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Bathers, Men, Ghouls. 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.

Man with bird, temple, India

One might think a trip to India would be about something other than archetypal interactions between men and women. One would be wrong, at least for me. At least in the first half of my 1982 trip. Embarrassing, but true.

Let’s continue. Lisa at 25, traveling in India alone, comes to the city then known as Madras and now as Chennai.

Madras was very boring, save the general newness of India, which by then startled me about as much as an overdue due gas bill. The city offered little beyond British colonial buildings, sweltering mid-March heat, and seemingly endless temples and statues carved from sandstone. And, of course, various film industry personnel.

I still marvel at the past willingness of prominent people in the Indian film industry to meet with a young American. My reporting credentials consisted of two letters, one from the Los Angeles Times, one from the soon-to-become defunct Soho News. The letters said, in effect, “If you write something good we will consider publishing it.” Somehow, that was enough. Goes to show the importance of both timing and impertinence.

I have notes upon notes upon notes from those interviews. And just one entry for Mr. C.P. Barrister, the man of this story. An alias. His last name was something else, but as it was a profession, this will do. Apparently the British had given his Gujarati grandfather an English name, using his job. Importing the model that gave us Smith, Threadwell, and Cook.

In any case, I took a sightseeing tour.

A group of us queued up for the bus. I overheard my seatmate, a man who looked to be in his late 30s, talking to some older women across the aisle. He was accompanying his aunt and his mother on the tour. He asked me what work I did. This was perhaps the first time a man in India recognized that I might have work. He did not seem concerned with my age, my marital status, or the cost of my shoes. I had, by then, spent an entire month in the country and I was both devastatingly lonely and nearly numb.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I missed Western sensibilities. I missed irony, humor, banter, and awareness of psychological import. Mr. Barrister had it all. He wore a Western suit. And the bus was air-conditioned, after all.

We saw temples. We saw temples, and temples, and temples. Worshipers bathed, we did not. The day was excruciatingly hot. When, as we returned, Mr. Barrister asked for my phone number, and whether I’d be willing to go to dinner with him, I said yes.

During our hours on the bus, he had explained to me that he was not yet married because he had not yet made his fortune. That he took care of his mother. I did not worry. I wonder how it is I thought I knew anything at all. But Mr. Barrister was not the problem.

He picked me up in his car, and took me to a restaurant at the top of a Madras hotel. We ate gulab jamun, with flecks of gold leaf. He told me gold was good for my health. Superstitious nonsense, I thought, but I ate off a decorated plate, on a white tablecloth, in air-conditioning. I was comforted by that which would have seemed very foreign 6 weeks ago. I told him about my experiences so far, the Indian Airlines man whose goal was to kiss a foreign girl. Probably I told him about all the harassment but I don’t remember.

He asked would I like to take a drive, down by the sea. I wrote in my journal afterwards,

It was like we were twelve or fourteen, he gets me to drive his car. It was probably the best way he could think of to get to sit closer… Finally we changed places, and as it was getting late, got ready to go home. He turned on the key, which lit the red lightening bolt generator symbol. As the clutch engaged he said, ” I feel like that boy who said his ambition was to kiss a foreign girl.” I smiled and said, “You can kiss me if you want.”

So he did. We were parked by the side of the road, along the beach. I wrote,

He said finally, “I didn’t expect you to be so friendly. I thought you’d be more formal.” I was so touched.

Now I understand what he meant. Then, of course, I had no idea of the codes I was breaking. To me it felt as though finally things were working the way I expected them to.

I turned my whole body and put my arms around his neck and kissed him. We stayed like that. He pulled away abruptly and I opened my eyes. There in the window was a face like a ghoul, deep-eyed and wrapped in a white sheet. Mr. Barrister pushed at him and I began to scream.

Mr. Barrister started the car. I kept screaming, curled up on the seat of the car. The face disappeared. I screamed. Then I heard the door on my side open. I looked around to see the ghoul opening my door. His mouth hung open and I could see his tongue.

I stopped screaming and pulled the door shut. Mr. Barrister started the car and pulled away, leaving the ghoul behind.

Of course it was not a ghoul. It was one of India’s very poor, attracted by my jewelry but too weak to steal it. One simply could not kiss, by the roadside, in India then. It may be possible now. I do not know.

Mr. Barrister took me back to my hotel. He felt badly that he had not punched the would-be thief in the face. I wrote,

Mostly I felt badly about screaming. Big, strong, independent, world traveler, confronted by a dark and silent scrawny creature, reduced to screaming like women always scream.


I regret I called the man a ghoul. I regret I called the man a creature. I regret my references to his skin color but these were my reactions, 29 years ago, and I do not have the luxury here of inventing myself to be better than I was. When we are attacked, we define our attacker as other, as not-human.

I regret that I felt scorn for screaming women. It is important to note that I have never been so scared in my life, not before, not since. I can still remember that face coming through the car window, the dark of an Indian seaside night behind him. The gray cloth wrapped round his head. In fact, I was probably in very little danger. The poor man was so weak even I could pull the door shut against his efforts.

This is the good part of aging, to understand what one has learned, and to see what one has invented, in time. Despite my fear and ignorance, I was a kind-hearted young woman doing the best she could in a very strange place.

I was right about one thing. Mr. Barrister was a good man. He treated me like a person. Anything he wanted from me, he requested. He thanked me graciously for anything I gave.

I was wrong about so much else. When you are young, you experience your life as though you sit at the center. You believe that what happens to you, happens because of you. You build meaning from the blocks of personal experience, from the inside out. You have not, or at least I had not, developed multiple eyes and lines of sight.

Later that week, Mr. Barrister took me to the beach. There was not a soul in sight, not even my own. It was hot, and the sand so powdery as to feel like dust. Palm trees offer little shade. I hope, wherever he is, that he has found a wife. Perhaps he has some children. I kept on traveling.

Images: Me, on Kodak slide film. The bits of detritus are authentic.

35 Responses

  1. What a lovely story! I personally think one of the great purposes of traveling (especially on an international scale), besides the immense growth of character one hopefully will attain, is the collection of stories one gathers to share and remember through the passing years. Everyone should have stories to tell…..something for when we sit together around the fire, something to make the eyes of children grow wide in awe, something to warm us on those days when we feel like we haven’t quite accomplished what we thought we would.

    I feel a yen to see India………

  2. I think part of your screaming must have been from the utter shock of the situation. The man’s appearance, his opening the door, his extreme poverty, are not things we in the West are used to. It is hard to wrap your brain around an experience that is so completely unexpected and, yes, foreign.

    I’m glad Mr. Barrister was so nice.

    And did you take these pictures?

  3. Lisa – thank you – that was so interesting. Makes me wonder what happened to that soccer player I met in Frankfurt, 1984.

  4. Lisa,

    The phrase, “.. developed multiple eyes and lines of sight” is perfect.



  5. Thank you for sharing this story. I always like when you expose a bit of the you… that you don’t often write about! Beautiful, and bittersweet at the same time.

  6. What an engrossing story, the best of your India series I think. But I must say I was shocked — shocked, I tell you! — that a proper young WASP got into a car with a strange foreign man. What would your mother have thought? ;-)

  7. “When you are young…..You believe that what happens to you, happens because of you.”

    Sooooo well put. This belief can also follow an adult well into the 50s. And that’s the self-blaming adult who winds up in therapy following a great tragedy or evolution adjustment such as divorce. It took me 5 full years to sort that through.

  8. I love how you describe how age affects our sensibilities and understanding of things. This is beautiful writing.

  9. You got into a car with a stranger??? On the beach, when it was getting late!! I’m Indian (hence neither ‘foreign’ nor blonde in Madras) and would never do that. Risky business considering many Indian men would have wanted to “kiss a foreign girl” in 1982. Glad Mr B turned out ok.

    Hope you got a flavour for the gorgeous silk saris/fabrics and jewellery that Madras is renowned for….

  10. I enjoyed your trip through India as I have many of your posts.
    I have just started a new art blog, A Husk Of Meaning, and have included you
    on my blog roll. Hope you like it.

  11. I enjoyed your trip through India , as I have many of your posts.
    I have just started a new art blog, A husk Of Meaning, and i have you
    on my blog roll. I hope you enjoy it. My wife and I are great fans of yours.

  12. Looking back, our youthful adventures are so poignant aren’t they?
    Lovely recollection and I hope Mr. B still cherishes the memory as well.

  13. Just last week I was waiting in my car at a very long green light. It was later in the evening, 11.30 or so. I caught a glimpse of movement over my right shoulder (right hand drive) and when I turned my head a face was peering into my window. What did I do? I screamed. Loud enough to make the man jump back. Poor fellow, he was just inquiring if I could budge my car up a bit.

  14. The gold digger – I am glad you wouldn’t slap me. Then again, I would be unlikely to take sightseeing bus, alone, again. It did not dawn on me I could be in danger.

    Lara in Long Beach – Thank you. You are right. I didn’t know, at the time, that I’d be collecting stories, only that I needed to prove something to myself. India is beautiful – and horrifying in places. It’s well worth seeing.

    Danielle – Absolutely. I am not usually a screamer, it was as though almost everything I learned was short-circuited.

    Christina – Thank you! I, on the other hand, have always meant to go to Sri Lanka:).

    Susan – Thank you. Any bravery was wholly unintentional:).

  15. Stephanie – Well. Thank you. It was also one of the most difficult. So that makes it worth it.

    Patsy – Ha!

    Metscan – Thank you very much.

    Genuine Lustre – The thing is, you could probably find out. Some things are of course best left mysteries.

    Flo – Very interesting. And such timing. After Madras I went to Trivandrum, where I had an ayurvedic massage on the beach…

  16. Town and Country – Thank you very much. It was very personally difficult. Turned out I had not really examined what I did or thought in all these years.

    Ann – Thank you very much.

    Worthy – I am so glad the self-revelations are welcomed.

    Audi – I know. But we’d been on a bus tour. I had met his mother. In my day, in my experience, that should have been enough. Thank you.

    Flo – Ah. Yes. How true. And I think 5 years is about right, for such a big change, in situation and in attitude. I am glad you are through it.

  17. Terri – Thank you very much. Hey, if we’ve got to age, we might as well get something from it. Right?

    Reggie – Thank you dear.

    AN – Risky business indeed. Somehow I missed any shopping in Madras. Too bad. I did see some saris, but they were sold to me in Bombay by a woman from Madras. And to be clear, I got into the car outside my hotel. He took me to dinner. Then we drove to the beach. Even so, clearly the customs of Northern California and Princeton, New Jersey, did not apply. I was so unaware.

    David – I will take a look. Thanks for saying hello here.

    Fuji – Yes they are. I hope Mr. B. has good memories too. I love your story about the man asking you to move your car forward. Perfect bookend for my tale, and I thank you.

  18. The ghoul story is terrifying…
    your adventures are rich and full of details.

    How fortunate that you have kept a journal all these years…you must feel transported back to India when you re read the entires.

  19. I had to do a double take when you got to the ghoul part…I was thinking, no, this can’t be happening…then I was so relieved that you both were safe. The ghoul made for quite a romantic adventure…movie worthy actually, yet…poor man!
    Thank you for the story and the insight…how different our lives would be without the brave spirit of youth and how narrow our lives would be now without the sight of those ‘multiple eyes’…it all works perfectly somehow.
    xo J~

  20. Lisa I so enjoyed reading this – for a start I think you were so brave travelling solo. Fascinating memoirs of your escapade with Mr B and I am glad he was a gentleman. x

  21. This whole series makes me wish I’d journaled when I lived in Kenya so that my future, wiser self could look back on what I learned then and what I’d gained in perspective in the interim. I love this glimpse into your brave moments. Your culturally unaware moments. Your terrifying and mortifying moments. All via your beautiful writing and reflection. Thank you.

  22. Even travelling in much “easier” countries, at my much, much later age, and with my husband, I find the disruptions and challenges of “elsewhere” to shake me. India, you in your twenties, on your own — adrenaline must have been fired up constantly, engines quietly stoked for whatever eventuality — that scream had probably been building for quite some time. That you continue to analyze its echo so many years later will keep me following your India stories with avid interest.

  23. I love this post. Isn’t it amazing the things we do while traveling? There are some that we would never do at home, but there’s a feeling of invincibility that comes with travel (at least for me) and anyway, they make the best stories later.

  24. What a wonderful and intriguing story, LPC. I like your accounts of your Indian experiences. xx

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