Privilege Blog

South, South, South. 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 have created a Google map of the trip, here.

From Madras I took a train to Madurai. A city of many and large temples, Madurai also had elephants in chains. Worshipers launched pats of butter at statues of the gods, both Ganesha and the blue one. Hinduism is a religion of many characters, and I never quite figured out who had done what with whom.  But that’s the good thing about travel,  you create a capacious folder, labeled only, “Unknown,” and so many things can fit inside.

From Madurai another train, south, and more south. For the first time, I was in a land with enough water for a verdant landscape. And maybe by then I knew some things. It was March 22nd. I’d been in India since February 9th, and would leave, five weeks later, on May 1st. Although I didn’t note the milestone, my trip had reached its midpoint. I wrote about stopping along the way in Rameswaram,

“Not only am I wearing flowers looped in my hair, not only is my wrist bangled, but I also know that the train will stop here long enough for me to get out and get breakfast. Men are crowded around a stand where they serve what I recognize as dhosas, puris, and what looks like some other sort of South Indian thing. Most people are eating puris, only what looks like the onions in sauce you eat on hotdogs in New York. I keep thinking I should diet. I eat the puris anyway and they are light, warm, crunchy and delicious. I clean my banana leaf.”

I was headed for Trivandrum, now officially called Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. It’s a great story, Kerala. Colonized early by Christian travelers, the state was at once Communist, matriarchal, Christian, highly literate, wealthy from Kerala workers in Dubai, and almost Chinese in aesthetic. I know. Even now my eyes widen at that sentence.

The impact of those odd socioeconomic facts, on a 25-year woman traveling alone, can’t be underestimated. I wrote,

“The train ride here sparkled with auspicious signs…tracks run along the side of mountains, steep, green mountains which cast outlines on the sky. Banana trees grow like sea anemones, the entire landscape looks rich enough and crowded with enough life to be a tidepool… Me, I’m sitting inside alive. Feeling for the first time since I got to India that I like it here. Trivandrum, so far, has reinforced that banana-tree inspired feeling.”

I would wish for all of us, banana-tree inspired feelings. But more than the landscape contributed to my feelings of comfort. The houses looked suspiciously like Art Deco versions of 1950s California ranches.

Most of the people were working. Laborers read the newspaper, taking lunch breaks on the roofs of the the houses they built. Women walked around together, in groups, in pairs, and even on their own. I wrote,

“I even saw a boy and girl flirting together, standing by the side of the road in casual conversation. If I were ever to live in India, I think I’d live in Trivandrum. Communist government and all.”

There are party politics, and then there are the greater politics of gender and money that drive our choices. Besides, the Communist Party bunting was quite lovely.

Flowers for one’s hair were readily available.

If I look back, it seems as though India orchestrated a little moment of happiness for me in Kerala. The journey up until that point had been characterized so thoroughly by loneliness and harassment, solitude and men I didn’t want or did but couldn’t have in that society. A well-to-do matriarchal culture made all the difference.

I interviewed another film maker, on the veranda of a hotel, remnants of colonial architecture all around us. We drank tea from white china. I remember being treated as though I were in fact a journalist. So important, at 25, to be recognized.

I took a day off. I traveled down to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India. I met up with a traveling group of newlyweds and friends. What a pleasure to keep company with women, even if they were less interested in me than were their husbands. We walked right down to the sea. We talked. You can see, if you look closely, I’m wearing ankle bracelets. I bought them at a market stall.

The next day, and it must have been the next day because I’m wearing a different shirt and I would not have changed in public,  my new friends told me to put my feet in the southern sea. They took my picture in the Laccadive Sea. This is as far south as you can get in India.

Let’s pretend this isn’t me. Let’s pretend this is any young woman, traveling, at 25, in India, 1982. Because although this is a personal story I’m curious about its implications.

We notice most of all the young woman is smiling, and obviously squinting against the sun. Why isn’t she wearing sunglasses? Youthful ignorance of degeneration? Let’s consider her shape. What a narrow waist. Science tells us now that a small waist-to-hip ratio indicates fertility. She has broad shoulders, suggesting sturdiness, whether real or not. Perhaps it’s not surprising I was pursued. The men were not searching for my personality, me as I felt myself to be at 25.

My understanding of myself was beside the point, yet it was all I knew.

When you’re 54, looking back at 25 standing shin-deep in the Indian Ocean waist-wrapped in a blue sash, you understand that youth imagines only itself. I was in India, in a Communist, prosperous, literate, matriarchal state. I was 25, unmarried, blonde, and physically auspicious. Standing in the sea means water above all. Pay attention to the splashing.

I remember feeling that my interior life was larger than the sky, and far more full of danger. Middle age is such a pleasure, in this context, now that youth is done.

49 Responses

  1. Travel does so much for helping youthful self centerdness begin to look outward.
    Hats off to your willingness to share your introspection.

  2. You were so brave to take this trip on your own. (BTW, you look just the same today.)

  3. Wonderful post — I’ll have to come back for a re-read and a think about your gaze directed at your youngest self, or at least your youngest self as she poses for a photograph . . . but meanwhile, I’m so taken by the fabulous metaphor of Kerala (its richness, its vegetation, etc.) as a tidepool, of banana leaves as sea anemones. Coastal girl you were indeed — I can so relate to that metaphor and it’s so fresh and evocative.

  4. I think the ‘now’ you would have been very good friends with the ‘then’ you.

    I moved to Boston at 25. I mostly remember feeling very poor. Can you stand it? Poor! Gah.

  5. I am eating up this “ongoing and occasional series” of yours. Probably has something to do with the current obsession I’m having with all things Indian….Bollywood, fashion, food, history, culture, and…………men :)
    I love your metaphors and I love the photo of you in the surf. Made me go back and look at my younger, adventurous self when I had backpacked up the east coast of Australia in ’83. So fresh-faced, so young/blonde/physically desirable. Making brave decisions, making bad decisions….but creating who I am today. I wish I could tell her what a great job she was doing.

  6. Oh to remember the power of discovery in our every day, not fully understanding the impact we make or the inevitability of our own degeneration…ahhh.
    Nostalgia weeps in the splashing sea.
    You are such very good company. This was a mighty fine read…..thank you.

  7. You looked like such a timeless young woman of the world, so confident and beautiful and real. And now, you look just as beautiful but more fragile, as though the danger receding from your interior life left you more delicate. You must keep travelling, keep writing these diary entries!

  8. That white car looks very familiar. They were still driving them in the late 90s when we visited India. Your pictures brought back good memories

  9. What a magnificent photo and post. I love reading your thoughts at the midpoint mark of the journey, especially of the politics and bunting, food and ‘frivolity’.

    My favorite part of the post was this: “…you create a capacious folder, labeled only, “Unknown,” and so many things can fit inside.”

    I think we all need one of those folders.

  10. Great post – it reminded me of recently realizing that I have become at 43 stunned by the quick passing of the last 20 years. It feels odd but not sad when I look back and think of choices versus outcomes. I like your approach of looking at yourself objectively too.

  11. These posts are gems and I hope they become a book. You wrote so evocatively then, and continue now.

  12. I love your luscious writing in this post Lisa. It has the feel of a Merchant and Ivory film with a very personal Ruth Prawer Jhabvala narrating. Just lovely. And it is so true, that the personality that we felt was wider than the ocean at 25 can finally shine after we’re done with that part of our life.

    xo Mary Jo

  13. Your 25 year old self was so incredibly brave. I think your 54 year old self is too. I agree with Duchesse that you should write a book. Your words are so evocative, honest and poignant.

    No pictures of me at that age have survived (at least none in my possession or that I’m aware of). That makes me sad in a way; it’s like nothing from that time exists anymore except in my head.

  14. well, i just put on two bangled and silver barcelets around my foot…you are beautiful ~ ageless~ write the book….

  15. I know I have said this before but I must say it again: I love your India posts!
    It is so interesting to read your reflections on that trip, I can identify with so much of what you write.
    I look forward to the next India post already.

  16. You do look the same as you did then, simiply beautiful.

    I really needed this post today. I have backspaced over this comment so many times trying to put into words what this did for me. I simply can’t. What I can say is thank you.

  17. Beautifully written and evocative post. The adventurous and beautiful girl at 25 as well as the glamourous 54 year old are both lovely! PLease write a book!

  18. Lisa: Kerala is called ‘ god’s own country’ in their tourism adverts. Looks like you felt the same!

  19. The India series is my favorite of all. Thank you for another beautiful post and more beautiful photos of your young self traveling. You were a brave one!

  20. I love the photo of you in the water. Naturally, I don’t see the same things in it you do, but reflecting on myself at the same age, I do recognize some of what you mention. Youth only sees itself…

  21. Checking back again to covet those blue pants and to look again at this photo of you in the surf, c’monnnn. Let me tell you, I would trade just about anything for your shoulder:hip ratio, supremely elegant. Who pushed “sturdy” off on you anyway; rhetorical, never mind. If a groundswell stopped you from photoshopping your face, then let there be another to forever banish that silly, inaccurate, asexual term.

  22. Brohammas – Travel is an enormous privilege. Thank you for being willing to listen.

    Amanda – Had I known then what “me” was. But I am so grateful to have this photo and the change to look back.

    Flo – Ha! It’s all about the pants, isn’t it. Thank you for the link to your niece.

    MJ – Thank you, I really didn’t know that I should be afraid. And my son thinks I look the same too, so, even though I clearly look 54, something has stayed with me and I’m glad.

    Tabitha – Thank you. I’m honored.

    mater – That’s true. A coastal girl indeed. Maybe it takes the landscape of our childhood to provide these kinds of moments. I mean, tidepools are pretty specific, and specific to the more Northern Coasts.

    Patsy – I think the now me would say “Have a cup of tea…”:). And poor, oh gosh, what did we all know then?

  23. Lara – Oh thank you. I am glad you like it. And eating up all things India sounds like all sorts of fun, young in Australia or less young, now, wherever.

    Marcy Simmons – Lovely comment. So lovely. You are also good company and I thank you.

    Mise – Very thoughtful. My outer strength has receded, leaving me far more fragile, physically, less strong, less durable. But inside I feel far stronger, as though the previous external strength hadn’t really understood where to focus.

    Jill – That you read me after all this time makes me equally, if not more happy. Thank you.

    chicatanyage – You are so right, automobiles set a time so vividly.

    Stephanie – She thanks you:). And I thank you for reading.

  24. Joy – Thank you! Going through these old slides had surfaced memories I didn’t even know I had. Argues for keeping some things hidden from ourselves for later in life:).

    TPP – Thank you. I hope we do all get one of those folders, and paint it pink:).

    Marianne – I know. The time seems to have gone so quickly and yet that’s clearly so long ago. The objective perspective helps me feel the time is longer. Thank you.

    Pam – :). xox. Thank you.

    Miss Cavendish – Well thanks. I was, as a little kid, but absolutely hated the chlorine, and quit. I can still just about do a length of butterfly though:).

    Duchesse – Thank you very much for the encouragement.

  25. Mary Jo – Aren’t we lucky, to have an arena? Thank you so much. I’m very flattered.

    Une femme – No photos at all? How curious. Of course, these were hidden in a closet for ages, and travel is always full of pictures. Thank you so mcuh.

    Barbara – Oh wear those bracelets in happiness and good health. I thank you so much.

    Marcela – I am so glad you like these. It’s such a revelatory process for me.

    MYFWBS – No, really, thank you.

    linda – You have no idea how much these words mean to me:) Thank you.

  26. AN – I didn’t know that, but I believe they are right.

    Worthy – My pleasure. Thank you.

    Susan – Thank you. I’m so glad you like these, as they are very close to my heart.

    Allie – Sturdy is a state of mind:).

    Terri – Thank you. And yes, it is true that someone else looking at that photo will not see what I felt. Selfhood is so complex.

    Flo – Ah. Well. Sturdy will have to stick, I believe, a badge of honor for ways I was perceived and how I endured. It just goes to show that how one looks doesn’t always belong to oneself. If that makes sense. I take the term elegant very seriously, coming from you. Thank you.

  27. Another great post and I loved seeing the photo of the 25 year old Lisa. I would have known her anywhere.

  28. This leg of your trip seems so beautiful…and no one ‘attacked’ you! Your youthful self looks so full of adventurous joy, it’s an absolutely wonderful shot and I can feel the remembrances of that time in my life percolating up to the surface when I look at you. The carefree, fearless, innocent yet brave ‘girls’ that we used to be were pretty darn cool weren’t they…although my fearlessness only took me to Seattle from California…India, now that’s another story, one I’m looking forward to hearing more about!

    I’m in love with those baskets of petals…I think I need osme of those…and some Puris!
    xo J~

  29. That last photo! It’s just too much joy.

    I love & have lived this phrase, “But that’s the good thing about travel, you create a capacious folder, labeled only, “Unknown,” and so many things can fit inside.” Yes.

  30. My heart aches with delight and longing. Delight at reading your 25 year old self’s perspective on reaching heavenly Kerala; longing that my own youthful chapter in Kerala is finis.

    Quite possibly my favorite India, 1982 post yet. Thank you, dearest LPC. Xo

  31. Did you appreciate the freedom you enjoy in your daily life when you saw the elephant chained up?

  32. Susan – Thank you. So odd how we have selves, when young, that we don’t even know will be there with us all along.

    Jessica – We were cool. I do believe, however, we’re cooler now.

    Legallyblondemel – Thank you. It felt so good to have gotten that far, and to be in the ocean at last.

    bigBANG – My pleasure dear Lily. Your account of your stay in India brought me a great deal of joy.

    LG – I appreciated my freedom every minute. Probably more because of the people than the elephant, but it could easily have gone the other way.

  33. A few years ago, my son lived in Madras for 2 years. I traveled from Madras to Kerala, from Madras to Mysore, to Delhi, to Agra, much of the time alone. I went back. I love India to this day although lately I’ve been traveling to Africa and Europe. For some reason, India makes one look at oneself in a way no other place does.
    I was almost 50 when I went to India; I can imagine what my life would have been like if I’d gone when I was 25!

  34. I am from a third generation Indian (my family having left there over 100 years ago). At 25 in 1986 I looked pretty similar to you -very slim, broad shoulders but a similar picture would have found me in the heart of Italy. That to me was different and so was I to them. My sister and I travelled alone on a shoestring budget, skimpily dressed (we were young, we were students, we came from fairly liberal families) and we were followed everywhere. Probably would not be the case now. Italy had no immigrant population back then. So being different was exotic and not a threat. For a number of reasons, I didn’t have the nerve to visit India until I was 42 and then I pretty much did the same trip as you with family in tow.It still has not changed. I felt the same as you. I too stood in the Indian ocean and wondered about how and why my family left those shores. I loved this post.

  35. Fascinating to hear the story flipped. Your family must be quite something, to have emigrated so long ago.

    And thank you, thank you very much.

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