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 have created a Google map of the trip, here.
From Madras I took a train to Madurai. A city of many and large temples, Madurai also had elephants in chains. Worshipers launched pats of butter at statues of the gods, both Ganesha and the blue one. Hinduism is a religion of many characters, and I never quite figured out who had done what with whom. But that’s the good thing about travel, you create a capacious folder, labeled only, “Unknown,” and so many things can fit inside.
From Madurai another train, south, and more south. For the first time, I was in a land with enough water for a verdant landscape. And maybe by then I knew some things. It was March 22nd. I’d been in India since February 9th, and would leave, five weeks later, on May 1st. Although I didn’t note the milestone, my trip had reached its midpoint. I wrote about stopping along the way in Rameswaram,
“Not only am I wearing flowers looped in my hair, not only is my wrist bangled, but I also know that the train will stop here long enough for me to get out and get breakfast. Men are crowded around a stand where they serve what I recognize as dhosas, puris, and what looks like some other sort of South Indian thing. Most people are eating puris, only what looks like the onions in sauce you eat on hotdogs in New York. I keep thinking I should diet. I eat the puris anyway and they are light, warm, crunchy and delicious. I clean my banana leaf.”
I was headed for Trivandrum, now officially called Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. It’s a great story, Kerala. Colonized early by Christian travelers, the state was at once Communist, matriarchal, Christian, highly literate, wealthy from Kerala workers in Dubai, and almost Chinese in aesthetic. I know. Even now my eyes widen at that sentence.
The impact of those odd socioeconomic facts, on a 25-year woman traveling alone, can’t be underestimated. I wrote,
“The train ride here sparkled with auspicious signs…tracks run along the side of mountains, steep, green mountains which cast outlines on the sky. Banana trees grow like sea anemones, the entire landscape looks rich enough and crowded with enough life to be a tidepool… Me, I’m sitting inside alive. Feeling for the first time since I got to India that I like it here. Trivandrum, so far, has reinforced that banana-tree inspired feeling.”
I would wish for all of us, banana-tree inspired feelings. But more than the landscape contributed to my feelings of comfort. The houses looked suspiciously like Art Deco versions of 1950s California ranches.
Most of the people were working. Laborers read the newspaper, taking lunch breaks on the roofs of the the houses they built. Women walked around together, in groups, in pairs, and even on their own. I wrote,
“I even saw a boy and girl flirting together, standing by the side of the road in casual conversation. If I were ever to live in India, I think I’d live in Trivandrum. Communist government and all.”
There are party politics, and then there are the greater politics of gender and money that drive our choices. Besides, the Communist Party bunting was quite lovely.
Flowers for one’s hair were readily available.
If I look back, it seems as though India orchestrated a little moment of happiness for me in Kerala. The journey up until that point had been characterized so thoroughly by loneliness and harassment, solitude and men I didn’t want or did but couldn’t have in that society. A well-to-do matriarchal culture made all the difference.
I interviewed another film maker, on the veranda of a hotel, remnants of colonial architecture all around us. We drank tea from white china. I remember being treated as though I were in fact a journalist. So important, at 25, to be recognized.
I took a day off. I traveled down to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India. I met up with a traveling group of newlyweds and friends. What a pleasure to keep company with women, even if they were less interested in me than were their husbands. We walked right down to the sea. We talked. You can see, if you look closely, I’m wearing ankle bracelets. I bought them at a market stall.
The next day, and it must have been the next day because I’m wearing a different shirt and I would not have changed in public, my new friends told me to put my feet in the southern sea. They took my picture in the Laccadive Sea. This is as far south as you can get in India.
Let’s pretend this isn’t me. Let’s pretend this is any young woman, traveling, at 25, in India, 1982. Because although this is a personal story I’m curious about its implications.
We notice most of all the young woman is smiling, and obviously squinting against the sun. Why isn’t she wearing sunglasses? Youthful ignorance of degeneration? Let’s consider her shape. What a narrow waist. Science tells us now that a small waist-to-hip ratio indicates fertility. She has broad shoulders, suggesting sturdiness, whether real or not. Perhaps it’s not surprising I was pursued. The men were not searching for my personality, me as I felt myself to be at 25.
My understanding of myself was beside the point, yet it was all I knew.
When you’re 54, looking back at 25 standing shin-deep in the Indian Ocean, waist wrapped in a blue sash, you understand that youth imagines only itself. I was in India, in a Communist, prosperous, literate, matriarchal state. I was 25, unmarried, blonde, and physically auspicious. Standing in the sea means water above all. Pay attention to the splashing.
I remember feeling that my interior life was larger than the sky, and far more full of danger. Middle age is such a pleasure, in this context, now that youth is done.