A Giller Prize and Governor General’s award-winning author tells of his love of and fascination for India, a place he almost calls home.
By M G Vassanji
During my first visit to India, I had no special desire to see the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort, or the maharaja palaces in Rajasthan, or the ancient, famed city of Banaras (Varanasi)—or indeed, any of the “musts” of many a tourist itinerary. I had not come to tour, and had no desire to see a “must” just yet.
But I wished desperately to see India. What was India? I wasn’t quite sure. As luck would have it, however, a major airline was on strike, and I had to travel by train from Delhi, where I had landed, to the east coast city of Bhubaneswar, where I was to speak at a conference. It turned out a memorable trip, and I have always thanked the gods for that strike; without it, India would have been a very different and, I am certain, a lesser experience. It might not have captured me the way it did. On that one-month visit I criss-crossed the length and breadth of India, and journeyed several thousand miles by train. Plane travel after that became a boring necessity, at best.
There is a method to Indian train travel, as I discovered during that and my later visits. The station, as one arrives, is a tumult of taxis, rickshaws, coolies (porters) in red jackets, passengers, vendors. You look up the track number for your train, hustle your way upstairs and downstairs in a tide of people, and look for the board on which is posted a chart listing your name (and age) and confirming your berth, in both Hindi and English. You find out where to wait on the platform so that when the train arrives you are jostling with the right crowd to clamber up and reach your place in time.
You might have bought a newspaper, or a pirated paperback, while you waited outside. With relief and a sense of triumph you finally sit down, look around and smile at your fellow passengers; like them you chain your luggage to a leg of your berth, so some thief doesn’t walk away with it at night; you give your selection of meal—veg or nonveg—to the attendant who comes by; you accept tea, and take your bedding. Finally, you sit back and relax to that comforting, endless rhythm of the railway. And you say to yourself, this is India, the ground under you, the trees, and hovels, and farms, and stations, and village cricket games that you pass. You could travel this way forever.
To be sure, there have been railway misadventures during my many revisits: cancelled trains; news about a crashed train that luckily I happened to miss; a delay due to the monsoons, and consequently a nervous night spent at a station hostel in the company of silent strangers and cat-sized rats; getting by default what I swear was the slowest train in the world, 18 people crammed in a space for six, and by the end of the journey indescribable toilets. But it’s all worked out at the end. And that mixture of sensations—expectation, anxiety, triumph and excitement—always returns every time.
I did see the Taj Mahal, and I found it breathtaking; what else? I’ve seen maharajah palaces and the Red Fort and much else, and even travelled to the southernmost tip of India where two oceans meet. When my family were with me, the kids took a ride on the back of an elephant—there, the family thing.
But the real thrill of India I often find in the mundane; or somewhere off the tourist track; or in that unexpected moment that reveals such an epiphany, a rawness or freshness of experience, as to alter one’s worldview. During that first, and very long, journey, I spent many hours staring out my train window, wondering, What is India? Where is India?
I suppose I was seeking some essence of India. And then it happened. It was early the second morning, in the midst of a noisy and quite mundane scene—people slowly getting up and going about their business, tea trays clattering by in the aisle, the train wheels furiously going clackety-clack—when there came the haunting sound of the most beautiful singing. It was heart-stopping, and the singer was one of the passengers, an ordinary girl travelling with her family. And I realized at that moment that India just happens. You have only got to give it time.
The thrill of India is in my first auto-rickshaw ride upon my arrival each time; it’s been a vigorous Qawwali recital on a warm Thursday night amidst graves at the shrine of a medieval poet; it’s in the long hike, beginning at 4 a.m.—for it’s going to get hot later—up a steep mountain to a Kali temple in Gujarat, along with a host of happy pilgrims—and then coming down and collapsing to the grasping hands of a street masseur and a glass of fresh sugarcane juice; it was the spontaneous gathering of visitors on an evening in the courtyard of a state tourist hotel in Orissa for a recital of poetry and song; it’s the weirdly half-deserted town in Gujarat with abandoned palatial homes, and the highway temple beloved to transvestites, and the highway shrine to the Saint of Clocks, beloved to truck drivers.
And so on, India happens. Anywhere you are, you can peel off layers of its history, hear the multiplicities of its stories—such as the one about the flying minarets.
At the first track of the Ahmedabad railway station, there stand two tall, elaborately carved stone minarets, all by themselves. Where’s the rest of the mosque? Underground? My rickshaw driver gave me the received wisdom: one day these two minarets simply flew off from the great mosque built by the 15th-century founder of the city, Sultan Ahmed. The sultan, incidentally, had to trap a powerful and obstructive mystic inside a teapot before he could complete the city. And at some unrecorded time the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, was detained within its walls when the gatekeeper connived to lose the keys.
No wonder then the city is one of India’s largest commercial centres, and boasts one of the world’s top management schools; it was also the site of Gandhi’s first ashram, now a museum; and to give the tacky its due, it has a model of the Statue of Liberty, and a street sparkling with jewellery stores.
Or consider this story about the ghosts of the British Raj. At the foothills of the Himalayas lies the quaint, picturesque town of Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj. Government officials retired here in order to escape the summer heat of the plains. The viceroys’ residence is still called the Viceregal Lodge and is its principal tourist site; it now houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. The town wears its history with some pride, the other principal Raj buildings well marked, and places bearing names like Summerhill and Peterhof.
The Viceregal Lodge, or the Institute, is believed by some to be haunted by its former British occupants, the main culprit being Lady Curzon. The Lady’s ghost makes its presence felt principally by swiping the guests’ essential items such as their toiletries.
In the summer of 2010 I happened to be given a capacious two-room suite, which must have once been luxurious, but now was pretty run down. The large windows looked out over a green valley, draped with a thick mist at night and early in the morning; in the far distance were the mysterious snow-capped Himalayas, over which the sun set spectacularly every evening. There is a wide terrace outside the rooms, but it’s hazardous to step out onto it.
One evening, after answering a phone call in the spare room, I noticed that the pen which had been in my hand was inexplicably missing. I searched high and low for it, to no avail. It could only mean one thing, and I announced to all and sundry that I had been visited by the Lady. The following morning I discovered that the mango I had eaten on a plate on the coffee table was strewn about on the floor in the most ungainly fashion. What other proof was needed?
But had Lady Curzon turned so uncouth? That evening, however, when I returned from dinner, I discovered in that haunted room a weird little animal just a little larger than a squirrel and with the most amazing powers of leaping. I closed the door on it and called the janitors, who duly arrived with a large stick. They opened the windows and the flying fox—or Lady Curzon—flew out into the night. If that were not enough, one night I saw her shape clearly on my ancient drapes. But that’s another story.
M G Vassanji’s memoir about his travels to India, A Place Within: Rediscovering India, won the 2009 Governor General’s Award. He is one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, a two-time Giller Prize winner, author of 12 books and numerous short stories and essays. He lives in Toronto but travels often to India and East Africa, the place of his birth and childhood. Find out more about him on his website here.