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Stupas, Tigers, Disco Beats. 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. Today’s post follows on last Thursday’s far more immediately than usual because it is so much a part of the same story.

This photo is to prove, only, that I was dressed appropriately for the company picnic. Just by existing I broke other Indian cultural rules but never dress if I could help it.

And here’s what happened next.I missed the 7pm bus to Bhopal. When I got back to the hotel, I discovered that buses might not leave the next day either. A man, who was described as the son of a high priest, or an administrator, took me to the bus stand to inquire. Indeed, no buses were scheduled. He arranged for someone who was described as a traffic policeman to help me in an unspecified way the next day.

We went back to the hotel. I wrote,

“Sitting in the lobby, who do I find but my friend, Mr. K.K. Thali. He tells me that he was devastated to hear that no buses will go tomorrow morning, he has thought only of me, and he has come up with an alternative.”

I was to be driven to a town called something like, but not exactly, Brnisa, where I could catch a bus for Jhansi at midnight. However, there were tigers, so we had to be careful. I wrote,

“K.K. Thali rustles up a ‘conveyance’ belonging to the administrator of Khajuraho. Off we go, me, K.K. Thali, the administrator’s son, and the driver.”

The conveyance turned out to be a jeep with padded seats, red interior light, and an 8-track cassette deck. If I recall, they played the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever.

It was darker than ever outside. We drove to Brnisa. Mr. K.K. Thali attempted to squeeze me rather a lot. We stopped. We got out. They waited with me by the roadside. After all, there were tigers. At midnight precisely, a bus pulled up. On I got, goodbyes all around.

The conductor asked me if I wanted making the love, using a very recognizable hand gesture. ‘No thank you,’ I said. He smiled, and shook his head in the Indian nod. I slept. We arrived in Jhansi at 3am. I exited the bus, precipitously, leaving behind my red down vest. I took a tonga to the train station. I found my bunk, and lay down to sleep, wishing I still had my down vest to use as a pillow.

I was reassured by the presence of an elderly gentleman, sitting on the berth below me, reading. I dozed off. I wrote,

“I am awakened by said gentleman asking me a question. I don’t understand. I put my head down to sleep again. He caresses my head and I speak out in surprise. He shakes his head, as though I needn’t worry. I lie down once more to sleep. Slowly he reaches over and touches my face as though I were insubstantial, transparent. Very gently he rests his hand on my forehead, my cheeks, my shoulder, my head again. He scratches my head, as though I were a child. I think it must be a religious ritual until I feel him raise himself up on the lower berth. I open my eyes to see him bending down to kiss me. ‘Please, no,’ I say. He nods, and sits back down on the lower berth.

Really? Just how much was I supposed to put up with? Clearly, at 25, alone in India, I wasn’t sure.

When the train arrived in Sanchi, I hurried through the crowd of people getting off the train. I grabbed hold of three tall Austrian men and made them walk me to where I would be staying the night. I can make no excuse for my cultural bias. They looked familiar, and safe.

I always tell this series of events as a funny story.

The next morning I went to visit Sanchi’s Buddhist stupa. It’s old and massive. I woke up early and saw the sunrise on my way. I felt I’d been there in a previous life. The sky was blue and so bright I couldn’t quite open my eyes. Things that weren’t white appeared so anyway.

Then I walked through the town marketplace, where a man gladly sold me several inches of blue glass bangles. Bangle sellers have to squeeze your bones a certain way to get the things on. Pinky knuckle, thumb knuckle, wrist, wrist.

He held my hand and moved my bones just so. I wore the bangles until I had to break them off in business school. Too much jangle for note-taking.

They all expand when clicked

35 Responses

  1. You should expand this into a book. I love it. "I think it must be a religious ritual."

  2. Once again so fascinating. This really could be a book. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to be in a foreign country like this. I think I would like it but not sure how I would handle it all alone like you did.

    Thanks for sharing. Happy Monday. XX

  3. You are brave. I would have spent a lot of time crying, I think.

    I love the idea of jangley glass bangles.

  4. That sounds like quite a trip. My sister in law is moving to India, I'm dying to visit.

  5. Wow what an adventure – your experience on the train reminded me of an overnight journey I made many years ago with my brother from Germany to Italy. We didn't have a sleeper carriage and so just lay across the train seats, I was awoken in the middle of the night when another passenger stumbled into the compartment and landed on my head! Ouch.

  6. Wow!
    You are made of stronger stuff than I….
    I would have been screaming!

    Such an adventure and happy that you made it home unscathed.

  7. This is exciting. Your writing keeps me alert and interested. Indeed, these posts could be collected in a form of a book! : )

  8. There is something VERY symbolic about having to break off those bangles in order to go to business school. Don't you think? Love these posts.xoxo

  9. Wow, I wonder if I am buying my glass bangles too large? I just slip them on and off as I please. I bought them from an Indian supermarket – they were happy to take my money, but it's not like there was anyone there maniuplating my bones! :)

  10. The line "I always tell these series of events as a funny story" says it all for me in all its complicated glory.

    It won't surprise you, I don't think its funny and I'm so glad you are telling this.

    I always wanted to travel and live in foreign places but there are countries I want to visit that I will never visit alone, because I am a woman and I am not that brave. I don't think I will ever stop being angry about that – somewhere in a quite place in the back of my head.


  11. Such deliciousness, to have more India so soon after the last. I agree with those who say that your travel stories would make a good book. (That makes at least three potential books from your blog, by my reckoning, should you wish to write them….)

    I adore your writing, Lisa.

  12. These narratives are wonderful….but what is with all the creepy Indian dudes trying to take advantage of a young Anglo woman traveling in their country???

  13. I am grateful that "please, no" worked. It does not always, which is why my friend MJ travels with a large, sharp hatpin, which she usually only needs to remove idly from her inner jacket pocket, for display. My strategy is to find the the eldest able-bodied women, and stick close. (I even grabbed one woman's shawl edge once, like a toddler.) They know what's up and have always been glad to help. Getting into a conveyance with two strange men and one I barely knew… heartstopping.

    Oh, and this IS a book!

  14. I believe it may be a High Wasp trait to turn experiences that were really quite horrible into funny stories. I could be wrong.

    And I understand that you weren't brave, per se. Because one doesn't bravely set out to be squeezed and touched. Things happen and then, well, they must be gotten through. Because, really, what other choice is there?

    A powerful entry, full of graceful word choices.

  15. per Main Line- You would have been taken advantage of in any country. Then and now. A great story.

  16. I'm perfectly happy that I can live an Indian experience vicariously through you. I have never wanted to travel there, in spite of my appreciation for the exotic so that I'm glad that you did it for me.

    Besides, a co-worker of my son, went to India last year on a vacation with his fiance and while swimming in a river/lake or something else that was wet and wild, his fiance was attacked and killed by a crocodile. I kid you not.

    When you talk about things like tigers and strange men stroking you on trains, I can just imagine how you must have felt at the age of 25. By the grace of god, you had the experience and write so eloquently about it here.

  17. PS…I love that bright blue outfit. I hope that while you were there, you picked up some lovely silks along with your bangles.

  18. I'm really enjoying these posts. I know I'll never visit India, so I love to read your travel tales.

  19. Your retelling of the event with the older man gave me chills, yet you clearly handled yourself with such strength and calm.

    I would buy your book the second it hit the shelves. Thank you so much for sharing your travels!

  20. Miss Whistle – Thank you. It was the most vivid instance of a mind in denial I've ever experienced.

    Lori – Happy Tuesday:). It was just kind of one step after the next, like all sort of other things that happen.

    Patsy – I only cried in my hotel room at night where no one could see.

    agirl – Thank you so much.

    laparasseuse – Thank you. Yes, there's a photo at the end of the trip where I think you can see the bangles. Black and white, but I think it will do come the time.

    Beth – How fascinating to actually live there.

  21. That's Not My Age – Yikes! That would really hurt!

    Susan – The thing was, crying kind of made it worse, so I tried very hard to hold everything together.

    Hostess – Yeah, kind of all turned out for the best, didn't it:).

    Mette – Thank you.

    La Belette – Oh yes, oh yes. Thank you.

    rb – I wonder. It might have been somewhat a function of my large wrist bones, but I think it was common to have to have someone squeeze them onto you. They couldn't be taken off once they were on, without breakage.

  22. Arachna – Some countries are much worse than others. I think it's both funny and horrific. And I am often amazed that despite so many changes it's still difficult in many of the same old ways to be female.

    Pam – Oh thank you so much. Maybe I will simply collect these posts, when I am done, and put them into an electronic book format, photos and all, and put them up here all together for anyone who so desires to pass along as they wish. Such things are possible now, I understand.

    Main Line – I didn't think of them that way per se. They weren't creepy in their own world. I was dropped in like an alien, that's how it seemed to me. That said, it was so exhausting and difficult.

    Duchesse – Yes. I was struck always how easily they would ask me, and how easily they would then accept my rejection. Like finding a sparkly rock, picking it up, and putting it down when the rock said, "Do you mind?" I should have been more scared.

    Louise – I believe you are correct. Your language is so familiar to me. One does these things. And then these things must be gotten through. Thank you.

    Donna – Thank you! Foolhardiness creates some interesting stories, no?

  23. Tintin – Thanks master storyteller. Yes, I think in many countries I would have been left alone for more of the time, but in more real danger for the rest.

    Belle – I believe the crocodile story 100%. And I did pick up some silk – I've used it as a backdrop for a photo or two here. I gave the best away, I can't even remember to whom any more. But I have one pink sari.

    theduchesse – Thank you very much.

    Prippy – Thank you. In all honesty I was more in shock than calm. It's amazing what one finds out about oneself in times of extremity.

  24. Def. a book we'd all buy and read! Have you considered making another visit and weaving the two trips together? Or would that defeat the filtering of memory you're trying to effect here?

  25. Three things for me in your story…

    1. "…Just by existing I broke other Indian cultural rules but never dress if I could help it…."

    2. The tigers.

    3. The tactile men.

    I have a daughter to raise and you can bet your…your…whatever LPC, that I'm gonna be a callin' you.

  26. Amazing. I agree this should be all in a book! And you were so brave – I would have been hopeless and quite scared at some of your adventures! "No, thank you" ! So polite in the face of adversity.x

  27. Wonderful post. Funny that you had to break off the bracelets wheny ou started law school. It's truly breaking with you past and moving to the next stage.

  28. INDIA.

    I keep coming back to this and the piece about the bracelets. I am crazy about those bracelets.

  29. mater – perhaps a collection of Indian stories then.

    ADG – I think LFG will be able to hold her own. Otherwise what were the women of my generation doing all day long?

    Semi – I suppose when I am stunned then the old rituals of behavior are all that's left.

    Avid – I know. The irony wasn't lost on me.

    Amanda – India, Bracelets. xox

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