And Stately Boulevards Precede Us. India, 1982


An ongoing and occasional series on a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. You can find the previous posts here.


I came into Delhi unannounced.

I wrote,

I expected Delhi to be different. I expected to arrive and find Paris waiting for me. I expected New York City taxi drivers all lined up with air-conditioned cabs and digital meters. Instead I got India. “Hellomadamrickshawscooterhotel? Noproblem20%nightcharge.” A kindly old gentleman offers to share my scooter, and deals with the cab driver, and asks me to come to his house. Or to meet him later this week. Like I said, I got India.

I think I was not using the word, India, to explicate. Rather, I was reciting an incantation to create some meaning. Listing the things that shocked me and naming them India. Human beings need to understand, and they will work harder at this task than anything. (Reading now, I see that I also wanted to sound tough and world-weary. “Good luck with that,” I say to myself, 30 years later. “Good luck with that.” Trying to sound tough gets in the way of understanding, but at 25 I didn’t know.)

Let me state the obvious. I had trouble understanding India using standard, rational, processes. But I was not alone; clearly the British also struggled. They constructed, in Delhi, a typical capital city, broad boulevards, monuments, squares. Made for processions of the ruling class. But they got India. As did I. Where sometimes events looked like home. But different. My first day walking around, I ran into this march.

The strikers above wanted to belong to the Ministry of Tourism, instead of the Ministry of Agriculture. OK. To an American, it sounded Orwellian. Except they wore chef’s hats. A little ornamental for Orwell. OK.

The cow above mowed lawns, pulling a cutting tool behind to keep the open, green, public square open. OK.

On the other hand, when you get India, some things are in fact the same. Comprehensible.

When I was little my mother pulled my hair into braids every morning. I never sent my kids to school uncombed. We make sure our children go into the world looking tended to, so that no one will assume that they can be harmed, unnoticed.

Found in big cities anywhere. I lived in Manhattan, after all. Why was I still shocked that people slept on the ground? I think because India was so overwhelming, so new, that I razed my structures of knowing to the ground. I had to start fresh. Everything surprised me. What I knew. What I didn’t know. But I could feel the new framework rising, in Delhi. Almost hear hammers in the background. Some of what we think, when we are trying to understand, is admirable. Some is just silly. Usually it’s all comforting, however, there’s comfort in the effort, and that’s maybe as important.

I left Delhi after a few days. I went to see the Taj Mahal. Another response to the inexplicable. When someone you love dies, if you are a maharajah, you build this. A monument. With stately boulevards.

The thing is, we never control all the approaches. Even the grandest routes may be strung with wires. Glimpses sometimes tell us more.

That night at the Taj Mahal, I stayed in a little local hotel. I sat on my bed, and brushed my hair watching dust fall onto the covers. Outside, at a Muslim festival, men played music all night long.

Images: Me, an old camera, and dusty slides. For a more recent view of Delhi, with a different perspective, and great photos, visit The Existential Expatriate.

18 Comments

  • 04/02/10
    6:46 am

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    Avid Reader said...

    Just wonderful. Isn't it amazing how another culture can seem so different, and yet so similar to your own. There's rickshaws, but there's also little girls with the same braids you had as a kid.

  • 04/02/10
    7:21 am

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    Paula said...

    Hi LPC! did you travel like you did in India ever since? I am looking forward to the India-Postings to come.

  • 04/02/10
    7:28 am

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    LPC said...

    Paula, India was the last time I took off by myself and traveled for a long period of time. I've traveled since, and worked in China, but that time of life before children is so well-suited to voyages. I suppose I could go now, too, but I'd have to be more careful since my stamina just isn't the same. I guess careful would be easy, since I'm not as foolish any more either:).

  • 04/02/10
    9:17 am

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    metscan said...

    This is text I am able to read. You leave lots of air to be filled by the reader. You are hopping from one stone to another, clearly knowing your destination. More, please!

  • 04/02/10
    9:59 am

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    Joyce Lau said...

    These photos are amazing!
    When Marc and I went to the Taj Magal a couple years ago, it was a tourist circus. You're lucky you got to see India then.

  • 04/02/10
    10:01 am

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    LPC said...

    Thank you Metscan, Joyce.

  • 04/02/10
    11:25 am

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    Kappa Prep said...

    India really is something else- I think you have to go believe. I think there are two ways many Americans look at India: the view the movie Slumdog Millionaire gave us and then the British Raj view. It is a stunningly beautiful country with imense diversity and culture. Even though you were there back in the 80's I am not sure too much has changed. You need to visit again LPC- I mother would welcome you with OPEN ARMS in Delhi this time around!

  • 04/02/10
    11:36 am

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    LPC said...

    Hopsy, yes, I meant to put your mom's site link at the end of this post. Thanks for reminding me. Maybe some day I'll get back.

  • 04/02/10
    1:47 pm

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    Maureen@IslandRoar said...

    I've never been to India and very well may never go. But it intrigues me and I love these posts. Especially to hear you looking back at your 25 year old perspective.

  • 04/02/10
    8:31 pm

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    Faux Fuchsia said...

    Hi Lisa, excellent post. When I was in Dubai it always fascinated me to to see all that modern high tech pseudo glamour juxtaposed with a hand to mouth existance- like when you see hundreds of poorly paid Indian construction workers sleeping on the dirt at the bottom of a construction site between shifts….don't forget your 10 things that make you happy.x

  • 04/02/10
    11:39 pm

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    Pink Martini said...

    You have caught the disconcerting along with the beautiful which is truly artful. I have never seen wires with the Taj. Somehow that picture in particular speaks to me.

  • 04/03/10
    7:13 am

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    Amanda said...

    Yay! More India! All the time India.

  • 04/03/10
    1:55 pm

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    Duchesse said...

    Arriving in the middle of the night in Delhi, I saw huge swaths of highway floodlit, men and machinery working full speed. Today, I strolled through Little India in my city. We had a dosa, bought mangoes, bobbed to blasts of music, admired strings of lapis beads. I can blur my vision here and be back there in a second.

  • 04/04/10
    7:41 am

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    Mrs. Expat said...

    I so enjoyed your post and the photos. The traffic is horrendous now, but so many of the other things are the same. Why don't you come back for a visit? I would love to show you around my Delhi.

  • 04/05/10
    1:13 am

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    Faux Fuchsia said...

    Dear Lisa, Please do a post of thankyou notes- in Australia there is a worrying trend of people not sending them which I consider the Devil's Work. What would a High WASP do? I loved Hopsy's Mum's blog, might leave a message x

  • 04/05/10
    11:06 am

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    Patsy said...

    I love this journey.

  • 04/06/10
    4:12 am

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    Amanda said...

    India, India, India.

  • 04/10/10
    5:59 am

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    Anonymous said...

    wow! those pictures look like they could have been taken yesterday! Must say, India has not changed AT ALL—the cars, mopeds, people and buildings look the same when they did back when you were 25. I traveled in India a few years ago—absolute time capsule of a culture!

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