Author’s Travels Through India in 1984

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In the autumn of 1984, at the age of 27, I flew into Delhi from Hong Kong on Singapore Airlines. The flight attendants were slim, fine-featured and beautiful like the Thai, Burmese, and Malaysian women of Southeast Asia where I had spent the hot summer months. India was to be the last country on a yearlong tour of the world. It was September. I had three months.

Backpackers I met on my travels had warned me that India was different and difficult. It was the dirtiest, poorest, loudest, and most crowded of all the Asian countries. So why go? The food is really good, I was told. The Taj Mahal will take your breath away. And the country is saturated with culture and religion. Festivals abound. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Judaism are celebrated freely. It’s not like any other place in the world.

But what my fellow travelers had not warned me about was Indian curiosity. Everywhere I traveled across the country I caused a stir. I wasn’t tall, blond, or blue-eyed, the usual recipe for attracting attention in Asian countries. I discreetly covered my body with long-sleeved shirts and mid-calf skirts (never wearing pants) but still I attracted crowds. I was stared at, followed, and questioned with the rapid diction of unknown languages. People pressed in close, touching my clothing. My dark hair, barely an inch long, caused a lot of confusion. I was clearly a woman but what had happened to my hair?

After weeks of intense scrutiny, I was exhausted by the crowds, the noise, the constant talking, the traffic, the heat, the pungent odors, and the lack of personal space. I bought a ticket for a train headed for Jodphur. I would go west, into the desert lands. Surely it would be quieter there.

I boarded the train as soon as it arrived in the station. I slipped the headphones of my Sony Walkman over my ears, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and hoped Bruce Springsteen’s voice would keep India away. Somewhere between “I ain’t nothing but tired…” and “…I could use just a little help,” I heard a muffled banging sound. I opened my eyes to a crowd of young men pressing their faces against the glass. One of them was prying the window open. I slapped at the hand and moved over into the aisle seat only to see the car filling with more young men. Their voices were excited, hands reached forward to touch the thin black wires falling from my head. I slunk into my seat, feeling trapped and powerless. It was as if India was pressing in, insisting there are no boundaries between self and surroundings. But I wasn’t interested in learning this lesson.

I started to shout: “Leave me alone! Get out of here!” I swung my arms like they were sticks of fire warding off wild beasts. But the crowd grew. Somewhere in my rapidly shrinking rational mind I knew it was still thirty minutes until the scheduled departure. Thirty minutes before a conductor would clear the car, ask for tickets, and the train would move into an open plain, a landscape blessedly free of humanity. But how to keep my sanity until then?

I didn’t see the neatly dressed man push through the bystanders or hear him urge people to move aside. I only saw him when he was standing next to me. He leaned over, shut the window, and waved at the crowd to move on. Then he turned to the people wedged tightly in the aisle and spoke firmly to them. His manner was convincing and his quiet confidence cleared the car. When he sat down beside me he apologized for his countrymen. “They are uneducated,” he said. “It’s not their fault. They don’t see many foreigners.” Then in formal English, the young Indian man said: “Please let me introduce myself. My name is Sandeep. I am glad to have come to your aid.” Twenty-five years later, my fictional Sandeep would utter these very words to the heroine of Karma. Maya had her hero.

From Jodphur, I continued west to Jaisalmer, a town of just 20,000 situated on the edge of the Thar desert. I remember the quiet land: sweeps of golden sand dunes, long red sunsets, silent Jain temples intricately carved out of stone and dust, and camels decorated to match their drivers’ turbans.

When I arrived at the 12th century town I discovered a place ready-made for a writer’s imagination: eastern architecture from the Arabian Nights, shadowy narrow streets suggesting secrets and mysteries, and people dressed in saris and turbans the color of jewels. I wandered the maze of lanes and alleys admiring the detailed stone carvings. In the market I smiled back at the desert-lined faces selling oils, fruit, and embroidered cloth. At a Jain temple a woman showed me how to wash the walls with milk and veneration. One day, I sat on the steps of the Gadi Sagar Tank and observed the dobi wallahs wash and twist and lay the colored saris on the ground to dry. And later, on a camel trek to the Sam sand dunes, I met a camel driver who would become my arrogant Akbar. So many of the details found in Karma originate here.

When darkness fell over the desert, I returned to my small room, and stared up at the wide space where the wall and ceiling didn’t meet. Under a night sky strewn with stars that glittered like a sea’s phosphorescence I imagined the story that would grow from this place: A young man without family or history comes in from the desert. There is a girl who is hiding in the maze. Does she need to be saved?

Yes. I will have Maya run to Jaisalmer, seeking a place where the crimes and passions of Delhi can be forgotten.

I reluctantly left Jaisalmer when my Indian visa was about to expire. I needed to exit the country so I traveled into Nepal. It was in a small Katmandu restaurant on Freak Street (it sold real apple pie) where I heard the news: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Travelers crossing into Nepal carried first-hand news that India was erupting in anger. Delhi had been taken over by marauding, murdering, revenge-seeking gangs.

My short-lived love affair with India was over.

What really happened to thousands of innocent Sikhs would not come to light for a long time after. Governments tried to squash the truth insisting that only a few hundred had been harmed even though the refugee camp in Delhi swelled to over 40,000. I didn’t know any of this at the time. My narrow concern circled my own safety as I reentered India to travel south to Bombay for a flight that that couldn’t be changed. Two buses and fourteen hours later I crossed the Nepalese border and arrived in a town called Gorakhpur. At ten at night, the city was dark and quiet. The only hotel available was managed by a man in a turban. And the only guests were Sikhs. The terror of waking to find my hotel in flames or an angry mob with sticks and knives bursting through the doors would make for a sleepless night but it was still better than the street. I demanded clean sheets but slipped into my sleeping bag anyway. I listened all night to men playing a spirited card game down the hall. When the sun broke, I was gone.

Traveling in fear is a miserable feeling. Senses are sharpened for the expectation of danger. Strangers become constant threats. Affection for a place gives way to hatred. My only relief was knowing I was getting the heck out of this unpredictable country. At least that’s what I thought until India showed me another one of her many faces.

My first stop on the way to Bombay was Varanasi, the ancient city on the banks of the Ganges. Millions of pilgrims visit here every year in order to bathe in the sacred river. The water is said to cleanse the soul of all past sins. Some people come to Varanasi with the intention of dying in this holy place and thereby escaping the cycle of rebirth. Others bring the bodies of their dead, burning them on funeral pyres then scattering the ashes into the river. Varanasi is also a place of migration for widows. Abandoned by their families, reduced to secondary status in society, they beg for the kindness of a rupee and offer pilgrims the chance to change their karma with simple generosity.

I don’t know if I changed my karma (I didn’t dare put my foot into water where incompletely burned body parts might be seen floating by), but I did put my fear down. I saw India with new eyes. The change wasn’t sudden, not a vision or an epiphany, but more like a slow clearing of the mind. I sat on the edge of the stone ghats and watched the sacred rituals. Ghee candles, set forth to catch the current, spiraled in the water under the hands of priests. Near-naked men performed vigorous exercises in the early morning sun. Women bathed discreetly in their saris. Thousands submerged their heads in hope that body and soul would be healed. And I, in the face of such reverence, embraced the fullness of this country.

India is a complicated country. Desperate. Frightening. Passionate. But she is also full of faith, joy and hope. In Karma I wanted Maya to come to a similar understanding about the country where her parents came from. With her acceptance of India, Maya is able to lead her father out of anger towards forgiveness.