Alice in India

by H. W. Moss and Alice Moss

It is 7,700 miles from New York to Mumbai, about half that distance from New York to Brussels. The plane left on Wednesday, November 28, 2007, and landed seven hours later.

“I coulda sworn this was a direct flight when I booked it, but now I find myself in Belgium with a four-hour layover. No worries, really, as I always enjoy the challenge of navigating my way through a foreign language keyboard. I can’t really imagine what that’s gonna be like in India.”

My sister, Alice, is a world traveler. Born on the West Coast, she has been living in New York since the turn of the century. Paris, Bosnia and Mexico City were staging areas for her trip to India where she has a notion of entering an ashram to study yoga.

“So far, however, so good. I’m flying Jet Airways, the country’s largest private airline and it’s really quite remarkable. The aircraft is beautiful, sleek and modern, spacious and comfortably designed, groovy but subtly-changing mood lighting, delicious food, gorgeous staff and a wonderful selection of western and Indian film and music to choose from. Don’t get me started on first class — it looks like a celestial dream.

“Of course, this is a wholly unrealistic representation of much that I will encounter when I finally arrive in India. But it’s a perfectly lovely fantasy, something our airlines could probably learn a thing or two from. More when I get there. I promise I’ll keep in touch.”

She added, “Oh — Thanks for taking Christine along for the Thanksgiving festivities. I know it meant a lot to her. Me, too!”

Christine just moved to San Francisco after living with Alice in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area. She is a photographer by trade and I took her to San Luis Obispo where she snapped our family photo for the Thanksgiving card.

Before she left, Alice let the apartment on Gates go, bought an open return airplane ticket and put all her things in storage or gave them away to friends. She has until March to use the ticket.

Alice, it turns out, is quite a good correspondent. She finds internet cafes and recounts her experiences with insight and candor. Friday, she wrote: “I’m here in Delhi, a real shithole of a city, from the thick smog that hovers ten feet above my head to the crumbling rotting buildings that threaten to fall right down on me. It’s a free for all here, a lawless land, disorienting and oriental, aggressive and sweet like a creamy cup of chai. Oh my god, I’m in India.

“I’m taking off tomorrow for Kashmir, where I’ll climb mountains and sleep on a lakeside houseboat, a rather decadent retreat from this slum. Then I return to pick up my friend Roy, who arrives next week and who’s been here enough times to be a proper tour guide in this craphole city. Yes, I’ll gladly wait for him to see the sights. I’m well, trying to remember why I decided to come here, gearing up for what promised (threatens?) to be a constant and demanding challenge. More soon.”

Roy is from New Zealand and, in a former life, was our sister Laura’s boyfriend in Minneapolis. Roy made a fortune in real estate before the market stagnated.

I did not hear from Alice for a couple of days. Then she called Sunday, December second, saying she just got a cell phone and gave me the number. She was calling from Rajastan and was planning a tiger ride in Ranthambore National Park. It was sunrise to her, sunset to me. She had been to Jaipur, capital of Rajastan, which is known as the Pink City because in 1853 its inhabitants colored their buildings rose to honor a visit by Albert, Prince of Wales.

On the 5th she sent a general email to many people telling us the following:

“All is well in India friends. Once I got over the initial shock, that is. It seems there was no way to prepare myself for this country, and landing in Delhi certainly didn’t help any. India is, well, it’s like no other place I’ve ever been. It’s filthy and noisy and over-crowded and pushy and loud and stinky and insanely impoverished. However, it’s also beguilingly beautiful, mystical and poetic and yummy and graceful and kind. It is just as everyone says it is, a living, breathing, shitting, dying, walking, limping, crawling contradiction. It is absolutely real, real in a way that both tickles and pains.

“For instance, I met a man the other day in the city of Jaipur who took me to a ‘colony’ (read: slum) where he’s started a school for low-caste children. You know those late-night Feed the Children commercials where Sally Struthers weeps and asks for money? Well, it’s just like that, only real and it is honestly the worst thing I have ever witnessed. No plumbing, no electricity, just tiny, stone and dirt huts that house a family of maybe eight or ten people each. There is little hope for these people beyond what a handful of under funded bleeding hearts might do for them because society considers them unworthy of even the most basic needs. Once again, though, India beguiles me because despite these destitute conditions. I was greeted with only kindness and excitement by everybody around me. The parents invited me into their homes and offered me chai, the children sang and danced for me, held my hand, practiced their English. I was so surrounded by joy that I forgot momentarily how desperate their situation was. Of course, I gave the school master some money and a promise to return to the colony some time during my stay here.

“Then I, being one of the lucky ones, carried on with my adventure. Am now in Ranthambore, tiger country, where I’ve just seen one of the cats. This is considered good luck because the tiger population has dwindled from an all-time high of about 25,000 to its current 35. So people want to shake my hand, in hopes that some of my luck will rub off on them. India’s a very mystical place and good and bad luck seem to be lurking in every corner so it’s smart to get the good where ever you can.

“Did I mention that I’m something of a celebrity here? Sure, tourism’s huge in India, but we travelers have nothing on the 1.2 billion inhabitants of this strange country and that means that where ever I go I stand out like a pink-assed baboon in this beautiful, brown land. But a blonde in India must be some other kind of good luck, because everywhere I go I’m treated with incredible hospitality, greeted with excited waves, nods, smiles and handshakes. I respond in kind, happy to keep this good luck flowing.

“Strange and heartbreaking as this place is, it’s also magical, so I am happy. Indians are obsessed with a lot of things here (cows, camels, sparkly charms, chai, temples and colorful saris, to name a few). But they seem most obsessed with happiness. Everybody here is always saying, ‘Are you happy madam? If you are happy, then I am happy. Because this is the most important thing in the life!’ I think they’re right. So I hope you are all happy, too.”

Alice takes after Mary Josephine Moss, our father’s older sister. Alice and I share a father, but have different mothers. Dad was married three times and had six natural children. I am the first born of the first wife,Elizabeth, who died. Dad’s second wife, Joy, brought two boys to the marriage which ended in divorce; Tim and Eric came and went with her. Dad’s third wife, Alice’s mother June, gave him three more kids, one of which, his last child, was born when Dad was sixty. Alice is the second child of the third wife. Genealogically speaking, Alice and I have the same relationship to our father’s siblings including Mary Jo, our aunt.

Mary served as an Army nurse in WW II and brought back a Nazi flag as a souvenir from Berlin. Her uniform currently hangs in a closet in San Luis Obispo. Not long ago, Alice tried it on and it fit perfectly. Here is a photo of her wearing it.

When the war ended, Mary volunteered to stay in the service and went to Korea. I have several black and white photos of Mary Jo dated October 2, 1947, two months after I was born. The back of the photos say she was in what was called the Rumor Roost Service Club of Korea Base Camp Command. In one picture, she is surrounded by other military personnel, male and female. In another, she is shown with another American woman surrounded by Korean children.

An earlier set of pictures has Mary holding a rifle and a pistol. One shows her on bended knee with the rifle in her lap displaying the target which has ten holes dead center. Hand written on the target is her name, the date and “.30 Gov’t. ’06 6-23-42.”

After Korea, Mary lived in Austria before returning to the U. S. I knew her as an older woman with a rather stern demeanor. Alice knew her as an old lady who re-gave Christmas gifts that still had their original tags from someone else to Mary on them.

I remember Dad being somewhat proud of his sister even if they did not see things in the same light. One anecdote he liked to tell was that when the Trans-Canadian Highway opened, she was on it the next day. I recall receiving a somewhat concerned phone call from a relative in the ’70s asking if I had seen Mary Jo recently. She had disappeared. Turns out, she was in Manila with her sister-in-law, Idell. Mary later explained they had to leave on such short notice without telling anyone, “because the price was so good.”

I do not believe there was open hostility between my father and his sister, but they were cool toward one another in later life even if she was the only family member to help him financially during the Depression. She paid his way through law school.

Alice has the same drive and stamina for travel Mary must have had, although I admit I knew Mary Jo primarily after that part of her life ended. However, they share a desire to seek new parts of the world and a willingness to live in less than second or even third world conditions that I am not able or willing to endure.

I got Alice on the phone today. It costs many rupees to phone India, even on a calling card. She had just seen the Taj Mahal and returned to Delhi which she said she now appreciates much more than when she first arrived.

“I think it did me good to go away for a while. Delhi grows on you.” She plans to meet Roy who should be in Delhi tomorrow, Sunday, December 9, which will be Monday the tenth to them, won’t it?

I did not hear from her for at least a week. Then, on December 18 she wrote, “Sorry for the neglect, but it’s true, travel leaves little time for things other than, er, travel. Whatever.”

That week I learned my best friend, Joe Desmond, had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, the scourge of our generation, and his liver was distended.

“Yes, I’ve covered quite a bit of ground in my first two weeks, though in the big picture of this enormous country I’ve seen but a tiny speck of what there is to offer. Did see the Taj Mahal, which is every bit as magnificent as everybody says it is, and then some. How to describe it? Like a great, glowing pearl of unmatchable radiance and beauty rising from the mists of decay, Agra being a city like so many here in India, run-down, falling apart, teeming with life, struggling against the force of death, inevitable and always a rupee’s throw away.”

The Taj Mahal is in Agra in the north. She described her visit to Punjab in the northwest of India.

“Also went to Amritsar, to view the Golden Temple, a center for Sikh faith, though the deal with them is that all Gods are the same, so it’s really a convergence of faiths, very reverent, very holy, mystical and spiritual. The temple itself, its exterior made entirely of gold (hence, its name), sits in a giant pool of water, around which there are great, marble walkways and a single path that leads pilgrims to the center. It’s four stories high, decorated top to bottom with hand-painted flowers, glowing chandeliers, blood red rugs and windows that look out onto the pool and pathways. Twenty-four hours a day holy men sit in the center of the temple and chant mantras and play musical instruments, while pilgrims, hundreds of them at a time, take a seat somewhere, anywhere within the golden walls — or outside, there’s seating there, too — to chant, to pray, to meditate, to listen, to dream — whatever it takes to get close to whatever God is for you. Very simple, then there’s the Langar, the free meal that’s always available to anyone who’s hungry, served on the floor in a multi-level cafeteria of sorts, though the diners sit side-by-side on the floor and the food, simple so as to feed as many as possible, is served to them by volunteers who walk down the rows of people with buckets of dahl and rice and chapatis (bread) and water. It was so beautiful we stayed for hours and then returned the next day for another two.

“I’ve been back and forth between my various travels and Delhi, so I’ve learned to grow fond of the capital city, something I couldn’t have imagined two weeks ago. It somehow manages to shine beneath all of that filth and chaos.

“But now I’m in Mumbai, a city on the coast of the Arabian Sea, bigger than Delhi, more sophisticated and modern, lots of incredible architecture and – wow! – paved roads, money, technology, Bollywood and the greatest (worst?) degree of poverty I’ve seen yet. Maybe it’s the disparity between the rich and the poor here, magnified by the Western-ness of this town. Maybe it’s the simple fact that an estimated 50 percent of the population (which is somewhere in the plus 15 million) live in slums. And we’re not talking government-regulated ghettos in the sky, but tent towns and scrap metal villages with millions and millions of residents. And they’re the lucky ones; those not fortunate enough to have a hole to call home live out on the streets, sleeping on every bit of available sidewalk and door front, entire families crashed out in the tropical heat as party-goers and shoppers step around them to go about their business. They hang their laundry on fences and trees, wash themselves behind cars, burn piles of garbage on which they cook their meals. Yesterday I watched a woman give birth on the sidewalk while another woman helped, dumping buckets of unsterilized water on mother and baby-boy, washing the after-birth into the gutter. It was life, simple and utterly unremarkable.

“So. Today I head down to Goa, a tiny state on the coast held by the Portuguese until the early 1960’s, with a European flair completely at odds with the rest of the country. The people, Indian-looking, have Spanish-sounding names. The buildings have red-tiled roofs. There are lots of Catholics and booze. It’s a real party place, and I’m meeting Roy there to celebrate Christmas like a good heathen. But apparently it’s not necessary for me to go all the way to Goa to get my Christmas on; Indians are incredibly tolerant of other peoples’ beliefs and, more than anything, they love a celebration. I have a feeling they have December the 25th here in a most colorful way.

“More later, I promise. Oh, and I had to change my telephone number (stupid mobile phone rules here), so don’t try dialing the one I’d given you; it won’t work until I’m back in Delhi. I’ll keep in touch this way. You, too, please.”

She did not write for another week. I wrote a chiding letter. This came in reply.

“It’s true, I’m an on-again, off-again correspondent. Sorry about that, but it’s hard to jump off this merry-go-round I’m on here and even when I do I find my head is still spinning too fast for me to make any sense of my experiences. I want to share them but I sometimes don’t know how.

“I’ve been in Goa now for over a week, caught up in the rather un-Indian quality of my beachside surroundings. The Portuguese held onto this small chunk of land for centuries, ceding it to India only in 1962. This has had an interesting effect on the local culture. It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s true that the first thing one notices upon arriving here is how clean everything is. Oh, there’s garbage everywhere as in any other part of India, but it’s perhaps managed a little better, left in neat little piles here and there instead of being strewn in an endless, even layer. And the restaurants and guest houses shine a little brighter, scrubbed daily by fastidious Catholic housewives.

“And the people, used as they are to a long history of tourism, have a warmer, easier way about them. Maybe it’s the sea air. Maybe it’s the heat. And the strong Catholic community here has made meat and beer staples of the diet which certainly can’t be said about some other places I’ve visited. It’s nice, really, a lovely vacation spot, a pretty piece of paradise that I’m quickly growing tired of. It’s been a great little holiday, but that’s not really why I came all the way to India (why, exactly, did I come? Not sure, but it has to amount to more than simply basking in the hot sun and riding salty surf all day, every day).

“Yesterday I convinced Roy and Justin (Hagen’s brother) and our friend Matt to get off their butts and get out of town. We’d heard about an ancient Ganesh Temple hidden behind a fortress wall somewhere up north and since I’ve adopted Lord Ganesha as my god while I’m here in India (he’s known for being a remover of obstacles and I figured I could use some help in that department; who couldn’t), I wanted to check it out. We set out on motor bikes (me on the back of Matt’s since I had a minor accident my first day here and decided quickly that I’d rather be ridden than ride) and sailed through the winding hills and rich, green coconut forests of northern Goa. Breathtaking. Banana trees. Great, majestic Banyans, hundreds of years in the making, their ropy roots stepping slowly across the landscape. Red tile rooftops, liquidy rice fields, monkeys and water buffalo, white washed churches and cathedrals and even cemeteries — an uncommon sight as most Hindustanis burn their deceased.

“At one point along the way we stopped for beers and gasoline. The beers were served to us by a ten-year-old boy, the gas by a 14-year-old girl who poured the fuel through a funnel from a one-liter water bottle. You pay more this way than you would at a pump, but when you’re stuck in the middle of god-knows-where you take what you can get.

“A few misturns and we finally found our temple, though it was more like a shrine than anything else and even that’s being a little optimistic. It was really just a rock, the well-worn image of the elephant-headed Ganesha barely discernable in the blackened sandstone. But he was there, and he’d been dressed by devotees in garlands of orange and white flowers and adorned with spent incense sticks. There were gifts of oranges, coconuts, candies and cans of Coca-Cola at his feet. How old was this ‘temple,’ we wondered? A hundred years old? Five hundred? Two thousand? There wasn’t anyone around to tell us (and even if there had been we would’ve gotten four or five equally inaccurate responses, I’m sure). I’d heard somewhere that the temple had been discovered within the last hundred years by a man who got word of its existence through a dream. Apparently it had been totally forgotten. He went to the place where he believed it to be and started digging — behold, an ancient Hindu temple, surrounded by a giant, crumbling fort built by the Portuguese. It could very well have been buried to protect it from crusading Catholics. We pondered the possibilities, came to a dozen or so conclusions, then rolled a cigarette, all we had with us, and left it as an offering for the unearthed God.. Our cultural excursion complete, we found ourselves a soft-sand beach and lost ourselves once again in the sunny complacency of a seaside paradise.

“Then we had to get home, an easy enough task until something goes wrong, which is exactly what happened to me and Matt. We took a wrong turn and lost our traveling companions, and on our way to right our wrong we clipped another motorbike going in the other direction, changing the course of the rest of the evening. First there were injuries to assess: I, surprisingly enough, got out Scott free and Matt, though his knuckles were ground to a bloody pulp and his right leg bruised and swelling, was ok, too. But the other two? Well, they were flat on the side of the road, one on top of the other, a situation worsened by the fact that the fellow on top looked to weigh a good 65 pounds more that the one on the bottom. There was a lot of moaning and groaning as we stood by and worriedly watched as they slowly pulled themselves out of the dirt. The fat guy had a bloody toe, the skinny guy was limping. Everyone seemed to be more or less ok.

“But it was still an accident, for which we had no choice but to assume responsibility, our being fortunate foreigners in a very poor country. Our bike was bent up, but it’s an old Indian Enfield, built like a tank, so it was still pretty much in working order. But theirs was a little Honda and it was four feet below in a ditch. And it wouldn’t start. And so they were pissed, understandably so. Miraculously enough there was a mechanic nearby (and over the course of the next two hours or so the entire village of a couple of hundred would be milling about, this apparently being the most exciting thing that has happened in these parts in a long, long time) who made a quick estimate, to which charges for injuries were also added, for a total of 15,000 Rupees, or about $325 US dollars. No problem; this is how things are done here and we were perfectly willing to pay up and get the hell out of there, except that we weren’t carrying that kind of money with us. And they wouldn’t let us leave without paying them. And we were a good hour away from the town we were staying. They kept demanding money from us, we kept saying we’d give them money if they followed us to the village so we could get our bankcards, but for some reason that wasn’t an acceptable solution.

“There seemed to be no way of convincing them that they could trust us and it was impossible to figure out what they wanted us to do. Matt was bleeding all over, the skinny guy had been taken to a doctor, our bike had sprung a small fuel leak, hardly anybody around us spoke English, and there was nothing for us to do but stand on the side of the road while we endured the stares of hundreds of mistrusting eyes. They wanted to know why we did not have our passports. And why were we in India, anyway? And what did we think we could do to solve the problem? And were we from Russia? (Not such a good reputation around these parts, the Russians.) And can they get a picture with me, please madam? The fat guy stopped his incessant yammering long enough to let out an enormous fart and I was the only one who laughed. Somebody took advantage of the commotion to slip my voice recorder out of my bag. The whole event was utterly frustrating but also entirely amusing. They finally agreed to let me go back to the village by taxi, escorted by two of the villagers, who wouldn’t say a word to me and also wouldn’t keep their eyes off me, worried, I suppose, that I might make a quick escape if the car slowed down. (Ridiculous, really; even I’ve figured out that one of the rules of driving in this country is that one never, ever slows down.). Finally I got the cash and we returned to the crime scene, where suddenly everybody’s mood had changed.

“Hours had passed by then and they were all anxious to get to a festival, something about Krishna and Rama and some fight they had four thousand years ago. And guess what? They asked us to join them! Can you believe it? One moment they’re treating us like escaped convicts, the next they’re asking us to a religious festival. But that’s the way things work here and, of course, they were just trying to cover their asses. But our asses were whooped by that point, so we politely declined and climbed on our weary motorbike, its mirrors crushed, its headlight fading in and out of brightness and we rambled back to our village-by-the-sea, in search of our friends and an ice-cold beer, ready to share our tale with them and to slip once again into the sub-seriousness of barely-flavored heaven-on-earth.

“Really, I’ve got to move on from here. I will. Someday. I promise.

“So sorry to hear about your friend. Did I tell you this? At the train station in Mumbai there is a billboard that reads: Death is only a big change in life, and nothing more. It’s their way, I suppose, of making sense of something they experience here on a daily basis. Is it coarse? I don’t think so, though it takes a bit of head work for our Western minds to see it as anything but. I hope your friend manages to find peace in this difficult period. I hope you can do the same for yourself. You’ll hear from me soon again, I promise!”

On January first I received a phone call. It was Alice in India calling from a pay phone wishing me a Happy New Year. Joe died in the early morning hours of January 17, little more than a month from the date of diagnosis. His last words to me were, “It is what it is and I will see you on the flip side.”