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Blind, Sick, Crippled. India, 1982.

So then what happened? Two months into a three-month trip through India? I wrote,

April 7th, 1982

Ease continues. Flew from Calcutta to Bagdogra, after having said a somewhat regretful farewell to Fred Bottoms* at the airport. Met a French couple, Paul et Isabelle. Am too cold now in this damp bed to write any more.

April 8th, 1982

What to do in Darjeeling as the smell of onions filters through my bedroom and the sound of hawking repeats itself.

  1. Get map of Darjeeling @ tourist office
  2. Talk to travel agent
  3. Pick up permission
  4. Go to Indian Airlines
  5. See orchid place?
  6. Go to post office
  7. Go to bank
  8. Buy shawl

I wrote from Darjeeling, after an easing sojourn on the Andaman Nicobar islands. I hoped to travel from Darjeeling to Sikkim, a country then almost unvisited by Westerners. But I needed permission from the Indian Government. In 1982, problematic.

Let’s back up. I had indeed flown to Bagdogra. Somebody ought to start a novel “I had flown to Bagdogra.” However, in real long ago life, I disembarked and made my way to the train station in Silguri. By cab? I don’t remember. This is what I found.

Silguri was then one of the poorest places in India. Inside, this. I believe many of the clothes were made from rice sacks, just as they used flour sacks in the American West.

A group of travelers passed by, possibly a family.

I saw, and I remember today, that one of this party was blind, one crippled, one young. One threw up on the platform, right after I took this picture. I was horrified, as much at my rudeness in having photographed them in their exigency as anything. I felt as though finally I had met the Indian poverty I was supposed to find. I remember thinking, the dwarf is leading the blind who is caring for the sick. It was a very large thought.

This was the lowest point of my trip, in terms of those I met or saw. It was not the lowest point for me, as I was on the homeward stretch. Only a month left in India.

I wish that group might have wrought transformation, sent me packing to Mother Theresa. I was struck, certainly. But those of us moved primarily by words and logic are unlikely to rapidly change course from emotion.

If I consider, India made me a kinder thinker – more tolerant, more forgiving. But it didn’t make me Mother Theresa. Maybe in my next life. Maybe in my next decade. Maybe the point of writing these stories is to make me ever kinder and more generous. I do not know.

I see now there were two little boys in the background of that photo. Why do images of children looking sideways always seem so meaningful? Because the future is out of sight?

To  get to Darjeeling, one boarded an old-fashioned steam locomotive. I wasn’t too excited about steam, or locomotives. Those engines produce an awful lot of cinders, after all, otherwise known as things that get into your eyes when you look out the window. And who knew if tea and toast would be provided, as was the practice on regular trains?

A Western man was filming these guys. I cropped him out of the photo. It’s my memory and I can if I want to. But I owe you the truth about what was going on. I think most boys like trains more than most girls.

We left the station. Much puffing and metal-on-metal screeches ensued. We rose, steeply. Whether or not tea was served I don’t remember. But I do remember that tea bushes grew all around.

And so for the first time I saw the Indian hills. Or sort of saw them. Darjeeling is misty and much is often hidden. The tea likes it that way. As do parched Westerners, roasted to a crisp by the plains and jungles of India’s lower elevations.

Back to the To Do list. A theme, if you will. I arose from my damp bed, and had breakfast on a pale blue veranda. By the way, in 1982 tea in Darjeeling tasted fizzy, like mythical nectar of the gods. I have no idea why. I’ve tried to find that taste ever since, to no avail.

After breakfast, I set off to the government office for item #3, “pick up permission.”  I remember the office very well, even to dimensions. Maybe humiliation reinforces remembrance. It was a small room, occupied by one smallish bald man. He sat behind a grey metal desk, about 4 feet by 8 feet in size. All available surfaces were covered in piles of typed papers, each pile between 3 and 14 inches high. The windows were at least 16 feet high, and surrounded by dark wood shutters. A ceiling fan rotated. The papers should have flown about, but the ceiling was high, the fan ineffective.

I explained that I had sent the paperwork in for Sikkim travel permission. He hunted for evidence. “Madam, we do not have it.” I pleaded. He shook his head in the uniquely Indian rotation. Neck still, head pivoting like the tongue of a grandfather clock. “No, no, no. I hear you. Still no.” I ranted. Again, “Madam, I am sorry.” My angst and frustration genuine, in the back of my mind I thought to try for sympathy. I cried. After all, I’d been besieged for kisses repeatedly. Surely the official could relent for a blonde Western girl?


And with that, there I was, high up in Darjeeling, without a plan, a schedule, or a track to follow.

I was angry at myself.  I knew I’d left the submission of my request too late, and in so doing had foregone an experience that would never be replicated. Because the next best thing to becoming Mother Theresa is learning where one can, to this day I try very hard to acknowledge my mistakes. To own up where I fail, and give my small acts of virtue their own clean place to sit.

I don’t really mind, any more, that I didn’t get to Sikkim. I’ve been a lot of places since. Looking back, I only regret my own personal failures of courage, compassion, or honesty. Hill kingdoms optional.

*Note to self, 30 years later. Who was Fred Bottoms? An oil engineer from the Andaman Sheraton? We will never know. I do remember Paul et Isabelle. They made it to Sikkim. And I will follow this post up fairly rapidly with the story about Out Of Darjeeling, because cliffhangers are over-rated.

23 Responses

  1. I loved reading this – it gave me chills, and your description and photo of that group of people at the train station broke my heart. I’ve never been to India, and would love to go – husband is reluctant. I’m going to go back and read your other posts, although I have read most of them, would love to read them in a batch.

  2. Dear God Lisa, this is quite a story. And I understand your expectations re the blonde thing.

    I still expect a little more slide room and am often shocked when I don’t get it.

    Should we change our expectations as we age or should we have not had them in the first place.

    Don’t keep us hanging on.

    xo Jane

  3. Hello Lisa, The point of your trip was to experience the world outside your protected circle, and to mature in your outlook, which I’d say you accomplished admirably. (You certainly don’t have to match or emulate Mother Theresa, whom many, including myself, regard way overrated as an icon of charity.)

    Your photographs are stunning, both those showing the human condition in the city, and those beautiful shots of the tea country. The photographs have faded just the right amount to make them seem other-worldly.

    –Road to Parnassus

  4. I had indeed flown to Bagdogra. Somebody ought to start a novel “I had flown to Bagdogra.”

    Lisa – Guess who I think ought to write this novel??!?

  5. Yes, yes, yes. To your excellent writing, thoughtful self-reflection, and pictures that capture so much.

    Maybe the fizziness was fermentation?

  6. Well what timing! This was just wonderful and has reminded me what a treat these Indian journeys are, not least because the juxtaposition of your younger, adventurous and older, reflective selves work so well as co-narrators.

    We had a great programme here recently which followed the lifetime devotion to their jobs of the employees of the Shimla railway. I absolutely adored it. Turns out some girls like trains too..

  7. Fabulous post – so thoughtful and thought provoking. I really look forward to more please. x

  8. Are the Nicobar islands the place where the cave in A Passage to India is located? Did you go there?

    I know I have traveled places where the poverty is scarcely hidden, but I have never seen scenes like these.

  9. If you do not write a travel memoir about your India trip, I will . . . I will . . . well, I’ll be very cross with you. I’ve so enjoyed each & every one of these.

    Also, here’s what I hope to do when I grow up – “To own up where I fail, and give my small acts of virtue their own clean place to sit.” Yes, please.

  10. HB and I were in India about 1993,and the levels of poverty were much the same,villages fly ridden waste dumps everywhere.
    The children were always smiling,and seem happy in their poverty,it upset us and your pictures have returned to haunt me.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.Ida

  11. This is lovely and heartbreaking.

    What stands out most to me, however, is your interaction with the Indian official. I have never been to India, but a good friend recently returned from a two-year stint (her husband was working for a software company in Bangalore) and has described, in amusing and horrifying detail, her travails in confronting the Indian bureaucracy. She would submit a critical form *in person* to a government administrator and return to find out that, no, Madam, we do not have that form, you must not have submitted it. At first, she blamed herself, then she began to rage against the system, and finally, she adapted, with the understanding that to get what she needed she would have to build in extra time and go through the same process on multiple occasions. She is in her mid-forties and very no-nonsense (moreso now as a result of her Indian experience). Now, a seasoned former expat, she is back in her home country and grateful for its relative expediency. So perhaps, now, you shouldn’t blame yourself too much for not having been savvy to the inner workings of government bureaucracy in India.

  12. “To own up where I fail, and give my small acts of virtue their own clean place to sit.” I think I shall write this on a note above my desk.

    Have you read Holy Cow? I have wanted to see India ever since I read it at 15.

  13. Dear Lisa, I love your India posts. I always feel like I’m right there, at least initially, because you describe everything in such detail. But in the end I’m usually left wondering what you felt. What did you feel?

  14. Finally got a moment -over the last curls of Indian tea at the bottom of the tin I brought back from Kerala- to sit down and read this.

    It goes without saying that my favorite posts of yours are the India Recollections. A book waiting to happen. In short, breathtaking. (Have you read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night? These India stories come close to her dazzling, unfrivolous prose about Africa in the 1930s.)


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