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.
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.)