Barry Cleavin - Bush and Levels of Reward     

Simon Edwards - Greener Pastures      

Philip Trusttum - Chinese Masks      

Riduan Tompkin - Juggler       

Philip Trusttum - Gnomus       

reflections on bhuj

Bhuj was off the tourist trail. Not famous for it’s simple ancient buildings Bhuj wasn’t on route to anywhere except the remarkable villages of Kutch and the vast salt fields to the north. Kutchi shawls and weaving is highly sought after for the boldness of it’s design and the beauty of its embroidery, often inlaid with mirrors. The people of Bhuj were some of the sweetest I have ever met: some of my happiest memories as a traveler, centre in and around that area of Gujurat. How tragic that it has been devastated by one of the biggest earthquakes India has yet seen. The beautiful city totally flattened and so many of those gracious people gone.

I was fortunate enough to have had two visits to Bhuj first in 1997 and then in 1999 when I returned with my wife. I had heard about the Ayurvedic Nature Cure Centre where for the equivalent of about $15 a day you could undertake a 10 day body cleanse. This might consist of a 3 day fast, followed by a light specially selected vegetarian diet combined with massage, yoga, steam baths, mud packs and magnetic therapy. After a week or so and once the backache from the accumulated toxins in the system had gone, you emerged feeling ten years younger. Too good to be true?

Bhuj is a 12 –16 hour trip from Bombay by overnight train – and second class air-conditioned sleeper makes it pretty comfortable in a simple way. The sheets are clean and crisp. The railway food is tasty and good and the sweet milky chai, plentiful. On that first memorable journey I shared a compartment with an economics professor from Gandhidham and a young manager for Ikea (the Swedish furniture multinational ) whose first- class commerce degree got him the job ahead of over 1000 applicants. Only tourists and the wealthy Indian can afford air conditioned compartments on the trains. Not that it was necessary in the cooling early November temperatures. The train bypassed Ahmedabad ( The Manchester of India ) an extremely polluted and incredibly noisy industrial city, and went on to the smaller ‘partition’ city of Gandhidham. From there, Bhuj was a half-hour taxi ride.

The Nature Cure Centre was originally built in the 60’s in the open fields just outside the charming old city. Pretty soon those fields were filled in with new apartment and office buildings. Traffic on the adjacent main road was a noisy, smoky steady stream of kerosene laced benzene fumes. Hardly picturesque. Yet the atmosphere was surprisingly peaceful; imbued with the kindness and sweetness of the Bhuj people. The centre itself was a two-story concrete building that had grown in a higgledy-piggledy way as needs had increased. Rooms were shared and meals taken in a little courtyard. People would come from all over the world, mostly Indian but a few westerners. The centre had considerable success treating diabetes and allergy related illnesses. But people came for different reasons.

At sunrise a group of us would wander sleepily up on the roof top for early morning yoga. In the chill November morning you could gaze across to the large playing field opposite just as the first passionate cricketers arrived. Cricket - the new religion of India. By 8.00 am the field would be full of dozens of players, everyday of the week. A quick game on the way to work. In the streets the schoolchildren milling about in their colourful cardigans and wooly hats. All dressed up cozily for a winter, little different in temperature from a Christchurch spring. It is the smiles one remembers mostly – so freely given.

In the last 10 years Bhuj had become a popular city for the new emerging middle class. Proud of its prosperity, new apartment buildings and large “mansion” houses sprang up on the outskirts of the old city. The style was an ugly and undistinguished ‘internationalism ’ and the buildings were concrete. High rise apartment buildings were part of the new Bhuj. In less than a decade the population had grown from under 100,000 to about 300,000. The nearby marble quarry was busy supplying the finishing touches of new found prosperity to hallways and bathrooms of the new middle class homes with flush toilets and hot water from the tap. Yet, just across the street you could still get a good shave and a great scalp massage for a few rupees in a little packing case stall adjacent to the new buildings. Simplicity and poverty jostling right outside the doors of the rich. It’s the story of India.

All of India strains under the colossal weight of its ever-burgeoning population. As beautiful as the Taj Mahal or Rajasthan’s desert cities are – the ceaseless badgering by beggars and touts that invariably hang around famous tourist spots can come pretty close to ruining the experience. We as wealthy westerners, are lulled by the brochures into an illusion that these experiences are quietly contemplative. Spiritual, almost. Not necessarily so. Virtually everyone is on the make. Everyone has something to sell you, legitimate or otherwise.

Bhuj was different from that. It was a place I made real friends. Few tourists came, and it was a great advantage to remain some weeks in the same spot. No one hassled you. All one ever needs to do in India is to stay still for a while and sooner or later every aspect of life will pass in front of you. Bhuj captured my heart as no other destination has. The Nature Cure Centre was a unique place to pause for a while. No lines of tour buses or armies of Japanese photo-opportunists.

The major town of the Kutch district, Bhuj was an old walled city. In days gone by the gates to the city would be locked at night. How I loved that city – it’s bright, multi coloured vivacity and its excitement and bustle of its tiny streets. It was as enchanting to me as Christchurch had once been when I was a child; when Cathedral Square served a purpose as a genuine meeting place and long before the suburban shopping malls had emptied out the heart of Christchurch’s central city. Bhuj had wonderful organic unity, an aliveness now missing from my home town. A genuinely thriving bustling market place with hundreds of little shops – knife-sharpeners, gold merchants and silversmiths, silk saris, sweet shops, kitchen utensils, plumbing fittings, shops selling bangles and hair ornaments – such divergence.
I loved walking those streets, dodging the auto rickshaws and sacred cows. And at 9.00 pm the shutters would come down and the bustle would suddenly evaporate, leaving a few straggling cows wending their way home in the gloom. A few youths hanging about on motor-scooters, but no menace in the streets. ( No drunks. Gujurat is teetotal ). No sense that it was ever unsafe to walk back home in the cool night. (No one in their right mind would walk some areas in central Christchurch after dark these days). Bhuj was safe. It was city that functioned well, and with respect and care for each other. Relations between Hindu and Muslim were harmonious. There were few beggars and the crime rate was low.

It’s gone. Flattened in about 30 seconds. The heavy sandstone buildings of the old city completely destroyed. The ancient palaces, the Hindu and Jain temples, The 19th C remnants of the Rahj, the little shops, the schools, the homes. Those friends I made – the sweet graceful people fill my thoughts in the aftermath of their tragedy. The tailor who made me a couple of fine silk kurta shirts that I never wear, the man in the toffee shop who made the delicious sesame toffee that I wasn’t meant to eat, the little school with the bright eyed cleanest children with their ribonned lustrous hair, the Photographer’s studio with the amusing wedding shots on the board outside, the vegetable market with its wonderful colours and unfamiliar smells. Dr Jay Sanghvi and his lovely family with his son the same age as mine. Who will have survived ? The life of a beautiful city – over. The lives of so many of its inhabitants cut tragically short.

I guess there isn’t much room for cricket on the field opposite the Nature Cure Centre: It is where the survivors of the earthquake have been camping out. I expect the chill winter air is no longer crisply enchanting. But maybe someone will find a ball and a cricket bat before too long. Maybe find just enough space for a pitch within the encampment - improvise a wicket. Create a semblance of life going on. With all my heart I hope so.

Malcolm McNeill 1st Feb 2001