The year was 1982, one of my first trips overseas. I got a sore neck, turning this way and that to take in the sights of the five-ring circus that is India. A brightly painted elephant walking unaccompanied down the street among the roaming cows. A snake charmer with his wily mongoose and basketful of cobras. Women in colorful silk saris, no two alike, exotic as tropical birds. A monkey dressed in an embroidered jacket and fez sitting on a dog and smoking a cigarette as his master tries to hawk photos. A Hindu temple covered with pornographic stone carvings, adjacent to a Muslim mosque devoid of images.
My wife and I had been budget-traveling around India for three weeks when we met up with the cousin of a friend from Chicago. He offered us the mother of all deals. “My father runs a travel agency,” he said. “For $150 you can travel from Delhi to Jaipur on an air-conditioned bus, complete with first-run movies, and stay two nights in a luxury hotel. All expenses are covered, including meals and entrance fees.” How could we say no?
We spent the night in a fleabag hotel located on a street that served as a drag-racing track for snarling motorcycles. After asking the hotel porter to wake us at 5 a.m., we lay on cots, drenched in sweat, and tried to sleep. Turns out, the porter didn’t understand much English, and he pounded on our door at midnight, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 o’clock, just to be safe.
Oh well, we thought, soon we’ll be napping in a luxury hotel. We hailed a three-wheeled taxi which took us to the rendezvous spot in downtown Delhi. Oddly enough, on the dark, empty street we saw no buses and no other tourists. At last a plump young British woman joined us, and the three of us were surprised to see a taxi pull up. “You the group for Jaipur?” asked the driver.
We asked about the air-conditioned bus and he replied, “No, no. Change of plans. I take you.” By now we’d grown used to changes of plans in India.
The driver’s wife occupied the front passenger seat, which meant that Janet and I and the buxom British woman had to squeeze into the back seat, with our legs wrapped around pieces of luggage that did not fit in the trunk. A few minutes later, the British woman began slowly unbuttoning her sweater. Out of it hopped a small white dog! “Oh, this is Pandu,” she said. “He’s very calm, a rare Tibetan breed. I’ve been training him to hide against my body so I can sneak him through British customs without putting him in quarantine.”
Our bouncy, five-and-a-half hour drive to Jaipur had begun.
Alarm bells went off when we arrived in Jaipur and parked at an ancient fort. The driver asked us for the fifty-cent admission fee. “Wait a minute. We were told all fees were paid, as well as meals and a hotel.”
The driver looked puzzled. “No, only ride. I bring you, I take you back.” My heart sank as it dawned on me that once again we had been ripped off by an unscrupulous vendor. For a tourist in a country like India, there is no recourse, no appeal to consumer rights.
Exhausted and discouraged, we found a cheap hotel where we stashed our luggage and hit the streets to see the sights of India’s famous “Pink City.” At least the architectural splendor of Jaipur lived up to its billing. Our spirits began to improve.
On our second night, we decided to use our depleted savings on a splurge. According to the calendar, the following day was Thanksgiving in America. We certainly couldn’t find a proper Thanksgiving dinner in a country that didn’t know the holiday, but at least we could celebrate. We would lunch in style at a Maharaja’s palace, now converted into a tourist hotel.
For three weeks every meal had tasted the same: rice with curried chicken, curried seafood, or curried vegetables. Our meal at the palace began with a bowl of chopped fruit, something we had avoided after a bout of dysentery. Surely this hotel had washed their fruit properly. Although the fruit was indeed clean, it took only one bite to realize that it, like everything else, was coated with hot curry powder.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said to Janet as I gulped down some orange juice to quell the fire. I’ve never felt more homesick for a meal of turkey and dressing, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes.
To add insult to injury, the taxi never showed up that afternoon for the return trip. We raced to the train station, spent our last rupees on a ticket, and arrived at the Delhi airport barely in time to make our overnight flight back to America—with renewed gratitude for home sweet home.
“India has changed,” I hear as I prepare for another visit in late 2008, this time on a book tour. “You won’t recognize it. It’s the New India, with high-tech companies, fancy shopping malls, and skyscrapers.”
Sure enough, I see obvious changes right away. Since my 1982 visit, India’s population has increased by a number greater than the total population of the U.S., which makes cities and streets far more crowded. Now Mercedes, Audis, and the occasional Jaguar rule the roads, with motorbikes and three-wheel taxis weaving through the snarl of traffic like herrings cutting through a school of tuna.
Nothing in India goes away, however; the layers simply accumulate. Exotic cars still must share the highways with bullock carts, horses, and perhaps an elephant or camel. The electric wires now crisscrossing the major cities serve as convenient skyways for ubiquitous monkeys. Modern buildings may tower in the cities, yet if you leave the urban areas, the old India surges back: women walk the road with brass pots and pans balanced on their heads; water buffalo pull hand-hewn plows to till the ground; bent-over old women sweep the pavement with handleless brooms of straw.
The book tour, focusing on What’s So Amazing About Grace? has gone well. We will leave here inspired by people who practice their faith in a way that is transforming society, especially among the Dalits (a caste formerly called “Untouchables”). We have one remaining event, our last, in downtown Mumbai. Tonight we are staying at the home of Dr. Stephen Alfred in a suburb some twenty miles from the city center. Our hosts apologize for putting us in a private home rather than a tourist hotel downtown; they want us to see the remarkable hospital and AIDS clinic built by this doctor.
The next morning I awake in the dark, dress in running clothes, and quietly undo the locks on the front door to head out for a morning jog. Strangely, as I return the Alfreds are standing at the door, waiting. “Are you all right?” Stephen asks in a concerned tone. “We were about to send a search party after you. Better get inside. It seems they’re targeting foreigners.”
And now I hear the news. Last night as were sitting around the table swapping stories, terrorists from Pakistan landed in downtown Mumbai and attacked ten different sites, including the main train station and several tourist hotels. Mumbai is under police lockdown as pitched battles still rage at the Taj Mahal Hotel.
We gather around a small television in the living room and watch the news. Tanks and armored cars surround the scene, along with several thousand onlookers. A few guests on upper floors are leaning out of windows waving towels. Eleven policemen have died, including the head of state security. The civilian death toll is rising by the hour. (The final tally will reach 174, with 380 wounded.)
We sit down for breakfast, and as we say grace I remember that later today, some thirteen time zones away, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for, beginning with safety. We would have been staying at a downtown hotel near the planned venue were it not for this “detour” on the itinerary.
There is no question of holding the scheduled meeting tonight, for the auditorium now sits behind police lines. I feel bad for the local organizers, who have worked for months planning a program, printing tickets, designing banners, stocking books. As we talk throughout the day, another idea comes to mind. What if we hold an impromptu meeting in a local church, so that at least people who live in the suburbs on our side of Mumbai can attend?
I recall the night of September 11, 2001 in my home town when my church spontaneously filled with hundreds of people. No one announced or planned a meeting. Stunned, grieving, afraid, we went by instinct to church, to join with fellow believers in prayer. If our faith matters at all, it must matter at such a time of crisis, and inadvertently I have just found myself in the midst of a faith-testing crisis.
As we talk through the possibilities, the doorbell rings. Somehow the energetic young singer who has shared the platform in all five cities has made it to the doctor’s home. We now have music and a speaker. Stephen Alfred gets on the phone, calls a few friends and a local pastor, and by mid-afternoon the service has taken shape. By the time the service starts, around 250 people have gathered. We sing. We pray. We tell stories of our day. We weep for the dead and wounded. We pray some more. And now it’s my turn to speak.
Thanksgiving has never held so much meaning.
(Some material adapted from What Good Is God?)
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