a factly fiction tall tale….
The first thing to hit us were the smells. The burning of fuel to create the steam that drove the machines. Next, as we turned a corner, we saw the blur of lights like snakes curving through the air, the sounds quickly followed, the clanking, ch ch ch chuffing, and what sounded like church organ pipes playing, the screaming, bodies rushing in an out, up and down, turning all around, the laughter, jolly music, a breathless stomach churning cacophony.
Carter’s fair was in town.
A traditional fair of rides and entertainments from maybe a hundred years before. The imagined town was a temporary set-up on a country estate in Wiltshire as part of a weekend music festival.
We’d attended this world music fandango for over ten years as a group of twenty or more, our extended family. A misshapen circle of tents was our home for the weekend. An event shelter acting as our dining room and lounge and another tent as our kitchen. We followed a rota to take it in turns to cater for the whole group and that with occasional guests, often previous visitors to Mysore Bed and Breakfast, completed our little communal village. The cluster of tents, since we first arrived to open fields, had been overtaken by the expansion of a quickly growing metropolis. We were in the midst of an incredible mishmash of temporary homes. Ranging from the very basic young persons festival tents that would be lucky to see a second outing, to the grown ups frame tents and the trendy bells. Nearby in their gated community were the glampers.
It provided a respite from our hectic urban lives and a golden opportunity to catch up and connect. We were excitedly looking forward to our weekend fillip.
Gina, aka the ultimate networking organiser, our captain, had helped pull the group together, an extended family of comfort, an incredibly rich mix with her husband, Angus, from the Caribbean, together with Sharon, Claire, Ruth, Mags, Alice, Ben, Poppy, Liz, Grant, Jenny, Peter, Jane, Barbara, Megan, Dave, Ann, Dean, Manjula, Stephen, Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert Dibble and Grubb.
It’s the first full day of the festival and time to explore. One small group ventured off to find the steam fair.
Poppy, the youngest, was the star of the group. Age five and three quarters, she was, of course, mature beyond her years. It was her very first music festival. She’d heard and seen evidence of them in Finsbury Park, close to her home in north London but this was her own opportunity to see, hear and smell it for herself, first hand. She secretly hoped it would rain, just a little bit mind, so there would be the funny mud she’d heard so much about. Maybe some slip sloppy falling people. Her full time assistants were in tow, namely Ben, the chef entrepreneur, her dad, hailing from the alternative town of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and Alice, her mum, the creative jewel, originally from Poland but settled for years in London. This small group out following the trail to the fairground included Manjula and I. We’d married the year before having set up and run a Tourism business together over seven years in South India.
Manjula, from Mysore in South India, and I had opened a Bed and Breakfast business as an open house that welcomed thousands of guests from around the world. Since the very beginning it was number one in our city. My bit of the business was guided cycle tours. I’d belatedly realised how well told stories could provide valuable insights. How history was so precarious and could easily have taken an alternative route. Close to our home was a place that presented an incredible cluster of potential historical turning points. With the slightest change of circumstances it could have resulted in dramatic changes of history for India, Britain and continental Europe. In the midst of all this we’d created a great lifestyle, jealously admired.
I’m Stephen, from North England, Ben’s dad and officially known as Grandee poo by the energetic articulate granddaughter. I was on cloud nine as we were altogether for the weekend and had earlier in the year, visited my youngest son Oliver in Canada. I’d missed them all as we were all living in such disparate places. My previous partner and Ben’s mum, Liz was also here that weekend. We had been together over twenty years and retained a supportive relationship. In fact Manjula and Liz has become close. Liz a strong woman, caring mother another key connector, remained back at the encampment hanging out with others in the group.
I’d moved to Mysore in South India nine years before. Manjula was introduced to me and came to clean and cook pretty much immediately. Over the years we fell in love, carefully reconnoitred the employer/employee relationship minefield with a wedding in a field. This followed a ‘formal’ marriage process, in which we couldn’t quite figure out when we’d actually ‘tied the knot’ in the official office where ninety-nine percent of the activity were the exchange of land and building contracts!
The only cloud on the horizon, let’s call it cloud number ten, was Manjula’s ill health. A few years ago she’d been diagnosed with a chronic lung condition but other than a very serious time in hospital a year ago from which she recovered, she seemed to be strong and thriving. It was predicted however to ultimately seriously affect her life chances and mobility. Manjula was from a very poor background, worked in service as a maid, had faced many challenges including a previous abusive husband and had lost a baby through illness. This had helped create a strong confident woman who had a great ability to empathise and connect with others.
The group arrived at the fairground to the usual mix of rides, stalls and entertainments, including Manjula’s two favourites. Poppy and Manjula were ecstatic, it’s not the sort of thing we’d see in South India. The absolute favourite was the carousel. The girls mounted their steeds, held on tight, clearly worried yet unused to the gentle riding of the horse, as it sedately circled. Manjula beaming her usual radiant smile was especially bright. The ride came to an end. I helped Manjula down from the horse.
“Can I go on again?” She squealed.
“Ok Madam, of course” I saluted!
Manjula and I walked further round the carousel to find a vacant horse each and ride again. Up she got, smiling insanely. Madam (she was known as Madam English, amongst our neighbours and local shopkeepers since our first visit to the UK ) held on just as tight. I thought this was supposed to be easy going. I felt as though I’d been on a bucking bronco. I felt a bit sick, this will not do!
As the carousel came to a stop we alighted and walked round to find the rest of the group. We couldn’t find them anywhere. They’d walked off.
I still felt under-weather, a bit weird, still sort of sickly but told myself to man-up, it was a carousel for God’s sake.
I looked at my watch. It was 1.30 but I remember it being that time when we first got on the carousel with Ben and his family. We seemed to have gained more than twenty minutes. Odd. Or old age… I’ll have mis-read my watch.
No problem, Manjula had one more favourite place to visit. The slot machines.
In an amusement arcade in Dorset she’d become addicted to a particular machine. You’ll know it. It eats two pences (next to the smallest value English coin). The point is to knock coins off the edge, then they become yours.
You put a two pence in the slot at eye level. The coins zig zagged their way down, hitting alternate pins, until landing at the very bottom. If you were lucky the coin lay flat and was then pushed into the pile of coins which just might tip them over the edge, down the chute and ultimately into your sticky mits. A completely random-luck-filled-game but the excitable giggly girlish Manjula loved it!
Pennies were lost and won, I’m sure we’ll be back.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Ben, Alice and Poppy arriving at the Carousel. They got on it…. again! We went over and were reunited once they’d finished their ride, only to be asked why we hadn’t joined them on the carousel, when we had maybe forty minutes earlier. Strange? What’s that all about? It’s as if we were in a bubble of lost time, as if things had not happened. It was completely incomprehensible. I can assure you we had had no wacky baccy.
Manjula and I wandered off, utterly confused and arranged to see them back at camp. Manjula, the mature, strong, calm who was by the turn of a coin, an excitable little girl, was having an absolutely wonderful time and had no idea what time it was anyway. What does it matter?
We had a couple more things to do, such as visit the Ferris wheel and check out some shops. We’d ridden the Ferris wheel during Manjula’s previous visit to the U.K. at this very festival. It wasn’t your traditional wheel, it was much bigger, slow, sophisticated. It afforded a wonderful view over the country estate in which the festival was based. In the distance we could see the country house, the fields of tents at least three hundred and sixty degrees, around us.
“Look, look, see our flags” exclaimed Manj.
Next to our tent, we had a flag pole and flags of Grenada and India to help people spot and return to our camp in the midst of hundreds maybe thousands of tents. We could even see them from all the way up here.
On the other side we could see stalls and vehicles selling food, clothes, furniture even. At times, it felt like home as there was such a lot from India. The woodland area gave healthy lifestyle, including: yoga (laughing and otherwise), massage, carving wooden spoons (I’d carved one for Manjula), a children’s play area and then throughout the site were music stages of different sizes, some acoustic, others electronic, tents for dancing and DJs, where world music could be found every day over the weekend.
Waaaaah, this was wonderful. I could feel the beaming heat from Manjula’s smile, her joy, and still there was no rain. Great! I suddenly, felt sick again, maybe it was all too much excitement and action for the old man!
After we’d left the Ferris wheel, we wandered sort of aimlessly along the grassy routes that passed between the stalls. The crowds were getting larger, it was the first full day and the place was filling up.
The usual stalls, that we’d seen over the years, were here; mostly selling Indian or African products and every type of international food you could imagine.
Manjula was drawn to a particular stall, she is an intrepid traveller with an open mind, she always finds endless things to attract and entertain.
All I could see at this stall was an Indian guy sitting cross-legged on a rug, the sort of Persian style, with hanging colourful reminders of home. His wife sitting behind in the inner recesses beckoned Manjula to join them and spoke to her in Hindi.
There was the liberal sharing of Namaste. It all felt a bit mysterious. To me they looked like northerners. There didn’t seem to be anything for sale. For those of you who haven’t visited India, it’s worth pointing out that it isn’t at all unusual to find fortune tellers (palm, star or card readers, parrots, anything is possible) or an incredible usual mix of spiritual types: Swamys, poojaris, offering hugs, insights, predictions, everywhere and anywhere in India. I think these people were mystics of some sort.
Hindu’s are open to finding God via any of the multiple paths that exist in life. Me I’m also open to the varieties of India but I’m also from Yorkshire (north England) so retain a ‘healthy’ cynicism in life. So the three of them are speaking Hindi (it’s not the local language where we live but Manjula knows it and at least three other Indian languages). She’s also learned English since we met but always insists that she learned from the guests and not me! Me, I only have a few words of our local language known as Kannada so I’m completely lost. Manjula has proven to be my key to Indian life in so many ways and not just languages. She has astonishing insights.
Well the Hindi conversation goes on and on. That is also not unusual in India. It’s a right old mix, of intensity, exclamations, even laughter, the look of shock, I worry that there seems to be the odd tinge of anger or is it disbelief? I’m completely lost, but absolutely trust Manjula. She seems Ok with it all. So after what seems an age we leave, we all stand and there are the usual Indian gestures of farewell. Manjula looks both pleased and confused. We venture on and find a place to get a chai, sitting on one of our collapsible camping chairs (I had been in trouble during our last visit to the festival two years ago, for not carrying chairs so that Madam could sit as and when needed, I’d learned my lesson).
Manjula was very pleased, I was receiving the full force of her inner sun beaming through her golden smile.
Now, I’m intrigued. That’s not particularly unusual as India never ceases to amaze and surprise.
So this is what, I think, they’d discussed.
Manjula was astonished, bowled over, that the two people knew her story. Her poor background and the many challenges she’d experienced, a dysfunctional family, life as a maid, her first husband, her baby that had died, our meeting almost ten years ago, the business, her chronic lung illness, our life together. Wow, even the cynic was surprised.
How was this possible? Life in India teaches you to ‘go with it’, you have to deal with paradox and uncertainty and not always question too much.
Now you also need to understand. Manjula’s English was really good but we’d sometimes lose things in translation so here’s what I think was said.
As I predicted it’s unexpected and mystical.
The couple also knew how much the challenges in her life had helped create a strong personality with an open caring attitude that brought people together. I’d seen this in so many ways, not least how she related to our guests and our staff. They also confirmed her own wishes for reincarnation, to come back as a tree!
I know I know, this is so beyond a westerners experience and understanding.
Well anyway to cut a lifelong story shorter, the bottom line is, Manjula’s life had been given a whole new direction. A sort of half reincarnation without having to die. She’d arrived at a turning point in life. Maybe the rides on the magic roundabouts… the carousel and Ferris wheel had changed something, who knows? or is that my own fantastical imagination?. It’s almost as if we arrived at a crossroads and something happened to switch her onto a different track, an altered state or parallel reality.
So what’s the result and why did it happen?
Well we’re still here at the Music festival, obviously. It seems that some of her previous experiences didn’t happen. There was no previous marriage or child that died, and most wonderful of all her chronic illness has been expunged. It’s gone totally. She doesn’t feel any strain on breathing at all, she has a new strength. I’m tearful, overjoyed, this is so wonderful. We both have a new life. How lucky are we?
So remember there maybe some misunderstanding given I don’t speak Kannada and English isn’t her first language.
It’s a sort of mystical reward. In her life she has had to endure a seemingly endless series of challenges any one of which could have broken her. Instead she not only emerged strengthened she has developed a warm openness that bridges to others and creates bonds of care and compassion. So it seems that as a reward for her goodness and the extremes she’s faced there has been an expected a sort of half reincarnation, a twisted surreal karma, a crossing over to a parallel reality.
Well of course it’s unbelievable, but eh, as I’ve said in India we learn to be adaptable, not question too much and suck the best out of whatever happens. In this case, it means Manjula has a new lease of life, we ain’t going to complain.
So I create my own narrative, to try and understand what’s happened.
For what it’s worth, my limited understanding (apologies to my Hindu friends for this distorted understanding) in the midst of multiple explanations of Karma. It seems to me, (bear of small brain, poo again) that Karma is a bit like a bank. Good deeds, lead to deposits in the bank that are subsequently cashed in when determining your next life at reincarnation. In this case Manjula has used some Karma cash mid life to create a new path and delete some of her previous life and current problems.
So we must have crossed a historical turning point during our rides on the magic roundabouts, landed in a parallel universe and have super new opportunities, ostensibly as a reward for Manjula being such a star.
I turned to Manjula lifted her high (she’s small and light), hugged her until breathless… and kissed passionately. We wouldn’t of course do that publicly in India but hey we’re in a brave new world.
“I love you Manjula”
‘I love you three”
We return to our sort of Trumptown camp where we find Liz and Gina who’ve been caring for little Manj, our unexpected daughter and share our amazing story
This is a reimagined story, written by Stephen. It’s his second so clearly, as you now realise, he has a lot to learn.
Manjula died of a heart attack in March 2019 and so was unable to visit the U.K. for a planned third visit. Her daughter from her first husband had died just a few months old fifteen years earlier. She leaves her husband Stephen and their dog Lucie at the Bed and Breakfast she helped create and that together with MYCycle tours, continues.
Manjula’s story, the real one, not an imagined one, will be posted in instalments at http://www.meandmycycle.com over the next few months.
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