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Pearls, Chemicals, Heat and Dust. 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.

I left the Buddhist stupas and Austrian tourists of Sanchi behind. At the railroad station I threw myself and my blue duffle into the Fate Choose Please lottery. Knowing that Shashi Kapoor was filming Heat and Dust in Hyderabad, I decided that if a seat were available on the next train in that direction, I’d go.

I went.

We changed trains in Bhopal, which would become, 21 months later, the site of the worst industrial accident in history. When I think back to passing through, for I do remember the town, I cannot locate the source of significance. It’s like reading the book of your life, only to find a passage that seemed trivial is now highlighted. To what purpose you do not know.

I arrived in Hyderabad, and took a cab to the Hotel Banjara.

It still exists, today, as the Taj Banjara. Although I did not know where the film crew was staying, the only luxury hotel in town seemed a good guess. My resourcefulness was growing. Sure enough, as I wandered out to the swimming pool, I saw Shashi and Ms. Julie Christie, his co-star, sitting at a table. Shashi’s wife was there; also what we might now term an entourage.

Taj Banjara in 1982

I left a message at the desk for Mr. Kapoor. Sensing, somehow, that I shouldn’t just walk up to him and say hello in this context, or, heaven forbid, take his picture. And then I waited. I ate at the coffee shop. I looked out at the hotel lake where women washed their clothes in water that I could smell from the patio. This worried me.

I watched TV, which felt so odd I seem to have taken a picture of the television. I went to bed.

Television in an Indian hotel in 1982

I woke up. Still no reply, no invitation to join the glamorous crowd of film people drinking by the pool. But Hyderabad was known for something other than movie stars – it’s the pearl-stringing capital of India. Somehow I managed to talk myself out of hiding miserably in my room and into hiring a cab to take me sightseeing. To take me pearl buying. When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, if Shakepeare had been a 25-year old High WASP adventuring through India, I do believe he too would have gone looking for a 3-strand pearl bracelet.

Oh I was so lonely. And so determined.

I remember the pearl shop. The vendor made me drink tea. Sweet tea, out of little cups. He assured me the pearls were Mikimoto, and promised, as I wrote in my journal, “In addition we have much flexibility in making things to order. We will deliver even on Sunday.”

I was not alone in the shop. Two men from Atlanta, named John and Milton, were buying too. One of them a necklace and earrings for his wife, and, as he told me, a pair of bangles and matching necklace for his girlfriend. I thought he was kidding at first. He seemed too staid to have a girlfriend. I wrote,

Mr. John T. said he’d like to bring me some fruit. Then he told me of how he and Milton arrived in Hyderabad, and how they saw “the temple floating in the sky with the planets all in a line above.” And then he said, “Can you you imagine Milton!” as though I should have reason to ever consider imagining Milton at all.

Clearly I gathered my ostensible sophistication around me like armor. Maybe even my social class. I was young. I am sorry. You can’t know your silent bias, and you don’t usually say things – out loud – that you know are really wrong. Then when you finally hear yourself, as I do now, you feel embarrassed but truthful. If I am more forgiving of my young self, it’s possible that I was trying to fight off my distress at Milton’s bad behavior towards his wife. I don’t know.

I took my cab back to the Hotel Banjara. In reading my journal, I can see that my carefully constructed self was starting to fray, even crack. I was never in danger of a full breakdown. Sturdy Gals don’t do that, our hard-wiring forbids. We put one foot in front of the next, wading through anxiety like mud. However, I had been in India for just over a month, mostly alone, and that’s a long time. Fragments of English songs had begun to play themselves, unasked, in the back of my mind.

I believe at this point I finally began to meet the country.

Back at the hotel, I found no message still. I realized, belatedly, that perhaps Mr. Kapoor would not want to introduce me to Julie Christie. Perhaps he would not want to say to his wife, “Oh, yes dear, here is the personage I took to dinner at the marble mansion. With whom I sat on satin cushions.” Some things are very different in foreign cultures, some things are the same. I ordered dinner in my room, and sat, eating peanuts. I wondered if I should pack the ones I couldn’t finish into a bag and take them with me. I was proud of myself for surviving disappointment but wrote that I still couldn’t bring myself to do something that felt as middle-class as squirreling away peanuts. Much yet left to learn.

Downstairs, in the hotel restaurant, John and Milton ate their dinners. They had called me, asking if I’d join. “Um,” I said, “I may have plans.” I was growing more resourceful. Disdain or no disdain I didn’t have to eat dinner with men I didn’t like.

And, at the end of that day, as my original framework frayed, I saw only what I saw. With meaning or without it, Mr. Kapoor disdained me, John and Milton goggled at the planets’ alignment, I bought pearls that would crumble some decades later. I could only catalog the sights. I wrote,

Double-strand 5mm Mikimoto $85, necklace of graduated gray R2255 pearls and matching earstuds, approx $150, pearl and round polished garnet pair of bangles on silver and matching 16 in necklace, $100. Food; masala dosa in greasy, good cucumber & sambar chutneys, excellent lemon mulligatawny soup with croutons. Rich chicken curry which they asked if it was not too hot. Room service: Beer arrived with peanuts. Room: bathroom very clean, sterilized glasses, toilet, good drinking water. Ex-Nissan’s palace now Andra Pradesh HQ. River running through town, green and beautiful. Lake between Secunderabad and Hyderabad. Pleasant even in hot season. The temple at sunset: “Leave your coconuts here.”

There might not have been a toilet, you see.

For all I know, Milton was the Buddha. I have learned to mistrust disdain.

Images: me, except the picture of the Hotel Banjara from James Davidson here. Where there are more pictures of the “lake.”

27 Responses

  1. Those plaid chairs! Gorgeous. What you say about loneliness while traveling alone resonates with me – I took a long weekend to Washington D.C. after a bad breakup, years ago. I thought the change of scenery would distract me but I felt more alone surrounded by people than by myself in my hotel room. Traveling does teach some lessons, I suppose. Not always the ones you expect.

  2. This post is the perfect antidote to our third snowbound day. I love your India posts, and I love that you have put into words the wisdom of trusting one’s instincts but not one’s disdain. I leave for Peru in a few days, and I like having this in mind. Also, funny about John and Milton; men from Atlanta are everywhere, it seems.

  3. wow – this is so cool, and inspiring. i took a 3 week backpacking trip around the ancient Silk Road when i was 22 with a friend, and i’ve to remind myself to take an adventure like that again this year. do you have a copy of the article you wrote?

  4. This is so beautiful and inspiring. I had a similar experience in South America a few years ago- it changed my life forever.

  5. The sentence: “I believe at this point I finally began to meet the country”is one I know very well. I experienced that in Ivory Coast. I think I experienced culture shock without noticing that is what I was feeling, and when all barriers went down, I started understanding, feeling even the country and its people.
    I look very much forward to your next posts about India.

  6. What an incredible story, thanks for sharing it…it was the perfect mini read for me today, being snowbound! I want to hear more about your travels to India, sounds so fascinating and you did what so many of us only dream about!
    Amazing how we put ourselves in situations that we think we cannot possibly get out of or cope with and in the end, through perserverence, we come out not only stronger but richer and a better person, a more enlightened person.
    I had a situation (not as exotic by an means) but it was rough and it was for 10 days and it was definitely a defining moment in my life that has helped shape who I am. THANKS FOR SHARING!
    Great blog, please check out mine just for something fun and beautiful!

    I am new to blogworld but enjoying every minute!

  7. I love seeing the pictures from your trip. They seem to make it so much more real.

    Bummer that the pearls crumbled. I’ll bet old Milton is on his third wife.

  8. I recently discovered your site (through A Practical Wedding) and love it! You’re a great writer.

    Last year I saw a documentary about these prankster guys called The Yes Men who tricked Dow Chemical on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. You and your readers may find their prank interesting, disturbing, funny or all of the above:

  9. This one is amazing, just as the others have been. The chairs are awesome, the first thing I noticed, I’m presuming local madras…? The “…so lonely. And determined.” really stuck with me, for it sounds like me on a few trips far from home. I did things “at” people, who would never see or know or care, but I did them anyway.

    Thank you for this one, I needed to be transported tonight.

  10. “It’s like reading the book of your life, only to find a passage that seemed trivial is now highlighted. To what purpose you do not know.”

    Gah, your writing is even, if possible, more poetic than usual! Loving these memories. xxx

  11. Hi and thank you for visiting my blog! To follow me you can either use the navbar and click follow or go down to the followers section, which I have just added, and follow with google friend connect. I see some major improvements to your blog. Very impressive and classy! All the best xxx

  12. “We put one foot in front of the next, wading through anxiety like mud.”
    I love your India posts more than I’ll ever be able to say. The loneliness, the beauty of the land, the new experiences, the thoughts of a young woman, I love it all.

  13. Stunning read. I felt transported… like I was reading a book. You don’t get that often on the internet. Thank you for this series.

  14. Julia – Oh India is one of the most beautifully furnished countries I’ve ever seen. And that trip, both the differences and the aloneness, changed me. I believe it was a true shift.

    Town and Country – I hope you all dig out soon. And perhaps you will find John and Milton in Peru:).

    miss sophie – Thank you! Yes, I do have a copy of it somewhere. I will have to dig it up.

    Olivia – Thank you. I agree. Changed it forever.

    Marcela – I agree, it was about the barriers going down, the barriers which were me trying to keep the world as I knew it in order. Once those barriers go down you can understand and, as you point out, feel the country and the people. Thank you.

  15. The enchanted home – Thank you very much. I was too young and dumb to know better:). They do say that peak learning occurs on that little ledge just before overwhelm. I will certainly visit your blog.

    SSG – Thank you. I like the photos because in a way they write the post for me, along with that old journal.

    Patsy – Ha! I bet his pearls crumbled too, huh?

    Muffy – Thank you very much. I had no idea what I was getting into.

    Danielle – First, I love Practical Wedding and everyone I’ve met through Meg’s world. Thank you very much for the kind words on my writing, they mean a lot. I will take a look at the link. My guess is that the answer is all of the above.

  16. lauren – I Still Miss Someone, Tosca arias, Erik Satie, When Will I Be Loved, Barbry Allen, I’ve Just Seen A Face. Eclectic, thematic. I took notes.

    Beth – Yes! And television!

    TPP – Thank you. Thank you for lending me your imagination. “I did things “at” people, who would never see or know or care, but I did them anyway.” Well, yes. And we wonder now, why?

    Wally Bell – Oh thank you. I always feel I am presuming, a bit, to post these, so reassurance is a Very Good Thing.

    Lori – Thank you!

  17. A Farmer’s Wife – Thank you. India has changed so much, and yet is exactly the same in many places.

    M.A. – You bet!

    Melissa – Oh thank you. I stick out my neck with these and therefore deeply appreciate the support.

    Lyn – Gosh. Thank you. Thank you very much.

  18. Dear Lisa, I am writing from Yosemite while sweetie naps. I’m behind on reading blogs but am so glad to read this post. I love your India posts. You were so brave, putting yourself out there. I love reading what you wrote then and what you write now, reflecting back.

    And I love that sonnet.

  19. I love your India posts, since I know I’ll never travel there.
    Why did your pearls crumble? Were they paste? Pearls love moisture, and I always have a cup of water in with mine.

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