Hadiwar, Rishikesh, Dharamshala

The foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh.

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

After a week of running to the embassy, the regional foreign officers, the police, and so-called “cultural centers,” my stubborn performance of the wandering back-packer begins to collapse. Whether or not there is an authentic “India” to find, when one goes looking for it, they don the guise of the backpacker, one who struggles to find an authentic travel experience, who fluctuates between a constant fear of the unknown and a constant fear of the same old known. Backpackers are the natural enemy of the tourist. We gaff at the “fat white old men” like punk rock kids at a football game claiming that the jocks all look the same, while we, in our ripped black T-shirts and converse, high-five against conformity.

In backpacking, a similar game is being played. We all wear photogenic props: backpacks larger than our bodies, unkempt flock-of-seagulls hair, stubbled beards. We are known to “toke up” when the time is right, we are promiscuous, adolescent milkers of our youth; with adulthood just over the horizon, we are not-yet ready to hand over the world for the cage we must one day crawl into. When we get diarrhea on the road, we are grateful for it. When we get Dengue fever, we obtain bragging rights. When we get a cut or shiv, we stand-by for infection. We don’t mind used needles, we like things being shit and the shittier things are the better. We seek to hide within the grime, the seediness; we straddle between the whatever, and the why not? We get our passports and credit cards stolen. We get bit by rabies-infested monkeys. Our narrative grows and grows.

That is why, on my first package tour, riding through the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, I feel something of a coward. How has it come to this? How have I so easily exhausted my resourcefulness, letting the whim of the tour guide shepherd me from one ugly religious monument to another? It is clear I have betrayed my people, my self, my dignity and the overly romantic self-image in my head, where I appear as a brown Brad Pitt. My only redemption is when the air-conditioning on the bus leaks freezing water onto me all night and we have to sleep with the windows open, inviting all types of disease-ridden mosquitos. See, my backpacker companions, this is still travel, right?

Hadiwar Temple

Hadiwar Temple

Besides being famous for the Beatles and their drug-induced Enlightenment, Rishikesh is mostly just a beautiful city and not much else. Adjusting already to my role as a package tourist, I sneer past the low-life British backpackers with their dreadlocks and smell of piss and pot.

Dharamshala

Dharamshala

Dharamshala is by far the most interesting place along the Himachal Pradesh route. The home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetian exiles, this is perhaps the one place in India that does not bargain for prices. At least, this is my first impression, until I run into all the Hindus who had moved into Dharamshala just to sell “authentic Tibetan” knick-knacks at extremely high prices. I do my good deed for the year by dealing only with the Tibetans–it is their cultural heritage isn’t it?

Tibetan Temple

Tibetan Temple

After three days in Dharamshala, the bus back to Delhi breaks down, one day before my flight back to the States. The toxic fumes of a nearby factory and the swarm of mosquitos make this especially unbearable. After hours of watching the Indians weld together parts underneath the hood of the bus, I am in need of a restroom, and two minutes later I am accidentally mooning a family of shop-owners who speak no English and perhaps have never seen an American, let alone an American returning to nature in their fields. When the bus starts running again, the Israeli traveler next to me shoves his legs in front of my seat, and the entire night becomes a battle for more personal space, of which there is no clear victor.

Package tourism. I don’t see much of a difference.

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Kolkata

A man with a flaccid penis drifts by me in the train station of Varanasi. Except for a beard covering half his torso he is completely nude, and just as I see his swaying comportment beginning to cross my path, it then plummets into the railroad tracks, falling towards the heavy iron rails the way one might fall onto a softly pillowed couch after a long day at the office.

When I am on the train I can think of little else but the fall. It seems he was…I’m not sure what to insert into this slot. Drunk? Poor? Desperate? Really really old? Perhaps religious? My imagination takes off, pondering the man’s fall the way Sherlock Holmes might ponder a crushed hat lying in the street (though with far less finesse): During a routine parachuting, this elderly adventurer’s loosely worn dhoti was yanked from him by the elements, and due to the pre-jump elevation sickness, found himself in a nude daze, his head bopping to Purple Haze, resulting in what seems to be..what certainly was, it seems…it seems…

a fall.

I am so benumbed in my memory of this event that I barely kick my feet off the side of the train, or bother to look out the window, so that when my traveling companion’s bag is stolen in the middle of the night and I am charging through each compartment of sleeping saris searching for the stolen passport and credit cards, when the police with Rajastani mustaches and thick eyebrows finally arrive holding uzis and AK-47s, when we are sitting in the station in Kolkata wondering if we are ever getting home, and even when, nearly a day after the fall, hotel owners start throwing our luggage into the floods of the monsoon, refusing to let us in without a valid passport and we have to trudge for hours through a street flood that has risen to my waistline, waiting for pity, our tears never showing through the pouring rain, I am still in that Varanasi station on an otherwise normal day, watching a nude man plummet into the train tracks. The police did nothing, everyone else was paralyzed in a state of shock. I am now beginning to remember someone does leap in, kicking away the giant rats who had come to explore a new piece of roadkill, pleading with the guards to find a pair of trousers, ordering a clerk to bring some chai, sitting the old man near my luggage.

How does an entirely nude Indian man get all the way from the platform staircases, the corridors of the station and the hired guards, to my end of the train? Had he been nude the entire time? Had he really walked through the entire train station without anyone giving a damn? That is, until it happened?

As we are walked off the plank of our fifth hotel, back into the waters of the monsoon with my laptop already permanently damaged from the floods, I begin to count the things we still have. The clothes on our backs. We have toothbrushes and bones. Defeated eyes. Variegated silk from Benares. Contemplation of the vacant railway. We have words that have hibernated for so long in our mouths, finally beaming in, we just have to keep our heads in the right place, I repeat, and repeat. I even have an adage: The greatness of a man is not in their achievements, but in the way they react to tragedy. No longer with the privilege of cynicism, deprived of our sense of distance, we are comforted by every cliche’ and overdone song lyric that comes to mind.

Hours into our plight we are sick with exhaustion and wet to our chests, so we wetten the floors of an internet cafe. As my traveling companion calls her loved ones, reliving the moments again and again, I cannot forget that we are still in a place of abandon. No proof of identity whatsoever. The hotel managers and landlords still refuse to let us in, assuming perhaps that she is a prostitute from Nepal or Myanmar, that I am trafficking her across the border after promising to marry her. We are already on our way to Sonagochi, where I will sell her to the highest bidding brothel. When I show them her police report they snicker at the stamp.

am in Kolkata.

We have mother-of-pearl bangles. A new bedcover three sizes too large. An ineffable urge to fly away from wherever we are. Songs that strangle.

I have left her in the internet cafe. I am back in the river in the street, heading towards that intersection where the current is pushing against me. A black bull has somehow retreated to a rooftop. Children in school uniforms laugh gayly in the rushing flood, surrendering themselves to the rush of waves. I take slow, careful steps; I cannot see where my feet are in the brown river. With every step I hear the crunch of an enervated body, the exhausted succumbing of a man onto thick iron rails, a man who, it seems, must have, it seems…

In the water I begin to lose it, and as my body gives out, all those things on the tip of my tongue shoot into my brain. There was a time, years ago, in a bar somewhere, someone asks me what the title of my research paper is on, and I cannot think of a quick and humorous response. He is short and has a smug smile, I’m not sure if he’s serious. Meanwhile I am watching my body in some berserker, screaming at the flood, thrashing its arms about in redundant paroxysms. The title of my paper? I say, returning that smug smile. Isomorphic Agrarianism and the Half-life of the Hyphen. That’s what I should have said!

At perhaps the eighth hotel, I meet Phillip, an Indian man with a small mustache and wearing tucked in plaid. As I tell him what perhaps has happened to us, his fists clench in a rage that I am far past, but I accept him as my avatar, he can feel my anger and rage and I can sit placid in numbness. He offers us a room, tells us everything is going to be all right, is already waking up the old cliche’s in his mouth. Just do not worry now, you must keep your head. He has relieved me of so many duties.

An hour later I bring my companion to the hotel. Phillip assesses the situation. You have no copies of your passport. No identification at all. No money. No credit cards. No cell phone. You have nothing. Nothing. Do you know what it means to have nothing? In this country?

It seems we just appeared, waiting to be picked up.

Varanasi

Shivatha Ghat

Shivatha Ghat

You want coolie? asks a man in a red vest, his teeth stained yellow with paan and his eyes in some uncontrollable blitzkrieg. Before I can answer he lifts my bags onto his head, straining his neck, marching up flights of stairs, his aged body nearly giving out under the weight of marble nick-nacks stockpiled among my belongings.

It’s difficult to spend a moment in India without immediately thinking of A Passage to India, and the intense guilt that comes along with Forster’s parable.

VaranasiIV

Varanasi (also called Benares) is India encapsulated; the diversity and multitudinous lifestyles that make the sub-continent more-or-less absent of ideology is well represented in the stunningly multicultural holy city. Here Muslims make statues of Ganesha for Hindus, while Hindus build mosques for Mulsims. Every Ghat bordering the sacred river Ganges is devoted to a different religious sect or region of India, so that any type of identity one chooses to align with is represented upon this sacred river.

The owner of my hotel is a bald Indian whose Japanese wife teaches yoga, while their children, a fat-Buddha looking boy and eight year old girl, are raised mostly by the hotel staff, who speaks to them in simple Japanese. Along the road I am met by East Asians, Nepalese, Indians from Bangalore and Madras.

Whatever you can say about India, says Amartya Sen, the opposite is also true. After two months of traveling in India, one must succumb to the absence of understanding. For Whitman, to travel is to rid yourself of certainty, to know nothing and take pleasure in not knowing. In trying to conceive of India, no mental picture appears, no one city, no style of dress nor even a ubiquitous pop-song (the Tamils still refuse Bollywood). As Arundhati Roy puts it, in one category or another, every Indian belongs to a minority. One must learn to conceive of a people without the golden thread of normalcy.

Dasashwamedh Ghat

Dasashwamedh Ghat

As soon as I arrive at Gai Ghat, a mustached Indian man commandeers our boat and gives me a fulsome explanation of the purposes of the Ghats. He  says that old people come here to die, that they need very special wood to burn their bodies with, that this kind of wood is extremely expensive for them—around a thousand rupees a kilo—and that if they do not have a proper burial they would not go to enlightenment (as he calls it).

Then, almost comically: If you give, you go to Enlightenment too. So how much do you want to help those in need? One, two, three kilos?

My eyes meet his with stern execration—an immediate sense of loathing for such a man, any man, who twists the goodwill of others to their own purposes. The smoke from the burning bodies pinches our noses, the requiems of lamenting families reach out to us in a choral yearn, the garlands of brightly colored flowers upon the dead bodies still submerged in the Ganges set our eyes into sudden still. I know the man is a scammer, with the audacity to scam so shamelessly in front of the mourners–such a capacity I can not believe! And though I shake my head and tell him no, there is still that rattling of a guilty conscience, that suffering of imprecation, the fear that after refusing the chance for redemption, one might never breath an anxiousless breathe.

His riposte: You will remember what you have done here today. You are a very very bad person, with very bad karma. You will remember what you did.

All the families of India come to the Ganges, that river too toxic for most wildlife, where there is a spot for each region, a place for each religion, a time for each prayer, a chant for each caste. They are all, equally, offered the chance to reach Enlightenment (depending on the kilos of wood they purchase).

VaranasiV

Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

Pathergatti Road, from Charminar

Pathergatti Road, from Charminar

The streets in HITECH City (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy City), Hyderabad, where the IT revolution has perhaps hit hardest, is not filled with young Indians in collared shirts jabbering on headset headphones, has few long streams of electric wire weaving about from iron statue to statue, and the glossy, posh buildings, are almost entirely absent. Instead, High Tech City is a surreal desert of nascent buildings, still undergoing erection, and the only movements of the streets is of the migrant workers, living in gigantic tent cities, on every roadside. Here multinationals aggregate in Industrial parks, the foreboding shadows of their incomplete buildings stretch from the rocky hills of High Tech City, onto the city of Hyderabad.

HITECH Development

HITECH Development

Hyderabad is a great deal like Bangalore, only not yet.

Buddha Statue, Hussain Sagar

Buddha Statue, Hussain Sagar

I enter in the Islamic holy month of Ramadon (Ramza here), a time when rickshaw drivers sway their bikes, enervated by lack of water and over-exposure to the sun, when every night becomes a festival of cheap chicken and lamb kebabs, only to end abruptly so the participants can wake up in time to eat before sunrise, and when the women are stylishly dressed in the latest foot fashions, limited by the burkas enshrouding their entire bodies.

Mecca Masjid

Mecca Masjid

Oh yes, and it’s the week of Ganesh.

Bangalore, Mysore

In Bangalore, the guidebook suggests, be aware of the rickshaw drivers.

 

Tree-filled streets of Bangalore

Tree-filled streets of Bangalore

 

 

Ok, be aware, be aware. I repeat this at the train station, with no clue where the district of cheap hotels and delectable juicy drinks is. I have no choice but the autorickshaw. I take steps to increase my awareness in the back of the rickshaw. Remember: be aware. I begin to tremble under the ambiguity of this statement. Do I open my eyes wider? Do I stare intensely at the driver’s back, hugging my passport and wallet into my body like I’m holding organs into my torso?

 

Despite my increased awareness, the advice of the guidebook, the suspicious grin the driver makes at every glance at his rearview mirror, and the honking of horns outside that sounds like a calf being torn away from its mother, I begin to phase out in the backseat, dreaming of some fantastical faraway land. Suddenly I realize that no other cars on are around us on the road. He stops in front of a small building—most of it descending deeper underground—that reads: GOVERNMENT SILK EMPORIUM.

 “Just go in, have a look.” he tells me.

 Allow me a moment to explain these emporiums. One day the government thought it would be a swell idea to replace dynamic local markets with gigantic emporiums of extremely expensive but authenticated stock-piles of India’s treasures. These emporiums are usually in the middle of nowhere, and any rickshaw driver who brings foreigners to these places gets a commission, plus small governmental benefits like tax write-offs (not having to pay any taxes at all), waived requisites (a blind-eye to their lack of a driver’s license] or some other type of governmental protection.

 To placate the man, hoping that I would one day get to a hotel, I walk into the emporium, spend ten minutes grumbling to myself, then leave. Minutes later he has taken me to another one. I complain but he keeps saying “just look, just look.” Too enervated to argue, I walk in with the stench of the train still following me, walk around in a haggard daze, and then fall into the back of the rickshaw again.

 “Now we go hotel.” I tell him.

 “One more shop sir.”

 “No!” I plead to him, while in my mind, I am cursing the guidebook for its total lack of specificities. “I give you one hundred rupees, you no take me to another one.” It was three times the fare.

 “No, no want money.”

 “Two hundred rupees!”

 “No, just look, just look.”

 No amount of money can compare to the benefits of collaborating with a corrupt government. Instead of giving him the money, I spend it on a sandalwood Ganesh, knowing that the driver will get extra “benefits” if I actually buy something. When I get back in the rickshaw he has a smile on his face as mocking as a crescent moon. But he takes me to the hotel.

 

Insense, flower extracts and dye

Incense, flower extracts and dye

 

 

 In recent times, the name Bangalore has become synonymous with the word outsourcing, and neologisms are spurred in attempts to understand the city—ITocracy and calltopia to name just a few. One out of every three office buildings in India spring up in Bangalore; obesity and diabetes are growing concerns here, where most everywhere else in the country, food and the fear of draught from this year’s disappointing monsoon (about %75 of its average) is of growing concern.

There is no better way to understand this indefinable city than to stay up late, at least until 3am, when the American workday ends, and all those Indians you hear over the phone when calling the Dell computers customer service line are emancipated into the jam-packed pubs, the chaotic night markets and the large strip halls, where, in rooms that look remarkably similar to Korean karaoke rooms, Indian women striptease bellydance on top of men’s laps.

 Staying in the Majestic district, I become all too familiar with this nightlife as I realize that the extreme discount I receive on my hotel room has less to do with my own cunning, and much more to due with the fact that the hotel is hardly a hotel at all, but an in-and-out “love hotel.” Harrowing screams from adjacent rooms drown out the lectures of my ipod. 

 ChandigarhV

Unable to sleep among the orgasmic cacophony, I take to Mysore, a far more laidback city with a long royal history, rickshaw drivers that do not take you to government emporiums, a nightlife that doesn’t burst through your hotel window in fragmented colors and screams, and a hotel that’s actually a hotel…with a very inviting pillow.