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An India Travelogue, Part 7
by Lawrence Bush
SUSAN HAD AN ERUPTION of “Delhi belly” a couple of nights ago, which laid her low for a few hours and has put us both on an even stricter regimen about what we will and won’t eat (no more ice cubes in India, even in the nice restaurants — so much for my gin and tonics). The experience reminded me of the only other time the two of us traveled in a developing country — and Susan almost died.
My mother took us on a safari tour of Kenya in 1983. Five days into our safari, Susan became violently ill and feverish, even delirious. It was too soon for her to have cultivated malaria, and the “barefoot doctor” who came to our safari lodge to attend to her offered little more than quinine and aspirin. Turns out that British Airways had served a tainted fish appetizer on its planes — one passenger died — and Susan may have been been food-poisoned. We didn’t find this out until months later, however, and we weren’t the kind to sue (we were young and foolish). But I will never forget taking a break from her bedside and going up onto the roof of that safari lodge, and listening to the raucous sounds of the night in the bush, and looking up at an incredibly starry sky, and wondering if my wife was going to pull through.
Perhaps it was memories of Kenya and the amazing sights we saw of relatively wild wildlife in the plains — elephants kicking at the roots of the razor grass, wild dogs pursuing a young gazelle and its mother, a leopard up in a tree with its kill — that drove me to visit the National Zoo yesterday. Delhi belly or not, Susan had meetings and classroom observations all day, so I took off on my own.
THE ZOO was crowded: four or five ticket windows with twenty to thirty people on line at each. Admission was 40 rupees for Indians, 200 for foreigners (a little more than $3). I think a lot of the visitors were from out of town, too, because unlike on the city streets, I felt stared at, constantly, as a foreigner — another experience I’ve not had since Kenya.
I enjoy going to zoos, notwithstanding the melancholy, visiting-a-prison elements of the experience. I find seeing the twists and turns of evolution on display to be a surprisingly spiritual and aesthetic experience. (If I were Hindu, I would worship the goddess of mutation, whoever she might be.) This zoo was quite generously large, if scruffy, and the animals were surprisingly active in the dead of a hot afternoon.
Two Indian rhinos (one horn, heavily armored) shared about 2 acres of land and wandered it, coming closer and closer to me, while I watched for some fifteen minutes. Beautiful storks of two varieties joined the omnipresent eagles of Delhi flying from tree to tree and shore to shore across a pond. A roaming peacock held his tail feathers full open, courting four peahens, for even longer than I had patience to stand there and watch. And a herd of white black-buck deer, the males with exotic spiraling antlers, was very active, chasing each other around — perhaps it was one male guarding his harem, but I couldn’t tell for sure.
The people were just as interesting to me, of course. I saw, for the first time, babies and young children with heavy mascara (kajal) on their eyes -- a Lord Krishna look that makes their peepers seem huge and soulful and cartoonish. Later that night, at a dinner with some of our hosts, we were told that this is evidence that many of the zoo’s visitors were, indeed, probably village people from out of town; the tradition is thought to beautify the eyes and enlarge them permanently. It is at times accompanied by a mark on the cheek that wards off evil spirits who might be envious of the child’s beauty.
I shared admiration of the peacock with a young Sikh man, who then wanted to take a selfie with me. Three young men by the hippo pond thought the sight of me amusing and tried (very lightly) to harass me, but I just played ignorant and moved on to see the African elephant and the Indian elephants and the white tiger and the gibbons with their endlessly long arms.
NOTWITHSTANDING the wisecracking boys, the zoo had many signs encouraging good behavior and good citizenship, from don’t tease the animals to drink clean water only and wash your hands frequently. There is a lot of this kind of messaging on various signs in Delhi, which is the seat of the national government but also has its own local government, more leftist, I am told, than Modi’s national government.
At dinner last night, after going home to wash off the dust from the zoo, I had a long conversation about the meaning of “national government” and Indian nationalism with a wealthy young man, A., who is active in India’s Congress Party. As the descendant of Gandhi’s party, the Indian National Congress, A.‘s party is in opposition for the first time since the country’s founding, and A. is seeking to gain a seat in 2019 in the local legislature. He is a smart and charming guy who has lived in Washington D.C. during several periods of his life, and he was eager to discuss with me ideas about how to revivify Gandhi’s messages of social change for the modern era, within a political culture in which, he said, politicians essentially distribute alcohol and rupees for votes. I had been actively writing a piece for Jewish Currents about strategies for anti-racist work in America, yesterday and today, so I was warmed up for his topic.
I eventually asked him about what I have been reading in Khushwant Singh’s book, India, An Introduction, about British colonialism: that India truly was not a nation until the British took over, that nationhood for India truly dates only to 1947, and that the legacy of that unification is by no means, as I would have thought, a one-way street of British colonial exploitation (though there was plenty of that). “Indians had never been a nation,” writes Singh.
. . . [T]hey had been divided by religion, race, caste and language; the vast mass of the people were indifferent and frequently hostile to the princes and the nobility who monopolized leadership . . . the readiness of so many Indians to serve the English rather than native rulers also accounted for the consolidation of the English empire. . . . No native ruler had administered his domains as efficiently as did the British.
The British enforcement of law and justice, though at times biased in cases of conflicts between whites and Indians, dealt with all Indians as equals. . . . No longer was justice dependent o the whims of the ruler. . . The rule of law engendered the Copt of civil liberties. . . . (And) British expansion in India coincided with the technological advances. the West which were, in due course introduced into India . . . 70,000 miles of medalled roads, 40,000 miles of rail track; telegraph and postal services; all were built by Briish enterprise.
The Talmud, I am reminded, records a debate among the sages in which Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai denounces Roman accomplishments like roads and public baths as entirely self-serving to the Roman Empire and its pleasure-seeking rulers. As a result, Shimon has to go hide in a cave for twelve years to evade Roman imprisonment -- in the course of which, the mythology goes, he invented Jewish mysticism.
But A., who is definitely a liberal with socialistic tendencies, agreed with Singh’s analysis, not Shimon bar Yokhai’s.
All of the middle- and upper-class Indians I speak with are full of sighs about their country.
TODAY, A.‘S WIFE, S., who is one of Susan’s core group of students, took us to the Old Delhi Market — the real thing, old, old India’s mercantile center. Blocks and blocks of fabric shops; blocks and blocks of jewelry shops; blocks and blocks of book shops; blocks and blocks of spice shops. All of the merchants are wholesalers, not really angling for the tourist trade, which was wonderful for me as an “only looking” type. Each block was about ten feet wide and jammed solid with people, rickshaws, delivery carts, motorcycles, and whatever else could fit.
Before hitting the market we visited a Sikh temple, where we wrapped our heads in our scarves, checked our shoes, washed our hands, and washed our feet by wading through water as we climbed the temple steps. Inside, a preacher was speaking through a loud, crackling microphone, with some musical accompaniment by four harmonium players. We sat on the floor, and when I adjusted myself to a more comfortable posture with my feet pointed towards the “ark,” the structure that houses the Sikh holy scriptures, I was gently reprimanded — feet are not much admired in this culture . . .
S. was our mother hen, but in fact, she had not been to the Old Delhi Market in twenty years — and she had never been on the Metro, since she has a full-time driver. (We learned on this trip that the Metro reserves whole cars for women only.) It seems that the night before, I had said to her husband that I believed that the liberal elite of India had to lessen the gap between themselves and the common folk (vital in America, too) — and S. was taking me altogether seriously!
Yikes, who’s the colonialist now?
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.