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by Robert Rosenberg


The Montréal Review, February 2011


"Banaras" by Paramesh Paul (Mumbai, 2009, Oil on canvas, 30'x47) at bCA Galleries of Indian Contemporary Art




I touched down in Mumbai at 3 AM. without a hotel reservation. On the line through customs I met a doctor arriving home. He'd seen me feverishly reading my hefty Lonely Planet guide, looking for hints on how to get downtown and where to stay.

"India!" he said, fingering my book.  "You cannot write one book about India !  There's too much.  Too many places.  How can they fit it all in one book?"

I assured him they had.

"Impossible!  We speak 22 languages.  We have over 33 billion gods in our history.  It's been proven.  One book.  Ha!"  Then he leaned over and whispered, "You will be surprised by India .  A person once told me going to India is like going to heaven and also to the other place."



My first experience was hell: getting ripped off by the taxi drivers outside the airport.  My turbaned driver cranked up his cab and sped off into the darkness, through endless miles of cardboard shantytowns. I'd seen homeless people in Manhattan living in cardboard boxes, but I'd never seen an entire city of cardboard boxes.  In the early morning there were women walking barefoot along the highway, balancing large bamboo baskets on their heads, and men riding bicycles laden with sacks of flour and salt.  The highlight of the ride was a sign that said, SLOW DOWN, DIVERSION AHEAD. Twenty feet after the sign the road ended in a wall. The driver slammed on his breaks, honked his horn, and swerved around the diversion. That was my first Indian street sign.  I grew to love them.

Bombay, as I still liked to think of it, was a city dripping with character, a tropical port city on the Arabian Sea.  Once it had been seven islands, now they were all connected.  I wandered the beaches, the ancient fishing villages, the Jain temples, and the ghats where every day 10,000 men wash and dry the city's laundry by hand, then deliver it to homes on wheel carts.

One day in the Hanging Gardens a group of school children surrounded me and stared, then the lone boy among them who knew any English quizzed me about the World Wrestling Federation.

"Do you know The Rock?"

He meant literally. "Yes," I explained, "He's a good friend of mine."

"Do they hit for real in the WWF, or do they go like this?"  He swung his fist at my face and just missed. I told him absolutely everything he saw on television was real, and that, even worse, they edited the bloodiest parts of the wrestling matches so as not to scare little children.  He smiled and translated for his friends and they all nodded approvingly and he said, "I thought this!"

Another day I hired a taxi driver to show me around, and he drove mumbling, "Too much traffics here." He gave me facts:  Sixteen million people in the city.  Two million people a day commute from the outskirts.  The famous Marine Drive near Chowpatty Beach is called "The Princess' Necklace" because at night it is lined by lights, which glow across the bay so that, seen from Malabar Hill, the richest neighborhood, they look like a string of pearls.  Mumbai means beautiful in Hindi.  We drove by the Towers of Silence, where Parsees massage their dead with wine, and then lay out the bodies for vultures to devour.  We stopped in Ghandi's house: Mani Bhavan.  "He's the very special man in the world," my driver told me. He also took me to a synagogue. There were five in Bombay.  The rabbi's name was David Moses Talegaonkar, and he was preparing a notice:   Maccabean Sports Club sending people to 16 th Maccabia in Cricket, Table Tennis, Badminton, Chess Games.

The synagogue was located in a Muslim neighborhood.  I asked the rabbi if this ever was a problem.  "We are surrounded by Mohammedans, but they have their places, we have ours."  He shrugged.  "No problem.  Ever." There had been 50,000 Jews in Bombay.  45,000 emigrated to Israel over the last generation. Now he gets about 15 people for Friday evening Shabbas.

When I got back into the taxi my driver had important news he wished to share. Two weeks ago, for three days, he had been Chuck Norris's personal chauffer.

"In this car?" I asked.

"In this car!"

Norris had been looking for a shooting location for his next movie, and he was also hobnobbing with Bollywood moguls in five-star hotels. "Now he very old.  Hair is going white, but chest is outside!  Big chest!  He give me 100 U.S. dollars.  He not tell me his name.  I guessed him.  I see two movies, one with Bruce Lee. Enter Dragon.  Oh, he very happy about me.  I tell him my father running projector at Alexandria Movie Cinema.  He watch all Chuck Norris films.  Oh, I am very lucky about this.  I call my children.  They are very excited.  I call my father.  He call me, 'Why you not bring Mr. Norris our home?'  I call him, 'Father, is impossible to bring!'  My father big fan of Mr. Norris.  Mostly Muslims is fans."

I spent the rest of the drive imagining my taxi driver bringing Chuck Norris home to meet his father.

Everywhere I went there were more signs: FRESH CHICKEN MEAT said one in a bazaar, hanging over three cages of live cackling hens. CIVIC MESSAGE:  DO NOT ANSWER NATURE'S CALL ON PUBLIC PLACES seemed a sign largely ignored; and no wonder: could the perpetrators even read?  And if so, did they understand English?


I was just settling down on the evening train to Calcutta when, with an uproar, my berth was invaded by an enormous Indian family. They were returning to Calcutta from a wedding in Bombay : aunts, uncles, father, mother, daughter, children.  A young man, maybe 23, wearing A Friend in Need is a Friend to Avoid T-shirt, smiled at me and shook his head in apology.  

But they were all very friendly as they shoved their luggage and trunks under my feet and asked me if I'd mind moving to this seat, and then if I'd mind moving to that seat, and finally kicking me out of the berth altogether.  I wound up with a better seat, anyway, and for the next 36 hours of the train ride they came over every hour and fed me.

It seemed that they had a string of relatives at every major town along the way. At each stop the family rushed out as one, and then hurried back on, carrying thermoses and wrapped plates of steaming homemade food, prepared by the relatives' servants.  I ate lentils and samosas and biryanis, and soups, and sickly sweet Indian desserts, and omelets, and in between the eating I dozed and read Vikram Chandra's wondrous collection, Love and Longing in Bombay , looking up at every turn of the page to watch the subcontinent sweep past.

Calcutta's pollution, as I'd been warned, was probably the worst I'd ever breathed, but early the morning my train arrived it looked more like mist, and lent the city a black and white film-noir mood. The sun was rising over the Hooghly River , a branch of the Ganges . I ferried across from the train station to the heart of the city, past the Howrah Bridge , officially the most congested bridge in the world, with something like two million people crossing it a day.  I walked through Eden Gardens , home of sacred rats (very tame, the guidebook assured me) to my hotel, The Grand Eastern, built early in the 19th century.

Calcutta was the capital of the Raj for much of the period the British controlled the country, and downtown Calcutta looked like it had been transplanted from London : the High Courts, the British Mansions , the landscaped gardens, and the cricket pitches, all blackened by the air. The infamous poverty of the city was more startling than anything I could have imagined:  bodies everywhere, asleep or dead, immobile, dusty, and dark - as if they too were century-old relics, blackened by the air.  You had to climb over them as you wandered the sidewalks.

I was surprised more bodies weren't in the streets, because in Calcutta the roads were deathtraps. They were impossible to cross.  I would get stuck at intersections for twenty, thirty minutes at a time, and finally make a mad dash across the street through the whirling traffic. Usually I was lost, and often only after I made it across some highway did I realize I had to get back to the other side again to head where I wanted to be.

A sign at one corner warned:  


So apparently things were improving.

One day I discovered the subway, the only subway in India at the time (although Delhi was working on one.)  It was clean and efficient and took me all over.  I went to dinner at Bar-b-q, a dark Chinese/Indian restaurant on Park Street.  It was filled with fat businessman chomping away and drinking Chinese beers. The one next to me ate his sweet and sour chicken with a spoon, then wiped the rest of the red sauce off his plate with the side of his thumb and lapped if off like a cat.  Disgusting.  Meanwhile my nose was running from the spicy dumplings, and when I blew it into my napkin I found that, from a full day walking, breathing in the diesel fumes, my snot ran deathly black.  How did people live here?

But Calcutta had heart.   Bombay was a city of wheelers and dealers, the Los Angeles of India , but Calcutta was more like its Boston .  One night I stumbled upon the largest book fair in Asia , over an acre of dealers in the Maidan, the city's central park.  The ubiquitous loudspeakers kept shouting--first in Hindi, then in Bengali, and finally in English--:  


The old woman across from my lower berth on the overnight train ride to Varanasi had no teeth.  I noticed this because, for twelve straight hours, she continually, noisily, sucked her empty gums. She had leathery worn tanned skin, wispy pulled-back strands of thin white hair, and a solid, beefy triangular build, wrapped in a loose sari which revealed more than I cared to see.  When she first appeared, she and her son-in-law took over the entire space between the seats with a hemp sack, a large canvas bag, and two hard suitcases.  I pulled up my legs to be polite, and they hung a leaking thermos over my cramped knees.  All night the woman's gum sucking continued.  It was interrupted by snoring.  She woke me at dawn with two enormous farts.  Then she breakfasted--more gum sucking--and after breakfast she began to belch. She went back to the gum sucking, and this slowly evolved into hiccups.  The woman was a marvel: a living encyclopedia of bodily functions.

As we approached Varanasi , the son-in- law told me, "Now we'll cross the River Ganges." I thought, The Holy River!  I watched outside the window.  First a rainbow of pastel sheets laid in a field to dry.  These drifted past and we were over the bridge, then over the grayish water gleaming in the sun.  Just as we crossed the Ganges , the old woman across from me stopped her gum sucking, raised her hands in a triangle to her chin, and said a quiet prayer.

For me the crowning moment of India ! The old belching woman, the prayer, the Ganges !  This woman was India :  ancient and smelly and disgusting, but endlessly fascinating, endlessly amusing, endlessly holy.

Pilgrims came to Varanasi to bathe in the holy Ganges and to purify themselves.  One of the most polluted rivers in the world, it had something like 250,000 times the level of allowable fecal microorganisms.  In the morning people were bathing, brushing their teeth, and making tea from Holy Ganges water.  A man at my guest house told me the Ganges would never be polluted.  Those who believe, never get ill. Just the opposite, they were blessed.

I did not believe enough to try.  I watched the pilgrims from the steep steps of the holy ghats, the cement walls lining the shoreline.  I watched with the feral dogs and dusty goats and thousands of holy cows and holy cow deposits, and the sadhus:  the ascetic holy men who went naked, never cut their hair, and appeared to me to do only one thing all day: smoke ganja.  But they are much loved in Varanasi.

Of course everywhere I was followed by children. I pointed and asked one boy, "Who owns those goats?"

"Nobody is the owner," he said.

"I mean who will kills them?  Who will eat them?"

"Nobody touches those goats."

"Are they holy goats."

"Yes, they are holy."

We passed a group of mangy dogs, scratching at patches of missing fur.

"And are these dogs holy?" I asked.

The boy took me very seriously.  "Do those dogs look holy to you?" he snapped.

Later a sadhu wanted me to trade my pen for a nugget of his holy marijuana.  Another boy, seeing this, asked me, "Do you believe in Baba?"  Baba, as I understood it, was a metaphor for the belief in the holiness of the pot-smoking Sadhus.

"No, I don't believe."

"Americans speak truly.  I look at you, I see your heart.  It is a good heart."  He was following me, the little beggar.

"Do Indians speak truly?" I asked.

"Not so much, sir."

"Are you speaking truly now?"

"Yes, I am."

"How do I know?"

"You see my heart.  I not ask for money."

"But you will ask for money soon."

"No I won't."

"Are you speaking truly?"

Here the boy just laughed.  "No," he said. "You see!  You see!  You understand Indians!"

I watched the public cremation of a body at the Manikarnika Ghat, while a man explained to me what was happening.  "The most older son burns the body of the mother or father.  That is him. He is wearing white.  He is cutting off his hair. Five times he is putting on holy Ganges water on wood.  Seven times he is bringing fire around the body.  It is taking three or four hours maximum for the burning.  In the pot he will mix the ash and the water of the Ganges and throw it into the river."

As he said this, beside another fire on the ghat a family doused the ashes by splashing water from the river.  An elderly man in white dhoti, head shaved, raised a red clay pot filled with holy water into the air, turned his back on the smoldering ashes of the deceased, and tossed the pot behind him, smashing it.  The family walked briskly away.  No one turned back to look.

The ashes of the fires of the burned bodies float into the river and make it holy.  It is the most auspicious place to die in all of India .  That night, from my rooftop restaurant I watched the river, listening to the call to prayer, a Hindi song, and the honking of auto-rickshaws in the distance.  From downriver glittering prayer candles floated in tiny bowls on the water.  In a few minutes they swam beneath me on the Ganges , hundreds of them, little orange stars in the dark sky of the river. A family of monkeys interrupted the solemnity of the moment: they had come to the rooftop to chew the flowers and leaves off the patio's plants, and one waiter, dozing off in the corner, roused himself, came over, and made a show of swatting at them.

I spent a day at Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment.  A family of Tibetan pilgrims from Lhasa befriended me, teased me, and patted me on the back with great smiles.  A sign at the deer park : Those who know the essential to be essential and the unessential to be unessential dwelling in right thoughts do arrive at the essential.

On the essential train ride to Agra , I met a man from West Bengal .  He was traveling all the way to Armistrar, in the Punjab , to start a business selling screws and nails.  When I told him where I was from he grew excited. He himself had lived in New York for two years. What did he do?  

He said, "I drove a taxi." And he spent the next hour describing how dangerous driving a taxi in New York City was.  I wanted to ask him, "Have you crossed a street in Calcutta lately?"

At the Taj Mahal I sat on a bench and marveled for awhile, then took out my notebook and wrote a letter to my fiancé.  I paused from writing and looked up just in time to see an Indian tourist, nose deep in his guidebook, not watching where he was going, walk right up a stone path and straight into a reflecting pool. Trying to understand how this had happened, he stood there in disbelief, knee-deep in water.  The crowd taking pictures on the marble platform pointed and laughed.  The man smiled and blushed, and one young lady, a Japanese tourist, turned from the Taj Mahal and snapped a picture of him in the fountain.  For a moment the impossible had happened: the man's foolishness had out Taj-ed the Taj!

The signs at the Taj proclaimed it:




and best of all:


What they really should have commemorated was the fact that the Taj was built in memory for the love of a woman--Queen Arjumand Bano Begum "Mumtaz Mahal"-- who in 1631 died giving birth to her fourteenth child. Put that one up in lights, I thought.

Even the restaurant menus surprised me.  The menu in Agra's Zorba the Buddha restaurant explained, "My concept of the New Man is that he will be Zorba the Greek and he will also be Gautama the Buddha:  the New Man will be sensuous and spiritual, physical, utterly physical, in the body, in the senses, enjoying the body and all that the body makes possible, and still a great consciousness, a great witnessing will be there.  He will be Christ and Epicurus together." Above this, an artist's rendering of the New Man:  he wore a 50's style business suit, and a bow tie, and possessed the curly hair of the Buddha, a Burt Reynolds moustache, and a puja mark on his forehead. One of his hands lay in a gesture of solemn meditation on his lap; the other was raising a martini glass.

The guidebook warned:  "Don't encourage the villagers along the Agra road who force dancing bears to stop Agra traffic."  My first thought: how terrible!  My second thought: Dancing Bears! I want to see that!  And then I did, my driver swerving to avoid a squat man at the edge of the road holding three ropes, one wrapped around the snout of a bear. The poor beast was standing with his back to the road, as if stricken by stage-fright, too embarrassed, or too mortified, to continue the show.  

At the world famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary, a sign on a trail warned:  


Another sign warned that a tiger had made its way into the park, and advised:


I spent the day peddling a rented vehicle that bore some resemblance to a bicycle, which made so much noise it scared all the endangered birds away.  I saw none of them, but I enjoyed peddling around the back trails of the sanctuary, through the forest, watching out for the tiger, trying to imagine the many ways I would tease it when we ran into each other.  At the back entrance to the park I asked the ranger if he had seen the tiger.

"He is sleeping now," he answered.  "It is too hot.  In night he is around and around.  I hear him call, 'RRRRRARRRRRWWWW!"

At the train station the next morning a man told me, "Killing a cow is the most worst sin.  I can tell you a true story.  A man tries to get the cow out of his garden.  He hits the nose.  Not hard, very lightly, with a stick.  The cow falls dead right there.  What is happening to the man? Society disappears the man.  He can eat only begging from the poor for forty days.  Then he must go to the Holy Ganges and have 140 dips.  Only after that the society accepting him.  It is true story."

He was a well-read university student.  We talked some more about the recent controversial American election.  He quizzed me for an hour about my political beliefs.  He asked what I thought of George Bush, and I may have shocked him with the pained contortion of my face.  He laughed and said, "We have an expression for such man. Bandar ke haath mein nariyal .  In English: Coconut in a monkey's hand.  You see.  Now the monkey has the coconut, but he does not know what to do with it.  He cannot crack it.  He cannot eat it.  He is just a monkey!"

"Exactly!" I said, and complimented him on his analysis of the American political scene.  I explained how the voters of Palm Beach had had difficulty reading the ballots.  "But you have only two major parties!" he exclaimed.  "In India
we have hundreds candidates.  Pages. You must pick one.  Well...sometimes the illiterates vote for all, just to make everyone happy."

A sign in New Delhi revealed how India was modernizing itself:


New Delhi has been called India's Washington D.C.-stately monuments and government mansions, hundreds of confusing roundabouts.  200 flyways and 25 subway
stations were under construction, and Delhi needed it:  it had more cars on the roads than Calcutta and Mumbai combined.  I wandered New Delhi, I got lost in Old Delhi.  On my last day in the city I went to the Bahai Temple, designed as a flying white lotus leaf, reminiscent of the Sydney Opera house.  Inside a plaque read:


My trip had fallen just days following the Gujarat earthquake. In my two weeks traveling India , official estimates were putting the number of dead at around 30,000 people; but in conversations across the country, people kept telling me the government had no way of knowing how many had died.  An accurate guess seemed many times those official numbers. International rescue teams from around the world were scouring the devastated area for signs of life, pulling live bodies from the wreckage, even up to eleven days after the quake - near the end of my trip.

I had traveled nowhere near that region; but I'd still felt absurd as a tourist in the midst of so much tragedy.  Would another time have been different, I wondered? Better? More appropriate? Certainly not. Everywhere I went in India , pursued by the mounting death count, I had found stubborn signs of life. Even in its utter devastation India was friendlier, more welcoming, and more alive than any place I'd ever traveled.


More Rosenberg's stories:



Robert Rosenberg is the author of the novel This Is Not Civilization (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The novel was a BookSense pick, a Powells #1 Staff Pick of the year, and was selected as the 2010 Alaska Book of the Year through the Ford Foundation's 'Difficult Dialogues' initiative. His fiction and reviews have recently appeared in Witness, West Branch, The Miami Herald, and The Moscow Times. Last year he was awarded a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches Creative Writing at Bucknell University.


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