Category Archives: Preparation

What to read on a 15-hour plane ride?

So my trip to India involves a bunch of looong plane rides, and I’m looking for titles of books that are going to totally distract me for a few hours. It has to be a “good” book — not just a quick read. I need to get involved in it, hooked by it, transported by it. What do you suggest?

I’ll post some of the responses and my decisions here. I have read in the Rough Guide that there are some neat bookstores in places I’m going like Pushkar! Imagine buying a book in Pushkar! (Of course, if you live there, it wouldn’t seem so exotic, but to me it does.) I think I will leave whatever books I take there, with someone who wants them, and get more in India for the return trip.

Five days to liftoff!! I read this article today and I was reminded that it’s not all pink cities and taj mahals: but my anticipation is undiminished.


I have been (pleasantly) inundated with Indian history all week. Having finished reading Empire of the Soul, I have turned my attention back to India: A History. Revised and Updated"" by John Keay. There is no way I’ll get it finished before I leave, and I won’t take it with me because it’s two inches thick, but I am still taking my leisurely time with it rather than trying to skim, and hoping I will retain at least a little of the knowledge I am picking up.

In recent days, the history has hit solid ground – instead of to informed speculation, Keay can now refer to documents that provide at least general dates of battles and invasions, and lives of specific individuals – most notably that of Siddharta Guatama, better known to us as the Buddha, who is thought to have been born c. 563 BCE in the area now known as Nepal. I have also read about Alexander the Great’s remarkable advance through northwestern India, starting in about 326 BCE. He withdrew several years later, mainly because his men were about to mutiny after eight years on the road, but they took the first known Indian expatriate back to Greece with them. Calanus, whose recorded behaviour indicates that he may have been a Jain, was a towering figure who impressed the Greeks not only by walking around naked but also by unflinchingly immolating himself on his own funeral pyre when he felt his end was drawing near: he didn’t want become a burden.

Tonight I turned on TVO to see an episode of The Story of India, a fascinating PBS/BBC series narrated by Michael Wood. Tonight’s segment, fifth in the series although it’s the first I have seen, was entitled “The Meeting of Two Oceans.”  It concerned itself with India’s history from about 12oo to 1600. During this period, which includes the Renaissance, India was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. One of the most remarkable characters from that era was the Mughal ruler Akbar, whose fictionalized story I read only a few years ago in The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. Akbar in real life, according to the PBS/BBC program, was remarkable for, among other reasons, his efforts to find a common ground among India’s religions.

Between leaping from 500 BCE to 1600 CE, and trying to keep a close enough grip on the present to keep track of what I need to take with me when I leave on my adventure (such as a plug adapter so that I can recharge my camera batteries and iPad), I have already got a sense that I am gradually losing touch with the mundane matters of my life (which also need my  attention for at least another ten days!)

The Rough Guide Has A Sense of Humour. Who Knew?

I’ve been diligently reading the opening section of the Rough Guide to India to get a clear idea of what I should expect, what I should take with me, what I should leave at home, what I should get jabbed with before I go, etc. I keep coming across statements in the travel guide that make me laugh out loud.

Since the tour company I am travelling with recommends bringing a sense of humour to India in order to survive the inevitable unexpected last-minute changes and confusions and unfamiliar practices and customs, I am beginning to think I’ve already packed one of the most important contributors to a positive experience (along with the Imodium and the pre-treated mosquito net), because I am certainly amused.

Here are a few examples from the Rough Guide that have made me laugh:

  • “Getting good maps of India, in India, can be difficult. The government – in an archaic suspicion of cartography, and in spite of full coverage of the country on Google – forbids the sale of detailed maps of border areas, which include the entire coastline.”
  • “Sending a parcel from India can be a performance. First take it to a tailor to have it wrapped in cheap cotton cloth, stitched and sealed with wax. Next, take it to the post office, fill in and attach the necessary customs forms, buy your stamps, see them franked and dispatch it. Surface mail is incredibly cheap and takes an average of six months to arrive – it may take half or two times that, however.” (I am very tempted to mail myself something, just to experience this.)
  • I want to try the laundry system, too: “In India, no one goes to the laundry: if they don’t do their own, they send it out to a dhobi . . . . The dhobi will take your dirty washing to a dhobi ghat, a public clothes-washing area (the bank of a river for example), where it is shown some old-fashioned discipline: separated, soaped and given a damn good thrashing to beat the dirt out of it. Then it is hung out to dry in the sun and, once dried, taken to the ironing sheds where every garment is endowed with razor-sharp creases and then matched to its rightful owner by hidden cryptic markings.”
  • Finally, following several pieces of advice to women travelling alone who may need to deal with unwanted overtures or harassments: “If you feel someone getting too close in a crowd or on a bus, brandishing your left shoe in his face can be very effective.”

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.

Countdown to India: 5 weeks, 2 days

Today I went to the Consulate General of India (Toronto) to get a travel visa. I had my passport with me, my vaccination record, my birth certificate and my travel bookings. The on-line information said that people had to apply in person. Still, I had this niggling little feeling that I should have phoned first.

Sure enough. When I got there, they insisted I go away again and apply for the visa on-line, then print out the result and bring it back — in person.

The Consulate General of India (Toronto) is about 1/2 hour from my place by transit, so when they directed me to a nearby Staples, I took the advice. I went to Staples and waited in line for another half hour for the one rentable  computer (someone else was also applying for a travel visa to India). When it was finally my turn, I input two pages of data (father’s name, place of birth; mother’s name, place of birth; religion; passport number, etc etc etc), saving as I went. At the end of Page 2,  the document went BLINK and everything disappeared. Everything from Page 1 was also gone.

I came home.

I figure that many things about India are going to drive my obsessive, goal-oriented, time-conserving Western approach to life around the bend and I should just start to get used to it — so I only threw a small fit, and only when the computer at Staples refused to print my receipt.

I think the Consulate General of India (Toronto) should install a couple of computers with internet access and charge for their use, thereby saving applicants from having to walk over to Staples and pay them.

I have my vaccinations and am starting to deal with the details I didn’t take care of last winter when I made my basic travel arrangements. I am getting very excited.

Into India (2)

I had hoped to get to see the magnificent exhibition Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts at the Art Gallery of Ontario (it was organized in cooperation with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) for a third time before I left town for a family vacation in late April, but it was not to be. The first two times I had visited Maharaja, I had stayed for about two hours each time—but I could have gone a third and fourth time and still not have given any appropriate amount of attention to the artifacts on display.

Quite aside from the hundreds of individual pieces of jewelry—(one platinum necklace designed by Cartier for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh in 1928 originally contained 2,930 diamonds), art, drapes, pillows, furniture, clothing, weapons, even thrones, carriages and the “Star of India” Rolls Royce, each opulently decorated with jewels, embroidery, filigree, carvings and enamelling—the exhibition offered so much written and video history that in fact it would have taken weeks to absorb all of it in any way that could have hoped to justify the monumental effort that had gone into the curatorial process.

I was surprised by one of the historical perspectives I acquired in my visits to the Maharaja show: I realized that the maharajas had been largely figureheads, at least from the time of the Mughal Empire through the era of the British Raj, which was shortly before their decline in the latter years of the 20th century. These noblemen are depicted in art and photographs emerging on festive occasions from their  palaces clad in diamonds, rubies and silk, riding on an elephant or, later, in one of their elegant carriages—only to fall into line behind the then-rulers of their countries—the Persians, various Europeans, the officers of the British East India Company and other governmental leaders.

I was also interested to note evidence in the Maharaja exhibits of the freedom that royal women evidently enjoyed in the 1600s and 1700s, participating publically in hunting expeditions and military exercises. This was quite a contrast to the article I read recently in the New York Times, “Improving Women’s Status, One Bathroom At A Time,”  that pointed out that the shortage of public bathrooms for women in India has an enormous effect on their ability to participate in the workforce or go to school. But perhaps this contrast has more to do with birth status than the century in which these women live or lived.

I turned back to John Keay’s India: A History, looking forward to finding out more about the Aryan civilization to which 19th century historians had attributed the evolution of Sanskrit language—one of the important influences on all “Indo-European” languages including English—but when I finally had time to read Chapter 2  I discovered that there are two histories to be taken into account in all matters Aryan: and probably all matters historical when it comes right down to it. First there is the actual history which (obviously) the historians are attempting to uncover; then there is the history of the history that the historians are uncovering. If you get my drift.

In this case, after the 19th century excitement among historians and the public about the possibility that a huge Aryan civilization had once spread across much of eastern Europe, which was followed as we know by widespread efforts particularly on the part of certain Teutonic leaders in the 1930s to show themselves to be direct descendents from this “pure” “white” civilization, new evidence came to light that suggested that there might never have been such a civilization at all.

Early in the chapter called “Vedic Values: C 1700 to 900 B.C.,” Keays says, “Questions tantamount to heresy among an earlier generation of historians are now routinely raised as to who the arya were, where they came from, and whether they were really even a distinct people.”  (p. 19).

Take that, Klu Klux Klan and Adolph Hitler!

Keays goes on to explain how the confusion came about, which was primarily as a result of efforts by historians to explain how the Sanskrit language had come into being. He also points out that this investigation led to an interesting series of discoveries in which probable historical events were deduced on the basis of philology, or the study of how language changed.

The philological study of the Sanskrit Vedas, songs or hymns which are held sacred by Hindus, led to intriguing revelations such as that the word used for “plough” in the Vedas was not a Sanskrit word but was adopted from another language—which meant that the original speakers of Sanskrit did not have ploughs. (I love this stuff.) Sanskrit originally (and ironically) also has no words for “writing” or “scribe.” It does, however, contain lots of terms relating to managing herds of sheep and cattle, so it is likely that the arya cultures were pastoral rather than agrarian. Nice, eh?

Anyway, one of the sums of all these findings is that today historians think that a group of ethnic influences on language (Sanskrit), priesthood (brahmans) and social structure (castes) either invaded or migrated into India, or perhaps it was far more subtle: maybe over the centuries the influence of the thinking of these speakers of Sanskrit merely had increasing sway over the thinking of others among whom they lived and worked.

Keays then explores the related and similarly fascinating (to me) subject of how the Vedas, which were passed down generation to generation by word of mouth, affected the subcontinent’s religion, culture and even scientific thought for the next several hundred years.

I must admit that the story of India seems to grow even more complex and unfathomable the more I attempt to learn about it, but mysteries that are too easily resolved are boring, so I’m okay with this.

Into India (1)

India has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. When I was given the  incredible opportunity a few months ago to choose the “trip of a lifetime,”  it didn’t take me long to commit to India for my destination. I have now booked a ten-day, small-group excursion in November that begins in Delhi and tours northern India for several days, then takes an overnight train to Mumbai for a quick look at that city before winding down on a beach in Goa.

I know that to say “I am fascinated by India” is simplistic, and sounds naïve. India is not a single thing—it is a blend of cultures, religions, economies, perspectives—and I also know that many of the things it is are likely to repel rather than appeal to me. I realize that India is nothing an outsider like myself can even begin to understand.

Maybe it is my perception of the impossibility of defining the subcontinent that attracts me to it. “I am fascinated by India” is a very different kind of statement than is “I am fascinated by Belgium,” or “I am fascinated by Kenya,” or even (to choose a larger geographical space) “I am fascinated by Australia.”

Being fascinated by India is like being fascinated by garam masala: I have no idea what it’s made of, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be all that familiar with the constituent parts; the mystery of the parts as well as of the whole is a lot of what makes it appealing. I know that India can be a dangerous place to go, and its dark side may be part of the attraction too. It ain’t Switzerland, and I know it.

All in all, I am beside myself with excitement at the prospect of going there.

It has become my goal to conquer in advance as much I can learn about India from books and other media – to gain intellectually what I can before I face the country emotionally and physically. What I already know about India’s cultures and its history I have learned primarily from novels (by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Shandra, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, E.M. Forster, and several others) and films (Deepa Mehta and Satyajit Ray, for example), but I have never made any attempt before to gather these bits of knowledge together into any kind of historical framework. After consulting several sources, I decided to start by reading India: A History by John Keay.

So far I have read the introduction and first chapter, and already I have learned some fascinating stuff:

  • Despite evidence left behind since at least 2000 BC by several highly evolved civilizations in the geographical territory encompassing what we now call India (and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc), no one set the history of the area down in writing until about 1200 AD;
  • The story of the flood that is found in both Christian and Jewish scripture may have come from a inundation that entirely wiped out the Sumerian city of Shuruppak, possibly around 3000 BC and/or from another flood or series of floods around 2000 BC that submerged the highly productive and sophisticated Harappan civilization, an agriculture-based society in the region of the Indus river basin;
  • While the Harappan civilization left no written record of its existence, it did leave a legacy of artifacts and ruins that have been uncovered since 1920 in a wide swath extending (in terms of current-day geographical reference points) more than 1800 miles from the southern shores of Pakistan, down the coast of the Arabian Sea towards Mumbai, and west beyond the city of New Delhi;
  • The first and most extensive archeological evidence of the Harappans is located north of Karachi at Mohenjo-Daro. Although this civilization left no written record that can yet be deciphered, it was evidently a sophisticated culture that used imprinted soapstone seals for trade, and created figurines, pottery, tools and jewelry from precious metals such as bronze and silver, and other materials like lapis lazuli and soapstone. Their buildings, including homes, granaries and public buildings, were constructed from brick;
  • The Harappans are conjectured to have been the first civilization in the world to have planned their cities, woven cotton, and used wheeled transportation;
  • Incredibly, at the same time as the Harappan civilization evolved and then disappeared without (apparently) leaving a single written word describing its existence, another whole civilization, the Aryan, was also flourishing, possibly in the same geographical areas and at approximately the same time. The Aryans, by contrast to the Harappans, have been thoroughly described in Sanskrit in the Vedas; also by contrast, there is no physical evidence that they existed.

It appears that the second chapter of India: A History will focus on this Aryan contribution. I’ve been hearing about Sanskrit since I took a course in English etymology in university, and I am looking forward to learning more.