Finding Oneself In India, 1982

I turned 25 in September of 1981. In February of 1982, I took a 3 month trip to India. My ostensible motive for the trip? Adventure. 25 year olds need no more than that. I hoped to start a joint degree at Columbia University’s Graduate Schools of Business and Journalism in the summer of 1982. As it turned out, I was accepted to the business school and not the journalism school. Setting the course for a career I could never have predicted.

In 1982, I had no idea that I would eventually work in the software industry, writing data sheets on Java, Microsoft and embedded programming. Running PR. Engaging with clients who wanted to build web applications. In 1982 I thought I was soon to settle down to a solid and respectable life. So, off to India. The closest I’d ever been to the developing world at that point was Christmas at a villa in Cancun.

I was too much of a High WASP to travel with a backpack. To join the swarms of bearded, beaded young Caucasians seeking enlightenment in the Far East. I didn’t think I was after enlightenment. I was, if I look back, searching for some way to prove my bravery to myself.

It was a crusade. And crusades need banners. So I decided to travel through India by train, doing research for and writing an article, or articles, on India’s as-yet-unknown-to-the-West film industry. How did I know to do that? I didn’t. But I worked at the time for one of the smartest people I have ever encountered, and he said, when informed of my travel plans, “Why don’t you write about the film industry? They make more movies than anyone in the world.” He was right. So I did.

As I said, I didn’t want to travel with a backpack. The Grande Dame shows up when she is least useful. I went down to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and bought a duffle bag. Nylon. Blue. “Durable,” said the Hasidic proprietor, standing on the steps that led down to his suitcase store. “It will last you.” He was right. It did.

I came back from India in May of 1982. With my duffle bag. You see it above on the floor of my son’s room at Princeton. And no, those gym socks didn’t make the same trip. I also came back with boxes of slides. Remember slides? However, I now own a scanner. Which, as you can imagine, means that I would like to tell you, here and there, the story of that trip. And some of the clothes I wore. There will be elephants, eventually. And Buddhas. And trains, many people, monkeys. Movie stars. It was a long trip. And I was very young and silly. Which has been known to give rise to stories.

The story will end with me smashing bangles from my wrist. They jangled too much for me to take notes in Columbia’s lecture halls. But it begins with this.

The Arrival.

I flew into what was then Bombay on Air India. The moment we landed I could smell the country. It was midnight. We disembarked onto the tarmac, and took a faded bus to the terminal. From there, although I was staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel, flagship luxury hotel of urban India, I thought it best to take another bus into the center of the city. After all, the Taj sits next to the Gateway to India. There was a bus stop.

We drove on a long, narrow road. Complete darkness. To get to Bombay proper we had to pass through slums. Houses built out of movie billboards, upside down letters glittering in the bus headlights. People awake. I saw them wandering, hand in hand. Overwhelmed by so much I had never seen before, I could only focus on the small. “Why are they awake at 2am? Why are they walking?” That’s how the brain works, I think, when presented with too much new. Try to solve for something.

By the time I arrived in Bombay, the morning was lighting up. The Gateway to India, a monumental arch, seemed to serve a market function. Anyone speaking English was negotiating prices. I walked into the hotel, carrying my duffle bag. I had packed clothes for 3 months. 3 months about which I as yet knew nothing. For the interviews I hoped to set up with India’s film industry contacts, (contacts I had not actually yet made, mind you) I packed a blue and white skirted seersucker suit. Yes I did. A linen shirt. Blue and white Charles Jourdan spectator slingbacks. Yes I did. I saw no pathos in my attempt.

The hotel staff checked me in. But they had put me in the tower, rather than in the old palace I had been expecting. In those days the tower was painted hospital green and smelled of insecticide. I didn’t think I could drink the water. I lay down on the bed. I waited, and worried that I could hear cows outside.

I am sure that eventually I fell asleep.

Duffle bag, my son, 2009
Polyvore, imagined memories of 1982

(I hope to tell this story here, in bits and pieces, over time. Not every day. But stories are for the listeners as much as the tellers, so let me know if you prefer I stick to little black dresses and their ilk.)

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  • oh, I think this story will be excellent, I'm voting for more.

    Coincidentally I just got this email about 5 minutes ago:

    Save The Date!

    On March 4th, the Boston Center for Adult Education will present: Bollywoood at the BCAE; A Celebration of the Culture and Cuisine of India. Join us for a special performance by the talented dancers Boston Bhangra, learn about the beauty and tradition of Henna painting with Reshama Damle High, and sample delicious Indian cuisine while enjoying all the glamour of a Bollywood film set.

  • Great idea to post your travels. I got a late start on the travel thing (mid-30's), but I'm making up for it now.

  • You're a wonderful story teller. Please continue with this story!

  • I can't wait to hear more about your adventure!!! I think this is a great idea to post about and will be waiting on the edge of my seat for the next post in the "India" series!

  • I'm intruiged, and very much looking forward to hearing the stories!

  • Can't wait to hear more — my husband has put India on our someday-before-we're-too-old list after I directed his reading attention that way (his culinary interests signed on long ago!))

  • Yes, please! I too made a life-changing trip to India. At one point I called Le Duc to say, "I now understand the dangerous seduction of colonialism", b/c was living much more comfortably on so much less than in France, for example. Everyone's India experience is different, but when India gets under your skin, it's indelible.

  • I can't wait to hear the rest of the story! But tell it however is best for you; I'll be back no matter what.

  • Thanks all. So maybe once a week I'll tell another piece. That gives me time to scan photos, write things, remember things, and still cover the usual home and clothing style stuff, the usual High WASP explication, and the occasional raptures about nothing in particular.

  • I would love to read more about your travels. India is bewildering and can awake, challenge all 5 senses simultaneously at any given moment.

    Love your blog, by the way.

  • Heavens no we don't want you to stick with 'LBD's and their ilk' – TOO SAFE and often times very boring! We want the nitty-gritty, all of the fun stuff and I suspect you'll have just as much enjoyment recounting/writing your past adventures as we will in the reading of them. Carry on.

  • Looking forward to hearing more. BTW, when I was 18, I flew to Island of Women (near Cancun) on my own, with a gorgeous Ralph Lauren sailor top in tow. Utterly inappropriate.

  • Please do NOT simply stick to LBds. Tell the story (any story) however you like!

  • India; how exciting!
    At 25 I was getting married, then pregnant. What was I thinking!
    Can't wait to hear more.

  • Surely the question is rhetorical?!

    More, please.

  • I can't wait to see the pictures of your time there but even more so I look forward to reading about this life changing time. Wow!

  • This is a good exposition. I knew you had more than LBD's to share.

  • I loved reading about India! (but honestly…and this is the absolute truth, I really love all of your stories)

  • I would dearly love to hear more about your travels –to India or wherever. I probably would not have chosen India as my first overseas trip alone, though. Brave… and I love your adventurous spirit.

  • Very suspenseful! Definitely want to hear more!

  • I was tempted to comment on the "Grand Tour" thread but by the time internet problems at the hotel in Tbilisi were resolved (industrial sabotage no less!) the discussion had moved on. For me, and I suspect for many others, at least one of the goals of travel is to challenge one's self and one's assumptions. The choice of an exotic destination accomplishes those things in ways domestic or more conventional destiations don't, at least for me.

  • Tell me about India! I'll never go :(

  • Love the stories!

  • I love India, it was also one of my very first destinations in East.. I will wait for the rest of your story..

  • I was a few years older when I went to India, and my girl friend and I went to the southern part, which is much different…, less of a shock if you will when it comes to poverty. I've just watched Slum Dog Millionaire, brilliantly filmed…, taking you around Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

  • Please, all the stories, love to hear them! Fabulously bonkers combination of bravery, naivety and style – seriously, you can't beat it. What every woman should travel with in her blue nylon sac.

  • You and I are very close in age. I would like for you to share some of your wisdom with your readers about the things in life you have learned, that money can't buy. Also, what are your 10 "can't do without" beauty products (make-up, mascara, shampoo, lotion, soap, etc.). What things do you think are well worth the money to spend on? What are your favorite books, movies? Thanks!

  • This paints such a picture in the mind Miss LPC, we can really see you walking up to the desk in the lobby, what an amazing tale. We are on board with everyone else, there simply must be more.

    Sending you a smile,

  • I am an Indian, and would love to hear your story about India :)
    Which reminds me I need to write the story of me & United States! Getting right back at you there…hahahah..just kidding….

    Looking forward to more!

  • Great idea to post your travels
    Work from home India

  • I am squealing with pleasure. Tell! (claps) Tell!

  • In the works. And I agree, if you come to the US from India, the story is just as compelling. I have also been thinking about the beauty products world. I have opinions, experience, now I just have to do a little research and then I will add that to the pot here. But, no industrial sabotage. Not back then at least:).

  • I'm currently 25 and can't wait to hear more about your adventure!

  • It is sort of enlightening to read travel stories of someone in India the year I was born. I was born in Chandernagore, a Portuguese colony in the suburbs of Calcutta and grew up in Bombay. Please do continue with this series.

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