Privilege Blog

Ardor, Red Dye, Foreign Girls. India, 1982.

An ongoing and occasional series on a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. You can find the previous posts here.


Politely watching snakes. With high-waisted pants and notebook. Fashion is cyclical, technology, linear.

Having finished with Delhi, and the Taj Mahal, I took a train to Jhansi.

I was headed to Khajuraho, but had to overnight at the Jhansi train station to catch a bus in the morning. 

A man went down the stairs.
Another man and his wife went up.

I had heard one could sleep quite well in the railway retiring rooms for women. However, that night the only space was in the dormitory. Where we were to sleep on plank benches that rimmed the large room. Which stank of rats.

I wrote, as I sat with my luggage next to me on the bench.

“It’s very weird to be sitting here, knowing that I’ll be spending the night exposed to this extent. It goes against the grain. I take my anxiety out in small worries. Where does the bus to Khajuraho leave from? Who can I ask to find out? Where will I leave my luggage while I ask? How will I avoid talking to the retiring room people I have already annoyed? How will I eat dinner? How will I wake up on time? What if rats bite me?

The sparrows are very loudly singing away the sun.”

I must have survived the night. Growing older means surviving so many things and not remembering how. I made my way to Khajuraho on this bus.

Which I also survived. Turns out you don’t really need windows when you have canvas shades against the dust.

Arriving at my destination, I settled into the hotel, planning to spend two nights and one day. Got up in the morning, made my way to the temples. Quite ugly from a distance, they were. To a classical Western sensibility, that is. No soaring arches, no flying buttresses. More like 17 castles made of wet, dripped sand. Their setting, however, was beautiful. Green gardens under a blue sky. Apparently British colonial governors hacked inappropriate lawns out of dry brush and overgrowth.

A few of the temples are populated by creatures. Elephants, for example.

But, for the most part, and to their great and enduring fame, the temples at Khajuraho are carved with people making love. Imaginatively and with a keen sense of community. Look at her beautiful foot.

Honeymooners visited Khajuraho as a matter of routine, in 1982. They may still do. As I walked through the gardens, from temple to temple, and carving to carving, I passed more than one couple holding hands. I was particularly aware of myself alone in those moments. Everything smelled of flowers, softly. The sun was hot.

I walked back to my hotel. Past mothers with their children,

men, talking to other men, taking a break from their pedicabs,

and fuchsia signs of the Holi festival. Probably best compared to our Mardi Gras. Characterized by throwing colored water, lifting restrictions, and lighting bonfires. I knew none of this. It would turn out to be important. When I got to the hotel, I found out that Holi was also an occasion to cancel transportation, including the bus I had planned to take back to Jhansi the next day.

What to do with an extra day in Khajuraho? I thought I’d write a letter to the newspapers interested in my story about the Indian film industry. I asked at the front desk for a typewriter. They gave me one, but it was too old and I couldn’t make it work. The young man I was dealing with, a Mr. K.K. Thali, offered to type for me. And then he invited me to the company holiday picnic.

Well, OK. Picnics. I knew about company picnics. I had nothing else to do and the group of young professionals seemed so familiar. Mistake. I was assured I would be able to catch a bus after the party. Mistake.

The picnic unfolded in almost total darkness. Other women attended the event, mostly wives who talked to each other, leaving me alone with Mr. K.K. Thali and his fellow employees. They all worked for Indian Airlines, so why he had helped me at the hotel is lost in the proverbial sands of time.

We stood around, chatting. Someone lit the bonfire. Mr. K.K. Thali carefully explained his great ambition to kiss a foreign girl. I wrote down his exact words. “Come Miss Lisa, why you have hesitation?”

We walked, with another man and his young wife, down to the river. Mr. K.K. Thali had a mustache.

On the way back up the hill, Mr. K.K. Thali insisted on his kiss. I declined. At which point his boss came down the hill and pushed us together. Gently, humorously, but with a hand on my back. I now understand it was Holi, after all, in Khajuraho. Then I wrote,

“Good lord, it seemed so silly. So I kissed the poor man. I honestly believe that he had never kissed a woman before in his life. Then we ate, and I noticed again that Indians at a party eat in a hurry, with no ceremony, and then everyone goes home right away.”

Nothing but a kiss seemed to be required.

We might wonder now why I felt sorry for Mr. K.K. Thali, given that I was the one under duress. Looking back I seemed so completely witless, but maybe I had an awareness of my privileged position, even then. Like most archeologists or historians working with text artifacts, I am never going to know for sure. I don’t remember the actual kiss. I do remember that we ate in noticeable darkness, despite the bonfire. Then someone, I don’t know who, brought me back to my hotel. Safe, but impatient. Unsurprisingly, I had missed the bus. Apparently another would leave tomorrow. Surely another would leave tomorrow.

me and someone unknown for the snake

*If you are interested in India today, the artist of bigBANG studio is living in the Himalayas for a year and documenting with extraordinary photos.
**If you want to know what happened next, in Khajuraho, go here.

28 Responses

  1. In Cote d'Ivoire the wish to kiss a foreign girl is a common line ;)
    I loved this line:"Growing older means surviving so many things and not remembering how": So true.
    As for the temples, it's funny, I find them very beautiful!
    I really like your posts about India.

  2. I'm glad I stole I few minutes at work to read this delightful post. "A keen sense of community" — brilliant!
    I find the temples beautiful myself, and I wonder if that's the difference of age or of a sensibility honed on so much more global exposure (via media, travels, etc.) than your 25-year old self would have been. . . Our hotelier in Paris, who has become a friend, moved there from her native Jamaica at 18 and remembers riding 'round on buses for days trying "to learn what was beautiful," as she says.

  3. i like to think that in an alternate dimension somewhere, you and i are twenty-five-year-olds checking out reptiles together.

  4. Traveling like this; reading your posts is a treat for me. Your writing is interesting and enjoyable. Thank you so much!

  5. All of this is fascinating to me since I have done very little traveling far from home. Your words, " Growing older means surviving so many things and not remembering how." is so very true!!! XX

  6. dear LPC, what a wonderful post, like a snippet from novel I would love to read. I wonder what happened to Mr K.K. Thali!

  7. I love the way you write LPC, and now I will have to catch up on your India posts. Fascinating and funny too!

  8. What beautiful memories of a fascinating and contradictory country whose people are so friendly and vibrant.

    Yes indeed, fashion is cyclical and technology linear.

    SSG xxx

  9. I am going to have to read your original writing, as I enjoyed this post immensely. I wish I had documented my travels in Asia now. Memory being what it is, the details are sketchy, but i do remember the colors. Everything since then seems so bland.

  10. Such an interesting post! I no more could have gone to India, alone, when I was 25 than go to the moon. I could not manage to get much farther than the bars in Manhattan. Thank goodness for maturity; my own anyway. I would love to visit India now. Middle Child, who was born in 1987, currently has a fascination with Bollywood movies. Thanks for a fascinating post.

  11. "A keen sense of community" – delightfully put. Your fine post reminds me of EM Forster in the underlying sense of bafflement, swathed in gentle description, at other people and other cultures.

  12. Fashion may be cyclical and technology linear… but those could very well be my pictures from India last fall. I love that country.

  13. Perhaps you kissed to be a giver, not solely a taker, what you refer to by the word "privilege". I read and reread your India posts, thank you! (To anyone who did not go then, and wishes to: go now! India still unfolds in uncountable layers.)

  14. Marcela – I'm glad you like them. I always understand that I am stepping out of my usual arena. I've never been to Africa. I can only imagine.

    Mater – It's possible I would like them more now, you are right. On the other hand, I tend towards the severe in my tastes, and the temples are anything but. I found the carvings beautiful, just not the overall shape. I do like the idea of learning what is beautiful thought.

    Pink Crocodile – Why thank you:).

    lauren – I like to think that you are a very wise person.

    metscan – Thank you very much.

    Ms. Givens – That's great. Writing these posts is such an experience. Looking at photos I haven't seen in 20 years, trying to sort out what happened from my memories and my notebooks. I am glad if I bring the feeling of my adventures to your mind.

  15. Lori – You have a lot of adventures at home:).

    Avid Reader – That makes me very happy.

    Blighty – That is a good question. I wonder too. Thank you.

    Susan – Thank you so much.

    SSG – Absolutely both fascinating and vibrant.

    legend – The colors in India, at least, are astonishing, I agree.

  16. James – Thank you sir!

    North of 25A – You should go – it's a wonderful trip, visually very intense. I, on the other hand, was far more terrified of Manhattan bars:).

    Mise – Thank you. I am aware all the time just how Passage to India this all is, but I just have to deal with the anxiety of that influence:). I find myself wishing I could make the story turn out somewhat differently as I write.

    Vogue – I'd love to see your photos. Are they on your blog?

    Duchesse – That is a charitable cast on the story, but thinking back, I believe you are right. That, and a little sense of, what is my option?

  17. Lisa I am so intrigued by your travels and such memories!!

    I have a Luxurious New Giveaway on my site….Come and enter!!

    Art by Karena

  18. I love, love, love the India stories! I'm so glad you were a writer downer of your experiences.

  19. Oh my goodness, how I love the rapid switch you made from the possibility of being bitten by the rats to the singing sparrows (while sitting on the bench at the railway station), that is quintessentially you.

    Love the picture of you, but was not crazy about the notion of Mr. K.K. Thali and 'the kiss,' although you were clearly very kind about it.

    Love this one Miss LPC!

  20. This is quite simply one of my favourite posts EVER.

    You look fantastic in that 1st photo.

    Does this Lisa seem a Lifetime ago to you now?

    "Stank of Rats". My idea of Hell. There's been so much on tv and in the media lately because the Commonwealth Games have just been held in India. There is so much poverty and yet so so much luxury all at once. A bit like Dubai. Or China.

    Keep up the Good Work x

  21. l love your India posts. Great storytelling. I will tell you, as much as I would love to visit India that it is the snakes that keep me far away from that country. I could not and would not politely watch snakes.

  22. "The sparrows are very loudly singing away the sun."

    Perhaps the most resonant sentence I've read since moving to India.

    So I finally made my way over to LPCland (it's just dial-up over here, and that's when there's power in the internet cafe, so my blog reading is waaay behind) and relished every detail of your India post. And then I got to that little bottom snippet and just about keeled over. Entirely. Flattered.

  23. Dear Lisa, I just returned from a short trip abroad to find your India-series being continued!
    I am glad someone was there to take the picture when you were politely watching snakes.

Comments are closed.