My history with India goes back to 1988. A 19-going-on-20 year-old college student, I stepped off the plane, took my first sniff of that unmistakeable smell of India, and I was hooked. The smell is a hazy mixture of cooking fires, heat and humanity. It is not unpleasant, and every time I encounter it, I am overwhelmed with memories and filled with anticipation of what will happen next, because anything can happen. That first trip was four months of travel and discovery that taught me more about myself than I learned in researching my paper that was obnoxiously titled, “The Symbolic Manifestations of Shiva in India in Three Different Cities” or some such nonsense. Needless to say, it was not a groundbreaking work and Joseph Campbell had nothing to worry about. Since then, I have been back several times, and each trip has been a significant moment in my life.
On my first encounter with the subcontinent, I learned mostly about self-sufficiency. I could take care of myself, and that was a revelation. There was the lure of “the East” and that certainly had me in its grips. I did it all. As the British used to say, I “went native”. I wore anklets, bindis (the jeweled “dot” on the forehead), draped myself in shawls, participated in religious celebrations, gazed at the Taj, and had a few marriage proposals because I bear a striking resemblance to a green card. It was life changing for me but seems pretty standard stuff for kids of today. They all seem to study abroad now. But in 1988, this was heady (no drugs were involved, by the way. Midnight Run and all that.). Of course I picked up a bit of Hindi, discovered Indian food, and learned about cultures and religions. There was some dysentery on a third class train. Now that’ll teach you something about how human kindness and a roll of toilet paper transcend all language barriers. Each challenging moment I met was outweighed a thousandfold by a magical one. There was the night of a million stars. One evening, while walking home from a $2 dinner in the town of Khajuraho, my fellow travelers and I stopped and looked up. Without light and sound pollution, on a clear night, the stars shone the way they have every night since the Big Bang. A bright multitude of pinpoints making us feel insignificant and essential, momentary and eternal. India has a way of making you feel that way if you get past the heat, the poverty, the dirt, the smell, the bureaucracy. Beyond the chaos, underlying the temporal, is the harmony. Khajuraho is known for ancient temples adorned with erotic carvings, symbolizing this harmony and the joining of opposites to create a whole. Those stars taught the same lesson that those ancient carvers and artisans tried to impart.
Trip #2 was life altering in another way. I got married. To a Hindu. In Kolkata. In a sari. What? This is not what the quintessential New England girl from a blue collar background planned to do, but life is quite a ride if you don’t fight it with good sense and practicality. There are more stories than I can recount (or anyone really wants to hear) about our wedding, so let’s leave it at this. For three days, I smiled, sweated, was adorned and bejeweled, cried a few times, was forced to eat bananas before sunup (gross), smeared with turmeric, bowed my forehead to the ground and touched the feet of countless elders, giggled at due to my size (funny now, humiliating when I was 26), threw rice on a fire, had my clothes tied to the man I would spend the rest of my life with (how’s that for some literal symbolism?), and did what I was told. It was the greatest privilege of my life. I couldn’t make sense of much of it then; it was a blur. But, I was welcomed and that was enough. Aside from the wedding, there was another moment from that trip that always makes us laugh. (No, not that. Get your minds out of the gutter, for heaven’s sake.) Kumar and I went to Darjeeling (of tea fame) for our really super long and relaxing two day honeymoon. The Himalayas were spectacular, my new husband spent a lot of time drinking tea while eating toast and watching cricket on TV (ah, married life), and there was a Tibetan Buddhist temple that still haunts my memories. It was a little unsettling in that temple, but not in a bad way. The moment that always jumps to the forefront was our Jeep ride. We were of extremely limited financial means and trying to save a few rupees, so instead of taking the hotel car down to the train station, we hopped into a Jeep that was a leftover from 1958 and held together with chicken wire and gum, with a couple of Tibetans. Seems like a sound decision. We flew down the steep hillside, holding on to the roll bars lest we fall out, tea plantations rolling down the mountain below us and monkeys gamboling above us, while the ancient Tibetan woman in the front seat worked her prayer beads (I credit her for preserving our lives). As we careened down, stopping occasionally for passing goats, I wondered, “When did my life became an episode of National Geographic Explorer?” I was grinning like a fool then and still am as I write this.
Fast forward to the year 2000 and we returned to India with our three-year-old daughter and dear friends, Daniel and Nadine. Now I was a bit of an expert (in my own mind) since this was my third foray to the East. Our daughter danced in the markets, we explored the Taj (trip #2 for me, so yeah, I knew it all), we shopped and ate (boy did we eat!), we grew ever closer to our friends because of the shared adventure, and India began to feel familiar. I saw her absurdity, which made me laugh more than it frustrated me. The predominant memory was being in a taxi with Dan and Nadine. The traffic was not moving at all. Have you been to Chinatown in NY during rush hour? The Kolkata traffic makes that seems like a minor nuisance and just a few cars. Our driver turned around and said three words with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face. (Sorry for the colorful expression, but there is no other way to convey it. Thanks to my Dad for teaching me so many useful phrases.) He exclaimed, “Jam. Total jam!” His joy at having foreigners in his cab, the increased fare that this delay would result in, and showing off his English skills, coupled with the absolute pointlessness of getting angry about that which you can do nothing, made it one of the more ridiculous car rides of my life. We still quote his “Total jam!” and it never ceases to amuse us because to embrace India is to embrace the absurd, and just go with it. Now there is a life lesson.
Like many of life’s significant moments, love, light and understanding come with pain and frustration. After years of infertility, ensuing treatments, heartbreak and acceptance, we travelled to India for my fourth time to take guardianship of our newly adopted son. (As an aside, go see Lion. Bring tissues.) This was a make or break your marriage kind of trip. This was a make or break your body and spirit kind of trip. A broken arm, bureaucracy of epic proportions, the echo of the words of St. Mother Theresa who we met days after we married, malnutrition, chicken pox, heat and more heat, McDonald’s chicken sandwiches, and Rm 304 all figured prominently this time. But, surpassing all of those things, there was our son. And that’s all I have to say about that because it is getting hard to see the computer screen right now.
About thirteen years passed before we were ready to go back to India. Life happened, school and kids’ sports, jobs, procrastination, identity issues and plain old fear kept getting in our way. Kumar finally pushed me to commit, and we went to India, family of four, intrepid travelers, Kolkata or bust. If you saw the pictures on Facebook, you know it was a great trip. What you don’t know is that it was the greatest trip. Our kids are fantastic travelers. They are fearless, they are open, they eat and drink and travel about without complaint, they embrace unknown family, they question injustice, they appreciate their good fortune, they are empathetic and they are good. They are good. I have never wanted them to be anything else. Other kids can be the smartest, other kids can be the captain of the team, other kids can be “popular”, other kids can be victors. My kids are good and that is more than enough. We saw sights (back to the Taj again!) and enjoyed some spectacular hotels. We laughed, listened to Bollywood classics, slipped into the rhythm at my father-in-law’s home, drank tea by the gallons, and were mesmerized by the sights seen from the car window. India is never, ever boring. What I gained on this trip, other than admiration for my husband and kids, was a newfound love for Kolkata. The “Golden Triangle” is remarkable and riding an elephant is pretty crazy. But timeless Kolkata has my heart. Shopping in Hathi Bagan (Elephant Market) for clothing far surpassed the climate controlled comfort of the new Western style malls. Buying vegetables and fish daily at the market, watching the chicken you picked out being slaughtered and dressed, knowing where your food comes from, is something that the kids needed to see and we all needed to appreciate. Stopping off at the sweetshop to pick out a treat that you eat while walking home, sticky fingers and smiles, making sure to buy some flowers for the family prayer room and being greeted at the door with the jangle of keys and a warm smile from one of the household servants. It is the daily ebb and flow, eternal like those stars from my first trip to India, something you can count on, a feeling of belonging and somehow this foreigner is fitting in, that draws me back again and again. Book stalls on College Street, tea wallahs and clay cups, heat and dust, the call of hawkers and the glorious noise. Stray dogs wandering around and a cow passing by. Cacophonous, disastrous, beautiful and terrible Kolkata. The fifth time was the charm and my imagination runs wild with what the sixth time has in store. I’ll see you again in November, Mother India.