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Back from India

It's an odd feeling to be back from India - not least because jet lag woke me around 5am. No noise, no crowds, no smells, no trepidating anticipation at taking the plunge for a fresh day of bazars, insane rickshaw drivers and strange, beautiful and bewildering sights.

Only the pitch black of the wee winter hours, the rain pattering softly on the windows to Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit.

This picture was taken at a wedding party we were invited to by the driver who ferried us between Jaipur and Delhi - groom was his brother. To be precise it was the first of a two-day affair, the day apparently reserved for lower-key family gatherings, separately in each of the spouses' homes. So we missed the big bash but had a great time nonetheless, great company, great food, plenty to drink - and I just had a field day with my camera !

Got there around 4.30pm, after extricating ourselves from Jaipur and the seemingly endless approach to Delhi. And on the way it struck me that along the 260km or so between Jaipur and Delhi, there was practically not a stretch of road in open, empty coutryside. The road was an unending serpent of a city, sometimes just one or two buildings deep, but built just about uninterruptedly. And unlike the motorways we're used to, this one was nothing of a barrier, so that there was quite a neighbourly feel between the dwellings and commercial establishments on either side - and that also meant that drivers had to be wary not only of other crazy drivers, but of people, livestock and vehicles crossing just about everywhere.

The sheer, ubiquitous press of people in India means that things we associate with modernity - motorways, skyscrapers, glass-and-steel complexes, airports, air force bases, and likewise no doubt nuclear and space facilities - never stand alone in their shininess and modernity. It's never quite like depicted on the huge billboards advertising new, high-rise developments which could have been plucked, with their saturated colours, smiling faces and shiny neatness, from any large North-American city. Here, such facilities that would compare with any in the West have to contend with irrepressible encroachment from dust, rarely kind on shiny glass-and-steel, and a rush of people living and trading on the same pavement but as if in another age and by entirely different rules. Very disconcerting to the untrained eye, struggling to make sense of the whole, to discern what binds it all together, to see how this apparent chaos of different parts haphazardly thrown together functions, and where it is headed.

Anyway, our driver Nicky's brother was getting married in Delhi, with the rejoicing set to begin around 3 pm in the western outskirts not too far from the airport. Nicky was therefore eager to make a not-too-late start from Jaipur, to drive not too slowly, to score some whisky bottles on the way - and to find someone else to drive us to the airport (not least because he'd likely be too plastered to drive) around 10pm.

It all began with the ladies carrying out a water-fetching ceremony whose meaning (within the context of an Hindu wedding) I wasn't really able to determine. When they got back, we all danced madly in the street (a normally quiet one in a residential area) to the deafening sound of drums amplified by the narrow lane. We then all went up to the roof of one of the family's houses that had been hung with awnings, with delicious smells coming from the kitchen below. Over tea and local-brand cigarettes, we talked and talked, until night fell and we were bid to a corner of the terrace to be plied with local whisky among men whilst the women dined at the other end. An informal pecking order was in place whereby women did not drink in the presence of men, and younger men not in the presence of older ones. As foreigners, we were systematically afforded most-favoured status regardless ! A drag and whisky on the rocks on a roof top on a balmy evening with great company and the promise of great food - what else ?!

We had an interesting discussion with three of the family members, all aged 21, that vered to Bollywood movies. The only two titles I could think of were Lagaan and Devdas - the only ones I can remember having hit the big screens in Europe these last years. Though I haven't seen either of them, I have tried on a few occasions to sit through a Bollywood movie, butnever really made it through the first half, or even the first quarter. Truth is the song-and-dance sequences just don't hold my attention (I'm a music lover if ever there was one, with quite eclectic tastes, but the peculiar harmonies and melodies of Indian music, the more traditional type at any rate, somehow don't move me) - and I find the plot-lines often depend on unique cultural premices too foreign to us for me to identify with the characters or care much how the story unfolds.

Around 10pm, we thanked out hosts and bid them farewell, and clambered into (not entirely sober) Nicky's car so that he may take us to the driver who'd take us to the airport. Contrary to what we'd naively assumed on the basis that Nicky was one of several drivers employed by the same travel agency in Delhi, nothing had been formally organized, so that a driver and vehicle had yet to be found for us. This wasn't proving so easy and at one point, Nicky stopped by a rickshaw stand; though I rather liked the slightly surreal notion of driving to Indira Gandhi International Airport in a rickety rickshaw, this apparently wasn't so common because none of the drivers knew the way, even though it wasn't particularly far as Delhi goes. Eventually, we were bundled into a car driven by a bloke who spoke no English and whose style behind the wheel would have been more at home on nearby Buddh Formula 1racing track - except that the road to the airport had potholes, unpredictable traffic, cows and all the rest... Yet another sincerely frightening experience on the road. We got there alive all right, if a little breathless - and from there the journey on to our departure gate was quick and smooth as you seldom experience in Western airports.

For no particular reason and in no particular order, a list of my India / Bangladesh photo books:

1. My Land and its People - Raghu Rai

2. India - Andreas Bitesnich

3. Calcutta - Sylvain Savolainen

4. In India - Cartier-Bresson (with HCB's India pics also featuring in his classic The Decisive Moment, recently republished in facsimile by Steidl)

5. Belonging - Munem Wasif (fantastic film photography from Dacca)

6. Larmes Salées - Munem Wasif

7. Keiko - Tomasz Gudzowaty (the ship-breaking yards in Chittagong - powerful photos, though to my liking, Gudzowaty was a bit heavy-handed on the contrast of his B&W pics)

8. Ship Wreckers - Tomasz Gudzowaty

India photos also featuring in:

9. Into the Orient - Marc Riboud

10. Allah O Akbar - Abbas

11. Workers - Salgado

12. Migrations - Salgado

13. Before they pass away - Jimmy Nelson

14. Around the World in 125 Years - National Geographic

15. Far East - Siegfried

16. Hommes Racines - Pierre de Valombreuse

17. Tout un Monde - Richard de Tscharner

18. Elles changent l'Inde - Reporters sans Frontières, album 37

19. Untold, The Stories Behind the Photographs - Steve McCurry

20. The Unguarded Moment - Steve McCurry

21. Oumma, Images d'un Islam Pluriel - Luis Monreal

Finally, in case you're idly wondering, all pictures on this particular India trip were taken with my Fujifilm X100s, all with the wide angle lense extender (28mm equivalent) except for the wedding party pics without the extender.

I know, I had promised to shoot some film - and I did take my Nikon FM3a with me, along with two fixed 35mm and 28mm lenses and plenty of Kodak Tri-X film - but ended up never taking it out of my camera bag. A terrible shame no doubt but there you are - I've just become addicted to seeing and sharing my photos immediately. Perhaps on a next trip to Southern France, where I've already taken plenty of digital photos...

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