been back from India for one week; although the passage of time and getting back
into the routine of my life in New York already sometimes feels like light
years past. My body clock is still
adjusting. A couple of days this past week I fell asleep at six in the evening
and rose eight or nine hours later to start my day when I should have still been
sound asleep. And while the rhythm of body is gradually getting back
to normal, I hope to cling on to what will be a new normal for my conscious
A friend of mine said that India would change me. I wasn’t sure how to interpret her comment at the time. Was it a change that was needed? Would I be a better person, more understanding of cultural, individual and even different political points of view? Even before embarking on this new world exploration for me -- and that is truly what it was, a journey outside my comfort zone as another friend said to me – I always thought of myself as being fairly tolerant of different lifestyles and ways of thinking (with the exception of right-week political conservatism!). I realize now this was not the case entirely and that it was after sharing meals and Masala chai (tea mixed with ginger and herbs and served with a frothy top), time and space with Hindis and Sikhs and devotees of Krishna that brought me to a different level of enlightenment that I hope will be my new normal and of which I won’t lose sight.
When friends and colleagues have queried me with the proverbial “how was your trip?” my response, without hesitation, was and will remain “Wonderful! It was just the way that I wanted to see and experience India!” There was one small component of it that I could have lived without but only because it was roughing it more than I normally care to. It gave me some concern about my long-term health and well-being, prompting me to begin a regimen of prophylactic antibiotics for the next several days. There was also some self-doubt about why I even undertook this adventure and what I was expecting, beginning with disembarking the plane at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. The airport resembles a warehouse dimly lit with florescent bulbs and offers few if any amenities. It is hardly a worthy gateway to India’s center of both commerce and Bollywood. Although had I scheduled my trip a few weeks later, I would have arrived at the world’s newest airline terminal and showcase for thousands of ancient artifacts and contemporary works of art!
Once I got through customs and retrieved my luggage I felt about as alone in the world as I ever had in recent memory. Firstly, I was surrounded by people speaking a language that I knew I would never catch on to. In real time – not counting the years of just talking about it – I had been trying to get to India for two days. Having finally realized the trip I had talked about taking for years, for some reason I was expecting a more inviting and welcoming environment where “everyone speaks English” (certainly not the case) and where getting to my very Western luxury hotel would be without a hitch.
My other first impression of this grittier side of India, which I had read about but which is hard to fully imagine until experienced it was the number of homeless dogs roaming the airport property and, for that matter, most of India. I thought about an animal-loving friend whose initial instinct would have been to try to help these strays but becoming quickly overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. Variations of this first impression would play out each time I set out for a new destination and a new and unanticipated experience. But each time, to quote my “friend” Blanche DuBois, I got by through the kindness of strangers, whether it was someone helping me make a phone call or making sure that I got onto the right commuter train or bus. As alone as I initially felt I soon became very comfortable exploring on my own this very foreign land.
The stereotype of people begging everywhere you go in India is exaggerated, at least where I visited. Yes, there are situations like the beggars fringing the causeway leading up to the Haji Ali mosque. And occasionally, but not always, I would be sitting in traffic to move and be approached, usually by a young woman begging. Raising her fingers to her lips while nodding towards the tiny infant in her arms, what she couldn’t communicate by using a shared language she could by using hand gestures and facial expressions: “Please help me feed my child.” Images like this I hope will remain in my consciousness and surface the next time I’m feeling sorry for myself.
I also met a group of very-abled people on this trip who are the spirit of modern day India and the hope for its future. One day in Delhi I had the pleasure of site-seeing with Tatum, a new arrival from Melbourne, Australia and staying at the same guesthouse. Seeing my own daughters in her, imagining them arriving in a very foreign country, this now “seasoned” India traveler took her under my wings to help her ease into the teeming throngs of people both on Delhi’s underground Metro and above ground streets, while also making sure she would easily find the offices of the NGO where she will be interning for the next ten weeks. Tatum is passionate about the issue of human trafficking and she is here to apply her skills as a communications college major to inform people about the gravity of this crisis for women and children. A positive experience here should further embolden her idealism.
I also met two young local men who both left me with lasting impressions. Nitin was my tour guide on Elephanta Island, a popular tourist attraction off the coast of Mumbai containing caves housing shrines to Shiva, the principal god of Hinduism, believed to have been carved as far back as the 5th century. At 35, he is still single and living at home to help support his parents and extended family. He invited me to lunch at his house. We sat in the main room which was pretty sparse of furniture other than a small coffee table, a couple of plastic chairs, and a TV set. The walls were painted in rich shades of salmon and violet and the flooring was white ceramic tile. We removed our shoes at the doorway but brought them inside, an insurance policy to protect them from theft by the local wild monkeys.
Nitin’s mother Geedar prepared us a meal of the fresh cod and mackerel Nitin picked up that morning at the Mumbai fish market, roti (Indian flat bread), and rice. I was offered a utensil but I preferred to eat just like he did: using my fingers And while my beginner skills were not as masterful as his, I learned how to mash up my food together using my fingers and then scooping it into the palm of my hand with my thumb. I didn’t leave too much of my meal behind on either the table or floor although my host didn’t drop a grain of rice.
Nitin’s income as a part-time tour guide helps pay for the college education of his two nephews, something that he has never had nor is likely to. The lack of an education and the ability for him to earn more money is what keeps him from more aggressively pursuing his romantic interest. “There’s a woman who I like in Mumbai.” (I’m not sure if they have ever even spoken.) “I go by her place of work and we smile and nod at one another.” (They may not even know each other’s names.) “But she’s educated and a school teacher. Her parents would never approve of a marriage.” (A father of two educated daughters, I made no comment.)
Appropriately, “Nitin” means “moral and ethical”. That definitely was my impression of him as he guided me through the caves, took me on a physically challenging off-road trek back to his house in order to avoid the throng of more arriving tourists, proudly showed off the avocado plant he had grown from pit on land that was once a rice paddy. This experience was a highlight of my India journey. Throughout my life I have always felt that I bonded more closely with people from simple backgrounds than with people from my socio-demographic cosmos and beyond. That’s how I felt with Nitin. The fact that he felt sufficiently at ease to invite me to his very simple home and have lunch with him suggested to me that he also had a comfort level with this this stranger from United States. As the passenger ferry pulled away from the coastline of Elephanta Island, transporting its tourist passengers back to Mumbai, I turned around to take a photo. To my pleasant surprise Nitin was still standing there even though he said he was hoping to pick up another tour. Our eyes locked and we unreservedly smiled broadly and waved good bye to one another.
My trip back to the hotel was the usual nerve wrecking drive through Mumbai’s traffic, especially high this New Year’s day. It became clear to my driver, Karthik, and me that I would not make it to the Mumbai train terminal in time to depart for the next leg of my journey. As we sat still in traffic that would not move despite incessant honking horns demanding otherwise, I remember thinking that India’s frenetic yet no-worries lifestyle was beginning to have a positive influence on me! I wasn’t fretting over the cost of the non-reimbursable train ticket or having to pay more for a flight the next morning.
Like most young adults in India, Karthik still lives with his parents – in the slums. And he has no qualms about describing his neighborhood as such or even about living there. On one hand, Mumbai’s slums, made famous by the hit movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, are exactly what Americans imagine a slum to look like. As noted in a previous posting, as shabby as they appear on the outside, their corrugated tin or tarp-only roofs are punctuated by a multitude of television satellite dishes as well as the occasional cell phone tower which, like everywhere else in the world, blemish the sky scrape. Yet according to my guidebook, the “slums” generate about $600 million in revenue from their leather tanning and textile industries.
Karthik is named after the god of war, representing strength, happiness and success. It is a most apropos name for someone who does battle with Mumbai traffic on a daily basis as a driver for private clients. He attends college in the evening where he is working towards a degree in commerce. Unlike many of India’s Generation Y, he plans to move from the slums upon completing his studies. Not to get a bachelor’s pad but to return to the small town where he spent his childhood. That village and Mumbai are the extent of this young man’s universe and he seems certain about not having any desire to come to the States or to travel beyond the territory of which he is most familiar. As he said to me matter-of-factly several times, “We are a very middle class family.” A very middle-class family who just happens to live in the “slums”.
Definitely one of the most special people I met on my trip was Pritam. A woman in her 80s, she is well-educated (a retired school teacher), well-traveled (throughout Europe and the United States), and sharp in mind and spirit. Pritam – “cherished and beloved” in Sanskrit – is also most appropriately named. A widow, she is the family matriarch and proprietress of Grace Home, a “homestay” (B&B) in the Saket district of Delhi. By the Grace of God Grace Home was a most-welcomed oasis.
My final days in India were spent in Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal and in Mathura, the birthplace of the Hindu god of Krishna. I “had” to include a visit to the Taj Mahal, the 17th century mausoleum built by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan (1592–1666) in memory of his third and favorite wife and mother to his fourteen children. I spent several hours at the Taj, until dusk and after dawn, taking literally hundreds of photos.
Upon arrival in Mathura, my driver and I took a short “cruise” in a Bengali Cart, an oversized row boat in which we sat on a carpet as we passed by a string of brightly colored shrines, temples and turbans worn by men praying or playing cards, as well as water buffalo, cricket games and plenty of wild monkeys.
I wasn’t expecting much from the local museum, especially based on its very simple and unassuming exterior. Surprisingly, inside this nondescript building is collection of ancient statuary of Buddhas, buddhavistas and sensual female figures carved from the indigenous red sandstone. They were captivating and I wish I could have spent far more time there. I was heartened that they remained where they belong and had not been pilfered by museums in New York or London or Lisbon or modern-day Iran.
My final stop of the day, before heading back to Delhi and my planned departure for New York the following day, was to the Krishna temple. This is where I really had to shed my Western inhibitions and put my faith in the kindness of strangers. My driver, who I had only met a couple of hours earlier, advised me to leave everything behind in his car including my camera cell phone, money, passport, in short, anything of value. “It’s much safer here in the car,” he assured me. Translation: Trust me. So I did. (I even had to leave behind the leather belt that I was wearing.)
On my own and feeling somewhat naked I made my way through a typical bazaar selling all sorts of religious and touristy items before arriving at the temple which is free to enter after receiving a thorough pat-down. My first instinct was to take photos of the phantasmagorical statuary and dazzlingly colored and decorated shrines and alters. But with neither a camera nor cell phone at my disposal, my memory would have to serve as my virtual digital recording device.
The other strong impression with which I was left was the demonstrative religious devotion – particularly of the young people and young adults. Whether it was in the gesture Namaste, which represents the belief that there is “a divine existence within each of us located in the heart center”, religious pilgrims drinking ladles of holy water from a common basin, or their offerings of rose and chrysanthemum blossoms at the various shrines to different deities, I was left with another profound impression and lasting memory of the simple goodness and strong religious convictions of India’s masses. For me, it contrasted strongly with the rote standing, sitting, and kneeling of Christian worship.
Early on in my India journey, a fellow tourist sensed my exasperation with an airport barista. “Take a deep breath”, he advised. It was one of the most sage pieces of advice that I received throughout this trip and one that I hope to remember to embrace the next time I am face-to-face with a person or situation not on my wavelength.
Two weeks in India was a shorter trip than I had planned but I began to feel antsy and ready to return to New York. I had accomplished what I set out to do: 1) Get to India and, 2) See it on my terms and not through the windows of a tour bus filled with other Americans and Europeans wearing identical T-shirts wearing the tour guide’s logo.
I saw, I experienced, I lived and I embraced the India that I always imagined. I will be back.