves because they are also pressured to read it. The problem is not that Ulysses is hard work, but the fact that it’s hard work that you’re expected to do. Ulysses compels you to respond.
Let’s examine for a second this notion that Ulysses is hard work. Is it true? One thing is certain – it presupposes a lot of background reading, even without counting the Odyssey, and if you haven’t gone through that, then you can’t read Ulysses. A child cannot be expected to read Ulysses, and people who don’t read much or even dislike reading can’t either. So preparing yourself to read this novel is hard work, if you are not already prepared.
If you are not the kind of person who is ‘prepared’ to read Ulysses – then you probably wouldn’t be trying to read it in the first place. So the argument is moot.
Those who have nothing to do with art should have nothing to do with art (Stanislaw Jerzy Lec). Similarly, Ulysses is NOT hard work only to those whose profession is literature (or art) in the first place. (And even then, of course, it’s not necessarily an easy ride. But more on this later).
Here's the last two entries. I made my way back North on a plane, reaching Jaipur first, then Agra, then back to Delhi - the Golden Triangle, as it is known. Jaipur and Agra are popular tourist destinations, and I'm glad I saved Agra for last. Oh yeah, the Lariam (mentioned in the Jaipur entry) is a pill I was taking every week to protect myself from malaria. There's no vaccination against this particular disease, alas.
I reached Jaipur late at night and left it early in the morning, which allowed me for only one full day of exploration.
Jaipur is lovely, though the Pink City should be renamed Orange City (either that or I need a test to figure out whether I’m colour-blind). This was a real tourist town, with camels and elephants everywhere. I went to the City Palace, which was nice, and then to the Amber Fort, which was much more remarkable. No photo can ever do justice to that place. It is a huge complex of walls and buildings, red or white, climbing up and down the hills. I tried to walk to the nearby forts as well, but eventually decided the enormous distance was not worth the effort.
I went shopping instead. I purchased a pasmina for my mother and a silver ring for myself. Now I have to find something for my father.
I went to bed early, given that my train was at 06:10 the next morning. Even so, I got little sleep. The Lariam, for the first time in a few weeks, gave me such a strong nausea that I had trouble drifting away. The price to pay to protect oneself from malaria. Amen.
I cannot think of a monument which left me as breathless as the Taj Mahal. A truly astounding work of architecture. The three-dimensional effect which it produces upon walking towards it is hypnotic. The appearance of the monument itself, white like a bride, is a highly unusual combination of straight-angled shapes and domes, and the harmony of scales between these figures is something quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. But I see that I am already slipping into rhetoric. It is hard to impress me with buildings, because I know little of architecture and, also, because I have seen so many. The Taj must go down in memory as one of the most outstanding. More than that cannot be said.
Similarly, little can be said about the rest of Agra, though in this case the legitimisation lies in the fact that there’s fuck-all to do in the city. The Taj Nature Walk is a waste of time – a handful of flowers arranged around a path, then you can climb over the fence and keep walking into a wasteland of dirt and bushes. I went to the Agra Fort, but by then I was really starting to run low on money (the Taj costs an insane 750 rupees to visit, about three times as much as most other monuments). I saw the Fort from the outside and it was really beautiful, but it also looked identical to all the other forts I’ve seen from Delhi to Hyderabad, so I chose to save my money and get back to Delhi in tranquillity. This I did, after a few hours reading Twilight at the train stations. Thank God for books. Journeys of this kind would really be impossible without them.
It looks like I am at the end. Tonight I have a dinner with Ashwini, Callie and Winnie. I spent the whole day resting. Tonight my plane is at 03:00 a.m.
Second entry on Goa, straight on from that monstrous first night.
I did wake up, and though I didn’t eat anything until nightfall, I found the strength to drag myself to the beach. There, I took unexpected pleasure in the local water rides – basically balloons on which you sit as a boat tugs you over the waves for two minutes. A modest roller-coaster on water. One of them was called ‘the banana boat’, and you’re supposed to let go of your grip when it capsizes on the waves, so as to enjoy a dive in the sea. I did this, and my head was slammed against the water with such violence that, when combined with the hangover, it gave me the most epic migraine you can imagine.
At night we went to a music bar called Curlie’s. The music was excellent – powerful techno/house stuff – but no-one was dancing. The only exception was this bald, bare-chested, heavily tattooed, Tibetan-looking guy who was obviously out of it like a balcony. When Ashwini started going frantic again because we didn’t have any weed, I asked the Tibetan and he duly supplied us with some hash. I talked Ashwini out of his suicidal aspirations (the guy wanted to smoke there and then, but we’d come on a rented bike, and I told him that riding back in the dark, without helmets, a double load, in unfamiliar roads and furthermore high was not my idea of how best to reach old age), then we went home and smoked: on the roof of our house and, later, on the beach, watching the stars. At my insistence, we sat on a sort of natural step made of sand, which the sea had sculpted as a natural confine between dry and wet land, and where, I declaimed, ‘no wave could surely reach us.’ When the first surge of water rocketed onto our ridge at forty miles an hour as we happened to be holding our necks craned backwards to look at Orion, I barely managed to leap away like a puma, but Ashwini was not quite so fortunate, and he ended up soaked. He was slightly incensed thereafter.
As in Mumbai, I was taken off-guard by how strong the stuff was. Maybe it was just a variety that my body is not accustomed to, but after two joints I couldn’t hold up a conversation with my partner. It felt as though every word he said to me came with a time-lag of twelve seconds.
The next day was much a repeat of the first, with air-borne parachutes taking the place of balloons to be tugged by boats. As the sun went down we smoked, and Ashwini wanted to go to Curlie’s. I was uncomfortable with the idea of riding on the newly-rented scooter when high (I even took it around a bit myself during that day, proving what I have always argued: that even though I don’t possess a licence, I am perfectly capable of driving), so I suggested we let our heads clear on the beach for half an hour. There, we took two beds and started ordering beers, and that was the end of it. By the end of the night we’d imbibed so many Kingfishers and played so many drinking games that A. started feeling ill, couldn’t eat the food he’d just ordered, and we went home, where we collapsed without even smoking the second joint. The next day I was kind of sick again, though not nearly as bad as two days previous.
My impression of Goa has little of original, if anything at all. It is a land of dirt tracks and low houses, heavily oriented towards the outsiders, full of palm-trees and sunlight, and with a robust sea, thick and Indian, giving away the Caribbean garbs for what they are: camouflage.
Next stop after Mumbai were the beaches of Goa, which - I'd been told - were the best beaches within a thousand miles as well as a stoner's heaven. I'd planned it with Ashwini to get to this place during a weekend so he could join me for it, and we made this a proper time to relax. For once I didn't spend six hours a day roaming about, instead I just sat on the beach for three days straight, bathing, sunbathing, reading, getting massages, playing around and partying at night. I was so chilled for three days, in fact, that I didn't even update my journal - that's why the current entry was written in Jaipur.
It wasn't very culturally edifying, but it was probably the best three days of my three weeks in India (in fact I came back saying that next time I'd just spend all three weeks in Goa). I wrote two entries about Goa because I had to retrospectively sum up three full days, this is the first one, the next will be up tomorrow.
After an extensive walk through Mumbai, at a rate rather ponderous due to the fact that I was carrying my luggage on my back, and inclusive of a brief visit to the Bazaar (larger in its presentation but otherwise not very different from the other markets in India), I hopped on my train and headed to Goa. Or, Magdaon, as the station is called.
Goa is a tropical paradise. I felt as though I’d returned to the Caribbean, but with a more picturesque setting and a less crystalline sea. It was also full of Westerners – apparently February is a good time to visit Goa, just after the peak season of Dec/Jan. On the bus to Calangute Beach I met some tourists (Indians in this case, from Mumbai) and asked for their assistance in finding a place to sleep, seen how they were looking for one too. It turns out to be an easy task; a man is waiting for us practically the moment we step off the bus.
Once I have the place, I take a walk to learn how to orient myself. Then I purchase a swimming suit, get changed at home and plunge in the sea. It is lovely. At home, I wait for Ashwini as the evening deepens, reading. He arrives, and immediately gets into an argument with the owner because he deems the price is too high. We decide to stay there two nights (as I’ve already paid) rather than the full three.
Ashwini is very eager to get hold of some weed, but the stuff they try to sell us in town looks bad. He suggests that we get drunk instead, and I acquiesce – something I’d come to regret, later. We purchase a bottle of whisky (‘One hundred pipers’) and walk home. By the beach, where the view of the stars is grandiose and pristine, I tell him stuff about the constellations, though in this sky I can only find Orion. Cassiopeia and the Great Bear make but brief apparitions to the North.
We do get drunk that night, mixing the whisky with water. We walk back to town, meet some drunkards on the beach, chat for a bit, go home and get to sleep. What a hellish night that was. I slept three hours, then woke up in pangs of stomach pain, went to vomit, went back to bed, slept fitfully, woke up to vomit again, froze under the covers due to the air-conditioning, and repeatedly woke up again to take a shit – I had, at last, contracted a real diarrhoea. The next day, I felt like I didn’t even want to wake up.
I cannot discuss Mumbai without first sending out a huge thank you to Ratul Chakraborty, who hosted me for two nights while I was there. You made my permanence in that city immensely easier and more enjoyable. Said it once, I'll say it again: I owe you one, bro.
My entry for this city closes kind of in medias res. I was at a beach when I wrote it and after that I spent hours walking around the city (carrying my bag AND with the sprained ankle - bloody hell). I would have written something about that walk, which was wonderful despite the fatigue, but after Mumbai I ended up in Goa and I had a four/five-day break from my diary, so I kind of flew over that. I also give a very rough account of that night out in the city, which was pretty crazy (once I was drunk I pretended I was a medium here to exorcise a ghost, and I gave a spiritual reading to a recently-wed couple who were sold on it so completely that I began wondering if I didn't really possess occult powers). But it wasn't much different from many a fun night I've had back in old Europe, so I liquidated it with a couple of lines and concentrated on the day journeys instead. I still think that's very much for the best, given I must have tens of thousands of words in other entries on this blog about times in which I get tanked.
Mumbai is the most beautiful of the cities I have seen so far, or at least so it seems to me. It is certainly the most Western. I felt very comfortable in this city, and even the food was excellent. Upon my arrival at Ratul’s offices (an impressive rectangular curving building made of dark glass and steel), he took me to a restaurant at a nearby hotel. Increasingly I get the impression that hotels here serve a purpose similar to that of commercial malls in Europe. The restaurant was a classy and expensive self-service and the food was delicious, and Ratul took the bill – as he did that of the taxi, and, later, that of the beers. His kindness was mind-boggling, and also exceedingly welcome – I am running low on money and his contributions did a great deal to help me.
The next day I purchased some food in the streets. Some kind of a bread-ball with spicy mashed potato as filling – a small, fist-shaped sandwich, basically. Absolutely fantastic. I had two and then some sugar-cane juice.
On the first day I chilled out with Ratul and we went out that night for some beers with a few friends of his. I almost got carried off by an American and his own group of Indians to spend the whole night drinking, but when the guy lost his wallet and the night seemed to lose impetus (at the same rate as I sobered up, just about), I chose to take a taxi and go home.
On my second day, I took the local overground – even more cramped and combative than the tube in Delhi, it’s like a war-zone over here – down to Churchgate Station, whereupon I walked towards the docks, surprised at how Western everything looked. Even the traffic seemed slightly more urbane.
I saw the Gate of India and the gigantic Taj Mahal Hotel, then took a boat to the Elephanta caves. I landed on an island full of monkes, goats, dogs, some cows, and an infinity of tourist-stands. Climbing the island, I could visit the famous caves, where effigies from more than 1300 years ago had been carved in stone. The place was beautiful and felt very primal.
It took me two hours and a half to get home. Very boring. Ratul suggested we watch the Arsenal – Liverpool game, which was on at one a.m. local time, and he offered me some dope in the meantime. His friends had monopolized the laptop and were putting bland Pink Floyd or death metal videos. I’m not sure what to make of the local grass. I smoked half the joint on my own and I could barely feel it at first, but a few hours later I was so fucked that the air-waves from the fan on the ceiling were freaking me out because I couldn’t understand what they were when they brushed on my skin.
Eventually I passed out before the end of the match.
Today I woke up and watched the American tournaments of ice-skating while having breakfast. How graceful the girls were.
I left after that, picked up my bag at Ratul’s office, and now I’m here, in Chowpatty beach. The view is beautiful, as the beach is ringed by the city’s skyscrapers, but the sea looks horrendous to bathe in. It is brown and muddy.
My train tonight is at 11 p.m. I’ll spend the rest of this day walking around in the general direction of the station, as I usually do.
Sent some postcards today. They should get home about the same time as myself.
The entry on Hyderabad is a bit thin - I didn't have much time since I was tending to the foot injury (see below), but I felt that a more accurate representation would be no more than a report of the various monuments/museums I saw, and that seemed a bit arid. The text was written on the train taking me to Mumbai, called the Mumbai express - hence the title. For the record, this was the most central point of arrival in my journeys, geographically speaking. Hyderabad is one of the largest and most ancient cities in India, and it bore some similarities with Delhi and Mumbai - huge, bustling, and not really oriented towards tourism (which is exactly what made it so beautiful).
As for Hyderabad, the city was beautiful. The Charmindar, the Chambawalla palace and the Golconda Fort were all phenomenal. The Salaar Jung Museum and the Buddha statue were a little less memorable, but overall the city was definitely worth the visit.
It also proved rather unlucky. On my first day, while hopping down the final steps of the Charmindar, I twisted my ankle. Very painful. The people working at the monument helped me treat the injury, and were exceedingly kind. Furthermore they would not take any money, something which impressed and surprised me – I thought I was in their bad books because they’d offered me a guided tour for 250 rupees and I’d argued it down to 100. I purchased some medication at a pharmacy and went back to the hotel.
I’d booked a tour with a driver for the next day. Walking the extense of the Golconda Fort with the strain was a bitch, but I took frequent pauses and managed to limp my way through most everything, including the hill.
As in Delhi and Chennai, I was often stopped by groups of local young men who asked me to take a photo with them. What an odd thing – are we Europeans really so rare here? When walking down the steps of the Fort, I crossed a school-trip. Literally hundreds of girls in their little blue uniforms. I paused and sat on a boulder to rest my sore foot, and as the procession streamed by, they repeatedly asked me my name and country of origin. A group of them grew bolder and stopped to make further enquiries. Soon I was surrounded by these twelve-year-old girls eager to speak with the local attraction. It was one of the most amusing conversations in a while. They taught me a few words in their language and squeaked collectively whenever I pronounced one of them correctly. They asked me what I thought of India too, and suggested a local dish which I should try – the Biriani, if I’m spelling this right. In the end their teacher succeeded in her breathless effort to wrench them from me, and they walked away upwards with me still laughing.
In Hyderabad I slept at a real hotel. Needless to say, the moment that I step into a place with a Western toilet, my metabolism – which in the guest houses and sleeper trains had been going at a rate of three turds a day – declares itself on strike and for 48 hours I don’t need to use the toilet. I should have known.
Mumbai is a few hours away. Next stop is with Ratul, a reader of my blog and articles online who offered me a place to stay. Who says that Internet writing doesn’t pay off?