Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 2

Exhausted and agitated, we climbed – remarkably free of luggage – aboard a shuttle bus that would take us to a hotel a few miles away. The orange rays of the setting sun penetrated the dusty windows, through which we had our first sight of India.

Bombay is called Mumbai now, and it has prospered much since my visit. But still, 7 million of its 12 million people live in slums, and hundreds of thousands are homeless, many of them squatting in an area between the airport and the city. In 1995, more than a million existed in that area under bits of cloth stretched between sticks, under plastic and in cardboard boxes or with no shelter at all.

In the yellow dust of the road and the diminishing light of day, they crouched around the glowing ash of dung fires or lay sprawled and asleep. Their numbers mounted as we sped by; scores, then hundreds of tattered souls with dirt-caked faces the color of old shoes, and matted hair, and wild, stunned expressions, then a thousand or more. Skeleton dogs skittered across the road that rumbled with frantic traffic. Men lazily pissed along the berm. The air was heavy with diesel fumes and the stench of human shit. Above the incessant blaring of horns rose an ungodly wailing of a madwoman.

A little while later, I was sitting at a hotel bar with one of my traveling companions, Jim, drinking Kingfisher beer, both of us silently staring at tears running down the cold bottles and forming puddles of condensation. Behind us, in a corner of the dining room, a combo with a female singer was plowing through a melancholy medley of Carpenters tunes.
"Unbelievable," Jim said. "Can all of India be like this?"
"All of India is probably not just like Bombay," I offered.
"You mean, it's worse out there?" he asked, in all seriousness. "I have no desire to leave this hotel," he said after a long pause.

I had arrived in India in a snit, acting as if I had undergone some real hardship. But I had money in my pocket and a soft bed in which to sleep, and I had reached middle age without ever having experienced hunger, or having to worry about where I might spend the night. Over the next five weeks I would learn something about people who must contemplate daily their own survival, and I would learn much more about myself.

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