Indelible Images of India

India, for me, was not just another country on another continent. India was another dimension, another way of perceiving reality, a society as old as human civilization and as complicated. What I learned about India is what a beginner learns. Since I have returned to Atlanta, reading about India has become an obsession. 

Let me be honest. It was a need for a colonoscopy that funded my first trip to India in 2007. Six years ago it cost over $5000 and being self-insured, I would have to pay for it all out of pocket. I had read about medical tourism and India was always mentioned as a good place to go. So I went.

The image of India that always called to me was the Taj Mahal. We had few books in my family home when I was growing up. Around the World in a Thousand Pictures was one of them. It was there that I first saw a picture of the Taj Mahal. I knew that I wanted, needed to go there. Was I there in a past lifetime? If I was it was one of many lifetimes in India I revisited when I visited.

I do get attached to people and places. I think about Jagi, my driver in the South who reluctantly allowed me to sit in the front of the Ambassador that he drove me in. One of my favorite images from India is the freshly garlanded Ganesh on his dashboard. Jagi drove me to the foot of Gommateshvara. This statue of a venerated Jain teacher was another primal image of India. I had to climb six hundred tiny steps up the hot rock face of Vindyagiri Hill in my stocking feet to see him. He is a thousand years old and the world’s largest human figure carved from stone. He is completely naked. Jagi drove me on to the temples at Halebid and Belur. While the Middle Ages were ending in Europe these amazing temples were being carved by hand by generations of expert craftsmen. I was truly humbled as I walked around them and dismayed that I had not studied this art in art history class.

When I decided to go to India I asked a friend who had visited the year before about how he set things up. I came to know of an agent in New Delhi who specialized in setting up tours for Americans and Europeans. I wrote to Ashok Kumar, explaining why I was coming and that I had a number of sites I wanted to see. I didn’t want to stay in fancy hotels or in ashrams. I told him that I got lost easily and would find it difficult to navigate buses and trains on my own. He put together a near-perfect agenda for me. The only thing he dissuaded me from doing was going to Varanasi. It was late in the season and the heat would be unpleasant. He recommended I make my pilgrimage to the Ganges to the temple towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh and arranged for me to go on to the even cooler hill station of Dehradun and then to Mussoorie where I would meet the beloved Anglo-Indian writer Ruskin Bond. That was the first part of my journey.

Ashok met me at the New Delhi airport in the middle of the night and took me to my homestay at the residence of Dr. and Mrs. Sharma, who would be my hosts for my first nights in India. Dr. Sharma is a retired physician and arranged for one of his colleagues to do my colonoscopy. He and Mrs. Sharma treated me kindly, like a child almost, which I was in a sense given how naïve I was about where I was. When you are a stranger in a strange land, as I was in India, even knowing the right questions to ask is difficult. I ask questions for a living and I am good at it but I knew I was out of my depth. When I go back I want to be better prepared with better questions.

In New Delhi, Ashok took me to the Sikh temple, the Jama Masjid and a huge new Swaminarayan Temple across the river. In each place I was moved, amazed and bewildered. He then dispatched me with a driver to Agra to see the Taj. I wanted to stay overnight so I could see it twice, once in the evening and once in the morning. Oddly enough the only thing I can compare it to in my travels around the world is the Grand Canyon. I thought I knew what the Grand Canyon looked like through photographs. I didn’t. Nor did I know what was in store for me when I walked through the gate and stood on the platform looking at the Taj. I had never seen such a beautiful building in all my travels. I knew the story of the heartbroken emperor who built it as a memorial for his beloved queen after her death. I had thought the story a mere fable but here in front of me was proof positive that love defines the best of our human nature.

I left Agra and went on to Fatehpur Sikri, another wonder of the world, a spiritual city built and abandoned by the Emperor Akbar who was perhaps the first Unitarian. I was again taken by a place into its story and drawn more deeply into the complex issue of religion in India. I did ride the train twice. My driver in the North, Vinod, dropped me at a station north of Agra to take a train that would put me closer to Karauli in Rajasthan. I left the train in the dark of night and was driven over rough roads lit only by homefires and stars to the country palace of the Maharaja of Karauli by his bodyguard accompanied by uniformed members of his militia.

After breakfast the next morning I toured the city palace and saw some of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen and was dropped back at the country palace where a man my age in white pajamas was standing on the veranda. I said hello and introduced myself. He told me he was the maharaja and I asked him innocently what I should call him. He looked at me kindly and said, “Maharaja.” He invited me, if I was up to it, to accompany him on his rounds that day. After a visit to another palace, followed by lunch and a nap, we visited an agricultural project and then had tea in a desert forest. His militia men served us out of fine china as we sat on the rocks and ate finger sandwiches.

Back at the country palace I dined with him and his wife the maharani. She was ten years his junior, beautiful and very funny. She took me on a tour of the palace the next day to show me what she had done to redecorate. We talked about her children, her life as a royal. Like her husband, she was invariably kind. Like her husband she also knew she was different from everyone around her. Perhaps that is why she confided in me. As a foreigner I had no status in her world. I could be treated like a friend and was.

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Honeycomb over the Buddha’s eye in Dehradun.

I stayed with another lovely family in Dehradun. Mr. and Mrs. Mehta had lived for many years in Darjeeling, another hill town, where Mr. Mehta had run a tea plantation. They now lived in a comfortable home with a family of servants and a Dalmatian. Mrs. Mehta served me the best cup of tea I had ever had from the plantation her husband had once run and which now sent them an annual ration. She said it was so delicate it could only be sweetened with honey and explained further it was not the best of the best but the second best of the best. I was learning that in India status is related to just about everything. I visited the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Dehradun, a relatively young institution with some very large Buddhas. One of the things I have noticed about Buddhist art is the emphasis on symmetry. So it was odd that one of the big outdoor Buddhas had a funny dark area over one of its eyes. Lucky for me it was Sunday and the observation deck just below was open. When I went up to look that dark mass was a beehive full of buzzing bees.

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Abbott (L) and author Ruskin Bond in Mussoorie.

From Dehradun I continued up to Mussoorie where I met Ruskin Bond. I admit that his name was not one from the literature books of my youth as it was for many of my Indian friends. Before I arrived in Mussoorie I had spoken with Ashok by phone who warned that Mr. Bond was not keeping well and might not be able to meet me in town for lunch. Mr. Bond was kind enough to let me stop by to visit him in his home where he lived with a family of Indians who were his servants. He was relieved, I think, that I wasn’t a huge fan with a thousand questions. He is of British descent, born in pre-independence India, and he had an Indian stepfather. He decided to stay and wrote about the country that was his home in such a way as to endear himself to Indian readers, especially children. His home was as humble as he, with no luxuries. But the view from his door of the foothills of the Himalayas was breathtaking.

Back in New Delhi I went to the National Museum to see the bronzes, to the Folk Museum to see and be photographed with underpaid, petulant tribal dancers and buy Mithila paintings for gifts to take home. Ashok took me to the magnificent Qutab Minar and to the hospital for my scheduled colonoscopy. I was taken to a room where my colonoscopy would be performed while Ashok went and paid my bill (pay first, no billing). My anesthesiologist, a young woman, came in and introduced herself. When I explained I had to wait for Ashok to return to give him my passport she smiled and said, “If you can trust me with your life, you can trust me with your passport.” I surrendered both and when I woke up Ashok and Dr. Sharma were there to take me to lunch in a nearby hotel. That afternoon I was on a plane to Bangalore where Jagi would meet me.

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Acha Kamath in Ooty.

After my adventures on the rock of Vindyagiri and my darshan of Gommateshvara and my visit to the temples at Halebid and Belur and my stay at a nearby resort, which offered me my first experiences with heavenly Aryuvedic massage, I was dropped at the Ginger Hotel in Mysore. I had stayed at the Ginger Hotel in Haridwar and loved it. I had come to Mysore at the invitation of a pen pal, a friend I made via the internet and our mutual interest in jazz. Acha was unlike all the other Indians that I met in that he was much younger, and his English was influenced by American movies and TV. My other Indian connections spoke a version of the Queen’s English. Acha and I spoke the same language and shared, in addition to our musical tastes, a wicked sense of humor.

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A vegetable market in Mysore.

North and South
I am so grateful to have visited both the north and south of India. They are more different than the northern and southern U.S. The north has an intensity based on density and years of conflict. The south is more languid. The north is sharp and the south is round. That is from a child’s point of view and, as I said before, in India I was naïve, a child. Acha’s family has a spice business in the famous Mysore Market. Acha loves to eat and took me out for some amazing meals. He took me up to the top of Chamundi Hill at night to look down on the sparkle of Mysore below. He showed me a fifteen-second video he took on his cell phone earlier that year when he had been up in the same spot with friends and a leopard had come within feet of them. It sent chills up my spine. Acha also took me to one of his favorite places, the hill station at Ooty where we stayed in what were once British barracks, toured tea plantations and took the toy train to Coonoor and back.

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Garuda of Halebid in Karnataka.

On my way back from Mysore to Bangalore, Jagi took me to a snake temple just for photos. I saw more snake idols outside a temple in Bangalore, remnants of a religion older than the Vedas. Jagi finally agreed to join me in a meal. He had always demurred as my driver in the North had. He always slept in or near the car saying that that was what drivers did. And though it was not his choice he did allow me to sit up front so we could talk and I could ask a thousand questions. If he didn’t want to answer he would grow quiet and I learned I had crossed a boundary.

Of course I had lots of questions. The answers I got were never very direct. If I didn’t get silence I got kind indulgence. My curiosity comes from a genuine place and I think people pick up on that. I really want to know, not to judge but to know. Judgment has been one of the chief byproducts of Western civilization. Everywhere we Westerners go, we judge what we find to be inferior and worse, in need of our intervention. India has suffered mightily under the gaze of Britain and the United States. We may admire Gandhi and be titillated by the Kama Sutra but we know our ways are best. Had I gone to India as an expert I would have been lost. Going as a child I was given an opening to begin to understand.

All the couples I met who were my age or older had their marriages arranged by their parents. Mrs. Sharma explained, “In your society you fall in love and get married. In our society we get married and fall in love.” Simple words but words to ponder. I noticed how differently my hosts treated each other and their servants. I noticed how their servants treated each other and treated their bosses. It was not unlike what I saw as a child growing up in the racially segregated U.S. South. And it was different. Ashok explained to me that in a society as vast and populous as India you must have group affiliation to survive. You cannot survive as an individual. Your caste and your religion are as much about mutual aid as they are about exclusion. In a world where it is so easy to get lost, knowing your place is as much about safety as it is about status. Even my most modern Indian friend Acha had a sense about place and a sense of belonging.

India is not a static society. But it is one where traditions are cherished. One of the last things I saw before I left were the rangoli designs in rice powder that the women of Bangalore make in the morning on their doorsteps. They are a charm against misfortune and an invitation to luck. Simple but elegant, in the end these were indelible images my child’s mind could finally recognize and take to heart.

Essay on Khabar

Franklin Abbott is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice in Atlanta. His latest books are Boyhood: Growing Up Male and Pink Zinnia. For more information, go to http://www.franklinabbott.com

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