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 left the Buddhist stupas and Austrian tourists of Sanchi behind. At the railroad station I threw myself and my blue duffle into the Fate Choose Please lottery. Knowing that Shashi Kapoor was filming Heat and Dust in Hyderabad, I decided that if a seat were available on the next train in that direction, I’d go.
We changed trains in Bhopal, which would become, 21 months later, the site of the worst industrial accident in history. When I think back to passing through, for I do remember the town, I cannot locate the source of significance. It’s like reading the book of your life, only to find a passage that seemed trivial is now highlighted. To what purpose you do not know.
I arrived in Hyderabad, and took a cab to the Hotel Banjara.
It still exists, today, as the Taj Banjara. Although I did not know where the film crew was staying, the only luxury hotel in town seemed a good guess. My resourcefulness was growing. Sure enough, as I wandered out to the swimming pool, I saw Shashi and Ms. Julie Christie, his co-star, sitting at a table. Shashi’s wife was there; also what we might now term an entourage.
I left a message at the desk for Mr. Kapoor. Sensing, somehow, that I shouldn’t just walk up to him and say hello in this context, or, heaven forbid, take his picture. And then I waited. I ate at the coffee shop. I looked out at the hotel lake where women washed their clothes in water that I could smell from the patio. This worried me.
I watched TV, which felt so odd I seem to have taken a picture of the television. I went to bed.
I woke up. Still no reply, no invitation to join the glamorous crowd of film people drinking by the pool. But Hyderabad was known for something other than movie stars – it’s the pearl-stringing capital of India. Somehow I managed to talk myself out of hiding miserably in my room and into hiring a cab to take me sightseeing. To take me pearl buying. When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, if Shakepeare had been a 25-year old High WASP adventuring through India, I do believe he too would have gone looking for a 3-strand pearl bracelet.
Oh I was so lonely. And so determined.
I remember the pearl shop. The vendor made me drink tea. Sweet tea, out of little cups. He assured me the pearls were Mikimoto, and promised, as I wrote in my journal, “In addition we have much flexibility in making things to order. We will deliver even on Sunday.”
I was not alone in the shop. Two men from Atlanta, named John and Milton, were buying too. One of them a necklace and earrings for his wife, and, as he told me, a pair of bangles and matching necklace for his girlfriend. I thought he was kidding at first. He seemed too staid to have a girlfriend. I wrote,
Mr. John T. said he’d like to bring me some fruit. Then he told me of how he and Milton arrived in Hyderabad, and how they saw “the temple floating in the sky with the planets all in a line above.” And then he said, “Can you you imagine Milton!” as though I should have reason to ever consider imagining Milton at all.
Clearly I gathered my ostensible sophistication around me like armor. Maybe even my social class. I was young. I am sorry. You can’t know your silent bias, and you don’t usually say things – out loud – that you know are really wrong. Then when you finally hear yourself, as I do now, you feel embarrassed but truthful. If I am more forgiving of my young self, it’s possible that I was trying to fight off my distress at Milton’s bad behavior towards his wife. I don’t know.
I took my cab back to the Hotel Banjara. In reading my journal, I can see that my carefully constructed self was starting to fray, even crack. I was never in danger of a full breakdown. Sturdy Gals don’t do that, our hard-wiring forbids. We put one foot in front of the next, wading through anxiety like mud. However, I had been in India for just over a month, mostly alone, and that’s a long time. Fragments of English songs had begun to play themselves, unasked, in the back of my mind.
I believe at this point I finally began to meet the country.
Back at the hotel, I found no message still. I realized, belatedly, that perhaps Mr. Kapoor would not want to introduce me to Julie Christie. Perhaps he would not want to say to his wife, “Oh, yes dear, here is the personage I took to dinner at the marble mansion. With whom I sat on satin cushions.” Some things are very different in foreign cultures, some things are the same. I ordered dinner in my room, and sat, eating peanuts. I wondered if I should pack the ones I couldn’t finish into a bag and take them with me. I was proud of myself for surviving disappointment but wrote that I still couldn’t bring myself to do something that felt as middle-class as squirreling away peanuts. Much yet left to learn.
Downstairs, in the hotel restaurant, John and Milton ate their dinners. They had called me, asking if I’d join. “Um,” I said, “I may have plans.” I was growing more resourceful. Disdain or no disdain I didn’t have to eat dinner with men I didn’t like.
And, at the end of that day, as my original framework frayed, I saw only what I saw. With meaning or without it, Mr. Kapoor disdained me, John and Milton goggled at the planets’ alignment, I bought pearls that would crumble some decades later. I could only catalog the sights. I wrote,
Double-strand 5mm Mikimoto $85, necklace of graduated gray R2255 pearls and matching earstuds, approx $150, pearl and round polished garnet pair of bangles on silver and matching 16 in necklace, $100. Food; masala dosa in greasy, good cucumber & sambar chutneys, excellent lemon mulligatawny soup with croutons. Rich chicken curry which they asked if it was not too hot. Room service: Beer arrived with peanuts. Room: bathroom very clean, sterilized glasses, toilet, good drinking water. Ex-Nissan’s palace now Andra Pradesh HQ. River running through town, green and beautiful. Lake between Secunderabad and Hyderabad. Pleasant even in hot season. The temple at sunset: “Leave your coconuts here.”
There might not have been a toilet, you see.
For all I know, Milton was the Buddha. I have learned to mistrust disdain.
Images: me, except the picture of the Hotel Banjara from James Davidson here. Where there are more pictures of the “lake.”