Chapter Five: India (in progress)

Mumbai Travel Blog

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Delhi Market

I have a million pictures from India.... On the other hand, cobbling together a story from my journals and letters and trying to do justice to how that country has coloured my memories and my perceptions from that day to this, has been, um, a challenge.


April 29th 1993


Delhi India


I am almost ready to begin the story of India… if I can figure out where to start. Never was much good at such annoying details


  donc ensuite, encore...

  in media res


He told me his name was Dada, tho I have since found out that "Dada" is an Indian label of respect, so I think he was pulling one over a poor tired looking solo newcomer.

Tibetan Woman, Darhamsala


But he was young, maybe 10 or 11, too young to be working the street scene this late. He showed me the way to the hotel I had picked out from my guide; in return (as promised) I bought his string of jasmines for 10 rupees and a smile.


Bombay, 12:30 a.m.


I always seem to be arriving in these places at inopportune hours--when it is dark, and a wandering blond female with a backpack looks like she needs some help.


“Yes?” “Yes Mam” “You need something Man, yes?” “Change Money” “Yes Auntie, Cheap hotel, yes Mam, you follow me.” I would soon learn how to wade thru swarming ‘I’ll be helpful' moments, a necessary trick as I head up through Northern India on my way to the mountains.


Always aware of the price at the other end.

McLoud Ganj


In India they call it back-shish. Young guys literally tear the bag off your shoulders, even though you’ve told them you can manage yourself. They march off (inevitably to the wrong place) and then demand a tip-payment for their troubles. Hah!


Dada was sweet, however. He’d sold no jasmines all evening, and my offer was high.


There are not many tourists in Bombay these days, what with the weather averaging 40 degrees, and, um, the riot bombings. (Can’t decide which is worse, myself.)


As we plodded the six to ten city blocks in the after-midnight humidity, we passed two cat-sized dead rats (long tails straight, scaly and unmoving now--the reason for their demise unknown), and many crumbling old colonial buildings which, the next morning, I would find all look exactly the same as the hotel I eventually settled into.

Indian Street Scene
The buildings themselves brood and sweat, even in the deepest dark of a late April night. It seems almost as if the bits of that sea I notice, reflecting under the moonlight when we turn down one alley or another, must be ready to boil. The still water's surface tension an illusion held together by the old kettle Shiva drops hot rocks into, when he wants to create steam for his sauna.


On the plane over from Bangkok I sat with a Bahranian man who handed me an American twenty dollar bill and the address of a place to stay, should I ever get to Dubai.


Then, there was the sign as I stood in line awaiting my “you may enter India” stamp. It was the kind of lit-up digital scrolling letters sign that you might see in the Queen Street Subway station in Toronto. This one letting me know in slowly passing English words that the airport terminal offers free limited porter time


        for the elderly, the disabled, and “unaccompanied ladies”


& finally, materializing out of the group of people the airport was disgorging, an Indian Canadian gentleman who helped me through a flash strike by the taxi drivers at the airport. An unexpected glitch to betray my lack of expectations.


He got me onto a bus that would head for the city's old port area, where the backpackers congregate. He gave me a lesson in how not to let anyone see my money and, with total old world courtesy, reached over to show me the fleeting shadow of the mosque out on the water as the bus headed to town.


The next day, refreshed, there was Bombay to explore: like the intriguing but off-limits Towers of Silence--a Parsee burial ground where bodies are foisted onto platforms and left to be picked clean by vultures... which may seem somewhat macabre, except the Parsees believe that fire, earth, water, and air are sacred elements, and so they will not corrupt them with dead bodies and stinking flesh.


An elegant argument, if one stops to contemplate the logic.


& I heard the railway stations in this city push thru 70,000 people per hour


That’s a lot of flesh, no guff.


Like so many things in India, it blows all sense of perspective


Sure, it’s all overwhelming at times.


Took a night train from Bombay to Delhi. I wandered out of the New Delhi terminal into the sun and the heat-blasted streets…. Everywhere, again: “Yes” “Yes Mam?” “Yes, you buy” “You take my rickshaw” “You need information where you going? Where you come from? Mam, yes”


no no NO!!

knowing nothing


I am on my way to Dharamsala. A little mountain town overlooking the Himalayas, where the Dali Lama and his Tibetan Buddhist followers live in exile.


“Slow, quiet and peaceful.”


God! It sounds like paradise. A week in Bangkok, four days in Bombay, and an afternoon in Delhi:


Too many people. Too much heat blasted flesh.


       does this flow of people never stop??


The press of people in these cities is, I figure, more monumental and more uncompromising than the mighty Ganges herself, goddess though she be.


Still, if you take a picture (exchange elbows and action for the press of a button), this India is as hot and as colourful, and as frustrating and as fascinating as everyone promised.


The women’s saris: a riot of colours too bright to be found in nature. Indian women are intoxicating, with their fabulous flowing silks and chiffons, their dark faces and shiny smooth black hair, pierced noses, ankle chains, and forehead adornments


“Yes, Mam” “Yes?” My head is spinning with so much seeing. The sounds crowding together under the sun’s glare. “Yes?” a rickshaw knocks my bag almost off my shoulder.

Then, in the midst of it all, this afternoon: a guy 20ish, well dressed. He is amused by the stanch “I’m not interested. No!” expressions that I have learned to adopt. 


“You are too strong,” he complains, smiling. “It will just make me try harder!”


I allow myself a smile at that, and he follows me, pressing his card into my hand with his own bright smile. (The family’s export business.) I am in the old Delhi market. He finds me a restaurant. “Maybe I will have tea with you too!” he says, seating himself.


When he finds out I am writing (a disguise I use to convince myself that something concrete might yet come of all this wandering), he tells me he is from Kashmir, tries his best to press-gang me into the cause. “I have letters, hmnn, from friends… One woman from England. She is a writer too, and she puts together an article on what is happening there. Maybe you would be writing too. What do you think of all this in Kashmir?”


Be it cowardice, or maybe just fatigue, maybe foresight, or even just plain sloth, I stick to a pacifist line. “I don’t believe in violence”.


“Not in the cause of justice?” he asks.


I have sympathy for his cause, like the Mayans in Central America… in fact, however, I don’t really believe in his idea justice, either. This feels different from the Maya oppression. I have been reading V.S Napaul. I have read Rushdie, and some of the writings of Gandhi. I distrust any “justice” that enlists violence cloaked in nationalism as a focus for its cause.


But I don’t say that… it would sound cryptic even to my ears.


Just before I make my way back to the railway station where I plan to hole up and while the hours ‘til my train departs this evening, he convinces me to visit his family’s business where everything on display is hand-made in Kashmir. There is a persuasive argument, upon my entry, in favour of maybe taking some information back with me to America about the region.


Photos for Amnesty International, or maybe coded messages for guerilla supporters outside India, who knows?


The opportunities abound for intrigue, and me, new-comer-to-it-all, I grew up on Ludlum spy thrillers.  I pull myself out of the illusion, just as the possible scenarios start spilling into the many colours hanging from the alley shops. Saris like flags over the street to create shade


(pulling the wool over here eyes)

it is all of a piece/peace…


full stop


I am off, I remind myself, to Dharamsala, where they are pacifists, and meditation rules. Where, if I am lucky, people don’t focus quite so much on the desperate commerce of poor people’s “Yes, Mam”s, needing my trade to feed their families, or fuel their causes.


Howsoever just they may be.


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Delhi Market
Delhi Market
Tibetan Woman, Darhamsala
Tibetan Woman, Darhamsala
McLoud Ganj
McLoud Ganj
Indian Street Scene
Indian Street Scene
photo by: vvicy1