An Atlantan’s Indian Odyssey
My journey to India took place in the company of my 80-year old Indian friend, Noel Krishna. For him, it was a trip home to meet family; for me, an exciting new adventure.
We arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) from Atlanta at 3:00 am, exhausted and without accommodation. On the recommendation of an airport employee we took a taxi to the Host Inn nearby. How hot and humid it was that October of 2001! It reminded me of my trips to Miami, Florida as a child. When we checked into the hotel, I was not surprised to find the shower arrangements not quite like home.
Compared to the primitive camping I have done, however, it was wonderful! The hot water arrived courtesy the swift feet and strong back of a young boy who, in response to my request, dashed out of the room, down the stairs and out into the street, armed with two buckets. In moments he was back with very hot water, readily mixed with cold to create a refreshing, if unconventional, shower.
Our hotel was just opposite a row of open shops that cut and polished marble and they worked all night to the accompaniment of a confused rooster who thought all the lights meant "dawn" and crowed continuously. When my friend knocked on my door the next morning for breakfast, I found that new tastes were in store for me. I also learned that in a country where many are vegetarian, it was best not to request meat?at least not at this hotel! For dinner, I ordered tandoori chicken?alas, very tough, stringy and small?but I never heard the rooster again. Oops!
Commuting in Mumbai
The next morning, Noel and I hopped into a scooter and headed for Bandra to visit a friend, and oh, the TRAFFIC! I clung to the supports of the scooter as we careened around cars and cows. Obviously, road rage is not caused by car horns?at least not in India! So many trucks bear the sign "Sound horn please OK"! It seems crazy to line up at a stoplight, six abreast in four lanes, wait until the light changes, shift gears, land on the horn, gas pedal to the floor, hand out as a warning, "Hey, we're coming through!" Somehow it all works. As we rounded a curve in the heart of town, a billboard, black with white letters, stated simply, "Your towers may be gone, but your spirit lives forever." For me, just after the events of 9/11, it was a precious reminder of home and a soothing welcome for a tired, slightly homesick, but very excited forty-seven year old mother!
We found the friend's home and although they had not worked together in thirty years, it was as if they had seen each other yesterday. We were welcomed with open arms and took many photographs. They invited us to return after our three week stay and we promised we would.
The Trip Down South
The next day we left for Bangalore. The flight seemed short, but once we got out of the terminal and onto the sidewalk, what a sight met our eyes! The beautiful flowering tropical trees in orange and magenta were stunning and, after the heat of Mumbai, the cool breezes of Bangalore were a treat. No wonder it was recommended to me as a "pensioner's paradise". A mixture of modern present and dignified past, it was a lovely place to sightsee as well as shop. We rented a car and driver the following day and drove to Mysore in the fog and drizzle. From dodging a small calf in the doorway of a Hindu temple, to the mystical rising of St. Philomena's Catholic Church from the dense fog, our day was full of wonder and tinged with an aura of holiness from very diverse cultures. Everywhere we were greeted with smiling faces, open and friendly, which may have been the most mystical experience of all.
Our visit to Hyderabad was a special treat. Noel's sister and her husband had come from Canada to visit and all gathered at his elder sister's home. Many generations had come together and the tears on the faces of my friend and his sister were a beautiful testimonial of the love and affection that this family still held for one another. Neither miles nor time had diminished their fondness and it was a privilege to witness what beauty there was in that home. My greatest pleasure on the trip was to be welcomed into their family as their "American daughter" and "sister". What a generous and loving people! Wherever we went, it was the same. People knelt to touch his feet and receive a blessing. What a joy it was to find age not a hindrance, as in our country, but an occasion for reverence. Here is where I found the beauty that is India. Language was no barrier when it came to love and goodwill. Of all the monuments and scenery and history I will remember, it will be the beauty in the eyes of the people, the smiles on the faces of the children, the warmth of overwhelming hospitality that I will treasure most.
I was the one who wanted to see Chennai. My friend had attended college here in the late 1930's, as had his father before him and I had developed a curiosity about this place I had heard so much about. Once we were settled, we hired a car and went to find Presidency College. What a beautiful school it is! Brick and green shutters, large open hallways and beautifully carved staircases, tropical palm trees and statues of long-dead Englishmen?all these were part of the view of the college. Standing on the lovely open air porch in the front of the principal's office underneath the shadow of beautiful arches supported by columns, I looked out at the ocean across the street, trying to imagine the years before independence and how different things were when India was not her own.
After much searching, our driver found the hostel that my friend had lived in?still beautiful in its lush, green glade?but sadly in need of repair and upkeep. The memories and stories flooded back as he took me to his room, then to the library and the dining hall. Sixty years just faded away and we saw the college through the eyes of an eager and intelligent young man.
We took a car to Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh where my friend was raised and still had family. In order to respect their privacy, we stayed at a local hotel and had visits from many old friends and family members. One evening, my friend's nephew told us that he would come and have dinner in the hotel with us. We invited him to come have a drink beforehand and he agreed to be there by 5:30. I went to my room to freshen up and met Noel in his. We waited and chatted until well past 5:00. I thought how lovely it was?we seemed to have a family of birds quite near the hotel?they were cheeping and twittering. Soon 5:30 came and went. Our dinner guest did not come, but the birds seemed strangely active for that time of evening. As more time passed, we were becoming worried. We also remarked to each other that we hoped that the birds would go to bed when the sun went down; they were becoming more active and a little annoying. Finally at 7:00, we decided to eat dinner without him and I flung open the door. There stood our dinner guest with a somewhat worried expression on his face, asking if we were alright. I remarked that, indeed, we were fine, but we had been quite concerned about him. He said that he had been at our door for two hours, ringing the bell from time to time. I told him that I was unaware that we had a bell and we had not heard the ring. Imagine my surprise when upon pressing the buzzer, birds chirped happily! He never had thought to knock and I had never imagined that the doorbell would twitter! We repeated the story to everyone who would listen and got many very hearty laughs from the memory.
In Delhi, I felt as if I was in another country altogether. The tree-lined streets, so carefully laid out by the British seemed less Indian than anywhere we had gone. I missed my provincial towns, crowded with smiling, friendly people. Except for the occasional elephant walking down the street, it reminded me of being at home when I was young. Occasionally, there were girls in school uniforms crossing the street and once we saw a funeral procession, the body bedecked with a sea of yellow and gold flowers, borne high upon the shoulders of the mourners. The banks and stores were so very modernized and westernized?I missed "my India" already.
From Delhi, we went to Jaipur and rode with a tour group. We walked and listened in the heat of the day, but my favorite memory was of the palace and the surprise of having my shoulder tapped by a very large monkey with a newborn baby; a polite and grateful recipient of the fruit I offered her from my bag! Being a festival season, the area was crowded with local people celebrating and touring. A couple even allowed me to hold their precious baby daughter for a photograph. We were off the next day to Agra.
Yes, the Taj Mahal is beautiful?the river view at dawn is lovely. The shops are fascinating, watching the making of inlaid marble and carpets. When we returned to Delhi and drove around the government buildings, I thought of what a paradox the English influence is in India. What I encountered from the older people who remember a time before independence was a curious combination of love and hate. The benefits of the English influence were mitigated by the difficulty of a noble and gifted culture chaffing under a foreign yoke.
We finally flew back to Mumbai and after a couple of days to quietly catch our breath, returned home. I will never be the same person who flew to India in 2001. I learned to write "I love you" in Telugu. I learned to take showers on a three-legged stool with a bucket and a cup. I learned to eat rice and curds at every meal with my hands and loved it. I fell in love with India, not because of the beauty or the climate or the history (although I believe I could spend a happy lifetime there). I treasure the warm, gentle, open-hearted people who were willing to be my friends. Perhaps if I get to return, I will see Lucknow and Darjeeling and Calcutta. Even if I never get to return, I will always have the memory of a wonderful people, waiting to welcome me back home, back to India.
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