The Maldives Islands are just a stone’s throw (that may be an exaggeration) from the South West coast of India and so, as you’d expect, many of Soneva Jani’s talented hosts hail from different parts of the country. From Tamil and Malayalam speakers from South India, and Hindi speakers from the North, and even across the border from Nepal; Indians and Nepalese are represented very well among the island residents.
With the Indians comes their culture and their festivals, which on Monday meant a celebration of the Holi festival, which is celebrated across all of India, uniting states, religion and all walks of life.
Holi is a celebration of love and the triumph of good over evil, deriving of stories of Hindu gods but celebrated by people of all religions. The custom is to dance and play music in the streets, but mainly to throw coloured powder at each other so that each and every person is covered head to toe in a fantastic rainbow of colours.
Soneva Jani’s host Holi party was on the beach, just after the rain thankfully lifted and, though I knew what Holi was, I didn’t know to expect to get ambushed by people brandishing the colours as soon as we arrived! We barely had a foot across the entrance and colours of every variety were launched at us, rubbed in our hair and scrubbed on to our skin by laughing colleagues.
Hindi songs played on the sound system and people danced and played until everyone and everywhere was covered in colour. People moved on to dunking buckets of water over each other and then to fireman lifting people to the shore and throwing them in to the ocean. I’m thankful that the sea is always warm in the Maldives!
The Indian chefs had a panipuri station on the go. Panipuri is an Indian street food which is made up of a corn shell filled with flavoured water, chickpeas and other things. You eat it all on one go and it’s delicious.
As I celebrate all things Indian, it’s only right to mention some of my favourite books set in India, and I have to begin with one of my favourite books ever:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
“And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.”
The prose in this book is so delicious you could almost eat it. Set in southern state of Kerala, you can feel the heat, the mosquitoes by the backwaters and the long afternoons that host the story of the young twins and their single mother living in a house of family misfits. It explores issues with societal expectations in India and the caste system, which is still in use in some parts of the country today.
The God of Small Things was Arundhati Roy’s only novel for 20 years. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1997 and so her 2018 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was happily welcomed by readers and critics alike.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
A darkly funny portrayal of the clash of social classes in India, where the astronomically rich and painfully poor live constantly alongside each other. This Man Booker prize winning debut is written in the form of a letter to the Chinese Premier. The protagonist, Balram Halwai recounts his life story and his rise from a low-ranking caste in a rural village to a business owner living in Bangalore, though his methods of entrepreneurship are often not law-abiding or remotely ethical.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
This book is often sneered at by literary folk but, maybe as I read it when travelling around India, I have very fond memories of it. Battered copies of Shantaram are often seen clutched in the hands of backpackers making their journeys around the country as they are passed from hand to hand and hostel to hostel.
It is a truly epic book based on the true events of the author’s life; an Australian prisoner charged with armed robbery. Under the fake name Lindsay Ford, he escapes prison and becomes a fugitive hiding out in the sprawling Bombay slums. The tale is an incredible one of friendships, life in the slums, the Bombay underworld, war and a nearly fatal experience in a torture prison. It’s hard not to get hooked on the narrative and to keep a dry eye as you become more and more emotionally attached to some of the brilliantly written characters.
Though I’ll be scrubbing paint from my hands and out of my hair for a while yet, I can’t wait to visit India again and soak up their varied and vibrant culture every day.