Caroline Quentin: A Passage Through India

Tuesday, 22 March 2011, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

This new three part series sees actress and tv presenter Caroline Quentin embark on a journey of discovery through one of the world’s most remarkable and diverse countries. 

Caroline travels over 4000 miles from the far North of the country to Kanyakumari in India’s southernmost tip exploring the contrasts of the country’s landscape and the varied lives of its population. She experiences Indian society at every level, staying with local families throughout the journey, meeting everyone from Maharajas to mahouts, and gaining first-hand experience of unique elements of the country’s richly diverse culture along the way. 

In this final episode Caroline completes her journey travelling from the city of Mysore to India’s southern most tip where three seas collide. On the way she has close encounters with poisonous snakes and baby elephants, meets a healer with an international reputation and Mysore’s answer to Willy Wonka. And as she reaches the end of her trip, she reflects on how India has influenced her. 

Leaving behind the bustle of Mumbai, Caroline heads south to the city of Mysore where she is met by a local resident, and Mysore celebrity, known as Snake Shyam. She says: “If you come to Mysore you won’t have to look up Shyam because you’ll know he’s there because people will be screaming hello at him and waving from motorbikes. And there’ll be huge crowds of people in the markets surrounding him.” 

He takes her to Guru Sweets, famous for making the local confectionary Mysore Pak. Here she’s introduced to the company’s owner who teaches her how they make the sweets with his family’s secret recipe which has been passed through three generations. Caroline says: “I feel a bit like Charlie visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, although perhaps not quite as high-tech, it’s still, pretty exciting.” 

Caroline’s guide Shyam rescues snakes from the city and releases them into the wild. He takes a nervous Caroline with him as he drives up to the mountains to set the snakes free. The first snake is a viper, which Shyam keeps in three cotton bags. As Shyam releases a cobra Caroline says: “I haven’t actually breathed for the last twenty seconds. It is hissing quite loudly… When a cobra does all that stuff, and it sounds like it’s going to go for you, do you get no adrenaline? Are you not frightened?” 

Shyam assures her that he understands the snakes and that she won’t come to any harm. 

3,753 miles into her journey, Caroline reaches the Malnad region where she’s due to meet Vaidya Murthy, a healer who uses tree bark and whose reputation stretches internationally. Caroline says: “I’m fascinated with alternative medicine…and he is highly respected by all who know him and according to local knowledge, is something of a miracle man.” 

Caroline joins Vaidya collecting bark and he invites her back to his home where he is hosting his twice weekly free clinic. Caroline says: “I can honestly say, I’ve never seen anything quite like it – the queue of patients waiting has to be at least a mile long. People started queuing at four o’clock this morning, in the dark, to see the healer. Some of them having travelled a day, two days, three days, will then say thank you, touch his feet, and leave with a handful of bark.” 

“There are up to a thousand people here today, it’s not just to get the medicine, it’s to get the huge amount of warmth and kindness and humanity and hope that he gives them.” 

Caroline then heads to Ooty, in the state of Tamil Nadu which is the heart of India’s tea growing country. Here she meets Vijay Kumar, who owns some of the plantations where the method of and equipment used for making tea hasn’t changed since the early 1900s. Vijay shows Caroline how to select and pick the tea leaves and explains: “Work’s mainly done by the women folk because they’ve got more patience. It might be raining, it might be wet but they go on and pick for eight hours and they pick up over sixty or seventy kilos a day.” 

After tasting the tea she’s helped to pick, Caroline says: “As a little girl, back in the sixties, doing my project on tea-growing in India, I never really imagined that I’d ever actually come here. And I feel particularly glad because I suspect that Vijay’s right when he says this is the last generation of women who are going to want to work eight hours a day on a plantation… I think I might really have had my last window of opportunity to see this ancient countryside scene – people producing tea in the way it’s been produced for hundreds and hundreds of years. Great experience.” 

As she continues her journey South to Kerala, Caroline visits a training camp for young elephants, where they are trained to work with local farmers and at religious festivals. She helps out washing the baby elephants and says: “They’re wonderful animals, and I can see why India loves its elephants so much. I’ve only ever seen them on films and things, but there is something really magical about being close up and personal with an elephant.” 

Caroline’s 4,000 mile trip ends at the very tip of the country at Kanyakumari, where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea all meet. To get there, she travels in style on the back of a motorbike driven by Moksha Jetley India’s first female professional motorcyclist. 

As she watches the sun set, Caroline reflects on her journey and says: “I’ve had incredible generosity from people who have a lot to give, and give it. But I’ve also felt incredible warmth and had generosity from people who have absolutely nothing, and still give it. I think I’m going to miss it hugely. I do think I thought it would kind of be something I’d get over with, that it would be a kind of brief romance, but actually I think I’m going to have a lifetime affair with India.” 

Tuesday, 8 March 2011, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

In this first episode Caroline begins her journey as she attempts to get under the skin of India and adjust to its heat and bustle while taking in the sights and scenery and meeting the people at locations both on and very firmly off the tourist map. She sets out on the River Ganges to discover how the vast waterway is at the heart of so much of Indian life, she helps cook dinner for a local family while staying at their home in Varanasi, she rubs shoulders with genuine Indian royalty in Jodphur, travels to India’s most iconic landmark, and even takes a tentative sip of brewed opium with village elders in a remote rural village. Caroline also visits one of the world’s most famous fertility centres, where she meets women who can earn life-changing amounts by becoming surrogate mothers. 

Caroline says: “I celebrated a really big birthday this year so I thought well, I’m not very well travelled, so I’m going to go somewhere that really takes me out of my comfort zone, and I chose India.” 

She begins her journey in Varanasi, also known as Benares, which is one of the oldest and holiest cities in the whole world where she meets her guide Ravi in the bustling town .Ravi takes Caroline to the River Ganges, where thousands of Hindus flock to worship, but she resists. 

Caroline stays with a local family in the town and says: “What’s great about being here today is I’ve actually got the privilege of a proper insight into family life. I can’t wait actually, spend some time with them.” 

The family invite Caroline to share a meal with them, and instruct her in the traditional Indian way of eating with her hands. 

The next day Caroline sets off on the next leg of her journey to Rajasthan on the famous Indian railway system. The railways are a cornerstone of everyday Indian life and traverse the length and breadth of the country. It carries over 20 million passengers, and two million tons of freight, daily and employs over two million people, making it the second largest employer in the world. Embarking the train, Caroline says: “Like everywhere else I’ve been to in India so far, it’s heaving with people and animals and they all seem to be coping with the heat a lot better than me. I don’t really know where I’m going. I hope I’m going to Rajasthan. But I don’t know where I’m going to sleep because I can’t see any numbers on the sides of the beds. So I don’t know where I’m going to spend the night. Slightly disconcerting.” 

After a 12 hour overnight journey, Caroline arrives in the city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, the Land of Kings, where she meets up with local lady Anu, who takes her shopping at the local food market. Rajasthani food is famous for its distinctive spicy flavours and Anu offers to teach Caroline how to cook a local dish. Caroline says: “The only thing I don’t like about the local shopping, is the streets are incredibly narrow. Although the cows are lovely, and very beautiful, they’re slightly unnerving…Some of those big bullocks could really frighten you if they came heading down a street at you. It would be like being in Pamplona only less fun.” 

Jodhpur is known as The Blue City due to its eye-catching blue painted buildings and is overlooked by the majestic Mehrangarh Fort where Caroline meets Bozzo Singh, nephew to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Looking over the magnificent view of the city Bozzo admits that: “It does [take my breath away] every time I’m here. No matter how many times you see it, there is something about it.” 

Caroline agrees, saying: “It’s beautiful here. Absolutely. It’s probably the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been. This has been one of the most amazing days of my life.” 

Caroline’s journey then leads her to one of the most iconic places in India – the Taj Mahal. Upon arrival she says: “Ok, pub quiz time. What was built between 1631 and 1653, took twenty thousand people, working day and night, 22 years, to complete? You got it and isn’t she beautiful? Legend has it, that when it was finished, the workers’ hands were cut off, so they could never replicate their work.” 

“I am very glad to have visited the Taj, but now I’m quite ready to break away from the tourist trail and leave the madness of the city behind me. Rural India still retains one foot in the past, and I’m keen to experience this for myself.” 

After a journey of over 1,500 miles Caroline arrives in the remote village of Chandelao, which has a population of just 1,800 people, and is met by Thakur Praduman Singh who is the head of the village. He takes her to the town hall where a daily meeting, known as a “sabha” is taking place. Here the village elders were participating in the ancient custom of brewing opium. Even though opium is illegal in India, a special exemption is made for traditional opium tea drinking in this area. Caroline says: “Believe me this is a far cry from the Tiverton W.I!” 

Caroline’s final stop in this episode is Anand, a small town in Gujarat where people come from all over the world to seek help from infertility expert Dr. Nayna Patel. Caroline says: “I’m keen to come and meet some of the women who act as surrogates because a lot of them are from rural communities, the sort of places that I’ve been visiting.” 

After introducing Caroline to some of the surrogate mothers, Dr. Patel explains that a lot of them “come from a background where they work as a maid and they’re paid peanuts. I would say they would be earning less than $50 a month. And here in a nine months’ time they earn close to eight thousand US dollars. So that’s a big amount for them which can buy them a house, help for their children’s education, and start a small business also.” 

Looking back at the first leg of her travels, Caroline says: “I’ve got the most amazing images in my head. The River Ganga at dawn, Jodhpur, the Blue City, the land of the kings, Rajasthan, which is just so incredibly powerful and romantic. But I’m realising is the thing I love best about this place is the people.”

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