I’ve been thinking a lot about India lately. Scott and I traveled there about ten years ago but my memory of it is as sharp as it was the day I left. It is a country that leaves an impression. India assaults you in every way—with its crowds, with its smells, with its heat, with its swindlers, and with its beauty.
Anywhere else in the world you can get in a cab and say, I’d like to go to X restaurant please, and you’d actually be taken to restaurant X. In India you say, I’d like to go to X restaurant please, and then you are taken to the cab driver’s brother-in-law’s parents’ restaurant. “Is much better here,” the cabbie will say, unapologetically collecting your money even though he’s taken you someplace you didn’t ask to go. “And tell them Dinesh sent you,” he’ll add before zooming off.
The one place I really wanted to see in India was Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first teaching and introduced his doctrine of peace. Sarnath is outside of intensely populated Varansi, which is, at about 3,000 years old, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It's situated on the banks of Ganges River where throngs of Indians come every morning, descending the stepped ghats to bathe, pray, and brush their teeth. No one seems to mind if the ghat they 're using is next to a crematorium where relatives wait next to burning funeral pyres for bodies to become ashes so they can scatter them in the Ganges. There might be more DNA in that river than water.
When we got to Varanasi, Scott didn’t feel well so I set out on my own. I was going to save the big sightseeing for when he was better, so I thought I’d check out a sari silk shop. I got the name of a good one from a guy at our hotel who gave me a card with precise directions for the cab driver to follow. Of course, the cab driver ignored the address. Instead of going deeper into the labyrinthine city, this guy started driving me out of town. I leaned over a couple of times, pointing to the name and address on the card I clutched, and the driver would nod vigorously. When we finally stopped it was at a wholesale fabric warehouse far from the city. “This is best silk in India,” he said, pointing to his meter to show me how many rupees I owed him. “And tell them Pradeep sent you.”
The man in the warehouse helped me call a cab to get back, but of course the driver had other plans for me. This time, though, it was not about commerce. “To Rishipattana?” he asked. I shook my head and handed him a card with my hotel’s name and address. He looked at it and handed it back. “You have been to Rishipattana?” he asked. I said no, but I wanted to go straight back to the hotel. He started driving and in less than two minutes I understood; Rishipattana was another name for Sarnath. The driver stopped, rightly assuming I'd want to visit this sacred place, and put his palm over the meter. It couldn’t have been much—it turned out the fabric warehouse was only about a mile away—but in my experience of India, not accepting money was rare.
At last, I had been taken somewhere I had planned on going. Just not that day. Or in that way.
I suppose I’m thinking of India because it’s very much like writing a novel. You know where you want to go, you just don’t know how you’re going to get there. Or if you’ll be taken somewhere else entirely.
I’m about 40 pages from finishing my current work in progress and I feel like I’m stepping in to a cab in India. Despite having a good idea about where I want to go, I have no idea where I’ll end up.
3 weeks ago