I woke up in a strange country. This should not have surprised me. But strange, by nature, is always a surprise.
I was overwhelmed with anxiety that morning. But so what? I was always anxious, in those days. In my 20’s. I was anxious, as usual, sitting on a bed in the Taj Mahal Hotel, in Bombay, in February of 1982.
Anxiety laps me like a slow flood.
I made a to do list for those rising waters. A universal strategy, even in strange countries. “Call the National Film Development Society.” India had a government body in charge of developing their art film industry. I had written a letter before I arrived. They had responded saying,”Yes, you may come visit us. ” That meant I had to use the telephone. There was one. Next to the bed. It was beige. That didn’t help. I had only a vague idea of how to use it. In those days, India’s telephone infrastructure was erratic. Odd combinations of numbers required. I dialed. Clicking ensued. I dialed again. Someone said “Hello?” I don’t remember any more than that, not what I said, not what they said in return, not how I knew to go find myself a taxi, not how I knew to tell the cab driver where to go. Certainly not how I could be sure that anyone at all would be there when I arrived.
I do remember the cab driver didn’t know what he was doing much either. Bombay in those days was being built right under our feet. Streets were changing names. Buildings coming down and going up. Entire neighborhoods becoming. An entire city of becoming. The cab driver had to ask another citizen of the becoming, “Do you know this place?” Show the address I must have written down. Ask, of course, in Hindi. English was common, amongst the educated. Not so common amongst those who drove the educated around. It only makes me shake my head, to realize that India was so foreign to me that a new language barely registered.
I remember next, offices. White walls. Women, in beautiful saris, in charge of the National Film Development Society. Me, young, long blond hair, spectator slingbacks, seersucker suit. A conversation. In which I took notes, they explained what they knew, and schedules were made. Yes, they would take me to see a film being shot in what they called, even then, Bollywood. Mangala, a woman in her 30’s who smiled and shook my hand, would meet me in the next few days. I would get a phone call. She put me in a cab and sent me back to the hotel.
OK. OK. Plans were made. Schedules set. To do, done. But I had said I was a free-lance journalist. In my mind, I was not. In my mind, I was a girl. That was also true. I felt like I was telling stories. I thought I was fooling someone. But in the end my article would be published by the Los Angeles Times. In the end, the National Film Development Corporation knew more than I did. In the end, they were right to treat me as though I was real, even though I felt I was hallucinating.
Now I had some time. Nothing scheduled for a few days. I walked out into the city. Down a side street. Every step more information than weeks of my previous life. Imagine marigolds. Imagine marigolds in a city. Hanging in garlands everywhere. Hanging around cows’ necks.
I went back to the hotel. I put on my bathing suit and went down to the pool. I lay, in the shade, wearing a bathing suit, on a long pool chair. The walls around the pool were latticed, like the carved walls of the other Taj Mahal. Bougainvillea grew all around. Pink. Very pink. So pink. A waiter, turbaned, uniformed, asked me if I wanted anything. “Madam, can I bring you something please?” “Lemonade. I’ll have some lemonade. Thank you.” Even strange countries do not relieve one of the requirement for polite. And I sat, by a swimming pool, under a blue sky. I drank lemonade. Bells rang, intermittently, on cows outside in the street.
Images, from slides, India, 1982, LPC
1. A film billboard. In fact I believe this is from the South of India, not Bombay. But time is the enemy of exactness.
2. The Bombay train station. A kiosk.
3. Bougainvillea. On the walls of the hotel swimming pool.