A Passage to India (with apologies to E.M. Forster)

By Iain Manley Jul 11, 2007

“The brown skins, the bare feet, the nose-rings, the humped bullocks – all these things were foreseeable, seemed obvious and familiar from the moment of landing. The really odd, unexpected thing about Bombay was its birds. There are more birds in the streets of this million-peopled city than in an English woodland.”
Aldous Huxley, Jesting Pilate: An Intellectual Holiday

A man unrolled his patterned carpet beside a metal detector. Neatly dressed, in a wool suit, he would, like us, soon leave Amman from the city’s international airport. He raised his open hands to shoulder level, looked up through simply framed spectacles, and bent from the knee, down, until his head and hands touched the floor. I recorded him in my journal, amongst other, final impressions of the Middle East: of people praying publicly, next to taxis and behind shop counters, oblivious to customers waiting to be served, outside full mosques on Friday and on the edge of a felucca, divining Mecca through a long relationship with the Nile. Three months before, I might have panicked. Airport, metal detector, Muslim. But I recorded no fear; what I wrote, instead, was a conclusion.

Claire and I had intended a journey with only one conclusion: Shanghai; but Shanghai was not our destination. We were to fly from Amman to Muscat and from Muscat to Mumbai, bypassing Iran and Pakistan to enter India over the Arabian Sea. The aeroplane tickets were old. We had bought them in Cape Town, before the journey began, to satisfy visa requirements, fretting family, and a few friends.

By travelling overland and making only slow transitions, we had hoped to witness the connection between cultures, and gain some understanding of the whole. The local bus, dispensing and collecting en route, makes its own slow transition – as does the overnight train. Languages change at the border; memories of the place just visited can be carried with you. Flights move too far too fast. It is as if your memories cannot keep up and are lost, amongst too swift impressions of the utterly new.

We boarded our first plane, to Muscat. I slept slack jawed on the in-flight table; the two hour journey passed unremarkably.

Already, we regretted not going to Iran; less so Pakistan. It was our journey’s largest flaw. It has become our flaw, because the journey, for this period of our lives, has become us.

Iran conquered far past its modern borders. It reached Egypt to the south, Greece to the west and controlled long swathes of north India. Much later, when Islam spread from the Middle East to India (and modern day Pakistan), it came, in part, through already converted Iran.

There were consolations. Iran and Pakistan would have drawn us quickly through Turkey: we could not have travelled south, past the Aegean, to discover the Middle East. Egypt and India have close historical links: they first traded in about 2500 BCE. Commerce continued, through the Suez Canal and its ancient predecessor, built as early as 1500 BCE: a thin line on maps, snaking east from the heart of the Nile.

More tangibly, Iranian visas are notoriously difficult for independent travellers to obtain. We would require an invitation, but did not know any Iranians. Had we applied, we might have been disappointed by an unconquerable bureaucracy.

We had feared Iran; it was unknown. Syria, also unknown, Muslim and a pariah, cured us of this fear. In Damascus, we met Kathryn, who had travelled our route in reverse, from
China to the Middle East, alone. Iran had been her favourite country. She told us of tremendous hospitality; restaurant meals had been paid for by anonymous benefactors, to reward her faith in the unfamiliar.

At Muscat’s airport, people waited. Dark skinned men extended stringy muscles and slept, somehow oblivious to hard ridged, uncomfortable seats, duty free trade and incessant, chimed-in announcements. Gulf Air flew cheaply through this airport, encouraging awkward, often long connections.

I smoked a cigarette in an overflowing room. Condensation turned yellow as it trickled down the window, staining the white frames. Smoke escaped from the open door, to be smelt long before it was seen. The people around me were unmistakably Indian, returning from hard work with hard currency, from countries made indolent by oil. They smoked their cigarettes – short, with stub filters – exuberantly, pulling them quickly from their faces before opening their mouths wide, to inhale deeply.

Our flight started to seem appropriate. In Damascus, a barber had told me, while his razor skirted my throat, “you been India you understand life. You no been India, you no understand life.” Long tufts of ginger hair protruded from his sunburnt scalp. The few teeth left in his gabbing mouth were rotting, and extended out, towards the mirror. I could see him move, flick foam and hair from the blade. He seemed a man who knew life like I might never. In Luxor, Paul, a wild haired Kiwi, described defecating in Delhi’s streets. “I couldn’t help it, I had the shits real bad. But I didn’t feel outta place.” He said Mumbai was not an Indian city, because there were no cows to obstruct its traffic.

Other travellers had told me that India required “at least a month” of acclimatisation; but they had arrived from places like London and Sydney. I felt prepared, as did Claire. She had sat beside me at Amman’s airport, writing her own conclusion.

The second flight left at 1:10am. We had lost two hours between Amman and Muscat. We would lose another one and a half before arriving in Mumbai at 5:05am. The plane was familiar: medium sized, modern – but not new, without televisions; the kind used for short hops. I had travelled from Johannesburg to Cape Town in these planes, to see my father during school holidays.

Hostesses handed out blindfolds, earplugs and blankets, then offered coffee. I made no effort to sleep, but packed away the blindfold and earplugs, for later use.

It was dark when we landed; seemed darker still when we emerged from the bright airport building. Taxi drivers pressed against a barrier at the exit, an incomprehensible mass of shouts and waving arms. One held a scrap of cardboard close to his chest, “Manley” written in hasty strokes of black ink upon it. He was there to collect us; apprehension had led us to book an over priced airport transfer.

I pushed the luggage trolley after him, to a small white hatchback. A diagonal crack stretched to opposite ends of its windscreen. Grey uniformed men had followed us, offering to push the trolley. We declined; they followed us still. Our driver opened the boot. Quickly, the men grasped our bags and threw them in, then turned, and demanded baksheesh. I said we had no rupees. “English pounds, okay,” said one. I said we had no pounds; we weren’t English. “Okay dollars,” said the other. I ignored them, and climbed quickly into the car. The men seemed unsurprised; they collected the empty trolley and left.

It was 6am. We drove through the last of the night, through the disorientation of a new city. A woman, unkempt, obviously just awake, emerged from her pavement shack to empty a chamber pot into the road. Her home, and others like it, lit by yellow street lights, were unlike South Africa’s ‘tin shacks’: most were made of wood and pilfered plastic, some stood two short stories high; they did not sprawl on the city’s outskirts, but appeared for short bursts inside it, arranged in an uncomfortable single file.

Hotel Samrat was dark. A man was asleep on the reception area’s single couch. He rose slowly, lit and waved incense before a shrine, turned on the lights. He hawked. Phlegm moved from the base of his lungs to his puckered mouth. He walked outside and spat, returned and retrieved an enormous ledger. “Good Morning!” he said. “Welcome to India. Could I have your passports please?”

A notice board in reception was covered by still bright photographs of white skinned foreigners. Beds at Hotel Samrat could be reserved on Hostel World. Later, on the same website, they could be reviewed. The results were proudly displayed below the photographs: “Better than I had expected, ” said Gillian Muir from Canada. “Fairly clean, and I feel rather safe,” said Ying Tan, from China.

Our room was large. White, blue monogrammed linen covered the double bed. Irregular, rust coloured stains marked the coffee and other spillages of previous patrons. Beside the bed was a couch, above the bed a hook, and precariously swinging from it, a fan. At the room’s far end was a small, barred window and, adjacent to that, the bathroom door. There would be hot water only until 9am. After that, we would have to wait until 6am the next day.

We showered. Claire slept. I stood at the window and watched pink light thread itself gently between deep green leaves. A large tree pressed against the hotel’s wall; it stretched up, past our room on the third floor, and out, to shade a strip of narrow shacks below. Parallel lines of rail ran close to the shack doors; we were near a station. I could hear announcements – a woman’s hollow, recorded voice – and the screech of braking trains.

On the tree’s branches, drooping in the damp air, house crows bounced and cawed. Hard black beaks, parted, took the shape of a katar: Indian daggers capable of a disembowelling scissor action. Black continued past the birds’ black eyes, then stopped, and gave way to a soft, pigeon grey, which covered their breasts. The birds’ wings, again black, beat an oily purple in the morning’s first light. There were ten or fifteen in the tree: the collective noun for crows is murder, ‘a murder of crows’.

Discernable in the shadowy thick of the tree were two parakeets. A shade lighter than the surrounding foliage, I imagined the pair cowering, afraid, too scared to sing.

I decided to go downstairs. I would have a last cigarette and then, hopefully, fall asleep. A man in the hotel’s maroon and grey uniform joined me in the corridor. “Massaj sir? You like massaj?” I said no, thank you. The man followed me into the elevator. “Very good massaj! Very cheap!” Again, I declined. “Head massaj, shoulder massaj, whole body massaj.” The man’s fingers contracted as he spoke. He reached out, grabbed my shoulder, squeezed it hard. At the ground floor, I left the elevator. The man followed me through reception, outside. “Massaj very relaxing! Very cheap!” I said no firmly, lit my cigarette and turned away. The man lingered, but eventually left.

About thirty men loitered opposite me, squatting and standing across the single lane road. The men – all of them – studied me. I paced outside the hotel’s doors, perturbed by their oscillating heads. A passing cow might interrupt their gaze, but never their attention. The men conversed; I was afraid. Not of these men, but of their unfamiliar, crowded world. I finished my cigarette and went to bed, glad I did not have to confront it yet.

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6 Responses to “A Passage to India (with apologies to E.M. Forster)”

  1. Frank says:

    Outstanding post!

  2. Juliet says:

    Really getting the feel of India, look forward to the next ones. I liked this very much Iain.

  3. Heather says:

    I don't know how you do it – how you recall things so clearly.

  4. Charmaine says:

    I believe the barber could be right – after India you will indeed know a lot more about life!

  5. Piyush says:

    I think exploring India will be a life time memorable experience for you guys

  6. rentals365 says:

    I am the first one to admit it- I did not know too much about the country of India. After reading this wonderful posting, I now have a better understanding. In fact you left me a better impression in regards to India; I might have to take a trip with the family.

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