India is a fascinating land of contrasts and diversity. Shown above is the market area of Old Delhi. (Photo by Robert S. Fagan)
No one ever plans to be seduced do they? It’s something that just happens to you though some maintain you have to be open to the experience. I don’t know, but there is something about being the innocent party that takes you pleasantly by surprise. Make no mistake, India seduced me. And to imagine that my trip to India came literally within moments of never happening. Anyway, life has a funny way of presenting special gifts to us when we least expect them.
It was only a couple of days from my scheduled departure to India and I had invested a half-day to travel to San Francisco to expedite my visa. I was standing in the same line for the fourth darn time. After a comedy of errors and aggressive people butting in line in front of me, my patience was running low and I was also late for a luncheon date with my friend, Marla. I was about to call the whole India trip off, but Marla called me and told me not to worry as she was flexible on the time. However, I was still very much undecided. My writing income for this trip would not even cover the cost of my visa let alone my airport parking, and considering that I was pretty well booked for other travel at the time, I was just about to call it quits, but something said to finish the process and visit India.
My visa arrived just in time and my trip to India while long and tiring in economy class, was thankfully uneventful. The purpose of the trip was to explore India as a potential golf destination, which the Indian government is actively beginning to promote. I arrived at the impressive government-owned five-star Ashok Hotel at 5:45 a.m. and would be scheduled to leave to play my first golf course only a few hours later at 11 a.m. While there was little time for rest or recovery, that is par for the course on these types of trips and everything was working smoothly. The golf was fun and this trip only included one other person as more than twenty other journalists were unable to secure their visa on such short notice. Thankfully, my golf and traveling companion proved a most engaging television and radio personality from France named Yves Carra. Though I don’t speak any French and Yves’ English sometimes tested him, we hit it off great becoming fast friends. A very handsome man looking far younger than his fifty years, Yves like me was divorced with two grown children and was now employed in the golf industry. We also shared with one another that we had a common interest in the Eastern philosophies after a Christian upbringing. Anyway this all provided us with lots to talk about, and if you have ever played golf, you understand that you get to know someone pretty darn well and bond quickly under such circumstances.
So beyond the golf what first impressed me about India? Without a doubt, it was the Indian auto traffic – or the complete and nearly utter chaos with everyone honking and “playing chicken” with one another while sharing the streets with pedestrians and a menagerie of animals. It is no joke that they say you need “a good horn, good brakes, and good luck” to drive in India. Thirty seconds of this behavior in America and you’d have enough full blown “road rage” to start a World War, but somehow no one, and I repeat no one lost their temper; everyone sort of continually worked things out sometimes under the most congested circumstances. It would take me weeks of focused concentration to be able to navigate their roads in this manner as lane lines are mere suggestions and highway shoulders have absolutely no meaning. What impressed me most was everyone’s amazing calmness and serenity amidst this continuing chaos.
Yves and I played golf those first two days and things were going pretty much as I might have anticipated in these kinds of excursions. The weather was hot and hazy clear, the food great, and the arrangements were quite comfortable. The morning of the third day, we fit in some local sightseeing before our afternoon round at the exclusive Delhi Golf Club. Our guide for the day, a young Hindu man, took us to this Hindu temple to begin the morning. What transpired for Yves and me began India’s seduction.
Now I’ve been in many places of worship for all faiths as well as more than a few Hindu temples before, so I expected nothing out of the ordinary. I had studied the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita so I was somewhat familiar with the Hindu philosophy, but it had not captured my attention the way Buddhism and Taoism had. It was about 9 a.m. and Delhi awakens slowly so we had the temple to ourselves. I first noticed the use of the swastika prominently featured and learned that Hitler had popularized it in ways previously unintended giving this wonderful symbol a terrible connotation in the Western World. Then I saw first-hand that the Hindu gods were friendly gods, and very much like friends to their Hindu faithful. As I gazed at the statues of some of the gods in the corner of the building, they seemed to be smiling and speaking to me. I sensed a strange sensation, a wonderfully strong vibration if you will. Had I been by myself I may have broken into tears, but I maintained my composure. As we were leaving one room for another, Yves and I exchanged glances. Instantly we could see in each other’s eyes that we had both been unexpectedly touched. He felt it too and volunteered that he nearly cried just moments before. It was if we were twins as simultaneously we both questioned each other and emotionally volunteered that we had just experienced some sort of miraculous transformation.
The interesting thing is that only hours the night before while in my Delhi hotel room and in a totally unrelated
genre, I posted a Facebook statement largely discounting “instantaneous transformation,” yet less than twenty-four hours later both Yves and I had both experienced that very phenomenon within five or ten seconds of one another.
Would I have predicted this? No, never in a million years. If anything, I was not very open to the experience with other things on my mind and my spiritual leanings in other directions. Previously my experience in America with the Indian culture and particularly Indian men were that they were about as different from me as any. That wouldn’t last long. India is a magical place and its magic was just beginning to weave its spell upon me. That afternoon we played golf with one of our Indian hosts, the Director of PASH INDIA and then were joined for dinner there by another gentleman, the Senior Vice-President of his parent firm, Le Passage to India. (The second day we were also joined by two really fun Indian playing partners, Rajesh Sethi and Nikhil Dhodapkar with who I’ve also kept in touch with.) In every instance, I had a most enjoyable time and felt so welcome. Anyway, the next day we would skip golf and venture out of the city for a ten-hour round auto trip to the city of Agra and the Taj Mahal. The magic was continuing. Leaving the Delhi region we experienced the rural impoverished India that I had anticipated, but everywhere I looked the people were all happy and working together in relative harmony. Even in this impoverished state, there was a charm, a serenity, and beauty to all we witnessed.
As for the Taj Mahal, I had seen countless pictures of the edifice, but they don’t do it justice. It’s an amazing place, yet I can’t quite manage the words to describe exactly why. Yes, the scale, the architecture, the story behind it, and its continuing magnificence and relevance play a part, but it was something even more. Alas again it was part of a spiritual experience I could not have anticipated.
We played two more days of golf with our hosts, and one evening enjoyed the rare treat of attending a dinner reunion gathering at one of host’s boarding school buddies dating back forty or so years. Accompanied by their wives, we were last-minute additions to their party, but both of us felt so very much at home. These were men who came from the Indian socially elite, but who were also very accomplished in their own rights and also included the wonderful Indian course course designer and builder, Ranjit Nanda.
It was as fun and good-natured a gathering as any I’ve shared with my buddies back in the States, and the homemade vegetarian dishes were a treat to the palate.
Golf has a way of creating dear friendships, but my India experience was tuning into more, much more. By Sunday, Easter Sunday, as I write this at 3:15 a.m. in the Dubai airport, I realize that India seduced me. I never saw it coming and wouldn’t have imagined it happening. It was emotional and spiritual, and I will never be the quite the same.
Remember that luncheon date I had the day I arranged for my visa? My friend, Marla, told me during my pre-trip meal that once I visited India I would come back a changed person. With everything on my mind, her comment barely registered with me at the time, but looking back she was prophetic. At the time I don’t know how she knew, but she was right on the mark. Then I remembered the twinkle in my young guide’s eye when he shared with us at the Hindu Temple that India is a magical place full of miracles. And now I had the “instant transformation” that I had so publicly dismissed. Not only did I bring back an unusually new warm affinity for my new Indian friends, but I realized there is indeed a mystical, magical quality about India that harkens me back. And yes, I do feel different in a more peacefully serene and understanding way. India is a magical land of possibilities. What might you discover there?
Making new friends is among the best parts of travel!