This is something I wrote almost twenty years ago when first saw India and was shocking. I am not hunting sensational but cannot stop me seeing people. India is changed and I am changed. Some things are same, some are changed, some vanished but I hope my Indian friends will still be my friends. My excuses to native speakers, my English might have some flaws.
Dedicated to Andrzej with whom shared good and bad two years in India, some ten years after that.
Is hot, is very hot, still summer in India. The agent, bit ragged, bit slimy if judging in European standards is waiting patient on the pier to see us finally disembarked. In our sweaty shirts we are pulling the bags, also not looking well after what they have seen in airports and planes cargo stores, trunks of cars better fitted for scrapyards and boats smelling everything but perfume. Happy to see us the agent is wiping hands on trousers, probably some lunch sauce, giving us right one. Education is the only one stopping me to refuse shaking it. Despite the aspect and the sauce he proves to be a nice guy and advise us to offer five dollars each for customs officer. Handing those fifteen dollars we can see him vanishing in the building different by the others only by the signboard saying “Office”. We wait, and wait and wait again, they have own speed and is not a good idea to speed them up, that will result only in more delay. So, waiting and watching how the three Filipinos made a major mistake not following their agent indications. Now the custom control is more than professional and very tight. Custom officer with cap pushed to the back of the head and one hand in trousers pocket cuddling whatever he found there, is taking all his time and pointing by finger, English not being his strongest asset even is one of India official languages is requesting everything in baggage to be exposed on the floor. I can se how three unhappy people are pulling out socks and underwear, clothes, gifts for loved ones waiting home and toilet items. Despite this the officer does not look satisfied. Now requesting them to take everything as it is and to shift to next room for a closer look. Yes, we invested those five dollars with maximum profit, agent is already coming back with our stamped passports. Free to go. Succeeding somehow to put luggage in the trunk of Padmini we try to get inside. Luggage was easy compared to us trying to get in, car seems to be built for dwarfs but we leave passing by Filipinos still waiting custom clearance. Road is driving us through slum built from old barrels, cut and straighten with hammer. Ingenious but the result was perfect scenery for horror movies, not willing to pass there by night. On the left hand the income source of these poor people could be seen, salt fields. Looking as a rice field, with areas closed by small dams, at high tide they let sea water flow in and closing the dam after that. The rest of the job was done by sun drying the field. Only to collect the snow like salt and sell it. We let behind the salt producers neighborhood and head to Gandhidam. My neck is stiff, my shirt is wet as going through monsoon and I am totally a dust trap. My only hope is to fulfill as fast as possible the sixty kilometers until not becoming my own mud statue. Someone up there hears my prayers and we see first buildings of the town. Civilization, here I come!
News we are going to hotel make me dream of a hot shower, a pantagruelic meal and tight sleep in a real bed. From main road we go right few hundred meters in the dust of rural roads where we find the dream hotel. Lucky us the building had a board saying “Hotel” otherwise could be taken as a construction abandoned due to lack of funds. Acting brave we enter the hallway where reception is just an antediluvian desk and a keyrack from where the receptionist is handing over room keys as handing an olympic trophy. Climbing the concrete stairs I’m planning with a sadistic smile how will be clogging their sanitary with all the dust I’m carrying on me. My hopes are soon broken, sink is something my grandmother used to have when young and looking last cleaned before her marriage, tub is some concrete construction looking as a water pond where cattles can have a sip on the side of the road. Putting all my courage together I dip the dirt avoiding to touch tub. Minutes later some disappointed faces show up in the loby, all in similar cleaning state, nobody had the gut to use washing “equipment”. Well, we are little better and asking about a restaurant, my stomach is making more noise than a subway station at rush hour. Fate is not kind with us, there are not open restaurants this late and receptionist admits even there were we did not want to go there. Nature is asking for its rights, stomach is singing a sad song and with last energy resources we ask if there is any chance to have some food. Surprising answer, of course we have room service. Great, we order grilled chicken and fries and salad and desert… Still have to wait two hours, good sign, they start cooking, we have enough time to see what about this town. It does not take a lot to wander on the small streets to get to town center where a roundabout with flowers and bushes harbour a statue of Gandhi, spiritual father of India. All around shops and haberdasheries with merchandise exposed on walkway salute the one meter high statue with their colorful sunshades. I get into first one with declared intention to buy one or two sari. A merchant is merchant everywhere, he exposes on counter piles of silk saris, silver jewelry, sandal wood handcraft art, key keepers and whatever he has on shelves. Choosing two saris the kind Filipina in the store, associate and mistress of owner shows me how to wrap them around the body indian style, it takes a while to understand, not easy to do it. Learned lesson I choose some sandal wood and some stone figurines, a real filigree and start negotiation. With some tea, will deduct this only for you, will pay this for that, with the story of store owner about his travel to Bucharest where he have a friend Aluna we reach an agreement. Only at final when he makes me a present, silver key keeper I understand he is very happy with negotiation. Well, he can be, me too. My guys finished inspecting the other stores in an attempt to find some food but all they could get is some peanuts. Slowly we head to hotel salivating at our image about grilled chicken. Surprisingly our plastic bags look very tempting for the stray cows with blue painted horns. We have seen them earlier on the street but only now we realize they are holy cows, everybody is avoiding them or giving a wide berth to them. Waiting to reach on smaller streets where is not so much light I slap their nosy mouths trying to eat our bags. Thank God, nobody saw me and got rid of cows. At hotel our dinner is waiting, chicken and chips. I mean some small plastic bags with some brown and bad smelling gravy having very thin bones floating inside. Is it rat, is it sparrow? Tasting proves a total failure, bad smell is winning over hunger. Let us see chips. Opening the chips bags and trying to eat is a second failure, they have so much vinegar is the perfect way to have an ulcer. We give up and go to sleep with good hopes next day will be in Bombay.
We wake up early morning, anyhow that was anything but good sleep, most of the time I spent on roof-terrace watching nocturnal activities of the ephemeral neighbors “night shift” in the backyards. Is difficult to understand how do they earn a living, nobody is leaving for or coming from work. In the yards all kind of animals, mostly chickens and dogs brotherly share mud and dust. The rooster crow finds me with a coffee and a cigarette which was inspired to pack. Cigarette finished I take my bag and go to lobby eager to get in Padmini which will drive us to Ahmadabad airport. Reception phone is ringing, we have one hour more to wait, guys make unhappy faces but no chance to speed up things. Instead of waiting in the lobby going out for some fresh air would be better. On the road side a new market is opened, stands on wheels are aligned selling so many vegetable and fruits I know only tenth part of them. To the last one in the line is heading a cow, one of those stray cows with blue horns. Watching what is going on can’t stop laughing. As a decided customer cow is choosing juicy salad and start munching with an air of satisfaction. Poor seller allows her once, allows her twice but trying to make her leave rearranging exactly those salads. As this strategy does not prove successful he moves between cow and other sellers and pretending to air his pajama slap her in the nose so she is convinced to try another menu. He is looking around, is alright, I was the only one seeing him but not a threat, my european shirt shows will soon leave. Somewhere far little Padmini is coming with fantastic speed of about forty kilometers. Getting in as we can we hit the road to airport. As not everything goes smooth, after dropping all batteries at check-point, not believing promises they will be returned in Bombay, we find out our flight is two hours delayed. Taking it as it is we are looking for some bar or restaurant to use a couple of beers until take off. Is just a dream, no bars, no restaurants and no beer as we are in the only Indian state where prohibition still lives. All we can do is to watch red signs on the foreheads of those coming from temples where they worshiped Gods and made oblations for Diwali. After more than two hours a bus is driving us to the airplane, an unbelievable new and modern Fokker flying us to Bombay in next hour. I fall in love at first sight when seeing the attendant, a wonderful Indian girl as in Eliade stories. She is offering snacks, cooked vegetables rolled in a chapati and find it heavenly good after yesterday hunger.
Not even one hour and we land in Bombay. The coloured crowd with bags, packs, ballots and suitcases remember me the North Railway Station in Bucharest at the time villagers going home from market, tired by sun and “one for the road” are assaulting return trains. We get out fast trough custom and control, the stamps in passports are proving oblations for the public officer were already made. The cardboard ripped of from a box shows our names, that should be the guy to drive us to hotel. Another Padmini drive us on the rods of an overpopulated Bombay where traffic is more likely molecules in boiling water. First rule is there is no rule, just stay on the left side of the road and try not to get into a collision. Driver seems to be a professional, he has time to tell us something about the place we are passing by. I cannot remember much, heat and smell are blowing all my thoughts. Just mix all strong essences you have in house, add all spices, top it with some drainage aroma, warm it up at about thirty five degrees and you will have a good idea about environment. Leaving harbour on the right we enter Colaba street, main commercial street in Bombay. Hotel looks good and after going upstairs to the room is great compared to Gandhidam. Bathroom is a real one, bed is comfortable and it even has AC. And is clean. First thing first, shower then we see what can do this evening.
Only one step out the hotel door and we are surrounded by kids, bit dirty bit clothed with empty hand “no mama, no papa, gi’me one rupee”. Remembering me their “brothers” outspread in the country road crosses and asking one, one hundred or one thousand lei, according to times and goodwill of pedestrians passing by. Difficult to get rid of them so we give them some coins asking where we can buy fresh fruits. They gladly show us, old Indian culture still alive, and advise us what to buy. Listen to their advices, as each one has a different opinion decide by ourselves to buy some mango and some pineapple. Wandering on the boulevard we can see the mad traffic which last until midnight. Public buses, bicycles, cars of all shapes, sizes and condition, lot of them in need of major repairs, motorcycles and Badjaj, the best motor tricycle to be used as taxi on crowded roads. Amazingly is not one accident per second as any foreigner would expect despite the traffic lights are considered optional by drivers of any kind. Most of the shops are closed but no problem, walkways are full with stands jammed with clothes, shoes, cookware, figurines, cheap jewelry and lot others. A temple is open, and full with flowers, oblations of worshipers. The sweet smell coming from inside beat the other odors few meters around. We turn around, the tiredness is tugging us to a nice and clean bed. Enough for today, tomorrow is another day. Morning is finding us refreshed after a sleep disturbed only by Badjaj horns in hot night we are ready to see Bombay by day. Before that a good brunch looks the best idea so we go to Leo’s where can find indian, european, asian food. After ordering toast, eggs, bacon and coffee we waist time betting on the appetite of the English girls next to our table. They ordered sausages, eggs, black pudding, fries, beans, tea, fruits, coffee. Until our order arrives we have to admit we underestimated them, we finished our meal and they are close to finish the additional ordered pudding and a new coffee. With a full stomach start to raid shops looking for small gifts. At corners there are some stands with a pile of green leaves and plenty of jars with something looking as sugar. One of the sellers is offering but do not want to try but watching how a decided buyer shows from what jars to put on the leaf. With a spoon smaller than my small finger nail the seller put the mystery substance on the leaf then folding it nicely is handing to buyer. This one is taking it and start chewing whatever it is. I am walking to Oberoy hotel, then back on the small street passing by small museums and people still sleeping on the carpet near the trees. Back on Colaba street I’m hooked by a guy offering stones at a low price. He succeed to convince me and have a look to his treasure. Not big deal, stones wrong cut, broken or not clear enough but between them one ruby and one sapphire in reasonable condition. Negotiating I found out how many children are they in family and how hard is life for them but finally from twenty dollars we agree with five packs of Marlboro, story was only part of negotiation strategy. Some more shopping to finish with gifts and that’s it.
This evening I will be in the plane to Rome, already feeling smell of espresso in Fiumicino. I will ask a Chianti during flight, this will make hours of flight looking shorter.
Bye, Bye India, see ya!