That Wondrous Camino

Two months ago I returned from a trip to India in the worst emotional condition I had experienced since my teens.  I had made the mistake of going back to Darjeeling, where in my 20s I had spent several of the happiest months of my life. I was hoping to meet my Tibetan landlady (and lover) and her son, seven years old at the time I left. Darjeeling, 7,500 feet up in the Himalayas, was truly a jewel of the Raj, an exquisite town of Victorian houses and shops surrounded by tea plantations, facing the biggest massif in the Himalayan range. Not only was Dawa dead, so was her son in tragic circumstances. Forty-five years of rampant, random, cheapest-possible-option development has destroyed the jewel. Only traces remain. Other influences bearing down on me – isolation, the failure of my book to find a publisher, and more – were crushing the life, and faith, out of me. I found myself wishing for death, utterly heart-sick.

With desperation comes inspiration. I remembered that some people from my parish in Auckland had done a pilgrimage in Spain a couple of years ago. Yes! Within days I was in Burgos on the Camino Francés, chosen as a starting point to land me on Maundy Thursday in Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St James are believed to be held.


So God was looking after me after all. What a wondrous, magical thing is the Camino. Especially to do it in the way I and many others did it – alone on the walk, talking in the evening with kindred spirits. Or the opposite – both have their gifts when you’re in a watching and learning state of mind. 500 km, walking every day. With a 10 kilo pack on my back and my guitar slung over my shoulder I resembled a badly assembled dromedary. I crossed two mountain ranges, right up to the high spring snow line. Twice I walked almost 20 kilometres scarcely seeing another person. The old Roman road to Transalpine Gaul, the Via Aquitana, leading into the little village of Calzadilla des Hermanillos, leaves the vehicle roads completely and runs as a harsh, pebbly track straight across the high plains for a four-hour walk through nothing. No houses, no anything but scrub, broken forest and occasional wheat fields. And then, once or twice, the white bullet train appeared and rocketed by. I waved my stick around and leapt in the air like a madman, shouting “Praise God!” at the top of my lungs.  Pure impulse; it felt wonderful! Surely, liberation is simply the freedom to respond to impulse.

What an extraordinarily simple and beautiful thing it is to just walk every day. No wonder posties are always happy. Just drop into your rhythm, which in my case was precisely 120 steps per minute, 5 km/hr, and encounter whatever turns up, which is often nothing. Lovely, yummy, rich, meaningful nothing. Walking, thinking, praying, meditating, dictating poetry and ideas onto my phone, always walking, walking. Day after day after day. 

Distance comes to mean nothing – it’s all about time. In fact, the distance markers can be wildly unreliable. Shortly after the ´409km to Santiago´ sign I was photographed next to there was one saying 453 km! So you just walk. Unlike most, I didn’t have a guide book, just a print-out from a website which gave me a reasonable idea when I would find the next spot and whether there would be an albergué municipal, as they call the public pilgrims’ dormitories.

Of course there is so much beauty. So many remarkable sights. Like the Cruz de Ferro at the highest point of the Francés in the Léon Mountains. The +/- 9 metre pole surmounted by a simple iron cross dates back at least 1,000 years. The pile of stones at the base is maybe twenty metres long, six wide and four high, the product of a millennium, a pebble at a time. Tradition encourages pilgrims to leave a stone for some person or intention at the Cruz. I stuck a sharp little stone in a split in the pole to thank my dead mother for getting me there/here. (Too complicated and odd to explain.)

Going up to Cruz de Ferro was a hard climb. (But not the worst; that was to O Cebreiro in the Cordillera.) A remarkable thing: I approached the Cruz through cold mist and snow drifts, and literally as I walked away the clouds parted, the sun came out and ten minutes later I was descending through fields and the odd ruin basking in spring sunshine, the apple blossom thick on the trees and the air full of bird-song. It was exactly like the scene out of Shangri La where the travellers descended from a freezing, treacherous high pass in Tibet and found themselves in the land of perpetual spring. I came around a corner and wham! there in the distance was the full stretch of the snow-covered Cordillera. Just like that, completely unexpected. Beautiful. And then I slipped on an invisibly wet rock and smashed my guitar! The descent was wicked and falls are common. 

Up till then travelling with the guitar had been special. Almost no-one passes the first 100km of their walk with unnecessary weight, in fact there is a special postage rate to Santiago from anywhere on the Camino to accommodate the shedders. So the pilgrims really appreciated an evening with music. 

The Camino took my guitar but, typically, it returned it too, not only fixed but improved. I wrote to Camps, the manufacturers in Catalonia, with photos showing that only the table was broken and asking the cost of repair. Shocked by a two sentence reply saying it was uneconomic. For a €750 guitar! I didn’t believe them but had no idea who would affordably fix it. At English craftsman’s rates, assuming they would even be able to fix a flamenco guitar properly, it was a no go for me. But the albergué in Sarria, just over 100km out from Santiago, has walls and shelves full of woodcarvings made by the owners. Craftspeople. As I was leaving in the morning it occurred to me to ask them. Yes, there was a celebrated instrument maker just two blocks away! I checked it out as I went past. Closed. I knocked. No answer. Oh well. The urge to walk was irresistible, so off I went. Then I arrive at the albergué in Portomarin, my next stop, go to produce my credencial, the pilgrim’s passport which is stamped along the way. Not there! The one thing you do not want to lose, after your real passport, is your credencial. I call Luis and Beatriz at the Sarria albergué. Yes, they have it. Onto a bus back. The walk from the bus station takes me past the instrument maker’s workshop. Open! And yes, he will fix it, for $150, more or less. And he did. Incredibly well, and modified the bridge for more accurate tuning and a lower action into the bargain. I took a bus back to Sarria after Santiago, collected my beautiful new guitar and was treated to a performance on the xanfon, the traditional Galician hurdy-gurdy. Lust flared in my heart for the beautiful thing, made by Xerman’s own hands. Three thousand euros. Oh well…

Honestly, I could tell half a dozen such stories, as could most serious pilgrims. The only experience to which I can compare it is my time taking teachings from Lama Kalu Rinpoche. Like others on the same path, I found that things happened around me, unlikely stuff, to illustrate a point I was working on or to give me the sense that I was being looked after. Spooky? Believe it!

Finishing is hard. For most people there’s no apotheosis. You just stop at the Cathedral, and it’s over. The next day you feel wrong – you should be walking. For me it was a huge moment, engulfed with gratitude for the continuing existence of this ancient, holy, mysterious method of healing. I charged into the cathedral, tears streaming down my face, threw myself to my knees at the first pew and sobbed my heart out. No-one seemed to take any notice. I guess it’s common. 

The crying thing. Strange. I had this thing going on which I can only describe as splacxnomai, the Greek word in the New Testament usually translated as compassion, or sympathy when referring to Christ’s reaction to, for instance, the misery of the leper. But what it really means is a shaking of the bowels (the ‘noble’ bowels – heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.) I was very far from sad but cried at the drop of a hat. If the hat was hurt, so to speak.

They showed a clip of the Boston bombing on a TV in a bar, followed by a row of crosses memorialising the dead. Whoops! Here we go… Crying at television!! Crikey! It was a bit embarrassing, as you can imagine. But what goes with it is wonderful. Wonderful. I met another pilgrim, a devout Christian woman, in the cathedral at Santiago who was experiencing the same thing.

Sadly I feel my shell slowly growing back. Inevitable and probably necessary.

Now I’m back in Bristol, I’m well, and mainly I’m clear. Physically clear, like water from which everything has settled out. Of course, bump the jug enough and it goes muddy again, but the knowledge that the Camino is just a 24-hour bus and boat trip away means I will never get that desperate again. 

What a gift it is.  In Léon someone mentioned that of the 160 Holy Grails in Spain, two historians had just published a book establishing that in all likelihood the one at the Basilica of San Isidoro in Léon is the actual, real cup Jesus used at the last supper. I immediately jumped on the net and yes, it does seem very likely. So off I trotted to the Basilica, on the Camino so I had my full kit – backpack, guitar and baston, the pilgrim’s staff (endlessly useful, as it turns out). Said a little prayer, after which I was approached by the the delightful, elderly Fr Timeo. A musician? Yes. And a poet? Sometimes, yes. Aah, and a pilgrim. He launched into a paean to the saintliness of the pilgrim. I didn’t demur; it was making him happy. As far as I could tell, he was saying that we pilgrims benefited not only ourselves but all the faithful and we must be supported in every way. The basilica, he said, had a prayer group, a ‘spiritual army’ of twenty-four men and twenty-four women whose sole task was to pray for the well-being and safety of the Camino’s pilgrims. Words are cheap, you may think, but he followed through by insisting on buying me breakfast! I don’t usually eat breakfast, so I just ordered a coffee. No. I had to eat.  A croissant, then. He took nothing, having already eaten. I was deeply touched, although relieved when he left, my brain aching from the constant flow of Spanish.

And the grail? Unfortunately a) it was in the adjacent museum, not the church and b) big disappointment: since the book was published they have hidden the real one and have a copy on display. I asked at the desk and the attendant confirmed that it was actually in the building. It felt very strange and mystical, to be standing close to Christ’s cup. I returned to the basilica and prayed for my faith to be returned to me in its fullness.

And it was. Thanks be to God. And now I’m starting to cry. Oh well, that’s life these days. Joy.

Faith yes, but not religion. See: Oops. Lost the reference.

And now for the pictures atA first cut of pictures from my Camino


The Camino Mirrors My Life Back At Me – Even the Schoolyard

It was only my sixteenth day; I would have bet, with real money, that it would have been six or seven more. But time, like everything else, puts on a different face on the Camino, or rather shows its true face. It has been wonderful, terrible, gruelling, easy, profound, irritating, painful, joyful and even hurtful. Perhaps pilgrimage is the Christian route to the Buddhist blessing of instant karma – whatever you need to happen to reveal what you need to know the Camino serves up. You just need to be paying attention.

The last three days have been coloured, although not dominated, by … bullying, I suppose. The incomprehensibly cold shoulder.

Evening One: I am seated at a table reserved for pilgrims in the Benedictine abbey restaurant in Léon, buying the table d’hôte pilgrim meal. The waiter seats me beside a strikingly beautiful young Brazilian of German extraction; no intention on my part. We talk, and discover that she has put the exact same image of the Camino as the new header on her Facebook page as I have. Of the thousands of Camino images on the Net, this seems an extraordinary coincidence. She invites me as an FB friend. We spend the evening in one of those lovely, deep conversations that the Camino offers.


Two nights later I see her again in Rabana del Camino, the last stop before Cruz de Ferro. I stopped for a spot of tourism during the day and when I arrive she is already there, drinking with a handsome young American and two Australian gay men. We drink for an hour or so, big-time bonhomie all round. I play my guitar, the party cranks up, they leave to find more wine, but I just go to bed.

Over the following stretch I keep pace with the four of them – most people average 25km a day, so you tend to move in a loose cohort, seeing the same pilgrims repeatedly.

I say hi when I see them but … the blinds are down. The younger Aussie spends the first morning in blatant pursuit of the handsome American, who does a runner at lunchtime. From then on it’s a club of three and I am not included. It goes on for the next two days. At stops on the road, in the albergué at night, anything I say to them receives a closed response. Uh-huh. Hmmm.  By the end of the second day I stop trying. As I pull into the next town I see them gathered around a sign, checking out the map to find the albergué municipal. I say Hi and just keep walking. That night I’m put in a room with Hilary from the States, young Mary and old Joseph from Ireland. When I (Christopher) arrive Hilary derives great value from being with the Holy Family – Joseph, Mary and Christ, all Catholics. We have a riotous evening.

The next morning Justin the American-chaser passes me in the café and, for the first time in two days, acknowledges my existence with a ‘Hola’. I ignore him because I instinctively understand what’s going on.

They want me on the periphery, to define the boundary of their little clique. It’s no fun if you don’t have someone on the outside wanting in. My ignoring them was not part of the plan. This is so familiar – playground politics.

Later, as I enter Villafranca I pass the young Brazilian saying goodbye to the two Australians as they toddle off. I walk past, again having no interest in greeting them. But: I see no hugs, no love you, missing you already, be in touch, blah blah. Can the young woman’s earlier affection have waned?

It seems a little egocentric, but I can’t help wondering whether my lack of interest in knocking on the door of their little clique has taken the energy out of it. Or, perhaps she has developed a slightly guilty conscience, because my rejection has been very clear and, frankly, pretty hurtful.

The next day I run into her in a café in La Faba. She is effusive, says she is so happy to have caught up again. I am so delighted; I feel as if she has recovered from a bad trip.

Why did this happen? The only explanation I can come up with was that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

Hey – we’re the beautiful people, dahlings. We don’t want ugly, old people around.

It was a wonderful experience; a catharsis, laying the demons of the playground. I am, once more, profoundly grateful to the Camino.

PS: This post reached Justin, who essentially confirmed my conclusions in a cascade of increasingly abusive flaming posts on Facebook, culminating in ‘we didn’t want a crazy, middle-aged man following us around creeping us out.’

And yet, when I made a point of avoiding even the appearance of following them, he greeted me. Pleased to attract the ‘middle-aged’ though. Some people would call sixty-six old. 🙂

Poor India – What Price the Raj?

India. What a place. A country the British built and the populace wrecked. I know, I know. Colonialism is evil. One country should never rule another. This is Holy Writ in the politically correct world of the 21st century.  But just keep reading.

The Brits made plenty of mistakes in their first hundred or so years, and not just errors but acts of greed and ill will. The Rebellion of 1857 didn’t happen for nothing.

But their response to the uprising was simply extraordinary, and reveals the British as masters of the art of colony-building. They poured massive resources into creating a highly educated class which would effectively run India for them – the Indian Administrative Service. Now the Indian Civil Service, a vast sink of corruption and nepotism which daily sucks the lifeblood from the country. Bravo.

By the turn of the 20th century, having established top-quality schools modelled on Eton and military and engineering colleges of equal quality, the British were doing their very best to rule the country as well as they could. Of course the petty corruption flourished under their feet, but the big things were mostly done fairly. Their greatest offence by that time was their intensely irritating, condescending racist behaviour, when judged by modern standards. Yes, they held themselves above the ‘natives’. But it is sheer revisionism to see this as wrongful in the way it would be today. It was a necessity. Although India is enormously diverse, one quality the common people share with many Eastern cultures is their reservation of duty and respect to those who occupy a rarefied position above them. You think the Mughal emperors chummed around in the bazaar with the hoi polloi? Hardly. Look at the behaviour of the rulers of the princely states like Hyderabad. Absolute despots. And at the present day, they tolerate the most flagrant corruption and self-serving in their numerous ‘royal families’ like the Gandhis, people who live lifestyles of extreme luxury and occupy a fairytale zone not unlike that of England’s royal family.

The British attitude to Mahatma Gandhi and the other leaders in the independence cause was correct. They had been in the country for a long time, many of them loved it, and they foresaw that the end of the Raj would bring a serious setback to the lives of most Indians. They were right, even leaving aside the millions who died during Partition. What we see, still, is a country stumbling though a mire of corruption and neglect.

The British built the largest, most comprehensive rail network in the world, a task no Indian government since could even contemplate. And here’s a sobering statistic: it is estimated that one Briton died for every mile of rail laid. Of disease, alcoholism and exhaustion. The British gave the Indian people the only honest judicial system they have ever known. Gone. And not only through the courts, but by the District Inspectors who would decide petty cases judiciously, quickly and fairly, by and large, and – perhaps most importantly – at no cost. Unimaginable in modern India. Of course there were exceptions, but they did their best.

Gandhi was a genius, and many of his writings touch the deepest truths of human existence. But he was also a nutter. He was. His ashrams were nightmarish; in declaring caste nonexistent he created, among many other quarrels and privations, the absurd situation where Brahmins would sneak out at night and ritually cleanse themselves. He spent most of his energy doing battle with his own body; his greatest frustration, by his own declaration, was that even by restricting himself to five plain foods in minimal quantity he failed to quell his appetite. He was brahmacharya, a celibate, although he was married. He did not ask his wife’s permission to sentence her to a life without sex. Hardly a model of compassion, but consistent with his view that women should remain in the background, serving their men. When the independence struggle was at his height, he envisioned victory coming through mass spiritual purification. He wrote that the people of India might have to forgo having children for a period of time in order to achieve this purity. In fine, Mohandas Gandhi has been of infinitely more use to his people dead than alive.

Now India is preparing to go to the polls and we see the mess in its glory. The Indian obsession with politics is in full cry and newspapers are packed with even more political stories than usual. But any observer from a Western-style democracy would be baffled: there is virtually no discussion of policies and platforms. In three weeks of reading the daily paper, snowed under with acronyms – UPA, CPI, CPM, BJP – and politicians’ names, (many have only one, others two or three different names), this morning I came across my first story mentioning specific issues. That is all they were – mentioned.

So what are the stories about? Alliances, mostly. Who is prepared to get into bed with whom. And political debuts, all either of celebrities from the world of the screen and the sports field or of young members of political families, because in India politics is a family business. They are basically gossip. One of these was the most extraordinary political story I have ever seen.

This handsome young son of a senior political figure, having starred in a Bollywood flop, has decided to go in for politics. The interview filled half of a tabloid page and contained not one word about issues, problems he wanted to help solve, beliefs, aspirations, political philosophy. Nothing. The theme of the piece turned on whether he had the know-how and clout to win a following. Correctly, actually, because Indian politics is entirely about charisma and followers. His answer, “The offspring of a fish does not need to be taught to swim,” was satisfactory and appropriate, because it constituted a claim that he knew the individuals and their followers. He knew who owed what to whom. He knew the history of the major players’ affiliations. Which meant he knew how to get things done.

Another story demonstrates the importance of followers. The Ghorka people in the Darjeeling hills are up in arms because Mamata Bannerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister, has fielded an ‘outsider’ for the seat of Darjeeling, a soccer star called Baichung Bhutia. But hang on. Bhutia? The Bhutias are a clan of Tibetans whose presence in Darjeeling and adjacent Sikkim, which used to include the territory of Darjeeling, long predates the Chinese invasion of Tibet. He’s from Sikkim. How can he be an outsider in the hills?

Their point is, he has no followers. So who cares, if he wins the seat on the back of his established popularity? The followers of a local candidate, that’s who. Because in Indian politics the followers of the successful candidate win prizes. Big ones. Jobs, first and foremost, for themselves and theirs. Projects they favour get funded, and the jobs on the projects go to them and those around them. And at least 20% of those funds go straight back to the politician who signs them off. Always. These vast networks run India.

If Bhutia wins, and he probably will, there is no-one there to collect. For the followers of the local aspirant this means years of work and support wasted, a disaster. So what will happen? No-one can say, but historically it is not unlikely that the local Ghorka Alliance will break away and join forces with another party, in the hope that their combined votes will defeat Bhutia and everyone will be rewarded.

To try and understand how life in general and in business in particular functions in this bizarre system, I spoke to my friend Sanjay, a successful businessman, devout Christian, a man who would greatly prefer to play with a straight bat. I asked him if it is possible to run a business in India while refusing on principle to pay bribes and kickbacks.

“I wish it was. But the answer is, absolutely not. Impossible.”

“Why not.”

“Well, let’s consider tax. When the tax inspector comes to look at our books, I have to pay him or he will take me apart. You know how many people work in these departments? They will go though everything with a fine-tooth comb. Of course there will be mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. For every mistake, I will be fined. They will come back again and again. Multiply that by four, because there four departments, all huge – central government income tax, luxury tax, that’s the state tax, service tax, an industry thing, and VAT. If I don’t pay, can you imagine the consequences? I won’t have time to run my business. They will ruin me.”

“So what happens?”

“What happens? He comes, he says, ‘I don’t want to waste your time. I will fine you a few thousand rupees. Then it can be seen that I am doing my job. Whatever you declare, that will be satisfactory. I don’t need to look’. Of course, over and above the fine, I have to pay him. And it is not just paying him once. He comes to my restaurant on a Sunday with his family and …”

“He doesn’t get a bill?”

“Exactly. ”

This may indicate why in Gujurat recently there were 400,000 applicants for 1,500 jobs as junior tax officers.

Sanjay continues.

“Now, we pay tax. We don’t have to. My competitor down the road pays no tax and I have to sell my goods at the same cost as his, because of competitive pressure.”

“How can he pay no tax?”

“Simple. He doesn’t keep accounts, runs a pure cash business.”

“Why don’t you do the same?”

“Because to do that, you have to sit with the cash, all day long. You go into his shop, either he or his son-in-law will take your payment with his own hands. You will get no receipt. (I tested this; it was as he said.) I don’t have time to do that. And of course I can’t trust employees to do it. They will help themselves. So at least, keeping a full set of books we get all the money which comes in the door.”

He goes on to paint an ever more detailed picture of how corruption pervades everything. To buy a new house one must pay the developer at least a quarter of the price in unaccounted cash. I suggest that this places an obstacle before the buyer, a problem usually solved by open competition. Surely a developer who does not make such a demand will sell his house more easily?

“No, because his house will cost you more. If he pays tax on the whole price the buyer has to fund that.”

I noted that Chief Minster Bannerjee was promising to deliver a new water supply to Darjeeling. What will happen? Will Darjeeling get its water?

He laughs.

“Actually, that project has already been funded. Sixty miles of pipes have been laid, the pumps installed. But the hills leader suddenly announced that the water from that source is not fit for drinking and that it needed to come from somewhere else. So everything has stopped.”

“Why did he do that?”

“Because the party pushing the project through is not his. He gets nothing from it.”

I pause to absorb this, the consequences. They are barbaric. People get sick every day, babies die, because of the state of Darjeeling’s water supply. But one of their own leaders will let that go on and on until someone pays him to get out of the way. Horrible. But consistent with everything else I know about India minus the Raj.

“OK. Say that had not happened. How would the money flow? The money voted for the project – will that all get spent on supplying the infrastructure?

Another laugh.

“No way. First, the person approving the project, the politician, will take at least 20% of the funds. Then every pair of hands the money passes through will take its share.”

“So how can the project happen? Surely there won’t enough to do it?”

“Oh, it will happen, because the contractor who gets the tender will quote twice, or three times the actual cost of building it.”

“But surely others can come in with lower prices?”

“No, because the tenders have to be handed in. When a contractor who is not part of the system goes to put his tender in, there will be a bunch of goons who will stop him from delivering the papers. That’s assuming he can get his hands on the tender documents, which is unlikely.”

“But I saw an ad in the paper calling for tenders, and they were on-line. You could download the tender documents.”

“Is that right? Well, there may still be obstacles. But actually, it is getting better. They are using the Internet and other things to try to change things where they can. The UPA government has put a lot of good laws in place, for instance the Right to Information Act, other laws like that. Rahul Gandhi (Indira’s grandson) has a very modern outlook. He is trying his best, I believe.”

“But it’s a long slow job.”

“A very long, very slow job. But I will say this: twenty years ago it was worse – much worse.”

He explains how technology is transforming the economy.

“Now I can pay my tax online. You can’t imagine what a blessing this is. Also, now, to open a bank account you have to provide ID and this is checked. This means that black money which people used to stash in multiple bank accounts has to be kept in the house, or somewhere out of sight. This make it more difficult. This is a definite improvement, thanks to technology and new laws.”

People like Sanjay and his wife Sylvia are growing in number, members of an expanding middle class of  professionals, entrepreneurs and industrialists. Their children are all either at or are heading for university, becoming professionals. But the young Indian in the street has no such aspirations. His or hers are focused entirely on the ICS exam, the one you need to pass to be qualified to take a government clerical job. The ultimate dream for the masses is a lifetime ticket on the corruption gravy train. The walls in town are littered with education businesses all promising the same thing – success in the exam. Not degrees, professions. Just that golden exam.



The Cloud

But over this agonisingly slow improvement a dark cloud now hangs. If the predicted outcome of the upcoming elections is correct, the next Prime Minister will be the charismatic demagogue Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, basically an alliance of Hindu extremists. He has been the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001. In 2002 Hindus, following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims by a Muslim mob, went on a rampage, massacring Muslims, with Muslims responding in kind. Modi, who held sole responsibility for internal security, insisted on bringing the bodies of the train victims to Ahmedabad against specific police advice that this would cause a riot. When the riots started it took the police 24 hours to intervene; more than a thousand people died in the worst communal violence since the granting of independence and the creation of Pakistan. Modi went unpunished, but he is recognised as so rabidly anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti all non-Hindus that he was banned from visiting the UK for 10 years, and denied a diplomatic visa to the US. It was in his state, where he claims to have solved the problem of unemployment, that the 400,000 applied for 1,500 government jobs. Some 800 farmers have committed suicide there in the last few years. A million famers have no electricity. And he is accused of giving his industrialist cronies huge tracts of government development land at nominal prices, often driving farmers off their land.

We in New Zealand remember a populist demagogue, Robert Muldoon. He used divisive, populist strategies, cynically stirring up hatred and fear  to hang on to power. The consequences for New Zealand were serious, but no-one died.  But if Narendra Modi and his BJP cronies win, as anticipated, people now alive in India are about to die horrible deaths. Many, many people. I expect that even the announcement of victory will spur riots, with ecstatic Hindus burning mosques and churches in celebration and butchering whoever gets in their way.

Only India’s federal structure stands between Modi and a terrifying fundamentalist regime; thankfully the real power on the ground lies with the state governments, who control the police. But in states like Modi’s Gujarat, with small Muslim minorities and vast numbers of illiterate or semi-literate Hindus, the embers of communal violence never die. The election of a BJP national government may well blow them into a blaze. And it is not only a problem for Muslims. Sylvia tells me that millions of India’s Christians are openly afraid of what is about to happen.

18 May, 2014. Modi’s BJP wins by a landslide. 

Nine days later two untouchable girls are raped, strangled and hung in Uttar Pradesh, another rural, backward state like Gujarat.

The police ignore the father’s call for help. Only because all the villagers create an international scandal by gathering around the girls’ hanging bodies and refusing to allow their removal are some of the offenders arrested. 

Had they simply buried the girls, or dumped them somewhere, they would have got away with it. Hundreds of such cases are reported every year; the files sit untouched in police cupboards. So why did they leave them hanging in full view, on a fruit tree? As a layered message – untouchables have no rights in Hinduism. We can do what we like. And untouchables are filthy – no Brahmin or Kshatriya would eat fruit from that tree now. Let the untouchables eat that contaminated food, to remind them of their non-humanity.

These are the ideas now known by the populace to be shared by members of their government. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that the rapists felt emboldened by the election results, to the extent that they could actually make a display of their atrocity.




















To the mother who complained in the Times about people looking at her ‘special needs’ kid.

Your letter brought home to me, once again, what an awful specimen of humanity I am. Yes – I’m a starer. In my defence, I add the adjective ‘covert.’ But I’m still looking, attracted by all that is different or unusual. Human variation far outside the norm grabs me every time. Not only that, I am a tubby-peeper. The extremely obese I find mesmerizing, doubly so when they are tucking into a triple-decker hamburger with a large side of chips. And interesting handicaps, jet black skin with magnificent Africanoid features, the extremely tall and the very small, severe stutterers, people using sign language – all grist to my prurient mill.

My only consolation is that am I among the majority, which will remain so despite any quantity of preaching and condemnation because it’s the way we’re made.

I used to ride a recumbent bike, one of those lying-down and pedaling with your legs in front of you things. Friends were constantly urging me to fly a flag on a pole and to wear glow-in-the-dark costumes. I ignored them with impunity because I knew that man, like many other species but probably more so, is hard-wired to watch for the unusual. Nothing I could do would improve the very high visibility I already enjoyed – cars didn’t hit me, the drivers slowed down to look at my weird bike.

Millions of years of programming to notice and inspect that odd pattern in the bush, the atypical animal gait which may signal easy prey and especially people who look ‘other’ and may therefore be after your lunch are not going to go away in the evolutionary eye-blink of a century. For thousands of millennia the different has represented either danger, or opportunity, or both. And thus we look.

So I accept myself but employ good manners in restricting myself to a discreet, compulsive peek. Manners which also have their roots in safety – in big cities we still learn not to challenge with eye contact.

So I am sorry, all you who are physically unusual or care for such a one. You are going to go on attracting attention. But I applaud those parents in this day of amniocentosis and elective abortion for giving the treasure of life anyway. Most of you chose your cross – bear it with pride. And if you want a break, take a trip to Ireland, Spain or Italy – Catholic countries where abortion is still a regrettable last resort, and the unusual are not so unusual.

When "Balance" Goes Wrong in the Media

Got up. Turned on Radio 4. As usual. Within two minutes my blood was boiling and I was forced to hastily flick over to Radio 3, the classical music station. Why?
Because, in the interests of ‘balance’ in a discussion about NHS safety they had a doc from somewhere in the system and a woman whom I shan’t name from an organisation called ‘Cure the NHS.’ In the two minutes she delivered one howler of a false analogy and one outright falsehood. CtNHS is a small group of people (its own description) who campaigned to expose the disaster at MidStafford Health. Well done.
But here’s the problem: all that group had on its side was a) persistence and b) a genuine disaster which had been deliberately but clumsily hidden by the perpetrators. Note the absence of qualifications, expertise, objectivity or anything else which I would like to imagine plays a part in the selection of spokespeople on issues of national interest.
The spokeswoman’s tone of voice was one we all recognise in many amateur campaigners on an issue which has caused them harm: sustained, monotonous sadness. This person, in my opinion, needs a long rest and some counselling to get over the trauma she experienced in losing a relative unnecessarily. Not being elevated to a status for which she is not qualified and in which she is now doing serious harm.
The false analogy was that the airline industry gets it right, now the NHS needs to do as well.
Whoa! Stop the bus. Everything that can be known about an aeroplane is known and can be measured with high accuracy. The human body is literally the most complex system in the known universe. But, and here’s the problem, it sounds perfectly reasonable, and many listeners will be saying ‘Yes. Absolutely.’
The falsehood was another catchy statement: ‘The NHS spends a fortune on harming people.’ Sorry – it doesn’t. ‘On’ in that sentence is a synonym for ‘for the purpose of’ or ‘in order to’, in other words, intentionally. Not true, but again, sounds good.
And the harm she does? Blinding the citizenry to the fact that they still have one of the very best free health systems in the world. The only countries with better ones tend to have far higher rates of taxation than the British would tolerate, so value for money, it’s the best there is. They need to be defending it, not badmouthing it.

What galls me is that Radio 4 is paid for out of the license fee. It has no need to sensationalise, to grab listeners by any means possible. Its license is to inform, so the criteria they should be applying to producing balanced stories are to ensure the representatives of competing points of view are qualified, well-informed and articulate.
If they took that approach, that woman would not be allowed anywhere near a microphone and the world would be a better place for it.