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I left for Bombay in June, 1976, along with two traveling companions, Mary Madison and Fred Thompson, two other exchange students going to Bombay. The funny thing was, they had both wanted to go to Europe and were puzzled by my choosing India as my first choice.
I told them about the Bharata Natyam recital I had seen as a little girl which I had always remembered. Mary said that it was a silly reason for choosing India, didn't I know that there were poor people there and that it was dirty, and I replied...And you think that can't be said about Europe? As you can tell, I was already making friends.
The trip overseas was long and arduous. We stopped first at Heathrow, then took a puddle jumper to Amsterdam, where the entire planeload of passengers were escorted off the plane at gunpoint. Don't ask me why. No one would tell us. We were all put into a plain, windowless room and left there for hours. We were so bored, but nervous, after all, we had barely started our journey and already things looked a little bleak--trapped in a room with no windows and no explanation as to why we were being detained. Our plane had already left Amsterdam and none of us knew what was to happen. It became uneventful after 16 hours, when we were told we were free to go, never being given a proper explanation. We went straight to the Air India counter where they put us on the next plane (another 2 hours, which turned into 6 hours). We finally left Amsterdam, having seen nothing but the airport.
Our next stop was Cairo, where we were able to disembark and head into the city. What a noisy, busy place. We had a few uncomfortable situations as Mary and I were wearing jeans and t-shirts with the guys...but as we didn't understand the cultural differences, we didn't have a clue as to why they would follow us and touch us and make comments we couldn't understand. When we tried to get something to eat in a shop, we were told women weren't allowed. Again, I didn't make any friends.
I loved the sounds of Cairo, the music from the transistor radios in the shops, and bustle of so many people, the smell of the city. It was so foreign to me, but it felt somehow familiar--I don't know why. We didn't have a lot of time left, but before we caught the cab to take us back to the airport, we heard the criers singing the call to prayer. I liked the sound of it. We got back in time to catch the next plane which would take us to Teheran.
Teheran was a beautiful city. The people we met were very friendly and we met a couple of teenagers who showed us around. One of them had gone to school in Delhi and told us about what to expect when we got to our destination. We had even less time here, but were able to get a cup of very strong coffee and a bite to eat (some kind of turnover with a spicy/sweet lamb filling that I really loved), then back to the plane and India.
Our plane went straight to Delhi, then we took another small plane to Bombay. Personally I was glad to say goodbye to my two traveling companions, which had been boring at times, short-tempered at others, and decidedly bigoted at most times. I wondered how the hell they were going to handle a country as complex as India. I dragged all my bags up to the customs agent, glad to have finally arrived. I was curious to meet my foster family and looked forward to my adventure. I was not paying attention to the agent as I was looking for any sign with my name on it. He finally interrupted my thoughts. "Und dees ees your tep recoder?"
"What? Oh, yes, yes it is," I replied.
"Und dees are your teps?"
I looked in my bag. My mum had purchased calculators, which were a large sum of money back in 1976, for me to give to my foster families. They were wrapped in bubble wrap. I should have kept my mouth shut. I was looking around for any sign of a person that could be looking for me. "No, they are calculators."
"Por what may you be needing so many calculators?" he asked.
I was irritated. I was tired. I wanted to be somewhere, where I could unpack and take a long nap. I explained that I was a Rotary exchange student, that I was going to be going to Sir. J. J. College of Architecture, and a Mrs. Gandhi was supposed to meet me at the airport. I had no address, this was 1976, hippies were a big problem in India, and the country was under Martial Law. I was in big trouble and I didn't even realize it.
I was escorted to another room with no windows (I was beginning to see a pattern). All my stuff was laid out on a table. They asked me over and over again about my passport and visa, which they said did not match. "How can you be chilt of Indyan national?" I tried to explain that I would be living with foster families, and they were gifts... They didn't get it. They told me that smuggling was a crime that carried at the very least deportation, at the most 25 years in prison. As I had spent the last three days traveling and my brain had pretty much turned to mush, it took about five minutes for their last statement to sink in.
"Wait a minute," I said, standing up. "You think I'm some kind of smuggler? What the hell are you talking about? I told you why I have these. Call Rotary. Find this Gandhi person. She'll explain everything." Little did I know that Gandhi was as exotic a name as Smith is here. I was left alone in this little room in despair, thinking my year in India was either over before it started or I would be spending the rest of my life pinned to some woman name Leela.
Apparently Mrs. Gandhi was working her way towards me during these hours from the Air India counter to the customs agent to the head of customs trying to explain my situation. While I dozed in my chair exhausted and starving, she was getting my name cleared and getting papers stamped. Finally, the door opened and I awoke with a start. The head of customs came in and explained my situation. He had a very thick accent and I had difficulty understanding him. He made no sense...he said that since I smuggled the calculators into the country...
I interrupted him. I said, "No I did NOT. When your man asked if they were tapes, I told him they weren't. I never lied or committed any subterfuge." I don't think he understood what I said because he answered me saying, "My men aren't allowed to accept payments and is a crime." I looked at him quizzically. He continued. "You have no address. You show no income. How do we know you don't plan to sell these on the black market and be living off the money and buying drugs?"
"I'm only 15. I've never taken any drugs. I came here to go to school. I am a youth ambassador to this country, and to tell the truth, I don't feel very happy about this any more. I don't feel very welcomed here in this country and this has been a dream of mine since I was seven. Now it is a nightmare." I began to cry once again. I just wanted to go home. I was tired. I was hungry, and I felt so very alone. He stared at me, cleared his throat and then left the room. The other two men left with him. I cried even harder.
Another man came in the room and explained the situation. He told me that Mrs. Gandhi had been found and she confirmed my story. They would release me, but the calculators were to be confiscated. Fine. Just let me go. Fuck you.
We got into a cab and took off. The first thing I noticed about India was the aroma... a smoky, woody, spicy smell. I wasn't sure if I liked it. It was very strong. I breathed in deeply, closed my eyes, and began to relax. When I opened them again, I noticed how different the colour of the earth was. It was a deep, rich red ochre that seemed to match the scent of India. I watched the people walking on the side of the road as we sped by. I noticed that men held each other's hands as they walked together. This was a custom that would take some time getting used to. People of the same sex were the only ones allowed to touch one another, a very different custom.
My first family was the Dunjibhoys, the owners of a wealthy import/export business. They had two children, Ayesha, a 17 year- old young woman, and Homi, who was a rather heavy-set 13 year-old boy. They had a great deal of wealth. The children went to the best schools. I was introduced to my servants and shown to my room, which I would share with Ayesha. The kids were okay. Ayesha had two english speaking albums: ABBA and Bay City Rollers, which she played over and over again. Homi developed a crush on me as the days went by. I enjoyed living with the family.
We went to the Bombay Cricket Club or the Mahalakshmi Racecourse nearly everyday for tea. We spent weekends in Poona during racing season as the family owned thoroughbreds. We also went to the beach house in Marvay on the Arabian Sea...life was pretty damn comfortable. I wish I had appreciated it.
The family was Zoroastrian, a religion I had never heard of. They consider air, water, fire, and the earth to be sacred, so what do you do with your dead? After all, you can't defile what is sacred... This is how it works: They put their dead in a Tower of Silence, on a slab where the kites and vultures pick all of the meat off the bones. Once the bones are bleached dry by the sun, they are laid in a pit of lime to dissolve, and eventually whatever residual materials remain, they are washed out to sea. The only trouble with this solution was that the Tower of Silence in Bombay was on Malabar Hill, where all the embassies were. Sometimes you would be walking along the streets of the area, and a piece of human flesh would drop from the sky. I never actually saw this occur, however, there were many people who swear they had seen it. The temple where they worshipped, did not allow non- believers, so I was never able to experience that part of the Dunjibhoy's lives.
Soon after I settled in, the monsoon started in earnest. I had never realized the power of the rains until then, nor fully understood the danger. The water would suddenly fill a roadway that seconds before I had just walked down. I'd watch bicyclists attempting to cross these with huge loads across their shoulders. I'd be riding in a cab when suddenly the road would simply wash away beneath us. And the torrents of water that would come down would simply destroy your umbrella. Once school started the first week of July, I took the commercial busses to school, but first I had to learn the Hindi numbers. I learned quickly, but the thing that made my foster mother give up on me was my inability to remember my umbrellas. I lost nearly one a day the first few weeks, so she began sending me with a servant who would accompany me back and forth to school holding the umbrella.
I found the college fascinating. Obviously, everyone was much older than me, and I was the only American in the school. The girls in my class, seven out of 65 or 70, didn't really know what to do with me at first. Here I was, bold, dressed in tight jeans and a jean jacket covered in patches and funky embroidery...t- shirts with no bra... I went out to the courtyard, one of the first days of school, to eat my lunch. No one else was out there. I thought it funny that they did not eat outside, but attributed it to another custom I would have to get used to. I sat down under a tree and got out my lunch, a sandwich, and turned to open a book to read while I ate. The next thing I felt was a rush of wind and a tug, and woosh. The sandwich in my hand had been scooped up by one of the kites that frequented the courtyard looking for unsuspecting students with food. The other students on the walkways found me very amusing as I screamed and ran. I guess it made me more approachable because after that, the other students came up to me and began to talk to me much more than before.
About a month into school, I saw the most attractive man while on the bus. I had never seen a young man so gorgeous...he had sort of reddish brownish hair, with a beard and moustache, along with greenish hazel eyes. He was tall and slim, and well dressed in western clothing, jeans and a t-shirt. He kept glancing at me, and I kept looking at him...wow. One stop prior to mine, he got up, looked directly at me, pointed to me, and motioned me to follow him. I was shocked. I must have gasped. My servant looked at me with concern. I looked back at the man, and shook my head "no." I continued on to the next stop and went to school, but my mind was on that man.
A couple of days later, as I stood on the 2nd floor walkway of the school, looking down into the courtyard, I happened to look down the hall, and there he was-the guy from the bus! When I asked Swati who he was, she said his name was Ratan Batliboy. Wow---was he yummy. Now I understood. He had recognized me because no one else at the school looked like me, but I hadn't met him before. He had just wanted to show me a shortcut to school. Bummer. I wanted more than a shortcut from him. Nothing ever happened with him, but I made a fool of myself quite a few times before I got the message.
I spent my days going to school, feigning interest in physics and more math than I could stand. I eventually made it into the second year history of architecture course, which was very fascinating. Looking at architecture from the exotic viewpoint of Indian architects was a little like looking at South American art history taught by a Mayan. It was profound how different cultures present the same buildings, although there was more focus on asian buildings, which made sense. The perspective of people more familiar with the culture of the indigenous people, made the architecture not exotic, but sensible. These same buildings discussed in American schools were treated very differently. I really looked forward to the course. My attendance in this course eventually enabled me to travel with the class through middle and North India.
The second family I moved in with was the Kolas. Homi, the dad was very cool. He listened to classical music, rode a motorcycle. Their son was in college in England. His wife was a sour bitch, who hated me being there. We lived close to Chowpatty Beach and we had a ball doing stuff together. While living there, I joined the ICCR, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, where I was asked to be the American Team Leader for the Darjeeling expedition. There were about 60 college students from all over the world who were going there including most of the Rotary exchange students: Jonathan Haas from Indiana, Ramona Materi from Vancouver Canada, Mary Madison from New Jersey, and Nancy Jackson. I was in charge of them.
I remember getting a phone call from a Nimu Shah asking to meet with me prior to departure, and he came over with Jack Juggesur and Ashok Moloo to my home where they asked me to be team leader. Then Nimu asked me to come to a Diwali party at his place. I accepted and Jack picked me up for the party. I remember fireworks going off because of the festival. The fireworks were definitely more memorable than Jack. Nimu, however, became a fast, dear friend, who wrote poetry and taught me many things about myself. He stands in my mind as a mentor of my spiritual growth.
The trip to Darjeeling was very interesting. We left from Victoria Station in Bombay, on the Delhi Mail train. We were packed six people to a section, in bunks three high on both sides. We pretty much had one train car to ourselves. The students were from all over Africa, the Indian Ocean islands like Seychelles, Madagascar, and Mauritius as well as the Pacific Islands like Fiji, Indonesia, and Maylasia. Plus our six from North America.
We made up the largest coalition. Travelling in such close quarters with each other made us talk about our homes, our values, religions or lack thereof. We smoked a lot of dope and hashish during the trip. It took about five days to get to Calcutta. We passed through Madyah Pradesh to get there. I was never so glad to get to a shower. Then we went north on a tiny railroad, only two seats wide up and up through the hills of the Himalayas. I have since learned that this tiny railway was dismantled. It was a most frightening part of our travels, but I am sure that any busses or trucks attempting the climb would be even more dangerous. The train never went very quickly...
I was awestruck by the natural beauty of Darjeeling and its people. The Nepali and Tibetan refugees, with their chubby pink cheeks and ever-ready smiles were so endearing and such a joy just to look upon. We stayed at the youth hostel at the top of the town. We would go down into the town, to the ShangriLa Hotel for drinks and Chinese food. The first morning I woke up, and tore open the curtains and revealed Kachenjunga, the Three Sisters, the third highest mountain in the world, taking up the entire window, blinding us with its whiteness. It took my breath away.
The next morning, we had to get up very
early, I think it was 4 am, to take a jeep
to Tiger Hill. We were going to watch the
sun rise on the Himalayas...on the ceiling
of the world. There was something very
spiritual about Darjeeling and the
Himalayas. As I waited and watched the sky
lighten, just making out the shape of the
mountains, I thought about everything I
wanted to do in my life, the things I
stood for, what was important to me, to my
I watched the mountains turn a deep shade
of purple, and I was barely able to pick
out Everest two countries away. I had been
seeing Ashok Moloo during my journey and
had grown to love him. As I stood beside
him, I knew that this instant in my life
had changed me, deep into my core. As the
colour of the mountains changed to a deep
orange, I felt my spirit expand...I never
felt such joy. I knew this man would be a
part of my life, had already changed my
life forever. He took my hand just as the
summit of Everest burst into a bright
gold, then flashed a blinding white. My
soul was freed of any bonds right at that
second. As I sit here writing this down
almost 22 years later, I can still vividly
remember this episode of my life as if it
had just occurred only moments ago.
Ashok Moloo became my lover, my fiance, my husband in a ceremony performed on the Arabian Sea later the next year. It was just the two of us on a deserted stretch of beach where we told each other that our bonds would never break, that our love would last forever, and the connection we shared would never die. I still love him to this day.
After such an unusual experience, returning to Bombay seemed very low-key. I began to spend a lot of time in the Hanging Gardens with Ashok, or visiting Nimu listening to his poetry. I had completely given up on my studies, now concentrating on my Bharata Natyam sessions with Sudha, or visiting the American embassy or having tea with Mrs. William Peters, wife of the Deputy High Commissioner for Great Britain. I loved listening to that woman tell her stories about their lives around the world. She was one of a few people who called me Jeanne-Elise. I went to tea at the High Commission on Malabar Hill as often as I could.
I was never seen at Rotary lunches, I never saw the exchange students, I neglected all of my responsibilities to seek out the experiences that fed my soul... the Bharata Natyam... the bhang... Hindi movies like Sholay...I moved through two more families fairly quickly... I wasn't fitting in to the culture because of my independent ways. I was more mature than my age in some ways, but far behind in others. I began to lose track of my life in India and felt a deep need to return home. I felt anger at things that could not change in India.
At my school, they sent out a flyer for an architectural expedition that would go from Bombay to Ahmedabad to Fatehpur Sihkri, Agra, Rishikesh, Dedrahdun, Delhi, Kajuraho, Chandighar...oh, it sounded too wonderful to pass! As I had fast been becoming disenchanted with Bombay, this would give me the opportunity to see other parts of the country. Only a couple of people from the freshman level were going, but a lot of the second year students were going. There were quite a few guys in second year that I had become good friends with. This was a real problem for me. The culture of India does not allow fraternization between the genders, and the only good friends I had were the guys...it had all sorts of sexual overtones for them that simply weren't there for me.
Raju Halankar and Sanyal Shubankhar were my best buddies, and Sanyal and I had a sweet innocent relationship. I grew to care for him, but Ashok was waiting for me back in Bombay. Shubho (Sanyal) and I would stay up very late and he would listen to me talk about my life, what it was like in the states, what I wanted to do...
He eventually followed me back to the States, attending M.I.T. for his Master's Degree. It took many discussions to convince him that he could do much more to change the world by returning to India and using his knowledge to help others.
The train was even rougher than the previous trip. We ate a lot of train food, which was pretty sub-standard. But the places we went to were amazing. Ahmedabad introduced me to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram. Nainital proved to be quite a challenge and forced me to realize my lack of ability as a horsewoman, having gotten on a horse which I could not stop. Kajuraho introduced me to the concept of divine love, although I still don't quite get it.
Agra showed me the Taj Mahal in ways no photo could ever show. Actually, I had been pretty bored all day looking at old buildings ad nauseum, and was ready to back to the train. At one point, late afternoon, at the Agra Fort, I listened to the guide discuss Jehanghir, and how he had imprisoned his father, Shah Jehan, in this room of mirrors. Apparently he had taken pity on his father and placed him in this room, which, from any spot in the room, you can see the Taj Mahal across the river. A mist was rising from the Jumna river. I looked at the wall and gasped. I turned my head and inhaled this vision of the Taj...covered in mist, changed to a lilac colour, the marbled facades of the main building and it accessory buildings glowed as the sun began its final descent behind the city of Agra. I had never seen such a vision. It didn't look real. It looked like something out of a fairy tale. It seemed to shimmer as if the slightest breath or movement would make it disappear like a rainbow. i will never forget my first sight of the Taj.
I spent so much time in India being attacked by sundry and various animals. I was licked by a cow on the steps of the Ganges, I was bitten by a snake at the Maritime Academy on Nhava Island, I had a monkey throw a banana at me when we were in Dedradhun, I was forced under a donkey's saddlebags, spilling my cup of tea all over my trenchcoat, in Mussorie, I slept with a rat in my bed in Bombay...the cockroaches scared the hell out of me at different times, and this doesn't include my close encounter with the kite at school.
India changed my life in so many ways. I began to look at life differently. I saw America through other's eyes. I learned that most of the world doesn't live the way we do. And I learned that spirituality is something that comes when you are ready, when you seek it. You cannot be born into it, you need to define it for yourself, find it on your own. India helped me accomplish this and I am changed forever. I consider India my spiritual home, my spritual center, and I can be there anytime I close my eyes.