INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
"China had changed me about as much as any country in this whole
My plea upon meeting the guru in December, 1980, had been: "Help me change my life," for, though I was very successful in Hollywood, I was desperately unhappy. He said to me, sourly, "You change your life. You know how to change your life. You change your life." From that moment on, my life began to change at an incredible pace. By December, 1982, jobless, loveless, having sold or given away most of my possessions, I was off to India, alone, terrified and hairless, but still self-conscious enough to have knotted one of my few remaining Hermes scarves into a turban around my naked head.
Determined not to carry an ounce more of luggage than I absolutely needed, I set off from ice cold San Francisco in my sandals and cotton dress. I took one small, loaf-shaped carry-on, the lightest possible typewriter, and a pink (light) Holly Hobbit slumber bag. Clutched to my heart was the phone number of a taxi driver to get me from the airport to the ashram. The one essential I recommend to anyone going to India (where inevitably you will arrive in the middle of the night) is the knowledge of exactly how you're going to get from the airport to where you plan to sleep that first night, especially if you're going to go as I did: bottom of the economic scale. Have a phone number. And use it! This may sound like unnecessary, simple-minded advice -- except to those who have stepped off a plane into the murk of the Bombay airport at 3 a.m. to be assailed, for the first time, by the smell of India composed of dust, smoke, shit and spices which, like the taste of rare cheese, soon becomes addictive. And the CHAOS. Not noise, mind you. It is almost ghostly quiet in the vast warren where half the people, travelers, families, residents are asleep on the concrete floor, and the other half, airport personnel and you -- newly-arrived, sleep-deprived, lost-souls who cannot find a phone, or, once found, figure out how to work it -- dash about, tug at sleeves, ask questions, and misunderstand the replies even though they are mostly in English -- but a sing-song English like melody and not like words at all.
On the plane, I had met three women with the same destination as myself and they, no more able to figure out the phones than I was, decided to hire one of the half million taxies we could see beyond the dusty windows. Forget the phone. I opted for the protection of numbers. We opened the doors -- to the NOISE! The assault! How many people were out there in the dark? Maybe a thousand.
Thirty or forty young lads immediately surrounded us, shouting, waving their arms in the air for our attention, stretching out their hands to take our bags, their beautiful, smiling faces surmounted by the tousled ringlets of Krishna -- each begged for our business. Everyone was laughing and smiling. The three women convinced me we were perfectly capable of making a deal. I joined in the bargaining.
We all knew one fact: that only certain taxies were licensed to go outside the Bombay area -- our destination was forty miles away. We also knew the price, which should be no more than about $20 American (approximately 200 rupees). Before we struck the bargain, at least eighteen people assured us over and over again that they could go wherever we wished.
As we squeezed our four, broad, American bottoms into the narrow car designed for delicate-limbed, lithe Indians, the driver and his thirteen helpers strapped our luggage on top. Then with dozens of hands still thrust in at the windows for a little baksheesh, the ancient black machine in the just-beginning-to-dawn world literally pushed through the crowd, and we were on our way.
Thus we got caught in a not unusual scam. One version or another happens to almost everyone. A well traveled friend had told me about this particular one, so I knew exactly what to do. When the driver had taken us to we-knew-not-where, he stopped the car, demanded to be paid the full price and said we had to change taxies. My friend had told me: "Just don't move. Don't move from the taxi under any circumstances. Demand that he return you to the airport. Just sit in the taxi until he takes you back to the airport." Well, with a crowd of monumental proportions gathering, we four middle-aged, aggressive-enough Western women did. And he did.
When we arrived again at the airport, we took our bags and walked away. The taxi man ran after us, demanding payment. We walked on. He called the police. We went to the police tent. I explained to the policeman what had happened. He helped us call the driver, whose phone number I should have persisted with in the first place, and gave a great verbal drubbing, in Hindi (I assumed), to our poor, miscreant taxi man. Then the policeman suggested we give the taxi man 50 rupees (about $5) for all his time and trouble.
We agreed it was not a bad deal for two or three hours of touring through the sunrise in India, past other-worldly and beautiful scenes the like of which none of us had ever seen before. We had been driven along dirt roads, past shacks in the smoke-filled air, past wandering cows, as the world reddened slowly into day. Figures wrapped in shawls walked out of the darkness of dawn into the light. They huddled around outdoor fires. Small herds of waking goats strolled down steps and out of buildings. People stood in doorways brushing their teeth, sometimes with twigs, sometimes with Western-style tooth brushes. Dhoti-clad figures, Gandhi-like, moved through fields silhouetted against palm trees and, between mud huts, there were distant views of some of the most ornately decorated, exquisitely carved buildings ever built. It had been a riveting, breath-catching, amazing, finger-pointing excursion around the outskirts of Bombay none of us will ever know where. From this experience, I learned to let whatever happens in India, happen.
When our "ashram driver" appeared, he was a lovely young man of between sixteen and twenty, and he had a long white car that looked something like a Jaguar XKE. I sat in front between the driver and one of the other women. There wasn't room to wiggle. Our driver, questioning us with engaging abandon all the way, drove over the potholes like a motorcyclist racing the "Paris to Dakar" across the Sahara. I took an immediate vow: I Would Never, Never, Never Worry About Dying In A Road Accident In India. I simply decided not to be afraid. It was the wisest resolution I ever made. The roads are mostly terrible; the drivers are mostly crazed with delight at having a car, any car, to drive. They drive at dizzying speeds down impassable roads with utter glee -- and I was never afraid. I wasn't even afraid when, months later, the brakes gave out on a bus in which I was riding -- standing room only -- only later understanding that if a gigantic rock hadn't been there at the side of the road to stop us, we would have, quite simply, plunged over a precipice. But the rock was there, and I thought no more about it. In an hour or so another bus, also standing room only, came by, stuffed us in -- you can always get forty more than you would ever believe onto an Indian bus -- and we continued on our charmed, chattering way.
The ashram, where we arrived after being awake for maybe forty-eight hours, was an outpost of heaven for any Westerner. First of all it was full of Westerners. It also had fairly Western style accommodations, washed and disinfected Indian food, as well as a restaurant with Western food. It had showers, Western toilets down which you could flush toilet paper, almost normal beds, English speakers, structured activity -- all those necessities most Westerners regard as essential to life. Plus, there was incredibly beautiful music -- not only what we created with our own chanting of Sanskrit hymns, but some of the finest musicians of India came to play for the guru. There were beautiful gardens, time in which to meditate, a little shrine-town not too far away to explore and, just this side of the town, a hot springs where one could soak in a hot tub in a Tennessee-William's-style-setting of crumbling stone walls, mossy steps, giant trees, private rooms with lichen-covered tiles, as well as spiders and lizards and, lounging about on shaded verandas, enervated people, all for about half a rupee, a little less than 5¢. Minimal cost was important to me as I had no future income to look forward to when I returned to the U.S.A.
My job at the ashram was to sew hems on the male swamis' longhis, their wrap around skirts, and the female swamis' cholis, the short blouses worn under their saris. Being also in the great pain of lost love, I didn't want to talk to anyone. I wanted to be in silence. So I sat out on the terraced roof most of each day, in the shade, listening to the music that seemed almost always to be coming from the courtyard and watched the all but daily religious parades that passed along the road in front of the ashram. In my free time, I walked to the little town to visit the temple of my guru's guru and along the near-by river whose name, Tajasa, translated as "the river of light." Along its watery course in the bone dry land, there were tufts of incandescent green grass and dozens of white herons. At times I sat near a deserted hovel beneath a banyan tree where, it was said, a sadhu, a wandering holy man, had once stayed. The banyan's aerial roots came down almost concealing, in their thickness, the immense main trunk that was at least six feet in diameter, and I had visions. Of Shiva. I really did. And, though I thought I had died to worldly desires, I soon found I had a desire -- after all I had traveled 12,000 miles and spent $1,200 in air fare -- to see India.
My first excursion was with four other ashramites into Bombay. We took the train. However, first we had to take a bus which cost, maybe, one rupee. While I was standing in line to get a train ticket, in the open tin-roofed station shed, I felt a rudely insistent shove at my left hip. Rude! Rude Indians! flashed through my mind. Another hard shove. Pushed, so to speak, beyond endurance, I turned to protest. It was a cow. I was in her way. She wanted to cross the station -- and the railroad tracks, too.
To take the train, second class, all the way back to Bombay, was about 40¢, 5,000% cheaper than the taxi. We came into Churchgate Station, and my companions insisted our first stop be the Oberoi Hotel. It had a fabulous, two-or-three-stories-high, burnt orange and crystal lobby, with sheiks in head cloths, and other international business types in suits. They created little islands of discreet murmuring in the vast, quite empty (for India) space.
But our real goal, the treat my fellow travelers had promised, was the ladies room. Real toilet paper! Soft! Western! Big rolls of it! Luxury! Conspicuous consumption! For already most of us had run out of what we had brought from the West. Having tried the coarse, expensive, Indian paper, I had decided to try the Indian way. Using the left hand and water, I quickly came to understand it as an excellent barometer to monitor the functioning of one's body. Day by day, like the mother of an infant who watches her baby's elimination carefully, you had a splendid health check and, in the heat, the cool water was both cleansing and refreshing. Besides, not having to carry toilet paper made my luggage less bulky, lighter. It reminded me of being relieved of the last of my executive clothes and fast-lane-accoutrements from a locked car in a patrolled garage in San Francisco, which made my life much lighter, easier. I also came to appreciate the uses for the whole nine yards of a sari, or a dhoti, or loose drapery of any kind in a hot climate. In rural India, to bathe, people walk into the river -- any river, pond, tank or lake -- fully clothed. They submerge, wash, and put on their clean garments, then stroll back on to the beach or the ghats. In fifteen minutes under the merciless sun, they are dry. The water, evaporating from the silk or cotton or kadi, has a cooling effect on the body.
While my companions ate breakfast in the Oberoi restaurant, I sat out in the sun by the swimming pool -- and all but swooned with loneliness. Not for the companionship of my eating friends, but because, being in an expensive hotel again, memories surfaced of those dozen years of travel for my job, where, in the first-class-world, strangers do not speak to strangers. You're on your own, and no one, but no one is curious.
I was elated to get back out in the streets as we headed toward the Crawford Market. The city streets of India, already in 1982, looked like, say, Fifth Avenue in downtown Los Angeles today: hundreds of people sitting and standing about, lean-to cities of canvas and cardboard on every sidewalk. There was, however, one remarkable difference: I felt perfectly safe in Bombay, where poverty itself was not a crime. These people were not homeless. Many families -- you could see for yourself -- had lived for generations in a doorway, down a hall, in ruins now enhanced by weeds, or vines hanging from a broken arch. They were more at home than you or I will ever be, caught up, as they were, in the endlessly fascinating, proliferating street life of an Indian city.
As we walked down the barber's street, where each barber sat on a blanket or mat with the tools of his trade laid out beside him, their eyes followed me. They laughed and laughed. I mean, they laughed at me because I was white, because I had a shaved head, out of sheer good humor, and, maybe, because, in my long, plain, purple dress, with no chest to speak of, I looked like a nun. Or a man. Or a nun-man. Later, in Jalna, I was to learn that a lot of Indians really didn't know if I was a man or a wo-man. The barbers in Bombay pointed to their heads and laughed. I pointed to my head and laughed. They flourished their straight-edged razors. I pulled the eighth inch of five o'clock shadow that had appeared on my skull and shook my head, laughing. It was like being batted along by a relay team. Most of their heads were shaved, too.
The Crawford Market may be the largest market in the world, and it is almost indescribable. My two most vivid impressions were: first, the porters, who carry on their heads, in woven four-foot-in-diameter baskets, everything from lotuses to telephones, onions to shoes, spices, saris, statues of the Gods, caged cockatoos piled into towers; and second, the immense dark, carved, maybe eight foot high, upright chests in the middle of which sit sellers, turbaned and draped, for all the world like icons, selling spices, herbs, nuts -- mostly hard, small, dry things that are easily housed in the hundreds of little drawers. Counting both buyers and sellers, all of the activity of maybe a hundred thousand people is housed under high roofs and, therefore, even on the hottest days under the most brilliant sunshine, appears to take place in twilight. Deep in the market it is almost dark; there's a hum which resembles the ocean washing the walls of a cave. The fruit sellers insisted that we taste each fruit we had never seen before and laughed when we asked their names. Soon I was sated. Before we returned to the ashram that day, one of my companions suggested I buy "India, a travel survival kit" which is a Lonely Planet guide book. I think I had overwhelmed him with my questions, my ignorance and my curiosity. He had traveled a bit in India. And now I, too, had traveled: I had used a train, a bus.
The only person at the ashram that I knew from my former life was a great, stout, forty-year-old actress who was terrified by my suggestion that she and I should go exploring together through India. She was afraid of rape, afraid of robbery, afraid of being killed, molested -- God knows what. I couldn't -- not being wholely a spiritual person -- help thinking that she was at least twice, maybe three times the size of most Indians, men or women, who would have had to be suicidally crazed to even consider attacking someone of such a defendable size. I decided I would go alone.
Nonetheless, while working up the courage to set out, I remembered that another (very small) friend, a delightfully adventurous French woman, was just fifty miles up the road, also being spiritual -- at a Buddhist retreat -- in silence. Well, it's complicated enough contacting anyone in India where most of the rural phones don't exactly work, nor do the telegraphs do too well, and the mail system is slow and uncertain, let alone trying to contact someone who is committed to spiritual silence, which means not only no speaking, but no reading and no writing. Eva would not, I knew, be able to read my letter until about a week before I planned to leave the safety of the ashram and begin my pilgrimage.
The time came.
From the free-box, I took one white high-collared Indian shirt with pockets in the side seams and a pair of the softest, most comfortable white cotton pants that I have ever worn (which I found out, years later, were Indian men's pyjama pants). I wore them all over India, alternating them with my only other costume: the nun-like, mud-purple dress.
Though I had not heard from Eva, did not even know if she had heard from me, I set out and, naturally, missed the bus that was to get me there at the time I had said I would arrive. I hadn't known which of the buses to stop because I couldn't read the Hindi of their destination signs. I stood there, in the middle of the unpaved, hot, dusty road, crying. Immediately a young lad manifested -- from a nearby shop -- to ask me what was wrong and could he help.
When I told him what had happened, he assured me that I had, indeed, missed the only direct bus to Igatpuri that day. However -- he led me into his father's shop -- and his father told me I could still go to Kalyan and, by transferring, get to my destination not too much later than I had told Eva I would be there. So, helped onto the bus by the lad, I set off by myself into rural India and, even though my heart was pounding again, I distinctly remember my thoughts at that moment were: how wonderful to be alone! It was glorious to sink into what a lover had once called the "boon of being in a foreign country and not knowing the language;" the freedom to just look and look, be totally present in eyes and ears and observation. In my heart I was ecstatic that I did not have to pay attention to a companion. No matter who was willing to listen to my travel tales -- a few hour's view of a few slides is about the extent of even one's dearest friend's, let a lone a lover's, interest -- I knew there was no way I could ever explain to anyone the sheer exhileration of being there. Aside from which, I don't carry a camera. Thus I was -- as I set out by myself half way around the world in a rattley, dusty, crowded bus, not having the remotest idea of where I was going -- in bliss.
I arrived in Igatpuri just in time to waylay Eva, who, having given up on my coming, had, moments before, sent a lad off to get her a train ticket to some place else. We laughed, jumped for joy, babbled, cancelled her ticket and decided to traveled together to Nasik, to Aurangabad, to the Ellora and Ajanta caves.
In Nasik, one of the great temple towns of India, we strolled the ghats along the sacred Godavari River, wondering at the clean washing being laid on the dusty, graveled ground to dry. India's concept of dirt, I began to understand, was different than ours. For our first night out, we stayed in the worst room, for the largest price, in the nicest looking hotel I was ever to stay in in India.
In Aurangabad, we stayed at the hostel, which cost about seven and a half rupees, had a delicious vegetarian thali for another 40 rupees ($.40) and went on a tour of the Daulatabad fortress where, since it took some endless amount of time to put all those awesome artifacts of war in place, I wondered how he, Muhammed Tughlaq, Sultan of Delhi, got the enemy to remain interested for years and years and years in attacking that particular spot. It appears he didn't for, as the guide mentioned, the artifacts -- one of which was a spiralling, unlit tunnel down which defenders could throw burning coal -- were never used.
At Ellora, we saw the honey-combed hills of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu caves, the most impressive structure being Mt. Kailasa, the free standing temple, carved from the top down, of living rock. To reveal its courtyard, galleries, walkways, statues and buildings, it is estimated that 200,000 tons of rock were removed. I often muse about that Monday morning, in perhaps 900 AD, when, at dawn, the workmen rose, ate their breakfast, took their tool kits, climbed the vast rock, and began chipping. Chip chip chip. As the Chinese say, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Chip chip chip. Someone had told me years before that there were no drawn plans. They sang the design. Apparently a chanter stood by while the workmen chipped. Chip chip chip -- and one of the most elaborate temples ever conceived, filigreed with Gods and Goddesses, elephants and Nandi, Shiva's bull, as well as galleries, pillars and stairways, all of which covers an area twice the size of Athen's Parthenon, emerged.
Dating from about 200 BC to 650 AD, the caves at Ajanta along the Waghore River gorge were carved, it is thought, by the predecessors of the builders who, abandoning this, their first effort, moved over to carve Ellora. There are more than twenty caves. Some huge. Some with niches for living in, some for chanting in. They filled me with astonishment, especially those that were painted, for it is the paintings for which Ajanta is justly famous. To this day, the intricacy of these exquisitely bejeweled, amazingly preserved paintings under their carved coffered ceilings influence my own art and needle work. It is hard to believe they are two thousand years old and date, within a few hundred years to the time when Buddha, himself, sat under the Bodhi tree.
Between Ellora and Ajanta, Eva and I took a side trip to Jalna, east of Aurangabad. When we had spied Jalna on the map, simultaneously we turned to each other crying: "Did you ever...?" and discovered we had both, in our youths, read the series of Canadian novels by de la Roche about the Whiteoaks of Jalna. "Oh, it's just a commercial town," shrugged the Indians, but, in spite of their disdain, we set off, on what might be called our "literary pilgrimage" to Jalna.
In Jalna, a uniformed man who, no doubt, assumed he knew our destination gave us directions to the Christian School. We ignored his advice. But after trotting about in a cart for an hour or so, finding the hotels and tourist bungalows all full, we heeded his assumption, went to the school and were warmly welcomed by the Indian headmistress, her ancient mother -- who spoke with nostalgia of the Raj -- and her child. They offered us a guest room for the night, and apologized profusely that the electricity wasn't working -- but perhaps we would like to see the town. Eva, fashionably French to her fingertips, had mentioned that she wanted to buy some of the fuchsia cotton, great lengths of which formed the turbans of the Maharashtran men.
So, though it was after dark, the child, about nine-years-old, who wore jeans and had short bobbed hair, and who, therefore, we assumed was a boy, took us into town to the night market, full of people and presided over by the raucous, popular music from the scratchy loud-speaker system that dominates most small towns in India. At the fabric store, when I asked to see material like the Indian cotton of which my purple "nun's dress" was made, our child interpreter was asked to ask me: "Are you a man or a wo-man." I was a bit non-plussed. One: why should he care? and two: I assumed it was self evident. However it appeared, if I understood the subsequent explanation, that some cloth was appropriate for men and some for women, and, therefore, the salesman needed to know. Later, on our way home, when Eva heard our "little boy" guide speak of Seema, a girl, who had the same name as "he" had, we discovered, like me, that "he," Seema, was a girl! We three laughed all the way home at our double mis-perceptions.
In our absence, Seema's mother had prepared a delicious dinner which, however, included meat. So, since Eva was being a Buddhist, and I was being a Hindu, we had to pick at it as delicately as possible. We were gentle, though quite evasive, when the headmistress, sensing our embarrassment, sought assurance that we were not only vegetarians, but Christians as well.
After seeing the Mahaparinirvana, the great twenty-four foot long statue of the dying Buddha at Ajanta, Eva and I parted. She went with such confidence north to Jalgoan that how could I go with less of a show of confidence south, back to Aurangabad. Indeed, Eva, who had journeyed alone through many countries of the world, had helped divest me of much of my fear. She had, for instance, taught me to drink sugar cane juice, which was truly refreshing in the heat. I had stayed away from it because I feared the million flies around each of the mills that ground the stalks of unwashed cane whose liquid flowed through the never washed meshes and down the washed-only-by-the-juice itself troughs into the washed-in-the-river glasses from which the drink was served with a twist of lime. She also taught me to eat hot nan, a kind of flat bread, right from the street ovens. Ironically enough, when we next saw each other several years later, I learned it was she who got sick in India, but I, except for one day, never did even though I had whole-heartedly adopted her trusting culinary ways
When we parted, I returned to stay in the same hostel we had stayed in before, but now I was truly alone in India. It was like coming home. At dinner... dinners in hostels and the couches in the public rooms of the lower-end-of-the-scale hotels, rest houses and guest houses that are recommended in The Lonely Planet are like the Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition for gaining comprehensive knowledge about where and how to travel. The dinners and the couches give you the opportunity to talk to your fellow pilgrims, both Indian and Western, who can tell you travel lore that you would spend a lifetime finding out on your own. It was at the hostel, on this second visit, that I heard of the Vijayanagar Empire. "Go to Hampi," a young woman told me. I put it on my list.
For you see, since I hadn't been interested in India when I came, I knew nothing, had studied nothing, knew only that tomorrow I would set off for Shirdi, because I had heard of Sai Baba of Shirdi at the ashram, and his shrine town was on my way. On my way to Shirdi, because I would have some extra time, I would also stop at a town that Eva had mentioned where golden saris were made. I wasn't particularly interested in golden saris, but since I had no knowledge and little experience of traveling, what the people I met spoke of is what I went to see.
In the town of the golden saris, after much asking, I found the weavers' shed about a mile out of town, full of Urdu, Marathi, Hindi speakers, who spoke no English. There were little birds flying about and sitting on the looms in the cavernous, dirt-floored room. The weavers were so delighted to have an almost bald, Western woman visit them that they let me throw the shuttles of green silk and gold thread back and forth, back and forth a couple of times on their rough wooden looms.
When I arrived in Shirdi, a carnival of a town, its ashram was full to the top with Indian pilgrims. Taking pity on me, after a very long wait in a very long line, a young lad, working in the ashram's office, gave me a mattress closet in which to keep my stuff. It was a small room behind a door whose sanctity was guarded by two men behind a table. There were dozens of mattresses up-ended against the walls. It took me much wandering around town, still looking for a place to put my body for the night, several times up and down the ashram's three flights of stairs, and a great many questions and winsome worries to learn the young lad had given me the room to sleepin as well.
In all of India, there was never a moment in which some aspect of Shiva or Shakti did not manifest to take care of me. Always. The people of India are more helpful and kind-hearted than God. Or, as I was taught in the ashram: They are God. I am God. The guest is God. Nonetheless, from my pink sleeping bag I had to leap up every few hours, put on my purple dress, unlock the door and stand aside so that attendants could throw another dozen mattresses into the hall. From there the mattresses were carried to the streets where those less fortunate than I slept on the sidewalks.
On the second half of my trip, after a few more days in my guru's ashram mear Ganeshapuri, where I divested myself of my portable typewriter, pink bag, and other superfluities, I set out for Poona by train.
Before I started, I set myself only one condition: I would stay no longer than three days in any one place. For I knew how easily I could settle in and be afraid to set out again. It was a "proportional" decision inspired by my guru's example: in his twenty-five years of wandering he fulfilled a vow never to stay more than three months in any one place. I had twenty-five days.
For two days, I sat at the feet of a Sufi from Uzbekistan on the lawn in front of a hotel next to the Rajneesh ashram. I shared his sweet chai (tea) and bargained for papayas. On the fourth day, after briefly visiting the clean, well-lighted ashram, which, while the guru was in Oregon, was full of Germans and a provacative Hollywood-like ambiance, I left the Sufi my three maps of Poona, none of which agreed completely on even the most evident landmarks -- like where did the river run?. I took a bus and the narrow gauge train to Matheran.
The guide book suggested a very cheap resort just out of town. I jumped off the train in the dark and wandered about in the moonless woods to find the office building which, painted with flowers, looked like a Russian dacha. But what was for rent was a huge half house, where three families could easily have stayed, and for which the lad was asking 80 rupees. In addition, I would have to leave by noon. The young man's English was hard for me to understand. Another man, manifesting out of the night from the other half of the duplex, offered to help me bargain. When no agreement could be reached, he said he and his friends would be glad to walk me into town, as only men traveled alone at night in India. So, after they dressed, while I nibbled on their trailmix and peanuts, and gently refused their whiskey, six drunken Indians escorted me the three miles into Matheran. They were school chums who, now into their middle years, held reunions twice a year to reaffirm their enduring friendship. Each in turn had to tell me his story as we walked along a wide, dimly lighted path that felt soft as gossamer, like puffs of powder in the night. By the time they delivered me to the railway station to inquire about trains going down hill next day, we had become friends. When the stationmaster offered me a room in the Retired Railway Men's Resort House, my six buddies, having done their duty, went on into town singing.
When I woke in the morning, I discovered that my feet, to way above the ankles, had been dyed red! Matheran, I discovered, was built both on and of red volcanic rocks. Their pounded dust accounted for the silky night path. By early afternoon, rather than wait for the train, I decided to walk the eleven kilometers, along the railroad track, through rolling hills, more beautiful at every turn, down to the valley. I had to climb a sheer rock embankment, rather quickly, as the little train came up the mountain spewing its black smoke. I waved smiling at the Western tourists who, eyes agoggle, stared at me. I caught the bus (that lost its brakes) to Mahabaleshwar.
By then, I had come to love the buses (with or without brakes). For they went through the centers of the towns and along the same roads on which cows ambled, people walked and carts were pulled by great black long-horned buffalo. The buses were always dusty and always full, and the roads made you feel like you were riding side-saddle on a bucking bronco. Also, the people were outrageously friendly. Because I like to know where I am, I always travel with a map. But few rural Indians can afford a map, and some have never seen one. So, often when I would take out mine, it would be (quite politely) snatched from my hand and passed all around the bus accompanied by profound speculation and discussion before it got back to me at the next stop.
It was glorious to be in a country where everyone asked questions, told you their life histories and pried into yours: your beliefs, your politics, what you, yourself, thought of the U.S.A., of India. The people were gluttonously interested in everything, and no one, not the tiniest child, was afraid to speak to a stranger, even to me, the woman at whom the barbers had laughed. Some of my most state-of-the-world conversations were with bus loads of children who returned to their home towns from their school towns every afternoon.
In Mahabaleshwar, via the urging of a Pakistani man I had met on the bus, and who had walked with me through the strawberry fields and out to the falls, I was invited to attend an Indian wedding. The groom came riding through town, draped with white flowers on a white horse, with his friends dancing and singing before him. Just before the ceremony the brother of the bride invited me into a dimly lit mud-walled house of many many rooms, filled with women, to meet the bride, whose hands and feet were painted red and who was crying. At the wedding itself, where I was treated as an honored guest, she was not visible.
The next day I decided to walk down to Panchgani, and to Wai, both of which I had seen from the bus on the way up to Mahabaleswar. I walked for about fourteen miles, not only through country that looked like Shangri-la, but was also labeled that on a sign. The road was dessicated, but all around there was lush green and forests of sparse trees. As I strolled down the all-but-deserted-road to a lower plateau I would from time to time meet groups of women, mostly gathering cow-dung. Together we laughed and laughed, they thought my loaf-like, blue traveling bag looked like a baby in a sling. And the hair, of course, always my lack of hair, caused the giggles. Just as I approached Panchgani, I found, in a garden full of silk oaks, a fine room with a giant arch of a window through which the almost full moon was to shine that night.
Strolling through the town, bright with fuchsia bougainvillea, the main streets of which, unusual in India, were laid out in a grid, I found myself longing to talk to someone from the West, someone with whom I could begin to sort out my impressions. No sooner had the wish been wished then a Western woman, pushing a bicycle, came up the hill toward me. She was an American, an ex-nun who had married an Indian and become a Baha'i. She invited me to her house for supper with her family. It was a spacious, charming, cluttered house and, when she caught me staring at one of the splotchy walls, she said: "The monsoons strip off the paint each year and we haven't yet had time to repaint it."
We went to a dance recital at the Baha'i school that evening and, for the next day, she arranged an excursion with four of her Western women friends led by a dapper, aging Indian man, still wearing khaki and carrying his swagger stick from forty years before. He took us walking at dawn and shared with us the secrets of the landscape, its history, its intricate paths. As we climbed to the top of one of the great barren Deccan plateaus, he advised us to pick up the dung, which we did, and built, as the sun came up, a little fire onto which he placed a tea kettle. Then, all around, manifesting from our little packs we each offered up our sweet and savory delicacies, until a sumptuous feast was laid out on the great solitude of the windswept land of tiny leafless bushes and sensed, but unseen skittering animals.
While the water was heating, I wandered to the edge of the cliff where I found a whole set of petrified teeth -- large, yellowish, maybe the diameter of a cattail stalk -- perhaps the teeth of an ancient tiger. In the Deccan, of course, where many of its great heights were dominated by his seventeenth century forts, the "tiger" had been Shivaji.
When I left Panchgani, I walked on down the mountains, barefooted, through another breathtaking dawn to Wai. Wai is mentioned in the Mahabharatha, and, though it is a temple town on the Krishna River, it is not a place where many tourists stop. After enquiring at the Christian school where they were suspicious of my appearance, I found, with the nuns' advice, a hotel, where the proprietor, somewhat astonished by my request for a room, gave me the top floor. Perhaps I was the only woman who had ever asked to stay there. For almost no women go into restaurants or hotels at any time, and especially not alone. From my window, right in the middle of town, I gazed down into a mill where people brought small quantities of grain to be ground. The mill seemed to run all night; its flour covered machinery, its dim naked bulb recreating the poetic imagery of a Satyajit Ray film.
The moon was full. I walked out that night to visit the temples that silhouetted the river in the moonlight and to marvel again at those that stood in the river. Small cooking fires burned all over town. People sat out talking far into the night. And under the full moon, there was wild mournful singing.
Except in a city like Bombay, I found it difficult to tell who lives in the streets in India and who doesn't. People sit on the curbs and on broken down chairs. They sit on the steps of new buildings and old ruins. They sit on the roots of trees along roads and rocks poking up through the dust. They sit in the sun and the shade and, if you go back in the dark, a lot of them are still sitting there. Not even the French like to talk more than the Indians. Besides, who can sleep in the heat?
The next day, wearing my white pyjama pants, I squatted down beside a sadhu at the ghats and washed my purple dress in the river, smearing it with soap, pounding it on the rocks. Then I spread it to dry on the dusty chairs on the roof of my hotel while I watched again the town's activity. In half an hour, the dress was dry.
From Wai, I took the bus to Bijapur. On my way I met a flirtatious young man who insisted on buying me lunch. He ordered this and that and charmed me with his conversation. When the puri arrived, a deep fried bread, I knew I shouldn't eat it, but I did. My young friend, who assured me that all ages of women were his delight, left the bus with a show of regret at Miraj -- a rather large town exclusively devoted to hospitals. People from all over India came there to be treated.
Alone once more, I stared out of the bus's windows as it went on and on into the desert -- where sari clad women drifted across vast distances with large metal jars on their heads -- to Bijapur, where the largest dome in India surmounts the Golgumbaz. It is a tomb, and the dome is very plain -- with perfect acoustics. You can whisper in one direction against the curved wall and, around the whole circumference, your voice comes back to you. The Ibram Roza's minarets are said to have inspired those of the Taj Mahal.
Already, when I checked into Bijapur's lovely guest house with bougainvillea covered verandas, my stomach was queasy from the puri. I do not digest oil well. I ordered a pot of black tea. I think the man who brought it realized I was sick, for he came back with a gigantic pot, thanks be to Shiva, which was as deep as a well. He also brought me some curd (buffalo milk yogurt). With this and half a dozen small astringent, lemony-tasting bananas, I proceeded to settle my stomach. Vomiting and eating and vomiting again, for several hours, I was so sick at both ends that I thought I might die there, all alone in Bijapur. Not one of my friends or family, I realized quite calmly, knew where I was.
By morning, my system was completely rinsed; I felt fine. I went out into the dust and beige world and fell in love with Bijapur: its gardens, its ruins, its rocky streets. It was like wandering through time itself: Bijapur, the fifteenth century capital of a Moslem Empire. I, too, longed to choose one of the archways, or balustrades to sit beside reading, like the white clad, black-haired students. There was a feeling of stopped time and meditation in all the silent sand-colored buildings, with their vast arched, shaded and inviting entrances, as if here, in these cool and mysterious halls, one could study and learn secrets only guessed at in other sites.
My next bus carried me to the carved, red, sandstone Dravidian temples of the Chalukyan Empire. They stood high on the cliffs and at the edge of a huge rock cut, fifth century tank at Badami. This artificial lake's exquisitely carved steps lead down to water, partially covered with bright green algae, which reflects the blue sky, the red temples and is still used for bathing, swimming, washing clothes and drinking.
I took pen, paper and half a melon out to a table on the lawn of the tourist bungalow where I planned to eat and write some letters. Instantly, a monkey hopped up and ran off with the melon. No amount of calling or chasing got it back. Just before twilight, I realized, that though I had spent the morning climbing the rocks and visiting the high temples and the tank temples, I had not visited the famous cave temples, which were to the south side of the tiny town. There was no one else around as I began climbing the rough, rock-cut steps. I carried only my little orange backpack in which I kept my money and my passport. Here monkeys big and small came out to look at me, to chatter. One huge male monkey began to stalk me. His eye on my orange bag, he grabbed out again and again, grinning. Gabbling, he grabbed at my bag, at me. Galloping ahead up the stairs, he turned suddenly and jumped down toward me. Terrified, clutching my bag, I fled back to town, back to dinner with a red-headed English archaeologist who assured me the monkeys were harmless; he hadn't been to the caves.
At Pattadakal, another town of the Chalukyan Empire, I took off my sandals to enter the immense Lokeshwari Temple, dark, elaborately carved of grey stone, and still in use. It was lit by flickering candles and thin streams of sunshine that shown through openings in the ancient stone. When I stepped back out into the brilliant day, my sandals were gone. I was shocked, indeed, shocked enough to know just what to do. I corralled the first Indian who came by and told him, loudly, how shocked I was that I could go into a temple in India and come out to find my sandals stolen. I repeated this again and again. It, the noise, the drama, the complaint, the deed itself, immediately drew a sizeable crowd. For Indians are honorable and honest, especially in their piety. Within not more than half an hour, someone had found a little lad and was leading him toward me by the ear. The sandals were returned, forgiveness was asked and given. Then to my horror, the man boxed the boy's ears. I had never known what it was to "box" someone's ears, but it was self-explanatory when I saw it. I was horrified at what I had caused. I had won the "battle," but indeed quite lost my heart for "justice." For no doubt, the boy needed those sandals more than I did -- my only justification was that, at the moment, they were my only shoes. I bowed, Namaste, and walked away.
On the Tungabhadra, the river of black stones, some as big as a house, I visited Vijayanagar, the capital of the largest Hindu Empire in Indian history. I walked through the strawberry fields and banana orchards that grew in its ruins and along the corridors of the ancient market place. I walked round the whole of what remained of the Empire's city. At the south end, near the Queen's Bath and the Elephant Stables, I met a group of archaeologists to whom I volunteered my time. But they had no need of me and could not hire me because I was not Indian. But, one of my archaeological dreams come true, they invited me to lunch where I learned that I had never heard of Vijayanagar because this was the first in-depth study of its buildings, its ruins ever done. "Why is that?" I asked. "Because, in India, it is so new -- fourteenth to sixteenth century -- it is hardly old enough to be worth diggers time."
It was in Vijayanagar,in the Vittala Temple, that I first heard someone slap the clustered musical pillars, making them sing. It was here, too, that I learned to drink coconut milk straight from the pod, to scoop out the milky meat with a chip from the hairy nut itself. What a blessed alternative to the always questionable water. However, my ex-nun friend at Panchgani had taught me that to drink water in the country from almost any well or faucet -- you often saw public faucets along the road -- was probably quite safe. It was in the cities you had to be careful. There the sewer pipes ran close to the water pipes. She, herself, had been tested positive for dysentery just before I arrived, but smiling, she said she had had it before and would, no doubt, have it again.
Goa was my last adventure before returning to the ashram. I arrived in the afternoon. The cheapest place suggested in the guide book, far down Colva beach, was awful. I had shared a taxi with two girls to get there. When I found it even below my rock-bottom standards, I decided to walk the two or three miles up the beach to town. In the silvery light of late afternoon, I strolled in the Indian Ocean along a deserted beach lined with palms, up the edge of the subcontinent. Singing.
As I approached the center of town, the lads ran out to tout the hotels. I chose one, which was more expensive than what I usually paid. It was, I think, $3 or $4, but had hot running water in the shower. The lad, as I recall, also offered either marijuana or a lover. He was sweet. But I declined. I'm sure he had picked up his bad habits from Western hippies who had, by then, infested the beaches of Goa for over a decade. Indeed, the next day I saw two Westerners, tanned to a nutty brown, strolling down the beach quite naked, a man and a woman. By then I was familiar enough with Indian modesty to know how outrageous such behavior seemed to the average Indian. I had also learned that the hippies, in their desperate flight from the horrors of Western civilization, had adopted, somewhat indiscriminately, ideas of "mystical" behavior from the "sky clad" Jains, the ultimate renunciants. Perhaps their effort was laudable, perhaps it was not. After the comparatively harmless era of the flower-children, the race toward self-destruction, greed and world catasthrophe increases -- the Kali Yuga, no doubt.
That night, after a dinner in a courtyard by myself, I walked down in the dark to the beach and into the water, out, again, beyond the edge of the continent. I felt -- now at the end of my trip -- in a mood close to ecstasy. I felt for the first time in my life totally unafraid and welcome upon the earth, confident that I was meant to be alive. I have seldom been afraid since -- anywhere in the world. Later that evening, a lovely, older Indian talked with me in the moonlight on the beach for a long time. It is the only land I know where a man, when he speaks to a strange woman, often wants to exchange philosophical truths and not phone numbers.
The next day, walking back the five miles from Margao to the beach, a young man in wide bottom trousers and carrying the ubiquitous briefcase of young Indian men, said to me, as I was striding along eating a pomegranate, "Why give yourself so much pain? A taxi will come." For Indians, unlike crazy nunish American women, do not walk if they can ride.
From Goa, I took the steamer back to Bombay. On this steamer, I met Nissam Ezekiel. We ate lunch together and, at night, we leaned over the railing in the dark to watch the high prowed boats with their heart shaped paddles bringing passengers and bits of cargo by lantern light out to our waiting boat from villages that still, in 1982, were inaccessible by land. He gave me a book of his poems, in which the first poem ends:
Love is more concerned
About your fate
Than you have ever been.
That is why you have survived.
Express your gratitude
By giving what you have to give.
You may get nothing in return.
And bear your restlessness with grace.
When I returned to America, I remember thinking about Badami, about India: how stress-less it felt to be in a land where I was only afraid of the monkeys and not afraid of the people. Almost everyone who has been to India either loves it -- to return to India becomes a constant poignancy in the blood -- or hates it: the dirt, the poverty, the inconvenience, the lack of modern conveniences -- "mod cons," as the English call them. Yes, mod cons. You have to decide for yourself. I began to feel in India that the "mod"ern "con" game of the Western world isn't worth the trouble. My tale of love concludes with an incident from a later trip in 1988:
An old woman came up to me in Patna, a city more full of men on market day than even most other Indian cities I'd seen. This old woman was maybe not too much older than I was. She was with, I think, four other older saried women, maybe her sisters, all showing their faces. I don't think they have purdah in Patna. Anyway, she came up to me, much too close; I mean, stepped right into my space as if she were going to spit in my eye. She almost hisses at me: "Where are you from?"
They all speak English, you know. It's about the only good the British left in their wake -- the language -- so we mono-lingual Americans can go most places in the world and fulfill our expectations that someone will speak our language.
"Where are you from?" Gruff and loud.
"U.S.A." You don't say "America" in India because they've got a larger concept of America in Asia, it includes more than our national borders, you know: North, South, Middle, Central, Antarctica, Alaska and the North Pole: America.
"Are you alone?" Her voice is harsh and demanding. "Did you come alone?"
I'm in for a lecture. But what can I do? I nod vigorously, letting her know I'll cooperate.
"All alone?" she demands.
I nod again.
Her lips draw down at the corners, she stares me straight in the eye, her right thumb jerks up between us. She gives the thumb a little tense affirmative shake. Still as unsmiling as Kali, she turns, walks away -- with her sisters in tow.
The tears, when her affirming "Thumbs Up" to me really hits home, sting in my eyes like lemon juice. Affirmation. Naked affirmation always makes me weep. I realized right then: you never know who's watching. I thought I had been wandering like a lost soul looking for the next bus to Bodh-Gaya, she saw me as courageous as Shakti, wandering the world alone.
Gandhi said: "What you do may seem unimportant, but it is very important
that you do it."
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH INDIA covers highlights of -- mainly -- my first trip to India in 1982. Selections from it have been amplified and published in "Travelers' Tales INDIA,"(O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., San Francisco, CA, 1995) under the titles: A VISION OF VIJAYANAGAR, A WEDDING IN MAHABALESHWAR and SICK UNDER THE BO TREE. These stories are also included on this Web site. Poems about India, include: CROSSROADS, and INDIA.
X Asian Diary #1, Kundalini
XI Asian Diary #2
TEXTILE ART BASED ON THE RHYTHMS AND MELODY OF NORTH INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC:
XX Kaida, Tabla Covers
XXI Tukra, Tabla Covers
XXIII The Ten Thats
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO