When I was twenty I dropped out of college and travelled alone, overland to India. I didn't tell my parents where I was until, some months after my disappearance, I sent them - from Mt Abu in Rajasthan - one of those thin blue airmail paper letters. It was 1973 and back then it was possible to travel through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - the old hippy trail - not so much the Silk Road as the cheesecloth road.
Usually when revisiting somewhere after such an interval, things look smaller, different, less important, don't they - but my memory seems to have accurately recalled a great deal of it; the long winding drive up the side of the mountain on a road swarming with dirty silver-haired monkeys, the extraordinary views down over the baking plains and the wiggly river below - so high you can see eagles soaring below you, the Nakki lake with its leisure boats and jetties, they have all been perfectly preserved in my mind. I quickly find the Punjabi vegetarian restaurant, the bus station, the hotel at the top of the little road by the military barracks where I first stayed. The old boy in khaki shorts who used to blow a bugle under the flag of India every morning, is obviously long gone, but his flag pole is still there outside the military compound next door.
In 1973, I travelled alone and was lucky to have been befriended by Mr Areean, the owner of the Bata shoe-store, who took me under his wing and showed me around. His shop, a small booth in the middle of the bazaar, was one of the few in which the proprietor and his customers would sit on stools rather than cross-legged on the floor. Areean was a wiry man, dressed in a sleeveless knits and slacks. He would chew Betel leaf, nuts and spices and when finished, spit the purple remains into the gutter outside his shop.
Mr Areean showed me Mt Abu's sites of touristic interest and explained to me the stories behind many of the Hindu Gods and their Avatars; Hanuman, Ganesha, Krishna, Rama and Sita. He also walked me past the graveyard of the British officers who died during the Indian war of Independence of 1857 (known as the Indian Mutiny in western history books).
As I walk into the main bazaar, memories are shooting up thick and fast, and lining up against the realities in front of me. The rows of small stalls and shops crowd into the narrow streets which have been curling up and down the main hill of Mt Abu since before medieval times. There are more motorcycles than I remember from forty years ago, but it seems, much of old India is still present.
I have prepared some phrases in Hindi, enough to say things like; "I was here forty years ago, can you tell me does the Bata shoe store still exist?" After a few wrong turns, I find myself in front of a shop front that announces itself as "Mr Areean's house of Foot Collection." This is the place. Inside, a young man in a dark jersey, smart trousers and combed hair tells me that he is not an Areean, but a 'nephew' and sales assistant. He immediately gets on the phone to his boss. While he is talking I look around the tiny interior of the store.
On the wall are two large colour photographs decked in flowers and necklaces; Niralal, the father with his wife, immediately recognizable to me. They both passed away ten years ago, the nephew explains. Soon Anil, the son, arrives; a man of about forty, with a cousin and two smallish children. My Mr Areean's grandchildren. We look through photo books. Anil claims to remember me, but I'm not sure whether to believe him. He would have been all of five at the time.
I take some photos. I tell him in my broken Hindi, that I have come to pay my respects to his father, who was a good man. I find I have glassy tears in my eyes and cannot imagine why the feeling is so strong.
Later that afternoon, a memory returns to me, suddenly. A memory that has been long buried. It was my Mr Areean who had persuaded me to write that Airmail letter to my parents and let them know where I was. I had been out walking with him, and we'd stopped at a small shrine in a wall by the roadside. In the recess was a Ganesh; a garishly painted, plaster statue of a pot-bellied God with the head of an elephant. Under its left foot was scrofulous, plaster rat. Ganesha is the god of new beginnings, of overcoming obstacles, but also, Mr Areean assured me, he is the god of travel.
"When Shiva was giving out the godheads to his sons, he tried to make it fair, so there would be no fighting... isn't it?"
I was gazing out over the Nakki Lake where, on the opposite shore, tough women in bright turquoises and pinks were vigorously slapping their laundry against the rocks. A team of green parakeets crossed the sky above us and joined the rest of their noisy colony in the trees next to the holiday bungalows.
"Listen Mr Nigel, I am telling you the story of Shiva and Parvati and how the Lord Ganesha became the god of travel, and your mind is drifting again, isn't it?" I apologized and he went on.
"But there was one godhead still going, you see. One that Shiva hadn't given out. And they all wanted it, all the sons; The God of Travel. 'Let me be the god of travel' said one son, 'because I have a beautiful fast horse'. 'No, let me', said another, 'I have a fleet of ships'.
So Shiva said to all his sons, 'whoever can go the whole way round the world and come back to me and Parvati here, the first one back, he can be the god of travel! And off they went, all the sons. Some went on horses and boats, some were very good at running. And there was cloud of dust where they had been. But Ganesh, he was left behind. He was too fat from all the sweets and cakes he liked."
Mr Areean gave me a dark smile, displaying one or two solitary brown teeth and the purple interior of his mouth where the sweet betel leaf had been chewed. Ganesha, it turned out, is also the god of sweets and cakes.
"...And Ganesha thought 'how am I going to go around the world? All fast animals have been taken by my brothers. All there is left is this old rat..." Mr Areean indicated the rat squashed under the foot of the plaster statue.
"So Ganesh, he got on this rat, which was difficult because the rat is small and Ganesh he is a pretty damn big guy. And he told rat to walk around in circle, right around Shiva and Parvati. And he did that. He went around in circle, all round his parents. And then he got off rat and he went to Shiva and he said, 'I'm back'. And Shiva said to him 'But you have only gone in a circle around me and your mother here, I told you to go round the world'. And Ganesha looked at Shiva with steady look and said; 'my mother and father are the world.'
Mr Areean paused for effect, and fixing me with his yellowing eyes, he continued; "And Shiva said; 'Nice answer. You can be the god of travel.' And that is how Ganesha became the god of travel."Suggest a correction