In India!!
Published in CARBON 14, February 1998

It starts, and eons of dreams and phantasms collide with reality. I'm flying Gulf Air into Bombay!
Listening to Om Kalthoom on the headphones, the islands of Crete and Rhodes flash their summer ochre hue thirty-five thousand feet up at my bewildered eyes. Syria, Jordan, Al-Nafud, a soft left, and we're in Doha for an hour.
By that time, all the Arab women who left Paris in mini-skirts, hi-heels and bare midriffs have turned into veiled and robed desert queens, so propriety prevails!
When we finally take off for Bombay, the plane is mostly filled with men: Indian laborers from the Emirates going back home for Indian Independence Silver Jubilee celebrations later that week, and Arabs on the make looking for trouble in Bombay, namely booze, gambling and loose women!!
And then, we land at dawn.
Seedy and deliquescent! That's Sahar International Airport in Mumbai (the locals' name for Bombay, so I'll use that from here on end!), a taste of things to come, but I don't know that yet. The good thing is that Sahar airport immediately throws you into IT. Drab, dreary, dimly lit interior. When I say dimly lit, don't go thinking romantic penumbra or the soft dancing glow of exotic candles! What we have here are the gloomy pulses of many fluorescent tubes running at half power, for that uplifting and sickly greenish glow you'd normally associate with the fourth sub-level of an underground parking garage, except it's dark. Charming indeed!
Customs, immigration, Dollars into Rupees, and I'm outside into moist heat and a rickety Airport-Downtown shuttle bus.
As I wait and look outside the window at my first Mumbai daybreak, palm trees dripping warm water into oily monsoon puddles, I attract the attention of my first of many beggars yet to come. After a few obligatory denials, I figure I'll get rid of him with the smallest coin in my possession, two rupees, for a big nickel donation.
Big mistake! He thanks me profoundly, and soon the word gets around that a crazy "firangui" is giving out the crown jewels for the asking. And before I can think "Let's go, Mumbai, let's go!", my bus window is besieged by four kids, two cripples, a skin-and-bone Holy Man, and a mother of several, all looking at me with haunted eyes, one hand out going from their mouth to me with cries of "Baba, Baba, please" in a gesture leaving Downtown Mumbai !little to the imagination!
Salving my rapidly rising western guilt, the bus presently departs, and after forty five minutes of hovels and shanty towns, I see India squatting with a water pitcher, defecating in unison by the side of the road, oblivious to passing traffic and pedestrians, then proceeding to brush its teeth and doing its morning ablutions with water from nearby puddles!
The bus eventually stops at a big intersection where we all alight. At a loss as to what's next, the driver answers my query by vaguely pointing to a high-rise in the southeast, saying "Taj Mahal Hotel over there!", before driving off into that blue morning diesel mist! So here I am, barely an hour in Mumbai and already lost, walking in the direction of a landmark not my destination, wondering "What the fuck!!!".
The Taj Mahal is one of the grandest palace hotels in India, a testimony to the Olden Glory days of the British Raj, where I will not be staying, what with single A/C rooms going for $300 and up per night. Instead, I aim for the Apollo, just around the corner. No luck, no vacancies!
So I retreat to my original choice where a reservation awaits me, the Sahil Hotel, four kilometers north in Mumbai Central, which seems to impress my cab driver to no end!
Rising behind a row of huts and two dumpsters oozing miasmic juices are the Sahil's ten concrete stories. After checking into a clean A/C room, I take my courage in both hands and go back outside for my first full, extended encounter with Mumbai's sea of multi-colored saris, smells of sandalwood incense and rotting offal, olfactory waves of curry and feces battling the heady fragrances of jasmine and gardenia.
And it's only 9AM!!  


To say that Indians are friendly would be an understatement!
Discounting beggars and people trying to sell me something, never have I seen so many people paying so much attention to me at all time. Smiles always lighting up their faces, they wanted to know my name, where I came from, and would I please take their picture?!
Even though I traveled on a U.S. passport, I told them I was French, which seemed to be an answer they liked: "Paris, Eiffel Tower, Brigitte Bardot, Jacques Chirac (what!?!)", the ol' cliches seem to cross space and time without a hitch!
In Mysore I met two local hip and unemployed computer grads who blew my French mind telling me they liked Magma, Telephone, Les Negresses Vertes and Mano Negra!!
When I say Indians were friendly to me, I should specify Indian MEN (no, not THAT kind of friendliness!)!!
Women were another matter. For a time, I thought a pissed-off sadhu had cursed me with a spell of invisibility! Not a glance, not any acknowledgement, my charmer smile and friendly deep-voiced "Hello" notwithstanding! Only if I were buying something from her, would a woman smile at me!
-"Forget Indian women" friends told me. "Go for the Anglo tourists!" they said. Well, it was monsoon season, and I was the only westerner not on the Costa Brava, or Rome and Capri, for I saw nary a one!  


Coming to terms with the abject misery that is the daily lot of countless thousands (millions is more like it, but you can only see thousands at a time!), has to be the hardest task facing the first time westerner in India. Our soft and cushy sensibilities render us unaccustomed to take the sight of so many hungry people in rags with a nonchalant shrug and go on our merry way. That many of these poor people belong to beggar castes whose ordained duty in the dharma is to beg, and yours to give, doesn't really help much. I lasted two days in the hell-hole that is Mumbai and decided to go to Aurangabad and the Ellora caves. The Tapovan Express to Aurangabad left Victoria Terminus, a chef-d'oeuvre of Indo-Moghul-Anglo-Gothic kitsch you have to see to believe, at 6:30AM, only fifteen minutes late.
The suburban slums, in their defecating morning, went by endlessly. When we finally hit the countryside, colored in a multitude of monsoon greens, Mumbai's filthy poverty turned into plain lack of everything. Imagine a poor county in Mississippi in the nineteenth century, add a fair helping of variegated diesel trucks and dilapidated buses, throw in a cloud of mopeds and small motorbikes, many ox-pulled plows and carts, and you might get an idea. Just an idea!

(Click here for Photos)

Aurangabad is the railway head most convenient to reach the Ellora and Ajanta caves, after an eight-hour trip from Mumbai, through Kalyan Junction, Manmad, Nagarsul and other frontier-like small towns and villages.
Like all things in India, it is steeped in history and has seen better days!
It is named after Aurangzeb (1659-1707), the last of the Great Mughal emperor, and it was his capital when he ruled in the Deccan. Sprawling and polluted by a sea of constantly honking rickshaws, it is home to a special handicraft known as "Himroo", handloom cotton and/or silk interwoven with a great variety of intricate designs, inspired by the age-old patterns found in Ajanta and elsewhere in the area. Magnificent weaves they are, and I splurged big time when I found out the state emporium selling them took credit cards!
On the way to Ellora, one passes the famous medieval fortress of Daulatabad, a rock-hewn citadel dominating the landscape, from a 600 ft. high mesa-like plateau. Built in the twelfth century by Raja Bhillamraj, it was called Deogiri, "the hill of the Gods", and was considered to be invulnerable! European travelers of those days have described it as the most powerful in India.
But it fell, nevertheless, to the Sultan of Delhi in 1308. When Muhammad Tughlak ascended the Delhi throne, he was so taken by the fortress that he decided to move his court and capital there, renaming it Daulatabad, "the City of Fortune". A transplantation rather than a move, he ordered the entire population of Delhi, men, women, children, old, sick and dying, rich and poor alike, to move out en masse to the new capital! No one was exempted, and the thousand-mile journey exacted a terrible toll in human misery, and thousands of people perished on the way.
And it was all in vain.
Fifteen or so years later, the Sultan regretted his decision and, repeating his act of madness, he ordered the whole population to move back to Delhi. Ah! the charms of absolute power!!
Eventually, the fortifications were extended, ramparts and bastions were built, mounted with huge bronze cannons, several rings of walls with battlements guarded the approach. Several inner walls with heavy iron gates fitted with elephant spikes were encircled by a six kilometer outer wall. Inside these walls is a 40 ft. deep moat, with a drawbridge, leading to the original citadel. The plateau's solid rock sides were then scraped vertically flat to a height of 250 ft., for extra added unease of access. I'll pass on the outlandish defensive apparatus, suffice it to say it bordered on sadism, and had it not been for treachery, the fortress might indeed never have been taken!

Along with Hampi, Ellora and its Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina temple caves have to rank as the supreme experience of the trip!
Each religious system, living side by side in harmony I might add, had its own individual architectural style, and contains some of the most elaborate carvings of Gods and Goddesses. Buddhist Vihara in Ellora !
The Buddhist caves are the oldest (500-700 AD), and include several "Vihara" and "Chaitya halls". Huge Buddhas seating on Lion and lotus thrones supported by Naga figures with snake heads, richly decorated facades, chapels inside galleries inside chapels, carved roofs and pillars covered with ornate bas-reliefs, the diversity is extraordinary.
The main Buddhist cave, No. 10, is dedicated to Vishwakarma, the Hindu architect of the Gods, having no connection with the Buddhist pantheon!! This commingling of concepts resulted finally in the absorption of Buddhism in the current of Brahmanical thought, and its virtual extinction in the land of its birth! 

Of the Hindu caves, No. 16 is the most celebrated as the Kailasha, Lord Shiva's mountain abode. It is one of India's most famous monuments, a marvel of rock-cut architecture at the apex of technical skills. Excavated in the eighth and ninth centuries AD , it is regarded as the greatest monolithic structure in the world, combining immensity with grace, power with jewel-like execution, and the awesome talents of hundreds of sculptors and architects who created this grandeur out of the living rock!


Kailasha Temple at Ellora ! It is estimated that the task of quarrying and chiseling out its three million cubic feet of rock took over a century! A square trench, over a hundred feet deep and a hundred and fifty feet wide surrounds the huge Shiva temple in the center. The three buildings in the spacious court are connected by an overhead bridge, there are bold friezes of life-size elephants, seemingly straining with the great burden of the temple on their backs, the pyramidal roof has a three-tiered tower and a projecting gable-front, and many panels show depictions of Shiva's legend, featuring the god in various situations with his wife Parvati.

The greatest masterpiece is known as "Ravana shaking Kailasha". A central figure in the Ramayana, Ravana decided one day to display his great strength by lifting Shiva's mountain abode on his head. By way of an answer, Shiva did what you and I would do. He simply put his toe down, and under the enormous pressure, Ravana became helplessly trapped. An alarmed Parvati clings to her husband as courtiers and attendants sit unperturbed by the shaking mountain, fully confident in Lord Shiva's powers.



Outside, monkeys move about, staring at the tourists, and I wonder if Hanuman would approve.  


Europeans in India can be roughly divided into two types:
the 20-30 year old crowd, travelling alone or in pairs, sometimes as a quartet of meatheads (German and sometimes Americans), backpacking their way through the sub-continent in time-honored fashion. Pretty regular types here, they come, they go, no big deal.
Much more amusing is the second grouping: the family of four, with mom and dad in their late forties, obviously reliving one last time afore the bell tolls that transcendental Indo-Hippy acid meditation trip they took together all those years ago, right out of school (grad or not!), in the 1967-1972 halcyon days when everything was possible and Being was more important than Having!
They dress the part.
From the ground up, we have: sandals/Birkenstocks, Indian straight-leg yet loose-fitting cotton pants, white for dad, a pretty flower/paisley print in a pastel blue shade for mom, matching top for both, all very ethnic and real and so in touch with the soul of India! Mom even accents it a bit with a long blue silk scarf rakishly draped around her neck, one end dangling in front, the other in the back, for a striking effect of elegant nonchalance. Rings, earrings, beads and jewelry of obvious ethnicity and spiritual portent complete the picture.
The daughter, twenty and pretty, outfits herself just like mom, thread for thread, a bit more garish in red or purple tones, more vibrant and vital maybe, but still mom's carbon copy. The main difference between them is that, back in Düsseldorf, Sheffield or Philadelphia, mom dresses just like yours on the way to the office, whereas Peggy Sue, third generation Dead Head Techno-ravette, is in her everyday cool best, thirty full-circle fashion years apart!
The only clashing element here is Junior. Seventeen and pimply, as technoid as sis but sans Dead, he probably felt too weird, fey and faggotty in Indian garb! So it's sneaks, baggies, Stussy shirt and B-ball hat for him, just in case he'd run into the guys at the big Shiva temple!
Other than the clothes, it's the very awkward feelings you get from their body-english that strikes you.
Mom and dad obviously didn't remember it quite that way, feel heavier and slower, can't quite recoup the awe of years past. It's just not the same, however much they try! And the kids don't know what to make of it. The ancient temples and monuments are way cool, of course, but the constant and unavoidable filth and poverty are just too much for their humanistic young minds.
- "Can't we help these people?" they think, "and shouldn't we blame mom and dad and their generation for not curing such ills and misery?"
And I find myself highly amused by the seeming existential travails of this "Lost in Space on planet Earth" family, without robots, but surely in the strangest of timeless time-warps, neither in the kid's NOW nor the parent's THEN!

In Hampi I met a French woman, at the tail end of a year alone on the road, having spent six months in Africa, not seeing white people for weeks at a time, and coming to India to finally eat good food!!
We talked for an hour over tchai and vegetable thali, where she regaled me with tales of malaria, parasites and dysentery! She was delighted to meet a friendly compatriot, eager for conversation and the sharing of adventures, in sharp contrast with the much-in-evidence and typical attitude Euros have for one another, of one quick, unsmiling nod along with a "Don't talk to me, whitey, I'm having an Alien experience" peeved frown!

The third and final European encounter I'll share with you took place on my last day there, at the Bangalore airport, waiting to board my first of three homeward flights that day!!
Besides being the fifth largest city in India and its hi-tech "Silicon Valley" and space sciences capital, Bangalore is also home to the "Sri Sathya Sai Babai ashram". Well, it's really in Puttaparti, 200 kilometers away, but who's counting when you're scratching the Godhead!
The Baba thought of himself, at first, as the reincarnation of a Maharashtra sadhu, then in the 60s, as an Avatar of Lord Shiva! Serious mystical stuff, then, and quite mystical enough for the dozen or so Italians, forty/fifty-something and beatific, also awaiting Indian Airlines flight 110 to Mumbai.
Clearly fresh off the Ashram, they wear the obligatory garb of Eastern spiritual awakening, white linen pajama suits with long shirts and Birkenstocks, and are fully laden with study books and mystic manifestoes, garlands of flowers and pictures of the Baba.
Having received the Sage's knowledge, in exchange for hard currency and devotion, they return home, full of wisdom and reason, I'm sure. Never underestimate the spiritual cleansing power of a Swiss bank account, especially when shrouded in the arcane inspirational cognition of Sri MumboJumbocananda. Throw in a good serving of Tantric sex liberation, all you can eat, it's included in the package, and there you have it, Nirvana sulla Terra!
Ah, aging acid heads on a white man's burden guilt flashback, hoping for solace and succor in that long-postponed Ashram trip, thirty years after the Maharishi (or could it be Guru Maharaj Ji? Remember him? Is he still the fifteen year-old perfect master?!?) planted that seed in their ever so fertile and yearning angst-ridden mind!
-"What's that you said, Baba? Peace of mind? I'm OK, you're OK? New Age bliss? Sign me up, Baba! Dollars, Swiss Francs, AMEX?"
Nevertheless, an air of sadness sporadically flickers on their faces. Could they be saddened, even despondent, with leaving the Baba? Or could it be a bit of post-tantricoïtal small death depression? Of course, after so many days in the Baba's syncretic presence, as He opened their third eye to the vibrancy of the cosmos, lightened their load and levitated their money to some secret esoteric cavern on Grand Cayman, they may very well have expected to fly back to Roma on their own power!
So, Flight 110 has to be a disappointment!!


The French woman I met in Hampi was right. This is the place for culinary delights, sublime spices and curried wonderment. India is heaven for the vegetarian and a dandy place for the meat eater too. OK, so no beef (on the plate, that is. Plenty on the hoof!), but mutton -don't get squeamish calling it lamb, it's mutton!!- and chicken aplenty, in all kind of biryani, tikkha, tandoori, mughlai, or other combinations, as exquisite as they're endless. Karmically-correct vegetable thali, a plateful of endless fragrances and subtle enchantments, spicy as you wish. Large, naturally grown, ripe and juicy vegetables. Bananas in all sizes, shapes and colors, mangoes and papayas, hairy-brown and smoothly green coconuts offering you the milk of their kindness, napalm peppers, green curlicued chilies, hellspawn capsicum, sweet Bun wrapped in betel leaves, deep-fried pakodas and samosas sold at train stations, on street corners and in the ravening dreams of my feverish hunger.  


Unless you' re living high on the hog and jetting everywhere, you will experience the joy of Indian mass transit! Forget people on roofs and dripping off overcrowded train cars the way you saw them in "The Man Who Would Be King" or "Ghandi". Indian railways have a computerized reservation system that worked every time I used it, transit trains out of Mumbai were many and frequent, none were ever too crowded, and I traveled 2nd class under ceiling-fan breezes.  

Buses are another story.
City buses will be packed, always, and you do wonder why they bother stopping to pick up more passengers.
"It's full already" you think.
But, hey, with 120 people in a 60-capacity bus, there's always room for a dozen more! Forget standing behind the white line.
3 to 4 people will stand behind the driver and to his left and right, straddling the gear shift! The only room left untouched is the ubiquitous temple/shrine in the front under the rear-view mirror, where Ganesha, Krishna, Shiva, or the local tutelary deity sits enthroned, festooned with garlands of gardenias and bathed in incense smoke.
Short-distance buses will have a sound system blasting away and barely-padded benches, and that's OK, since the cushioned seats in the long-haul coaches will invariably be torn open and disemboweled!
Of course, they have a video set-up to make the long trips more bearable. On a scheduled 12 hour ride that ended up taking 14 due to flat tires (I helped!), engine problems (I pushed!), slow traffic, stray animals, ambulating cattle, bombed-out roads and monsoon floods, it can be a welcome diversion to while away the hours watching the latest Bollywood production.
Travelling the 350 kilometers between Poona and Goa (in 14 hours, that gives you an idea of the average speed!), we were treated to an Hindi/Kung Fu/Kali extravaganza that went like this, as best I could tell, what with my Hindi not being what it used to be.

Two brothers, Anjun and Vijay love each other and their mom very much, and a wonderful production number is set-up to prove it. Close-ups of loving glances, with mom center screen and the bros. on both side, and a cast of hundreds dancing and singing paeans of brotherly love and elder worship!
Meanwhile, a bad guy looking like Saddam Hussein, and his three honchos (same look, THEY could be brothers too, for all I know) worship Kali (fire breathing and ominous gyrations from the cast), and end up doing unmentionable things to mom and killing our two heroes with much sword action and gory, bloody close-ups, in an Indian approximation of the samurai's Death of a Thousand Cuts!! I'm not entirely sure how that came about, I must have been changing the tire at that moment!
Mom is devastated and disheveled, and runs to that same Kali temple where she unleashes such heart-rending cries and mournful prayers that the Ten-headed and Bloody-Tongued One is moved to grant her wish, namely to reincarnate her brood. You know it worked because you hear the wail of a new-born babe echoing through the temple dome!
For the next hour, we see mom aging in hopeful sorrow and the bros. growing up separately, and as ENEMIES, fighting all the time in vibrant hate!!
Anjun's romantic interest is about to be married to the bad guy's son, when our two heroes arrive separately on the scene, and finally recognize their kinship and former life when a bolt from the blue stops them as they are about to fight each other in the enemy palace. They then proceed to do karate mince meat of the bad guys.
Mom, who's aged thirty years since the beginning, recognizes her sons who haven't changed at all and much happiness, rejoicing, singing and dancing ensues. The End!

Several hours later, we enter the Goan rain forest with its red earth, lianas and Banyan trees, parrots and monkeys.
The monsoon-sky cries without let-up.

Namaste!! A letter, please!!?
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