A Bus Journey in the Himalayas

I wrote a portion of this on one of the bumpiest bus rides there ever was. My memory supplies the other bits. I’ve written a fair bit about bus journeys at night but I never tire of doing so. There is something to discover in every new tea stall, hamlet, or railway crossing on these trips.

***

A yellow half-moon hangs over the valley with a generous sprinkling of stars to keep it company. Lights speckle the mountainsides and beam at passersby through their Himalayan tree cover. Sleep evades me as the bus hugs the tight bends of the narrow road and seems to brush against the oncoming trucks, their creaking bodies matching the rattletrapness (why isn’t this a word?) of our own groaning monster. The driver honks with gusto whenever an opportunity presents itself – and also when one doesn’t. He hawks and spits with great relish at frequent intervals, keeping his window open for the purpose and bestowing upon those of us in the front seats a benevolent portion of wintry mountain air. He keeps himself and us awake with Hindi film music from the 90s. Despite having been an avid consumer of trash during that period, I can barely recognise any of the songs, most of which are sad and obscure and whose lyrics deserve a prize for inanity.

We stop for dinner not at a rickety little eatery with questionable hygiene, but at a roadside restaurant with a large “AC hall” that has two air conditioners which may not be of much use in summer. (Hygiene here is still questionable, but the kitchen is out of sight.) In November weather, we seek shelter from the cold in the hall with its non-functioning ACs. Baskets of hot rotis and dishes of paneer and dal are placed on our tables with great dispatch. They don’t fuss with menu cards or cutlery or napkins. They accept debit cards, which is all we ask for. A Tom and Jerry cartoon is painted incongruously on one of the walls; elsewhere, a sign in Hindi warns people that they are responsible for their own luggage, in case they had any misgivings about the services on offer. We finish our meal and return to our bus – there is nothing here to linger over, no promise of stories or laughter, just efficient business. There is none of the warmth that Ruskin Bond encountered at a teashop on the Tehri road (Rain in the Mountains):

I find a couple of mules tethered to a  pine tree. The mule drivers, handsome men in tattered clothes, sit on a bench in the shade of the tree, drinking tea from brass tumblers. The shopkeeper, a man of indeterminate age – the cold dry winds from the mountain passes having crinkled his face like a walnut – greets me enthusiastically, as he always does. He even produces a chair, which looks like a survivor from the Savoy’s 1890 ballroom. Fortunately the Mussoorie antique-dealers haven’t seen it, or it would have been carried away long ago. In any case, the stuffing has come out of the seat. The shopkeeper apologizes for its condition: ‘The rats were nesting in it.’ And then, to reassure me: ‘But they have gone now.’

After sunset, there are no mules or good-natured elderly storytellers where we are. We have left the glorious monastery, the busy shops, and the lone gardener behind.

***

Considering the number of trucks and buses that jostle pell-mell on this road, that any of them completes its journey unscathed is a miracle. The roadside shrines to Durga (draped in finery of red-and-gold) and austere Shiva are clearly there for a purpose. If you’ve read H Rider Haggard’s She and remember the protagonists walking across the chasm to get to the caves, you know what I’m talking about.

I clung to the saddle of rock, and looked round, while, like a living thing, the great spur vibrated with a humming sound beneath us. The sight was a truly awesome one. There we were poised in the gloom between earth and heaven. Beneath us were hundreds upon hundreds of feet of emptiness that gradually grew darker, till at last it was absolutely black, and at what depth it ended is more than I can guess. Above was space upon space of giddy air, and far, far away a line of blue sky. And down this vast gulf upon which we were pinnacled the great draught dashed and roared, driving clouds and misty wreaths of vapour before it, till we were nearly blinded, and utterly confused.

It iintense. There is no draught, but the pitching and rolling bus is a good substitute.

We round a bend and the lights disappear. The rugged mountain wall appears to my right, its lower flanks overgrown with scrub. A few houses nestle in hollows in the rock, shrouded in darkness, showing their green and yellow walls when they catch the headlights. Piles of loose rock lie on the edge of the road, and it is in this accumulation that these mountains appear more sinister than the Western Ghats. They are capable of immense beauty, but also of wrath. Once again, I have to pinch myself to believe that I am in the Himalayas, far from the disappointingly flat coastline of Chennai. These mountains have been a part of me since long before I ever set eyes on them.

I miss the Beas. I will wake up tomorrow not to the rush of the grey river, but to the thick smog and dust of the city. There will be no birdsong, but the harsh sounds of humanity reluctantly facing another day of hardship. I already miss the bonfire and the voices warm with  companionship that carry far in the clear night air. I feel a little bit like Bisnu in Dust on the Mountain. I’m glad that I’ve been in what could be Ruskin Bond territory, only it was in Himachal Pradesh. However, the Himalayas are grand wherever they are, and I’m supplied with an imagination active enough to turn my modest city bedroom into a precariously-perched study overlooking snow-clad peaks and rushing grey-green rivers. Thank you, Mr Bond.

 

At Salzburg

We met friends in every country we visited in Europe, but one particular companion stayed with us throughout our journey – the rain. As I look back at our two-week vacation, I’m not sure why we were surprised when the sun disappeared and the skies burst open on our train ride from Munich to Salzburg, blotting out the gentle Bavarian landscape. We couldn’t let that affect our spirits, though. When you’re travelling to places you may never see again, you don’t complain or rue what could have been. So we picked up a map at the station and decided to walk around Salzburg in the rain, for what fun is it to get on a bus when the streets have pavements that you can walk on without fear of being hit by two-wheelers?

Our first stop was at the Mirabellgarten, where we ran into a wall of tourists presumably on a Sound of Music tour. A group of baby-boomers sang Do-Re-Mi as they picked their way down the wet paths, while others crouched under umbrellas to have their pictures taken. We wandered into the Mirabell Palace and stumbled upon the Marble Hall, where Mozart once played to gorgeously-gowned ladies and staid gentlemen who swept up the wide staircases past classical statues that are now shrouded in netting. Unfortunately, the hall was cordoned off and we had to content ourselves with a peep at the decorations from the doorway. We returned to the parterre (I never thought I’d have a chance to use this Jane Austen-ish word!), admiring the neatly laid out flowers, and passed the obstacle course of tourists to get to the river.

Salzburg, cut by the Salzach and ringed by low hills, was almost exactly as I had pictured it. My extremely limited knowledge of the town came from one of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, where she described it with admirable accuracy and created an image that now revealed itself to me in all its living glory. My first glimpse of the river was magnificent: grey-green, it flowed towards distant hills veiled by light rain clouds, reminding me of the landscape of my childhood home in Vizag. On the other side from where we stood was the Old City (Aldstadt) with its domes and spires, and above it sat the Hohensalzburg Castle on the Festungsberg. We walked across the bridge, prepared to lose ourselves in a fairytale.

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The Salzach

We had about an hour and a half before we met our guide, P., and took the time to wander through the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town. We passed Mozart’s birthplace, a yellow structure in a row of tightly-packed buildings, and went on to the Baroque-style Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), dedicated to St. Rupert, patron saint of Salzburg. The hymns of an English choir echoed through the church, undisturbed by the shuffling of a steady stream of visitors seeking shelter from the rain. After the riveting drama of the Gothic churches in Münster, the interiors and the churchyards of Salzburg appeared more gently melancholy, their pale-coloured vaults and vivid flowers far removed from the acrimony of the religious wars.

As we wandered into the richly decorated St. Peter’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just a short walk away, we were transported to a different world altogether. With the few tourists who had been sitting in the pews drifting out, we had the lavishly appointed hall all to ourselves. The marble altar, the frescoes and paintings, the Rococo work, and the dark pews and floor were immediately evocative of the grandeur that must once have been the way of life of European royalty. It was very different from my vision of a monastery, where monks wore simple robes and lived a life of penury. However, having been a part of the Holy Roman Empire, Salzburg probably had access to the coffers of the Catholic church, and used them to keep the faith alive in the face of increasing resistance elsewhere in Europe.

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St. Peter’s Abbey (Photo by G.)

We met P. at the Café Tomaselli. Hungry and in search of a vegetarian lunch, we found some delicious, buttery Spinatknödel at a cosy restaurant, P. serving as guide and translator. The rains putting paid to the picnic on the Alm that P. had in mind, we headed off for the catacombs in the cemetery of St. Peter’s after the meal. The walls of the Mönchsberg into which the catacombs are cut provided some splendid views of the churchyard and the skyline. The grey sky with its floating clouds set off the dark green of the hills and the domes to perfection, etching a picture of Salzburg permanently in my memory. Within, the catacombs house the remains of some of the city’s prominent people and bring the past to life, juxtaposing a not-too-distant epoch of music and literature against sober monastic pursuits. We tried to decipher the inscriptions and the faded murals to understand this world better, but with little success.

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An inscription in the catacombs

To end the afternoon, we returned to the Café Tomaselli, where we indulged in the traditional Austrian pastime of coffee and conversation. The waitress brought us a tray with a variety of cakes to choose from, and I cannot begin to describe my bewilderment at the variety here. This was something I had read of in Brent-Dyer (I know I should be reading better things), and if you’re a kindred spirit, you know what it is to read about distant lands and the ways of their people, and to see them come to life in flesh and blood. As we feasted, we spoke of a number of things, including the American Presidential elections. This was in October and there was still some hope that we would escape a rampant display of misogyny and xenophobia.

As the clock struck six, P. had to return home, while G. and I walked back through the rain to the train station. G. and I were delighted to have had an opportunity to do as the Austrians did – what a blessing it is to be accompanied by a local on your travels, even if said local would rather be hiking in the mountains than ambling on cobbled streets. Salzburg isn’t one of your regular cities, though. It is a tantalising mix of the medieval and the modern: two different worlds on either side of a river. It has done enough to stoke my curiosity, and I hope to take my travels forward to Vienna some day, to linger in Viennese coffee houses and worship at Zweig’s altar. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn German and read Mann in his language. Salzburg, if you can manage to do all of this, you can share credit with Munich for a modern miracle.

 

At Dachau

 

The sky is heavy with rain-clouds as we step off the train at Dachau, just outside of Munich, one Sunday afternoon. At first glance, Dachau is a quiet little town with neat houses and manicured lawns, much like a typical European suburb. However, as the bus drops us off right in front of the former concentration camp of Dachau, we become aware of a sense of foreboding in the air, the result of years of intense suffering and the decimation of those who dared to go against the skewed ideals of the Nazi regime.

Autumn has just begun, but in this oppressive atmosphere, we are not thinking of tawny leaves or leisurely walks. Grey sky meets colourless buildings and flat earth on the horizon. The paths are slick with rain as a stream of visitors straggles to the entrance of the concentration camp, pushing open a gate that bears the cold words that struck fear in the hearts of millions over decades and still have the power to petrify: “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Work sets you free, the Nazis said. (Unfortunately, this sign is a replica of the original that was stolen in 2014 and hasn’t been recovered yet.)

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Entering the camp (picture taken by G.)

We walk into a large courtyard lined by buildings that once housed prisons and barracks. As we stand in the drizzle, warm in our coats, we remember that this courtyard once teemed with prisoners and SS guards; we think of the hostility and the hatred that led to the execution of so many men where we stand. Memorials here commemorate the mindless genocide that defined the last century. “Never again,” says a sign in five different languages, the first being Hebrew.

At school in India, we studied the Holocaust like we did other chapters in History. We were horrified and curious, but lessons on Indian independence always took precedence over the World Wars; we didn’t even care much about the Indian troops who fought in Europe. My first proper introduction to the Holocaust came through The Diary of a Young Girl when I was around thirteen and borrowed a copy which a friend had received as a present. It was duly circulated among all of us and we discussed Anne’s life for days afterwards. I was inspired enough to begin a diary of my own, calling it Anne, seeing her smiling face framed by her short, dark hair every time I started a new entry. I wanted to tell Anne everything and I did, talking to my diary about my adolescent dreams and problems, subconsciously making a friend who was as much a girl as any of us through her trials.

Earlier this year, when I was fending off the long nights of the North American winter with graphic novels, I picked up Maus at the Arlington library. It wasn’t the most responsible choice to make when trying to fight the blues, but there are books that ask to be read at a particular time in your life, and this was one. I didn’t know then that six months later, I’d find myself visiting the site of the first Nazi concentration camp. I didn’t know it when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum at DC in July, and was reduced to tears by some of the exhibits: letters requesting money to pay for a family’s passage to America, a yellowing armband with the Star of David on it, a little girl’s frock, scraps of Anne Frank’s writing. I like bright meadows and rippling brooks and possess Siddhartha’s horror of sorrow – and this almost kept me from visiting the Holocaust Museum and Dachau, but I am glad that I changed my mind.

We have only an hour for our visit and begin our exploration of the Dachau camp with the long, low building that houses the tiny prison cells. (Bear in mind that this was the first Nazi concentration camp and started off as a place in which to hold political prisoners, eventually serving as a model for camps like Auschwitz which played a key role in the implementation of the Final Solution – the extermination of European Jews.) Dank and musty, the cells in the bunker were veritable torture chambers where prisoners were incarcerated and  subjected to inhuman treatment. Across the courtyard are reconstructed barracks displaying replicas of the narrow, uncomfortable beds where prisoners must have lain on interminable nights, awakening at first light to crowd around the washstands. It is clean and presentable now, but pictures on the walls give us an indication of the crowded conditions in which several prisoners once spent endless days, emerging perhaps only to toil at hard jobs they were forced to do. From the barracks, we trudge down the path that had once been used by people walking to their daily roll call, empty fields spreading out on both sides where long lines of barracks stood. At the other end of the path are memorials dedicated to different faiths and built over the last few decades in memory of Jews and prisoners-of-war of different Christian denominations.

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The reconstructed barracks flanking the path leading to the religious memorials

Umbrellas mushroom as the rain falls faster; with about a quarter of an hour for the camp to close, we hurry past the Russian Orthodox chapel, across a little bridge spanning a narrow creek, to the crematorium. A chill runs down my spine even now as I think of the ovens that charred the corpses of so many hapless prisoners, at one point insufficient for the number of bodies that were pouring in. Two other rooms precede the ovens – a kind of “waiting room”, where prisoners stripped in preparation for what they were told was a round of disinfection, followed by the gas chambers where the actual activity took place.  A notice states that these gas chambers  were never used to poison inmates, but were equipped with vents through which Zyklon-B could be dispensed if required. (A little probing on why the gas chambers were never used brings up links that mention that the chambers were in fact used to delouse clothes and not to poison people, as at Auschwitz; this conclusion comes from a study of the design of the chambers and the amounts of Zyklon-B they dispensed, photographs, and various documents. However, as I haven’t been able to find a reliable source, I will not share any links here and request you to let me know in the Comments section if you have any recommendations for further reading.)

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Ovens at the crematorium

As we exit the crematorium, I stop briefly at the door of the Russian Orthodox chapel for a moment of calm. My mind has been in a whirl throughout this visit. I have seen the stark black and white cat-and-mouse chase from Maus leap into life in these forlorn surroundings. The Jews gave away all that was precious to them in exchange for a chance to escape the Nazis’ tyranny; they killed themselves and their children so that they wouldn’t end up on loaded trains to concentration camps. They hid in tiny alcoves and waited on street corners to trade their possessions for food. They suffered through bitter winters and fell to illness stemming from cramped surroundings and malnutrition. They encountered neighbours who gave them shelter and others who turned them out of their own homes. The Holocaust survivors’ resilience in the face of such humiliation and their return to normal life are miracles that I struggle to understand. Mental strength always astounds me more than physical ability, and there are few better examples than the recovery of the Jews.

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One of the watch towers on the perimeter

Over the years, I have spoken to German friends about Nazism, and they have all acknowledged the unfortunate history of their country without hesitation and stressed on how important it is to learn from it. In Munich, symbols of German identity are conspicuous from their absence: very few black-red-gold flags are visible, in stark contrast to the effusive patriotism that is hard to avoid in the US or the unctuous loyalty demanded in India of even those with the most tenuous links to the country. The reasons for Germany’s penitence are obvious, but it is rather rare for countries to acknowledge their past sincerely and work towards correcting it. This should be the purpose of studying History as a subject: to learn from the past and to know enough not to repeat the mistakes that ruined millions of lives. At present, this sounds a good deal like wishful thinking.

Paris: In Search of the Writers

I wrote earlier this year about my fascination with Paris of the 1920s, and if you’re still sticking with me despite my obsession, I hope you’re just a little bit smitten as well and that we’ll some day have long discussions on the paradox that was Ezra Pound. However, I first have much to learn about him and his friends who fled to Paris to find inspiration away from Prohibition Era America, Ireland, or elsewhere, in the process creating works and movements that profoundly influence our lives to this day. Paris seems to have provided them with the freedom they craved. On the other hand, more than ninety years on, we are still fighting some of the battles that existed back then, such as those for the acceptance of women, religious equality, and homosexuality.

Shakespeare and Company

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George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company by the Seine

While I had heard of Paris’s propensity for grey, cold days, I never took the warning to heart, what with London having shown itself as one of the most perverse places in the world in terms of weather. I was rewarded for my blind faith in Paris’s good nature by a shower on my first morning in the city. G., K., and I hastily rearranged our rather flexible plans: we feasted on pastries at Blé Sucré by Square Trousseau while we waited for the rain to turn into a drizzle, did a quick spot of fruit shopping at the market nearby, and hauled ourselves off to Shakespeare and Company. With the Notre Dame and the Seine within shouting distance, the bookshop is in one of the dreamiest areas of Paris. This wasn’t the site of Sylvia Beach’s original shop and actually started out as Le Mistral, but its proprietor George Whitman eventually received her blessings and named it after her store that failed to reopen after the Second World War.

To me, Shakespeare and Company was as much a pilgrimage site as a bookshop. I wanted to be close to the place that had published Ulysses at a time when it was considered risqué. I hoped to eavesdrop on HD’s love-whispers to Pound and Stein’s  harangues against the Lost Generation. These Jazz Age artistes celebrated life and plunged themselves into despair all at once. They drank themselves to bliss and penury. How did these contradictions exist simultaneously? What made Hemingway, who was seemingly devoted to Hadley, abandon her for her friend? Why were the Fitzgeralds unhappy? Why was Pound, known for his kindness to young, aspiring writers, an ardent supporter of Fascism?

I don’t have answers to these questions – one visit to Shakespeare and Company, which has come a long way from its roots, cannot provide them. Perhaps a lifetime of research will. I wanted a physical reminder of the stacked bookshelves, Sylvia’s library with its musty old curiosities, and visitors’ fond notes – for we live in a time when material possessions serve better than fleeting memories that are constantly being trampled by the weight of new information. I purchased a used book from the shelf outside and had it stamped.

From here we walked to the rue de l’Odéon to see the place where Sylvia’s store flourished after she moved from rue Dupuytren, choosing to settle across the road from her lover Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop. The road that once must have swarmed with men and women conversing about Imagism or the Charleston lay drugged in a Sunday stupor. The sun had just managed to win its battle with the clouds, so we took advantage of the improving weather and moved on to the Luxembourg Gardens to rest our legs.

***

Cemeteries

Around four, we walked to the Montparnasse Cemetery, a sea of grey criss-crossed by tree-lined avenues. The tombs, some simple, others elaborate, jostle against one another on tightly packed plots. The first graves we saw were those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I read Sartre’s Nausea years ago and didn’t understand much of it. Thus, the purpose of these literary visits in Paris, especially to the graves of people I’ve never read, was to imbibe some of their ethereal energy in the hope that it would nestle in a corner of my being and aid my understanding of their work when I got around to it. It was with this aspiration that I visited Marcel Proust and Honoré de Balzac at Père Lachaise, and Samuel Beckett at Montparnasse. I also tried to find Guy de Maupassant at the latter – for who among us hasn’t been left heartbroken by The Necklace – and in a twist of fate, failed to do so. (If you haven’t read the story, here it is.)

Père Lachaise wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when we returned to Paris after our travels to take the plane home, we decided to make a quick stop there to pay our respects to Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most haunting books I’ve read, and even though I could look at the elaborately designed tomb only through a glass wall, I was stirred by the inscription on the headstone. It is an excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote after his release from the prison where he served time for homosexuality.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.

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Oscar Wilde’s tomb (Picture taken by G.)

I’m glad Wilde was buried in Paris because it gave me a chance to spend a few moments by his side. However, as my Irish friend Patrick says, “Paris may have his grave but the Irish have his soul!”

***

Hemingway

We picked up dinner at L’As du Falafel in the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, ate it by a public park, and crossed the Seine back into the Latin Quarter. The sun set rapidly as we walked on to our next destination, 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, once home to Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. (Lonely Planet informs me that the dancing club that existed below it inspired the one in The Sun Also Rises where Jake meets Brett, and this has me doubly delighted.)

I clutched at G. in delight as we spotted the plaque on the building in the dimly lit street. I’ll take a brief moment here to acknowledge how big a blessing it is to have travelling companions who placate every unreasonable wish of yours (not that wanting to visit a house that Hemingway and Hadley spent more than a year in is unreasonable, of course). I blinked in disbelief, for it was only in March that I read A Moveable Feast, falling utterly in love with the idea of this literary city. Six months on, there I was, standing by the house where its writer had lived, breathed, and loved – and falling for the city itself. And now I am back home in India, still reeling under its spell.

Below it, rather unimaginatively, was a travel agency named Under Hemingway’s: such are the ways of this prosaic world. Further ahead, at Place de la Contrescarpe, bistros were filling up with happy diners making the most of their ending weekend. Music wafted over the laughing voices and the clinking glasses, creating an atmosphere of vitality I tend to associate with Europe, setting the stage for our next stop – the steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Digressing slightly before moving on to the pop culture significance of these steps, I must tell you that we peeped in through the open doors from the street and were quite enamoured with the gorgeous sweeping interiors of this church that celebrates the patron saint of Paris, St. Geneviève. It also houses the tomb of Blaise Pascal whose genius I respect, but who gave me no little grief in Physics.

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Waiting by the church steps (Picture taken by G.)

The steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont are famous for being the place where Owen Wilson moped over his future in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, before a car arrived to drive him away from his mundane life. I’d like to commend Allen and company on their choice of location, a sheltered road bathed in mellow light, lurking in the shadows of the Panthéon which houses the tombs of some of France’s greatest (Braille, Hugo, Voltaire, and Zola among others). An aura of mystery shrouded the cobbled street even as early as eight o’clock. The church bells rang and we lounged on the steps, half-wishing for some kind of miracle or a dream carriage. Only a few cars passed by and very evidently none of them was even twenty years old. K. told us later that we had unwittingly picked one of Paris’s car-free Sundays for our “adventure” – though I don’t know if Hemingway would have cared about playing by the rules.

And that rounded off our literary trail in Paris. I know that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a splendid way to begin what turned out to be a very memorable trip. I’ve managed to lengthen my to-read list as a result; this surely is a sign of immense success?

Notes from Manhattan

New York City has a propensity to take a vice-like grip on your head and not let go easily. When you’ve done the touristy things the first time – walked down Brooklyn Bridge, craned your neck up at the grey/brown skyscrapers, marvelled at people’s fascination for the statue of the bull on Wall Street, and lain under a tree in Central Park – you return with a piece of the city lodged inside, so that on your second trip, it is like resuming where you left off.

The roads were stirring awake at six in the morning as our bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into the boxed-in confines of Manhattan’s streets. How did the sun ever reach some of these roads? The people scurrying to work wore preoccupied expressions to match the dreariness of some of the streets; there were no smiles for strangers, no time to stop and stare. In stark contrast were the wondering, relaxed tourists, strolling into Times Square to sit on the red steps and watch life flow by. Shimmering lights danced along Broadway, epitomising all the excesses of our time.

Glittering lights, manicured lawns and slick movie reinforcements of a shining Manhattan notwithstanding, step into Canal Street, into the density of Chinatown, and you clearly see what a meld of cultures and classes New York is. As I stood on the pavement, contemplating the metal fire-escapes on closely packed apartments reminiscent of Calcutta, the ubiquitous red-and-gold of most Chinese quarters abroad, and the odours of unknown food, I felt for a moment that I was back in Singapore, walking from the glass-and-concrete business districts to the more quaint, less postcard-friendly parts of town. Very different from DC’s Chinatown – which, in all honesty, seems like any other upmarket section of the city with an intricate arch and Chinese lettering thrown in – it almost breathed stories of the dreams that had gone into building a community in this foreign land. Some of the aspirants have grown up and moved out; the rest have remained to expand their new home, spilling into the streets of another immigrant community across the road that seems to be on its last legs here.

Chinatown

I must confess that part of my fascination for this other community – that of Little Italy – comes from the Godfather movies. The Internet tells me Little Italy is now just a façade for a much larger community from Italy that once thronged the area, though it was never the largest settlement from that country in New York. Most of these streets are home to Chinese businesses today, with a few streets fighting to carry the Italian legacy forward with eateries and gelato carts, Italian flags, and harmonica music floating out of the odd restaurant. The ‘Little Italy’ signs help keep up appearances and continue to draw tourists in with promises of showing them the Italian quarter the immigrants built so far from home (and, in our case, where Puzo’s mafia thrived). Dismal buildings abound, but on a sunny morning, it was quite hard to pick out the almost Dickensian gloom of the past century; it was much easier to buy into the hype and sail in for a peek at the flag-bearers of Italian glory.

Little Italy

Accordingly lured in, we stopped by a cart for pistachio ice cream and went in search of the Mietz Building on Mott Street, which was where Vito Corleone established his olive oil business in Coppola’s movie. The building as it stands now isn’t dingy, cobwebbed, or soot-blackened; it isn’t even Italian any longer (if it ever was), because we found that most of the street was occupied by Chinese stores and looked very much like neighbourhood markets back home in India. With several Italian settlements in the city, it is likely that the original settlers and their children grew richer and moved to better areas. For, to put it harshly, the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy are far removed from the sanitised pictures of New York we are fed, with soapy water from pavements running onto the streets and pieces of paper conveniently missing dustbins.

Mietz

Moving on to Nolita, we dropped in at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street, inside which Coppola shot the baptism scene in the first Godfather movie. The main entrance was blocked due to construction work and we were momentarily disappointed, when we noticed a stream of people making their exit through a side-door next to the churchyard. We went inside and sat down in one of the pews, watching a family praying at the altar, the priest guiding them. The other members of the congregation had broken off into little groups, laughing and talking in Spanish. A strong fragrance of incense pervaded the air; a sense of geniality filled the hall. Sunday service over, the congregation was probably looking forward to lunch and a well-deserved rest. We admired the interiors and the stained-glass windows, trying to note the differences in the appearance of this Catholic church from that of the Episcopal Trinity Church on Wall Street that we had visited earlier in the morning. I couldn’t really tell, though, except that there was a statue of Mary in the Catholic church, and this plaque in the Episcopal:

Elizabeth

China and Italy done, we went to lunch at a Tibetan/Nepali restaurant, feasting on aloo khatsa and bean noodles with a variety of vegetables, accompanied by soft white rice. Instantly, it was like being back in Sikkim, eating hot home-cooked food in the modest hotel at Lachung, where the doors had no locks and even bathroom windows opened on to vistas of the snow-capped Himalayas. I felt at home in these nostalgic indulgences, in that sense of familiarity that springs forth in a strange place, from a memory that itself comes from experiences that were once new and strange.

To end the afternoon, we took the train to Washington Square – I had suddenly recollected a few hours ago that there was a Henry James novel by this name. Being a sucker for all things literary, it was only natural that I should drag poor G. to the park and to the road where James’ grandmother was supposed to have lived. I assume James must have visited often and been inspired to write the book, and even though he didn’t consider it one of his good works, I’ve started reading it and enjoyed it so far. He received a fair bit of criticism for his style, but I will reserve my judgement until I have read The Portrait of a Lady (a Reader’s Digest joke called it “unputdownable”, because it was so easy to lose track of the proceedings every time you put it down). That could have been because the entertainment in his time was different from that in the picture here.

Washington Square Park

And so did our morning come full circle in Manhattan – from Wall Street’s riches to the visible earthiness of recent immigrant settlements, and back to the neighbourhoods of the gentry. If Little Italy doesn’t exist in twenty years’ time, I will be grateful to have had a chance to take a peep at the world that might have inspired Puzo and Coppola.

Foreigners

I’m riding the train from Arlington to Washington DC, reading and waiting for the moment when we will emerge from the tunnel to chug by the sunshine-sprayed grass mounds near Arlington Cemetery. This is a day made for indolence. I’m off to lunch at a Thai restaurant with G., his Singaporean boss S., S.’s Japanese wife, and G.’s Chinese-born team lead. See, this is the stuff my dreams were made of in small-town India, and it gives me an enormous amount of hope for the future (while also boding well for my tiny collection of stamps).

Having finished a lovely lunch and sung praises of Pico Iyer, I see everyone back to office and set out to explore Dupont Circle on foot. This is my first solo walk in Washington DC and I’m rather excited, especially because I intend to forage in a couple of used bookstores Google has helped me locate. Gone are the days when I used to draw a rough map on paper to guide me along unknown streets, or leave my discoveries entirely to fate. I’m happy to know where I am going, but somewhere, deep down, I wish I didn’t. So, my purchases completed, I turn back towards the buildings on Massachusetts Avenue that are calling my name.

***

For some reason, I thought of Mayfair in London as I entered Dupont Circle – a fairly accurate connection, given that this part of Washington DC houses Embassy Row. The shiny-eyed International Relations student of three years ago wanted a job at a place like this, and still does. As I never really thought I would spend some time in Washington DC, I’ll take what I get, if it means only walking through the leafy neighbourhood, listening to a hundred different accents, and admiring the flags.

The buildings are clean, formal and official, but endowed with individual ornaments to characterise the countries they represent. If deep thought has gone into matching buildings to countries, I’m oblivious to it. I pause to squint at the plaques on various buildings: the one from Luxembourg expresses gratitude to the US for helping it into existence; the Hungarians acknowledge their citizens who migrated to America centuries ago and whose descendants are now among those who shape the politics and the policies of the US. It is sad that issues of race continue to dog a country whose very identity was put together by the efforts of a diverse population.

I spy a tall, white figure through some branches and my heart skips a beat. I inch closer to find a graceful white-and-gold statue of Saraswati towering over me. A gift from largely Islamic Indonesia to the USA, it reminds me of our trip to Bali, where similar statues appeared regularly in serene villages and bustling towns alike. Indonesia has not been in many countries’ good books lately, thanks to the recent execution rows, but this statue reveals a different side of the country, one reminiscent of the terraced paddy fields and tiered shrines that popular culture has made famous. I’m carrying Elizabeth Pisani’s ‘Indonesia Etc.’ in my bag and have been reading it for a week now, which makes this encounter seem particularly coincidental.

(Across the road from Saraswati stands another familiar figure – Gandhi, brown and bent in the hot summer sun, plaques commemorating his contribution to India’s freedom movement and sharing his words. No surprises in this choice of a representative figure for the Indian Embassy, I’d say.)

Further ahead are the embassies of Luxembourg, Turkey, Egypt, and Togo. I learn from the faded sign outside the Greek Embassy that Greece is called the Hellenic Republic; a nod to a history that is now celebrated through the ruins of ancient monuments and ceremonies before the Olympics (which, I learnt today, were actually started by the Germans). I have often wondered how things would have been had the Greeks continued to worship Zeus, Athene, and their various other gods. Would their mystical aura have diminished, and would we not have enjoyed Homer’s epics as much?

Colombia, Estonia, Turkmenistan. I must stop now and come back another day.

***

The train trundles down the bridge over the green Potomac, its motion in stark contrast to the steep descent of the white aeroplane over Gravelly Point, on to the runway at Reagan Airport. In a few weeks, we will be making our way home from a different airport, to dive back into the chaos of another kind of diversity. I look at the receding scaffolding-covered dome of the Capitol and continue to be enamoured by the amount of power that is centred in this single city, at how it determines the fates of millions of people around the world, for better or for worse.

Understanding Hinduism in Bali – II

(Like in the last part, I would like to mention that all my knowledge of Hinduism in Bali is extracted from conversations with our travel guide, W. Please do let me know if you have heard different versions, or know something to be incorrect.)

Part I here

The Balinese countryside is richly green. We drove to Ubud, Tanah Lot, Bedugul, and Uluwatu – everywhere we went, our eyes were treated to the sight of gently waving green stalks in large fields, sometimes set off by threatening grey clouds. We stopped for lunch at various village restaurants, one of them perched on the side of a cliff, gazing at lush terraced slopes while we scoured for vegetarian options on our menu cards.

Terrace
The terraced fields of Ubud

On one of these drives through the countryside, W fiddled with the radio knobs till a Hindi movie song came on air. “Do you like listening (to) music?” He told us of the seventies when he started watching Hindi mythological serials and movies dubbed in Bahasa, naming the few actors he remembered: Shashi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, and Hema Malini. While Hinduism rooted itself in Bali some centuries ago, it is clear that a new soft power has made its way to the island over the last few decades.

Arriving one sunny morning in Uluwatu, we found a ceremony in progress. Groups of men and women wearing traditional white shirts over their sarongs watched while a priest seated on a pedestal performed the ceremony. The shrine was decorated with bamboo trimmings, and baskets filled with offerings were lined up in front of the deity. W told us that the worshippers were probably shopkeepers from the village nearby propitiating Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. The chant that filled the air, with cymbals and a large drum keeping time, was ancient Javanese. W explained that the Hindus arrived in Bali in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mostly from East Java, having fled Muslim persecution. This would probably explain why the Balinese language has a lot in common with Javanese.

Uluwatu
Ceremony at Uluwatu

The Hindus of Bali eat beef. White cows, however, are considered sacred and not slaughtered for food. These exceptions are not limited to meat, but can extend, for example, to the exclusion of bananas or pumpkins by some clans. Most exemptions are acts of gratitude: at some point, the ancestors of particular clans are believed to have been saved by white cows or sheltered by banana trees, owing to which they are preserved to this day.

As we drove back to Denpasar, a chant came on air. “This is the Gayatri mantra,” said W. “We say it regularly at home, when we worship at our shrine three times a day.” This wasn’t the Gayatri mantra as my husband and I knew it. It sounded very different, and we couldn’t quite make out the words. However, some Sanskrit chants had evidently survived on this faraway island and were being kept alive by a people who had struggled for the right to protect their practices.

While we in India like to pride ourselves on our diversity, it is easy to forget that other places are not quite homogeneous. Indonesia, which many of us might consider a small, uniform country, has 400 dialects of its own. The Latin script has conveniently stepped in to unify the country, with all dialects now being interpreted in a manner that permits any of us foreigners with a knowledge of English to read them. This could be a comfortable example to quote in the perennial Hindi vs English debates that a lot of linguistic arguments in India (sometimes entirely leaving out Dravidian languages, as in the latest Atish Taseer piece) lead to. I would be interested to learn what effect this has on the local scripts – do they survive, or are they relegated to oblivion?

I apologise for referring to India so often in a post that is supposed to be about Bali. I can’t really help it, though, especially when I realise that the problems W talks of are exactly the ones that we in India face and, often, scoff at as figments of our hyperactive imagination. Whether these problems exist everywhere or are products of everyone’s imagination, I’ll leave you to judge at the end of the next post, which will also conclude this series on Hinduism in Bali.

Cousins
Motif from the Ramayana