Greetings from India, the place Christopher Columbus was really looking for when he accidently bumped into the Bahamas. Chris was right, there are a lot of spices here, a point that is reinforced at every meal.
My three weeks in India have been organized by my good friend Prasad Chavali – you will meet him later – and by many of his friends. This has been a team effort for which I am extremely grateful, and it would take me from Mumbai on the southwest coast down to the southern tip of the country, up the southeast coast, to Hyderabad for a week with a side trip to Prasad’s hometown, and ultimately up north to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. But it started when I flew from Istanbul to Mumbai, the biggest city I have ever seen.
The seven most populous incorporated cities in the United States (Wikipedia, 2011) are: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Antonio. The total population of the seven combined is 21,282,546. The population of Mumbai is 22 million people, who are densely packed into seven “islands”, which are almost different cities. It’s like seven Clevelands all strung together. Mumbai was known as Bombay until the British left and it was returned to its original name.
After an all-night flight and a few hours of sleep I met Subbu, a childhood friend of Prasad’s, and he took me to dinner. It was a 90-minute drive around and through a couple of the “islands” and provided my first glimpse of Indian traffic and driving, which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We bumped into and knocked down a pedestrian going through one intersection, but he bounced right back up and went on his way as if it never happened. Subbu and I had dinner at the Leopold Café. In November 2008 a boatload of Islamic terrorists arrived from Pakistan and carried out three days of shootings and bombings killing 164 people in all, including seven at the Leopold Café. It would have been many more if not for a courageous Australian tourist who steered a large group of diners to a safe place and then barricaded the stairway with chairs as the two shooters were trying to ascend to the second floor. All the terrorists were shot and killed by Indian armed forces except for one, who was captured and hanged just a few weeks before I arrived.
The next day the same driver, Rizwan, picked me up at the hotel and within 10 minutes on the highway we had been rear-ended. The perp started to take off but Rizwan sped up and cut him off. It took just five minutes at
the side of the road to clear everything up; apparently no one is at fault, no one’s insurance pays for anything, it’s just another dent, but five minutes is required for intense gesturing.
I saw a good bit of Mumbai that day, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the largest train station in India. Originally called Victoria Terminus after the British Queen (and still known to locals as VT), it was completed in 1887 in a lively combination of European and Indian architectural styles. It was also victimized by the November, 2008 attacks as two terrorists attacked commuters with AK-47s and grenades.
We visited the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, an enormous outdoor laundry where half the city must send its clothes. Only men (dhobis) are strong enough to scrub the clothes all day in the concrete troughs, standing in chemicals. They also launder themselves, as we saw voyeuristically from the overpass above. The job is passed down within families and the dhobis earn around $4.00 per day, according to Rizwan.
At the seawall of the Arabian Sea is the impressive Gateway of India, which was completed in 1920 and is designed to be the first thing that visitors to Mumbai see if they arrive by boat. In 1947 the last of the British troops occupying India left through the Gateway. Directly across the street is Mumbai’s most famous five-star hotel, the Taj Mahal.
The next day I walked from my hotel to a large, modern mall, where I was wanded by security people before entering. Security here is very tight everywhere; luggage goes through screening upon leaving the airport and upon entering a hotel, for example. Relations with Pakistan, always tense, became heightened a few days earlier when two members of the Indian army were killed by Pakistani freedom fighters, one of them beheaded.
After a flight to Bangalore the next day I had a wonderful dinner with two more of Prasad’s childhood friends, RK (Rama Krishna) and Srini. When I mentioned the possibility of seeing an Indian movie RK said: “Bollywood movies are about nothing. If you go see one, put your brain in the freezer.”
Most of our conversation that night was about Hinduism, and in fact the entire visit to this bustling, tech-oriented city would be so. I had told Prasad that one of the objectives of coming to India was to absorb what I could about the background and principles of the religion, and RK provided a great introduction.
Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion and is often discounted by the monotheistic religions because it has many “gods”. Everything in nature is a god … the sun, moon, rain, wind. There are gods for almost everything conceivable: for education, for overcoming obstacles, for health. There are gods by name, like Krishna and Rama the big three: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. RK explained that all the gods were really “avatars” of Vishnu. Listening to him I started wonder if this was a matter of semantics and the broad use of the word “god”. Over the coming days I would hear devout Hindus refer to God in the singular – “God will watch over them”, etc. – and I have come to think of Hinduism as a one-God religion at its core.
Confusing the matter more is that Hinduism is based on a cycle; nothing begins or ends. There is no starting point, no governing body, no Jesus or Mohammed, no preferred day to worship, no tangible structure and no identifiable supreme deity, which makes it all the more challenging to comprehend.
I spent my day in Bangalore in the company of RK’s nephew Phani, a very pleasant young man who thinks Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond ever but understands why old people like me prefer Sean Connery. Our first stop of the day was the best: ISKCON, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. I wish I had good photos from the interior but I had to check my camera, along with my shoes.
Recorded chanting greets you as you approach, and a long line of people were methodically entering by stepping to the next tile with each new chant. There were many young men dressed in black, unshaven, and Phani told me they follow a strict 40-day program each year during which they simplify and de-personalize their lives: dressing plainly and identically, eating bland food, even abandoning their names and calling each other “swami.” We would see many of these pilgrims over the next few days.
Phani introduced me to a number of gods during our time at ISKCON, but this place is all about Krishna, who looks very feminine in most renderings with soft features and curly hair, but who apparently is quite impish and likes to flirt with girls.
I met with one of the spiritual residents of ISKCON, Varada Simha Dasa. I had difficulty understanding him, as many of the words he used to describe the philosophy of Hinduism were Indian words, but at one point I did gather he was telling me about the four primary sins: sex outside of marriage, eating meat, gambling, and alcohol and coffee consumption. I need to find out if they believe in hell.
We then went to the Big Bull temple. The bull is a legendary symbol in Hinduism and signifies strength, and this temple features a large black bull, adorned with white and yellow garlands; quite odd, almost cartoonish, but it’s a very well known and spiritual place and is located on Big Bull Boulevard.
At our final stop of the day Phani and I removed our shoes to visit some smaller shrines and then carried them as we walked into the main temple, where silence was mandatory. I stood respectfully in the back and was vaguely aware of an odd sound behind me, and finally turned around to see this woman on her knees hissing at me and pointing at my shoes. So I walked outside to wait for Phani, put my left shoe on the bottom step to tie the laces and was immediately set upon by one of the security people. I have purchased several Hindu spiritual guides but apparently what I need is a rulebook.
I would be travelling the next five days with Meher Kiran Nori, who had worked in the U.S. for ten years including three with me in Florida; he is now back working for Prasad in his Hyderabad office. Kiran took a train
to Bangalore, picked me up at the hotel and we flew to Kochi, which is in a different state and has a different language and alphabet. Kiran explained that most of India’s 28 states use a different, Sanskrit-based language; Hindi is the nation’s common language and English is widely spoken as well.
The highlight of our afternoon in Kochi was being at the waterfront for the sunset. It’s famous for its Chinese fishing nets as Kochi is the only place outside of China where they are used. They are distinctive and interesting as they dry in the late sun.
The promenade along the water was very crowded and festive, with many children and ice cream vendors and
artists, and the fishing boats returning, and even a few other tourists who had come for the setting of the sun. There was one painting I liked and Kiran explained the imagery featuring three religions: Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. It reflected the openness and tolerance of Hinduism, the respect for other belief systems and philosophies. “All religions are rivers flowing to the same sea.” I’m beginning to really appreciate the pacific values and the pragmatic themes of Hinduism.
On the way from Kochi to Kumarakom, Kiran and I were slowed by a long procession, a line of well-dressed men preceded by several hundred women in their colorful saris. As we gradually made our way to the front we saw four large flags: red, with a white hammer and sickle. “CPI,” said Kiran. “Communist Party of India. They are big in this state.”
We got to Kumarakom around noon and boarded one of 20 or so “houseboats” tied up to the shore on a tributary leading to Lake Vembanadu, the largest lake in the state. These long, iron-hulled vessels were once used to carry up to 50 tons of timber and other goods, and were rowed manually. Now they are covered, powered and feature a kitchen and several staterooms.
We had a three-man crew for the two of us and after an introductory toast with coconut water we got underway.
As we entered the expanse of the lake Kiran and I sat back in easy chairs as one of the crew brought us beers. It was so peaceful and relaxing after six days of major cities, some much needed tranquility. The shoreline of the lake features many acres of rice paddies, the only ones below sea level outside of Holland. There were many species of beautiful birds and purple hyacinth growing among the lily pads.
After enjoying a gorgeous sunset we were brought a delicious fish dinner, and we watched an India-England cricket match on a small flat screen. Kiran was patient in explaining the sport, and I started to get excited when India appeared to have a chance to come back and win, just falling short. Being on a boat is always therapeutic, and the night we spent on Lake Vembanadu was the ideal respite before the next phase of the trip.