An Account of My Trip to India

My parents tell me that the first words out of my mouth, when I saw India for the very first time at the age of three, were, “When I grow up, I’ll build a bathroom for cows!” Over three decades have gone by since that sound bite was heard, but I really didn’t notice much of a change in the preferred site of defecation for livestock and other strays in an India that shines these days. It is still the highways, or perhaps the highway dividers now, in a world where the car population is exploding at unforeseen rates, edging cows out to the zones deemed safest to their bovine sense of survival. I am still tempted to find ways to make good on my childhood promise!

Some things will never change, but other things have, no doubt. For better or for worse is not for me to judge. I have never been able to really hone in on that one indeterminate and intangible element that defines any city and moves one to a decision about its likeability. The idea that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder applies as much to places as it does to people. I remember my business trip to Marrakech, ten years ago. I remember them talking about the poverty, the filth on the streets, the congestion and the pollution in this exotic and historically rich city that could well have been a twin of any big Indian city. I remember a raging debate between the Europeans who, I thought, tended to pride themselves as possessors of more refined sensibilities, and the Americans. The Americans, as expected, were complaining about the food, the delays, the dirt, the grime, the delays and most of all the lackadaisical and fatalistic attitudes of the general population. The Europeans, on the other hand, were finding everything quaint and charming and remarking at how happy the people seemed even if they were poor! I was just a young person with quarter-baked ideas (perhaps I haven’t changed much even now!) just happy to be traveling, at being a stranger in a strange land, absorbing all the sights. I didn’t think I had the right to pass any judgment on the general conditions prevalent in the country. I did, however, care about my personal comfort levels while I was in Marrakech and again, last week, when I was in India, on my tri-city visit. I am not one who is extremely fond of roughing it up and I seem to have a threshold of two weeks when it comes to tolerance levels where the heat, the dust and mosquitoes are concerned!

Bangalore was wonderful; pleasant April weather, occasional showers, no dust and no swarms of mosquitoes coming after me, but I did miss crosswalks. I was dazed enough, as it was, at the reversed traffic patterns; it always took me an instant to realize I was looking for oncoming traffic in the wrong direction, but the missing crosswalks really threw me for a loop. There just weren’t any crosswalks, anywhere. Crossing the roads was quite a daunting proposition. I am quite ashamed to add that I was unable to come up with any instinctive life preservation strategies other than ensuring that my traveling companions were on the side that an oncoming car, bus or auto-rickshaw would hit first! The crowd behavior was also unusual, not at all what I was used to from NYC. Walking on the famous MG Road, at peak hours, was a major exercise in finding the paths of least resistance. In NYC the crowds are in a hurry, they move with a purpose, even purposeless motion feigns purpose, but here families of four or five held hands and roped off an entire sidewalk as they gazed at store windows, really setting the pace for all movement. My New York city brusqueness of motion was quite out of place here! I had to tell myself to take deep breaths and to let go….and let go some more, and then, at long last, was I able to settle in and soak up the charms of this incredible city. Of course, soaking up the charms of the city entailed the charming stores of this shoppers’ paradise soaking up quite a significant portion of my splurge budget!

Then came Bombay. I landed at the airport and headed for a prepaid taxi stand after collecting my monstrously huge American luggage. It had dwarfed all the other pieces of luggage on the baggage carousel. My bent and shrunken old taxi driver made a rather valiant, though ultimately unsuccessful, effort to lift it and place it in the back. He had to summon help. This didn’t sit well with him. He put up a constant stream of chatter while negotiating the crowded streets, telling me, rather shamefacedly, that he used to have quite the body when he was a young trucker doing his three-day Bombay to Bangalore run every week, that he could lift things much heavier than my suitcase! I apologized for the heft of my luggage and tipped him well, just to make him feel better.

Mumbai was frightening to me. I haven’t found any city I have ever visited, as daunting as I found Mumbai. I was amazed at its sleeplessness. The city never really rests, its hustle and bustle doesn’t die down for even a couple of hours and the traffic never eases. And they call us New Yorkers neurotic! Perhaps the profusion of coffee bars, places like Coffee Day and Baristas, has something to do with the perpetually high-strung, wide-awake look that the city-dwellers wear.

Yet it is a calm sort of frenzy, if one could picture such a thing. People have places to go to and things to do at all hours of the night and day but I rarely saw any signs of stress on any face. I saw people waiting patiently for their BEST buses, lining up for entry when the bus arrived and boarding in an orderly fashion. I also didn’t see any signs of road rage on the jammed roads and highways where one could be stuck for hours, no raised middle fingers, no cursing, it was all in a day’s work. I was quite impressed. And as if I wasn’t impressed enough by this, friends had to go on and tell me about the vegetable chopping, commuting ladies of the ladies’ compartments in the commuter trains of Bombay! These ladies, apparently, set out on four-hour, one-way commutes, at some unearthly hour in the morning, with a sack full of vegetables and slicing/dicing equipment, with intentions of getting this nuisance of a task accomplished while riding on the train and sharing life events and stories with fellow companions. All I do is doze or read on my two-hour, seemingly interminable commute to work! I’ll certainly think twice now before moaning, groaning and carrying on with that sad little refrain of my life.

Folks in Mumbai have learnt to flawlessly transform their lives in accordance with the global stresses of life in the 21st century, while Americans continue to express discontent at never really getting ahead of the one thing that would eliminate all discomfort from their lives. They go around expressing perpetual outrage at the uncontrollable elements of their lives.

However, I would be willing to lay a wager that even the most intrepid Bombay dweller probably hasn’t covered the areas of Khandivali, Powai, Juhu and Worli all in one day, on rickety auto-rickshaws! This particular distinction will always belong to yours truly. Seeing Bombay from inside an auto-rickshaw was quite an interesting experience. The drivers realized I was a stranger and regaled me with all kinds of stories about the craziness of the city, the construction, the potholes, the growing number of cars on the road which, according to them, was a direct result of loan-happy banks liberally offering car loans at fantastic rates and enslaving the population to mounds of debt. Nothing unusual for an American here, we fondly nurse our debts, nurture them, fatten them up with minimum payments and compounding interest rates!

Another thing about Bombay auto-rickshaw drivers, I noticed, was that very few of them actually knew where they were going. I had stopped one for my Khandivali trip. I had no idea where Khandivali was and was hoping that the driver would have no trouble getting there but two of the ones I stopped asked me to take a seat and shook their heads when I asked if they knew where we were going! Thankfully the third one knew how to get there. Then, finding Hiranandani Gardens in Powai was equally challenging, as was finding my way back to the Juhu Holiday Inn. They never knew how to get anywhere! Maybe it was just the run of luck I was having! But I sure got to see a lot of Andheri East and West that day. Some friends were highly amused when I told them these were the “Patna” parts of Bombay. Discomfort levels had also climbed up here with the high humidity levels that necessitated a change of clothes at least three times a day. The dust inhalation was also clogging up my sinuses by now. I had developed an unbearably painful throat condition which was alleviated somewhat by a drink of warm water and honey at a friend’s suggestion.

That was it for Mumbai. The next leg was Delhi. My hometown. The place for which I had developed a special fondness during the years 1974-1988. As expected, I was thrilled to land at Delhi. It still felt like home and, better yet, it was cleaner now, no pollution, thanks to CNG. My cousin picked me up at the airport. The ride back home had me exclaiming at almost every stop and every turn at how much Delhi had changed, and for the better. The traffic flowed, there were flyovers everywhere, no congestion, no smog, tree-lined avenues, clean sidewalks and roads. I fell in love with the place once again. Over the years I have encountered many friends who have expressed a dislike for Delhi, for the people, for the city, but to my eyes, it will always be the place I cherish the most in India. As I said before, beauty does lie in the eyes of the beholder when it comes to cities.

Approaching our flat in Mandakini Enclave, where I grew up, I had the strangest sensation of never having left. I felt as if the sixteen years I had been away had evaporated, vanished. It was a very warm and comforting feeling. My parents were waiting there on the balcony, watching out for my arrival and I was thrilled to see them there. They looked happy, in their element. It reminded me of an old Hindi film song – “Yeh aasman, yeh baadal, yeh raaste, yeh hawaa, har ek cheez hai apni jagah thikane se, kai dinon se shikayat nahin zamane se, yeh zindagi hai safar, tu safar ki manzil hai” (Translation: These skies, these clouds, these roads, this breeze, they are all in their place, where they belong, there are no complaints now, this life is a journey, one that ends here). After a week of hectic traveling I was feeling tired and rundown and felt like I could rest now and recoup my strength, restore my energy levels. It was an illusory, childlike feeling that had me wanting to let go, to be pampered, to not have to fend for myself anymore and shed the burden of responsibilities that I carried as an adult. It was somewhat like a poem that a poet friend, Suma Nagaraj, had written and posted on the Shakespeare and Company blog, entitled, “Dulcet Dreams”:

Wipe my fevered brow
Brush my tears away
Spin your magical yarn
of yonder and of yore.

When sleep eludes me
on the nights I lie awake,
Mother, won’t you weave me
those dulcet dreams once more?

© Suma Nagaraj 2004.

I was in a comfort zone, really glad to be back.

But, alas, the euphoria only lasted until the first long load-shedding event! It was an all-nighter. The heat became unbearable and the mosquitoes ate me alive. It was pure misery and this was only the second day! I had also forgotten that Delhi was really bad with the super fine dust that coated everything during the months of March and April. I had forgotten about my dust allergies that only acted up in Delhi. The wear and tear on my person had started. I had come prepared with antihistamines and started popping them at the slightest signs of distress. They helped and I tended to forget my misery while the power was still on and when I was meeting friends and relatives who I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. I was thrilled to meet cousins, nieces and nephews who weren’t even born when I was in Delhi last. I shopped some more, paid Rs 3000 to get my hair permanently straightened and continued to enjoy myself while my health worsened. I was just about reaching the end of my two week tolerance threshold!

Then, before I knew it, it was time to leave, my vacation was over. I had enjoyed myself immensely, but I was ready to come back. I was missing my daughter and really wanted to comeback and offer the “Dulcet Dreams” to my three-year old. I yearned to see her face and was extremely eager to see Anil as well. The six-hour wait at Indira Gandhi International airport gave me a lot of time to think about just how much I had missed them. I was worried about Anoushka not remembering me when she saw me again. I was making silent vows never to travel without her again.

Traveling alone was tremendous fun. Meeting friends I had never seen before, in all three cities, being greeted with so much warmth, everywhere I went, was an overwhelming experience and I will never forget it.

But I was ready to comeback, mentally refreshed, renewed, albeit slightly physically rundown!

2 Comments

  1. Hi, hope you don't mind me stopping by your blog.This is quite a long post but it really made me smile! I was in NYC just for a couple of days, but I guess one thing I will always remember about it is how everybody seemed to be in a hurry. I can understand that these days, time is at a premium in all of our lives. But I think that if you let life dictate your pace instead of vice versa, you'll miss out on a lot of the things that makes life worth living. How many times have you taken a moment to admire the stars on a cloudless night? When was the last time you stopped to smell a flower? Having several hours of commuting everyday may seem like torture, but I would urge you to look at the brighter side. At home you need to take care of your family. At work, you need to take care of your… well… work! When you commute is when you have your time to yourself. I love to write stuff… I scribble poems, I think up far fetched stories. I also have a voracious appetite for books. But if I had to take care of a family and a tough job, the time for commuting is when I would be able to do these little things I like.Oops! Sorry for almost converting your comment section into a blog! This is a great blog, keep writing.Cheers,Prashanth.

  2. Home and away, such sweetness of new places and faces but none yet to arrive back at the place you started. Your log has been lovely to read.


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