Countdown to India: 22 days to liftoff

Pieces are falling into place. I have completed the requirements for applying for a tourist visa to India and need only go back to the passport agency office (for a third time) to pick it up. I have received all the necessary inoculations, and have prescriptions for the meds I will pack but am hoping I don’t need while I am there (Ciproflaxin, for example). I am making plans for walking tours on the two days I will be spending in Mumbai between when my tour is over and when I fly home. I am starting to get so excited about this trip that on a few nights I have been awake far too late, just reading about where I’m going.

I am reading the introductory material (what to bring, what not to eat when you get there, etc) in the The Rough Guide to India (Rough Guides), which I received as a gift from the tour agency, G Adventures, when I booked my trip. And I am reading about the individual cities and sites I will be visiting. I read the entire section on Mumbai the day I went to hand in the application for my tourist visa: that night I barely slept at all because I was so pumped about this trip. So much to see! So much to do! So little time!

I’ve also been reading Empire of the Soul: Some Journeys in India"", a book by Paul William Roberts that a friend of mine gave me for reasons I don’t remember about 15 years ago (thanks, Deb!). I’ve been moving it from one residence to another ever since — waiting for the right moment to read it, I suppose — and I’m glad I did because now I am being transported by it. 🙂

Published in 1994 by Stoddart, the book is the story of the author’s several journeys to India between the mid-70s and  the early 1990s and it is funny, insightful and illuminating. Roberts’s early explorations of India were based largely on his search for enlightenment among the gurus and seers of the subcontinent, and this interest (combined with a nicely skeptical eye) took him to a wildly diverse range of ashrams where he soon found that some holy men were more “holy” than others. His early journeys also took him to the beaches of Goa during the Hippie era, where he had encounters both amusing and alarming: sometimes both at the same time.

Roberts, who has also written about Egypt and was a respected reporter on Iraq during Desert Storm for such notable magazines as Harper’s and Saturday Night, has won a National Magazine Award as well as other accolades. He is a man of diverse interests, so his travel stories focus not only on his spiritual explorations of India but also on such topics as the country’s history, geography, natural history, culture and economics (to name only a few). His recounting of an experience with “Delhi Belly,” while hilarious as a piece of prose, redoubled my determination to drink only bottled water on my trip, to eat no vegetables or fruits unless I peel them or see them being boiled, and to avoid meat unless my tour guide gives it the thumbs’ up.

Empire of the Soul is a fine book, and I recommend it. I was sorry to read on the website of the author, who is “considered one of Canada’s s top experts on Middle Eastern affairs,” that he lost his sight a few years ago and has lived in seclusion ever since.

I also continue my perusal of India: A History. Revised and Updated"" by John Keay. One section explores the history of the word “India” itself which, until late in the last century, had demeaning overtones — largely due to centuries of the subcontinent’s colonization by outside powers, from the Mughals to the British. Keay says that the word “India” itself likely derives from the Sanskrit word for “river” — Sindhu — as transformed during its passage through various other languages including Persian and Greek to finally become “Indus” (also the name of the vast river basin in north-western India). By the time the British had taken control of the subcontinent, “The Indies” had come to mean to outsiders a place to be conquered and exploited, and after Partition, many expected that the new state would take another name. But it did not, and since that time, India has successfully begun to redefine itself as an independent nation, thereby altering for the better the connotations associated with its name.

Keay also presents an interesting account of the beginnings of the caste system in India, explaining that the two highest castes  were originally members of either the ruling or “warrior” families (kings and/or governmental leaders) or the brahmans, a priesthood. These two castes believed they shared a common ancestor and they were associated in the Rig Veda (the collection of sacred Vedic Sanskrit hymns, composed — it is thought — between 1700 and 11oo BC) with the arms (the ksatryia and rajas) and the mouth (the brahmans). The next caste, the agricultural workers and merchants, were called the vaisya and although they were not as well pedigreed, they were still “twice born” — once physically and once through sacred rites. They were the people who created the wealth for the ksatryia and brahmans, and they were associated with the thighs. The lower castes were comprised primarily of the indigenous people of the region that is now northern India. These were the labourers, and the caste was named the sudra and represented by the feet.

In addition to history and travel stories, my attention has been attracted lately to stories in the media about India. I thoroughly enjoyed one that appeared recently in The Guardian, “Delhi’s traffic chaos has a character of its own,” in which Jason Burke shows that cultural and economic patterns of daily life in Delhi dictate traffic flows at various times of the day (and night), and that driving within lanes is simply not part of the script for Delhi drivers. I may be less amused and intrigued by this story in three weeks and a day or two when I am trying to get from the airport to my hotel. Stay tuned.

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