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.
One might think a trip to India would be about something other than archetypal interactions between men and women. One would be wrong, at least for me. At least in the first half of my 1982 trip. Embarrassing, but true.
Let’s continue. Lisa at 25, traveling in India alone, comes to the city then known as Madras and now as Chennai.
Madras was very boring, save the general newness of India, which by then startled me about as much as an overdue due gas bill. The city offered little beyond British colonial buildings, sweltering mid-March heat, and seemingly endless temples and statues carved from sandstone. And, of course, various film industry personnel.
I still marvel at the past willingness of prominent people in the Indian film industry to meet with a young American. My reporting credentials consisted of two letters, one from the Los Angeles Times, one from the soon-to-become defunct Soho News. The letters said, in effect, “If you write something good we will consider publishing it.” Somehow, that was enough. Goes to show the importance of both timing and impertinence.
I have notes upon notes upon notes from those interviews. And just one entry for Mr. C.P. Barrister, the man of this story. An alias. His last name was something else, but as it was a profession, this will do. Apparently the British had given his Gujarati grandfather an English name, using his job. Importing the model that gave us Smith, Threadwell, and Cook.
In any case, I took a sightseeing tour.
A group of us queued up for the bus. I overheard my seatmate, a man who looked to be in his late 30s, talking to some older women across the aisle. He was accompanying his aunt and his mother on the tour. He asked me what work I did. This was perhaps the first time a man in India recognized that I might have work. He did not seem concerned with my age, my marital status, or the cost of my shoes. I had, by then, spent an entire month in the country and I was both devastatingly lonely and nearly numb.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I missed Western sensibilities. I missed irony, humor, banter, and awareness of psychological import. Mr. Barrister had it all. He wore a Western suit. And the bus was air-conditioned, after all.
We saw temples. We saw temples, and temples, and temples. Worshipers bathed, we did not. The day was excruciatingly hot. When, as we returned, Mr. Barrister asked for my phone number, and whether I’d be willing to go to dinner with him, I said yes.
During our hours on the bus, he had explained to me that he was not yet married because he had not yet made his fortune. That he took care of his mother. I did not worry. I wonder how it is I thought I knew anything at all. But Mr. Barrister was not the problem.
He picked me up in his car, and took me to a restaurant at the top of a Madras hotel. We ate gulab jamun, with flecks of gold leaf. He told me gold was good for my health. Superstitious nonsense, I thought, but I ate off a decorated plate, on a white tablecloth, in air-conditioning. I was comforted by that which would have seemed very foreign 6 weeks ago. I told him about my experiences so far, the Indian Airlines man whose goal was to kiss a foreign girl. Probably I told him about all the harassment but I don’t remember.
He asked would I like to take a drive, down by the sea. I wrote in my journal afterwards,
It was like we were twelve or fourteen, he gets me to drive his car. It was probably the best way he could think of to get to sit closer… Finally we changed places, and as it was getting late, got ready to go home. He turned on the key, which lit the red lightening bolt generator symbol. As the clutch engaged he said, ” I feel like that boy who said his ambition was to kiss a foreign girl.” I smiled and said, “You can kiss me if you want.”
So he did. We were parked by the side of the road, along the beach. I wrote,
He said finally, “I didn’t expect you to be so friendly. I thought you’d be more formal.” I was so touched.
Now I understand what he meant. Then, of course, I had no idea of the codes I was breaking. To me it felt as though finally things were working the way I expected them to.
I turned my whole body and put my arms around his neck and kissed him. We stayed like that. He pulled away abruptly and I opened my eyes. There in the window was a face like a ghoul, deep-eyed and wrapped in a white sheet. Mr. Barrister pushed at him and I began to scream.
Mr. Barrister started the car. I kept screaming, curled up on the seat of the car. The face disappeared. I screamed. Then I heard the door on my side open. I looked around to see the ghoul opening my door. His mouth hung open and I could see his tongue.
I stopped screaming and pulled the door shut. Mr. Barrister started the car and pulled away, leaving the ghoul behind.
Of course it was not a ghoul. It was one of India’s very poor, attracted by my jewelry but too weak to steal it. One simply could not kiss, by the roadside, in India then. It may be possible now. I do not know.
Mr. Barrister took me back to my hotel. He felt badly that he had not punched the would-be thief in the face. I wrote,
Mostly I felt badly about screaming. Big, strong, independent, world traveler, confronted by a dark and silent scrawny creature, reduced to screaming like women always scream.
I regret I called the man a ghoul. I regret I called the man a creature. I regret my references to his skin color but these were my reactions, 29 years ago, and I do not have the luxury here of inventing myself to be better than I was. When we are attacked, we define our attacker as other, as not-human.
I regret that I felt scorn for screaming women. It is important to note that I have never been so scared in my life, not before, not since. I can still remember that face coming through the car window, the dark of an Indian seaside night behind him. The gray cloth wrapped round his head. In fact, I was probably in very little danger. The poor man was so weak even I could pull the door shut against his efforts.
This is the good part of aging, to understand what one has learned, and to see what one has invented, in time. Despite my fear and ignorance, I was a kind-hearted young woman doing the best she could in a very strange place.
I was right about one thing. Mr. Barrister was a good man. He treated me like a person. Anything he wanted from me, he requested. He thanked me graciously for anything I gave.
I was wrong about so much else. When you are young, you experience your life as though you sit at the center. You believe that what happens to you, happens because of you. You build meaning from the blocks of personal experience, from the inside out. You have not, or at least I had not, developed multiple eyes and lines of sight.
Later that week, Mr. Barrister took me to the beach. There was not a soul in sight, not even my own. It was hot, and the sand so powdery as to feel like dust. Palm trees offer little shade. I hope, wherever he is, that he has found a wife. Perhaps he has some children. I kept on traveling.
Images: Me, on Kodak slide film. The bits of detritus are authentic.