A Fist Full of Rupees
Kya Bunder Janey Adhirak Ka Swad?
(What Do Monkeys Know Of The Taste Of Ginger?)
Why India? Back in the ‘60s Ram Das despite his conviction that all the great gurus were dead or hiding underground, journeyed to India because “there was nothing else to do.” It wasn’t so different for me.
In the Eighties and Nineties fewer and fewer Americans were going to India. The Beatles had abandoned the guru scene over twenty years ago. American interest in Hinduism, had dwindled; the average American had little interest in Sikhism and even less interest in Islamic Pakistan or strife torn Bangladesh. ISKON, the so called Hare (scary?) Krishna cult had left it’s greasy smudge on Western pop culture and then for the most part faded into well-deserved obscurity. The hot practice for spiritual seekers in the Nineties was now Buddhism.
Would going to India now be like reading a book twenty years after it’s removal from the bestseller list? Would it offer any relevance beyond that of the usual “exotic” junket to a undeveloped third-world country.
I had grown up on the music of Ravi Shankar, the writings of Hess, Kipling, Gandhi, Tagore and R.K. Narayan as well as the Merchant Ivory oeuvre, and the films of the Romantic Realist Satyajit Ray, but at some point in my life the interest in the subcontinent became dormant. Then in ‘94 on a bet, I took the first of many yoga classes with two wonderful teachers David Life and Sharon Gannon who always wove into each hatha yoga class, the salient aspects of Hinduism, Sufism, Buddhism and all the isms in-between. I had developed the novice’s great hunger for knowledge and the wisdom of the ancients. The night table by my bed soon disappeared beneath my collection of writings by the great teachers.
It doesn’t take long for the spiritual seeker to see how all great teachers stress two things: the value of essence over form, and the limited value of books. Everything I knew about India was second hand. Knowing that I’d learned to interpret spiritual and mystical teachings through the eyes of my trusted teachers, I knew eventually I would have to see how the reality of India compared with the stories they so vividly painted in my mind. I had to go to the source, the hot spot wherein the essence originated. Would I find sadhus networking on cell phones? Would spirituality be taught in shopping malls? Would I end up sitting in a sweltering hotel room dizzy with shock and panic wondering what in hell was I doing in India asking myself: Oh God, now what do I do? The answer to the last and only question I hadn’t considered before departing, is yes. What follows is the answer to all the other questions, and the inevitable snowballing compilation of still more questions.
~ New Delhi ~
To the anxious ones on
both sides of the water I
would like to raise a toast:
A small cheer for fear.
It’s harder to applaud the
confident ones who as the Indian
cynic says, “go from zero to hero.”
Those who pass beyond fear
Treat the world as I do,
like a wayfarer; a horseman
who stops in the shade of a tree
for a time, and then moves on.
3:35 a.m. the Kuwait Air Jet touches down at Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi — I, am in India. On the way down to the baggage claim my head is swimming with scenes from fifties science fiction movies where astronauts in bulky silver spacesuits open the door to their crashed spaceship and sigh in relief upon making the unlikely discovery that the alien air is breathable. First impression: everything in India is tired and worn out, especially the air, which smells of trash fires and tortured rubber. Has there just been a fire in the airport? In time I will come to recognize this combination of smells as the most prevalent “Scent of India.”
After selecting a baggage cart with minimal crash damage I park it in front of the conveyor and settle in for the inevitable forty-five minute wait for luggage. This is one of those times when a pack of cigarettes could be so handy. To my surprise the backpack arrives with my purple yoga mat still strapped on.
At this hour the wilted, unshaven customs inspectors are too tired or uninterested to look at my bags, never mind in them. I almost feel disappointed. Pre-trip interviews with old India hands have lead me to believe that the rifling of one’s luggage and impertinent questioning by Indian customs inspectors is both a rite of passage and a time-honored ritual. It’s almost as if I haven’t been properly greeted; but hey, I can live with it.
At major airports around India one can buy pre-paid tickets that are priced according to zones. Although the drivers can make more money by cruising the city and negotiating each fare, many prefer to wait around the airport because it saves them wear and tear and their cars and allows them to hang out and shoot the breeze with fellow drivers. With my pre-paid ticket in hand I pass through the final security check and out toward the front doors anticipating throngs of deranged taxi drivers. Not quite yet. Then, just beyond the glass walls of the arrivals lounge, under flickering yellow flourescents and ultra-violet bug lamps, I see them: night-weary taxi-wallahs in dingy gray shirts, pilled vests smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, pacing about like gauchos at a rodeo . . . waiting. One couple ahead of me pushes through the front door and a wave of hot diesel fumes slithers over us like ghost vapors escaping a greasepit. Having spotted me the drivers shove aside the disembarking Indian passengers; frenziedly they gather around me like piranhas besieging a carelessly immersed finger. Walking briskly I push past them in search of a sign indicating the presence of prepaid taxis that will honor my prepaid voucher. I am certain that such a sign exists but it never does show itself. In my confusion I refuse to do business with the first thirty cabbies, but then choose one at random and he leads me out to the parking lot.
Like some gray spirit from a swamp, burnt-stench darkness devours the path at my heels in an attempt to conceal the way of our passing. Nearly a quarter of a mile from the terminal we have only the faint glint of light reflecting off bits of rusty car chrome to serve as guiding stars; the terminal is just a memory. Now the slim suggestion of a sunrise, threatens to peer through the brown and orange miasma of New Delhi pollution. Twenty odd cups of strong Arab coffee consumed over some twenty-six sleepless hours have left me light-headed, frail and jittery; my arms and hands are numb. Fueled by an excess of caffeine, my imagination does a Mexican hat-dance around my sense of reality as I slog through the parking lot. A tabloid headline flashes in my mind: “American writer on India junket India killed by bloodthirsty Taxi-Wallah Cult — HE NEVER MADE IT OUT OF THE PARKING LOT!” As the driver coaxes me on I’m thinking: Let’s get this over with; if you’re going to rob me, do it already!
Far out at the edge of a sea of nearly identical black taxis the driver takes out his keys and unlocks the trunk of his car and indicates that I should throw my backpack inside. So, he actually has a car. Still, I haven’t entirely discounted the possibility that he wants to lead me further away to where he can more discretely dispose of my body, perhaps in some drainage ditch on the outskirts of town.
The air inside the dented black Ambassador smells like it’s just been decanted from the inner chamber of some four-thousand-year-old tomb. A profusion of wilted marigolds garland the car radio. Five-by-seven and eight-by-ten photos of Shirdi Sai Baba, Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna, fastened precariously to the dashboard, obscure much of the view out the windshield. Like a halfhearted insomniac commuter, the sun is sluggishly bulling its way through the dense black clouds reclining on the horizon. Rolling down the smut gray window reveals vague suggestions of humanity beginning to pierce the surrounding gloom. When I try to roll the glass back up the crank comes off in my hand. Around us in the dark morning streets, faceless shadow people rise from out of ditches, scratching, yawning, zipping trousers; hands are wiped on pants. Oxcarts pass by hauling what could be stacks of firewood. The burning smell is overpowering. Our taxi’s windshield looks to be smeared with cow dung and motor oil and I can’t imagine how the driver can see where he’s going. We’re all gonna die! I ask the driver how long he’s been driving here in downtown Beirut, and whether the constant shelling gets to him. I realize I’m gibbering from lack of sleep.
Two bony cows are nudging the cyclone fencing at the edge of the runway trying to get at the graying grass; they pause a moment to watch a 747 glide lazily down onto the tarmac and then move on in search of a less obstinate stretch of fence. A boy on a bicycle stacked high with unwieldy bushels of floral greens throws a handful of grass to the cows as he passes by. The sun is approaching, still cautious as hell — crawling on its belly.
Though shadows are beginning to retreat it’s still quite dark when I arrive at Yatri Paying Guest House. Out in the roadway, a group of people are wandering about looking for — I don’t know what. Someone has, I reckon, lost something of value; why don’t these guys score themselves a flashlight?
Yatri Puri Paying Guest House is on the border of the Paharganj district — back a ways from Panchkuin Marg where tumultuous traffic honks like tortured souls from the automotive underworld making their way to and from Connaught Place. The hotel so highly recommended by my friend Penny is a charmless two-story affair constructed in the characteristically Indian Anonymous Bunker Moderne style, painted a stale margarine yellow. Just beyond hedges that obscure the back entrance there is a circle of white wicker chairs and small plastic tables, strewn about the verandah like party guests who forgot to go home. The table is covered with empty cigarette packs and turned-over soda bottles; the ground is littered with butts and match sticks. The verandah and everything on it, is carpeted with brownish-gray soot. Passing through a hedge into the front court, I look around trying to divine the location of the front desk. As I’m wrestling out of my backpack straps the chowkiddar comes out, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Sorry, we are having no rooms. Not at least until noon.” He offers to recommend comparable lodgings, but I tell him I’m prepared to wait. At this point I’m tired enough to lie down in the dirt. Though I’d called two days before and been warned that I’d have to kill four to six hours before being allowed to take possession of a room, I booked the room anyway because Penny insisted Yatri is the place to stay. Back in New York, the previous Tuesday, just as I had been about to hang up the phone, Stanjay, the owner of the guest house, asked me to bring along a duty-free bottle of Johnny Walker Black for his father and so I did, thinking he might repay the favor by arranging for a mattress or a couch on which I could sleep until a room was available — but no such luck. At this hour Stanjay is busy dreaming about his bank account, his shiny toys and all the perks afforded to him as a member of the bania (merchant) caste. Later when he drops by, fashionably cut hair, polo shirt, extra baggy khaki shorts, sunglasses hanging from his neck on a chain he radiates the affected playboy haughtiness of the arriviste. When I hand him the bottle of Johnny Walker Black dragged half way round the world he barely acknowledges it.
Jogi the chowkiddar is a bit gruff this morning. Perhaps he’s put out at being disturbed in the early dawn by some ridiculous foreigner arriving at this importune hour. But then he surprises me and shows me to the communal bathroom — he recommends a shower to be followed with a cup of tea.
“You are liking chai?” he asks.
“Heck if I know. Bring me some and I’ll let you know,” I tell him.
Most any hot beverage at this point will be potentially comforting.
After a tepid shower I feel semi-human. When I step out into the courtyard Jogi is waiting. He seats me at a wobbly white plastic table and promises to return shortly with a pot of tea. The sooty yellow sky promises to hang there forever, as if the Goddess of Morning, following a night of exhausting sex just can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Off in some distant lane I hear the thin whine of a man over in the next street calling out to waking housekeepers, petitioning them to bring out their used newspapers which he will take later to the recycling plant for ten paise a kilo.
October is the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of the second, milder Summer. India is in a state of heightened fertility. Green tendrils are growing up through cracks in the paving; robins and starlings line courtyard walls the color of weak lemonade. Trellises that line the courtyard are lazily draped with jasmine and hibiscus; vines and creepers are creeping like crazy. Wild lilac orchids and bougainvillea are in bloom. Glossy black crows perch sullenly on a neem tree branch extended gracefully over the wall from the next yard. The ever-present sound of Hindi film music that all writers are contractually obliged to mention whenever writing about Indian cities is in fact rising from some nearby courtyard.
One of the first things one learns about India, is that when chaos, misery and anarchy are at their peak, clarity and serenity can strike without warning. Jogi arrives with the pot of tea. “Drink this, you’ll feel much better.” I’m thinking, it’s gonna take more than chai to make me feel better after thirty-one hours without sleep. In an effort to block out awareness of the stinging, sour pollution I fix my attention on the smell of soap on my skin and the fragrance of the shampoo in my hair which is comfortingly familiar, but then I can’t smell it anymore; it’s the burning stench returning. Eventually, awareness of the smell recedes into the background. It’s the chai — my first glass of chai, which in my hyper aware state tastes like pure nectar, I actually do feel — just fine. Jogi brings buttered toast too. Now I feel like I could go another thirty hours without sleep.
Note: On the back of every commercial vehicle in India there is a large sticker that says HORN PLEASE! or some equivalent. When you think the Hindi film music has stopped, it hasn’t — it’s only the constant honking of horns momentarily drowning it out. Indian drivers work that horn every minute they’re behind the wheel. It’s their way of saying “Hey! hey, look at ME! I exist out here in the crowd! I know you don’t see me, don’t recognize my existence — you think I’m just a non-differentiated speck in a dust cloud, but really — I honk therefore I exist — can’t you hear me honking?” Sometimes while in the back of a rickshaw stuck at a jammed intersection if you look around at the parked cars you may observe some driver sitting in a parked car honking his horn in sympathy with his frozen brethren of the swarm. On my second morning in town, walking down the street, I heard the sound of an ambulance leaving the scene of an accident. When I got to the corner a crowd was dragging the torn-in-half remains of two auto-rickshaws over to the gutter. The moment the vehicles were cleared from the roadway, the drivers stampeded Le Mans style back to their Maruti cars and Bajaj scooters, and rejoined the infinite swarm. After the New Delhi Crash Symphony, Manhattan will seem like a morgue.
Jogi brings more toast and I ask him about the commotion in the street two hours earlier. He tells me a twelve-year-old girl had gone missing. Shortly after sunup the neighbors found her. She’d been on her way to school when a section of the sidewalk caved in sending her plunging into an underground drain. Her feet became trapped in the thick sludge at the bottom and she drowned — never made it out of the parking lot.
I love chai! — tea made with boiled milk, crushed ginger, cardamom, and plenty sweet. Jaggery, used to sweeten the chai, is a type of unrefined sugar which bears a passable resemblance to brown coke rocks. Cuckoos are going nuts up on one of the walls. I look up from my journal and wonder,” Did I just write this last sentence . . . really?” I think I’m going to quickly become addicted to chai.
Before long, another sleep deprived Yatri resident joins me at the table and we immediately fall into a fit of synchronized yawning. Andy, a Brit from Dortford, is like myself, anxious to get a first look at Delhi, and soon we set off, two crumpled narcoleptics, yawning our way down the avenue in the general direction of Connaught Place which we have vowed to find without resorting to taxis.
The first two miles of Panchkuin Marg resemble Hanoi during a shelling. Darkened windows look out from rows of flimsy shelters perched tenuously atop half-collapsed storefronts and crumbling balustrades which were originally manufactured from 100% pure Indian rubble. The late morning air is slow and hazy with saffron yellow dust that rises up from building rubble continually scavenged by desultory tribes of ragpickers. In the street we pass by people who appear to be on their way to jobs or appointments; others seem to be wandering aimlessly hoping some kind person will eventually inform them where it is they were supposed to be headed before someone snuck up behind them and whacked them on the head with that giant cartoon mallet. Nearer Connaught Circle we begin to encounter rows of tiny open-front stores selling hardware and comically flimsy furniture made with polished aluminum plated tubes and pressboard covered with lurid veneers. Initially Andy and I are able to stroll along in a kind of blissful dreamlike anonymity. But as we approach the outer perimeter of Connaught Circle we begin to come to terms with the idea that while in the heavy tourist areas we are targets for the needy.
Can’t say I’m wild about Andy as company; he is a thirtyish conservative Brit, hardly my idea of a traveling companion, and I am, I suspect too weird a guy for him; but for now we accompany each other around the circle while looking for light clothing and sandals. Andy wants to see the Red Fort which I’m not in the mood for today. Fortunately, some tout convinces him it’s closed. A popular opening for scammers in Delhi is: “Oh no Sahib, the very reasonably priced hotel you are wanting is all filled up to the top, but I just happen to know a deluxe five-star hotel right nearby,” or, “The Red Fort is closed now, Baba; there was a gun battle there last week. Just now government is still busy patching up too many bullet holes they are having. Perhaps Baba, you are wanting a visit to famous ancient lizard temple just outside Old Delhi — I am having for you some cousin named Kabir who would be right happy to show you chaps around, too bloody reasonable — just for you sir.” The readiness with which touts are willing to lie, plead or beg is difficult to absorb while in our present state. Alternating between bemusement and outrage we manage to keep our tempers in check, barely.
Throughout Connaught Circle the sidewalk merchants squat haunch-to-haunch beneath the high-arched facades of the hotels and luxury stores to get relief from the already hot early morning sun, smoking, chewing and spitting — vending a prodigious medley of tourist claptrap out of suitcase showrooms. Many just lay their wares out on the sidewalk thieves’ market style. Old women peddle shoddy mass-produced clothing, glass bangles, holographic OM stickers, and mottled posters of Hindu gods and goddesses; paan-wallahs surrounded by chainsmoking customers, squat on carpets, blending custom mixtures of paan on glistening green leaves into which spices and betel nuts are blended in perfect proportion, guaranteeing chewing satisfaction and fashionably blackened teeth. Lutyens inspired columns all along the circle are spattered with dark red stains, resembling the residue of a gory battle or a human sacrifice; but it’s a drying splash of expectorated betel juice. Just as we stop to buy a few bananas a beautiful young girl, maybe fourteen, latches on to Andy’s arm. She begs and pleads; her dirty-faced little sister trails along in her wake like a trampled bride’s maid, watching her sister work hard on Andy. Andy is freaking. She’s not the usual repellent beggar, not so easily turned away. Her need is stunning; not a trace of frenzy in her voice; she’s calm and studied, has him pegged: uptight, sexually frustrated yuppie tourist. Backing away I watch to see how he handles it. He looks as if he’s about to start running. Before he can recover two younger girls turn the corner — the smaller one offers us her sister. Another cliché comes to life.
Andy wants to go with “No eye contact at all.” I opt to avoid the obvious shills while giving a listen to stories of others. Invariably the spiel is preposterous, childishly transparent. Refusing to ask directions Andy walks around with his face buried in his Lonely Planet, wanting to go to all the forts and museums.
While standing at a corner waiting for the street to become crossable, a shoeshine boy (who thinks I don’t see him) flings a large wad of greenish cowshit on my sneaker. He then taps my elbow and offers to clean my sneakers. It’s a medieval Times Square for any Westerner.
Having passed numerous bookstores around the circle I choose one at random and enter. I have remembered my promise to pick up a copy of my friend Meena Alexander’s book River and Bridge which is not presently available in the states. Mina’s asked me to bring back two copies but my bags are so full that I don’t dare buy more than one copy. Weary of always being on the lookout for shoeshine boys I at last decide on a pair of sandals; although this means my backpack is heavier by one pair of sneakers.
There are few places in India where you can safely eat salad, cut fruit or fruit juice. Nirula’s being one of those rarities, we cannot afford to miss the opportunity for a guaranteed pathogen-free breakfast. Nirula’s, as it turns out, is a good place to begin a gradual introduction to Indian cuisine, because every dish, regardless of how authentically Western it may appear to the eye, has been subtly Indianized. There is some flavoring in the buckwheat pancakes I can’t put my finger on; the egg yellows are pale as butter, the brown stuff in the coffee cup is merely coffee-like. Forget ketchup; Indians don’t understand that this crucial dietary staple is a condiment. A blend of one-percent tomato and ninety-nine percent sugar, it should be labeled Tomato Frosting. Tomato juice in India, should be labeled tomato lassi. Afterwards I order dosas for a second breakfast to stoke up. Andy can’t deal with the idea of eating Western food and Indian at the same sitting (He probably gets out of the shower to pee).
Later as we’re wandering down a quiet back street we pass a crumpled man wearing an eye patch — he holds a chapati in one hand while scooping up steaming fingers-full of curried gruel from a dried plantain leaf neatly folded into the shape of a cup. Hurriedly, he folds up the chapati which he slips into his shirt pocket and gulps down the remainder of his meal. A loud belch of satisfaction escapes him as he bends to retrieve a half-smoked cigarette from the street. After straightening and lighting it, he comes trotting up to us, wiping his mouth on his sleeve — the bottom length of which is yellowed from curry. A pattern of yellow stains cover his shirt and his eye patch as well. His white kurta and churidar are gray with age. Quickly getting the standard overtures out of the way he wants to know if we’ve enjoyed the splendors of the Red Fort. I decide to have a little fun with him.
“Yes yes, we’ve been there.”
“What about Safdarjang’s Tomb?” he asks.
“Yup, seen that too.”
Andy catches on quickly.
“Oh yeah, sure mate; we seen that yistaday.” he says.
We give him the “Seen that, done that, been there” routine until he’s obviously at the end of his list of possibilities. I look at him and ask:
A thoughtful bemused look crosses his face, he tongues at a piece of stray rice stuck in a gap where two teeth once stood.
“What about the Palace of Infinite Thrones?”
He’s got me; I’ve never even heard of that one. It sure as hell isn’t in any of the guide books. I turn to Andy.
“Visiting all these forts and museums has exhausted me. I need some sleep — maybe we can go see it later in the day?”
“Where is it?” Andy wants to know.
The tout marks the spot on my street map and promises to meet us there at five p.m. even though we tell him not to. Andy wants to see it and I give in; besides, the fact of it’s not being in the guide books intrigues me. As soon as the tout is out of sight, we flag down a rickshaw and show the driver the spot on the street map.
Rickshaws in Delhi are of the three-wheeled, motorized variety with open sides, essentially a roller coaster without rails. A more visceral form of transport, would be difficult to imagine. On the long ride over we engage in teeth-chattering speculation about the palace. Was it supposed to be the palace of a Hindu or Muslim ruler? Neither of us can recall. Personally I prefer the stately architecture of the Mughal period.
On arrival we find not a temple or palace, but the Sulabh (Hindi for “convenient”) International Museum of Toilets; most definitely not Muslim. We verify the address, but there’s no palace. Well, any place out of the sun is fine with me. The Sulabh Museum is in any case apropos; after all, Delhi is the seat of power in India — in we go.
To either side of the entrance are matching toilets with mother of pearl seats, filled with ferns. “Kinda gives it a nice Edwardian touch," says Andy. This being a slow day, one of the curators, a Mr. Ramesh, offers to give us a tour of the History of the Toilet beginning at 2500 BC and up to 1980. Apparently the years following the 1980 emergence of the first “auto-control toilet” have been fallow ones for toilet R&D. We begin with The Chamber Pot Period where a plaque on the wall tells us “Toilets were the places where many a conspiracy was hatched.” In one red-carpeted room we saw a replica of Louis XII’s high-backed wooden throne which doubled as a toilet. I can tell Andy is very much taken with the ornately sculpted and painted commodes and urinals of royalty. The British have that inbred aristocracy fetish. An Irish friend of mine used to say “You can’t beat it or starve it out of them.”
And then there is the literature of the loo. The Sulabh’s curators have archived some fifteen centuries worth of graffiti. One masterpiece culled from the 19th century collection admonishes: “Suck your fingers, beast — do not wipe them on the wall.” Down the hall we come to a great bookcase, its sagging shelves lined with leatherbound volumes on latrines, waste-disposal systems, and human excretory practices of all cultures throughout the world. Mr. Ramesh tells us how the Sulabh organization’s founder Bindeshwar Pathak, has dedicated his life to restoring human dignity to the 600,000 men and women who earn their living by carrying what the Indians euphemistically refer to as nightsoil. Earlier in the day on our way to breakfast we’d been perplexed and astonished to see an spindly Untouchable woman collecting human excrement from a gutter and putting it into a basket which she carried away on her head. Everybody who’s ever picked up a travel-guide has read how the poor employ cow dung for a multiplicity of purposes — but people poop is just kaka. The Sulabh organization is endeavoring to wipe out this practice by erecting pay-toilets (650,000 to date) all over India. They have also found new jobs for 40,000 former bhangis. Pathak sees himself as the Mother Theresa of the sewer set and while he won’t be winning any Nobel Prizes, he really seems to care. Along the way we learned that Indians invented the first waste sewage system in 2,500 BC., that six centuries later the Mesopotamians created the first flush toilets; that 1st century Romans levied taxes on toilets and that during the 18th century when toiletdom was fast approaching its zenith, the affluent tidied up with merino wool while peasants had to make do with pages torn from books, hemp or pebbles. All said, Andy and I found our visit most edifying. We were leaving the museum when we saw not twenty feet from the entrance, two Arabs squatting down between parked cars for some communal evacuation. Their jellabbas were yanked up above their waists as they smoked kief and palavered away under the midday sun.
Note: In a discussion on the subject of sanitation in India posted on the internet, an Indian statistician estimated that perhaps one in ten-thousand Indian dwellings has an outhouse, and that the percentage of houses with indoor toilets are probably one in forty-thousand.
Back at Yatri, I have a shower then lie down, managing to sleep for perhaps an hour or two. I wake up feeling worse and try to write some postcards. The heat and the airlessness in my room drives me out to the courtyard.
Unable to shake off the grogginess even after a second shower I wander upstairs to find Andy, just nodding out in his room. We decide to go out for dinner and Andy wants to go to a lame-o restaurant that has tourist trap written all over it. I knew I had him pegged. He’s the type you see standing on line in the dead of winter on West 57th Street, waiting patiently to get into Planet Hollywood for a Bimbo Burger and Potato Salad of the Stars. Still, I am grateful to have him as a buffer between me and the rapid succession of anomalous scenarios which might otherwise overwhelm me in my present state.
Panchkuin Marg is one of the vital arteries radiating out from Connaught Circus. On certain well congealed Indian nights, Panchkuin Marg can become unrecognizable as it flows like a river of clouds towards Connaught Circus. Sometimes it is so bad that one cannot, without the aid to artificial lighting, visually verify the existence of the sidewalk below one's feet. Further South and to the west at the airport in Bombay, between December and February, there are few if any, landings or take-offs permitted between 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 a.m. because of the dense smog.
It is bumper car madness on the River Styx as small-bore two-stroke cycles, vespas, diesel-burning taxis and three-wheelers tangle and untangle in the roadway like a rabid ferrets copulating on a griddle.
It is an hour before sunset. While waiting for an empty rickshaw Andy and I are cataloging all the various things the drivers do to individualize their rickshaws. Many have the Hindu trinity or their favorite god or guru on the dash, others wrap the steering handle with colored foil strips; some hang subtle bits of jewelry from the mirrors so that the rickshaw appears to be sporting earrings.
Traffic thins out, there is a lull in the noise — a driver drifts out of the fog bank, red squinting eyes, face black and gritty from exhaust fumes; a smear of coal-black snot runs from his nose. He has the look of a man who's just dug his way out of the earth after spending his winter vacation in a Viet Cong underground city. He tries to hustle us into the rickshaw without first establishing a fee, but we’ve already seen that move, and so negotiations begin. We start at fifty rupees, making counter-offers back and forth until the price is twenty, (the price I originally offered). In a country obsessed by form and ceremony this is one of the most dutifully observed rituals.
As we enter the rickshaw we see another man in the front seat. I don’t know who he is or why he’s there but I turn away and go looking for another cab. The driver gets out and persuades us to come back, saying the man is his brother and would it be okay if he comes along for the ride? We agree and we’re off.
Tonight the pollution is beyond comprehension — the magnitude of the environmental damage is difficult to absorb. Looking like ship wreck victims, a family of five is cooking dinner out on the two-foot wide traffic divider oblivious to the swerving Tata trucks, the constant honking and billowing clouds of noxious smoke. Along the way we stop to buy liters of mineral water and little cartons of ice-cold Mango Frooty Drink. Initially the driver makes good progress along Panchkuin Marg, but encounters especially dense traffic as we merge onto Connaught Circle. When at last we come to a complete halt the driver kills the motor and seats his chin in the palm of his hand. His co-passenger lights up a Gold Flake cigarette. On the ground not two feet away, a man is seated in full lotus, his emaciated legs like delicate onyx tubes folded before him like the legs of a teak card table. His whole being is focused upon the small candle at his feet as he prays in the midst of bumper to bumper traffic with no apparent concern for the cars and trucks whizzing by inches from his folded legs. I look down to him from the back of the rickshaw, tall cold bottle of mineral water held between my legs; I’m impatient at the delay; I’m anticipating his pitch. But he’s not begging just now. This supplicant on his prayer rug made of newspapers filled with stories of car bombings, wife-burnings and political corruption, looks up into the cab of the tempo, face just inches from my feet. He looks like a man who’s just been informed that his suffering will be over shortly; his mantras have been heard in the durbar of the Gods; his petition answered; no more confused and painful reincarnations await him; no further additions will be made to his karmic tab; his bill will be marked paid any day now — the eternal accounting done at last. With a beatific and guileless ruin of a smile he looks up at me. Conjuring up an imaginary champagne glass, he pantomimes the gesture of drinking to my health: Salute! Bottoms up! Bon voyage mon ami! See you in paradise. Our rickshaw thrums to life; we rush on, rumbling and clattering over loose flagstones. Like a sunset at my back, the man’s smile follows me through the twilight down long tree-lined avenues and we are quickly lost in the swarm. The sun slips away, the sky is a smoldering rose collapsing into ash.
Our driver and his “brother” share a cigarette re-filled with smalls chunks of hash on the way to the restaurant. They seem to have lost the will to not laugh. When we get, out the rickshaw-wallah and his friend are sporting grins so wide the top of their heads threaten to detach from their lower jaws and drop back like hinged lids on porcelain German beer steins. Dinner is unremarkable except for the moment when Andy rolls up a Drum Tobacco cigarette and asks the waiter for a light. When the waiter flicks his Bic, Andy insists on buying it, despite the waiter’s obvious distress at having to part with a tool of his trade. Andy stiffs him with a shitty tip. The spirit of British colonialism is alive and well. As we’re exiting the restaurant we pass a tiny old woman with a peculiar presence. Our eyes meet for the briefest fraction of a second and then she passes through a group of boys selling t-shirts piled high on half a ping pong table. I have the strangest sensation — like I’ve just brushed up against some creature of legend like a succubus or a changeling — but I can’t put a name to it just now.
Upon entering the low-to-mid-price Indian hotels one often feels as if transported through time to the fall of Saigon; these characterless examples of post-partition architecture never having been elegant, but at least in some sense competent, are like much of India — badly joined and rotting at the seams. Unhinged light fixtures, supposing they have any bulbs in them, conjure up images of rotten fruit ready to fall from the vine. Wall sockets likewise are too often halfsprung hanging from frayed wires and most screws are only partially screwed into the wall, as if the installer had been suddenly driven away from the job by the afternoon bombing raid. No wall once slapped up, is ever resurfaced with anything other than grimy handprints. Locating a Polaroid of Mother Theresa in miniskirt would be easier, and undoubtedly less time consuming than finding two clean sheets. At one hotel the manager preens and struts with self-congratulatory pride at his ability to provide double bed sheets for the double bed. The use of marble floors to keep the rooms cool are only a testament to the low cost of marble and cheap labor— not any luxury mindedness on the part of the hotel designers. Toilets, when available, are topped with flimsy mismatched seats that wobble and slide around as if to protest the excessive affluence of Western bottoms. Shower stalls are another mystery too ponderous for Indian architects to solve. Economically priced Indian hotels seldom have bath tubs or shower enclosures; just a showerhead mounted on the wall, which is to say, each time you take a shower the entire bathroom takes a shower with you. Everything about low to mid-priced Indian hotels is an invitation to homesickness or a sanctioning of shabbiness. After witnessing the squalid state of the bungalows and palaces (manned by dozens of servants) of the still living royalty of India I found myself when at bookstores, searching (unsuccessfully) through various dictionaries for the Hindi word for “maintenance”.
Thursday Nov. 5 - At 11:30 p.m. Delhi time, it’s 2:00 a.m. in New York. Is this right? I’ve come awake at eleven thirty at night, agitated, deeply depressed, heavily panicked and claustrophobic, in a humid, strange-smelling hotel room. My heart is pounding; stomach is sour. “My God! I’m in India! How could I have done this to myself? I can’t live like this for two months!” The room is spinning. I’m suffering supreme crash from all the caffeine, lack of sleep, homesickness, all that stuff so often mislabeled “culture shock.” I push away the mosquito net and sit on the floor and chant Gayatri mantra and then Ganapati mantra until I can regain a tentative grip on my spiritual axis. After a time the churning in my gut becomes less prominent.
My only real plans for this visit are to try and finish my second (unpublished) novel and wander around India visiting pilgrimage sites. Getting out the computer to write, I plug the voltage spike protector in the wall. It crackles and then emits a puff of smoke. Macintosh says that the Powerbook will work anywhere in the world without any special voltage converter, but I’ve never tried it before. Now an act of faith — I plug in the AC adapter, turn on the Powerbook and . . . voila! It works. Relief! Must find an air-con room fast. Thank God I don’t have any real schedule.
Friday morning I ask Jogi about Stanjay. I’m told he’s sleeping off another hangover. Stanjay’s father, according to several other staff, is quite devout and never imbibes.
At the little table in the courtyard I’m waiting for Jogi to bring tea and toast. The second floor window on the other side of the courtyard is overrun with starlings that lift up into the sky in a cloud of flapping wings when a little Indian girl leans out the window. She calls down questions to me that I wish I understood. Jogi reappears with chai and toast on a tray and sings to the little girl: “Somebody wants a breakfast, somebody wants a breakfast! — I am getting in the kitchen, I am getting in the kitchen!”
When she calls down her order for breakfast, Jogi raises the tea tray skyward, pretending to fling it up to her. She jumps and giggles and pretends to catch it. A young German girl comes out to the courtyard, yawning, towel over her shoulder, enormous red bug bites all over her face — she’s just returned from Rajasthan via third class coach. She looks shattered. “I can’t believe we survived,” she says.
After breakfast, Andy and I head to New Delhi station to book train reservations — his to Gorakpur, mine to Benares. Leaving the fierce Indian sun behind, we pass beneath the arches of the New Delhi Station, a dark and timeless subcontinent unto itself where all bright colors and sweet scents of life have been leached away. It's like an open air men’s room with slot machines; smoky echoes haunt thirty foot ceilings tenanted by crows and bats. The smell of stale diesel smoke and road dust tinged with eau de Cologne clings to everything and everyone. Some two dozen families are camped out on the gray marble floors of the main concourse; few own more than the clothes they wear. While there are long lines for tickets, the longest line consists of men lined up to perform morning ablutions at a four spigot trough in the midst of the commuter chaos in the busiest part of the main terminal. The station is liberally appointed with instructive signs worded in humorously misguided English and we wanted to see them all. After two tours of the station the only placard to elude us was the one that said “Spitting in the station is at all times mandatory”.
A shadowy gent in a wilted turban and ragged army fatigues limps up to us on the stairs leading up to the tourist reservations office. He looks as if at any moment we might unravel like a badly wrapped mummy. This thoughtful stranger has limped through the dense crowds in order to inform us that Tourist Reservations are not open for another hour. He can get us a special deal on pre-opening tickets if we don’t want to wait. Having been warned about this gambit we smile like Buddhas, responding in unison,
“Excuse?” says the rather obvious tout as he follows us up the poorly lit stairs. “You are wanting me to gnaw upon you? Excuse?” he says, his sandals flapping loudly behind us. He continues to follow, asking for a new translation right up until we reach the door of the very-much-open Tourist Reservations Office.
Initially we take our place on the line for buying tickets with rupees. But what we want is the more advantageous line for buying with travelers check in dollars or sterling demoninations. Seated on the bench to the left of us, is a group of stony-faced Muslims dressed in blue and white. As I take my seat the man to my left reaches out his hand and when I do the same he takes mine in both of his. “Asalam alekum,” he says — Welcome. My brain slowly unscrambles and I recall the proper counter-greeting: “Alekum asalam.” He smiles like a lost brother — words aren’t necessary.
Note: While in India the most consistently generous, warmly hospitable and respectful people I met were Muslims and Sikhs. In the beginning I was hesitant to talk to or approach Sikhs or Muslims. With the Sikhs it had to do with a the martial, confrontational bearing of the ultra-orthodox Jat Singh Sikh separatists so numerous in Delhi. With the Muslims it had to do with too many years of exposure to international media’s demonization of Islam. Too many years of believing all persons sporting turbans are bloodthirsty, American-hating fundamentalist terrorists. Now that Soviet’s internecine bureaucracy has completed the lengthy process of emasculating what was once referred to as the “Red Menace”, governments must have a fearsome incomprehensible alien culture against whom they can polarize the middle-American masses. How else to rationalize insane budgets for the CIA and billion-dollar defense contracts? No red-blooded American takes seriously the possibility of invasion by flea-pit Latin dictators, so it’s got to be “them dang A-rabs.” Sure Islamic fundamentalists are scary; but are they any scarier than homegrown loonies like the Aryan Nation? I fear Islamic extremists the same way I fear being struck by lightning or being accidentally shot by a berserk postal worker with an assault weapon.
A kid sits next to Andy — a young American, Rainbow Gathering type — pale drawn face framed by long wavy brown hair and George Harrison goatee circa 1969. He’s feverish. With his arms wrapped around his middle, he’s shivering slightly despite the 90-degree heat. Broke and living with an Indian family he’s trying to assimilate Indian culture and has been eating all his meals with the family and drinking New Delhi tap water which would safely account for the feverishness. He tells us of his travels, how he’s been near to death with gastric poisoning and parasites in more than twenty countries, including Algeria, Romania and Uzbekistan. Some people think stamp collectors are weird: this kid is a human petri dish. We give him twenty rupees so he can get his ticket.
It’s not difficult to get neurotic about water. My friend Krishna Das a much loved singer of kirtans and bhajans, who travels to India often, even filters his bottled water. Urban legends about trickster Indian entrepreneurs refilling old mineral-water bottles and resealing them with sophisticated machines are continually retold. Westerners in India take particular pleasure in the collection of travel survival lore. Like new mothers they love nothing more than dispensing advice to greenhorn strangers on the merits of the latest malaria prophylactic or the competency of an ayurvedic doctor they’ve become fond of. Some caution against certain telltale signs on seals or labels, but there are so many different labels that no-one can possibly keep track. One popular alternatives for safe water are the expensive bottle filters available from camping suppliers. Theoretically one just pours water into the bottle and voila! Instant safe drinking water. It’s lovely in theory but even the best filters won’t get rid of viruses, dissolved chemicals, pesticides and herbicides. Before long even the most cautious traveler becomes too weary, or too fatalistic or too thirsty to exercise such extreme caution. My worst experience with bottled water was in Mysore with some off-brand chemical-tasting water that tried like hell to look like the popular Bisleri brand. Drinking it caused me to have dreams of nurses uniforms floating in a high school swimming pool. Still, a bitter taste from misapplied chemistry is nothing when you stop to consider what black market profiteers are really capable of. During shortages black marketeers are known to add plaster of paris to bags of flour, contaminated water to milk, ground stone and dust to rice and broken glass to sugar.
Contrary to what I’ve read in many Indian travel diaries Indian reservations clerks are for the most part, very helpful. But they can be brusque if your forms are not properly filled out or you don’t know which train you want. Information on forms includes: name of train, number of train, date of application, date of trip, number of passengers, address in India, address at home, sex, age, passport number and more. Unlike a clerk in the USA, the Indian clerks won’t fill in the blanks; they insist on the passenger filling in each space. Dividing their gaze back and forth between the antique computer monitors and the ticket orders written on slips of fragile grayish-yellow paper they systematically scrutinize each line, reading the information out loud, asking the customer to verify each detail so that if there’s a screw-up you have no-one to blame but yourself. The number of tedious details listed on the form can seem ridiculous; but later when you arrive at the railway station at two in the morning on a platform jammed with a thousand passengers and all their relatives pushing past you trying to get to their compartments and you can’t find an attendant to show you to your assigned seat, it’s very comforting to be able to look at the posting taped at the end of each car with the passenger manifest and see your name, rank and serial number along with your seating assignment. If you lose your ticket and someone picks it up you can still board the train and take your seat and when the ticket-wallah comes by, the one who has a passport belonging to a person with the same name on the ticket won’t get flung off the train at the next stop. My second class ticket to Benares, a distance of around eight hundred miles costs me about six dollars.
Very close to the New Delhi Railway Station in the Paharganj district is a colorful market called Bara Bazaar. After buying tickets I convince Andy to come with me to look for Indian clothes. The most direct route back to the bazaar requires pressing past a crush of hungry taxi-wallahs and walking along a long orange brick wall that rickshaw pullers have been urinating against since the days of East India Company — a truly epic stench.
Narrow, crowded Main Bazaar is a lively explosion of cheap clothes, plastic toys, pots and pans, horses, donkeys, Brahma bulls and Allah-be-praised, almost no beeping rickshaw drivers. As elsewhere, merchants in Bara Bazaar can be persistent in their attempts to draw customers into their store, but they are not nearly as abrasive as the highly aggressive Kashmiri shills who frequent Connaught Circle. At least twice a day I am warned about the Kashmiris. One old man from a small town near Leh quoted me a Tibetan proverb: If you meet a snake do not kill it — but never spare a Kashmiri. At one stall a young Pakistani overhearing my complaints about the merchants told me, “Don’t take it so personal — these guys rip off everyone; and in the end it hurts you much less than it does the average Indian.”
Watching Andy haggle with the shop keepers it was hard to know if he was a bare-fisted rapacious aggressor or simply a good bargainer. In any case I had to admire his style. At one stall a merchant quoted him a price on a pair of hideous ready-made pajama pants. Andy lifted the pants up in the air for all to appraise and said in a loud theatrical voice, “Oi dunno, Oi’d ave to ask me Mum before spendin’ that much money on a pair of trousers!”
Then, stepping out of a stall with a bag full of cheap ready-mades I backed away to watch in astonishment as a boy pedaled by on a three-wheel bicycle cart at the back of which were bales of fragrant alfalfa piled seven feet higher than his head. Atop the bales three ancient grannies in threadbare saris were perched in perfect comfort. High above the bazaar they chatted away in the late morning sun as if at high tea in an English garden.
The process of falling in love with India had begun. I knew then I would return many times.
Our next stop was the dilapidated Nepalese Mission where Andy was to apply for his visa. I felt very prepared and superior because I’d already obtained mine in New York. From there we went to the Amex office where we learned that Andy had left his passport at the Nepalese mission. While we’re waiting on the queue the room was gradually overrun by French and German Hippies. The French hippies, all filthy and sunburnt, exhibited miles of attitude, behaving as if looking trashy were a Gaulic invention for which they possessed the exclusive patent. Socially they were a dead loss, but visually, (if one didn’t look too hard) they did have a certain nostalgia value. Like, Hey Man, like Summer of ‘69 Man, groovy — I LOVED IT! Andy’s lack of ID turned out to be “No Problem.”
New Delhi when it’s in gear can be a fantastic ride that takes me right out of myself. Having only arrived in India it was difficult if not impossible to focus on any one thing long enough to evaluate, distinguish or tag it. I just knew I was in love with the un-Westerness, the odorous, biblical, barefooted rawness of it all.
Many people willfully indulge in the illusion that the real India (or any “third-world” country) is as readily comprehensible as the spoon-fed India viewed on public television, by seeking out palatable analogs. Such parallels can be found in India but they are neither striking nor convincing. The similarities are as superficial as that of sugar and salt. India is fraught with paradoxes which outdistance the mind. Those who don’t learn to go with it, go insane or simply go home. We Westerners have this way of looking for our reflection where their is no mirror; an especially futile pursuit for the Westerner in India. On the merits of solitude Swami Tapovan, a saint from the Himalayas, once said: “Even as the face is seen reflected in a mirror, the Soul perceives itself in the stillness of nature.” Perhaps it’s that lack of reflection which makes India such a fertile ground for spiritual growth. When traveling around through rural India a kind of cultural solitude arises out of an absence of Western values, Western language and Western faces, inducing the spiritually inclined traveler to look more fully inwards, thus accelerating mechanisms of self-perception.
Traveling in India, whether in the small town, countryside, honky-tonk or upper-middle-class neighborhoods, one encounters folks eager to engage you with a pop quiz. Your gaze perhaps falls upon some curled up, out-of-date Hindu calendar in a shoe shop and a man in a khaki safari suit turns to you and says, “You are knowing who is the Lord Shiva?” Then you are treated to a twenty minute recitation of the qualities of Nataraj or perhaps the most up-to-the-minute deconstruction of his cosmic dance of grief. However more often than not, one seemingly innocent question leads to a lengthy grilling that begins like this:
Hello, what is your good name sir?
From what country are you hailing?
What is your occupation?
Do you earn a lot of money? How much?
Everyone in your country is rich — isn’t that right?
Are you married? Have any children?
Is your wife traveling with you?
In the beginning I met all queries with patient civility. Many after all, are only indulging an innocent curiosity. But after the millionth time it becomes incredibly tiresome. In a country where choosing romantic love over arranged marriage is still rare, the male libido is almost exclusively focused on the gathering of money and prestige. There is a fetish-like breathlessness in the way Indian men constantly ask about my job and salary. Finding that too often the questioner was attempting to peddle some worthless piece of crap or engage me in some pathetically transparent rip-off scheme I begin to tell them to mind their own business or just to piss off. Later it became more fun to invent new answers.
“Hello, What is your good name sir?”
“Burroughs, William Burroughs.”
“From what place are you hailing?”
“What is your occupation?”
“I’m an abortionist and a part-time mink farmer.”
“How much do you earn?”
“I’m paid in blood; I keep it all in a phallus-shaped swimming pool.”
“Are you married; have any children?”
“I have two boys ten and twelve.”
“Is your wife traveling with you?”
Breathing like Darth Vader, rolling my eyes and licking my lips lasciviously, I rub my crotch and say. “Wife? I didn’t say anything about a wife. Just BOYS”
After being asked about the wealth of “my people” so many times, I began to realize that no matter how carefully I explained the reality of the situation, I was making no real impression on my interrogator. It is inconceivable to the average rickshaw-wallah that any other country could be as poor as India. People have been telling him all his life how famous India is famous for its poverty. Daily he picks up Westerners sporting enormous aluminum framed backpacks, multi-buttoned wristwatches, dayglow walkmans, sneakers that look like part of an astronaut’s ensemble, and little high-tech cameras with whining zoom lenses. When he sees a Westerner walking down the street in wrinkled kurta and lunghi he assumes that they are merely vacationers, dressing up in costumes and play-acting at some Prince and the Pauper fantasy. And most of the time he’s probably right.
On some level he needs to believe that on some sunny day, a wealthy philanthropist from a foreign land might come along and, with a snap of his fingers, deliver him from his life of drudgery.
There is a saying repeated in Sufi literature throughout the ages (and for that matter throughout the history of the world) that “A lie may be the truth” - that reverberates whenever someone has tried to communicate a truth which is not already commonly believed.
Note: A lot of Old India hands still go about bemoaning the deterioration of Lutyens and Lutyens inspired architecture in New Delhi. As for me, I say who cares? Lutyens’ work here only reminds me of Washington D.C. Though my mother lives there I can barely stand to visit the place. The American capitol has the aesthetic vibrancy of stale air in a unplugged icebox.
Friday night I sat up reading Mala Sen’s book on Phoolan Devi. Having made the mistake of taking a nap during the day, night sleep is still impossible. I feel okay but wish my clock would adjust itself.
Saturday morning: the courtyard is cool, my head is aching. Too much Indian sun, too much grit and dust in my eyes. Chanted a little, listened to David’s yoga tape. Though I don’t eat dairy, I couldn’t resist the great Indian ice cream my friend Barbara raved about and now, this morning, I’m wanting more. It tastes like the ice cream I ate as a kid — nothing like it in New York. Later in the day I return to New Delhi Station and get my ticket bumped up to first class sleeper for a few rupees more.
Recalling the hippie kids at Amex I try to imagine my friends David and Sharon the first time they came to India, cool, sweet hippie kids from the states: I’d give a hundred bucks to have a picture of them from that time.
Crisp buttered toast and hot chai, very sweet, a haiku for the tastebuds, so relaxingly seductive — not hard to imagine doing this for a lifetime.
Let us not allow the freshly painted colors to fade too quickly. Even when we are parted these colors will remain brightly in our memories.
Traditional Bihari village song sung to newlyweds
After exchanging addresses I wished Andy a fond farewell and made for New Smelly Station where I was quickly overwhelmed by the confusion of the platform at night with continuous tinny-voiced announcements echoing around in Hindi, the omnivorous babel of simultaneous Hindustani, Punjabi and Urdu at top volume, red-vested porters, pants rolled up to their knees, hustling immense steamer trunks down the platform, magazine and newspaper men calling out lists of available publications, vendors of fried foods, barefoot cigarette boys and screeching chai-wallahs pacing maniacally up and down the platform with chai glasses rattling around in battered metal baskets.
On the dimly lit platform passenger manifests are difficult to read, but with help, I find my compartment four minutes before the train is scheduled to depart. I ask the two grandfatherly men in my compartment to keep an eye on my bags and then run out on to the platform to buy two bottles of mineral water which I’ve been consuming at an amazing rate, amazing because at home I so seldom drink water. When the ticket-wallah enters the compartment to verify our tickets he is wearing a worsted wool suit, pale gray shirt and black socks with no shoes. My traveling companions are the two pleasant grandpa types and a severe looking Sikh with very little to say. The Sikh manages to look very imposing even wearing a powder blue salwar and a pair of those effeminate looking tennis sneakers favored by doddering Times Square theater matrons. The train is barely out of the station when one of the older men having finished his chai, tosses the plastic cup out the window along with the ball of tinfoil in which his lunch had been packed. Sensing my lack of ease over his littering he says, “Don’t worry yourself, I am not a polluter. Nothing thrown out onto the tracks goes to waste. The poor can usefully recycle anything!” Out in the passageway two small boys, ignoring their ammah’s command to behave, run back and forth past our compartment making comical gestures and charming the hell out of the old men who wave back and smile at the high-energy kids. Our compartment is awash with sunlight and country smells of cut grass and cattle. During a quiet moment when conversation has abated, I begin to doze. Then through the open windows comes the startling roar of a southbound train crashing through the sonic envelope; a thump of hot, diesel choked air shoves through the compartment as the Howrah Express goes by horns blaring, eating up track, bearing down on New Delhi.
As yet the heat hasn’t been too bad, but I’m still cotton-brained from jet lag and wishing the overhead fans weren’t so ineffective; a pointless wish. When the dhaba-wallah comes through the car taking orders for dinner I realize the only provisions I’ve brought along are two bottles of water and some packets of cashew biscuits. I haven’t a clue as to whether railway food is safe, but I suppose I have to risk it. It’s that or no dinner.
Outside in bright sundrenched fields women are drying out twenty-five-foot lengths of peacock blue and electric green sari silk on the parched yellow grass. Large white oxen graze along the trackside. At the next stop an elderly couple gets on and take seats next to the grandpas. The husband is amiable and talkative; his gently authoritative manner makes him a prime candidate for the sobriquet Baba. His wife is not certain her old man should be associating with the likes of a dubious no-caste rocker like me — definitely disapproves. Interesting dynamic here. For a time at least, he is quiet. The sardarji silent, stoic, sits to my right with arms folded like a sentry at a gurudwara.
The train slows and for a long stretch, travels no faster than twenty miles per hour. Within an hour I spot five three-legged cows among the mud huts and the trackside shitters. The sardarji having sat rigid as a mannequin for the last hour rises to his feet and folds the bunks up to the wall allowing more head room. As he takes his seat again he starts a tentative conversation with Baba, whose last name is Mr. Birla; I sense a more convivial ambiance beginning to emerge. At the next stop the grandpas get off. I watch them stop on the platform as they inspect, and then reject, food from vendors whose push carts are piled high with fried foods resembling the fare offered at Lower East Side cuchifrito stands. Beggars pass by repeating their mantras of wanting — chai-wallahs call out Chai-ahh! Chai-ahh! seeming more plaintive at this station than others. One of them stops at our window but the Birlas have brought their own food including a large thermos of chai which they are kind enough to share with me. When the chai-wallah looks in the window he sees Mr. Birla pouring steaming chai from the thermos, winces sourly, then moves on to search elsewhere for satisfaction. As I give Mr. Birla my cup for filling I think of what John Giorno said to me about always having chai poured into one’s own cup. This is the first time I’ve followed his advice. Until now, I’ve only seen chai drunk from delicate little glasses and so I feel a little self-conscious about my traveling glass, a big old souvenir plastic coffee mug, from a Maryland rest-stop on I-95. Mr. and Mrs. Birla look maha elegant as they take their tea here in the first class compartment. The sharing of tea loosens up the atmosphere and conversation begins to flow more freely. Baba begins with the regulation queries and I courteously supply the all the standard replies. But when he asks me if I’m married, instead of merely saying I’m single I mention that I’m a widower; perhaps for the sake of a reaction; perhaps to see if there’s some way to challenge the banality of the questions. Baba gives me a funny look, then smiles.
“Not so bad for you," he says.
This seems at first an outrageous statement.
“Because I’m an American?”
“Partly, but also because you are a man. This is having special significance here in India.”
Baba relates what he says is a very famous story in India, about a woman named Bitto who lived in Agra around 1973. She was twenty-four, a widow since the age of sixteen.
In Northern India the death of her husband often signals the end of any semblance of a social life. While sati is virtually nonexistent, widows are expected to redeem themselves by honoring the dead husband for the rest of their life. Too often this amounts to a life of virtual slavery in the home of the wife’s in-laws. After her husband’s death Bitto lived in the family home rarely if ever leaving the house. Then one day the unthinkable happened. She fell in love with a man from a neighboring village and over the objections of her fundamentalist relatives declared her intention to remarry. In the ensuing fracas over the engagement, her sister-in-law was wounded by gunshot; an uncle and a policeman were shot dead. Morally outraged villagers chased the young lovers into the fields and with the help of the local police, beat them for hours and then in a final show of Brahman piety, drowned them in a rice paddy. Another triumph of family values. As brutal and cruel as the story is it doesn’t sound especially foreign or exotic to me. It’s an extension of the sort of thing I remember from early childhood; kids getting the shit beat out of them because they talked funny or because their mother made them take violin lessons, or carry an umbrella to school on a rainy day. All cultures have their stories about mobs of ignorant people, neophobes who rage at any evidence that things can be different or better for those with the courage to do something new, bitterly resenting those who succeed in escaping the narrow confines of the lives outlined for them by family and society.
While writing in my journal the conversation between Mr. Birla and the sardarji slips back and forth between Hindi and English. A handful of polite questions are posed to me by the sardarji, but always via Mr. Birla, never directly to me.
Two hours out of Delhi the concrete bustees dwindle and are replaced by miles and miles of windowless jhuggis with corrugated tin roofs and mud walls, unbaked bricks and buffalo dung. Most are so low to the ground that only children can stand up straight inside. In many of the yards women squat in the hot sun compressing cow dung into little pies which are then stacked in yards for use later as fuel for heating or cooking fires. Each quarter acre plot has its little shack and 8x9 back yard facing the rails. Most have the obligatory cow tethered to a stake. With such a surfeit of cows wandering around loose in India, I wonder at first why these are tied up. Then it occurs to me that it’s probably a good idea to keep a thousand pounds of ambulatory beef roped to a tree when your house is chiefly constructed out of mud and buffalo shit. I wonder how dry the stuff has to get before it stops attracting flies. Haven’t these guys heard of gingerbread?
Note: Not every inhabitant of the bustee is a ragged beggar or migrant worker. Often, clerks and low level management execs inhabit the rickety tar paper shacks for the sake of economy. It’s not unusual in the early morning hours to see men in finely tailored suits with alligator skin attachés emerge from these shacks as they leave for their job at the brokerage.
There is a changeless quality in the passing scenery. It appeals to me in a way I am not yet able to fully quantify. Gazing out at scenes which in all likelihood looked the same five hundred or even two thousand years ago, I, a Westerner, tend initially to equate it all with scenes from the Bible, not the Gita. Endless stretches of Indian landscape pass by without a sighting of a telephone line, a tractor, an electric light or any technology more modern than fire or the wheel; just banana trees, apple orchards, green rice paddies, sugar cane, bamboo, blue-green agavé cactus and farmers bumping down dirt roads on bullock carts. Like most people I am often apprehensive of change. In this bardo where things rarely change in any appreciable way, I find myself in a state of high-grade contentment, sitting on the floor of the train with my legs hanging out the door in the warm dusty breeze, doing absolutely nothing. Aldous Huxley who traveled extensively through India, described himself as “an unrepentant addict” to the vice of “high speed tourism” comparing the balm of long Indian train rides to opium, a mindless euphoria unsurpassed by any cinema.
Before leaving for India I wondered if I would see any wandering ascetics. It turns out there are holy men popping up everywhere — you can’t swing a dead cow without hitting a sadhu.
I’m feeling decent; just have to remember to keep up the water intake. While acclimating to the heat, I have during these first few hours on the train, been nodding in and out of consciousness as if I were trying to shake off the effects of major anesthesia.
Now, further away from New Delhi the little country stations are increasingly overrun with monkeys. When I comment on this to Mr. Birla he immediately calls a Monkey Alert which sends everyone scrambling to move their possessions further away from the windows. Monkeys and junkies have much in common, not the least of which is the compulsion to snatch anything providence drops in their path, regardless of value or the lack thereof. Nothing makes Cheetah feel more exhaultedly chimp-like than grabbing Granny’s eye glasses and flinging them out the window into the path of the oncoming Tippu express — there are even stories (likely apocryphal) of monkeys resetting train railings and causing derailings and other unplanned detours. Next stop is Hapur. The tranquil country air and the soft light falling across the land are so inviting that I want to just get out and lie down in the grass, listen to the crows caw. Next stop Kankathi.
In conversation about Dr. Ambedkar, the Untouchable lawyer who drafted the Indian constitution, and is to Untouchables what Dr. King is to Black Americans, I learn that this month is the fortieth anniversary of his death. Unlike King, the pragmatic Dr. Ambedkar’s leadership was based on the strength of his incisive political savvy rather than his spiritual cache. A precise and pragmatic thinker, Ambedkar never permitted his political strategies for the liberation of Untouchables to be constrained by the Partition boundaries defining Pakistan and India, which were founded on religious lines. Untouchables then, represented better than 20 percent of the potential vote. Though Gandhi had courted the Untouchables with impassioned speeches about breaking down class barriers, few Untouchables ever believed the powerful Brahmin majority would ever accept them as equals. If Ambedkar had persuaded his followers to convert to Islam it would have assured the ascendance of the Muslim League greatly decreasing the majorality of what was widely perceived as Gandhi and Nehru’s dream of a Hindu Raj with which they had hoped to replace the exiting British. This however would have only placed Untouchables in the camp of another minority, one which over the last one-hundred-fifty years, had always been kept on a short leash by the Hindus. Instead Ambedkar convinced his followers to embrace a more independent stance as a kind of neo-Buddhists, who, since his passing, worship Ambedkar more than Buddha.
While there are to this day cynics who persist in the belief that Gandhi’s championing of Untouchables was based not in ethics or charity but in practical political calculation, those who read Gandhi’s autobiography will have difficulty supporting this theory. Much confusion arose out of the fact that Gandhi supported the caste system, but not Untouchability, out of a starry-eyed belief that the irrevocably corrupt caste system could be revamped as a secular organization of labor guilds untainted by the devices of class and race. Long before he became a major player in Indian politics he and his wife adopted a little girl named Lakshmi, an Untouchable.
“That any person should be considered untouchable because of his calling passes my comprehension: and you, the student world, who receive all modern education, if you become a party to this crime, it would be better that you received no education whatsoever.”
Excerpted from the statement of policy at Gandhi’s first Satyagraha Ashram in 1915.
A khaki cop, smartly shouldering a scuffed and pitted Enfield bolt-action rifle, enters, nods politely and seats himself. He takes no notice of the three young boys hanging from a handrail outside my window, taking turns peeking into the compartment. Not thieves or troublemakers, just curious kids out for a joyride in the countryside. Some stations further on, the afternoon has faded away. The boys have jumped off to catch trains back to where their families are waiting — all the boys but one. When I finally catch him looking in, our eyes meet and he smiles. He’s singing the refrain from the 60’s pop tune Kiss ‘em Goodbye : Nah na nah na nah na na - hey hey goodbye. It sounds strangely mournful coming from this young Indian boy with the vagrant daylight dying in his eyes. At the next station a chai-wallah is coming down the platform and when I turn to ask the boy if he’d like some chai he’s gone. As the train is pulling out of the station I see him again, clearly now. He’s fifteen or sixteen, wearing a green Move With Motil T-shirt. His left leg and foot are a twisted mess. He limps along purposefully, walking-stick in hand, smoking a beedi. It’s easy to see the kid is a worker, and will never be a beggar. Just past the station the train picks up speed and as we round the bend flocks of egrets and cranes lift up from a lotus covered pond, pale stars begin to emerge. A group of children, emerge through a cloud of pale dry earth kicked up by the cattle they are driving back to the home fields for the night — they stop at the crossing to watch our train go by. Just when I've forgotten the boy I’m reminded of him by a puff of beedi smoke drifting back to me from the open window in the next compartment. Breezes shiver through stands of slender bamboo sending waves of red dust rising up to powder-coat the slice of sun now sinking into the rice paddies. Cookfires appear on the horizon like stars in the meadow. Bending forelegs first, wild oxen are laying down in the fields, a sign perhaps, that rain is imminent. So drawn by the stillness, I am no longer on a train. Maybe . . . I never was.
Sitting up . . . nodding out . . . I wake again to look out at the brightest moon I have ever seen. Its reflection glides along the blue-mirrored surface of rice paddies tenanted with sleeping birds. It’s an enchanted lunar-landscape but my eyes won’t stay open.
It's times like this I regret my lack of formal education. I've never had a proper history with words — never possessed a painter’s vocabulary. How to adequately express the beauty of the countryside? I am as Rilke said: “In the presence of something so intensely real that all our rational categories are useless.” India is better than dreams, better than words.
The next time I awake I look around the compartment. My traveling companions have fallen silent, evidently every bit as travelworn as myself. The train has halted in a station, there’s not a soul on the platform. The stillness is broken only by the purging of air brakes and the idling engine of the locomotive. I doze off again only to be awakened by a hand reaching in through the window; long fingers curl, gripping my shoulder, then touching my face. It’s nothing; just a blind man trying to find his way aboard the train to Benares. I lean against the wall with a folded up towel tucked under my head and continue with my nap.
The sardarji seems increasingly pensive and has been getting up regularly to take walks along the corridor, perhaps to stretch. He’s a big guy. Later, when the Birlas have finished their dinner, Mrs. Birla begins to warm up to me. Her husband has told her I’m an American journalist. Still, by standards of Hindu society I lack pedigree. But Baba has pleaded my case to his wife and she has seen fit to make allowances for my eccentric appearance because I am a journalist. Women in general here — most especially in the north — tend to be acutely brisk, barely courteous when approached, until one’s credentials or specific purpose have been certified to their satisfaction — it’s only proper.
Mr. Birla and I discuss at length the difference between Hindi and Tamil versions of the Ramayana. Though I have read four or five versions of the Ramayana I recognize that my understanding of book is still sadly superficial. I tend to get confused about the distinctions that separate them. Not so Mr. Birla; he knows his Ramayana and is partial to a Tamil translation that portrays Ram’s brother as the gossipy instigator of the conflict between Ram and Ravana. I remember only now as I’m entering these notes, the affinity of dark-skinned Tamils and Dravidians for the Sri Lankan rakshasas, and how they celebrate Ravana as a great hero and a martyr. In one Tamil version of the Ramayana a section is added in which the reader learns that in a previous reincarnation, the Demon King Ravana was once a great yogi to whom one day, Brahma appeared. In this version Ravana is told that after thousands of rebirths he only has three more to endure — but in exchange for his agreeing to be the ultimate bad guy (thus a dynamic crucial to Vishnu’s lila as Ram) he can skip two of his reincarnations and join the ranks of the great rishis in heaven. The boon to Ravana is not so much fewer rebirths to endure - but more importantly - that he should die (and obtain liberation) at the hands of beloved Ram Himself.
It is often said that the majority of contemporary Brahmins believe themselves descendants of the light-skinned heroes of the Mahabharata. Still, not a few Brahmin academics have gone to great lengths to refute the racist implication that dark-skinned Dravidians are viewed as descendants of the rakshasas, and the bear and monkey races that comprised Ram’s armies in the Ramayana. Tamils, Malayalees and Sri Lankans — who have never heard of the term empowerment— have in their inimitable way embraced the theory and turned the death of Ravana into one more reason to have a festival. And Hanuman the monkey king has become one of the most beloved Ishtadevatas of bhaktas everywhere. Ask any Hindu police officer or military man and chances are good that he’s a devotee of Hanuman.
During a lull in the conversation the hefty metal window slips from its catch, comes guillotining down and I pull my elbow away from the sash just in time to save myself a trip to the hospital. My fellow passengers respond with an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Note: Railway food: Kill or cure? Taste? Pretty tasty! Big surprise; it’s really okay. Never having developed a taste for it I don’t really know the etiquette of eating Indian style. Feeling very self-conscious I peel the burnt-brown tinfoil from the tops of the little stacked trays, eating everything, licking fingers, embarrassed to find the rice in the bottom tray after eating all the dal and vegetables. Later I would learn how other railway prepared foods, such as eggs or vegetable cutlets, could be a major crapshoot, easily turning your stomach rancid for days.
Conversation in the compartment turns to the temples at Ayodhya and Babri Masjid, two sacred places which have been the source of fierce contention between Hindus and Muslims. In discussing Ayodhya, where a seventeenth-century mosque (razed in ‘92 by mobs of Shiv Sena goons with the full approval of the right-wing BJP, a party of unrepentant Hindu chauvinists with whom they work hand-in-hand) had been built on the foundations of a former Hindu temple, said to be the birthplace of Ram, Mr. Birla tries to make a point by quoting Guru Nanak and though I understand the point he’s trying to make, the quote really has no context within the confines of our present conversation. I supply the quote that he had actually intended. At this, the sardarji brightens up and for the first time, speaks directly to me. “You quote the Tenth Guru?” His shyness has suddenly dissipated. From there the conversation really takes off. A short time later while discussing Untouchability he confides that Sikhism teaches absolute equality and that in theory caste discrimination doesn’t exist in the Sikh community; but he says in fact, Untouchables converted to Sikhism, called Mazhabis, are very much treated as second-class citizens. This is especially ironic in light of the way Sikhs themselves are generally regarded by Hindus and Muslims as rustics and low-brow bumblers. While Sikhs are the subject of endless “Polish jokes,” they are often the ones telling the jokes. Sardarji told me this one about three friends arguing over the origins of Hanuman, the monkey god from the Ramayana who while spying on Ravana the king of the Sri Lankan demons, caused the destruction of the great demon palace and all of Lanka.
A Hindu was nonplused by the assertions of his two friends. “How is it possible for Hanumanji to be a Muslim?”
The Muslim says, “We are having Rehman, Ahsan, and Sulaiman (Solomon) and many other Muslim names ending in aan. Who is to say he wasn’t one of ours?
The Hindu turns to the Sikh and says: And what about you? How could Hanuman have been a sardarji? What an fantastic thing to say! Sikhism came into existence more than a thousand years after the writing of the Ramayana.”
“It’s quite obvious,” said the Sikh. Here is a fellow who spies on behalf of a woman he has never met, in the home of man who bears him no personal enmity and while doing so, lights his own tail on fire and burns down an entire city. Who but a Sardarji is capable of such things?”
My sardarji is Jat Singh, a farming caste which includes Sikhs and Hindus alike. Tonight he is on his way to a Punjabi farming district in Harayana to visit his older sister. In 1975 when Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards, Hindu rioters in Delhi murdered nearly three thousand Sikhs and left some twenty-five thousand homeless — all in the course of four days. The Sardarji’s brother-in-law, a mali (gardener), had lived for twenty years in Delhi cultivating a garden which supplied all the flowers used daily for the pujas of the wealthy Hindu family who employed him. During the riots he was set upon while trimming the family’s prize rose bushes. After pouring kerosene on him, the mob, using long sticks, pushed and prodded the flaming gardener into the middle of the street where he wouldn’t inadvertently set ablaze any properties owned by Hindus. Following the riots the Sardarji invited his sister to come live with him and his wife but she would not be persuaded for fear of being a burden.
“She sits around in her yard all day talking to the chickens or just to herself. No-one ever comes to visit her. So she talks to the chickens to keep from losing the gift of speaking.”
We talk late into the night; all the other compartments in our car have their lights off. Later in the corridor on the way to the bathroom I slip past Sardarji as he’s taking a nip from a bottle of some sort of Indian liquor. I pretend not to notice. Later we all agree to finally put out the lights and let Mrs. Birla sleep. As I’m putting down my sheet and blowing up my pillow, Sardarji pulls out a little blue plastic travel bag and says:
“Don’t sleep hungry.”
“I just ate two hours ago,” I tell him.
“Railway food,” he says with a dismissive, not-fit-for-a-dog look on his face. He zips open his blue plastic travel case and pops the lid on the tiffin carrier. We both pause to sniff at the pungent aroma rising from the containers.
“This, Punjabi food.” he says as he opens the little containers filled with basmati and vegetables prepared by his wife. One quick whiff and already my eyes are watering. Anticipating that his wife wouldn't have packed a knife and fork I hang my bottle of mineral water out the window and wash my hands before touching this farmer’s repast. The food is pungent as hell with miles of flavor. One by one he unfolds and hands to me, moist little purithat go down like silk; which is a good thing because he won’t let me stop eating them. He keeps handing me food until I’ve eaten more than half his meal.
In the middle of the night I wake up and go to the bathroom and take my first dump on an Indian toilet which not to put too fine a point on it, is two footpads astride a hole in the floor. I manage to drop my load in the shaking and bumping compartment without shitting on my pants cuff — I’m overjoyed. When I return to the compartment the train is just leaving the station, the Sardarji’s bed is empty. Mr. and Mrs. Birla are fast asleep on their bunks. The night sky is streaked with cobalt clouds washing away in the southern slipstream as it rushes back to Delhi. Between the windows, where the wall curves up to meet the ceiling, the blue nightlight glows like a sapphire bindi jewel above two rusty eyes; the four little ceiling fans are whirring in their cages. I lie down sleeping soundly until 4:00 when the Birla’s get up to leave. Baba leans in from the corridor and takes my hand in his. “Lock the door Bhai, and pay no attention to knocking” he says, and then they’re gone. While waiting for sleep to come again my head is filled with fantasies about dacoits stopping the train and robbing it. I sleep peacefully.
At 5:15 the sky is beginning to pale over spectral wetlands shrouded in drifting mustard-colored fog. Gradually, discernible shapes emerge from the darkness as the Indian countryside re-creates itself one more time. Palms and banana trees are gathered at the side of the trackbed, perhaps to watch the train pass — maybe they’re waiting to cross the tracks when no-one is looking.
People speak of the convenience of super-duper maha-express trains but I find myself treasuring each station we stop at. They’re like pages in an Indian picture book.