Last September, I traveled to India, to recruit students for my university. I traveled all over, south to north, east and west, literally ten thousand miles in all.
I wrote a brief post about this a few months ago, but wanted to add some postcards about individual cities, and about what it’s like to travel at warp speed through a country, and whatever flickers of insight you can gain.
There was no time to do any of the things I usually do – – museums, historic sites, people-watching from cafes, etc. Mostly, I saw hotels, conference rooms, airports, and offices. And cabs. Lot’s of cabs. Endless flights and meetings, zipping along in cabs and the occasional auto-rickshaw, everything seen in glimpses as fleeting as a Snapchat. Far removed from it all, not an active participant. Just a pair of eyes, passing through like a GoPro on a badly-steered drone.
And you know what? In some ways, it was liberating.
I didn’t have to do anything, or decide anything. I knew I had to get to such-and-such event or fair at such-and-such time. Whatever happened in-between meant that I was free to live in the moment fully, just soaking it in.
Obviously, a limited immersion. In some ways, like spending an afternoon at an aquarium – – a layer of glass removes me from the fascinating images and lives that I’m seeing, but not fully experiencing. Looking at sea creatures in a tank is not the same thing as swimming through a coral reef.
But sometimes, to be honest, arms-length was kinda pleasant – – in an air-conditioned cab, you don’t feel the humidity, and are safe from mosquitoes. But in some ways too, it cemented my status as an outsider, one who isn’t able to fully comprehend what is happening.
So… these little postcards and snippets are what I was able to gather.
The photos were taken with an old cellphone – – no camera – – as it was, my bags were overweight the whole trip, from all the pamphlets and printed materials.
I even had to ditch the newspapers I’d picked up. Unlike our dwindling industry in the U.S., newspapers in India seem to be thriving, and I wanted to bring home a sampling to show people – – lively, entertaining, sometimes strange.
I started jotting this entry during my second-to-last stop, staying in the LaLiT Hotel, Kolkata. It’s a luxurious, modernized place – but what was more of a kick for a history buff – this used to be the Great Eastern Hotel, 175 years old, the first hotel in India with electric lighting. You walk down hallways following Mark Twain and Kipling (well, just a few years behind). I loved that section of town, too – Old Calcutta – majestic colonial era buildings, like a capital in Latin America, large palatial buildings and walled-in gardens.
Kolkata was my favorite stop, Parts of it are like Singapore – massive Victorian-era buildings in pristine condition, gardens, parks, the biggest cricket stadium in India, a huge suspension bridge.
The Victoria Memorial still stands, like a giant white marble palace. Then ultra-modern tall, sleek buildings. Really tall lux hotels. Some neighborhoods are definitely not for me, but if I were to live in India, that’s the city for sure. There’s something special about it even amidst the chaos. Shrines to Durga and Kali (the multi-armed scary-looking one) all over.
I drove into town past a tall building with a sign flashing an ad for some soft drink. And it struck me as being how NYC looks in movies, but not in reality anymore, since so much old neon is gone.
Then I saw an old-school cab in front of a crumbly building and palm tree, and instead of Singapore, it felt like a street in Old Havana. It was a Hindustan Ambassador, a chunky 1950’s-style thing, like one of those dogs that are homely, but you just like on first sight.
(When I got home, The Economist had an article that noted exactly the same impression – – Kolkata’s striking resemblance in parts to Havana.)
Traffic is Chaotic.
The food was interesting. Here, seafood and banana-based food is popular. I steered clear of the fish, but had a meal made with bananas. I don’t recall the details of how they prepared it, but it was delicious. It was washed down with lime juice and soda water, which was also refreshing.
Lucknow seems like Colonial India is still alive. And it has a gorgeous river walk
Smaller by Indian standards, crazy traffic, like everywhere, but manageable.
The only true Old City I was in, the denseness of the streets and the sort of India you’d expect from watching movies – – masses of people of all walks of life, jumbled into one place. I was very glad to have be in a scene that met my expectations, and glad it was Lucknow, a storied, historic, artistic, and multicultural whirlwind.
And I particularly liked the hotel there. While the Lalit in Kolkata was by far the most swank, the one in Lucknow had a wonderful faded glory about it. This was true of the city too, faded but still majestic, at least in the old city.
Lucknow was one of the two cities (the other being Jaipur) where I broke my rule to not eat meat. In the land of Tikka Masala, it would be criminal to not partake. It was delicious and rich. My entire time in India was marked by amazing food, and the meals I was able to take in small eateries were in a way, the most authentic experiences I had on this trip. I tried whatever the locals were eating, dishes which I cannot name or even describe accurately, and loved everything I ate.
Ahmedabad was also a unique experience. Famed even by Indian standards for their vegetarian dining options, I ate incredibly well every day. But the highlight for me by far was the tea. Masala chai was offered frequently and I never missed a chance to have some. Chai is familiar in the West, but here they offered it with different varieties, including one I loved most, Ginger – – it has a real kick, but is delicious, and good for the stomach.
I was struck also by the number of Chinese business people that were there. In a country like the US, we assume that the whole world comes to us. But India and China both have trade agreements and rivalries, and there you see the rest of the world interacting with each other, hastening development or maybe looking into expanding their own industries abroad.
Ahmedabad was the only place I had any free time, though I used most of it to sleep, after 8 days of back-to-back flights, cabs, conferences, etc. But that evening, I went with the locals I knew to a restaurant/tourist village. This place was designed like a traditional village, with thatched huts and the like. We ate on the ground, legs crossed (or in my case, a sort of crossed-legs sitting that killed my lower back), and ate off banana leaves. The “Gujarati Thaali” is a true marvel — a spread of all sorts of vegetable dishes and salads, rice, flat breads, with many sides. Waiters arrive at the table from all sides, ensuring there isn’t ever an empty dish. Amidst the traces of smoke from smoldering mosquito repellents, it was a very charming experience and the food was excellent.
We had time to visit an unusual “Utensil Museum” — full of unfamiliar food preparation devices, and chock full of locks and keys – – all of which was surprisingly interesting.
Just outside of the bamboo fence was a mega highway, reminding you that this village is a simulation, and not how many people live anymore.
Chandigarh was a pleasant surprise. A “planned city,” by Le Corbusier and other architects, roughly the same 1960 vintage as Brasília, it felt unlike anywhere else in India.
Initially, traveling from the airport to the city’s industrial center and hotels, it felt like the rest of India. A horse cart on the side of the road, laden with sacks of tea or rice. A man with one crutch, dusty and haggard, going car to car to beg.
But the city itself is almost more like something you’d see in East Asia. Virtually no trash, wide clean avenues. For a semi-arid city, there were still a good amount of trees, green spaces, and as I learned, about a dozen public gardens. The market there was also unique. Rather than a maze-like souk, it was a spacious open-air shopping center with organized rows of tables, and many storefronts aligned in a large open rectangle offering an array of clothing, food stuffs and gadgetry. It was hardly the most interesting city, but I enjoyed it more than I’d expected.
Jaipur was the other city that surprised me. But, it was the opposite reaction. While Chandigarh was much better than I anticipated, Jaipur ([probably the most visited by tourists of all of the places I went) was not as beautiful or luxurious as I had hoped. Dirty, smelling of sewage in parts, I felt it had a bit of an edge I didn’t experience elsewhere.
Men were sleeping at the base of the city gate, while cars roared past. This was the city where people would make offers of whatever they were selling, the instant they saw me, and I felt more watched than others cities, where visitors are regarded with respectful curiosity, rather than seen as a mark.
Even the famed Hawa Mahal palace was a bit underwhelming – gorgeous, intricate and fascinating, but far smaller than I had anticipated. (Much like people always comment, going to a gallery to see “American Gothic,” or Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory,” which shocked me when I saw how small they were, the fame of things can make them seem bigger in our mind’s eye.) This is definitely true of Jaipur’s most fabled attraction. But still, striking and enjoyable to visit.
The Hawa Mahal looks like something out of a fairytale, with its many windows (which I learned are actually the back of the building). The name means “air or wind palace,” with its many tiny window-outcroppings, and was designed for the women of the Harem to look out of without being seen. The women were forbidden to be seen by the populace, and had to wear full veils when in public, so they created this strange viewing gallery, where they could see the town, while hidden from view.
While very short, not much more than an airport stop, I was briefly in Srinagar in Kashmir. And it struck me, that what you see from planes, is often misleading, you really need to go and take a walk to experience a place properly. But flying in over the foothills of the Himalayas, I looked down over what could have been Russia or Canada, not the tropical landscapes I had been seeing.
If you remember my somewhat fishy analogy in the beginning of this story, Srinagar was the closest to what I like about aquariums. I’ve always found them mesmerizing. Perhaps there, more than anywhere else, in the dim light and quiet, looking into an alien, watery world, watching the fish go by is somewhat akin to meditation. Noisy people are out of place. They’re disturbing the reverie. I sometimes wish aquariums would play some soothing ambient music or the like, to quieten the visitors. Srinagar was like that. I landed, it was silent, the mountain air was cool, and it transported me back to the hill country in Chile for a moment. There was an Urdu song (perhaps a prayer?) playing softly in the terminal.
Yes, this was during a period of unrest, and there were also a good many soldiers and police present, far more than anywhere else. But despite all that, it felt so peaceful. To me, for at least one moment, before being shouted after by taxi hawkers, it was the most like being in an aquarium. I found it magical. I guess you take whatever moments you can.
38 thoughts on “India from the back seat of a cab.”
I’m glad you decided to share these photos. They all depict real slices of life .
Thanks! I always try to capture a slice of what I’m seeing so that people who can’t get there still see what I see.
Your whirlwind tour of India gave me insight and understanding of a country so rich in culture and history. Thank you for your photo essay with its colourful images, Robert!
Thanks Peter! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
You must have had a hard time deciding how to summarize each of these places. I wonder how many of your descriptions would change if you could spend more time in those places.
Good for you for putting the accent on Brasília. Portuguese navigators made it to India and also to Brazil.
I have also thought about how I may write about these places if I had stayed longer, and I’m not sure. My impressions are largely favorable. In some cases, particularly for the cities in which I spent the least amount of time, I found it easier to summarize.
They were all over! By the time England was setting up shop on our shores the Spanish had already been in South America for roughly a century. And of course, the Basques had been silently exploring beyond their little region forever.
Many people don’t realize that Magellan, who sailed for Spain, was actually Portuguese (Magalhães).
Thanks for the tour. India made a huge impression on you. Were you expecting to have as interesting a time as you did?
It certainly did. I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. I knew it would be interesting but since there is so much mixed information, both wonderful and terrible, about India I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m glad I was able to come back on the wonderful side of that spectrum.
These bring back a few memories, Robert! Now I’m curious to find out what you make of the title piece in ‘The Night Bus’.
Mick – Your title piece is a blast, what a wonderfully evocative road-trip. I could almost taste the dust & diesel fumes, and see the lights & fires off in a vast darkness. But I don’t have anything that colorful to relate. I saw vehicles like your bus, held together with spit & baling wire, but my trip was entirely limited to the modern province – – thirteen flights city-to-city, and probably a good deal more reliable schedules than domestic flights in the U.S.. I did have two bus rides, but they were equivalent to Greyhound in the U.S. – clean, comfortable & semi-air-conditioned, more dull than your expedition, but no call for hip boots at the rest stops, etc.
I guess because I’ve always been interested in history, architecture, and sociology, wherever I go, I’m keenly aware of the myriad effects of economic development and modernization. Sometimes the changes are heartbreaking – – in NYC, vibrant neighborhoods, full of diners, pizzerias, shops, walkup apartments, etc. replaced by blank glass boxes and security gates, etc.. and I was so glad, like always, to see at least glimpses of India’s older times. And sometimes Modernity, like installing 110 million toilets in a few years time, is a real leap forward.
I was thinking about your bus ride and it reminded me of one of my profs at college, talking about his undergrad days, saying “It was a Trip, man!” The Night Bus is a vivid narrative, I can picture the whole thing as if I’d seen the movie. And did you ever meet up again with the punker girl??
Wow, thanks Robert. I’m delighted it worked in that way for you; obviously, a lot of the thrust of the poem is to convey those tastes and smells and feelings – a comparatively leisurely trip through the chaos. Even after over thirty years, I can still recall the excitement of it all – my first visit to India and the first really long bus ride I’d taken. very unlike a Greyhound, it’s true!
But, no, I didn’t see her again.
And I get completely what you say about history vs. modernity. There is always a compromise to be made, and those of us that visit a place because it is ‘scenic’ and ‘atmospheric’ and full of ‘old world charm’ don’t have to live there. And those that do want proper toilets and the internet, and who can blame them? The problem is striking the right balance to enable people to have a decent standard of living but not destroying whole swathes of history and replacing them with the chrome and glass anonymous ghastliness often found in modern cities. Development is often a double-edged sword.
Must have been a very interesting trip, Robert. Thanks for all the info and the pictures.
Hi Pit, Thanks! It was a very interesting trip indeed.
As interesting as it must have been (for you), I don’t think it would be a trip for me. All the more thanks for taking me there virtually.
My pleasure Pit, I’m glad you enjoyed the digital trip
I’d love to go to India. My wife went about twenty years ago and loved it.
This is a really interesting post. Aside from making me very hungry, I’m intrigued by the fleeting Snapshot-transience and aquarium-like degree of separation gained from a whistle-stop succession of taxi-rides. Kind of like watching MTV or, perhaps, a news channel with the sound turned down. A succession of tableaux that suggest stories, histories, exotic realities without context. A journey of stimuli and imagination. You’ve captured the pace and ephemeral nature of it brilliantly in your fast-moving narrative.
I hope you can get there some day. You will love it I’m sure.
Thank you for your kind words. I think your comment is far more eloquent than anything in my entire piece. I do like the mental image you conjure with the idea of a news channel on mute. There were moments like that, though luckily, and unlike the news, nothing negative happened.
One of the most interesting aspects of this post is the way it allows a non-linear approach. When I saw Chandigarh mentioned, I scrolled down and started there, since I had a friend who spent time in the Punjab, and that area’s customs, foods, and traditions are what I’m most familiar with. Like Texas, ‘India’ is a term of convenience. The variety there is unbelievable, and you’ve done a good job of capturing some of it.
When I was in Liberia, we sometimes laughed at the people who arrived from the States on their one-week, ‘in-depth’ tours. It was good that they wanted to come, and to learn, but I suspect you did better than most of them when it came to appreciating the culture.
The photo of the Hawa Mahal reminds me of the Plaza Major in Madrid. It’s the light and colors that brought back the memory more than the architecture, but the connection’s a pleasing one. As for the LaLiT group, lucky you to be able to stay at one of those! The next time you go, you should plan to make use of LaLiT aviation — privately helicoptering from one destination to the next would take that in-but-not-of-the-culture experience to the next level!
Thanks! I am glad that the piece allows for a non-linear reading. I hadn’t done that intentionally, but the sheer nature of the trip allowed for it. I don’t have a set narrative, just tiny snippets sort of stitched together. I’m glad you were able to read it in a manner that you felt you could relate to!
I think I have a long way to go before I can speak of the culture, I was barely scratching the surface even here, though I was fortunate enough to be with local people for the entirety of the trip who gave me some good insights into the world that was speeding by my window.
I haven’t been to Madrid but I looked it up and I see the overlap. The architectural styles seem to be shared across many cultures, sometimes knowingly but more often not. I think that is yet another way we share our collective human sense of design.
The LaLiT was lovely, I wish I had stayed longer and if I’m lucky enough to be sent to India again I hope to use more of their properties.
Helicopter tours-now that sounds like my speed! Yes, I’ll land and get into my chauffeured Land Rover after. As much as that sounds wonderful, I suspect that my university wouldn’t spring for covering that when I turn in my expense report!
What a Whirlwind trip. India isn’t a place that calls to me, but I suspect there are sections that would be quite interesting. Ultra-modern tall, sleek buildings are about the last thing I think of when I think India; I tend more to think huge masses of people, poverty, pollution.
On the other hand, it might be worth a visit just for the food…
The food was definitely a highlight!
It isn’t for everyone. I had a great time overall, but it is a chaotic and sometimes overwhelming place. But, I was surprised too by the moments of peace or of calm. I knew they had some skyscrapers but was surprised to see them in the cities they were in (I didn’t visit Mumbai but have seen pictures of it’s fairly tall skyline). It was a surprise indeed. But I think that there were tall buildings added a dimension to it, the modern country juxtaposed against the traditional in a melange of energy and chaos.
This is the “Away” part of “Upstate and Away” right? 😉 What you said about the liberating aspect of not having any free time really makes sense – you really were forced to find India in all those in-between moments. Some of those are the most telling anyway. I know I regretted not having photographed more of those in-between, ordinary moments when I went to Europe last year. I wish you could have brought a bunch of newspapers back! I’m not surprised that the “small eateries” food was fantastic – that brings back memories of a tiny restaurant set up in Hoboken in the early ’70s for single men studying technology at Stevens. They had no wives to cook for them so they went to this restaurant that made home-cooked food for them. I’ve never come across anything as good since but I bet I would in India. Seeing the strong Chinese business presence there must have been interesting – I’ve just become more aware of that since reading about COVID19 and China-India transmission worries.I love the idea of going to a Utensil Museum in India. 😉 There are many great photos here, like the man on the Royal Enfield – wonderful! The cattle and garbage, too. You’ve told a tale that’s uniquely yours, as always, Robert. Thank you!
Thank you for your lovely comment!
This certainly is the Away part! I got a kick out of that.
I agree, the magic moments often happen when just in the flow of things. I hope you’ll get a chance to capture more moments the next time you’re able to travel.
The newspapers were quite the trip, some were well written, others surreal.
That restaurant in Hoboken sounds like an interesting idea. The meals were truly exceptional. There was only one thing the entire time I disliked and I’ve already forgotten what it was.
The connection to China was eye-opening, the last time I was aware of the two interacting they were at war in the late Sixties!
It looked like quite a trip judging by the miles you covered and the wonderful pics.
Thanks! It certainly was.
I was a bit breathless reading of your visits all over. I can’t imagine traveling that far and not being able to have free time to explore, but a job is a job with responsibilities. Very interesting to see the vignettes of life in these places.
I would like to go back and visit as a tourist. I expect that I will have a very different experience. It was also exhausting at this breakneck pace, but very much worth it. And the vignettes are sometimes the highlight of travel for me anyway.
Your trip may have felt like warp speed but these scenes are more than mere flickers of thinking or fuzzy backlit filmstrips. There’s a lot of thoughtful reflection here of an experienced, self-aware traveler. What a life you’re living (!) taking advantage of opportunities like this to journey smartly in the world and come home and make sense of it all. I like your reference so much at the end of this, about the aquarium, that’s a really cool, interesting literary device. Reminds me of places where I’ve felt a harmonious feeling of floating along like just another slow-motion atomic particle of everything around. Happy Tuesday, Robert. Cheers, Jason
Thank you for your generous words, I am fortunate to be able to have these experiences.
I like that atomic particle comparison, I think that’s fun!
I enjoyed this post very much~sorry it took me so long to read it. I was waiting for a time when I could relax and really look at it. It is unlikely I will ever travel to India, but a part of me wishes this were not so. Your snapshots make me feel I am there. It looks just as I imagine from the books I read that are set there. The portrait of the man on his machine is spectacular! Nerves of Steel is right~he does look relaxed, but I sure wouldn’t cross him!
Thanks, Melissa, I of course appreciate you reading and commenting – -I often do the same thing, any posts with pictures or paintings, I can see on my phone, but like to see it on my laptop in the evenings or weekends. I felt pretty lucky to see these places, I hope they send me again sometime. This virus is really demolishing everyone’s trips and study abroad plans. I’m usually not enthusiastic about corporate bailouts, but it’s probably necessary in this case, if we’re going to have any airlines still operating.
I agree. Right now it feels like our options on many fronts are diminishing but we’re an inventive species. No doubt we’ll get options back once this is over. They might even be better!
Being an indian, reading this felt so relatable😃 do visit my page too if u may spare some time😅
Thank you, Swagata, I’m glad it felt relatable. 😊
India is beautiful. Its diverse culture, rich food and incredible people will never fail to amaze you.
Thank you, Aarushi & Rohini, I hope I can return soon.