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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

India

To those who know that it's been over a week almost three weeks since I returned to Zurich from India, and might have been wondering why I haven't mentioned it – I'd say it was the state of shock I was in after that sudden drop in temperature (from 32 degrees in Bombay to -4 in Zurich within a couple of hours). But now, having slightly recovered (slightly, just slightly), it's time to write down some of the things I remember about that fascinating week. So here goes.

The first thing that hit me as I arrived in Bombay International Airport in the middle of the night was the humidity that briefly reminded me of Israel. It didn't take me long, however, to realize that this was a lot different. Specifically, it was a lot dirtier. It won't surprise you, of course, that the airport turned out to be a sea of quiet and hygiene (though not without its fair share of corruption) compared to what I witnessed once I got outside the terminal.

Still, you get a first impression of the chaos of India's streets at Bombay's airport, and it was in the midst of that madness that I found myself at midnight, equipped with two backpacks and an address written in English. Now I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but up until the moment I realized that the cab driver – whose English was limited to two words: "no problem" – had taken me to the right place, I seriously didn’t have a clue what the hell was going on around me.

When I finally got to my destination (after the driver stopped several times to chat to a friend, pick up another friend, go to the gas station and have a smoke, etc), I found two old friends from London waiting for me and amused by my slow adjustment to Indian life (they'd been travelling the place for a month already).


After following me for ten full minutes and trying to steal my wallet, these boys were finally chased away by some old dude who kept smacking the oldest kid repeatedly. Which the boy seemed to enjoy, strangely enough.

In short, Bombay is by far the most hectic city I've ever seen. But once you get used to the pollution (I guess I'll just have to accept that I'll die ten years sooner now), the constant spitting (despite – or perhaps because of – 1951's Police Act prohibiting it; incidentally, the red spots on the ground are from chewing tobacco, not blood, I was told), the honking (whoever always thought – like I used to – that Tel Aviv was the world's honking capital, know this: the two are not even in the same league) and the crazy traffic on the streets (full of suicidal rickshaw and cab drivers outmanoeuvring each other, both clearly oblivious to the concept of a pedestrian), you realize that the place is quite simply captivating.

There's a number of interesting sights to see: the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Prince of Wales Museum to mention a few. And we made sure we didn’t miss out on the great food Bombay has to offer. Nor did we fail to visit Leopold's Café, the meeting point for Westerners known to readers of Shantaram – I’m not one of them yet, but I do intend to read the signed copy I bought at Leopold's before Johnny Depp's movie hits the big screen in 2007. Oh, and a word to the wise: Don't trust the Lonely Planet about that "Oxygen Bar" thing.

Still, the most beautiful thing to do in Bombay is actually not in Bombay. It's about an hour out by ship, and it's called Elephanta Island, named by Portuguese explorers after the stone elephant head they found near the entrance of the island's caves. The elephant isn’t there anymore, but unlike most sculptures in the caves, it wasn’t actually mutilated by the Portuguese, but rather moved to a museum.

As for the caves, they're filled with sculptures of Hindu gods in all kinds of poses (though their arms and legs are missing, having been identified by the Portuguese as ideal targets for shooting practice). Most of the statues are quite amusing to look at, and that’s it. But one in particular was so intriguing it even made me feel humbled: a head with the three faces of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Hindu trimurti (holy trinity) that, at least compared to God/Son/Holy Spirit, seems almost cool to me – the three being the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer.

But listen to me, I'm getting all esoteric. Seriously though – the whole thing was so impressive that I even brought a little Ganesh figure home with me from Elephanta. Not that there aren't other, more worldly attractions about Elephanta: the scores of monkeys laying around the caves come to mind, picking at each other’s lice and stealing the tourist’s food when they’re not watching.


The Gateway of India in all its colonial glory, taken from a boat headed for Elephanta. Unfortunately for the Brits, they were kicked out of Bombay and the rest of India some 10 years after they finished building the gateway. Well, so it goes.

All in all, there’s no doubt Bombay is a mesmerizing city, but after a couple of days, we felt it was time to get out. So we hopped on a bus for a 4-hour journey to Pune, which is in many ways a milder version of Bombay. Although the pollution is just as bad, if not worse, as Bombay's, it has less colonial history, and, more importantly, fewer inhabitants. It is also, pardon the expression again, a more spiritual place than Bombay – something I realized pretty soon, and not only because the first place I saw was a Chabad house (for which I can actually provide photographic evidence; see below).

But it’s not Chabad, the many Hindu temples or Asia’s largest synagogue outside Israel that make Pune an attraction for Westerners in search of God, their souls, nature, the truth, enlightenment, and some good group sex in red robes. No, all that is provided in the Osho Ashram, the city’s main attraction.

Osho, who according to his official 2006 calendar went on a fast for 72 hours the very day he was born (gotta admire the guy's discipline), was the leader of a meditation cult that, fifteen years after his death, still enjoys huge popularity. Incidentally, Osho also owned over 50 Rolls Royce cars, which may or may not have helped him on his quest for "true silence".

His present-day followers are more modest types, easily recognizable on Pune's streets not only by said robes robes, but also by that subtle glow of insanity you can see in their eyes. Still, they're helpful and friendly (and if you can prove you're HIV-negative, they can become very friendly, if you know what I mean). They also maintain an absolutely beautiful public park which serves as Pune's little oasis of peace.


That's Buddha trying to put his finger where the sun don't shine. I wasn't amused.

Anyone who wants to see how life looks like inside the Ashram will be disappointed, however: all you get is a 30-minute video and a 10-minute silent (!) tour. Don't waste your time; go to the Gandhi museum instead. The exhibition might be just as uninspired as the Ashram tour, but at least you can pay visit to the grave of Gandhi's wife, who died in prison in Pune. And you're allowed to actually talk.

Alas, Pune's and Bombay's beauties and charms were not the only things I experienced in India. There are darker sides to the world's largest democracy (and I'm not talking about the fact that every other person on the street is trying to scam you), images that can be very unsettling to see for people like me, who had never been to the developing world before. Outside the flat I was staying at in Bombay, on the way back to the airport a week later, and way too many times in between, I witnessed the kind of poverty and misery that had seemed so sterile in newspaper reports and textbooks, and became so real when it was literally in my face.

There is much to be written (including hilarious satire) about the hypocrisy of Westerners travelling non-developed countries and enjoying all their attractions while millions of locals struggle to find food for the day. I won't discuss that, nor will I talk about the responsibilities of the Indian government to do something about it. Still, the beggars on the streets - with their missing legs, arms or fingers - and the thousands and thousands living in the slums, picking through piles of garbage and waiting for the monsoon rain to wash their homes away, deserve to be mentioned alongside all the magic that makes India what it is.

Anyway, I saved the best for last on purpose. Because the poverty is not the only thing that reflects the 'true' side of India; so do the locals we got to meet during my short visit. Like the upper class kids - friends of friends of friends from London - who didn't hesitate for a moment when it came to letting us stay with them, showing us around both Pune and Bombay, and taking us out.

Or Sam, our 20-year old tour guide on Elephanta - he might have been much more interested in telling us about his girlfriend ("She's very rich! She's very smart! I'm very lucky! I got it!") and showing us dubious "blue films" on his mobile phone than actually telling us about the caves, but his quirky and warmhearted character - not to mention his constant praise of my curls - made us befriend him in an instant.


I have now seen this billboard in three cities: Los Angeles, New York, and Pune. Makes sense, right?

But the single most memorable experience I had in India happened 20km outside Pune. We were invited for dinner by an autorickshaw driver named Sanjay, whom we'd met the day before. We started to like him once we realized that, contrary to so many others, was actually not out there to trick us - he really just wanted to get an honest pay. So we made a deal, and for two days he showed us not only Pune's main sights, but several temples located outside the city, which tourists generally haven't discovered yet. And then, just like that, he invited us to his house, had his wife serve us an amazing meal, and took us to see his kids at judo class (they were understandably embarassed).

Eating at a house with two rooms, seven beds, no running water and only the simplest of supplies was, naturally, another interesting experience for me, as were the conversations we had with Sanjay. And these weren't one-sided - he seemed just as curious about life in Switzerland or the UK as we were about his. A really great guy, whose daughter you might just see fighting for Judo gold at London's 2012 Olympics.

Sitting here now, 19 days after coming home, India seems far away again (as indeed it is), but I guess I'll no longer ridicule anyone who seems to be stuck on the place. As for me, who knows if I'll ever go back to India again. One thing's for sure: I'm glad I wrote this - if anything, it'll help me remember those seven great days. And by God, if you managed to read this far, you might as well hop on a plane and see for yourself.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

"..and some good group sex in red robes.."

"...(and if you can prove you're HIV-negative, they can become very friendly, if you know what I mean).."

Your humor isn't appreciated. I've been going there for about 12 years now and you've got your facts wrong mister.

You've been hanging around my city it seems.... good stuff, but seriously, don't post stuff that someone else might find offensive.

Oh and about Elephanta... has it changed? I went there in 94-95 and it was a dump... stank of urine and was over crowded and my friend got bitten by a rabid monkey.

-Simran

Judge Jonathan said...

Dude, I wish I had my facts wrong - because you and I know those robe-sportin' ladies are ugly.

As for being HIV-negative, that is indeed a requirement for joining the Osho club. But honestly, I wasn't trying to offend anyone, so if I did, all apologies.

Elephanta by the way smells perfectly fine these days. And about the monkeys, they do get quite aggressive - throwing a stone or two at them should do the trick if they come too close.

Vijay D said...

Nice writeup! What wouldn't I give to get on
that plane and be there....

But for now, I'll have to settle for curly hair
in a land where the sun does not shine. By the
way, did I ever mention 'hiv' and 'negative'
in the same sentence?

Rajasekhara Reddy Guntaka said...

An awesome story of Bombay.....and India....Readable tale.

Anonymous said...

"...because you and I know those robe-sportin' ladies are ugly. "

It's nice to see you've already formed an opinion of my mother...

T said...

JJ, hans ändli gschafft din rächt geile text fertig z'läse - merci, dass du das alles ufgschribe häsch!

Anonymous said...

Pune great retreat but I wouldnt want to go asking for any of the extras. Its trully a place to "let yourself go". Great write up dude plus you managed to indirectly imply the complainant is, if an osho disciple and female, ugly.