This is a story that wrote itself in countless numbers. A story that has been etched in the cracks of mother’s jewels, scratched in red earth parched for absent rains. This story traced itself in the palm of my hand, and nothing has relieved its perennial itch.
I pondered many a phrase to sum up this tale only to arrive at some trite moniker; “Pune by Motorcycle’, ‘Love in a Cross-Cultural Chasm’, ‘Found and Lost in Maharashtra’. One word however, has stayed with me, still lingering in the mouth and on the pen; Gwalior
This tale, written on the night sky was mine to play out and I accepted the role dutifully as one receives sacremental bread, lips parted, on my knees. I played it well, erring on the side of melodramatic, and isn’t that the Indian way?
In 1854, a battle was lost in central India in the region of Gird, only 100 miles south of the famed Taj Mahal. There, at foot of the Gwalior Fort the great Marathi Maharajah born Bhagirath Shinde succumbed to the British; succumbed to torn allegiance between the Indian mutaneers seeking independence and the British red coats in one of the bloodiest battles to stain Mother India’s soil.
Where my story began evades definition, for in that eternal journey on Mobius wheels, there is no beginning and no end. I can however, recount countless beginnings and one that began in a little garden in Model Colony, where in a split moment, fleeting sparks, impressions of future and past, whirred on their axis, leaving starlit streaks upon that indigo sky to mark the eternal passing of time. In that moment a single tear would escape my brimming eye, blazing a trail for every tear to follow in the coming years. In that moment I would realize that as this story had a beginning, so too it must end. In that moment of beginning, with every cell in my being I knew that I would find a love so old and deep, that every blushing fancy would recoil in its wake. To acknowledge its imminent end would bring a pain of equal depth; a debt. And I surrendered to it.
But lets go back to a time, before ignorance was my undoing. To the moment of arrival on this wretched, blessed piece of soil.
Page one of my dog-eared khadi journal read:
June 25, 2006
And so our journey begins, on a plane bound for London, elated and unaware.
Who could sleep with the unknown at your feet? Heathrow is everything You
said it would be. Delirious with lack of rest and the noxious assault
of overpriced perfumes we wait out our ten hour torture hopeful that
London boasts much more beyond its terminal gates.Second flight proved more than we hoped for, a glimmer of things to come.
Smell of sweat mingling with patchouli and masala,
served up by our silk-sareed flight attendant. British Airways with a Bombay twist.
At last sleep comes, amid a chorus of crying babes
and Hindi lullabies.
Morning arrives abruptly in the form of sugary black tea as our aircraft galloped over the
promise of our first monsoon.
Indeed, to unsettle the most iron of nerve and stomach.
Below, oceans of tin shacks and tarps jigsaw their way through abandoned high rises, garbage and shit.
As hot rubber hits wet tarmack, the stench hits like a hard left hook.
You warned us, and yes, I doubt I will ever forget it.
I was also warned about immigration, customs officers and money traders.
But no one warned me about the bathroom attendant. With no small denomination of rupee to tip for handful of paper and turning of tap, I reach for the last dollar bill in my fold. Am I a saint? A gift from above? One might
think so by the blessings, mantras and touching of my forehead. I am
humbled, embarrased, privy to Mumbai lesson # 1.Its no wonder that all the cab companies in Canada are Hindustani. Indians are the best drivers in the world. To weave through the impossible chaos and insanity of the Mumbai streets unscathed, one must be a Master. A collective consciousness second only to bees in the hive, almost as sticky and sweet by nature of their friendly and curious glances. With only mere inches to separate us from the autorickshaws and painted buses, my confidence grows. My eyes grow wider too, peeling back the layers of privilege and naivety.Children with dark and shiny faces fish from sewer ducts. This against the backdrop of billboards boasting
Bollywood stars whose skin and teeth are much too white. The slums are endless, unfathomable,
a reality that shrinks the soul. And when one can take no more of this assault to the senses, exhaust, incense, defacation,
spice and urine, are all washed away with the next ensuing Monsoon, windshield wipers slapping out a rhythm to steady the heart.
It becomes glaringly apparent that while I have lived, I know nothing of living. Mumbai lesson #2
Love and blessings to you all
I’d heard of culture shock, but imagined somehow that it would be one of those cathartic and upwardly moving experiences. Time would prove that to be the case, however, our initial introduction to the Indian experience was disorienting to say the least. Upon exiting the terminal gates of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, we were assaulted simultaneously by a waft of humid, stinking heat and the infamous touts. Having been warned about touts, we might have thwarted their clever schemes if only we could tell the difference between the taxiwallas and those swift moving opportunists who aggressively snagged and loaded our bags in hopes of crisp rupees. The difference became evident as driver and tout lurched into heated exchange, former swatting latter and cursing Marathi threats, tout still feverishly loading and tying our bags onto the black and yellow Fiat. As our cab careened out of the chaos of the airport parking lot, the left rear door flew open, ejecting one of our overstuffed suitcases onto the slick asphalt, which was narrowly missed by subsequent speeding cars. Our driver retrieved the beaten case while I, cringing at the acrid stench of the afternoon air, slowly began to wake to the reality, that we had six more weeks of this to endure.
My initial decision to travel to India was not born out of purpose or careful planning, rather, it was a decision arrived at in response to an inner voice. Now I know that sounds a bit new-agey and ,“lets all get into lotus position”, but it’s not the first time that I’ve responded to a voice that somehow seemed other than my own. No, not like some cheap ventriloquist act or ghost whispering in the hall, this voice speaks from within, and although it wears pragmatic airs, it begs me to “have faith” and “trust the process”. When my friends invited my daughter and I to travel to India with their family, my initial response was more along the lines of, “I’m a single mom! I could never afford that! ”, or “I have debts to pay, that would be just plain irresponsible!”, but that inner voice snatched my naysayer tongue within its potent grasp and said,….
“If you don’t act now Rena, you will regret it always.” Now in hindsight I must say that there are times in moments of weak, self-centered reflection I wonder if the old adage weren’t true, that ignorance is bliss. But a journey makes for growth of the spirit, no matter how difficult the path.
Besides (and I digress), the three year-old, aimless, beer-breathed relationship I’d been nursing had grown stale. I begged it to clean up the empties and take my absence as an opportunity to move on. I had learned that loving someone was pointless if they did not also love themselves and so out of love for myself, and gesture to my integrity, I bid the drunkard farewell, gifted myself a passport, a visa, plane tickets and departed to India.
So here I was, speeding through the wicked spiced-sweat frenzy of a city fourteen million strong, with absolutely no idea what I was doing here.
After an hour-long cab ride, we arrived at our hotel in the center of Colaba, a popular tourist mecca on the southernmost tip of the Mumbai peninsula. Hotel Godwin was a three-star refuge situated about three blocks from the infamous Taj Hotel and Gates of India. In a sordid mix of heat, pollution and humidity coming off the Arabian Sea, our skin had already begun to take on the clinging plumpness of boiled hot-dogs. Indeed, the air conditioning and cool marble of the hotel lobby was the sweetest mercy of the day.
Our check-in procedure consisted of full registration and surrendering of our passports for photocopying. India keeps strict tourist records and I would learn in time, that it is better to arrive with several photocopies of your passport, than to get into a game of tug-o-war with the desk clerk. With a thriving passport forgery business in Mumbai, it’s key to cleverly sidestep such formalities as surrendering your identity to the concierge.
Following reception graces, we followed the bellhop to the lift, a rickety transport the size of a glorified, vertical coffin. Surely its ascent would find us at last enjoying the simple pleasure of horizontal refuge on cool sheets. Thirty-plus hours of travel and layover on hard chairs had turned my legs to painful, swollen posts.
The room was simple and clean; furnished with two single, firm beds, marble flooring and a safe. Travel guides discuss the importance of giving gratuities, but somehow the concept of how much and how often was lost on me. With more ambitious attendants than suitcases; to push the elevator buttons, fluff my pillow and open the shades; it was difficult to know who to pay. With every pressing together of hands, bowing of the head and “Namaste Ma’am”, I grew more unhinged. The heat was getting to my head and I had already made ample ass of myself with the bathroom attendant at the airport.
Peering from our seventh floor window, at last I gazed with bird’s eye bearings at Colaba’s teeming streets; rooftops where clay pots held hibiscus and rubber trees; coconut palms in resigned kowtow, anticipating the next monsoon; and to the right looking west, the Arabian sea tossing back the day’s garbage delivery, in retort over the rock and mortar retaining wall.
Ohhhh, and the smell of Mumbai. Oddly enough, it still makes me feel homesick.
The last time that I packed my suitcase, that Hindustani aroma filled my nostrils and again I was drifting upon that beloved motherland. I’ve always been olfactorally drawn and driven so that one faint smell could transport me to a distant or forgotten place or conversely, a memory would manifest aromas as real as if I were chasing their taunting tails. Only yesterday I was listening to some ghazal by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and I swore that I could smell rogan josh, a Kashmiri curry of roast mutton bathed slowly with cloves and black cardamom. I wondered if the late qawalli singer ever ate non-veg? My tongue recites poetry, homage to what the nose remembers. The smell of India permeates everything it touches and although its initial handshake nearly crushed my bones, I long to hold its hand……
The smell of Mumbai……… and then,……. the gripping need to wash it off.
There was some initial confusion about our hotel shower, some detail that I missed in the Lonely Planet Guide. A cold shower was the logical order of the day, but after an eight hour connecting flight, a ten hour wait in the ill-equipped London Heathrow Airport, and another eight hour flight, I was primed for a steamy soak. I let the water run for a bit, awaiting the hot while I prepped my toiletries. Nothing. The absurd question crossed my mind, Did they have hot water in India? I would have to do without until I learned about the Indian geyser albeit several days later.
Once refreshed, we ventured out of the relative comfort of our air conditioned and austere hotel room, hungry and jetlagged, eager to become oriented.
The streets of Colaba required conscious and attentive placement of the feet. Upturned cobblestones, potholes, open ditches and manholes brimmed with the last monsoon’s exploits of plastic Bisleri bottles, Pass Pass wrappers and dog shit. The surrounding architecture wore the Victorian jewels of the British Raj, peeling paint and stains from years of pollution and seasonal downpour. As we turned down a busy market street, a white-haired woman bandaged in a torn, emerald green saree, skin as black and wrinkled as roasted baingan, slipped in the slick mud. As quickly as her fragile bones hit the wet curb, my hand reached out in automatic gesture to steady her fall. Her gnarled hand nearly reached my grasp, but in a moment of what seemed like abhorent disgust, she retracted, snarling at me with a toothless grimace, opting for the fall.
This would become one of countless cultural misunderstandings, where a well meant offering would miss its target, and slip awkwardly in the residual post-colonial muck.
No sooner having composed myself from aparent folly, were we surrounded by bone-thin women with hungry babes strapped to their delicate frames, pleading eyes and protruding cheekbones on faces too small to have names. Hands outstretched for rupees, then placed to the lips to gesture need for food, I grasped my own daughter’s hand in mine and thought, “what lucky and unfair brushtroke had painted me into a country where I had never known such desperation?”
My naivety, however, would dupe me every time. It wasn’t until years later that I would read about the rental of babies. Tatooed inventories of sold or stolen infants were pimped out for the sole purpose of plucking heart strings. Beggars with malnourished babies bring in much higher wages than those without. Regardless of whether these babies were loved or rented, I succumbed to the scam and my heart bled shameful rupees oblivious to the beggar trade.
With that, the next monsoon cloud opened its maw, heaving forth and soaking Mumbaikers and tourists alike. Umbrellas sprouted like mushrooms. Chappalled feet dodged new puddles and not one awning, tarp, or shred of newspaper was left unoccupied.
Our remaining days in Mumbai were spent bargaining at Chor Bazaar, otherwise known as thieves market and riding kitsch-clad taxis from the Hanging Gardens and Chowpatty Beach to the Gates of India, a landmark archway built to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Here tourists are accosted by flocks of pigeons and hawkers, selling everything from fine toothed combs to paper cones of freshly roasted peanuts. Formerly known as Bombay, and home of the East India Company and spice trade, this Island City , once “Jewel in the British Crown”, now stewed in its own distinct myriad of flavours.
Since independence in 1947, Mumbai has transformed sporadically; ultra modern high rises and tin shacks squeeze impossibly between Victorian architecture; homes to fourteen million people and fourteen mother tongues. Salman Rushdie once summed up their collective tongue and special brand of Bombaiyya slang in the affectionately acronymic word Hugme; which refers to the melodic medley of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi and English. My linguistically uneducated ear heard only Hindglish.
On our third day we taxied the washboard-buckled expressway to the neighbouring city of Pune, where we took up our flats and settled for the remaining five weeks. Pune is a University town east of Mumbai, otherwise known as Oxford of the East. It’s also a popular mecca for Iyengar yogis and Osho mediation disciples. Our friends were staying for the purpose of teacher training in the Iyengar discipline but my purpose for arriving was not yet defined. Heart open, door ajar, ready for whatever the universe delivered, I arrived in Pune, once the centre of the mighty Maratha empire, once a hill station and cantonment for the British Raj, and now the beautiful and dirty dustbowl of the Deccan.
Our previously arranged flats were located in Model Colony in the Shivaji Nagar district of Pune. My friends were booked into the top floor flat with marble floors, shared kitchen and rooftop terrace complete with potted tulsi or “holy basil” and jurassic coconut palms. It was splendid. My flat however was more of a prison than an oasis. Being on the ground level, the door and windows were furnished with iron grates and locks and although I was sure this was in effort to keep people out, my heart sank at its penetentary aesthetic. I would spend the next few days brooding over this clear
injustice, keeping the front door open regardless of the rains, warding off the claustrophobic cloud that had cast its gloom over my spirit. In a few days however, Pune’s charm would begin to settle in my belly, and like all the new delights that I was tasting, would soon become the sustenance that I had longed for.
From our flat, we could walk to countless temples, restaurants, markets and internet cafes. The latter becoming a regular haunt as the new experiences began to spill forth, eager to be shared with distant family and friends. For fourty rupees per hour, one could kickstart an old PC to life and send word home to Canada. The speed of the computers were insanely slow, and if there was a power outage, (which became a daily ocurance) then an entire letter could be lost in seconds. It was faster than sending smoke signals and besides, time had taken on a new concept here on the other side of the world.
On July 4, 2006 10:35:49 PM, I wrote:
Dear Friends and Family,
True love requires hard work. One must take the bad with the good, the idiosyncratic for the divine. I confess this for I am in love with India.
Pune is alive, teeming with diversity. I happily wade through garbage in the streets, to make acquaintance with the most beautiful people I have ever known. Although my Maharati is limited to two or three words, I discover that the universal language of eye contact and smile is not only disarming, it creates infinite possibilities, that which I welcome each day like the promise of rain.
There is no need to tell time in India. Six o'clock is marked by an orchestra of birds, their collective opus weaving through mango leaves and winding its way around my ear drum, lulling me from wayward slumber.
Nine o'clock is marked by the mantric call of the laundry woman whose overstuffed basket balances perfectly on her white hair.
Ten o'clock rushes in with the incessant honking of autorickshaws overtaking motorcars, meandering pedestrians, and motorcycles doubled with smiling babes in torn raincoats or ladies riding side-saddle, sarees flowing behind like prayer flags.
Two o'clock rears its weary head with the closing of shops as traffic slows and locals take their afternoon naps beneath the terraces where rainbows of laundry hang to dry.
The city comes alive again around four or five o'clock as shops re-open for the remainder of the evening. These hours give way to social gathering outside markets where rhythmic Marathi chatter trails like incense smoke through vegetable stands bursting with fresh mangoes, eggplants and okra. Students fill the internet cafes and young men smoke beedis on street corners and greet us with the signature Maharashtrian head-wobble as we walk by.
Thousands of miles away, my forgotten watch ticks the minutes away on my bathroom countertop.
In time, the absence of a watch on my wrist would become ironic, but that marks a different beginning to this story which I will return to. For now, I was adjusting nicely to my new sense of time and pace, state of dis-orientation subsiding with each day.
One of the catalysts for my orientation to Pune was Noah, a gentle and freckled American yogi who had practiced in India for some months. On one particularly rainy day, he took us by rickshaw to the glorious Tulsi Baug, a busy market bazaar, and endless labyrinth of stalls selling chappals, kurtis and bangles of every colour and style imaginable.
My daughter Larkin gasped in heavenly disbelief when we turned to find Bangle Alley, an entire street of stalls selling the traditional ornaments worn by Indian women. What would begin as some decadent girlish dream would become something like the scene of Alice falling down the rabbit-hole, as eager vendors coerced their glittery bungri upon the outstretched arms of my now frightened and overwhelmed child.
Pressure sales is just the norm in India. It is not unusual to wander into a saree shop and find yourself suddenly swathed in copious metres of finely patterned cottons, jewel-encrusted silks and overused sales pitches such as the ever popular, “You look just like movie star!”.
One of many skills the shopping tourist must perfect is the art of teetering tightrope between fair bargaining and polite decline. On many occasions, the state of being overtaken by such plentitude of worldly treasures, overzealous sale tactics and dollar-to-rupee conversion would find us running home empty handed.
One must also master a keen sense of direction by keeping within sight of a landmark. A careless left for right turn could have you lost in an ocean of ambitious masala, paan, chai or sabziwallas.
Dispite the rush of the bazaar, we did brave the bedlam, and on one turn and duck into a secret causeway, found ourselves in the sudden sanctuary of the Ram Mandir, where shoppers and beggars
alike took refuge from the heat and chaos beneath painted murals depicting the Ramayana. Surrounded by shops selling brass statues of Lord Shiva, flower malas, prayer beads, and other pooja wares, we dissolved into the blissful quietude of this hidden gem. Derelict cats circumnavigated the scene on high terraces of this fading courtyard. Watching the devotees carefully removing their weathered shoes, we did follow and relish in that peace that can only be found by collective humble prayers whispered amid the surrounding calamity.
God was not hard to find in this place.