Mr. Cherches Goes to India, Part I
"You travel so much, and you're a writer, so how come you never write about travel?" many people have asked Mr. Cherches. Mr. Cherches sees the question as indicative of the utilitarian strain in western thought. Experience is no good unless you can profit from it. Why not capitalize on the experience?
Mr. Cherches has never before written about travel because he has never had any idea of what to write, nor any desire to write it. He travels to get away from the other things he does. He travels for travel's sake.
Besides, Mr. Cherches finds the narcissism of most travel writing annoying–the incessant "I" angling for attention. Mr. Cherches can't decide which he finds more loathsome: the writing traveler who portrays himself as "representative" or the one who portrays himself as "extraordinary." I have nothing to say about travel, Mr. Cherches thinks, nor have I come up with the proper angle from which to say it.
Nonetheless, Mr. Cherches decides to give it a try, as an experiment. He will write about his second trip to India, and he will write it in the third person. He hopes that will mitigate the narcissism of the "I." He will write scattered fragments that will be of no practical use to anybody.
In India, Mr. Cherches takes notes with ambivalence.
Recently, when asked what he looks for most when he travels, Mr. Cherches replied, "Foreignness." Of all the places he has been, India is, without question, the most foreign. The westerner in India is Alice in Wonderland: the rules of the game are not only different, they can't be fathomed.
In November of 1996, six years after his first trip to India, Mr. Cherches returned, spending one month touring the south.
His first morning his second time in India, at a hotel near the Bombay airport, Mr. Cherches peruses the room service menu. One of the choices is:
Indian Breakfast, Rs. 80.
Lassi (Sweet or Salted)
Aloo Paratha with Dahi
Tea or CoffeeMr. Cherches orders sweet lassi, aloo paratha and coffee.
When the food arrives Mr. Cherches is presented with a bill for 105 rupees–there is an extra charge for the coffee. Mr. Cherches contests the extra charge and the waiter insists that the tea or coffee comes only with Puri Bhaji. Mr. Cherches had not realized the ambiguity of the first "or," though he does realize that he is now being charged more for a breakfast special than for an a la carte sum of its constituent parts. "Many guests are confused," the waiter tells Mr. Cherches, and Mr. Cherches figures the hotel is counting on just that. As he eats his aloo paratha, Mr. Cherches tries to remember the rule for "or" without parentheses.
At the beach in Goa, Mr. Cherches happens upon the following sign: DRUG OFFENCES PUNISHABLE WITH TEN YEARS RIGOROUS IMPRISONMENT. Mr. Cherches contemplates the possible meanings of rigorous imprisonment before moving on.
A Kashmiri shopkeeper in Goa stops Mr. Cherches. "Mister, do you know who you look like?" the Kashmiri asks.
"No, who?" Mr. Cherches asks back.
Mr. Cherches does not know how to take this, but he remembers an incident from his last visit to India. The Gulf War had just started, and Mr. Cherches was checking into a Bombay hotel. The desk clerk, obviously a Muslim, on seeing Mr. C's American passport, proclaimed, "Saddam will bury you!" Mr. Cherches remembers having slept fitfully that night.
At the ticket counter of any railway station in India there is not an orderly queue, but rather a chaotic huddle of Indians, each trying to pre-empt the other, thrusting hands and voices at the clerk behind the cage. Surely Indians are the most incorrigible line jumpers in the world, Mr. Cherches thinks. Then he remembers some other places he's been. Mr. Cherches imagines a new Olympic event: the line jump. Without a doubt, India, China and Russia would take all the medals, though not necessarily in that order.
Indian soft drinks are served with the thinnest, softest plastic straws. You suck on them and they collapse. Drinking, like everything else in India, is difficult. Drinking a Limca, Mr. Cherches remembers a wonderful Raymond Chandler simile (from The Long Goodbye, he thinks): "He had a face like a collapsed lung."
Never wear sandals at night, in Kerala, if you're white, Mr. Cherches cautions.
Mr. C. had followed a lead on a restaurant in Ernakulam that specialized in traditional Keralan cuisine. The restaurant, Fry's Village, was an expansive outdoor place, set up like a series of traditional village huts. Mr. Cherches was the only westerner in the entire restaurant, and the mosquitoes had a field day. Here was a break from the usual, boring Dravidian fare–exotic American food (or, even more exotic, had they known, Russian Jewish food!). Mr. Cherches's enjoyment of his own meal of fish moily and kadala (a chick pea dish) with idiappam (rice noodle "string hoppers") was severely compromised by what had to be the two itchiest feet in Ernakulam.
"America–a fine country!"Every Indian male and his brother, it seems, asks Mr. Cherches, "Where are you coming from?" It is not a question of perspective, nor of last place visited, but rather the Indian-English way of phrasing, "Where do you come from?" For some reason, the words United States or USA don't register immediately with Indians. There is always a pause, then recognition: "Ah, America!" So Mr. Cherches, no longer worried about being sensitive to the feelings of South Americans, begins to tell Indians he is coming from "America."
Sometimes, however, hardcore New Yorker that he is, Mr. Cherches will say he is from New York.
"Where in New York?" a hotel clerk asks him. "New York City."
"Ah, not Long Island or Brooklyn?"
Mr. Cherches is impressed with the clerk's knowledge of geography. "Yes, Brooklyn," he replies. "But it's part of New York City. I didn't think many people in India knew Brooklyn."
"Yes, but I know because I am crazy for America," the clerk replies. "I know that Albany is your state capital."
Mr. Cherches is reminded of a little boy in Kathmandu, six years earlier: "I learn all about America at school," the boy had said. "I know Washington is the seat of your kingdom."
After about a week of eating nothing but Indian food Mr. Cherches notices that when he sweats he begins to smell like a sweaty Indian.
"Which way is Mahatma Gandhi Road?" Mr. Cherches asks a man on the street in Trivandrum.
"Where are you coming from?" the man asks.
"America. New York City," Mr. Cherches replies.
"You are Jew?" the man asks.
Startled, Mr. Cherches thinks for a moment, then decides to say yes.
"I am Christian," the man says. "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?"
"No," Mr. Cherches replies, then adds, "but I don't believe in anything."
"That is the way," the man says, pointing toward Mahatma Gandhi Road.
At the train station in Trivandrum an American with a vacant stare begins to chat with Mr. Cherches. The man explains that he has come to Trivandrum to see the dentist, but that he is living at an ashram several hours away. He then proceeds to bend Mr. Cherches's ear about his all-knowing, all-seeing divine mother. "She knows everything I did yesterday, and everything I did a hundred years ago, and everything I'll be doing a hundred years from today," he says. Mr. Cherches nods politely.
Sometimes, Mr. Cherches is amazed at how polite he can be.
* * *Many people go to India to find themselves. Mr. Cherches goes there to lose himself.
To be continued . . .