…had begun to feel as though I owed something to the city, had begun to orient myself. Got tangled in the streets. I could feel myself getting anxious, setting standards, not doing well enough…I just had to say, ‘Lisa, hold on. This is your first project ever, and you just want to write an article, not a learned tome on the subject. Do you have enough to write? Yes. Well then leave it at that and go have a good time.’
Even then I talked to myself in a voice that knew more than I did.
I hopped onto a train. That’s the thing about travel. You don’t have to make to do lists. You can make to go lists. Feeling worried? Go to the next place. The journey has its own trajectory, even when the traveler is lost in one way or another. You have the train window to frame what might otherwise cause fear.
Overnight to Udaipur. Marked with a yellow star on the map above. Sleeping compartment, in first class, with a bathroom down the corridor. I took a shower. Stood naked and wet watching rails go by under the toilet. Changed trains at Ratlam. I thought the air was filled with ash like Victorian London. Not that I knew anything about Victorian London, of course, but I had no idea what I was doing and any reference was better than none. I saw all the second class compartments, full of people in bright clothes, squatting at the doorway and looking out the windows.
As we rattled along, I listened to a devout Hindu, a supervisor on the board of education in Ajmer, tell me that if I would only, “read Gita, read it not once and throw away, but read it with faith and you will have good peace, true peace of heart.” The train stopped. A woman had fallen off the train roof and been cut in two on the rails. After 20 minutes we moved. “She expired,” the supervisor told me.
We stopped at Chittargarh. I saw a large dusty fort. One of many, as it turned out. The north of India has a lot of forts. This was my first.
I got back onto the train.
If I remember correctly, two young men struck up a conversation with me. Their names were Ashutosh Panchodia and Awadhesh Kanungo. They made me write that down. I followed them into a second class train car. Where sat 50 more young men, taking the train to New Delhi for university entrance exams. They were what was then called, “tribals,” participating in a special program to allow villagers from tribal groups to enter the Indian meritocracy. These guys had never been to the city. Had never met a Westerner. Terribly curious. Even more polite.
In second class, the seats are wooden benches. With slats. At least they were then. Luggage stored on slatted wooden racks over your head. Sometimes people sat on the luggage racks, if the train was very crowded. Not that day. That day we all sat on the benches. And looked at each other. For the most part their English wasn’t up to conversation and I did not speak Hindi, or their dialect. They asked me if I had seen Khajuraho, temples covered with statues of people in intimate positions. This question was, although I did not know it yet, to become a theme of these three months. They asked me how much my shoes cost. Another theme.
We fell silent. Some time passed. I don’t remember how much. We were almost to Udaipur. The young man just opposite me, who had been writing in a notebook for a while, looked up and told me he wanted to read something. “Miss Lisa,” he said, “In the moonlight, you are a white marble statue.” I think I said thank you. In those kinds of situations I tend to remember my manners and not much else.
I understand that class and gender and history converged at that moment in a way that completely overshadowed my particular experience. I was only a 25-year old girl, traveling, trying to prove my own courage and worth. I am glad that I treated those young men with respect. They were nothing to laugh at. The Indian education system has led the country to an important position in the world economy today. The role of women in society, in America as well as India, perhaps is not fully nor comfortably resolved. But if the story is just about me, in 1982, I remember trying to sit with my legs together, hands in my lap, balancing the desire to smile with the need to cast my eyes downward.
We must have arrived in Udaipur. That’s what happens on trips. You get where you are going. I believe I was met at the train station. And driven through the town. Up a hill. To see the hotel. Udaipur Lake Palace. The irony is not lost on me.
But when you are dusty, tired, overwhelmed, and 25, irony is not the first thing on your mind. The hotel looked beautiful, sitting on the lake. Someone boated me over. Me and my blue duffle bag and knapsack. The only passenger, in a motor launch, piloted by a man in a turban.
The palace was, and is to this day, gorgeous. More marble than I had ever seen, then or since. Marble, by the way, feels just fantastic on your feet. And alternating between marble and carpet? Ecstatic. Being told by the front desk on check in, that they hoped I like my room because they wanted me to feel like a princess? Heavenly. Chicken korma eaten from linen with silver in candlelight? Delicious. Reading by a pool, on a lake, next to bougainvillea? Glorious.
I lay by the pool, and listened. Sounds carry so far across a lake. I could hear the people calling to each other on shore. I thought I could be in New Jersey, from the sounds. I wrote,
Ten egrets float by, cutting the air slowly as if it were butter. The sky is pinkening. The sun sets.
Inappropriate metaphors are the territory of the young. You can only know what you know. I knew that it would be unlikely, were this New Jersey, to see ten egrets flying in a line over a lake. Unlikely to be surrounded by marble.
*All photos from slides. Why slides? Someone told me they were better. It has meant that I have barely looked at these images since I took them.