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.
I spent the last day in Kerala writing thank you notes and getting an Ayurvedic massage. Looking back, I am relieved to see that I thanked everyone who helped. Because gratitude adds meaning, thank you notes are a good way of structuring otherwise random events. Besides, I would have hated to seem ungrateful.
The massage, on the other hand, confused me. I was used to the Western version, lie down, drift off. While I did lie down, under a white tent, on a table, over white sand, the massage itself was complex and demanding. It made me dizzy. I remember feeling a little daunted, hoisting my bags again in the heat, off to the train station. Where monks at the ticket counter seemed to sense my disequilibrium.
“Back to Madras. I am very tired. I still feel the fingers of the Vedic massage running over my back, and I feel my energy redistributing itself.”
That turned out to be an understatement.
I arrived in Madras. The plan was to head for Calcutta, with a brief stop at the ruins of Konarak on the way. Konarak is a 13th-century temple described in Wikipedia as follows:
“Famous as much for its imposing dimensions and faultless proportions as for the harmonious integration of architectural grandeur with plastic allegiance.”
I have no idea what that means. Konark, as it’s called now, is a big temple made of porous stone. That will do for our purposes here.
Mr. Barrister, still quite the gentleman, met me at the Madras station. He put me on the overnight to Calcutta, entrusting me into the care of a woman with two children. She fed me. Now do you know what came next? I didn’t. I wrote.
“Being on a train going to Calcutta is much like being on a train going anywhere else in India. Out the window I see red dirt, as opposed to the grey dirt or yellow dirt I’ve seen in other places, but it’s still basically Indian dirt….For some reason I feel strongly sick to my stomach.. I also feel my glands swelling in my neck. I think that Vedic massage stirred up all my lingering infections. Yuck…I’d like to take a nap but I feel somewhat compelled to watch the scenery go by. To hell with it. I’m going to bed.”
And a few hours later,
“Proceeded to go to bed, sleep, wake up, sit by the window, and then get severely sick to my stomach. Nothing like puking into a dirty toilet on a moving train. I think it was those molasses-tasting things from the lady I’m sharing the compartment with, the lady into whose care Mr. Barrister committed so seriously at the beginning of the voyage.”
The massage might have redistributed my energy but some simple single-celled organisms did me in. I was so thirsty. All the warnings I’d heard about third-word water were loud in my mind but I was too sick to care. I drank from a fountain at a train station during a brief stop.
In the morning we arrived in Bhubaneswar, and somehow I got myself to Konarak. I walked the grounds. It must have been over 100 degrees in the shade. I didn’t really want to be surrounded by stone lions and all the wheels of the Sun God’s chariot.
The sun was the strongest I’d ever felt. This is a lion, I think.
The train for Calcutta wouldn’t leave until later that evening. I found a restaurant with tablecloths and air conditioning. I remember I took some aspirin, or Tylenol.
I was by then very feverish. My thermometer, for I did have one, registered over 104 degrees, and I couldn’t make it go down. This scared me. The walls of the restaurant were covered in dark red silk, or else I hallucinated. The tablecloths were white, which is probably true. I remember standing in the elegant restaurant bathroom, running cold water from the faucet over my wrists, looking in the mirror, aware, “I am on the edge.” Jolted from complacency I hadn’t even known I felt. I waited for the train.
When I arrived in Calcutta I wanted only to get to my hotel.
But there were no cabs outside the station. No tik-tiks, those little motorized 3-seaters. Not even a bicycle rickshaw. Only a wheeled conveyance, as Jane Austen would say, and a man who would run me into town.
I could tell I wasn’t dying. I knew that even sick I led a safer and more robust life than 95% of India’s population. So I remember thinking, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as I watched the man run in the heat. I don’t remember if he had any shoes but the strike of his feet on the pavement vibrated through my sit bones.
I also remember that when we arrived at the hotel, the running man tried to overcharge me terribly, and despite organisms and liberal guilt I argued. Why not just let him cheat me? Where was my compassion then? Humans have more than one cell. The hotel pointed me to a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and the equivalent of Pedialyte. I spent a day and a half eating room service rice in my hotel room and drinking Kingfisher beer.
Of course I recovered. Looking back all these years later, I am perhaps sorry I didn’t pay that running man twice what he asked, but I still don’t believe in taking advantage of the helpless.
I’m certainly glad I didn’t end up in a hospital in Bhubaneswar.
It’s one of the tasks of my particular midlife, to recognize sorrows and dangers, veined though they are by the safeguards of privilege.