Bombast in Bombay

for Grand Tour Magazine

We arrived in Bombay late in the evening, worn out, beaten up, but still fighting. Maybe no airport seems cheerful at night, but Bombay's is anti-cheer from the floor up. All the surfaces are covered with fine brown grit. The lights are dim. The paint is fading beige, or yellow, or brown. A wall of windows gave us the view of the leering brown men waiting outside, and their expressions were not uplifting. There was exhaustion in the air, as if through long national turmoil the atmospheric ions had all been discharged.

Entering a new country is difficult, with all the chores to be done before the travel can start in earnest. You must decide on lodgings, you must find transportation. If you have no maps you must get them and study them. You must cram your guidebooks. And you must continue to be civil to your partner. After two months on the road, this is the mightiest chore of all.

But in this case it was not difficult, for my partner, Brigid, had booked a hotel in advance, fortunately. For once the hunt for lodgings could not sink us any deeper into despair. I had not seen the reason for this beforehand. But Brigid knew.

"We'll be tired," she said. "We'll let them take care of us."

They took care of us.

* * * * * * *

We rode to the hotel in a windowless van. We could not see, but our imaginations conveyed us through streets of magic jinn and redstone palaces, and citizens serene in clouds of meditational incense. At the hotel, our driver waited for a tip, and I gave it. He handled it as if it were a urine sample. This was pretty much the attitude of everyone we met. It was like Atlantic City grown to nationhood.

Next morning, the sun came up and disclosed the fact behind our dream of the night before.

In the streets, lumbering trucks and carts shared space with beggars, motorscooters, bicycles and cows. One is advised to keep a lookout for cows, who loaf about the streets as they would a Wisconsin meadow. It's a testament to the esteem enjoyed by the cow that citizens show it deference and forbearance, and will halt the commerce of an entire highway while it eliminates on the concrete.

The motor scooter taxis are everywhere, though there are no sidewalks to leap up upon when one goes tearing by, only dirt and dust and people sleeping in the gutters, also families living--I do not consider this a slight matter--in the center medians of highways.

India has a lot of people in it. This fact looks dry when rendered in number. But the view of the crowds throughout the country brings it home. In a place where almost a billion people occupy half the space of the continental U.S., notwithstanding their effort to pre-empt the birth of an entire gender, one is excused for feeling close. There is no open place which does not contain people. The human form occupies all views. It is seen from every train and bus window, noticed from every roadside.

* * * * * * *

It may be said that the smart traveler looks more deeply into a culture than the surface evidence of crowds and taxi drivers. That may be so, but I suppose smart travelers don't get smart without making mistakes. We went to India as tourists, which may have been a mistake. We came in through the front door and accepted the standard welcome. We were unprepared and unaccustomed. And in India this means trouble.

It means, for example, that swarms of people will cover you everywhere you go, offering information, merchandise and services. They will touch your bags and your body. For a while your dream of being famous will come true, and hundreds of people will watch every move you make.

India is the country that invented the concept of Maya, illusion, the idea that what we perceive, just because we perceive it, is misleading. Maya is the ghostly spume that plays over the truth, the fascinating show that diverts attention from the real nature of things. So complete is the illusion that it cannot be seen through except with spiritual eyes and penetrating vision. Maya holds that the figures we see are nothing but the outward show of a great wheel of endless birth and death, from which the enlightened ones seek release. Spiritual progress is here measured by how far one can run from ego desire. To be completely spiritual is to be without desire of any kind, even for cleanliness and self-improvement. The truly enlightened one is one who is equally at home in a splendid palace or a trash bin.

This explained a lot to me.

Maya is what occurs on the streets of Bombay. Maya is the bloated pig carcasses in the gutter, the crippled men begging from sidewalks, the mothers and infants asleep on the streets with their hands open to receive change. Maya is the suffering of a people without money and without hope. For what hope is there but that life will be slightly better next time around? And if not then, perhaps the time after that. I explain the apathy of Indian culture this way: They believe they have millions of years to get it right.

* * * * * * *

We decided on a bus tour. What better way to see the city than by guided bus tour? On the second morning we left the hotel and aimed ourselves toward the start of the tour, about five miles away. We would see the hanging gardens, the Ghandi House, the Aquarium, the Towers of Silence.

We got into an automobile taxi, about 20 years old. A placard told us the driver's name: Cheranji. I specify automobile taxi, because there are many forms of transport in India. There are, for example, motorcycle taxis, which will satisfy the adventurous. A seat for two straddles the cycle's rear wheel, and on this the riders balance while braving the traffic. There are also bicycle taxis--pedicabs--which operate on the same principal as the motorcycle taxi, except in place of an engine you have a sweaty Indian man. There are also mules, horses and hand-pulled rickshaws.

We gave the place to Cheranji and began.

There were a lot of things that gave us cultural insight that day. Somewhere in our flight, Brigid's backpack had disappeared. We reached Bombay by way of Darwin, Brunei, Singapore and Bombay, bouncing like a fragment of broken superball among the islands of Asia. But Brigid's backpack missed one of the bounces, and for a week she was forced to wear a sarong brought from Indonesia, a garment which partially exposed her legs. We thought this pretty funny until we hit the street, and entire trains stopped to watch her go by. When in the tumult of that raucous city a silence spread like oil in a pool where we passed, as all faces opened toward us, I began to have cultural insight.

This feeling was not altered when we saw the people urinating in public.

There is an old Zen saying that perhaps people peeing in public signals the decline of a civilization; or perhaps it signals people peeing in public. The indifference with which people peed in public in Bombay bespoke a radically different outlook than the one I had grown up with.

One of the best definitions of culture I know is: Culture is the means by which the collective satisfies the needs of the individual.

I take it as one more instance of the low esteem in which human life is held in India, that the culture did not consider public urination something it should be concerned with. Men and women both would find a secluded spot...reasonably that booming city, and let go. Perhaps it was the mark of spiritual health.

But maybe I am wrong. I think now that it was not so disorderly a practice, peeing against a public wall. The places where they did this were used by others for the same purpose; they were the agreed-upon urination walls. Maybe the culture had not gotten around to addressing the problem, just as in New York or Philadelphia, the culture has not gotten around to addressing the problem. There are many cities in the world whose citizens walk around with no place to pee. The difference, I suppose, is that the Indians peed in public with apparently no expectation that the city should provide for this necessity. Their expectations for their government were minimal. Their solutions to the problem were minimal. There was not the concern in them which might contribute to a culture more comprehensive in its handling of individual needs. One wonders what monuments can rise in such a soil. It's probably no accident the grandest buildings in Bombay were built by the British.

Anyway, I should credit the Indians for going out of their way to get to the urination walls, rather than loosing themselves wherever the impulse struck. It shows self-discipline.

* * * * * * *

We rolled onward in our taxi, amid the cows and beggars and puddles on the sidewalk.

There is a practice in Bombay which has developed a following in the United States and elsewhere. We came to understand that at no stoplight is one safe from the overtures of beggars, which in India are a class of truly universalist pretensions, encompassing the clean and the slovenly, the male and female, the young and the old. At every stop they approach your vehicle, and interpose some evidence of sorrow beneath your nose. One of these people got to us at a stoplight and thrust a baby in the window. I didn't understand his language, but his gestures conveyed everything. Without our generosity the child's outlook was grave. Meantime his little naked daughter looked whole and happy to my unprofessional eye. I fancied for a moment he mistook us for visiting American doctors and wanted his little girl given the examination we frequently do at stop lights in America.

Babies weren't the only things thrust in the windows at us, but whatever might serve notice of penury and destitution. Sores and severed limbs did we see, and knotted hands and arthritic joints. But none of these people looked truly miserable in expression. They looked resigned and removed and serene.

The Bombay traffic roared on, amid beggars, pedicabs and cows.

* * * * * * *

"You go in," said Cheranji. "Many good things."

We had pulled up short before a dilapidated structure, apparently a shop.

We told Cheranji we didn't want to go in, we wanted to get to the bus tour.

"Only a minute," he said. "You look and walk out."

Here is the thing: Driving a taxi in India pays so little that drivers try to earn commissions by dumping tourists at selected stores. All the driver needs to earn his commission is to put tourists at the shop, whether they buy or not. It was good we had left so much time to reach our bus tour, for Cheranji had other stops in mind for us.

We went in.

Upon entering an Indian shop, especially one skilled at handling foreign visitors, you often don't fare as well as you expect to. You expect to walk in, make a polite word or two, nod respectfully and walk out. But here is how it usually works out:

Enter the shop. Spread hands immediately to receive the already proffered rug or fabric. Your best course here is to throw the thing to the ground and leave at once, for your chances are dimming. Odds are, though, that you will ask how much the thing costs. This is as good as an engagement. As you have already entered the shop, and taken hold of an item, it is known beyond doubt that you wish it to be yours. If you don't know this, others do.

You shake your head at the price, your excuse to leave. But the seller has an idea. He will lower the price.

You shake your head again, make your apology, prepare to leave.

The price comes down again.

You shake your head, make apologies, prepare to leave.

The price comes down again.

You shake your head, make apologies, prepare to leave.

As you step toward the door, the price comes down again.

You shake your head, make apologies, and buy the damn thing.

If you have any sense, you will buy, for two reasons. First, if you don't, you'll miss some fabulously beautiful things.

Second, if you don't, the price will continue to come down, and the seller will continue to follow you, out the door, across the street, around the loitering cows and into your taxi. And there you will all sit, buyers, sellers and taxi driver, the latter being loath to subtract you from the scene and maybe miss his commission.

* * * * * * *

Much later we attempted to mail this new rug home, using a highly efficient Indian postal process consisting of 1) entering the post office, staffed apparently by the entire defeated slate of the last municipal election; 2) waiting an hour; 3) achieving the head of the line and being told that our package, boxed and corded, was inadequately wrapped; 4) returning to the great outdoors where a "wrapper," a man with strings, paper and sealing wax, waited for business near some stains on the sidewalk; 5) waiting 15 minutes as he swaddled the items in his butcher paper, strung it all up like a Christmas ham and doused it with wax; 6) paying him a week's wages; 7) repeating steps 1 through 3, this time being told we were in the wrong line; 8) repeating steps 1 through 3 in the right line; 9) handing over our package, which by now is more than a package but a cherished family member and partner in victimhood, to the official behind the desk, who mashes it with a stamp. We found later that in transit our parcel had mummified. I don't know if you can call it mummified, exactly. It underwent some process that made it impervious to ordinary mail-opening techniques. It was the glue that did it, I think. Hardened it all up, harder than a can of spam. We use it as a wheel chock.

Things went a little smoother when we applied for a train ticket to Delhi aboard the famous Radjhani Express. After a forenoon of line waiting we found the office which the Indian train organization reserves specially for Americans, not to help confused tourists through any part of the complex process whereby one acquires a train ticket, but to acquire their cash. American cash is the required payment for train tickets for Americans. Of the train ride itself I will not speak, except to say we had it much better in first class than those on coach, because at every stop our doors did not open to admit the strolling vagabonds and trinket sellers who so stole the attention of the coach passengers, along with their daypacks.

* * * * * * *

But to return to the taxi ride. We got ready once more in our taxi, and this time an idea struck our poor heads that nearly knocked us unconscious. It was this: We told Cheranji we would gladly pay him whatever commission he might make from any further unscheduled stops, if only he would spare us the stops themselves. Cheranji looked humbled at our generosity, despite the probability that everyone who had ever entered his cab made the same offer at about the same time. We asked how much he might be expected to make. He told us. It was an amount that caused us a pang, but it was the pain of education. We paid him, and proceeded directly to the start of our tour. Cheranji waved us goodbye. We climbed aboard an old school bus and waited for the other tourists to do likewise.

An hour after the scheduled departure time, we got under way. It was punctual by Indian standards.

* * * * * * *

Later in the trip I got malaria, about which little needs to be said, except that the drugs worked. A doctor told me what drugs to buy, and where to buy them. I was shivering in 90-degree heat. I was nauseous beyond description. He practiced in an office that looked like someone's garage. This was in Barratpur, a small town about 40 miles from Delhi. Dying people lay barely concealed in small curtained alcoves. Women in labor lay in others. The groans of life entering and life departing filled the room. Debris and dirty equipment were scattered everywhere. The place had an air of work in progress, though the work you would guess to be taking place was not medicine but auto mechanics. Yet my doctor was patient and kind. His English was bad, our Hindi was non-existent. He laid out the schedule of pill-taking and told me to come back in the evening. Brigid and I got the drugs from a small open-fronted store on the street. I took them in the right order, and by evening I had begun to feel warm and healthy again. The whole process cost us about $10, drugs included. I consider it an example of honest and difficult work in India. We thanked the doctor in every language we knew.

* * * * * * *

Next day we decided to leave. Our trip was scheduled to last another week, but we had doubts we'd survive that long. In one long day after my sickness, we got to Agra, saw the Taj Mahal, and talked our way on board an Indian Airways jet bound for Bombay. That jet trip I still dream about. The jet made the trip in the regular amount of time--something less, rather. For the pilot did not scruple to lower the flaps and float slowly downward toward the airport, as jetliners are supposed to do. He held the airplane at cruising speed and lowered his altitude, until the outbuildings of the airport were whizzing past our windows at 300 miles an hour. About six feet over the runway and still speeding, he cut the engines and we crashed onto the cement, bounced around a good deal, and finally came to rest. Many of the overhead compartments popped open and their contents crashed down onto our heads. Indian pilots may have their vices, but finesse is not one of them.

From there we managed to fly standby on a United 747 to Frankfurt. The plane lifted cleanly and powerfully off the runway, India fell behind. The night was clear and smooth. American things were around us again. Captain Bob Smith got on the intercom to tell us our cruising altitude and speed. He was obviously a midwesterner. He spoke with the calm comfort of a man who would make everything all right. Most of the passengers went to sleep immediately, and I looked out the window for a long time at the stars, at the faint lights of India passing beneath. It was Captain Smith and I, pulling us through the long night toward the warm baked breads of Germany.

* * * * * * *

I would like to admit that I learned little about India except what I gathered from its appearance. And this is unfair to it. So illusory was its presentation that by that much, I know, is there hidden a profundity which still awaits the steadfast. Like the religious orders who discourage interest in their devotions, to keep away the shallow in spirit, in such a way does India throw up diversions to the understanding. Next time I will not enter by the usual route. I will step ashore wearing only a loin cloth, as spirit in hunger. I will acknowledge the god in all, and strive for release from suffering. I will pray at every shrine.

© Rob Laymon

Return to Travel Writing