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The bus trip west into the hills containing the little town of Kodaikanal was predictably hair-raising. Grabbing onto any handhold I could find, I was thrown around the back seat of the bus like crockery in a marital dispute, clutching at my airborne backpack with my left foot and desperately trying to stop myself smashing into my neighbours every time the videogame-junkie driver tackled another hairpin. On the way up into the Western Ghats I noticed that above the rock-painted adverts someone had scrawled 'Jesus never fails'; I sincerely hoped that the bus' brakes were as reliable as the Son of God.
The first thing I noticed about Kodaikanal was the temperature. Clad in cloud and hidden from the sun, the cool air that washed around me as I stepped off the bus was as shocking as the cold dip after a sauna, and just as refreshing. I quickly fished out my sweatshirt, an item of clothing that rarely sees the light, found myself a bed in a dorm, and fell into conversation with various oddities from all over the world. The mist enveloped, the temperature dropped even further, and that night I slept the peaceful sleep of someone who has just moved from the noisy city to the silent countryside.
Peace, however, was designed to be broken, and if there is a race of tranquillity-tramplers it's the Indians. Surely genetically hard of hearing, the Indians are one of the many Asian peoples who only buy stereos if the volume dial goes up to 11, and even in a beautiful hill station such as Kodaikanal, morning well and truly breaks under the sonic boom of India's morning yawn.
But the most amazing noise pollution – and diesel pollution too – came from the little trucks blaring round town, playing election propaganda to anyone within a five-mile radius of their speakers. During election time these vans are as common as mud in the towns of lowland India (and that's pretty damn common) but in Kodaikanal they were even more conspicuous because of the lack of other noise. Wandering down a pleasant country lane towards a placid lake where happy couples paddled their rowboats around like a scene from an E M Forster novel, I'd hear something different in the distant air: a cricket crowd perhaps, politely applauding a deftly cut boundary; possibly the call of a faraway bird of prey, swooping down to grab its lunch; or maybe the sound of a gardener mowing the extensive lawns of one of the ex-Raj residences dotted around. And the sound would get louder, and louder, and defying physical limits, even louder, until a battered old Ambassador would shoot into view round the corner, sporting a pair of loudspeaker horns that looked like something from an ancient gramophone, wired up to a car battery by someone who still had to learn the difference between earth, neutral and live (and who would probably soon discover it the hard way). Every time I had to cover my ears as the cacophony drove past, even drowning out the sound of the van's incessant horn with its din.
The content of the din itself was quite something too, regardless of the volume. Apart from bellowing out recorded speeches from politicians – in Tamil, of course, so I was spared the details – these sonic buggies would play the party's theme tunes. Now most political parties have an election tune these days – even Thatcher's crowd did – but the Hindi concoctions that echo around the hills of India sound to the uninitiated just like normal Hindi pop1; it sounds seriously surreal, but it is perhaps in keeping with the way Indian politics is played out. Old Ronnie Reagan becoming President of the United States was incredible enough, but the number of Indian politicians who used to be film stars is unnerving: because they looked good on screen, the populace assumes they'll be good in office, which is a rather brave assumption, I would suggest.
For example, southern Tamil Nadu's favourite candidate never appeared in any publicity without sporting his Reservoir Dogs shades, so much so that the locals referred to him as the 'Glass Man'. And the leader of the Congress(I) party, Sonia Gandhi, is Italian and doesn't speak Hindi (though it is reported that she's trying to learn); never mind, say the people, she looks great and she's a Gandhi, so she must be cool. This last point isn't as facetious as it sounds, as India's political figures have suffered heavily from the cult of personality since Independence. The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was followed by his daughter Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), and after her assassination in 1984 at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, her son Rajiv Gandhi took over. He himself was assassinated in 1989 by Tamil extremists; and along with the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic back in 1948, it makes you wonder how sensible it is to be an Indian politician with this famous surname.
Perhaps that's why it took so much persuasion and so much time for Sonia to join the fray. Either that, or she doesn't like shattering the peaceful world of the Indian hill station with election propaganda either...
1 Which reminds me of a story that Howard told me. The scene: Howard and a new-found Cockney travel mate are in the back of a taxi in Goa. Cockney Man says to Taxi Driver, 'Got any good tunes, mate?' Taxi Driver says, 'I have some Hindi music.' Cockney Man says, 'Yeah, cool, shove it on.' Taxi Man does so, and out screeches Hindi music at full blast. 'What the bloody hell is this?' screams Cockney Man. 'This isn't bleedin' indie music!' What a great export for our country...