From What Country Are you Coming From?
By Salmon Friscia
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Ahhh, those Indians. No, no, not the dispossessed, the sadly forgotten, the nearly exterminated, shamelessly duped Indians, who were here long before we arrived. No, not those. I’m talking about the billion or so in the sub continent, squeezed into a space roughly two thirds the size of the United States, and what’s more, having to share it with plenty of company.
Imagine. Thousands and thousands of cud chewing water buffalos. Multitudes of half starved, scrawny cows, shuffling along the alleys. An occasional elephant on the road with his driver, coming from God knows where. Roving bands of mangy monkeys making a racket leaping from rooftop to rooftop, chattering and quarreling. Let’s not forget the packs of yelping pariah dogs, giving new meaning to the commonplace, “it’s a dog’s life.” Resplendent peacocks. Sooty black, sly crows, as ubiquitous as sparrows, interminably cawing. Add to the mix the inhabitants and everything else that flourishes here and immediately you realize there isn’t a whole lot of free space to go around, yet, somehow, they all manage to get by.
A billion is a big number; that’s the latest count, There are people everywhere. Every shape, all sizes and shades of brown, dressed in white garments all the way to explosive colors which seem to match and rival the fiery sun.
The old section of the cities are bursting with people. The area around the Delhi train station, at peak hour, is terrifying. It has to be seen to be believed. The hellish mixture of noise never stops. You are overwhelmed. You keep telling yourself this can’t be real. Swarms and swarms of people, unimaginable clots of traffic, rickshaws, bicycles, cars, trucks, porters, everything stuck, nothing moves. You want to scream, you are suffocating. Pure chaos. But hovering over it all is the essence, that distinctive odor of burnt cow dung, which is unmistakebly India.
The Hindu literally smears his religion everywhere. Offerings of ghee are dripping from garishly painted idols, on street and temple lingams. It’s in the air, it’s palpable. There is no escaping it. Religion is the underpinning of India, without it , it would collapse.
Arising out of this religious fervor is a certainty. The Hindu is absolutely certain about his gods. He knows he has been here before. His beliefs, epoxy like, bind him fast, unifying, never letting him go. It is you, the visitor, having no caste, who feels adrift.
Almost as tenacious as the his beliefs is the need, a compulsion really, for many Indians to saunter up to you when you least expect it. You might be gazing at a temple, or drinking a cup of tea at a stall, watching a row of orange robed sadhus file by, it doesn’t matter. He begins his cross examination. He must rid himself of his questions. Most are annoying. You wonder, does he really want an answer?
He’s there, an inoffensive, pleading smile on his face. I’ll bet my last rupee the first question out of his mouth will be : “From what country are you coming from?” emphatically placing the preposition at the beginning and at the end of the sentence.
Answer him, I’m from Jupiter, the Hermitage or, Transylvania it makes no difference, he’s not listening. Without hesitating, skipping right along, he’ll want to know what is your religion, your good name, your age, are you married, how many children? Your patience is slipping, is there no end? He throws in one more. “Do you like India?”
I have to be honest and answer yes. I’ve come back again, and again. It’s a fabulous country I say. I assure him there is nothing quite like it anywhere on earth, and I mean it. He’s pleased, questions ended. I’m on my way.
True. There is no other place like it, but for how long? The transformation from bullock and cart to soft wear and computers is accelerating. But for now, you enter India, spend time there, leave, and discover you have changed, something has happened. How much, depends on how porous you are. That’s the kind of country it is.
My flight touched down in Delhi, where I spent a week and then flew to Bombay. From that city I started traveling down the west coast, stopping for brief stays but moving quickly, finally swinging eastward in the south, until I hit Madras, my first visit to this city. I never left the bus station where I had arrived. At ten in the morning it was so hot and humid I knew I could not remain here, and caught a bus to Pondicherry, a former French port .
I wanted to be near the calming ocean, away from the tumult. Moreover, it was Sri Aurobindo’s active spiritual base although he was long deceased. Here would be a rich collection of devotees from all over the world. There were sure to be travelers I’d like to meet and talk to.I hadn’t come to Poindicherry searching for religious experience, but I suspected a semblance of peace, so hard to find in India, would prevail. It did.
Near the beach, I found a simple, clean, room. All I wanted to do was sleep. I had covered a lot of ground, maybe too much, too quickly.
Trying to stay healthy here is a full time job, but there is not much you can do against the continuous assault on your body. Dividing and multiplying all around you, in the water, the food, the air you breath, the earth under your feet, in unthinkable numbers, live the country’s other inhabitants. Invisible, lethal, hard working.
It had been going on for a week or more. I was sick, and getting sicker. The symptoms were familiar. There was malaise, nausea, fever on, fever off, trouble eating, forcing myself to drink fluids, bodily functions hard to control. Tomorrow I might feel better, breath easier, think, well, that’s the end of that. The day after, more of the same.
The invader can be one of a staggering range of parasites. Under a microscope they are frightening to behold. Tiny monsters, resembling nothing we see or can imagine in the visible world. Pure science fiction. Dreamed up by Nature on one of her bad days.
Matters couldn’t stay this way. I had to do something in a hurry. I learned there was a nearby hospital, reported to be a good one. Perhaps with a French doctor or two. My last experience with a hospital in Delhi was indelible, a nightmare. I couldn’t go through that again. I decided against it.
What to do? The Indian, behind the desk, a pleasant, helpful fellow, provided the answer. He suggested an ayurvedic doctor, an herbalist, common here. “Good man, good man,” he repeated. I’d chance it. “Please send for him.”
He arrived. Much younger thanI had imagined. Small, with that dark, intense, wine brown complexion of the south Indian, in brilliant, white pants and shirt, his English good, a confident man. After listening to my symptoms, without any visible reaction, his diagnosis could not be stated more simply: “I am thinking you have parasites.”
“Can you help me?” “Yes.” “How long would you need? “Difficult. Very difficult.” “How long?”, I insisted. “Two, maybe three weeks.” Too long I thought, and no assurance this was the right course to take. I couldn’t gamble. Turning to the desk clerk I said I would leave tomorrow, three weeks was out of the question. I paid up, thanked them both, and returned to my room. Pondicherry would have to wait for another time,
That night, under a sagging mosquito net, too sick to care about the holes, and the mosquitos, I began putting a plan together. Medical attention was what I needed. It meant returning as quickly as possible to New York City before things got worse. The easiest course was to go back to Madras, book a flight, via Bombay, and then directly to JFK. That plan, the most sensible, bothered me. The decision became a difficult one because of a little town in the north - Sanchi.
Zimmer’s two volume set, The Art Of Indian Asia, a gift, long ago, with all its wonderful plates and vivid descriptions, especially those of the Buddhist shrines at Sanchi, had totally captivated me. They were beautiful, unique, not to be missed. My plans included a trip there before leaving India. “Why,” I asked myself, “should I change my plans now?” “You are sick, perhaps, very sick,” was the answer. “Who knows, I may never get another chance to see them,” I countered. “If you continue this nonsense you may never get to see any thing for a long time,” the voice taunted. “Overruled,” I laughed, “I must see Sanchi no matter what.”
The determination to visit Sanchi removed any and all objections. It was imprudent, foolish, and dangerous to delay treatment but my decision was firm. I had only to figure out the best way to get there. In this I erred.
Travel plans were now seriously complicated. Sanchi was north. From here, hard to get to. Apparently, there were no direct flights to Bhopal, the nearest city. If I flew, there was the possibility of connection delays, even overnight stopovers,. After some deliberation I decided to go to Madras, hook up with a sleeper and spend the next couple of days in a compartment, where, hopefully, I could rest and recuperate. This was a mistake.
In the morning, after another bumpy bus ride, I arrived in Madras. Luck was with me. In no time I was able to book a berth on a first class sleeper. Feeling slightly better, I looked forward to Sanchi, hoping I would sleep most of the trip. It would be a slow, tortuous journey. My fever had returned, I was weak, I was worried.
The trip drained me. Exhausted and regretting over and over not listening to my sane, inner voice, I stumbled from the train smack into a violent sun. The endless rush of passengers, some on the platform, others descending from the cars, the crates, bags, baskets, metal chests, yelling porters, the shrill complaints of women, the hawking food vendors, kids scurrying around selling drinks, this was all part of India which could fascinate me. Now, I was too ill to care. It was just pointless noise and motion, viewed with impatience and revulsion. I had to be sick to feel this way.
My decision to go to Bhopal and not some place closer may have been a wrong one. I now had to endure a two hour bus trip. Again my luck held out. I caught a bus without any trouble.
Bhopal began to recede. What little I saw through the dust covered windows was dirt y and ugly. On boarding, I gave the driver a few rupees, and made him understand, somehow, that he should wake me when we got to Sanchi . I stretched out on a hard, wooden bench, and immediately fell asleep.
Someone was shaking me, the bus had stopped... Gathering myself together I cautiously stepped down from the bus and looked around. Sanchi was a relatively new, rural, tourist destination. It had its collection of food stalls, the same tiresome buildings and little else. Where were the temples? That would have to wait. First, I must find the buddhist guest house. Sleep, rest, that’s all I wanted.
Trying to unlatch the gate to the compound proved difficult. A young monk appeared, we exchanged greetings, he opened the gate. Speaking slowly I explained I was sick, and needed a room where it was quiet. He understood, smiled, and led me through an overgrown courtyard, up a flight of stone steps, to a bare cell, with one barred window looking out on some dense growth. In the corner, was a charpoy, a kind of string bed. There were niches along the wall for personal items, no chair or table. It needed to be swept and could use a coat of whitewash, to me it was luxurious.
In halting English the kindly monk informed me this was a special room. The last guest was a much revered, saintly monk who spent weeks in this cell. What he was trying to tell me, I guess, was that the former occupant had left behind vital, residual, blessings. What we would call good vibes. If true, I could use them.
Weak, lightheaded, I eased myself onto the charpoy. In a few moments, another monk, much older, with a big welcoming smile entered, offering me a cup of tea and then backed out of the cell. The smile never left his face. The guest house, this room, the monks, the tea, augured well for what lay ahead tomorrow.... Sanchi’s treasures.
I slept more soundly than I had in the past two weeks. I even felt better. I wanted something to eat. Perhaps the room was really blessed. After a faux shower from a dripping tap which barely had any pressure, I went into the courtyard where the young monk and another I had not seen before, were talking together.
Smiling, always those open ingenuous smiles, they turned to greet me. It took some work but I learned there were only three monks in attendance. More would come later when pilgrims arrived. This was a Buddhist order from Sri Lanka, here to serve those who came to visit the shrines. I explained that was the reason I was here. The driections they gave me were simple and easy to follow. Their heads were shaven; I mustn’t forget to give them some razors before I left.
After some tea and chappatis, I slowly began walking towards the serpentine road which led to the temple sites. As I ascended the steep incline, the countryside began to spread out before me. The monsoon was practically over, and everything which grew, left the earth a brilliant, stunning, almost unbearable green. A verdant, emerald, landscape.
The placement of the stupas is almost Greek like in its perfectness, and in total harmony with its surroundings. I saw no one. There was not a soul to disturb the solitude. A profound sensation of utter peace enveloped me. Every centimeter of this blessed site was isolated, detached from the other world. It existed for itself.
The superb plates in Zimmer’s book faithfully depict the majestic beauty of the site. There, the great stupa, a huge, impressive mound surrounded by a circular railing of weathered stone. At each of the cardinal points stands a gate and pillar with the most daring, intricate, carvings, recording Buddhist teachings and revealing the skill and technical prowess of those craftsmen who left us these magnificent treasures. The sensuous yaksi, with full breasts, accommodating hips and wasp waist, jutting out from a pillar on the east gate, appeared poised, ready to whirl from her pedestal into your arms. It’s true. Go see for yourself.
I spent the entire morning immersed in this magical setting. With measured step I walked round and round the Great Stupa, I tried to grasp the thought and religious impetus for this great endeavor. It is over 2000 years old and the legacy of a powerful ruler’s conversion to Buddhism. That’s conviction.
Shaking loose from this enchanted scene was difficult. With some enforcement, I began the descent to the guest house and a crazy world below. Tomorrow morning I would leave, my decision to visit Sanchi was one I would never regret.
In the morning I learned I could not get a car to Bhopal. Postponing my departure was out of the question. It meant taking a bus, a prospect which made my heart sink. The parasites, quiescent yesterday, were back on the job. I felt lousy. There was an early morning bus, which would get me to Bhopal in time to catch a sleeper to Delhi. I allowed myself a wide spread of time to offset any of the usual problems.
Packing what little I had, thanking and saying goodbye to those sweet monks, and surprising them with a package of razors, I was out the gate and on the road. I chose a patch of shade, and hoped, this once, the bus would be on time. At some distance, a few food stalls. Hanging out in a nearby tree, a cabal of crows were seriously considering the situation ready to swoop down at a moment’s notice and carry off whatever food was carelessly left unattended.
A sullen Indian crossed the road and set his bag down alongside mine. Ignoring me, I was relieved when it appeared he didn’t want to talk. There was no traffic. The sun hammered away at the tarmac. The sound of the approaching bus alerted us both. It was miraculously on time and rattled to a stop a few feet away. A door tiredly swung open allowing me a glimpse inside. It was stuffed with what seemed to be the entire inhabitants of a small village. “Why stop,”I felt like shouting at the driver.
Even if I managed to get on board and secure a bit of space I couldn’t endure the ride. With hardly enough floor space to support myself and my bag, the steady pressure and jostling of packed bodies, the smell, the unbearable heat, frayed and volatile Indian tempers; it was impossible to even consider it. Add to this was my near delirious state . I felt the whole world was conspiring against me.
Without the slightest hesitation, the Indian beside me casually approached the bus. Mounting the passenger step brought clamorous protests from those nearest the door. He was not to be deterred. With a series of quick, knifelike movements twisting this way and that, he disappeared inside the bus, the battered door slowly retreated. Spewing clouds of smoke the bus consumptively lumbered off. I was sure I had witnessed a miracle.
Too overcome by what had just happened, I stood there, immobile. “WasI going to be stuck in Sanchi?” “ Was there no way out?” Catching the sleeper was certainly out of the question, at least for now. The strength to go on was rapidly deserting me. Dropping my pack, I carefully lowered myself on to it and tried to think.
The bleak outlook and great risk surrounding my dilemna did not escape me. The past two weeks had been hard, compounded by the deadly frustration which only India can inflict. I didn’t want to quit, I had never done it before. It was an admission of failure, which hurt me. What was worse, I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to.
Besides, gnawing at me was the chilling fear that what had knocked me out, might be something more serious than parasites. India had lots of diseases to choose from. “Where could I turn for help?” “To whom?” I had to get a hold of myself.
Seated on my pack, hunched over, numb , barely noticing the blazing sun which had encroched on me, blisters of indecision, and self pity creeping in, I was ripe for some kind of breakdown. It was not denied me.
Slowly, imperceptibly, rising from a place deep inside me, it began building and piling up. The events of the last two weeks, all the fears and painful emotions clustered into a force which was about to explode and shatter me. I shuddered. I could hardly breath. I was choking.
What was I trying to hold back, desperately trying to push away? Futile, it came with a rush. Sobs, real sobs. Then the tears, the dam had broken. I no longer had control or, cared. I held back nothing. Opened every escape valve. Crying uncontrollably, after a bit, the pain, slowly, slowly, started to ease. The heaviness shifted, a shaft of hope replaced it, I felt lighter. “I’ll get through this,” I shouted waking myself. I had to.
Out of the corner of a tearful eye I saw him hobbling briskly towards me. His dhoti could have been cleaner, he sported a Neru cap at a jaunty angle, and swinging his furled, black, umbrella he bore down on me. And, like many Indians who eschewed sandals, he was wearing shoes, always too big, and always without socks.
He stopped, abruptly, in front of me. I turned and stared up at him. I was gently sobbing, my shoulders moving in concert. Here, in front of you, my good fellow, is a human being in trouble. Something terrible is going on his life, he’s crying, can’t you see that? He took no notice. Bracing myself, I realized he was going to speak. It came.... like a thunderclap. ‘“From what country are you coming from?’