Two Weeks in India 1997
FRANKFURT, THURSDAY, MAY 8, 1997
Nothing like jumping into a cold lake. That was more or
less what I was thinking as I left my office yesterday at 5 p.m.
for JFK airport and my flight to Bombay, India.
New York City was sunny and cool, traffic was light. Why
wouldn't anyone want to be here in New York now, when the
conditions were almost perfect? Why indeed? Why give up the
only two bearable weeks of life in Gotham for the heat, traffic,
frustration, and pollution of a country full to the brim with 950
The problem was yesterday was that the answer to those
questions was quite simple: nothing was really stopping me.
Hence the cold lake. The only thing between you and that coldly
beckoning body of water is your willpower (or your hesitation)
and gravity (or inertia). The ride to JFK was painfully easy, as
was checking in at the Delta Airlines ticket counter. I must
admit: the ability to fly business class at will is motivation
enough for anyone to want to become wealthy. No queue at the
counter, no suspicious glances at my passport -- the attendant
even left his post to run and find a cart for me and my duffel
The business class lounge was even more heavenly. Sparsely
occupied, with an open bar, somewhat flavorless hors d'oeuvres,
telephones, and a television set -- just in time to watch my
dreadful story air on Nightly News re: Medicare's new computer
system. Ah hah! Chalk up one good reason to leave New York: I
don't have to suffer the repercussions for that story -- well at
least I can ignore the repercussions for another two weeks.
Now having spent 100,000 of my hard-earned frequent flyer
points on this trip, I was initially disappointed with Delta's
business class service. The attendants were cordial in an
impersonal kind of way. And what is it with forty-something,
square-jawed, immaculately-groomed male flight attendants who look
like they just turned down a gig at "GQ" because they'd rather
This of course, may all sound like an elitist tantrum. Well
it is, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.
The flight across the pond was uneventful. My seatmate was
a 50-something woman. Her name was Harriett, and she had
a Mississippi drawl and a penchant for free, high class hooch
(let's see, I counted one glass of champagne, three glasses of
Giesen 1995 white wine, and two glasses of Courvoisier VSOP).
She also happened to be married to the pilot of our 767-ER>
Captain Merrill was on one of his last flights before he was to
enter into early retirement at the age of 57. And for the first
time, his octogenarian parents would be flying on the same
airliner as their son, which is why Harriett was there, I
suppose, to take care of her in-laws.
As you might deduce from the above details, we did get to
talking: about family, our roots, her dogs, her house in New
Hampshire, travel, and retirement. she asked me if I had studied
how to produce in college.
"No," I said. "Actually, I used to be an attorney."
"Not another one!" she replied. Not quite the reaction I
had expected. It turns out that Harriett used to practice
criminal and tax law (another form of criminal law as she put it)
in Louisiana. So we got to talking a bit about the Louisiana
Civil Code, which I had studied a bit when I was at McGill.
I really liked Harriett and I think she liked talking to me.
She especially understood where I was coming from when we started
discussing family backgrounds. I said something about being
rootless. She said, that that's sad in a way. I told her that I
agreed. Although it's nice to feel as if you belong to the
world, it doesn't make it easy when you find yourself in the
middle of a new and different experience (i.e. new city, new job,
new people) and you don't have the familiarity of a support
network, or a sense of who you are (beyond your own personality),
to back you up in this novel and difficult situation.
I imagine it's much easier to be Jewish or Greek, or Indian,
because it's an external component of your personality that gives
you a bit of backbone in those circumstances. You can socialize
with the community, take comfort in your group's characteristics
and customs, or just feel proud. Sometimes, I feel like I have
to rely too much on what has been developed as MY personality,
and MY experience -- which can often be difficult.
Maybe that's partially what this trip to India is all about:
roots. Or it could just be another addition to MY experience.
Landing in Frankfurt was a neat sensation. I spotted the
Rhine, the green sprawl of trees and then the city under low
cloud cover. For an international city, Frankfurt seems so
organized, so livable -- at least from the air. Not the chaotic
gray-faced diorama that is Manhattan. Have to give credit to
those Germans I suppose. A good reminder that we don't have to
live with urban blight if we choose not to. Of course that might
be more difficult to achieve in the Land of the Free. Or in
India for that matter.
It's always a wonderful, comforting feeling to be back in
Europe. Even if it's only a two-hour stopover, you know it's not
America, and you know...I know...that I have not completely
succumbed to the American "dream."
So here I am now, about an hour after taking off from
Frankfurt. My seat is the same (10A, bulkhead), the wine list is
the same (I had the Edgewood Estate 1993 cabernet, maybe I'll try
that New Zealand white next), and the plane is the same.
But the crew is now mostly Indian, my apple juice has a
faintly different taste to it (slightly more perfumed, slightly
more Indian?), and guess what? I'm heading off to a different
continent and a different country. That's exciting. I'm excited.
BOMBAY/MUMBAI THURSDAY, MAY 9, 1997 12:45 p.m.
A mixture of emotions today so far, from "this is crazy, why
am I doing this?" to "oh yeah, this is why I'm doing this."
But once again, that jumping into a cold lake served me well
(both the metaphor and the philosophy). One slight variation
thought: Bombay in May is a steamy, pungent dish, served up hot
with the Arabian Sea on the side. No cold lake here.
Rewind back to last night. Or better yet, about last night,
the one that never ended.
The flight in was great, no surprises. I did manage to get
some sleep. When I awoke, I had noticed from the trajectory
being projected on the in-flight screen, that we were flying over
Saudi Arabia. I felt a little "frisson," thrilled by the fact
that I had finally breached the Eastern Hemisphere.
Before landing in Bombay (recently renamed "Mumbai" by the
Hindu nationalist city government, but no one except the
government and the nationalists call it that), I prepared myself
in accordance with everything I had read and researched about
what would be my first step into the subcontinent.
I stuffed my money belt, put away a jacket I knew I would
not need, and got my passport and paperwork in order.
Once landed, the real advantage to business class became
clear. First off the plane, and first in line at customs.
The un-airconditioned, small, dank, airport didn't surprise
me much. I had been through enough of those kind of places in
the Caribbean. The customs agent did give my passport a second
look (am I suspicious-looking, even in the developing world?),
and then waved me through.
Another mental pat on my back: congratulations on packing
light. I didn't need help with my one knapsack and one duffel
bag, and I had been able to carry them both on board the plane.
Which meant I didn't have to wait at baggage claim once inside
That said, here's a mental kick in my butt...[I interrupt
this regularly scheduled pontification for a breaking cultural
interlude: channel 18 on my hotel room television set is showing
the Indian version of "Wheel of Fortune"...in Hindi]...when
travelling to a developing country, don't overdo it on the luxury
items. I brought two cameras, and an extra wristwatch, for
But some little man who felt just a little bigger in his
white uniform made me run my knapsack through the x-ray machine
twice before I could leave the airport.
"You have cell phone?" he asked suspiciously.
"No," I replied, wondering what kind of American cellphone
would work in India. "You might have detected my camera," I
said, trying to be helpful -- which I would soon regret.
"What kind of camera you have?"
I was afraid of where this was leading. He probably
suspected that I was trying to smuggle my cameras into India and
then resell them.
"A Nikon and a Yashica," I told him.
"Bill, you have bill," he asked, needling me.
"No, I don't have the bill."
"Bill for Nikon," he repeated.
"I don't have the bill," I said, frustrated. "Why should I
carry the bill, I bought the camera three years ago!"
He gave me a little shrug, obviously satisfied with is
little game, and let me pass through without another word.
I changed my money at the government exchange office inside
the terminal. Thirty-five rupees to the dollar. Then I bought a
pre-paid taxi coupon for 300 rupees (to avoid being ripped off by
the cab drivers), and went outside into the humid night to find
Everything had gone so far according to plan. I got into my
taxi, which was a tiny boxy vehicle that sounded, and felt, like
it was powered by a lawnmower engine. Without a word, my driver
set out on what was to be a 30 minute journey to my hotel.
....to be continued.
ELEPHANTA, SATURDAY, MAY 10, 1997
I'll stop being linear for a second and attempt a live, after-the-fact
I just finished touring the caves at Elephanta. Elephanta is an island about 7
kilometers off the coast of Bombay in the Arabian Sea.
For 120 rupees (less than $4), a catamaran will take you across to the island.
Our guide was a well-educated woman. She was very thorough with her
explanations -- unlike yesterday's tour guide, which I'll get back to once I
return to my linear narrative.
Here's the live commentary: the monkey sitting next to me just stole my half
full 2 liter bottle of water. It's quite heavy, so I'm impressed.
I exclaimed "Hey!" when he took it, but he snarled back, so I decided to donate
my bottle to the cause. But now he's back, and he doesn't seem to have been
able to open the bottle. He's put the bottle on its side, and now he's trying
to bite through the plastic. First he has to take the label off...which he
just did. Wonder if I should help him? But I can do without catching rabies.
The caves at Elephanta were very interesting. I was given my first lesson in
the Hindu faith. [news flash, monkey has made a hole, bottle is leaking, and
he's drinking, drop by drop]
There might be thousands of gods whom Hindus celebrate and revere, but
essentially, they believe in a singular unifying force, a higher power. That
power is traditionally broken down into three "personalities": Brahma
(Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Destroyer). Elephanta's caves were
carved by Hindus in 4 or 5 A.D. as a tribute to Shiva. He is portrayed in
various poses of destroying, playing, and marrying. When he is angry and doing
some pretty nasty destroying, he has more than two arms. The angrier he gets,
the more arms he sprouts. Thus the multi-armed deities.
Time for some commentary about the general conditions here. Every day is
similar weather-wise. It gets up to about 36 degrees Celsius by midday in the
Bombay area, and is very humid. Still, dressed in cool cotton, and in the
refuge of the shade, it's not unbearable.
Bombay has a particular odor. At times it smells like a flowery camembert
cheese, other times, incense, or sweet diesel fuel. But at all times, it's
ripe and pungent. I'm not quite sure what to attribute the smell to, but I
suspect that it's a combination of things: Bombay's swampy past (it was seven
islands before the British unified things), pollution, vegetation, the sea, and
human waste. It's not totally unpleasant, but it is different.
Now back to my narrative...
When I last left you, I was in a little taxi, more or less hurtling to my
hotel. The driver stopped along the way twice -- once to fill up with gas, and
once, I think, to get something to drink. In both cases, he said nothing to me
beforehand, nor, I suppose, was he expected to.
As I kept my eyes wide open trying to establish my first impressions of India,
two things struck me. Make that three. (1) The roads are extremely smooth and
well built in Bombay.; (2) drivers use their horns for everything, which makes
for a very angry din; (3) though not completely Americanized like other parts
of the world, Bombay is certainly a very "commercial" city. There's
advertising everywhere, even on the iron fences in the median that divides the
roadway. A lot of them are bank ads (ATM's, Citibank, MasterCard) and
technology-related as well (computers, consumer electronics). I was most
shocked and pleased/dismayed to come across five or six signs in a row for NBC
and CNBC. The peacock is everywhere (including on the TV in my hotel room).
There is no escape.
I suppose it was inevitable. Around 4 p.m. today, I began to feel, let's say,
I was still able to meet, and have a beer with, Mr. Madan, a former colleague
of Om Arora, and Indian who now lives in Toronto and is friends with my family.
Mr. Madan is a lean, 50-something, neatly dressed man. I had decided to call
him up because I thought it would be worthwhile to meet a Bombayite.
He's a former railway engineer. So I hit him up for information about my still
befuddling rail ticket for tomorrow to New Delhi. Bottom line: looks like I'll
still have to take my chances.
We had a good meeting. It probably took him about an hour to come and meet me
from his home in the suburbs, which was extremely gracious of him. From my
limited exposure to Indians, I would say he might be a "prototype Indian."
He's quite proud of his country, and feels it sometimes gets a bad rap. He is
quite worldly, having traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. Most
importantly, he appears to be a very patient man, who seems to take pleasure in
wherever he may be at that moment, and is never in a rush.
"North Americans are always in a hurry," Mr. Madan told me. "In India, we
cannot do that. Mainly because of magnitude: the size of the country and the
I figured with his being a railway man, that he must know what he was talking
"What is most important to us," he continued, "is moving things in bulk. So we
move slowly, but we manage. Quantity less than quality."
Makes perfect sense to me. India does strike me to be a bit like New York
City. There's a fine line between order and chaos, but somehow, despite the
crush of people and its geography, it manages, with the odd disaster and
breakdown here and there.
And speaking of managing a disaster! After meeting with Mr. Madan, fatigue
and fever set in. I closed my eyes for while, fearing the worst. Checking my
NBC Medical Center symptom sheet, things were not looking up: a stomach ailment
was on the horizon. But instead of taking the hard stuff that I had been
prescribed, I took a Tylenol and ordered room service, since I had skipped
lunch. And...so good so far. I'll save the hard stuff (cyclofloxin) for
Back to my first night...again.
My taxi driver finally found my hotel (after my driver got lost today, I've
decided that Bombay cab drivers are like New York cab drivers...they don't
speak English and they don't know their city). I gave him a 10 rupee tip
(about 30 cents), which apparently I am not supposed to do ("it will spoil our
drivers" my friend Sameera told me the next day). And of course, seeing that I
was a foreigner, my driver decided to push his luck and demand more. I walked
away while he was still protesting.
The "West End Hotel" is great. It's centrally-located near Churchgate train
station. The hotel is classified as a four-star. At 2,486 rupees a night
($75), it's not quite a Western hotel (two single beds with cot-like thin
mattresses, spartan decoration, and no carpet), but it's exceptionally clean,
and the quality of service would put some luxury American hotels to shame.
Elevator attendants take care of your every need, from your luggage to room
service. The front desk makes sure you get your telephone messages, and they
still haven't taken down my credit card number yet.
The hotel is walking distance to many of Bombay's sites -- which is exactly
what I took advantage of during my first morning here.
With the time change, I couldn't sleep at all, so I got out early. I had
breakfast, and knowing full well that I couldn't just hide from India by
staying in my room (which was tempting I must admit), I set out by foot.
Like New York, you can't ignore Bombay's poverty. On the same street as my
hotel, you will walk by Bombay Hospital, an immaculately clean mosque (there's
always someone scrubbing the sidewalk out front with soap and water), the
United States Information Service building,, and then all the street vendors
and half-clothed children sharing the street. It's quite a sight to see very
poor people picking through garbage and salvaging almost everything, putting
aside the scraps of paper into well organized piles.
I was intimidated by my first foray into Bombay. Cars honked angrily. People
rushing to work, forsook the sidewalks for the easier (and cleaner?) to manage
roads. And the heat! My shirt was drenched with sweat almost as soon as I set
So it was at that point, as I made my way down to the Gateway of India, that I
began asking myself why I was doing this. Wasn't Paris really nice at this
time of year?
Bombay's most famous site is an archway facing out towards the Arabian Sea.
Erected by the British in 1911, the Gateway of India isn't quite the Arc de
Triomphe. I decided that the Taj Hotel, directly behind the Gateway was far
more impressive in style and standing. One of the "Leading Hotels of the
World" (that's what the plaque reads inside the lobby), a night at the Taj goes
for around 7,000 rupees a night.
Feeling a premature need for some Western comfort, I took refuge in the air
conditioned climes of its lobby as I sat for a good thirty minutes, trying to
assess my situation.
First, I decided to check out the shopping on the nearby Colaba Causeway, but
after I bought a supposedly sealed bottle of water for 12 rupees (on closer
inspection I noticed a crack in its bottlecap, despite the tape wrapped around
the top) and had to throw it out (someone was trying to rip me off and make me
sick), I elected to head back to my hotel and take stock. It was not yet noon.
But on the way home, I popped into the Government of India's tourist office and
bought a ticket for a half-day tour of Bombay for later that afternoon. I
thought that it would give me a decent overview of the city, and the chance to
interact with some people.
The woman from the Maharastra Tourist Authority (Bombay is in the state of
Maharastra), was very nice, but I noticed two traits that I am sure to
encounter for the duration of my trip in India.
First: when you ask a public servant a question, she will nod and shake her
head -- simultaneously. That could mean "yes," it could mean "no," but most
likely it means "maybe," or "I don't know," or "you'll find out soon enough you
Second: asking a question leads to an answer containing the least amount of
detail possible. It's almost as if they don't want you to know. Without a
doubt, the Indians have been trained in the finest traditions of British
I encountered a similar problem next door to the Tourist Office, at the Western
Railways Reservations office. What a zoo! At least a hundred people lined up
in front of a dozen windows (including one labeled "For Women Only"). Once in
a while, the constant din in that room would rise to more fearsome shouts as
the collective conscience of the queue would rise to punish an usurper trying
to break into line. I didn't understand exactly what they were saying, but I
did hear "Line! Line! Line!" and saw a lot of pushing and shoving.
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out my one-day train pass that I had bought
beforehand in New York, in an attempt to reserve a sleeper for the heavily
booked "Radjhani Express" between Bombay and New Delhi. I did know that I
still had to somehow confirm my booking -- which I attempted to do. I was
shuffled between the Indrail window and the Foreign Tourist desk as my ticket
was cancelled, and then re-issued so I could be assured of a "tourist quota"
ticket. Calling it a ticket is giving the process too much credit however.
They scribble four incomprehensible lines on my pass, and then ignored me; the
transaction was over. When he was taking care of me, the man at the Foreign
Tourist desk (so named because it only accepts dollars and British pounds),
opened a ledger and along the left margin wrote a set of numbers from the top
of the page to the bottom. At first I thought it was a joke, and that he was
trying to look like he knew what he was doing. But his actions were too
methodical, and his writing too decisive, so I put it all down to an arcane
bureaucratic code, and left it at that.
Curiously, my transactions with these people put me in a better frame of mind.
Actually living an experience, rather than merely sightseeing is a good way to
insert yourself into another world methinks.
Allow me to wrap up my first day in short order. I took my tour ("you have 20
minutes to tour the Prince of Wales museum"..."you have 15 minutes to tour the
aquarium"...interesting but not exceptional, Bombay is not a touristy city),
met some interesting people (a French executive from Rhone-Poulenc and his
personal guide) and got a chance to see Indians by the busload socializing with
their families (this is a very family-oriented society). That evening, I had
dinner with a former journalism school colleague, Sameera Khan. she is know an
editor at the Times of India (a good newspaper). The Chinese food wasn't bad,
and during our discussion, she was able to share a couple of interesting
perspectives on India and Bombay.
...to be continued...
BOMBAY, SUNDAY, MAY 11, 1997
Talk about a Sunday. Lethargy has ruled so far as I take my time
to start the day. I negotiated a 2:30 checkout time from the
hotel so I could laze around a bit more, and have lunch (which I
am doing now). It's somewhat reassuring, however, that I have
not assumed my usual intense pace of travelling during this trip.
There is no shame in sitting in my room and reading, or napping
for a couple of hours. It is hot outside, and when I do step
out, my senses are assaulted to the extent that I do not believe
I am missing out on anything by taking shelter. Besides, I am
about to subject myself to a 17-hour train ride, sharing the car
with god-knows-who-else! Privacy is a luxury here, so it must be
savored when it is available.
I did manage to pop back into the Western Railways office this
morning just to make sure that I did have a berth. Now THERE'S a
place where privacy has no place. The man beside me gave me
about an inch of personal space when he wasn't jabbing his elbow
into my side. There was a lot of gentle pushing and shoving, but
somehow things happened and the line moved. I felt sorry for the
clerks on the other side of the glass, with their having to deal
with the infinite queue. But their faces were impassive, as if
they had developed some sort of immunity to the throng.
Mr. Madan was right. In a country of nearly a billion people,
they are able to manage. The attendant checked my reservation on
the computer, and to my pleasant surprise, it came up
instantaneously. I've encountered many different forms of
bureaucracy in my travels, and India's in no better or worse than
other countries'. But I suppose if any bureaucracy needed an
excuse NOT to work, India's would have one.
RADJHANI EXPRESS, 5:40 p.m., Sunday May 11, 1997
Facing your fears and prejudices is a powerful tonic. Presently,
I am sitting aboard the 17-hour "express" from Bombay to New
Delhi. Yes, my train reservation worked. But alas, although I
was still given an air conditioned sleeper berth (which is what I
had reserved, 2nd class, $39 for a 1,300 km trip), I was assigned
an "AC 3-Tier" compartment, rather than "AC 2-Tier."
The Express has many classes: AC-First (Air Conditioned First
Class), AC 2-tier (2nd class, 4 people per compartment, thus 2
"tiers" of sleepers per side of compartment), AC 3-tier (2nd
class, 6 people per compartment), and AC Chair (not a sleeper).
AC 3-Tier isn't the ideal arrangement: less space and more people
occupying that space, and using the two bathrooms that are
supposed to accommodate the 64 people in the car.
So as soon as I got to the station (Bombay Central, 26 rupees --
less than $1 -- by taxi), I figured out that I was indeed
assigned a 3-Tier space. That didn't make me very happy, and I
immediately considered whether I could "upgrade" to First Class.
Yes, I know I was thinking like a spoiled foreigner, but I was
facing a 17-hour train ride and figured that I could afford the
moment of weakness in exchange for a good night's sleep.
But I didn't, mostly because I couldn't. Bombay Central is full
of hundreds of people, waiting for their trains and loved ones to
come in. Dozens of porters dressed in bright red shirts and
white Nehru-style hats scurry around with their bag-laden carts,
making "choop-choop" noises with their mouths. Not as loud as it
would be had they yelled "excuse me!" but probably just as
effective, and half as annoying. There were also shorter, less
well-dressed men who carried passengers' bags on their heads.
One of them dropped a plastic Pepsi bottle filled with water. It
exploded on the ground, splashing a few people. But no one
appeared to mind, and one man picked up the bottle and gave it
back to the porter who was balancing three bags on his head.
Indians have an amazing capacity for patience. A New Yorker
would have either have immediately brandished a knife or a
subpoena in a similar situation.
So on Platform 3, where they post the passenger lists for the
Radjhani Express, I noticed that every car was full, and there
were waiting lists of twenty or more people for each class of
service. Then I go to the same-day reservations window, which is
attracting quite a crowd. The notice board there says everything
is sold out. So half counting my blessings, grateful for my
berth, and half wishing I had flown to New Delhi instead, I
accepted my lot.
I'm now aboard the train and the sun is about to set. My berth-
mates are very decent people. In front of me is a family of
three, mom, dad, and teenage daughter. Beside me, two Muslims
dressed in white garb chat. They all stop to chat once in a
while to point out things to this ignorant foreigner as the
scenery rushes by outside.
Less than an hour out of Bombay, workers cultivate salt from what
the Arabian Sea's high tide left behind. The land acts as a
filter. When the tide retreats, it leaves behind large piles of
salt. All of my berth-mates take the time to explain this to me.
Just as I am beginning to admire the sun setting over the plan, I
hear a huge "THWACK!" and a vicious-looking spider-web crack
quickly grows on the other pane of my window. Someone out there
obviously didn't like our train passing through their area. My
trip has been a lot like that so far. Just as I'm beginning to
really enjoy myself and think positively about this place,
something happens to remind me that this is not an idyllic world.
As I read somewhere, it a country of extremes, both good and bad.
The train is remarkably efficient. We left at 5:40 p.m. on the
dot. Pretty soon after setting out, a man came through the car
with a box of 2-litre bottles of water, each labeled with the
red and white insignia of the Indian Railway. We each received a
bottle. And soon after , he returned with metal trays with some
sort of pastry, like a Danish, but with a spicy vegetable
filling, a toffee, and a tea bag. He was immediately followed by
a short man in a light blue outfit with a large metal pitcher
filled with steaming water, and dozens of plastic cups in his
"Chai, chai" he declared, as he quickly poured the hot water into
a plastic cup for me. I dunked my tea bag into the cup, and soon
enough, it became an excellent spot of tea.
They just handed out blankets, sheets and towels. All this for
My Muslim friends just went out to do their evening prayers, now
that the sun has set. I have been trying to be inconspicuous
with the paperback that I have in front of me: Salman Rushdie's
"Midnight's Children." But they probably don't care, like
Rushdie, they're Indian and Muslim aren't they? The political
powerplays of Iranian clerics are a thousand miles away.
RADJHANI EXPRESS, 7 a.m., Monday, May 12, 1997
And I thought that I would lose weight in India. Definitely less
meat, but everything else is served in copious quantities. I
thought that yesterday evening's pastry and caramel was the
dinner. That would have been enough for me, and certainly would
have been understandable given the number of people on the train.
But no. A couple of hours later, the short man in the light blue
outfit came by again, this time balancing six trays in his hand.
"Veg or non-Veg?" he asked.
"Non-veg" I said, wondering what that meant, and what lay beneath
the foil wrapped dishes.
It was a feast. Curried chicken and peas, rice, stewed lentils
and red beans, three rolled-up rotis, followed by butterscotch
ice cream. There must be some kind of subsidy for the railways,
because I don't understand how $39 could cover all of this.
After dinner, I chatted a bit with my Muslim mates. They're both
expatriate hospital workers in Medina, Saudi Arabia, back in
India for their vacation. They said that they had also purchased
their tickets yesterday using the tourist quota, thus paying in
foreign currency. Otherwise, the train is sold out at least a
month in advance usually, and thus it is impossible to get a
ticket at short notice.
I'm beginning to think that Delta could take some lessons from
Indian Railways in the art of hospitality. This morning we have
been served tea, and biscuits, followed by toast and a fried egg.
And Indian Railways' provides more room for sleeping, as benches
and luggage racks in the compartment are magically transformed
into full length beds for sleeping.
The scenery is marvelous right now, we're travelling through the
plains of the state of Rajahstan at about 150 km/h. This has
been a good travel experience.
...to be continued...
NEW DELHI, TUESDAY, MAY 13, 1997 3:10 p.m.
Disclaimer: this narrative will be a little darker in tone than before, though
I am not sure why. Perhaps my initial exuberance about taking on an entire
subcontinent has worn thin. Perhaps it is the dark narrative itself of Salman
Rushdie's book, "Midnight's Children," which I am reading in concurrence with
my travels. Or could it be New Delhi -- so much greener and spacious than
Bombay, but so much more lurking behind that fine vegetation and 40+ degrees
I sense that everyone wants to steal from me, beg from me, make a fast rupee.
This new attitude of mine may have been imparted upon by my very gracious and
hospitable hosts here in Delhi, Ousman and Zorida Ali, childhood friends of my
parents, and now the Trinidadian High Commissioner (and wife) to India. They
have been here two years and (understandably) have had a hard time living in
the country. For them, it's the traffic, the diesel-choking pollution, the
"schemers" who are out to cheat and rob you blind, the poor people who live in
garbage bag tents by the side of the main road, the shoddy workmanship in their
house in South Delhi. If these natives of Trinidad -- another developing
country -- find India hard to take, one can certainly appreciate the challenge.
I, who arrived with wide-eyed determination and low expectations of a short
time-tourist, felt like I could handle these vicissitudes, and so far I have.
But living and visiting are two separate matters. Nevertheless, I must confess
that some of their attitude has seeped into me, partly because I have seen
first hand what they are talking about.
Also, by staying with the Alis, and in acquiring human contact and comfort
(nice house, free food, family setting, chauffeur), perversely, I have lost my
independence. I won't fool myself by saying that I have been a hard-edged,
tough-as-nails traveler, because I have not. But despite my nice hotel, and
business class flight, I felt that for me, travelling to India by myself, is,
in itself, an accomplishment. And with that victory, one is willing to suffer
all the ups and downs, wounds and successful parries willingly, because at
day's end, there's a great feeling of satisfaction.
As my "Cadogan Guide to India" says about travelling alone (p.50): "On your
own, there is no room for doubt, indecision, or complacency...you feel
compelled to attune to the country, its people and its customs, at top
speed...The perfect place for a modern-day walkabout, India rewards the solo
traveler with a rich variety of intense experiences -- some good, some bad,
none dull -- and brings him to a deeper understanding of the country. The
reason so much happens on your own is simple, you HAVE to MAKE it happen."
You see it everywhere in India, perhaps more in Delhi than in business-like,
disciplined, Bombay. You see the developing struggle between karma and
get-aheadism -- a struggle of the ages here, but a particularly pitched battle
in this day and age.
The karma that provides for the very cheapness of life in a country of 950
million lives, where a rupee is 1/35th of a dollar; people exist to survive
barely. Curly-haired, sun-darkened children tug on your elbow, pull on your
heart strings, and stick their heads through your open car window, chanting
something incomprehensible, but ominous, and almost frightening, blaming you as
a part of humanity for forsaking them, making you feel guilty about that
Rushdie calls it "city eyes" -- the ability to ignore the poverty, even the
necessity of doing so -- eyes that I have honed so very well in New York. And
yet, nothing invokes as much fear and disgust, nothing makes the pit of your
stomach burn more, as when an old woman sticks her head inside your taxi, and
looks directly into your eyes, and says calmly, "Money, to bury body, bury
It's not even a question of whether what they are claiming is true or not.
It's the helplessness you feel when you wonder how it ever got this bad, and
its the magnitude of a problem that a few rupees from your pocket will never
It helps to throw up your walls of selfishness as you try to insulate yourself
from this onslaught. But even when I put up my window to discourage an
oncoming beggar, all it does is heat up the inside of the taxi and compel the
beggar to try another open window, or to tap at my closed window. It's a
real-life "Night of the Living Dead": but this is no campy romp.
"Karma" might be a conspiracy devised by an elite that wants the poor and
untouchables to accept their lot in life and to be content with it. Many of
these simple people do appear to be satisfied with getting by on a few rupees a
day, thrown like scraps before a stray dog by "sahib" as a token for some
menial task, or just for appearing so downtrodden.
But if it is indeed a conspiracy, then there are those who wish to break the
bonds of that conspiracy: "the get-aheadists." They're the emigrants, the
entrepreneurs, the schemers. Those who no longer subscribe to Mother India,
leave the country to be computer programmers, doctors, taxi drivers, or as my
ancestors did, indentured workers on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
Yet, there are those who see another India over the horizon, one of fortune and
fame, for those who are willing to think and act quickly enough to get it.
Since India opened her economy in 1991, life here has changed immensely.
Traffic has increased as more people have been able to afford imported cars,
which are no longer subject to stiff tariff barriers. Capital flows free and
easy from outside investors wanting to take advantage of such a huge market.
Jay Leno smiles like a benign Buddha from atop a building in downtown New
So the get-aheadists see this and think, "ah hah, I don't have to find solace
for my miserable life by praying to Ganesh at the temple, I can break these
bonds with money!" And as demand increases, and supply can no longer keep up,
prices skyrocket, hotel room rates treble, and fortunes are made. And so be
it, if this helps to alleviate the bad side effects of karma and the brave old
world of the caste society.
But I suppose it's the schemers who get to me the most, who probably have
existed since the beginning of time, who always manage to inject stress into an
otherwise pleasant travel experience and rob you of your delight in discovery.
You know they have set their sights on your flashy camera and watch, and are
certain that a wallet flush with rupees lurks somewhere in your sweaty khaki
"Old Delhi is a revelation, isn't it?" Ousman Ali asked me today, as he
returned home from his office at the Trinidadian High Commission.
It certainly is. I don't know how many times I was tempted to take a close-up
photograph of an autorickshaw's tailpipe gushing green-gray diesel fumes. I
probably will eventually.
I had hired a private car and guide to take me on a tour of Delhi: 800 rupees
for four hours (about $21). I made the reservation yesterday at the Tourist
Desk at the Ashok Hotel, a deluxe government-run hotel in posh South Delhi.
This morning I arrive and the attendant says he has to cancel my receipt and
issue a new one. My spider senses tingle.
"Why?" I ask, with New York-like suspicion.
"Because I made a mistake with the first one," the clerk says. "I wrote the
date instead of stamping it."
As if to show his good will, he took out his copy of my American Express
receipt, and combined with mine, ripped it up, then gave it to me. I put it in
my bag, but then he asked for it back, so stupidly, I gave it to him, while he
ran off another imprint of my card, which I pliantly signed. So thoughts of
being double-charged by a potential Government of India shyster began to mar
my private tour of Delhi.
My guide was a dour-faced man, who pointed out enough things along the way to
make the tour worthwhile, but let me go on my merry way at a few sights so he
could steal a smoke, a drink of water, or some shade. It's funny how all my
tour guides so far have been minimally informative, exerting as little energy
or interest as possible. Still, it beats taking a taxi to all those sights.
It didn't help when my guide casually hinted that he was being very
accommodating by paying my entrance fees to the monuments, because he didn't
want to hassle me for money at each one, "if you understand what I'm saying."
All I understood was that he was hitting me up for more money, and I didn't say
much beyond remarking that the man at the hotel tourist desk had said that all
entrance fees were included in the price (as they always are on these tours).
Of course, being the weakling that I am, I did end up tipping him 100 rupees,
and the driver 70 rupees (about $5 total), which will forever ruin the Indian
tourist industry, accustomed to 50 rupee gratuities.
Then there was the guy who I gave 5 rupees to because he lit a match inside the
glass-mirrored canopy at the Red Fort, creating a neat chandelier-like
reflection on the ceiling. There was also the old woman at Humayoun's Tomb
who, in mono-syllabic English, forced her services upon me, while my guide
waited outside. She made 10 rupees, despite her request for "two 10's."
Oh yes, I paid the equivalent of $6 to this guy outside Lakshmi Narayan Temple
for postcards. I only wanted a few, but he was selling them by the book.
"Two hundred rupees," he said as he waved the postcards in front of my face. I
shook my head in disbelief at the price, so he gradually kept adding another
book of postcards to the pile. I kept shaking my head, wishing I had never
gotten into this situation, but ended up walking away with FIVE books of
postcards. Another hawker, smelling easy prey, tried to sell me the stamps to
go with the postcards. Luckily I mustered up enough courage to say no.
So....oh yeah, I did see some very interesting sights along the way.
LAKSHMI NARAYAN TEMPLE: built in 1929, no photography allowed, no shoes. Neat
architecture. Expensive postcards available outside for Western suckers.
RASHTRAPATI BHAWAN: on Raisina Hill, built by the British as the resident of
the viceroy as a monument to the Raj's infinite empire. Now, it belongs to the
President of India. Beautiful red sandstone, great looking gardens.
INDIA GATE: 42 meter-high arch, a memorial to the tens of thousands of Indians
who died in World War I. Snake charmer nearby wanted 20 rupees for a photo. I
just shot a picture of the Gate and got back in the car.
JAMA MASJID: the largest mosque in India, built by Shah Jahan, 17th century
Mughal emperor of Taj Mahal fame. Don't bother to go inside, too many people.
RED FORT: built with red sandstone by Shah Jahan, one of the best examples of
Mughal architecture. Let that guy to the match trick for you.
RAJ GHAT: a park containing monuments to the slain Gandhis -- Mahatma, Indira,
Sanjay, and Rajiv. Indians revere Mahatma Gandhi, and rightfully so.
HUMAYOUN'S TOMB: home of the forceful tour guides; forerunner of the Taj.
QUTAB MINAR: 13th century remains of Old Delhi, incredibly beautiful and
Despite my criticisms, Delhi is far more scenic and picturesque than Bombay,
with its monuments and wide open spaces. It is a city of conquerors and their
remains, from the Muslim Mughal emperors to the British Raj.
....to be continued...
NEW DELHI, WEDNESDAY MAY 14, 1997 3:30 p.m.
A happy revelation today: I am indeed on vacation. O Small Victory, but O So
Important! I am certainly not taxing myself, trying to pack too many things
in, as I usually do when I travel. I get up around 7:30 a.m., have a leisurely
breakfast, and then do whatever I have to do. By 2 p.m., it's time to take
refuge from the heat and the pollution. I've always known that I'm an early
riser and a late-to-bedder, but I now also realize that I was born to siesta!
I feel some sort of regeneration occurring, with some very restful sleep, light
meals with less meat than usual, and lots of liquid. Here in India, pacing is
everything, and I sense it is doing me a world of good.
Of course, it helps to be under the care of a Trinidadian family with a nice
house, a private car and driver, and Indian servants (who are exceptionally
"subservient" -- disconcertingly so, for my North American so-called
egalitarian sensibilities). Ousman and Zorida have been good to me, and there
has been some compensation for my loss of independence.
Today, Zorida took me to the state-run Emporium to do some shopping. That was
something I probably would not have done on my own, so it was nice to have her
show me the ropes. It was especially helpful now because there is a 3-day
strike in effect, barring all private New Delhi stores from opening.
Apparently shopkeepers are protesting the high retail rents in the city.
The Emporium was great because it carries a wide variety of clothing and
crafts...and a firm sticker price. No one was pushing or shoving, haggling,
harassing or cheating you. Granted, being free to bargain might have reduced
the prices somewhat, but there is something to be said for the two retail
maxims: "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" and "one-stop shopping." And, they took
I also popped into the Ashok hotel to mail my postcards and get my airline
ticket for my return to Bombay. A diversity of experiences in those two
transactions! The purchase of my Indian Airlines ticket was unnervingly
simple, and a great bargain at $105. The sales agent was courteous and
efficient -- I almost incurred a culture shock right then and there!
The post office was...amusing. Five people sitting around a table behind the
kiosk in a conspiratorial phalanx. None of them spoke English particularly
well. One clerk told me it would cost 6 rupees each to send my cards to Europe
and North America. Six cents sounded to be an outlandishly low price, but I
paid my money and started licking. It was a little difficult because the
ceiling fan kept blowing the stamps onto the dusty floor, but I managed.
I was halfway through the arduous chore when another clerk approached me, and
with even less English aptitude than the first clerk, somehow explained that it
actually cost 11 rupees to send each postcard. I sighed as he confiscated my
postcards and started going through them. He produced more stamps from a
drawer and proceeded to affix them himself, skipping a few, dripping water from
the blotter onto my carefully crafted chicken scratch, making a general mess.
But he was certainly more efficient that I, and I was grateful for his help. I
left that little post office in the basement of the Ashok hotel, strangely
reassured that those postcards would reach their intended destinations.
I found out this morning in the excellent English-language daily, "Asian Age,"
that there had been an earthquake last night at around 7:45 p.m.. I knew I had
felt the bed shake slightly during my nightly Rushdie reading, but at the time,
could only come up with two explanations: one, that the ceiling fan was
actually doing its job; or two, that Shiva the Destroyer was coming for me.
Thanks goodness for more earthly explanations like tectonic shifts.
It's now 8:25 p.m. and the electricity is out. I'm writing this courtesy of my
"mini-Maglite" -- my handy dandy pocket flashlight that I picked up in New York
before coming, at the suggestion of the "What to Bring" section of my
guidebook. Very useful.
The Ali's have a generator for times like these, but for some reason, the
switch isn't working. It's not so bad, except it's getting very warm without
the air conditioning.
The heat and the proliferation of air conditioners to combat the high
temperatures are the precise cause of the blackouts -- which occur at an
epidemic frequency during the summer months in New Delhi. There's not enough
electricity to meet the demand. Tomorrow, the mercury could go as high as 40
degrees Celsius, making my location one of the hottest spots on the planet.
Not that such a dubious distinction makes enduring the heat any easier.
AGRA, THURSDAY, MAY 15, 1997 12:55 p.m.
Today has placed me in the equivalent of a b-movie remake of an Indiana Jones
movie, but minus the stunt double. I'll explain in a bit.
Here I am in Uttar Pradesh, the home state of my ancestors. Abdulla, Moniran
and Abdul left this region in 1882 for a better life in British-ruled Trinidad.
I'm not in their native village of Gunda Nala, which I, nor the officials from
U.P. House in New Delhi, have been able to locate on a map. Rather, I am in
Agra, better known as the home of the Taj Mahal, that tragic and beautiful
homage to Shah Jahan's lost love.
I haven't made it to the Taj just yet. My very generous host and guide on this
day trip, Rajesh Khanduja, will take me there later this afternoon. We zipped
down here on the (relatively) lightning-fast Shatabdi Express from New Delhi.
Rajesh organized everything, thank goodness, because reserving train tickets in
New Delhi is virtually impossible at short notice.
Rajesh is the nephew of my parents' friends from Toronto, Kanta and Om Arora.
He travels to Agra about two or three times a week. He's an interior designer,
and has an ongoing work site in Agra at a huge handicrafts shop about a mile
from the Taj. He's renovating his client's showroom/factory, making it as
light and airy as possible, so when the tour guides persuade their flock of
tourists to stop in and take a look at home some of the local handicrafts are
made, they will be magically captivated, and will only be able to break the
spell by buying a marble table top or a porcelain figure, with a portion of the
proceeds serving as the guide's commission of course.
That's par for the course in India. All this damn hustling can make the
typical Westerner (me) uncomfortable. Unfortunately it also taints the
unwilling customer's view of shopping in local areas, which is too bad. Some
of the items that Rajesh's client sells are absolutely beautiful. It's clearly
the same quality of artisanship that helped build the Taj and the Red Fort
centuries ago. And Rajesh's work itself is sumptuous: plush carpeting,
sculpted ceilings, with rounded moldings, and marble staircases and floors. I
hope his work helps to improve business.
Rajesh is a tall, portly, 34-year-old, good-hearted and full of bluster. He
has a Saddam-like countenance: thick, bushy mustache, and carefully sculpted
stubble shaping his face, in start contrast to the smooth skin below his eyes
Like the other Indians I have met on this trip: Mr. Madan, my fellow passengers
on the train, Rajesh isn't, at the outset, the warmest person in the world. To
that extent, people here remind me of the French. They're a challenge to get
to know, but ultimately, it develops into an immensely rewarding relationship.
Rajesh has been excessively generous. Dinner last night in New Delhi, a
midnight trip to India Gate for some ice cream with the hundreds of other
Indian families enjoying the calm evening, my train tickets, a hotel room in
Agra so we could be comfortable in between sightseeing and his work, and...
hiring the auto-rickshaw driver.
The auto-rickshaw driver...which brings me back to my Indian Jones motif....
We arrived at Agra Cantonment Station at 8:15 a.m., right on time. As usual,
the platform was infested with passengers, red-cloaked porters, and schemers
hoping to take you for a ride. Rajesh was able to cut through that dense crowd
of opportunists and hook up with a driver waiting on the platform.
Interestingly enough, it was the person whom Rajesh usually hired when he came
to Agra, but Rajesh had not told him that we were coming.
Driver X (I never did get his name, and 'X' gives it a more Indiana Jones/James
Bond feel) is a spindly man in his late 50's. Unlike his other rickshaw
brethren, he seems to be a decent fellow. He owns one of those black and
yellow auto-rickshaws, omnipresent in Agra and New Delhi, less so in Bombay.
An auto-rickshaw is a three-wheeled scooter with a pace-maker for a motor, a
nut for a driver, and a desperate soul for a passenger. A canopy and a
windshield barely protect both nut and desperate soul from the elements, the
dust, the cows, the pigs, the oxen, the dogs, the diesel, and other inhabitants
of the road. It's also the best way to get around Agra.
Driver X is very adept at piloting his auto-rickshaw. After dropping Rajesh
off at his work site, he took me to see Sikandra and Agra Fort.
Getting to Sikandra involved a harrowing thirty-minute drive, careening through
the backstreets of Agra. The ride was worth the trip alone -- when I wasn't
clamping my eyes shut, trying to ignore the monster trucks bearing right down
on us. Luckily, Driver X with a flick of his wrist on the bicycle-like
steering device, angled us safely to the side of the road, a split second
before vehicular meltdown. Where was my fedora and whip?
Outside of the touristy areas, Agra is a bustling, but exceptionally
impoverished town. Animals cavort unfettered in the middle of the road, as
people do their business from countless rickety shacks along the side. Bicycle
repair, auto parts, cigarettes, laundry, groceries, electrical fix-it --
retail everything in these tiny huts, everywhere. These people may be poor,
but without a doubt, they are also industrious and hard-working. That must
have been the spirit that my ancestors took with them to Trinidad a hundred
years ago. Very inspiring.
...to be continued...and coming soon...the Taj Mahal.
AGRA CONTINUED, THURSDAY, MAY 15, 1997
Sikandra was the same old story: initial knot in my stomach as I had to
confront the touts, and faux tour guides, before I was even able to purchase my
entrance ticket (11 rupees). I may be getting more adept at fending them off
however, with nothing more than my most excellent, frigid, look-right-ahead,
wordless, New York City stare. And I do have to put in another good word
about these Indian gadflies -- they may be a pain in the ass and they want to
rip you off, but at least they perform their duties with a semblance of quid pro
quo (i.e. I'll mumble something non-intelligible about the architecture, you
give me 10 rupees). They aren't thieves. If you and your wallet somehow part
ways, it'll be because of your stupidity and your willingness to pay, rather
than their forcibly stealing from you.
So while Driver X waited for me outside, I visited Sikandra.
It's the tomb of Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), which as my guidebook
accurately says: is "an impressive, large, but architecturally confused tomb."
The grounds are quite beautiful however. Most interesting of all is the gaggle
of curly-tailed monkeys who romp around the garden like they own the place. I
held on to my camera and my bright purple guidebook for dear life. After
losing my 2 liter water bottle to the simian thieves in Bombay, who knows what
else catches their eyes?
Did I mention that it's 110 degrees F/42 degrees Celsius in Agra today?
Fortunately, as I have learned, that is below the seasonal temperature of 47 c.
Thanks to a freak rainstorm last week, things have "cooled down." Lucky me.
Next stop with Driver X was Agra Fort: probably the most impressive sight I
have seen so far in India (wait for the Taj though).
I thoroughly impressed myself by brushing aside all interlopers as I entered
the Fort. The structure itself was built by Mughal Emperors, Akbar, Jahan, and
Aurangzeb. The design and artwork is an incredible synthesis of Hindu and
Persian styles, and is especially evident in the intricate stonework and the
design of the pavilions. Most striking is the marble pavilion on the top
floor, which includes an awesome view of the Taj across the river. When Shah
Jahan was dethroned by his ambitious son, Aurangzeb, for, among other reasons,
bankrupting the state by building the white elephant Taj Mahal, Jahan was
imprisoned here at the Red Fort. That afforded him a daily birds eye look at
his folly across the way!
Driver X was there to meet me after I ran the gauntlet of postcard hawkers and
whip sellers (maybe they were Indiana Jones fans too). When we got back to his
rickshaw, a thoroughly naked young man, covered in mud, and most likely feces,
was sitting in the front seat, taking refuge from the heat and sun. He refused
to leave. Driver X had to kick him fiercely in the side, and only then did the
man get out, walked slowly around the rickshaw as my driver looked at him
warily, then proceeded to walk casually down the street. I was surprised to
see that even the Indian onlookers were staring at him. The man was probably
It may sound humorous now, but at the time, it was a very disconcerting scene.
All I knew was that I didn't want to touch, or be touched by this creature, who
seemed as far removed from humanity as could be. It was not hard to compare
him to the temple monkeys I had seen: temperamental, crazy, rabid, and
potentially dangerous. I'm not sure what to think of my reaction to this
incident. All I will say is that this is truly a land of extremes, and
unbelievable ones at that.
Hands down, never was in question, no doubt, the Taj Mahal takes first prize.
When I stepped through the front gate and saw that white palace, seemingly
suspended from the sky, it's as if someone had taken a cricket bat and
walloped me in the stomach.
There's no point even in attempting to describe the Taj in writing -- many
others have tried, probably with greater success than I could achieve. Suffice
to say, if I ever had the financial means, I would make sure that everyone I
knew could see the Taj Mahal once with their own eyes within their lifetimes.
Beyond its visual impact, the most striking aspect of the palace is the amount
of thought and sheer architectural brilliance that went into its design and
conception. The perfectly symmetrical four towers -- which seem perfect from a
distance -- actually lean inwards when you see them close up (the slant is
necessary to create the symmetry from afar). Similarly, the Arabic verses from
the Qu'aran inscribed on the façade (in black onyx no less) appear to be
uniform in size, no matter how high up the lettering is, from where you might
be standing. It's another illusion however: the writing is actually LARGER the
higher up it is on the facade, which is necessary to prove a uniform
perspective (i.e. the further away something is, it SHOULD appear smaller,
unless you compensate for the distance by making that something larger).
That's what's so marvelous about the Taj Mahal: it's an exceptional exercise
in perspective. The Arabs were excellent architects, and so was Shah Jahan.
JAIPUR, SATURDAY, MAY 17, 1997 3:10 p.m.
Don't cry for me India. I am currently sitting in the shade, during the
hottest part of the day in Jaipur -- the largest city near the fringes of the
Rajahstani desert. It's probably around 45 degrees Celsius. Did I mention
that I was sitting poolside in the courtyard of a five-star hotel? It is a
vacation after all.
My 24-hour stay in Jaipur has been a pure delight. I had hummed and hawed
about making yet another journey so close to my impending marathon return to
New York. But ultimately I felt that I had to continue to push myself. I was
getting a little too comfortable with the Ali's in New Delhi, and felt that I
needed one last blast before hitting the Western world. And I had three free
nights at five-star hotels in Jaipur and New Delhi awaiting me, so why not?
Allow me to wrap up my trip to Agra. I felt completely exhilarated after
seeing the Taj Mahal. Rajesh and I actually did end up hiring a "guide" at the
gate, but he was well worth the price. Rajesh even learned something new from
him. We paid him 105 rupees -- about $3.
After the Taj, I followed back to his work site as he had to wrap up his
business there. We had to kill some time before our train back to New Delhi,
so Rajesh, his architect, and I, sat in this little office in the driveway of
the store he was renovating. The store owner and his partner were sitting
behind a desk. The owner struck me like a Godfather-like figure, chatting
about business in Hindi, and every few minutes, pressing a button under his
desk, which would activate a very loud bell just outside the office. Every time
he rang, a boy would scramble to his feet from the driveway and come running
in, anticipating the boss' command. A few grunts later, the boy would run off
to execute the order. That's another notable thing about India. There are so
many people here, that labor is easily bought and sold. It's not difficult
for even a middle-class family to have servants. They're not treated
especially well, but the servants seem to be content with their station in
life, and happy to have a job. I am sure the caste system plays some role in
the order of things.
My last memory of Agra was the discussion that Rajesh had with his clients:
about security lights of all things. These are the lamps that illuminate
during a power blackout. The man who manages the Sheraton Hotel in Agra was
showing everyone a couple of the lamps he uses, explaining to them what he
thought of them. They all examined the lamps, and discussed their
functionality and esthetics. "So far received no complaint," "this is best,"
were some of the English phrases that punctuated their rapid fire Hindi
discussion. It reminded me a little of my Quebecois friends -- who speak
French and revert to English phrases at will -- not because they want to show
off, or allow unilingual bystanders understand what they're saying, but because
they have the ability to do so, and it is sometimes a more effective way to
As we drove back to the Agra train station, someone remarked how much cleaner
that Taj appeared to be, and how Agra seemed to be working a little more
efficiently than normal. Someone else responded that things have improved
markedly here since the huge Yanni concert in front of the Taj a few months
ago. I suppose there's no stopping change in India. For better or for worse,
here it comes, fast and furious.
...to be continued...
JAIPUR, MAY 17, 1997 5:45 p.m. (aboard New Delhi-bound Shatabdi Express)
I just completed the five minute walk from my five-star Sheraton hotel to the
under-the-stars Jaipur railway station. The walk reminded me of opening my
oven in my New York apartment, while it's running full blast in the middle of
winter. Just imagine a cool and drafty apartment, with an oven that has been
going at 425 F for 20 minutes, and suddenly you open it and WHOOSH! I have
NEVER felt intense heat and sun like I have here in Jaipur this afternoon. But
that's ok, I had my air conditioning, I had my swimming pool, I now have my air
conditioned train car, and I had a great time in Jaipur.
After Agra, I felt the need to do yet another solo expedition. So I steeled my
resolve and took a six-hour bus ride to Jaipur, which left at 11 a.m. -- rather
than rush and try to make the express train at 6 a.m.. I had given up on my
quest to find my ancestral home village of Gunda Nala. Unable to locate it on
any map, I've decided to leave it for another time when I am better prepared,
and when I have more time, and more information.
Surprisingly, my "deluxe A/C" bus actually was deluxe. Cozy, padded seats, air
conditioning, and decent leg room. But as usual, nothing ever works perfectly
as planned here (India is Organized Chaos personified and proudly nationalized).
I had been assigned seat #8...and so had the father of a family of three.
Since was already seated when he showed up, and had refused to budge, and had
put up some mild resistance. But since the man did not seem to be overly
aggressive, and he was with a family, I decided to play Samaritan and take my
chances with the conductor, who would hopefully find me another seat when he
An older gentlemen, looking like he was a refugee from an ashram with him long,
white hair and his flowing white garb, was seated in the second row of the bus.
The seat next to him was empty, as was a single seat directly in front of him.
I assumed that that seat was for the conductor. So I stood at the front of the
"What is your seat number?" the white-haired man asked me.
I told him, and explained my problem. "I am waiting to se if there is another
one free," I said.
"That is India," the man said, half-apologetically, half as a matter-of-fact.
"I know," I replied, good-naturedly. "These things happen, and up to now,
things have worked out pretty well."
"Sit here," he said, gesturing to the solo seat in front of him. "It is the
best seat, you will be comfortable there, and I will explain to the conductor
what happened. Otherwise, he will put you in the back, and it will be too
I did as he suggested, and thanked him. A few minutes later, the beige-suited
conductor arrived. My benefactor summoned him in a loud, authoritative,
voice, and explained to him cursorily in Hindi what had happened. To my
surprise, the conductor listened meekly, took my ticket, and did not say
another word to either of us. I had found my seat, and it was a great one at
Naturally, I got to chatting with my new friend. He knew I was a foreigner.
But would not have guessed that he was a member of the Indian Parliament! The
Congress Party at that -- the party of Indian independence and the Gandhi
dynasty. Which explains the seat incident. Rajesh had told me the night
before that typically, two or three seats are reserved on every bus for
VIPs. The empty seats adjacent to this man were thus technically "his" --
and he probably hadn't asked the conductor whether I could sit there or not --
he told him I could.
We had a perfunctory discussion, where I gleaned that he was a very cynical man
who had been ground down by Indian political life. He told me how India had
changed for the worst, and that the politics were rotten here. But he also
questioned why I was here -- I told him to get a taste of another way of life.
He said people try to understand too much, and that's when I knew our dialogue
was going to take a turn for the worse. He started talking about the United
States, where everyone is from somewhere else, and so no one has a common
background, a shared set or values, nor a sense of history.
"All you have is power and wealth," he said. I refrained from telling him that
power and wealth is the name of the game everywhere. India may have its
religions, castes and karma. But it is well known that the government and
police are hopelessly corrupt, the elite want to retain their power, and with
open borders and the new, strong scent of foreign money, it is clear to me that
Indians are no different from anyone else.
NEW DELHI, SUNDAY, MAY 18, 1997 5 p.m.
Quick time warp to today, before returning to the deluxe A/C bus to Jaipur...
"Museum is closed." Yeah, right. Here's the Law of Negotiation with an auto
rickshaw driver. Whatever he tells you, the opposite is true. All they want
to do is to milk as many rupees out of you as possible by taking you places you
have no interest in, and trying to force you to go shopping so they can make a
The driver who told me that the National Museum in New Delhi was closed today,
was one of the ten or so who accosted me during my 30-minute walk from the New
Delhi Hilton to the museum (which was, of course, OPEN). They all wanted to
take me sightseeing and shopping. I began to get very angry with them. Is it
so impossible for someone to take a Sunday stroll without being disturbed by
these morons? It became so bad, that I could not even stop to take a look at
my map before one would pull up behind me and try to engage me in conversation.
They don't take 'no" for an answer easily here, so I just started to ignore
them, which is the best solution.
With the exception of Driver X in Agra, I have had nothing but bad experiences
with these people. I am so angry, I was even able to spit out the following
verse in about five minutes this afternoon:
RICKSHAW DRIVER, by Hanson Hosein
Rickshaw driver do you care
about how you are despised?
Your filthy belching mouth
weaving in and out lies
how you are despised.
Rickshaw driver do you know
about how you are scorned?
Your buzzy screeching voice
your jerky stop-and-go horn
how, you are scorned.
Wallah, wallah, wallah why can't you be
like the fellow on the bike?
or the gent in the car?
Are you ashamed, that instead of four wheels
you only have three?
Why can't you be?
Leave me be.
Rickshaw driver, I wouldn't mind
ridding the earth of your ilk.
Broadside you off a bridge
scrape you off a yellow line
Really, I wouldn't mind.
Back to my Jaipur trip.
After my conversation between myself and my fellow
passenger-cum-politician-benefactor-cynical-anti-internationalist, I settled
into what was to become a harrowing ride through the northern Indian
There was one disadvantage to being in the front of the bus: you were a captive
witness to the thousands of potential disasters that was the oncoming traffic.
It was too bumpy to write, and even to read. A major Indian highway seems to
consist of a strip of asphalt, wide enough to accommodate two trucks barreling
towards each other. But as the Indian rules of the road go, a truck can easily
face down another truck/bus/cow coming from the opposite direction, even in the
A highway here is not like a North American one. It is not segregated from
local traffic in the least. My bus had to share the road with trucks, cars,
motorbikes, scooters, autorickshaws, rickshaws, bicycles, oxen-propelled carts,
cows, hogs, and camels. All were given their due respect and short shrift
in accordance with the rules of natural selection (small yields to big unless
small is too stupid to realize that big is bearing down on them).
It was an awkward and fatalistic choreography, where my bus driver would
overtake a tractor zooming along at 10 miles an hour, just as a 10-tonne truck
was unhesitatingly coming towards us. Allowing for a comfort zone that would
make any westerner revisit his last meal, the driver would calmly, with a flick
of his wrist, veer back into his proper lane, cheating Disaster once again.
After seeing this too many times, I tried to sleep, which was not easy as the
bus' air conditioning began to labor against the growing mid-day desert heat of
But I did make it to Jaipur safely. And I did check into my five-star Sheraton
hotel room with great ease. It has to be one of the best hotel experiences I
have ever had. The front desk attendant called me out by name even before I
had introduced myself. Upon arriving in my room, she telephone to make sure
everything was in order. The manager had enclosed a welcome letter. And my
room was very nice, with its view of the courtyard and the...swimming pool.
...to be continued...
NEW DELHI, SUNDAY, MAY 18, 1997 17:00 continued....
The railway station in Jaipur is a five minute walk from my hotel. I made my
way there soon after checking in so I could avoid having to take the bus back
to New Delhi the next day.
The reservations office was a little chaotic than the one in Bombay, but no
less crowded. The line at the "Foreign Tourists" window (which also served law
enforcement officials, the military, veterans, and "freedom fighters") was
A young white man stood in front of me. He was reading the Lonely Planet Guide
to India. I figured it would hurt to strike up a conversation with him, and
kill some time in the process, so I asked him where he was from.
Jon Bourton, age 27, is a former futures trader from London. He gave it all up
though, to take a one-year trek through Nepal, India, Thailand, Vietnam and
the west coast of the U.S.. He's a decent, straight-ahead person. We hit it
off immediately, and I spontaneously decided to hitch my star while in Jaipur,
to him, to see what would come of it. I felt that I could do without another
mediocre tour. I did not regret my decision.
Hanging out with Jon was a good experience. As he was travelling for a longer
period of time, he was on a significantly tighter budget than me. So instead
of my eating an expensive meal back at my hotel, we set out for a recommended
restaurant in town, Niro's.
"Setting out" was easier said than done, because that involved hiring a
rickshaw. First we tried an autorickshaw driver, but he saw that we were
tourists, and wanted 100 rupees. Jon said, no bloody way. As with any
discussion/argument/negotiations held on the streets of Jaipur, children and
street vendors quickly gathered around us to hear what was going on. Compared
to the indifference on New York City, I found their sincere curiosity and lack
of shyness quite refreshing.
Unable to find any other drivers who could understand where we wanted to go, we
caught the attention of a rickshaw wallah (the guys who pedal the bikes with a
passenger seat for two in the back) who said he knew where Niro's was. We
settled on 10 rupees and off we went.
My western guilt quickly got the better of me as this skinny man struggled to
pedal and carry these two big Westerners with their heavy backpacks. But he
managed. Unfortunately, he had no idea where he was going. We figured that
out soon enough, and stopped him before we got too lost. We offered him half
for getting us lost, but he would not take our money, fully expecting the full
fare or for us to get back in and continue to muddle our way through the
streets of Jaipur. It was a stand-off. I let Jon do the talking.
"Take it," he said. "You only took us halfway and you have no idea of where
you're going mate!"
The rickshaw wallah shook his head and did not take the 5 rupee note. A crowd
inevitably began to gather around us, and someone began to translate.
"You should pay him a minimum 8 rupees," an intervener told me, "that is
"I'm only paying him five," Jon said angrily. "He has no idea where he's
This went on for a few minutes and ended when I finally decided that enough was
enough and fished out 3 rupees from my pockets (almost 9 cents) and handed them
over. Dispute ended and we walked away, found another wallah who spoke English
and who knew where Niro's was. We got there quickly, but not before the wallah
convinced us to hire him to take us around Jaipur the next day in his
Dinner at Niro's was very good, as we indulged in Tandoori chicken and nan
bread. Once we were done, we decided to pop by the nearby movie house -- one
of the largest and flashiest in India. It's fairly well known that India
produces more movies (in Bollywood -- Bombay, now known as Mollywood --
Mumbai) than Hollywood does.
Surprisingly, some tickets were still available, so for the cultural
experience, Jon and I decided to go. The theater wasn't as large as I thought
it was going to be, nor as flashy. The Hindi movie that we saw was awful --
and I don't think the crowd was getting too much into it either (I found out
later that that particularly movie, despite its big star, was a disaster --
sounds a lot like Hollywood huh?). You didn't have to understand the language
to get the mediocre plot: gangsters, corrupt politicians, a surgeon driven to
drink by the murder of his son and death of his wife, a controversial power
project, pathetic action scenes, and musical interludes which involved a lot of
dancing, bad lip synching, and multiple costume and location changes throughout
We left during the intermission, relieved to get out, but still happy that we
had tried it. I know there is a plethora of good Indian movies out there, this
one just wasn't one of them!
The next morning, Jon arrived at my hotel with our auto-rickshaw, the wallah
from the previous evening, and his friend, who actually owned and was driving
the rickshaw. Big surprise there, the wallah was probably taking a cut in the
fee and splitting with his friend.
As Jon soon told me, they had already been trying to convince him to stop in at
some shops along the way, but he had refused. They tried convincing me, but I
refused. So eventually the wallah got out, and we made the 11 km drive up to
The Fort is spectacular. High up on the hills, just outside of Jaipur, it
commands a terrific vantage point over a valley. It was built in 1600 by a
Rajput general, and has a heavy Mughal influence. It's a bit of a labyrinth,
with some beautifully intricate stonework, but its real attraction is the view
and the nice breezes.
>From Amber Fort, we told our Oliver Twist-like driver to take us to the pathway
leading up to Tiger Fort, which was only 2 km from Jaipur. Along the way, the
driver took us into a side street and pulled up beside a carpet factory. A car
pulled up in front of us, fencing us in. We were furious.
"Five minutes only, five minutes only," the driver pleaded. We refused,
knowing full well that once inside, the pressure from the salespeople would be
"We have a very tight schedule and a lot of sightseeing to do," Jon and I told
the wallah firmly, several times. "We do not want to shop." He finally gave
up and took us sullenly to our destination (he would have made 50 rupees from
the factory owners had we stepped inside).
Tiger Fort is in the older part of Jaipur. Young children approached us with
big smiles, yelling, "Hullo, hullo, pens? pens?" Jon rebuffed them pleasantly,
and later explained to me that "pens" was a euphemism for "money."
We made the 20 minute hike up a steep slope to Tiger Fort. It was midday now,
and excessively hot outside, but we were rewarded with some excellent views of
On the way back to my hotel, we used a rickshaw wallah, who was short and very
thin. He agreed to charge us 15 rupees. I felt very sorry for him. He
struggled like mad up the hills and had to get off his seat a number of times
to push the rickshaw. But he got us back to the hotel, and did not complain
once. I could not in good conscience, give this man only 15 rupees for doing
what he had just done. It may be hard for a Westerner to understand how anyone
can quibble about 50 cents for a 5 km ride, but that's the nature of the
economy here. Rickshaw wallahs have incredibly low overheads have incredibly
low overhead and don't expect to make much more. Even auto rickshaw wallahs
are doing well if they make 100 rupees in a day. Tourists merely distort their
expectations, because what a tourist would pay 40 rupees for, an Indian would
only pay five. I ended up giving our wallah 20 rupees instead of 15, 14 cents
more than he had bargained for. He gave us a huge smile, and thanked us by
clasping his hands together. He would have been happy with 15 rupees, but five
more just made his day.
Two hours of lounging in the pool and a late 4 p.m. checkout later, and I was
off to the train station for my return to New Delhi. I had had a great,
improvisational time in Jaipur, and had met an interesting travel companion
along the way -- a nice reward for solo travel.
On the train back to New Delhi, I finished reading Salman Rushdie's excellent,
and challenging (like India!) "Midnight's Children" It seemed fitting that I
wrapped up the book at what I considered the unofficial end of my trip through
India. The next two days in India would be set aside to relax at the Hilton
and steel myself for my re-entry into New York.
....to be continued....
NEW DELHI, MONDAY, MAY 19, 1997 1:50 p.m.
I had honestly thought that I had written all that I could write
about this trip through India, that today would be the wrap-up
day, because as Rushdie would say, this little adventure was
"funtoosh," as I prepared to go "back to Bom" and then off to New
I'm sure if Salman was here with me right now, he would agree: it
is impossible not to be prolific when experiencing India. It is
a place that is as dynamic, rich and intense as Rushdie's writing
I shared this observation with Talmiz Ahmad today. He's the
official spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs
(the current Minister happens to also be the prime minister of
"Rushdie feels dried up," Ahmad told me, relaying what a
journalist friend of his had intimated to him. What Ahmad was
saying is, that given Rushdie's distance from his primary source
of inspiration -- India -- he is less than able to write. I can
My 45-minute discussion with Ahmad was a good one. Our family
friend, Rajiv Bhatia, the Indian consul-general to Toronto, had
referred me to him.
Ahmad's cavernous office is located in Shastri Bhavan, a set of
buildings housing various ministries in Central Delhi. He is a
sharp, worldly man. He was the spokesman for India in New York
in the mid-80's during the Bhopal crisis, and has served in
London and Pretoria as well. We chatted a bit about our personal
backgrounds, and the he got into, what I presumed to be, the
raison d'être of our meeting.
"I am very interested in making contacts with the American
media," he told me. He explained that they had good relations
with the British -- the former Raj. "But India is not part of
the American consciousness," he complained.
This well-read man proceeded to preach to the converted about how
difficult it was to establish a dialogue with the United States,
the only remaining "hegemony" in the world, as he described it.
He pointed out that the U.S. had only two interests in his
country (1) nuclear policy (should India have nukes at all); and
Although American companies have successfully penetrated India
since she opened her markets in 1991, they want more. Ahmad told
me that the American government has invoked its brickbat trade
weapon, the Super 301 against India in an effort to lower trade
barriers further. That's where India and the U.S. part ways in
terms of economic theory. Of India's 950-plus million people,
300 million are what U.S. companies would classify as desirable
consumers -- the middle class. Ahmad told me that they don't
care about the other 700 million, but the Indian government has
to, in an attempt to keep the divide between rich and poor (more
like a canyon) as narrow as possible.
India has always had a bit of a socialist/nationalist streak,
with its subsidies and closed markets -- but it was never an
excessive one. While I was waiting to see Ahmad, I spotted the
preamble to the Indian constitution on the wall. It described
the nation as the "Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, and Democratic
Republic of India." I brought that up with Ahmad, wondering
whether that was one of the reasons for America's aversion to his
"That was a mistake," he said. He explained that Indira Gandhi
added the redundant "Secular" (already in the Constitution), and
"Socialist" (as a sop to the Communists) during the "Emergency"
in the mid-1970's when she imposed martial law.
Ahmad then turned his attention the U.S. media. The biggest
problem was, he said, that though NBC, CNN, Time and a host of
other news organizations have made forays into the East with
their various Asian "editions," very few of those stories were
ever presented to an American audience back home.
"They're telling us about ourselves," he said. That meant that
Americans remained as ignorant as ever about the rest of the
world (and sometimes, as he perceptively noted, about the rest of
their own country), while Asians have to be told what they
already know with an American slant.
He did not think that this was right, when such a powerful
country, as "intrusive and invasive" as America is, has such a
badly informed polity. I wholeheartedly concur with Ahmad. This
manifests itself when something does happen in India that does
catch the attention of the U.S.. It means that you can pander to
your audience by ignoring the rest of the world, but you do so at
a great risk. An uninformed democracy that is suddenly called
upon to make informed decisions in the time of crisis, I firmly believe, is
something akin to mob rule.
My trip to India is over, and I think I have answered precious
few questions. Just as rootless as ever it seems, making me
destined to wander the world, to appreciate and to relate, but
always preferring to remain an outsider? No doubt, I have
Western values, and North American sensibilities. But I find it
difficult to subscribe to one nation, a god, a heritage, or a
culture. My slippery place in this world appears to be somewhere
in the mid-Atlantic, with one eye on the West, one leg in the
East, an arm in the South, and my brain and heart impaled on the
North Pole. Sounds like an awesome game of Twister, which either
makes me a bona fide citizen of the world, or just leaves me
BOMBAY, TUESDAY MAY 20, 1997, 1:40 a.m.
Time for the transition, and back to business class. Flight 107
from Bombay/Mumbai, ready for departure.
One last rip off (the auto rickshaw from the domestic terminal to
the international terminal), one last squabble (to be in business
class or not to be?), and Salaam Bombay.
My reading during this trip has been in tune with what I have
been experiencing. I began with "Midnight's Children" -- a great
primer on Indian post-independence history (if you can figure out
the metaphors), and largely set in Bombay. Next, William
Dalrymple's "City of Djinns," about his year in Delhi. Tonight I
began reading V.S. Naipaul's "An Area of Darkness," which is
about his first trip to India in the early 1960's. He shares his
(overly) critical impressions, as well as his own identity crises
as a Trinidadian educated and living in Britain with an Indian
And this is the end of whatever I had to say about my modest
Indian fortnight, a fulfilling and frustrating experience, which
has strengthened my character and deepened my perspective. It's
hard not to think of it is as a personal accomplishment, and
immensely worthwhile. This is an endlessly fascinating country,
in the midst of great change. I hope to return soon to see even
more of it, especially the South and Kashmir. Now, back to New
York, and a fixed price cab ride from JFK Airport to my
apartment. No rickshaws there...I pray.