Maria Gill (2011)

[Marco Ivancic: India]

Following my instincts

You’re incredibly brave travelling on your own,” said the man in the plane seat next to me, pushing his lunch box from his paunch and wiping his lips and then brow with a linen serviette. “Why India?”’

It was 1984 and I was on my way to Calcutta, India’s largest city. I was 21 years old, but with my skinny 5’4” frame and tangle of frizzy hair, I might have been a high school student.

“I travelled Europe and Egypt last year and this was the next big trip,” I replied. I was a Kiwi girl doing her big OE, ticking off countries and continents. I had worked in a pub in Reading, England to save for this trip to India, and when my two English friends dropped out I saw no reason to postpone.

But it hadn’t been easy. The Indians saw every foreign traveller as rich. You had to be if you could afford plane fares and cameras, and as for foreign women, who were known to wear skimpy shorts and tee-shirts in the heat, they were ‘loose’. Above all, I was a novelty, a free show, never less than the centre of attention. On train journeys every male face would turn in my direction, open-mouthed and vacant-eyed. At first I would feign indifference, then, furious, I would stare back in defiance, until, embarrassed, they turned away.

“What about you?” I asked. I could tell he was bursting to tell me.

“I’m invited to judge dog shows all over the world,” he said in his American drawl. “The Madras competition was cancelled because of the floods so I’m heading to Calcutta early.”

I had encountered the Madras floods too.

13 November 1984, Madras (Chenai)
Several hundred miles west of Madras we saw flooded countryside from the bus window. We passed overturned buses, broken dams, and power lines swinging in the wind. The bus spluttered into the depot five hours late. Tania, an Australian backpacker I had met in Goa, and I dashed into the rain and retrieved our sodden packs.

The driver of our cycling rickshaw struggled to keep his bike upright in the wind. He swerved past uprooted trees, over branches and under broken billboards. As we climbed the steps of the YMCA a power box exploded across the road. The YMCA was full. So was the next place.

In the expensive New Victoria I emptied my soggy backpack into the bath. I had nothing clean or dry and there was neither hot water nor electricity. I washed my clothes in the tub and hung them on a line across the room. Then I settled into the most comfortable bed I had slept in for the past two months.

Later, I read about the floods and the thousands of houses destroyed.

Tania and I had got off lightly.

For the next 15 minutes, while the plane lurched towards landing, the American talked of his travels. I half listened. He handed me a small duty-free whisky. “Get these in the hotels,” he said. “The dog show people pick up the bill.”

“No thanks.” I was too dehydrated anyhow. I hadn’t peed in days. Some places it wasn’t worth risking drinking anything unless it came from a sealed bottle. I remembered the last time I had taken that risk.

9 October 1984, Jodpur
A red-orange sunset coloured the fortress beyond the Jodpur train station. In Kashmir I had befriended Lorraine and Dave, two Australians. Now the three of us battled our way through the beggars, their crippled hands outstretched for money. A taxi driver grabbed our bags and steered us towards a waiting rickshaw. He cycled past four hotels declaring they were full. The fifth guesthouse only charged 10 rupee (NZ$1.20), cheap even for Indian standards. Its paint peeled off plastered walls and rubbish littered the stairwell. Downstairs in the recesses of an ill-lit cafe I drank lassi, a milk fruit drink. Its taste lingered long after. I had no stomach for the dhal and rice, the Indian staple diet.

By the time I rolled out my sleeping bag later that night, I felt nauseated. The next five hours I spent rushing to the toilet or throwing up in a sink. When I returned to my bed I tried to close my eyes but I couldn’t sleep. My body ached; my clothes stuck to my sweaty body. I felt myself sinking, diminishing, disappearing.

As the morning dawned my movements slowed, as if I was walking in slow motion. Dave asked if I was all right. “I’ve been better,” I croaked.

“You’re really sick – I don’t think you should catch the train tonight,” said Lorraine.

I panicked. “Don’t leave me here.’”

When it came time to leave Dave carried my pack. By the time the train reached Jaisalmer in Rajastan 12 hours later, I had just about recovered.

The plane screeched along the runway and when it stopped some of the passengers clapped. The American and I exchanged smiles. Had that been relief, or was it their first trip?

He told me how much the rich Indians spent on importing the best manicurists, hairdressers and vets for their dogs. I gasped. It was thousands of rupees.

I thought of the poverty I had seen. Everywhere there were the beggars: mothers sitting on the pavement with suckling babies; young children crippled deliberately by their parents to gain sympathy from tourists; heroin drug addicts from Europe, too hooked to remember where they had come from.

I did not think I would harden, but I did. You had to. There were thousands of beggars. Loose change would not change things. Once I took a drug addict to a shop and bought him some food. If I had given him money it would have shot up his arm within the hour.

Perhaps sensing my disapproval the American changed the topic. ‘I was in Bombay during the trouble.’ He picked up his leather briefcase and held on to the rail above, as we moved down the aisle. “After seeing a few killings and burnings from the hotel window, I knew it was time to get out. What about you?”

I knew what troubles he meant. I thought back to the day we found out.

31 October 1984, Bandipur
The housekeeper shouted “Breakfast!” through the key hole. Tania threw a pillow case over to my bed and reminded me we were going elephant riding that morning.

The elephant moved off quietly, plodding through the bushes. Spotted deer (chittal) looked up and unperturbed went back to grazing. My camera lens cap fell over the side. I’ll never see that again, I thought. I was not getting off the elephant in case there were some tigers lurking close by. On the handler’s command, the elephant stopped, snuffled around for the black plastic, picked it up and handed it back to me.

“Slime, no charge,” said the handler with a cheeky grin.

Kingfishers flitted past and red monkeys (bonnet macaque) laughed in the distance. Porcupine quills lay scattered on the forest floor. I was not too disappointed that we hadn’t seen a tiger; that might have been scary. The bull elephant charging us the day before when we were on a safari jeep trip had been enough excitement for me.

After we were let off our throne, the Indian elephant’s trunk searched my pockets for food. Finding none, she eased her bulky body from kneeling position and clambered after her handler. My travelling companions, Tania and an English couple, Peter and Sue, were as enchanted as I was.

“Wow! Riding an elephant has to be the best thing on this trip so far.”

But back at the hotel, something was not right. Huddled in a corner, Sikh men murmured in hushed tones.

Instinctively, we stood at the entrance.

“I’ll find out what’s happened,” said Peter, brushing his wife’s arm, as he pushed through our small group.

“What do you reckon?” whispered Tania.

“Isn’t white a colour of mourning?” said Sue.

“You reckon someone’s died? Who?” I asked. I rubbed the goose bumps on my arms and shivered.

“Someone important,” said Tania.

The receptionist bobbed his head in answer to Peter’s questions then brought his hands together, as if in prayer, to end the conversation. Peter turned and gestured to us to follow him outside.

“You wouldn’t believe what’s happened.”

“Tell us,” urged Tania.

“Indira Gandhi…”

“What, you mean their Prime Minister?” I looked at all their faces in shock.

“Yep – she’s been assassinated.”

He told us the Tamil Nadu border was closed and buses were being turned back.

“Does that mean we’re stuck here?” I asked – though perhaps a tiger sanctuary would be safer than a city in anarchy.

As we were to find out later, Indira Gandhi had been shot by two of her Sikh security guards as she left her private residence. It had happened in the morning but had taken all day for the news to reach us. Sikhs were being hauled out of trains and burned alive. Looting and vandalism were widespread. Shops would be closed for the next two days and people in mourning for the next 12.

I picked up my backpack from the luggage carousal and waved goodbye to the American. Once I had gone through customs I plopped my backpack behind a nun’s canvas bag and said hello, at the Airport Hotel reservation desk. The nuns were booking overnight accommodation too. I asked if I could tag along with them. They paid for their hotel voucher and stood aside for me to do the same. The salesperson suggested we go in his cousin’s taxi.

“Only five minute,” he said.

It seemed like a good idea. It was late and I was tired. The nuns and I squeezed into the back seat and the unmarked car crawled away from the airport. Two minutes later, he stopped outside a large guesthouse.

“You two get out, she stay.” The driver pointed at me.

“Aren’t I staying here, too?” I asked.

“No, we take you somewhere else.”

I looked at the nuns with my mouth open. My mother always said my emotions were displayed openly for everyone to see. My face must have telegraphed ‘fear’.

His co-driver grinned and nodded his head.

The nuns beckoned me out of the car. Anger kicked in. I swung my legs out of the car and stood beside the nuns.

“I want to stay at the same place as these ladies!” I said.

“Guesthouse full,” the driver said.

The nuns pulled their bag out of the boot. I grabbed my backpack, wrestling it away from the co-driver.

“Then we’ll go back to the airport and change hotels,” said the older nun.

The driver waved his hands. “Other hotel full.”

All my instincts told me they were lying. The nuns and I exchanged looks – from the steely set of their lips I could tell they would stand by me. It seems to be an unwritten code that travellers stick together in rough times – like a support network. Even strangers had helped me when I was in danger…

6 October 1984 Jaipur
Lorraine, Dave and I were booking bus tickets when we saw hundreds of people lining the streets for a festival. There were women and children wearing bright orange and red saris; men carrying temples, dancing and beating drums; and Indian music blasting out of speakers from shops. Two large elephants adorned with flowers and body paint ambled through the throng of men.

To get a better view we squeezed our way onto the road. A crowd of men, young and old, began jeering at us, touching our bodies. They formed a tight circle around us, their breath close and stale. We heard a young girl screaming and moved towards her until she was wrapped in our circle; better with us than alone. We pushed towards the side – moving like a tide in unison. An old man grabbed my hand and told us to follow him. I knew we could trust him. I held on, Lorraine clung to my other arm and held on to Dave, who had lifted the girl onto his shoulders. The old man led us into a dark shop and told us we would be safe there. “Not good on street with men,” he said. I saw our mistake: the women in their coloured saris were on the pavements, while the white-clothed men crowded the streets.

“That was so scary,” said Lorraine. Her hand shook as she lifted her cigarette to her mouth.

The young girl’s mother rushed in and enveloped her daughter in her arms. She nodded thanks then walked out. The old man told us it was the Festival of Ram. During the day people fasted and prayed for the Mother Goddess. In the evenings they danced and feasted. Had we been in real danger? I’ll never know.

The taxi driver and his partner stood over us.

“Well, we’re going to find out,” I said. I hitched my backpack across my shoulders and headed back towards the airport. The nuns rolled their bag behind them.

“No problem,” shouted the driver. “We ask you stay?”

Those slimy tricksters, I thought. I bet there was room at the inn after all. We checked in and discovered the hotel nearly empty. It was another of those times that could have gone drastically wrong if I hadn’t listened to my instincts.

16 November 1984, Calcutta – Nepal
The plane soared over snowcapped mountains as it came in to land in Kathmandu. I changed some money, gathered some maps and made for the door. A small Nepalese man touting his hotel encouraged me to go with him. I agreed but was disturbed when he came back in an unmarked taxi with another person in the car. Here we go again, I thought. I had no nuns to back me this time, just my intuition. Should I go in the car? I wrote down the registration number of the car as a just-in-case. The men laughed when they saw what I was doing.

“When I was in India I couldn’t trust anyone,” I said.

“Aah, but now you’re in Nepal. We have plenty of women…” More laughter followed.

Nepal was a different place altogether.

[Reprinted in Definingnz 20 (December 2011): 34-37.]

© Maria Gill

No comments: