Belfast Telegraph

India: beautiful, exasperating, ambitious, fatalistic ... someone asked me, if you're so fond of the country, why did you stay away so long? Good question

On his return to the sub-continent after 40 years, Malachi O'Doherty finds how much has changed and how much has not - and meets up with the Belfast entrepreneur ploughing millions into education in the land of his birth

The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal
Malachi O'Doherty with Lord Rana and Chana Gill from Southall FC, who is establishing a sports academy in Punjab

I was beginning to think before I came back to India that there was little point in expecting to meet anyone who had known me when I left 40 years ago. I had lived four years in an ashram with a swami, and in that time helped to build another ashram on the Ganges, east of Delhi. I would look for both but had found no trace of either on Google maps and that worried me.

A YouTube video had warned me that the streets around the old Delhi ashram were now the refuge of thousands of heroin addicts, which raised the question of whether it was safe to go there at all. This is a bazaar almost cut off from the rest of the city by a massive highway. It is called Yamuna Bazaar and backs onto the river.

But I went for a walk there on my first day. It was hard to get my bearings because of the huge road. But I found the ashram and it was a pitiable sight.

It had been a walled garden. In one corner was the swami's cottage. A row of rooms bordering the garden at the back was for guests. There was a well, and trees which squirrels played in.

Now the cottage was a ruin with the roof falling in. The garden was paved over. Everything was older and flakier and dirtier.

A man in a wool hat and shawl emerged and I introduced myself. I said I had been here as a disciple of Swami Paramananda Saraswati. He was very pleased to see me and opened a shutter into what had been empty space between the blocks of rooms. It was a temple and one of the idols was the swami himself. He is now worshipped as a god.

And I, who had been the closest disciple of a god? What did that make me?

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But I had claimed my independence and left. Still, they were delighted to see me and to enjoy my darshan, the pleasure of looking at me, something it took a little while to get used to when I first experienced it 40 years ago. They were happy to sit and gaze at me, saying nothing.

The ashram, I learned, is now a ward of court while contesting claims for ownership are sorted out.

Next to it was a gaushala, a shelter for cows. I went there and spoke to the man in charge. I told him who I was and he remembered me, though he was only a child then. His sister Savita had brought me my meals and he had often come with her.

He asked if I remembered the floods of 1978 when we were stranded on the roof and one of the aid workers bringing food had fallen into the water and Savita had laughed.

While we were talking he picked up his phone and he called Savita and put her on to me.

She laughed again and teased me, greeting me in a parody of my old gauche Hindi.I met her next day and again at her family home. She is rich now, married to a man who built a huge business on electrical goods.

Her granddaughter had a good question, though, surprised by this amicability between people who had not met for decades. "If you are so fond of India, why did you stay away so long?"

All I can say in defence is that that length of a break has given me a clarity of perspective on how much India has changed and not changed.

Back then you could take a tonga from the railway station in Old Delhi. A tonga is what the Irish used to call a jaunting car, a horse and cart, and is now as obsolete.

A few days later I went to Brij Ghat on the Ganges to find the other ashram. When I left in 1979 it was still under construction on a patch of land with nothing around it, a short walk from the town. The job was completed. It is now aged and surrounded by other buildings. It has a temple within, sheltering another statue of my old guru.

The current swami could speak no English at all and my Hindi was not getting through to him. Still, he was hospitable, allowed me his darshan, that is the privilege of sitting and looking at him.

Before we had built enough of that ashram to live in, Swamiji and I had stayed in a hostel, a dharmashala, in Brij Ghat. It was called the Teen Bandar ki Dharamshala, the name refers to the three monkeys who speak, hear and see no evil.

I walked in to the courtyard. I saw the room I had lived in. I had been lonely here in the first months of my stay in India and my closest companion had been Raj Pal, a young man who managed the place and who guided and protected me.

I went back out into the street and saw a group of men talking. They were curious about me. I said: "Raj Pal?" And it was him. And we simply hugged and wept, both of us. I was overcome. I had forgotten how much we had meant to each other.

I then went to Kolkata to research Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), the Dungannon woman the Arts Council has funded me to write a book about.

She too was the disciple of a swami, then a political writer and, essentially, a journalist and public speaker.

I found the house. It was closed up for conversion into a museum in her honour, but they let me in and a young Hindu nun showed me around, took me up onto the roof and said it was a pleasure to meet me. I saw the lifesize statue of Nivedita, wrapped in plastic.

Now I am in the Punjab. While I was in Kolkata I got an invitation from Diljit Rana - Lord Rana - to visit a college he has built at Sanghol and which he had often talked to me about.

By this stage in my trip I was feeling sickened by the toxic air over Kolkata. The whole of northern India is covered in smog so that even when there are no clouds you cannot see the ground as you fly over it.

Rana has built a college that caters for 'KG to PG', kindergarten to post-grad. He has a thousand pupils and students and dozens of teachers and lecturers, a huge project.

He is working with Chana Gill and Tommy Taylor from Southall FC to establish a sports academy and they are bringing a football team to Belfast this summer to play friendlies with local clubs.

Lord Rana says he has put £5 million of his own money into this campus.

I spoke to classes. When I walked in the students all stood up and said in unison: "Good morning, sir." And I heard the same question: what has changed?

I told them about Raj Pal and Savita. Just as with them, so with India; in one sense everything has changed, as I have changed. But something at the core is still just the same. Still the same beautiful and exasperating country; both ambitious and fatalistic. The weirdest mix.

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