Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I had to go to India to get my gold. By “my gold” I mean only a few pieces of jewelry — about as much as I might wear to a big party. I had bought it for a song in Arabia twenty-five years ago. Was it worth the price of a trip to India? I had no idea. I had no intention of selling it, but wanted only to move it from the Varanasi bank where I’d kept it since I lived in India, to one in the U.S., so that my granddaughter could one day wear it to my funeral.
I had worn my gold with expensive dresses, and I had worn it with no clothes at all. But gold is at its best when it’s internalized, a part of your very soul. Gold is like God, only more people believe in it. Gold is a mind-altering substance; knowing I had gold in India made me feel less of a cipher in New York City. That it was of no use to me where it was did not diminish the comfortable glow I felt at the thought of it.
There was only one problem with my plan to go to India for my gold: I had been deported from there in 1985 because of an article I’d written for a national magazine; I wasn’t allowed to return. I asked a woman friend traveling to India to bring my jewelry back to the States, but for mysterious bureaucratic reasons she was denied access to my bank box, despite her having power of attorney and the key to the box. She said she had even thrown a fit at the bank, but to no avail. It seemed that nothing less than my appearance in person could dislodge my gold from the sanctum sanctorum of the State Bank of India.
Then, by chance, another friend discovered that India’s visa department never had anything against me: I had been deported illegally! I informed my friend I would come to India myself, and she said she would leave my passbook and bank key with a family in New Delhi, and gave me the address.
I landed in New Delhi at three in the morning. My first goal was to find a place to stay until daybreak, when I would contact the people with whom my friend had left my passbook and key. A single taxi driver watched as I cashed a traveler’s check in the terminal. He looked like an actor playing an amiable detective, awaiting his cue.
“I want to go to the YMCA on Connaught Place,” I said.
After we’d haggled over the fare, I followed him to a dimly lit parking area. Once I’d climbed into the back seat, another man jumped in beside the driver, and we were off at an amazing clip down a dark and rutty street. The old car broke down twice, but each time the two men managed to get it started again. Finally, we stopped with a lurch in the middle of nowhere. The driver announced that we were in front of the YMCA, but that it was closed. I couldn’t even see the building. The night was pitch-black. “We will take you to the government tourism office,” he said cheerfully. I reluctantly assented.
The ancient sedan took off explosively and settled into a steady rattle. I could not tell how far we drove, or even at times whether we were moving at all. We pulled up before a building with Govt Of India written in large letters on one wall. (The Approved By that preceded it in tiny script lessened the impact of the message only slightly.) I entered the makeshift, evidently all-night tourism office that had some connection, however tenuous, with the government of India, and asked the young man seated at a wooden table in a bubble of low-wattage light to call the YMCA. He called, or pretended to call, and carried on a lengthy conversation. Then he told me that the Y would have no vacancy for the next ten days. He added that, fortunately, there was always a spare room at the hotel where the tourist guides lived, and he could get me in there.
I told him I wanted to stay in New Delhi only long enough to retrieve a package that had been left for me at someone’s house. After that, I would need a second-class ticket on the first available train to the city of Varanasi, sixteen hours from New Delhi.
He said that would cost $250 round trip.
“What? I lived in Varanasi from 1975 to 1985 and it cost only ten dollars then.”
“But, madam, there was a terrible train wreck a few months back and the government decided to upgrade the railway system so that such a loss of human life could never happen again. The improvements have caused a drastic increase in the price of tickets.”
“Then how do the poor people get anywhere?”
He shrugged. “Forget the train. It is slow and full of thieves. Why not let us rent you a limousine and driver for seven days for only $550? He will drive you to Varanasi and stay with you the whole time.”
“I have friends in Varanasi who have never seen me in anything more elegant than a cycle rickshaw. They’d think I’d gone mad, or gotten rich.”
“But you are rich,” he said with a certain deference. “Haven’t you come to India because of the favorable exchange rate?” The rate was now thirty-five rupees to the dollar, up from only eight a few years back.
“No, I have come to get the gold I left here years ago.”
“It’s against the law to take gold into or out of India,” he shot back.
I’d brought my Arabian gold into the country during a political upheaval, and the immigration officials, having more important things to worry about, had ignored it. “I don’t mean real gold,” I said.
“What kind of gold, then?” he asked. The taxi driver and his companion were listening intently.
“Gold,” I said grandly, “is just an expression. For instance, we say a well-behaved child is ‘as good as gold,’ or we say, ‘Practice the golden rule,’ when we mean: treat others as you want them to treat you. And athletes talk of ‘going for the gold’ when all they mean is first prize, because a trophy or medal or cup might be gold plated or painted the color of gold. You Indians are so proud of your English, but when you hear a figure of speech, you just don’t get it.”
The three men looked sheepish. Then the tourism official said, “You can have the spare room at our hotel for only twenty dollars a day.”
I didn’t complain when I saw the dreary little room, but the taxi driver, still at my side, looked sympathetic. Did I have to go to the bank this morning? he asked, offering to take me there free of charge. I decided, yes, I would go to the bank’s local branch in New Delhi and find out what my options were in the event that I was unable to retrieve my bank key. He said he’d be back for me in an hour, and left. (It was already eight o’clock.) I re-counted the six hundred-dollar bills I had in a wallet around my ankle, then washed gingerly with the trickle of cold water in the bathroom. Finally, I dialed the number of the people with whom my friend had left my key and passbook, but their servant told me they had gone to a wedding. I sighed. Hindu weddings sometimes last a week.
The taxi driver knocked at 9:30. He looked terrible, no longer the charming actor who had lured me to his taxi, but a sullen, dull-eyed brute. I wondered what could have caused such a metamorphosis in the brief time we were apart. Had he indulged in some debauch with the money I had paid him?
When we arrived at the bank he said he would stay with me, despite my protests that I did not need him. A turbaned Sikh directed us to an office on the second floor, where a handsome man greeted us in fluent English. He looked to be about forty and was dressed like a Wall Street banker. The taxi driver sank into the sofa across the room and began to snore.
“He’s my guide,” I explained.
The bank official was more than friendly. He gazed at me with big brown eyes and said, “Our meeting is not by chance; it was meant to be. Don’t you feel it?”
“I’m too worried about my bank box to think about anything else,” I said.
“I will give you the name of our locker expert upstairs. But you must promise not to tell him who sent you.”
I glanced over at the taxi driver, who continued to snooze.
“You can stop for him on your way out,” the bank man said.
I approached the desk of the locker expert with misgiving. What if he, too, was on the make, and claimed he would need my room number to open the bank box? There’s always a price when a woman says no.
This man was small, wiry, and dry. Evidently, he saw me not as a romantic interest but as more like a dimwitted, exasperating wife.
“So your passbook and key are with a stranger?”
“They were left there by the friend to whom I gave power of attorney.”
“You should never give power of attorney for a bank locker! Are your rental bills paid up?”
“My account is docked for the box fee.”
“No, no, there has to be a bill. You have done everything wrong: you threw money into the air and hoped it would find its way to the right account; you gave power of attorney to a person who left your key and passbook with someone you do not know; and now you want to know what to do in case you have to break the locker open. I will have to make a long-distance call to the manager in Varanasi to see if he has any record of you.”
After he’d made the call, he said, a shade more civilly, “You have a two-thousand-rupee balance in your account, and the rental is paid up. If the box has to be broken, it must be done by a technician who specializes in that particular make of lock. If there is no such specialist in the Varanasi area, you will have to send for one.”
As I turned to leave, he called out, “I did not charge you for that call.”
“Thank you,” I said. No doubt I now owed him a gift from America. I went downstairs.
The handsome bank official appeared glad to see me. “Ah!” he said. “You have come back to give me the name of your hotel.”
“No. I’m leaving Delhi today.”
Actually I would stay one more night, but I didn’t want any would-be lovers sniffing around.
My escort woke up and took me back to the hotel, at which point he covered the cab’s meter with his hand, saying meters did not count in India, and demanding six hundred rupees — about twenty dollars — for his services. I said I did not think I owed him that much for a “free” ride and his long nap at the bank. We settled on four hundred, which was far too much, but I wanted to get rid of him. A woman coming to India for her gold could not expect to be charged ordinary prices.
I entered the lobby, and there on the black plastic settee was the real taxi driver — the likable, government-approved, TV-detective taxi driver of the wee morning hours — looking rested, his charm intact.
I told him about the impostor who had taken me to the bank, and that I’d paid the man four hundred rupees.
“He stole my money,” the taxi driver said gloomily.
When I finally got in touch with the strangers who had my bank-box key and passbook, the woman told me graciously that I could stop by whenever I wanted. Their house was an hour by cab from my hotel, but I was so relieved at the prospect of going to the bank in Varanasi, my key in hand, that it was as if I were being borne along on angels’ wings, and I hardly noticed the life-threatening traffic on all sides.
I was received by a distinguished-looking older man in his study. He handed me a thick envelope, and I tore it open: No passbook. No key. Just a handwritten letter from my friend, saying that, although she had intended to leave my bank items at her friends’ house, she had lost them. She said she was sorry about all the trouble I was now bound to have at the bank, and that she would pray for me — an offer I hardly appreciated.
I went to the train station at the crack of dawn the next morning. The orange-turbaned porters and barefoot vendors and raggedy shoeshine boys plied their trades among the passengers: men who either followed Western fashions or wore all-white Indian dress. My heart sank to see most women still wearing tight-fitting saris. No one can dance in a sari. No one can jump or run or think in a sari. It is the uniform of a slave, worn because men, the masters, favor it.
I sat down on the stairs to wait for the railway ticket office to open. A shoeshine boy, maybe nine years old, cleaned my clogs for three rupees. He told me he was a coin collector and asked if I had any coins I did not want — foreign coins would be fine. I gave him a quarter. Seeing this, other boys gathered around, all of whom happened to be coin collectors. Fortunately, I had enough quarters so that everybody got one.
Eventually, I crossed the street to try my luck at Asia Tour and Travels, which, according to its sign, had the approval of the government of India. The portly man behind the desk refused to sell me a round-trip ticket, saying I would do better to buy my return ticket in Varanasi. He explained that he had to get my ticket through a broker, and so had to pay a little more than the station price. (He never told me how much more, preferring to consort with me on a higher plane.) He wrote the particulars of my journey on a small piece of paper, which he stapled at all four corners over half the ticket. “Of course you will travel in a compartment with only ladies,” he assured me. I paid him eight hundred rupees — about twenty-five dollars — for the one-way ticket.
I was the only woman in the non-air-conditioned compartment. My fellow passengers seemed not to notice me by the open window, until one of them suggested I close the window because of thieves along the way; their long, thin arms might reach in from the top of the train.
I said it hadn’t been like this the last time I was in India.
“It is now,” he said. “People are too poor.”
A conductor came through to check tickets. He wore a uniform like conductors in children’s books, and a big badge. Although I could not read it in the dim light, I was sure it said, Govt Of India. I felt secure when he sat down opposite me.
“I think you are lovely,” the conductor said. He asked if I was married. He said he was not married and would like to go to America with me. I declined — politely, I hope.
How different it had been when I lived in India. Then, Indians seemed proud of what their country was on its way to becoming, and were not looking for any chance to jump ship. They believed (and most continue to believe) that India was culturally the richest of countries, and that God lived in India. After all, foreigners from all over the world came to sit at the feet of Indian gurus. But now the burgeoning Indian middle class of the seventies and eighties had all but disappeared: the end of the Cold War — which meant the end of Soviet aid — had devastated India’s economy, and the country had yet to recover.
On the advice of a passenger, I slept on my back with my suitcase under my knees and my handbag under my head to discourage robbers. In the morning, I was so relieved not to have been robbed that I hardly minded not having slept at all.
As the train neared Varanasi, the landscape changed from a blighted wasteland to unbroken fields where tall, silvery pampas grass undulated against the flat countryside. An older man dressed in the white perfection of more prosperous Indian males, complete with dark gray waistcoat and white Nehru cap, asked where I as from. When I said the U.S., he turned to a group of young men and announced in a loud voice, “Americans have never suffered.”
I suddenly remembered that an Indian friend in the States had warned me Varanasi had become anti-American. This was partly because of drugs. While cannabis traditionally had a place in some tantric puja and opium was sold as medicine, such highly controlled activities did not undermine Indian society. It took mindless, pleasure-seeking, self-destructive foreigners to turn drug use into a blight on the land. And Americans were singled out not only for our high visibility but because we had “won” the Cold War and now flaunted our vastly increased purchasing power in full view of our impoverished hosts.
At the Varanasi station, I went to the special room reserved for foreigners to buy my return ticket. I asked for a berth on an air-conditioned sleeper and was startled to be charged the same price — eight hundred rupees — I had paid for a far less comfortable trip there. I handed the government clerk my used Delhi-Varanasi ticket. He tore off the paper the travel agent had stapled to it, and there was the real price: 150 rupees — about five dollars.
“He robbed you,” said the clerk, a slender young man of melancholy expression. “He charged you the first-class price and you had to ride with all those second-class people.”
Then he asked if I had a husband.
Mr. Burman, the man in charge of locker matters at the State Bank of India in Varanasi, sat at a desk outside the manager’s office. He said it might be difficult to find the right mechanic to open my box, that he’d have to call a great many people. I would have to wait.
The room was crowded with clerks and accountants, most of them small and thin, poring over handwritten ledgers or attending to customers under whirling fans. Men moved through the crowd holding aloft big trays from which the thirsty could help themselves to brass tumblers of water. Employees dusted their desks, and a sweeper pushed a mop along the immaculate floor. In India, banking has a personal touch. In New York, if the computer is down, you have to wait unattended, but in India you are offered water, or milk tea in clay vessels you toss out after use, and you sit on hardwood chairs dating from the British Empire.
Mr. Burman, finished with his phone calls, told me to come back the next afternoon at five, when the bank would be closed to the public; he had found a mechanic available at that time.
The next morning, I asked a rickshaw wallah whose gentle mien attracted me if he would drive me around the holy city until it was time to go to the bank. He assented with a smile, and we set off happily, as if dancing to the same music.
At a traffic circle I saw a collapsed dog and cried, “Stop!” The dog was dead; its emaciated, mud-caked carcass reminded me of how the police had thrown my three dogs and cat into the street when they came to deport me. I’d suffered imagining what my animals must have gone through. Now I felt I was facing them in that battered carcass. The rickshaw man was mindful of my mood, and didn’t rush me. Finally, we drove on, falling in with a funeral procession on its way to the Dashashamedha cremation ghat. The cheery pink shroud and many dancers and drummers indicated the end of a very long life. I remembered that, one hot summer night on a beautiful sloping shore of the Ganges, I’d lain down to rest on a high rock ledge used for burning bodies during flood season. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I was surrounded by dogs. I raised my head, and they backed away politely. How I wished my dogs could have found their way there; cremation-ghat dogs never starve to death.
I went to see my lawyer, Mr. Srivastava, to discuss my illegal deportation. I explained about the article I’d written revealing how the local university’s dairy was stealing its cows’ food money, and the cows were dying horrible deaths from eating cheap food with metal and wire in it. That article had made me some enemies in Varanasi. The manager of the dairy had told me I would have “a problem with my visa” if I told the story.
“Would you do it again?” my lawyer asked.
“You have to deal with whatever comes your way,” I said. “I do want to go on writing.”
“Now that you are old,” he told me, “you will be given respect.”
And the height of that respect is when they wrap you in pink silk and dance you down to the burning ghats.
The rest of my afternoon was quite pleasant, due in no small part to the services of the rickshaw man, who delivered me back at the bank an hour ahead of time; the mechanic was fifteen minutes late. Mr. Burman and I accompanied the mechanic into the vault, where he unlocked the compartment, pulled out the box, and quickly smashed it open. Its contents were thickly coated with dust.
I cleaned off the soft leather case that held my gold and put it in my handbag, as if it were some trifle I was retrieving from a lost-and-found. On my way out, I asked Mr. Burman how much he thought I should pay the rickshaw wallah, who was now waiting to take me to my hotel. He had been with me the whole day and had been perfect. I wanted to pay him well. Mr. Burman said two hundred rupees. I said I would give him three hundred. Horrified, Mr. Burman said that was far too much. I said I wanted to pay too much.
A brawny security guard approached me just outside the door. “Listen,” he said with an aggressive tone reserved for mere women, “your rickshaw wallah is the lowest of the low. He is worth nothing.”
“I’ll give him as much as I want,” I insisted. “It’s my money.”
A crowd gathered. (Crowds gather easily in India, because there are so many people.) The security guard explained that he himself had completed ten grades of school, had served in the army, and had been given a place to live near the bank so that he did not have to commute from a remote village by bicycle like his co-workers. But the rickshaw wallah, he said with disgust, was nothing. He was a man of the fourth level and not to be trusted. All the while, the rickshaw wallah sat perched on his cycle, looking off into the night as if he did not realize he was being talked about.
Mr. Burman came out and addressed the rickshaw man: “If anything happens to this woman, you will never drive your rickshaw in this city again.”
The crowd murmured threateningly, echoing the sentiment. Everyone glared at the rickshaw wallah, who seemed more impressed by the unexpected importance of his mission than insulted by their distrust. Maybe he felt safe because I was there. I had certainly felt safe all day with him.
I settled myself on the rickety seat as the crowd looked on respectfully, excited by the thought of what I might have taken out of their bank. Then the rickshaw wallah drove into the pitch-dark night. There was no moon, no street lights, no cars. For a while, a cyclist from the bank escorted us, but then the rickshaw wallah and I were alone on our trajectory through the void. I hoped no thieves would jump out at us. I didn’t want anything to happen to this man just because he was transporting me and my gold.
The rickshaw wallah pulled up to the doorway of my hotel, and I counted out three hundred-rupee notes by the light from the lobby.
“More!” he demanded.
I told him that was the last of my money, unless he wanted a two-rupee note I had in my pocket — a limp, dirty, ragged little note worth a fraction of a cent. Did he want that?
Without hesitation, he took that note as well and said, “All day I do my best. I give you the most.”
He wanted all my money; it didn’t matter how much, as long as it was all.