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An American Travels to India

By: Bill Fitzpatrick Email By: Bill Fitzpatrick
July 2010
An American Travels to India At Goa, the author marvels at seeing fully-dressed Indian men and women drifting around with no apparent intention of jumping into the water.

Celebrating a birthday at the Mumbai airport: the luggage serves as a table for the cake cutting.

Bright sunlight streams into the cheerful and fashionable home of Rekha and Subhash Jain, but despite the pleasing morning light, hot coffee and the warmest of all welcomes, I know that this trip to Mumbai, the starting point for our three-week journey along the popular and less-popular roads of India, is a dreadful mistake.      

Before coming here, I thought I had braced myself for India’s well-known poverty, but last night, as our airport cab traveled through neighborhoods too hopeless for American eyes to contemplate, the “why am I here” question, the one that haunted me with increasing intensity as our departure date approached, nearly eliminated the last flickering hope for a pleasant journey.    In the eerie yellow light of midnight Mumbai, when I saw cardboard boxes serving as homes, bent figures passing as people and the shadowy outlines of cows and humans foraging in the same towering trash piles, I blinked.   

It is morning and I am sitting on the sofa.    The horrors of the dark night have passed, but for how long? I manage a small smile when Rekha, who glides with the grace of an English queen, offers me more coffee.   

We exchange small pleasantries, the ones that could not reasonably be shared after our 2 a. m.   arrival, and then she unintentionally asks me the worst of all possible questions.

“Bill, why did you travel to India when you could have gone to Europe?”

No, Rekha, please don’t ask me that question.   Why couldn’t you have said, “I know you will enjoy your three weeks in India.” Why do I now have to add your name to the list of so many people who have asked me, “Why?”

Four nights ago, while on the last leg of an exhausting business trip, I was sitting alone in a downtown St.   Louis hotel bar, swilling wine, doodling in a notebook and imagining the worst, which isn’t hard if your genes are Irish or Indian.    Mine are Irish.    This trip, first discussed with Roopal Jain nearly a year ago and agreed to by Janis Bandelin, in June, was now so immediate and pressing.         
Destiny, oh sweet winds of destiny, where have you blown my common sense? Have you again placed it ten time zones away from self-preservation? Isn’t India treacherous enough on its own merits, without traveling in close quarters with two women for three weeks? Even my 90-year-old mom, upon hearing the finer details, said, “Billy, are you stupid, or what?”   

One pleasing diversion on this long journey from Udaipur to Ranakpur is the presence of colorfully-dressed skinny women walking on the shoulder of the road; some balance containers on their heads, others balance branches wider than their bodies; but all walk slowly and steadily, either indifferent or resigned to the cars that speed past on their way to a richer life.            

This is National Geographic India, and I want to be that photographer who snaps the images of these women dressed in their vivid colors, against the backdrop of desert sand, jagged rocks and steep mountains.    But I now understand, after reading over 4,000 pages of India’s ancient and contemporary history, after extended conversations with Roopal and her family, after this time spent traveling in the footsteps of the Maharajahs, Mughals and Britishers, that photographs are not enough.    I will need to write the stories beyond the photographs, for the photographs alone are as illusionary as a government report.   

Americans will see my photographs and think “how quaint,” when in truth we are entering one of the poorest regions of India.    Government programs designed to help struggling village economies, don’t.    Sure, money is allocated, but instead of being placed in outstretched hands, it settles in the pockets of those in charge of administering the programs.    Kurt Vonnegut, an American author once wrote, “So it goes?,” and when I write the stories behind the photographs I will use, “So it goes?,” because it is very Indian.    Instead of screaming and voting against corruption, it is accepted as the norm, and jobs with the government are very profitable and highly prized.   

Roopal and Janis, tired from two full days of sightseeing in splendid Udaipur, are dozing in the back seat of the taxi.    The driver and I have long since extinguished our foreign vocabularies and are content to quietly enjoy this fine drive deeper into the Aravali mountains.   

This trip through India is no longer a trip, for a trip is a discrete event as in, “We are going to Disneyworld for a week in July. ” Short of emptying the wallet and making a few reservations, no preparation is required.    Once the trip is over, and the photos with Mickey, Minnie, and Dumbo are printed, the matter is done.    A journey, on the other hand, lasts well beyond the physical trip.    It was in tiny Goa—a place where I had expected nothing more or less than European babes in skimpy bikinis—that this trip became a journey.   

“I have made arrangement for a daylong tour bus,” Roopal had said that morning, and just an hour past the scheduled time, which isn’t bad for India, we climbed into a rickety old bus already packed with ordinary Indian tourists.    After stopping at a few beaches, and seeing nothing but a few fully-dressed Indian men and women drifting around with no apparent intention of jumping into the water, our bus stops in front of a huge Catholic church.         

“Now we will visit the church where the great Saint Francis Xavier is buried.    It was his letter that started the horrible Goan Inquisition,” the tour director drones, as if bored with this topic.   “You have 30 minutes to take your photographs. ”

The entire bus empties.   

I watch, stunned, as Indians race to take photographs of the church where the revered saint is buried.    Prior to this trip, I had no knowledge of this Goan Inquisition.      

I want to shout, “Kya tumne bus driver ko suna?” (Didn’t you hear what the bus driver said?), but I can’t formulate the sentence quickly enough, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.    The mostly young Indian men and women simply want to take their snaps of Xavier’s boxed remains, not caring at all that this strange saint, still revered in Goa, initiated one of the most brutal and lasting reigns of terror ever recorded or suppressed in religious history.    So it goes?            

In some places on this road to Ranakpur, we ride on a four-lane highway, but intermittently, after a few miles of snappy travel, the concrete ends and a dirt road begins.   As we bounce along on the dirt road, the driver and I stare, hoping to spot the beginnings of another concrete slab.   There are a few billboards where the concrete ends, suggesting that the government is spending significant sums on highway improvements, but where is the evidence?

Instead of finding men with hard hats, or machines capable of moving tons of dirt, I see groups of frail women—not strong enough to break glass ceilings—chipping away with their shovels and axes.   While there are a few small machines, the gap between the work they can perform and the endless miles of rocky, barren and untamed land is staggering.   

We finally crest the last mountain.

Ranakpur is 10 kilometers ahead, the sign indicates.   The view of the valley from the peak is magnificent, but that is not what catches my attention.   My heart pounds as I stare at a familiar landscape.

In a long ago dream, now 20 years distant, I have traveled on this exact road.   

As we begin the slow and winding descent toward Ranakpur, I recall a conversation I had with Smita and Ashok, Roopal’s mom and dad, a few days before leaving for India.

“Bill, Ashok and I believe you and Roopal are connected from a past life,” Smita says.   “We do not know how, or when, but the Jain and Hindu religions acknowledge connections from our past lives in our current life.   Ashok and I see how kindly you and Roopal treat each other, and therefore believe you must be connected from a previous life. ”

“It is not likely I am connected to Roopal from a previous life,” I laughed.   “I am pure Irish, and Roopal is pure Indian.   Ireland and India are far apart! British rule is the only common denominator!”

I am a Christian and do not believe in past lives or rebirths.   God created us fresh and unique, and the decisions to like, or not, are our free-will decisions and have nothing to do with the Jain and Hindu beliefs of prior lifetimes.    But why do I feel as if I have been here before? Where did I hear or read that Jains and Hindus believe that dreams, such as the one I had 20 years ago, provide us glimpses into our past lives?

As we near Ranakpur, when Janis and Roopal awaken, I mention that I feel I have been on this road before, in a tone not much different than if I had said “It is a hot day” or “This sure is a fine road. ”

The blandness of the tone belies the emotions of the heart.

I have been on this road before, and in the misty twilight between dream and destiny, and the uncertainty of what road lies ahead, I say, “We are almost in Ranakpur. ”

Roopal pulls the inner elevator door shut and presses the button for the fifth floor.    The slowness of the elevator, the languor of the hot and dusty Mumbai afternoon and the exhaustion that comes from the end of the physical journey put me in a reflective mood.    The Irish-American mind, like the Indian mind, delights in things that don’t cost much, such as epic stories that, like rebirth, span generation after generation until reaching a final resting place called Lore.    I know, now, that India’s Lore library is packed with epic stories, dazzling heroes, dreadful villains, a mixed bag of foreign invaders and ordinary people who just want the opportunity for a slightly better life.    All of this represents India’s greatest legacy and perhaps her greatest challenge.

The elevator stops and in less than thirty seconds, we are back inside the home of Roopal’s aunt and uncle, the place where this journey began in a time and place now as distant as a St.   Louis bar.   

Rekha, Subhash and their children, Raina and Neeraj, greet us at the door.    For the next hour, the three of us unload rich and vivid memories from a journey that will always be as vibrant as the confusing colors of India.    As Janis and Roopal gather a few of our belongings, I sit on the sofa and relax in the cozy family warmth of a magnificent Mumbai afternoon.    It has been a terrific journey.      

Aunt Rekha is now approaching, not with her coffee pot but with an offer of hot tea.    I see her smile and know that the question, the one that I didn’t answer the first morning that now seems a lifetime ago, is about to be asked, again.

This time, I have an answer.

[Bill Fitzpatrick and Roopal Jain are co-authors of Destination: India, Destiny: Unknown, A Three Week Journey Beyond the Taj and Behind the Symbols, available at amazon. com, or via the author’s website, at www. destinyunknown. org.]

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