Bright Lights, Pink City (Part VIII)

Last year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn’t occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction. 

This is the final post from 2004. I will add new posts summing up my recently-completed trip back to India soon.

(Continued from Part VII)

Date: September 23, 2004
Subject: Final Thoughts

Hey everyone,

As most of you are already aware, I’m back home in Chicago these days. I’ve been busy for the last couple weeks readjusting to life in a world with hot showers, olive oil, multiple kinds of cheese, and a distinct dearth of wild monkeys; however I haven’t forgotten that I promised (threatened?) to provide one more installment in my little travelogue for y’all.

When last we left our hero — over a month ago — I was waxing snide about the monsoon’s relatively insignificant presence in Jaipur. Of course, approximately 24 hours later, I found myself stranded for three hours in my usual internet cafe (unfortunately, they had to turn off the power, since it is in a basement that floods during every rain — smart one, guys) during the most intense storm I have ever witnessed. As any of you who have ever seen a Hindi movie can attest, rain storms in India are normally accompanied by the singing and dancing of nubile young maidens in tightly clinging saris. But this was more like something out of the Book of Genesis than a Shah Rukh Khan movie. I saw people riding motorcycles in water up to their shins. I saw cows stuck on sidewalks because the water running down the street was too deep for them to cross. I saw cockroaches —  nuclear-holocaust-proof little beasties that they are — running for cover.  When it was all over, I had to wade home through the streets of Raja Park. Literally.

Anyway, before we knew it, we presented our final projects and the program finished up… and we all got the hell out of Jaipur, scattering like, well cockroaches avoiding the monsoon. Like most everyone, I headed up to Delhi, and spent two nights and a day there, hanging with some of the other folks from the program. With S. and E. (my companions from the Bombay trip), I rented a car and a driver, figuring that with all the places we wanted to go, it would be way cheaper to do this than pay for rickshaws. Our driver was an old man with impressive amounts of hair coming out of his ears and disturbingly thick eyeglasses. Due to an error on the Lonely Planet map, it took us a long time to find our first destination (our driver, who was a nice enough fellow but among the more annoying people I met, insisted on continually reminding us that if we had listened to him, we would have had no problems), which was the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets.

Now, you might be thinking, why on earth would I and my friends spend all this time and money trying to find a toilet museum? But really, the question is how could we not see something that weird? The museum itself is pretty small (and unfortunately, they don’t sell T-shirts), but the organization that runs it is really interesting. They are committed to building public toilets throughout India, a utility that is sorely lacking there. For example, at a pilgrimage site called Shirdi, they built a huge toilet complex that not only serves 30,000 people a day, but converts their waste into gas that it uses to provide electricity to the site. Pretty cool, actually. After that, the Nehru museum was a little anticlimactic. Then we had a nice late lunch of Subway sandwiches (I had a Paneer Tikka sub) in Lodhi Park.

The next day, S. and I (along with a fellow student from the Institute, J.) headed off to Mathura and Vrndavan, about two hours train-ride south of Delhi, and the birthplace and youthful stomping grounds of the god Krishna. We stayed in Vrndavan at a really nice guest house run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas. It’s a pretty interesting situation there, because ISKCON was founded in New York in the 60s, and has since bought up tons of land in the area and essentially exported itself “back” to India. They apparently get a lot of Western ISKCON pilgrims there — everyone naturally assumed we were some — but it being the off-season, 99 per cent of the people we saw in the ISKCON temple and complex were Indian. Despite their (probably well-deserved) image in the West as a bunch of New Age wackos, ISKCON seems to have been pretty readily absorbed into the religious fabric and economy of the town as simply another means of expressing traditional devotion.

So we wandered around Vrndavan, visiting a bunch of temples as well as an NGO that S. was interested in that is attempting to slow and reverse Vrndavan’s vast environmental damage, the result of several hundred years as a pilgrimage site. In the evening we sat on the guest house balcony and watched large, condor-size birds circling around over the town. Oh, sorry — did I say “birds”? I meant “bats.” HUGE. FREAKING. BATS. I don’t even wanna know what those things eat…

The next day we went to Mathura, to the temple that marks Krishna’s birthplace. The most notable feature of this temple, to my mind, is a long, two story corridor featuring small, foot-tall animatronic figures “acting out” (their range of movement is even less than those of Santa’s elves at your local mall) stories from Hindu mythology. We also got running commentary in Hindi from the groups of people surrounding us as we walked through.

Then we went for a long walk down to the river bank, and got caught in another big rain storm. We took shelter in a small carved-out nook on the ghat  and watched as all of the water in the city rushed down the street we had just walked down, and into the river. At the height of the storm, there were several feet of water rushing at roughly 40 mph down this street. We saw, among other things, the body of a dead dog and a full-size cycle rickshaw go surfing into the river. Even after the rain stopped, the street continued to be awash in water, so we took a nice little boat ride out on the Yamuna to kill some time.

That night we took an overnight train to Banaras or Varanasi (9 hours east of Mathura), probably the holiest city in India to Hindus, situated on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges), the holiest river in India. The Ganga is believed to flow directly from heaven, and bathing in it washes away all of your sins, and some people come down to the ghats and bathe themselves every day, despite the fact that the river is so polluted that it is actually septic, meaning that nothing — no fish, no plants, nothing — can live in it. One day we went for a boat ride on the Ganga and wound up using the umbrellas we had brought to ward off the blazing mid-day sun instead to try in vain to protect ourselves from the spray of sacred water that was blessing us with every stroke of the oars.

We stayed at a beautiful, elegant hotel on Assi Ghat in the south of the city, and took full advantage of the fact that Banaras is a big tourist destination — we ate Middle Eastern food nearby, and there was a cafe right next door that served real, honest-to-god apple pie a la mode, which we ate at, oh, EVERY meal.

The first day we walked around the southern end of the city, visited the Tulsi Manas temple (built in 1964, not long after Disneyland, and in full-on “Small World” mode features a big spread of animatronic figures as soon as you walk in) and checked out a fair (complete with Ferris wheel) that was going on behind the temple. The next day we made our way over to the old city and its labyrinthine network of alleys… we got completely lost a number of times (maybe we should have left a trail of parathas or something, though the monkeys and cows would have made quick work of them I suppose) but eventually found our way down to one of the “burning ghats,” where they perform cremations. Banaras is considered such a sacred place that simply to die there releases one from the cycle of death and rebirth (the goal of every pious Hindu), meaning that lots of people come there just to die and/or be cremated there, and then have their remains scattered in the Ganga. I have no idea how many cremations are done daily there, but the stacks of firewood are several stories high.

Of course, there was a lot more to see and do in Banaras, but it is so crowded and exhausting (the sheer number and persistence of people trying to sell you stuff is way more than anywhere else I visited) that in truth we spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, looking out at the river and watching people go about their lives. At this point in the trip, that was about all we could handle.

In Banaras, I parted ways with S. and J. — they headed back to Delhi and I went on to Lucknow, the former capital of the princely state of Awadh and site of the fiercest fighting of the 1857 rebellion against the British (known as the Mutiny or the First War of Independence, depending which side you’re on, and which provided the impetus for the British to formally annex Awadh). I met up with another friend from Jaipur who had studied in Lucknow the summer before and who showed me around. There’s a lot of amazing architecture in Lucknow, but its main claim to fame, the Bara Imambara (a Shia shrine that, earlier in the summer in protest over the fighting in Najaf, had reportedly forced any American, Israeli, or British tourists to walk over their own flag in order to get in, but had settled down to simply charging foreign tourists exorbitant prices by the time I got there) is definitely overrated. I also visited the British Residency, where less than a third of 3000 Brits survived a several month siege by Indian forces in 1857, before the rebellion was put down.

After Lucknow, I headed back to Delhi myself for a couple of days before my flight home. I did some of the more traditional tourist stuff: the Red Fort, which had been the palace of the Mughal emperors (those guys knew how to live, man), and the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, which can supposedly hold over 250,000 people. I went to see the National Gallery of Modern Art, and I found a great shop that sells old Hindi movie posters. The guy who ran the shop went through them one by one, telling me his memories of these old movies and singing the songs from them. I also did some pirate-DVD shopping in Baalika Bazaar, this weird underground mall that manages to be extraordinarily seedy while at the same time kinda high-class. And, on J.’s insistence (she was still there) we went to the restaurant voted the best Mexican food in Delhi, where all the rich, hip young Delhiites hang out: TGI Friday’s. While I dug into an enormous pile of crappy nachos that cost more than a laborer’s daily wage, hungry street children watched us longingly through the window. Boy, nothing makes you feel as good as that, let me tell you. At least it was happy hour, so the margaritas were two for the price of one.

But, before I knew it, it was time for the long flight back home. As I boarded the plane, I reflected on the many things I had learned on this trip. For example: pigs wag their tails when they eat; also, a pig in shit does indeed look quite happy. And: pigs will eat dead monkeys. What more of an education could I have asked for?

Seriously, though, all in all it was a pretty great experience. I’ve had a couple of people tell me that after reading all of these dispatches, they lost any desire they might once have had to go to India. I hope that’s not true; despite my occasional over-emphasis of the negative aspects for comic effect, India is really an amazing place.  I think everyone should go there at least once — I guarantee that you will not look at the world — or your own life — the same way afterwards. And, yes, I AM looking forward to going back… after a few more hot showers.

Signing off,

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