(Excerpted from The Grateful Unrich…: Chapter 6: Egg Curry Mind Control)
If others speak ill of you, praise them always. If others injure you, serve them nicely. If others persecute you, help them in all possible ways. You will attain immense strength. You will control anger and pride. You will enjoy peace, poise and serenity. You will be divine - Sawi Sivanada
As the plane makes its descent, the sprawling shantytowns come into full view. I walk out of Bombay Sahar Airport into drenching humidity and the most wrenching poverty I have ever seen. After brushing off several hotel touts and dope peddlers, I decide to walk the couple of miles into Bombay. I stride nervously out of the airport parking lot, where a man sits waiting in a wooden cart tethered to a mule.
To my right are rows of shacks made of black tarp, cloth and sticks. Two dozen people crowd into a circle in front of one hut, joyfully immersed in a game of cards. To my left a young boy wearing a badly soiled sari bails human shit from a cement crevice into a stagnant ditch that runs in front of the shacks. As I turn the corner a child crouches on the highway, emptying his weakened bowels. I feel embarrassed and overdressed in my faded tie-dye t-shirt, torn blue jeans and worn out sneakers. Maybe I don’t need new shoes after all.
I pass a procession of Hindus carrying a shrine to Ganesh, the jolly elephant god of happiness and prosperity- wise son of Shiva. The revelers insist I join them. I comply. They are covered in red dye and fling scarlet dust upon me as I join their parade. They tell me they will celebrate for two full days then throw Ganesh into the sea, casting away their worries with his figurine.
Just as my legs grow weary and the monsoon rains began to fall, I hear someone hollering for me to jump in the car. Across the road I spot Alison and Lisa Kate- two upper crust British women I’d met in the airport. I eagerly jump into the 1950’s black Bentley. They introduce me to Ramu Menchon- business associate of their father’s and host for their stay in Bombay. Ramu, an upper class Indian and an engineer for a British construction firm, insists I come to his flat for something to eat. I feel uncomfortable, yet I know there must be some reason for this sudden turn of events.
Ramu’s 11th floor flat overlooks Mahim Bay. The view is spectacular, especially as the sun sinks below the surface of the expansive Arabian Sea to the west. His wife Dravi is as warm and friendly as her husband. She cooks us a delicious and ample Indian meal and we retire to the living room to drink imported whiskey. He asks me to stay the night, but I feel he has an apartment full with his British guests and decline. He insists that his driver take me to Colima, Bombay’s sleazy cheap hotel district, where I’ve heard the Salvation Army charges 40 rupees ($2.50) per night including breakfast.
After I check in Ramu’s driver says he is under instructions to bring me back to Ramu’s for dinner. Ramu takes us to one of the finest restaurants in Bombay, famous for its Tandoori-style northern Indian cuisine. The food is exceptional, like none I’ve ever tasted. But Ramu’s British business associate- who is here for two nights of meetings with his counterpart- sours the mood. He is condescending towards Ramu and his wife and towards me. Lowly Indians and unclean backpackers, heaven forbid. His attitude towards his fellow British subjects is markedly different. God Save the Queen!
He wears his wealth much different than Ramu and has a cold clammy essence. Maybe he is of lizard (royal) bloodline. Ramu bends over backward to make him comfortable. Not once does the smug bastard display any gratitude. It is as if it was 1946 and Ramu is still his colonial subject. I remember the rear of the 747 and Colin’s take on the Brits. “Chucki Arlee! Up with the IRA!”
Ramu, on the other hand, continues to help me. His driver picks me up and takes me across town to get required hepatitis and cholera vaccinations. At night he takes me to supper at Ramu’s, where we delve deeply into politics. I am impressed with his intelligence and that a man of his wealth would unabashedly call himself a socialist. For the first time in my life I am hearing that one can be successful financially and still stand on principle- that there is no dichotomy, no dualism, no sacrificial choice involved in doing the right thing. It is a notion which the guilt-ridden Western mind conjures up- encouraged by the guardians of monopoly capital, who wish to doom all men of principle to lives of poverty.
Of course Gandhi may take issue, insisting on voluntary poverty, but to hear Ramu’s refreshing viewpoint makes for rich debate. Ramu also tells me that he suspects that the CIA is helping Pakistan to destabilize the Punjab. He now knows that I am no ordinary American. Political sensitivities are brushed aside. He reveals his disdain for the Reagan Administration and for US foreign policy, which has historically placed socialist India squarely in the CIA crosshairs.
As I walk around Colima dodging hash brokers and black market moneychangers, I notice revolutionary banners sporting the hammer and sickle hanging on banks. They call for nationalization and criticize US multinational corporations like Coca-Cola. I learn that Coke and Pepsi are unavailable here since the government protects its own domestic soft drink industry. India is already blowing my mind.
The cynicism of my own culture haunts me on the crowded streets of Colima. A Buddhist man named Sama approaches me near the central Post Office and offers to show me the sacred places of Bombay. He is a quiet slow-moving man who fought with the British colonial army during WWII. He is Tamil and originally from Sri Lanka. My guard is up and I dismiss him as just another peddler, telling him I can’t afford a tour. He becomes angry saying, “What is money? Money nothing! I honest man!”
I spend the rest of the day considering my reaction to Sama, wondering if I have internalized American distrust and cynicism to a point where my spiritual essence has suffered. I realize that up to this point fear has been driving my Bombay decision-making. I’ve been reacting, not acting, afraid to dive headlong into India’s predicament. This tiny Buddhist soldier had given me new life through his anger. I walk back to the hostel. I pass a blond-haired European heroin junkie laying on the corner, a white turban-clad fruit and cigarette vendor and a near-naked man with a basket full of cobras.
India is famous among backpackers as a place where it is easy to “lose” your American Express travelers checks, essentially signing them over to a friend and doubling your money when the refund rolls in. I had figured on pulling this scam somewhere along the road- rationalizing my decision by reminding myself that AMEX is a dirty company involved in the dope trade and that Henry Kissinger and Edmund Safra are just two of its sleazy board members.
My encounter with Sama left me wondering if I should skip stooping to the level of these criminals for the good of my own soul. This would be an action of restraint as opposed to a reaction empowering the forces of chaos and deception. It occurs to me that living with the constant suspicion as to the response of the authorities to such an act, and not the act itself, is what would be detrimental to my spiritual essence. Isn’t the purity of one’s soul worth more than some kind of fleeting politically motivated justice? Just because Kissinger wants to darken his soul by carpet bombing Cambodia and backing Pinochet’s death squads, doesn’t mean I should be lured by these forces of darkness into following suit.
The Salvation Army folks are fairly hospitable, if a bit rigid, until one refuses to pray with them at breakfast. At this very moment their creepy side emerges. One may be forgiven for wondering if they aren’t actually some CIA front or cover for an international pedophilia ring. Probably, since all organized religion was in fact organized by what David Icke terms the “Babylonian Brotherhood” to mentally/emotionally imprison people.
The man in charge of Bombay’s Sally Army psyops fundamentalist bandwagon is known as the Sergeant. But the clientele is more interesting. It’s the cheapest dive in Bombay so many Indian nationals stay here along with the usual hard core Western backpacker set.
Rajeesh bunks across from me. He is in his mid-thirties and has come from Madras- where he, his wife and their four children survive on $30/month. They are in Bombay so his wife can take a nursing exam. If she passes she can get a higher paying job. They have spent two-thirds of their monthly wage just to get here by 2nd class train. The whole family is staying at the hostel. The worried look on his face tells me that if his wife fails the exam they may be stuck here in Bombay, swallowed like so many others who come here looking for a better life, only to land in the expansive slums that surround this dirty industrial hub of nearly 10 million mostly desperate people.
Another bright spot at the Sally- it certainly isn’t the breakfast, which consisted of unsweetened sticky oatmeal every morning- is John Phillips, who this morning points out more than one bug in his bowl of gruel. A tall quiet bearded man from Trinidad, John had escaped England, where he has lived for the past four years. Tired of carpentry work and the Thatcher nightmare, he made a beeline for Turkey then took a ferry to Israel. He worked on a kibbutz until he could no longer stomach the sight of paranoid Zionist civilians toting Galil rifles into every cafe in Tel Aviv for afternoon coffee. He made his way to Cairo, took a boat down the Nile, then flew to Bombay. At age thirty-five he is bound for Australia, but open to something better along the way.
Born in the Year of the Snake a dozen years before me, John shares my instincts. We hit it off right away. He’s lying in the dormitory bunk across from me reading the Autobiography of Gandhi, which I’d bought and read earlier in the week. The used book store scene in India is phenomenal. John has returned from Goa, but is already tired of the noisy polluted Bombay scene. I tell him I’m heading south tomorrow for the very tip of India- Cape Cormorin. I’ve heard good things about a place near there called Kovalum Beach. We smoke a bit a hash John bought from a crazy Yugoslav smuggler named Yannis, then set off to buy train tickets- a painstaking and lengthy ordeal in poor overcrowded India, where jam-packed 2nd class trains are the cheapest form of travel. The state-owned Indian National Railways is by far the country’s largest employer.
We finish our 9:30 PM dinner aboard the Nevarati Express, haunted by images of the Sergeant appearing with buggy oatmeal to make sure we had thanked Satan and the Queen for our meal. We boarded the train last night for a 36-hour journey south to Cochin. Scooping rice and hot chicken curry from my tray with chapatti bread makes me feel like an over-domesticated, inept Westerner. Most meals in India are curried. Egg curry is the cheapest, so I’ve been eating my share. As rice falls into my lap, I notice that all around me Indians are displaying incredible speed and agility in using their right hand to eat this spicy delight. The left hand is, I discover, not an option at the dinner table, since this is reserved for another important purpose tied to a chronic lack of toilet paper in the country.
I rejoice in being out of Bombay, where despite the presence of genuine people such as Sama, the scams are many and often quite complex. One man talked to me for a half-an-hour to develop my trust, gave me his alleged address and endless advice about India, even chased off another group of scammers on my tail, before proclaiming that he had been robbed on his way to Bombay and needed a good chunk of my change. Every day brought calls of, “Hashish mister? Change money? One rupee sir?”
John and I talk culture and politics when we talk at all. But we understand each other and it’s nice to feel a connection to someone again. It is not only geography that removes us from the Salvation Army and its laughable Sunday service, where an Englishmen named Phillip, a whacked-out student of philosophy read passionately from the Bible only hours after telling us that Hitler was just the sadist that the Jewish people were looking for and so deserved.
We are the only white faces in our coach. Voices speak Malayalam and Karnataka- two of over 500 languages spoken in this mind-boggling nation. John looks uncomfortable at the constant stares of the curious. In India- home to 25% of the world’s population- there is no concept of personal space. Despite their obvious poverty, the Indians all around us seem at ease with themselves. With their uniquely Indian side-to-side nodding, they smile and offer us food, cigarettes and whatever else they have. The average Indian wage is 400 rupees/month ($25). This train ride alone cost 160 rupees. Their kindness wears me out. I fall asleep in my top berth.
I am startled awake by cries of, “Chai! Chai!” With each stop the early morning silence is shattered as men carrying giant metal steaming pots parade up and down the aisles of each car squawking melodically, “Chai! Chai!” The sweet tea they serve up to drowsy passengers is the best I’ve had. Boiled with milk and seasoned with cardamom- which grows on the emerald hills now increasingly seen through the train’s windows- the tea is served in clay cups at a charge of one rupee. Nearly everyone buys a cup. Most buy two or three. We soon find out that the price includes the cup. As the train chugs away from the station- leaving peddlers of cashew nuts, oranges and bananas running alongside for a few more rupees- clay cups began flying out the windows, smashing harmlessly back to the earth from which they were made as they carom off on both sides of the train. The peddlers duck for cover. I hang out the train door, feeling the cool rush of a sticky morning breeze. I smash my cup to the blurring ground with glee. I hear cheers above me and look up to see grinning wild-eyed young men packed onto the roofs of train cars as far as I can see.
Two thoughts remain after reading Gandhi’s autobiography. I ponder his statement that it is impossible to be both close friend and reformer and consider my past failed attempts to combine these roles. And I wonder about his proclamation that truth is the most important thing in life- even more important than ahimsa (non-violence). Though history tends to portray Gandhi as some sort of a weak frail peacenik, he also said he “preferred violence to cowardice”. He was impacted greatly by Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. I now think of him more appropriately as the courageous revolutionary that he was. I will never again allow another scared Western political activist to invoke Gandhi’s name in a discussion of violent revolution versus non-violent inaction again. It’s a cop-out.
Inside the Nevarati Express morning activity reaches a fever pitch. I climb out of my berth and make way through a sea of gawking Indians. Men are removing their saris and changing back into their Westernized day clothes. The further south we get from Hyderabad, the more I notice men wearing the much cooler and more traditional sari full time.
A young boy boards the train with one hand the size of a watermelon. He has obviously been exposed to some sort of environmental contamination. I immediately think of the tragedy at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India- which killed over 1,000 people and left thousands more mutated for life. I finally jostle my way to the restroom, where I find a hole through the bottom of the train through which I see the steel rails whizzing buy. A small plastic bowl sits beside a larger plastic bucket full of water. After some consideration, I realize that the idea is to pour clean water into the bowl and use this water to clean your left hand after wiping.
Cochin to Kottyam
The madman fixes his intensely casual gaze upon his target and careens the rickety bus down a narrow winding mountain road. A friendly game of cat and mouse; he seeks out his competition then overtakes them at the most precarious moments, as if to prove his driving prowess. The players alternate between accelerating puffs of diesel and screeching brakes as they dodge rainbow-colored oncoming top-heavy lorries and the carved-out embankments of the hill country. We bounce along at his mercy between bright green chocolate-drop mounds decorated with tea plants. The spectators are three to a seat. Those savvy enough to have grabbed a window seat already know the outcome and are sleeping. The inexperienced foreigners cram the inside aisle and hang on for dear life.
Dusk sets in quietly, leaving visible only the foggy silhouettes of stooped-over women picking tea in the foothills of the Western Ghats of Kerala. A few lonesome teakwood trees peer down upon the plantations, lone survivors of the British colonial taste for tea. An occasional elephant passes on the road, with Tamil driver aboard and dragging huge logs past the Kerala State bus. Behind us is the Peryar Tiger Reserve along the Tamil Nadu border. We visited the refuge today and saw wild elephants, mongoose, wild boar and barking deer from a park service boat on a beautiful lake. The officials displayed an environmental ethic light years beyond that of their US Park Service counterparts. During the British Raj era tiger hunting was rivaled only by sex as favorite pastime of the Maharashas- the idle rich British lackeys who ran the Indian colony. There are forty-one tigers left in this reserve. A sign at the park entrance incorporates Gandhian simplicity ideals into the parks mission statement.
We pull into Kottyam at 9:30 PM. We have planned a train/bus/boat route to Kovalum Beach. The next boat to Allepey is the 1:00 AM newspaper boat delivering the Bangalore-published Indian Express. We grab a late meal of egg curry at a small candle lit eatery near the dock. The owner explains that he normally closes by now, but that we look hungry so he will whip up some hot food. We finish and go down to the dock to wait for the boat.
It’s a small town and two bearded foreigners with backpacks quickly draw attention. Three men move in for a closer look. Their loud slurred speech breaks the stillness of the canals, which serve as a sort of road system in this swampy area of southwest India. They are drunk and draw closer when we crack a bottle of local gin. I hand the bottle to the oldest man, who wears a badly soiled sari and no shoes. He tips back his head and- without ever touching the bottle to his lips- inhales half the gin. We all break out in hysterical laughter as he looks at John and mutters, “Ahhh”. The bottle makes its rounds and is gone by the time it reaches me. Now drunk out of their minds, the men demand rupees. I grow frustrated at the tendency for many Indians to dehumanize me as a “wealthy Westerner”. I now have less than $1,000 to my name, but I reckon it’s still $1,000 more than they have. I decide that my own colonial-minded forefathers should take the blame, not these poverty-stricken Indians. Still, the dance here is a delicate one.
A horn sounds and a long narrow riverboat slides up to the tiny dock. Newspapers loaded, we board the boat under a full moon. We sit in the middle of the boat, amazed at the silent beauty of the night. The Indian passengers instantly fall asleep, having seen this mosaic a thousand times before. We dangle our feet over the edge and watch rippled moonlight slice through coconut palms rushing by on either side. Behind the palms a larger body of water emerges, where flashes of orange light remind me of fireflies dancing in the North Carolina dusk during my book peddling days. Closer inspection reveals dozens of small boats carrying wooden tripods from which oil lamps are suspended. Occasionally a silhouette rises in one of the crude hand-hewn boats, a thin frail figure standing sturdy in the bow reeling in a net full of lagoon fish.
John fires up some Kerala green bud. I take a long drag and stare down at the river rushing by beneath my feet. I wonder how deep it is and hope this boat ride never ends. I pass the joint to the boat captain and a bond is formed that will take us all safely through this night.
I return to the incident at the dock, reminded that “Third World” people have been subject to exploitation and objectification for centuries. No amount of neo-colonial rationalization can change this fact. I realize that what we just experienced was backlash against a bloody history. There is deep-seated anger here which smiles cannot hide. As an American, I feel especially responsible. Maybe I also express a sort of detached guilt, which leaves me vulnerable to this reverse objectification. After the Indians endure so many encounters with Western tourists who feel no such responsibility, I am tossed into this same heap of ugly Americans. I am merely another rupee ATM.
At 4:30 AM, after a few winks, we switch to an express boat to Trivandrum. The waterway widens. We pass early riser farmers plodding behind water buffalos hooked to plows. Soon we are at Trivandrum, where we hop on an auto rickshaw for the final leg of this journey.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com