.... I was in India four decades ago and traveled by air from Burma to Calcutta, by train to Patna, air to Kathmandu and back, train onto Benares, Delhi, Agra,(Taj Mahal by Full Moonlight!) Jaipur, Udaipur and Bombay...and then boarded a ship to Port Said, Egypt. Three weeks in an AMAZING land - part of a sixteen-month trip around the world!
Poverty is excruciating, culture overflowing with richness, spirituality on multiple levels from various concepts of a Single Source, embues their daily life. The color, scents, tradition, etc. all create an enormous kaleidoscope of Life. The country is huge, its population more so....the mountains are high and glorious, the plains vast and flat as a piece of paper: from browns to greens to muddy waters and lazy beasts roaming it all. The emotional space in which these people need to keep themselves just to get through a day must be almost holy to endure what the majority of them do. If you can, see "City of Joy" with Patrick Swayze....India without the smells.....!
I remember :
Calcutta - waking in the morning to look out the hotel room window as a wagon drove by, stopping frequently - picking up the corpses of street people who had died in the night....a thick, smoky haze filtering through the banyan trees in the park across the way..... the sacred cows that meandered in and among the rattle-trap cars and thousands of bicycles of brown-skinned, slender bodies pedaling their way to work. .... the brilliant colors of saris on females of all shapes and sizes adding the only spark to an otherwise dreary day. Tea being carried and served all over town by runners delivering the hot, sweet drink to shopkeepers, street vendors and ladies sipping from chin cups on broad white verandahs. Museum-worthy art everywhere.....as common as a streetlamp for them, awe-inspiring for us. The din of the town was deafening even in the middle of the night. The drone of the ceiling fan - an odd lullaby to hush us to sleep.
Train to Patna - First class was the only sane way to travel between cities. The second-class cars were for those who had no choice and were packed in like cattle, hanging from the doors and windows just to travel between one town and the next, hoping for a place inside when someone tried to get off at their stop. Children pooped and peed close to the doors so that a bucket of waer could be slopped onto the excrement to slush it onto the passing tracks. Babies were changed and nursed and spanked and cuddled and played with as though they were part of an enormous hopeful plan for the future. Huge black eyes stared at me from chocolate brown, smooth as silk skin, still new to this world. Golden earring already pierced the tiniest of earlobes, their little bodies swaddled in the whitest cloth in this dingy world of theirs.
Kathmandu - flying high in a wee bit of a plane, packed with locals and the six or seven tourists that we were, the sculpted terraces of mountains lay below us like a fine work of art. Rice, flowers, vegetables - nourishment for the body and soul glowed leprechaun green beneath our wings. We flew in the direction of Everest...like homing pigeons, arriving at a metal building on the side of a flat field which was their international airport. The day was growing dim at two in the afternoon...it was after all November...and the sun would soon sink behind the monster mountains surrounding the sleepy town. There was much excitement...yesterday the first switch was flipped to give them light at night on Main Street! Before then, when it got dark, only bobbing oil lamps lit their way or the inside of their huts. Those who lived in bigger buildings climbed up darkened stairways to the cluster of rooms called home. The ancient buildings were carved in the most delicate way...living in a piece of architectural wonder. The Stupas in the scattered plazas of the "city" were festooned with colorful flags not only for decoration, but also to indicate which way the wind was blowing and how fast...They all knew well what the weather would be by the speed and direction those little bits of cloth fluttered. Clouds played hide and seek with us as we strained to see Everest from up close...as luck would have it, the visibility was better from afar....like seeing an idol in a magazine, rather than up close. Its peak was invisible the closer we got...it was THAT high, and we had no intention of climbing it at all. Its sloping sides awash in a verdant color from all the water that trickled from the still-melting snow before being replenished by the winter winds. The stillness that froze the people during the moments of daily prayer was broken only by the multitude of tinkling bells - everywhere.
A cacophony of heavenly messages heard by each and everyone of us, regardless of the language we spoke. Heard by our hearts.
Patna was another bustling crossroads of the country taking people in four directions and then fourteen hundred more. The train station was packed to the gills. Families and friends seeing off friends and families. The train on the next track started to roll and came to a screeching halt moments later when a white clad woman, not very old, had fallen off the platform under its wheels, leaving a terrified husband and bewildered children screaming from the arms of her other, the red of her blood dyeing her sari on the spot......an unforgettable memory etched forever in my mind. One could only imagine the shock, the grief, the mayhem that ensued as we slowly rolled away...leaving behind a mass of humanity that was shocked with the accident, angry at being late for their next stop and compassionate to the ones left behind whoever she was. The next morning their days would go on and as Life always does, regardless.
Benares - Mom and I arrived there at dawn, expecting to be met by someone from UNESCO who ended up being very late. We left our bags at the station and began to walk through town. The sultry morning would only grow more so as the sun rose in the sky. Metal screens over shopdoors screeched up as we strolled by, buckets of water splashed onto sidewalks, attempting to wash away the dust which had gathered overnight. Finally catching up with us this young man, acted as our guide and told what he knew of this holy place. The drone of low voices singing hymns lured us down to the river, just blocks away. The rose light of morning reflected on the river, an occasional crocodile head swam silently by, as the growing smoke from the funeral pyres were lit and survivors of the dead gathered round to throw marigolds onto the body, to perfume the process of passing. Rickety boats that looked like they would sink at any minute, tugged at the pallets after they were done and whatever remained floated on the top of the water before sinking into the waves. The ash into which we return was to carry the sins of the man away into the sea while his spirit rose to the sky in the whiteness of the smoke. Mom was pretty disturbed by what she saw, the experience being so opposite what she had been raised with. Cramming for this trip of a lifetime for the year before, I kind of knew what to expect but standing there, seeing the National Geographic pictures come to life, was amazing. The religious fervor in which these people live their lives was a riveting and awakening moment for me. Their belief in reincarnation and the cycle of life was right there before me and rang true in my soul. Little did I know that those beliefs would get me through the deaths of two of my own children. What I was taught didn't ring true and would not sustain me, but the dawn in Benares would haunt and feed me forever.
Delhi was a cacophony of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Cars, six-story skyscrapers, massive government buildings, white uniforms directing the mass of humanity attempting to get from one part of the city to another, the haves being chauffered around town in shiny black vehicles, maneuvering their way between buggies, wagons, bicycles and beasts. Gates kept the have-nots out as servants scurried from room to room over marble floors to bring succulent fruits and sweets after exotic, spicy meals prepared in far-off dirt-floored kitchens. Starched white linens covered perfectly carved mahogany tables. Shimmering wines provided pools for the candlelight to be reflected in before being emptied into thirsty, yet already sated, bodies. Huge gray building were guarded mausoleums of the country's treasures, Vast amounts of golden jewelry, intricately set with rainbows of gems, in all sizes and shapes filled glass cases, while the walls were lined and spiritually guarded by voluptuous gods and goddesses carved in rosewood, mahogany and other woods. Poses I had never conceived of before, fascinated me, the promising dancer. Miniature paintings gave a sense of holiness to the sexual acts that created civilization. Indian royalty indulging in every sense of the word and enriching my imagination. The Red Fort, snake-charmers, silken saris, music from everywhere, silence only found during the lull in a temple service. Candles, flowers, incantations, red spots on foreheads bowing in reverence. to boldly colored gods and goddesses, hands folded in prayer...everywhere. Spirit was alive in this ramshackle nation of a multi-classed civilization.
Agra - In the middle of what was then, nowhere, the megalith of white marble rose from the dusty plain like a mirage. A scene out of Ali Baba or another fairy tale, the Taj's glorious dome filled the horizon. Re-hearing the story, I hoped to be loved like that one day, with a different ending of course. The grief that created this majestic structure was overwhelming. Unable to shower her any longer with fresh flowers, the master craftsmen used semi-precious stones which would withstand Time to create lasting bouquets of flora to grace Mumtaz's resting place. Lace would never again decorate her body, so the whitest of marble was used to filter the sun and cast graceful shadows into the chamber in which she slumbered. Her dais raised under the center of the dome as befitted the Queen of his world. Four towers guarded the park surrounding this Temple of Love, each one with windows seeking out the path by which she might return, high enough for her to use as landmarks, should she lose her way.
The fall evening was fairly cool under the setting sun and rising moon. Dinner was served in a corner of the hotel's restaurant with champagne and cake for dessert. It was my birthday.
Atop my slice, next to the candle, came a golden miniature of the Taj Mahal, a charm to wear on my bracelet. to forever remember this day. I do, without seeing it dangle from my wrist or hold it tenderly in my hand, for it is always in my heart, not only on my birthday. There was a solitary man sitting on the opposite side of the room, a foreigner, as we, who came to wish me the best and shared a toast. It was an equally important day for him, and he told us his story.
The last time he had been here, from his far-off home in Scandinavia, was on the day I was born, November 22nd, just after the war. It too was a full moonlight and he, as a young man, had intoned his prayers to Mumtaz to guide him to the love of his life. He had walked along the reflecting pool to and fro, concentrating on his future, the moon dancing in the black waters, toying with his mind and heart, causing to him focus even more. He found it hard to describe the feelings he had experienced, but language was unimportant, as we could read it so clearly in his eyes. He asked if he could join us for the ride to the Taj and would escort my mother and me, as it could be unsafe for two ladies alone at that hour there. Gratefully and graciously, we accepted... we were mutually honored. How strange it was to have that encounter there, at that time, under those circumstances....
from "such a long time" ago.(Now I know how quickly Time passes). His pilgrimage made my birthday even more special. (How powerful was this thing called Love....something to look forward to. ) The guards were bribed by him so that we could stay for awhile after hours. The few stragglers left sadly as we sat and strolled the silent gardens, the breeze through the trees the only sound except for the footsteps along the gravel paths. A gentle mist grew in the lengthening night. White floodlights turned off, the Taj rose magnificently in the palest of pink, reflecting the moon, floating on the vapors of the day. The pictures hardly do it justice, but prove me right. We heard the rest of his story as we sat on the bench at the end of the pool... He had returned home, worked hard for the UN and finally married the woman he had implored to Be. The joy of his life, the mother of his children, she too had died, only two years before. Before he could bring her to the Taj, before he could show her the place, by full moonlight too, where he had prayed for her to be his life partner. Tears gently rolled down his face as he told his tale and then turned to profusely thank us for being there with him, to hear his tale of grief, understanding now what a profound Love could do to a mere man. His daughter was only five and he had promised himself, with us as witnesses, that he too would one day bring her here, to see the magic of the Taj Mahal. An unforgettable day, evening and night. The poplars shimmered in the moonlight and whispered in the wind as we heard the huge iron gates click closed behind us and we silently drove home. A dream? definitely not, but a fairy tale come true. He was gone before breakfast but left a note of good wishes and had paid for our dinner the night before.
Jaipur and Jodhpur meld together in my mind. Temples, palaces, bejewelled beggars in the streets as is their custom... wear it and know where it is or come home to find it gone. Vistas from nearby hilltops overlooking brimming, steamy valleys, teeming with the trappings of everyday life. Elephants and majesty riding alongside bony cows and skirted men. Turbans and towers, history and hysterics. A mishmash of living beyond the elegant gates of the Palace on the Lake. There a masterful, fanciful painting comes to life. Pristine boats float guests across the still waters to the glowing artwork erected in the middle of the lake. Stately guards watch and protect and assist the visitors who come to call. Brocades and silks decorate windows, upholster furniture and dress the wealthy ladies. Fruit of the vine is served in goblets of cut crystal which plays equally well with candlelight, sunshine and moonlight . Food is served under glistening domes of silver onto gold-charged plates, white gloved hands never making a sound. Conversation is hushed, classical music or the sounds of a sitar plays from a distant corner or from another room as to not interfere. Demands and requests met by the mere look of an eye. Tinkling bells announce the beginning of a meal, a next course, or the end of dinner. Footsteps are muffled on the finest of carpets. The starched sheets cover elaborate beds in pastel-hued rooms, each with a terrace overlooking the lake. It was like being in a classic movie. An extravagant lifestyle that even today is often taken for granted. And shouldn't be, considering the actual cost. And I am not talking currency.
Bombay - Brain overloaded, I was looking forward to boarding a ship and floating on the silent sea, away from the noises, sounds and smells of this place. Yet reluctantly so, when the sailing date drew near. Bombay was aflurry with preparations for the International Ecumenical Conference. Thousands upon thousands of youngsters dressed in white, so different these Christian Indians than their counterparts in the rest of the land. They came with an equal fervor, having found something newer to believe in. Krishna was too ancient, Christ easier to perceive. The country was suffering from a drought and people dying of hunger. The world had sent aid that would ease their pangs of hunger. However, the tons of potatoes that they would not eat, regardless of how hungry they were, sat rotting on the pier next to our ship. Swarms of insects and domestic animals stole their way into and onto the piles to feed themselves, carrying away the bugs that might or might not infest the people around them. A very mixed blessing, with long term affects. Something to think about as we pulled away from the pier. Three lifetimes lived in three weeks....