Telephones, Addresses, Movies. India, 1982


Stories start here

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.

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20 Comments

  • 11/16/09
    1:09 pm

    Reply

    Jan said...

    You have conveyed so much with this post, but mostly what it was like to be a nervous and unsure girl in a very foreign land, and the woman that girl grew into, trying to remember what it was like to be that girl.

    Wonderful.

  • 11/16/09
    2:12 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    So funny. I just talked to my sister. She said I had written a very good description of anxiety. I think it's been so long since it all happened, and yet still so powerful, that when I remember I re-experience it all. And my own feelings were so much more vivid even than anything around me. At least in those first few days. Later on I began to see the humor. Luckily.

  • 11/16/09
    2:16 pm

    Reply

    materfamilias said...

    Even today, I find it challenging to figure out phone use and protocol in different countries — even in Paris in the hotel we've gone to for the past five springs, we mis-dial one of the required prefixes and end up trying to make our dinner reservation with the front desk hotel attendant — and that's in a language we can almost speak! I can't imagine being on my own in my 20s in such a foreign and exotic environment trying to cope with phones and cabs and the imposter syndrome, all at once!

  • 11/16/09
    2:36 pm

    Reply

    Headbands and Hand Bags said...

    15 years later I was a 14 year old spending 6 months there with my family, my father was there for a period of time with work. You have painted some of the same feelings and images I had so vividly!

  • 11/16/09
    2:58 pm

    Reply

    Couture Carrie said...

    Very cool post, darling! Love your descriptions :)

    xoxox,
    CC

  • 11/16/09
    4:45 pm

    Reply

    Maureen@IslandRoar said...

    Yes, a good sense of the anxiety. But even more, the overcoming of it and dealing with it. Handling yourself with class and assurance (You High Wasp you!). IF you were your mother, you would have been proud of you, no?
    Great post.
    Can't wait for more!

  • 11/16/09
    5:26 pm

    Reply

    Buckeroomama said...

    LPC, I think you make a VERY good screenwriter. I felt like I was reading a movie as it unfolded –one of those short documentaries, in black & white, with occasional color pops of gorgeous pink of the bougainvilleas as the camera panned across them.

    I'm curious: Why slides and not simply photos?

  • 11/16/09
    5:52 pm

    Reply

    KLS said...

    Last year I returned from living in France. It was a wonderful time, and although I was there as an adult, it was amazing how long it took just to do the little things.

    It's fun to read someone else's experiences of foreign travel. I was lucky that I speak French, and my experience was western Europe. Probably less of a culture shock. But, I must admit that I understand French much better when spoken with an American accent. Nothing like natives firing questions at lightening speed.

    Thanks for starting my walk down memory lane…

  • 11/16/09
    8:46 pm

    Reply

    smiles4u said...

    Wow! I really enjoyed reading this captivating story. So much of it fascinates me.

  • 11/17/09
    1:11 am

    Reply

    Mrs. G said...

    I am hooked. Can't wait to hear more.

  • 11/17/09
    5:40 am

    Reply

    Sher said...

    You not only take us there, you take us to that space in time. The growing city, the marigolds and billboards are like a sliver in time. I'm thoroughly enjoying this…more :)

  • 11/17/09
    6:04 am

    Reply

    Duchesse said...

    You lept off the high board there! Did anyone ask you, "And what is your good name, miss?"

    I'm always astonished when I talk of my trip to India how many people say, "Oh I would never go THERE". It was absolutely fantastic.

  • 11/17/09
    7:35 am

    Reply

    lauren said...

    o, a researcher's reflexes: now i'm going to have to crawl around in the times's archives. is that cheating or paying tribute to a good story? (it's more than good.)

  • 11/17/09
    7:52 am

    Reply

    Patsy said...

    ooohh, I well remember that feeling of being found out, of fooling someone into thinking I could actually do the job.

    I would LOVE to go to India…..someday……

  • 11/17/09
    8:32 am

    Reply

    Black Labs and Lilly said...

    What an adventure!! I can't wait to hear the next piece!

  • 11/17/09
    8:55 am

    Reply

    ELS said...

    Oh, that was a real treat – your writing is just sublime, and the image of you nervously phoning – yes, all phones were beige for a time, weren't they? – is so touching.

    I love being told, when asking directions 'Oh, madam, it is in backside (of wherever)' Puerile, but funny.

    E

  • 11/17/09
    11:01 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Cellphones have leveled the communications infrastructure by now. And while no one ever told me something was in backside, I did get asked my good name. Thanks for the kind words.

  • 11/17/09
    11:42 am

    Reply

    Amanda said...

    So.Lovely.

    Cows.Marigolds.Bells.

  • 11/17/09
    12:08 pm

    Reply

    see you there! said...

    Wonderful to read about your experiences, you tell them well.

    Darla

  • 11/18/09
    7:06 am

    Reply

    arvind devalia said...

    What a great post!

    You have evoked many sweet memories of my time in India and especially in Mumbai.

    I am going to India in December and will be visiting the same Taj hotel that you stayed in.

    I can already smell the Marigolds:-)

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