Normally I wouldn’t try to explain anything, but with this LP I feel I should at least let you know that it’s autobiographical, inspired by various past events and people I met. Some of them I loved, some I wished had never been born. I’m at that age where an autobiography is getting to be appropriate.
What makes my life worth recounting? Well, I’m not sure how instructive or entertaining it might be for you, but for me it’s a necessary part of “know thyself.” And of course my son is curious about who his father is and what his father lived through. I’m still curious about those years my mother lived through before I was born. Unfortunately I don’t have much hard evidence and no autobiographical notes from her to make the story clearer. And I didn’t want to leave my son with that kind of foggy darkness to deal with. Of course he will have to try and figure out just how truthfully I’m telling my story.
After all, we all bend the truth whether we want to or not, most often because our perception of the past reality has gone through the prism of the years that followed and been colored by subsequent layers of emotion from similar or conflicting events. But no matter, the attempt is what is important, and the result is that some glimmer of truth comes through and perhaps it’s enough so that the fragmented mosaic does come across as a picture worth looking at. I certainly hope so.
Archive dot org, which I’m sure many of you are already familiar with, has been able rescue films that record history, like the films shot during and after both of the World Wars, and of course it has rescued countless a-historical but highly entertaining Noir films from the 40s and 50s (some of my favorites among them!).
But probably one of the most important films for us today is a slightly damaged version of a film entitled Despotism. It was made by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, in those days the top informational filmmaker for schools and universities. And it made the film Despotism to inform the upcoming generation of the perils that exist in the world we live in, and to show them how to recognize despotism when it is on its insidious path to take over the democratic system.
Unfortunately, as events in the present are showing us, this film has not been shown in enough schools since 1946, otherwise we might not be in the situation we are in today.
You can view Despotism yourself here and here – and I encourage you to do so. The first link is to the Prelinger Archive collection and has an extensive shotlist and transcript from which I have gathered some important shot and narration information for this article – which is, by the way, only written as a quick guide to the film, not intended as an exhaustive review. The Prelinger Archive version of the film has some sync problems, but is still OK to view. The second link is to the Community Video site, and it has a version of the film with no sync problems, but is bereft of the shotlist. So if you need to, you can copy the shotlist from the one site and watch the film on the other.
In a no-holds-barred beginning to the film we are shown a sliding scale (00:14) which slowly goes from top to bottom:
And carefully chosen words follow from narrator James Brill, who stands in front of a wall chart with a big map of Europe behind him:
“Well for one thing, avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism. Germany under President Hindenburg was a republic. [outline of Germany] And yet in this republic an aggressive despotism took root and flourished under Adolf Hitler. [maps, flags, swastika]
Because archive.org is an open system, many negative or near-negative comments about the film have been posted on the Prelinger Archive site by people who call it everything from “obvious Jewish Marxist propaganda” to “accurate and frightening”. Why? Well, you have seen how the film begins, now look at the shocking follow-up to that beginning:
“When a competent observer looks for signs of despotism in a community, he looks beyond fine words and noble phrases.” (00:54) Then you see a picture of a group of people reciting the pledge of allegiance, saluting the flag, hands over hearts: “… for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” And while they speak the words “with liberty and justice for all”, the crossfade comes and shows a hanged man. (00:58-01:09)
Many Americans were not and are still not able to emotionally deal with the juxtaposition of the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance ritual with the picture of someone hanging from – perhaps – the branch of a tree that has an uncanny resemblance to a scaffold. And, if you study the picture of the shadow figure hanging from the rope (which undoubtedly has a hangman’s noose), you can discern the typical forelock that was so popular among young whites of post-war America. Does that forelock rescue the picture from a racist bent?
It’s a shocking juxtaposition in its own right, even if you are not American. And it comes so early on in the film that it sets a tone, a tone that will continue throughout.
Despotism is only a ten-minute film. It was meant to be shown in a History class or a Political Science class or in a class that in my day used to be called Civics. (I just had a look to see if Civics still exists, and it does!) Although Civics seems to be obligatory in the high schools of most states, it is hardly ever taught for more than half a year. Only 16 states require a Civics exam to graduate. One of those states is Colorado, which seems to have a rather comprehensive course for its students: “Because all Colorado high schools must teach one year of civics, teachers are expected to cover the origins of democracy, the structure of American government, methods of public participation, a comparison to foreign governments, and the responsibilities of citizenship.”
I wonder what effect it would have if some high school teachers in Colorado took 10 minutes to show their students Despotism. (What effect would it have on you if you were stoned while watching it?)
Pretty quickly after the shock, a quick explanation of how despotism can come about, once again using the sliding scales we have been introduced to, but this time with the titles RESPECT and POWER.
“A careful observer can use a respect scale to find how many citizens get an even break. As a community moves towards despotism, respect is restricted to fewer people. A community is low on a respect scale if common courtesy is withheld from large groups of people on account of their political attitudes; if people are rude to others because they think their wealth and position gives them that right, or because they don’t like a man’s race or his religion.” (01:26)
Skillfully woven into the narration is a short clip of two khaki-clad men in jackboots and military-style caps, strutting down a city street, guns on their hips and obviously harassing people on the street. That is followed by a boss entering his office and walking quickly past his employees without uttering a word of greeting before going into his office, which is marked Private. And then the clincher, an reservation form for a holiday resort:
And immediately we are at the heart of the matter of what is extremely relevant for us today, because our whole world is getting lower and lower on the RESPECT scale. Common courtesy is withheld from people all the time, and not only because of their political attitudes, their lack of wealth, their race or gender, but for any number of perceived travesties, in public spaces, on busses, subway trains, in traffic – too many horror videos to mention just one – and on social media. You’ve all seen the crappy moments that are filmed for likes or LOLs or just to elicit rage. And this rage spreads through social media channels and fuels acts of violence. And then the acts of violence are filmed and passed along as well.
Along with a graphic depiction of the POWER scale as it goes down from shared to concentrated, we get the following narration:
“A power scale is another important yardstick of despotism. It gauges the citizen’s share in making the community’s decisions. Communities which concentrate decision making in a few hands rate low on a power scale and are moving towards despotism. Like France under the Bourbon kings, one of whom said, ‘The state – I am the state.’ Today democracy can ebb away in communities whose citizens allow power to become concentrated in the hands of bosses. (03:13) ‘What I say goes. See, I’m the law around here. Ha ha ha!’ The test of despotic power is that it can disregard the will of the people. It rules without the consent of the governed.” Does that I’m the law around here. Ha ha ha! sound familiar?
The sequence that comes after, about voting and how votes are treated, has a cleverly crafted flag that adorns the wall, with the math symbol (≠) in what we can assume – even though the film is in black and white – is a red circle. And here we also have the re-emergence of our khaki-clad keepers of order from a previous clip, with official armbands and eagles on their military/policeman caps.
Symbols of power are extremely important today, as they have always been. Some are external, like flags, badges, guns, vehicles, uniforms (brown, green, camouflaged, dark blue, black); some are only there if you look for them – watches, cell phones, jewelry, shoes – and some are kept hidden and shown only to the select few who are privy to the halls of power in whichever system they exist. Those are the people who are allowed to view TOP SECRET, EYES ONLY documents, and other such private and sensitive material (like the photos of a dead Bin Laden? or snapshots of a dead Khashoggi before he is disposed of?).
Voting is a process that even despotic regimes like to use to show the world that they are not so bad after all. Now whether or not your vote has any meaning is totally dependent on the form of government you are under. In nominally democratic societies, people have a tendency to believe their vote is meaningful. In some European countries turnout is high. And from time-to-time there is a change of direction away from despotism toward democracy. But these days, as Noam Chomsky once showed us, our consent to be governed is often manufactured through the power of advertising and propaganda perfected first by Edward Bernays, the “double nephew” of Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and then refined by Joseph Goebbels and later by the Mad Men on Madison Avenue.
The makers of Despotism are no slouches when it comes to giving maximum visual effect to the words that come after we have had a quick visual and aural dose of Hitler and his saluting minions.
“In a downright despotism, opposition is dangerous whether the despotism is official or whether it is unofficial.” [this all comes over a montage of pictures showing a sign which reads Camp 33 for Political Offenders, then a man with a hood over his head and a noose around his neck, which is followed by what are obviously Ku Klux Klan men backlit by the flames of a burning cross. (04:13-04:23)]
The film is around its halfway mark now. So to keep this readable, I’ll give you a quick run-through of what comes next.
First we get the ECONOMIC DISTRIBUTION scale that can go from balanced to slanted. Income and land ownership are dealt with first: “Where land is privately owned, one sign of a poorly balanced economy is the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a very small number of people.” Taxation is also addressed: “Another sign of a poorly balanced economy is a taxation system that presses heaviest on those least able to pay.” All of that illustrated by stacks of coins and pie charts. (04:48-06:30)
The INFORMATION scale comes in at 06:35 and goes from uncontrolled to controlled with these fine words: “A community rates low on an information scale when the press, radio, and other channels of communication are controlled by only a few people and when citizens have to accept what they are told.” And when these last few words are spoken, under uncontrolled a little subheading appears: critical evaluation. Next, we get the subheading for controlled which reads: automatic acceptance.
So now you can conclude for yourself what it means when we know that only 5 major corporations control all the media in the USA. Not that other western democracies are that much better off.
A quick covering of how teachers are trained, how propaganda is woven into school systems and how the general public can be persuaded to believe what the government wants them to believe ends with a depiction of how official censorship works.
Today’s censorship works more subtly than that because it takes place in the head of the journalist and is linked to career opportunities and political affiliations. But the power of money was well-known in 1946 as well. “It is also possible for newspapers and other forms of communication to be controlled by private interests. ‘I thought I told you to kill that story. It’ll cost us a lot of advertising.’”
Then comes a final review of the most important points covered in the film, with the main question being: “What sort of community do you live in? Where would you place it on a democracy/despotism scale?” The RESPECT and POWER scales are next, followed by the ECONOMIC DISTRIBUTION and INFORMATION scales and we are told that the lower these are, the closer we come to despotism.
The end is a curious collage of images which begins with this crossfade:
You see how the United States blends in as the scale reaches its nadir, toward despotism, in a perhaps not so subtle message that there is something wrong in a country which, even in 1946, is giving signs of concentrated wealth and power, concentrated land ownership, intolerance, and a voting system that does not conform to the important aspects of democracy: all discernible signs of a slow and steady march toward despotism.
So tell me: Where would you put the US and other western democracies in relation to despotism today?
Mashhad is a big city. After spending so much time going through semi-desert landscape and the dusty bare towns of Kandahar and Herat, it was disconcerting to be back in what was definitely civilization. And it wasn’t just the big city traffic and the big city buildings, it was evident in the people as well. Of course I had to go and visit the Shrine of Imam Reza. That was obligatory. Not because of any religious reasons, but because it is there, a massive complex that not only contains the tomb of Imam Reza (a very important figure in Shia Islam) but it is also considered the largest mosque in the world. There is another mosque in the complex, a museum, a library and four schools that teach religious matters.
To walk through the mosque – as in India at important shrines – I had to put cloth covers over my shoes to prevent my soles from scratching the marble surface or tracking dirt over it. And also, most probably, to avoid insulting the shrine, since it is considered insulting to show the sole of the foot or the sole of the shoe to someone. The locals, who mostly wore open-toed sandals during the hot season [When is it not hot?], left their sandals at the side of the entrance, but heathen westerners like me were allowed to just slip on cloth covers and enter to enjoy the wonder of the mosque. And it is a wonder. Like the Taj Mahal, it has intricate inlay work all around the imposing main entrance and all around its many balcony portals. Of course I didn’t take any pictures, since I was determined to hold all the pictures of what I saw in my head so that I could write about everything later from pure memory. Well, this resplendent beauty and complexity defies memory, at least exact memory of every detail. All I can say is that I was overwhelmed. And I was very happy to spend as much time inside as I could because it was much much cooler than outside in the relentless sun.
The centerpiece was of course the tomb of Imam Reza (who by the way is Ali ibn Moosa a descendant of Muhammad). It is set in a chamber that is adorned with inlayed texts in the walls and turquoise filigree inlays over the arches. UNESCO has declared the whole complex a world heritage site because of its historical architectural beauty and of course its cultural value. You know what? Go find some pictures of it. They are everywhere on the Internet.
After my refreshing and awe-inspiring tour of the mosque, I stepped back out into the glaring sunshine and was immediately drawn to the fountain in front of the mosque. I sat down on one of the cement seats that surrounded the fountain and let the slight breeze that filtered through the fountain stream and over the water in its pool refresh me. I dipped my hand into the water and spread it over my face and hair and bare arms. Then I sat there and stared at the imposing entrance to the mosque. Not far away from me sat a young man in traditional clothing, a roomy white top and white trousers that also had lots of room for the circulation of air. He smiled at me and came to sit next to me. His English was excellent and we got into conversation. He was a theology student but was able to speak about all sorts of things, and he was definitely not a narrow-minded fanatic of any sort. In fact, he was quite up-to-date as regards the state of the world and world culture in 1971. I was a little surprised because I thought that he would have been more intent on trying to convert me, but he wasn’t trying at all. In fact, he said that one of the most important aspects of learning to be a mullah was understanding the world and what people thought, all sorts of people, whether they were religious or not. It was his duty, he said, to talk especially to foreigners and find out how they looked at the world, what made them tick, and how, if necessary, he could one day be of help to someone from that foreign culture.
I was impressed of course. The young man couldn’t have been much older than me. He wasn’t sporting a heavy beard, just some wisps of light brown down along his chin line and over his lip, though he did have head-covering against the sun, a large white skull cap that also served to identify his religious status. He was extremely polite during our whole conversation and asked very direct and penetrating questions about what I thought about certain scientific aspects, like the journey which had recently been taken to the moon. My interest in science had always been rather keen, so I was able to talk quite freely in that area and he took in my answers like a sponge absorbs water. But my time in Mashhad was limited. I had a bus to catch to Tehran. So, as a parting gift he gave me directions as to the shortest route to the bus station and I thanked him and walked away, leaving the massive complex and the student of the world who would one day be an advisor to his parishioners behind me.
Yes, there is a train service between Mashhad and Tehran, and I took the train on my way back to India, but this time I rode on a bus.
And since this a little over a year later than the last entry, I am going to add a little biographical note about my mother. Why? Why not? I’ve mentioned her a few times and I thought it might be proper to at least give you a sketch. She was much more complex than I can possibly describe her, and though I have worked on a few stories and even a script treatment that covers an aspect of her life during the second world war, I keep running into aspects of her that actually make her more of a mystery to me instead of less of one. Maybe that’s how it is with everyone. What you see is only a tiny fraction of what is, like the dark matter that is most of the universe. We can’t see it, but now we know it’s there.
This year, on the 1st of March, I cut my hair.
After 5 years of rebellion against my mother’s wishes, I finally had enough and went to the hairdresser I used to frequent 5 years ago. She was happy to see me, and we laughed a lot and I got handed my pony tail (curly hair pony tail) as a souvenir. I took it home with me, showed my wife, photographed it, but after about a week of just looking at it, I finally threw it in the trash.
My mother would have turned 104 on 19 March, so I decided that she should have a quietly reassuring birthday glance through the wormhole of time or from one of the parallel universes and see me with hair that hasn’t stopped shocking her since she was 99.
I actually went to visit her grave for the 100. I thought that was the least I could do. She’s entombed in a wall with lots of relatives over and beside her, so she can’t be feeling all that lonely. Anyway, I did knock on the marble wall, just in case, you know, but there was no reply, which was both reassuring and a little disconcerting. I mean, I assume she has been slowly disintegrating in there since 1992, but what if she just up and left?
During her lifetime she moved around a lot. After growing up about less than a kilometer from where she’s allegedly entombed, she never stopped moving. When her parents finally allowed her to come to Rome, when she was 7, she went from school to school, never spending much time in any of them, mostly because she was restless and far too smart to put up with the nonsense she was being taught. Finally, when she got to university, she became a track star and sportswoman. For 5 years she was the fastest woman in Italy in the 100 meters. After that, war, and the diplomatic service kept her running from place to place, city to city, and while I was growing up in BH, from apartment to apartment. We lived in 14 different apartments in 11 years. Well, one of them we lived in twice, with a few years in between the moves in and out. In her retirement in Umbria she moved apartments at least 5 times and finally just gave up apartments altogether and started traveling from hotel to hotel around Umbria. She slowly divested herself of worldly goods and in the end had one red Samsonite suitcase where she kept her clothes and a pair of knee-length boots that she kept mentioning to me in the months before she had her stroke. “The boots, the boots,” she would say. “Don’t forget the boots!”
By the time she was ready to take her leave, I had difficulty in locating where she was, she had moved so often. Finally I found out that she was in hospital and made it down in time to see her. She couldn’t talk because of the stroke. But she grabbed my arm with the hand that still worked and sat me down, and through stare-command ordered me to shut up and watch. Slowly, over the next 5 days, she slipped away.
But she had one more trick up her sleeve. Her pension check arrived on the day she passed, and in order to collect it, I had to travel to Perugia with my cousin, a postman, and talk with the postal authorities, who were the ones who would cash the check. It being Italy, the doctor in the hospital, understanding the situation perfectly, wrote a very clear and precise letter which stated that due to medical reasons, my mother was “immobilized” and not able to travel to collect her check, so her son was going in her stead. My cousin the postman did most of the talking in Perugia and after about an hour of smiles and nods and suspicious looks and shrugs and hand gestures, they gave me the check, I cashed it, and we drove back to my “immobile” mother.
So, being the trickster and super-intelligent lady she always was, and of course restless as as a fly, or a cockroach caught in the open during daylight hours, I can’t really vouch for her true whereabouts. The weather is quite good there and I had the word WILLPOWER put on her marble wall so that people would at least know that if the wall crumbled and there had been no earthquake, then she was most probably on the loose. I haven’t read about any tornadoes or menacing dust devils traumatizing people in the area, so maybe the marble wall is still holding her back.
The question remains: For how long?
PS: “The boots.” Yeah, well, of course I got the suitcase after the funeral and went through it. Nothing really to keep. I even contemplated giving the boots away until I thought: “Hmmm.” Being knee-length boots, in order to keep their shape, she had stuffed crushed up newspaper all the way down into the feet of the boots and up to the tops, which were made of a fine soft leather. The boots were obviously expensive. Maybe that was why she kept them? Anyway, slowly I removed the wads of newspaper and, lo and behold, down at the bottom of the boots, on the inner soles of both, was cash money in nice crispy Italian Lira. In fact, it was just enough money to pay for the funeral, where I read her favorite Shakespeare speech: “To sleep, perchance to dream,” and the wake (I invited all the local relatives, about 15 people) which we held in a very good restaurant, as a four-course lunch with plenty of wine after the funeral.
a cat, no, rabbit
under a bare lakeside bush
turtles by the shore
black shells glisten in water
three stones in the lake
a murder of crows
peck for hidden snowdrop bulbs
before they might bloom
the wet gravel path
runners slosh past on thin mud
I walk toward my Spring
equinox is near
winter hides and then appears
blackbirds are singing
footsteps follow me
I turn my head and nothing
nothing steps closer
lines I speak out loud
sound real like the crow’s cackle
and mean just as much
just a willow tree
branches black against the sky
tendrils long for Spring
One of the things I have realized since I began writing about events that happened almost 50 years ago, is that memories slide into each other and compress. During a seven or eight hour bus journey, not all moments are clearly distinguishable. Arriving in the next hot dusty city seems just like arriving in the one before that.
There were no bus terminal buildings in Kandahar like there are in modern cities. The bus stopped and there were other buses parked nearby on a big dusty square off the side of the main road. There was a kind of trestle table with bottled drinks on it about 15 meters away and a couple of the European passengers (who I avoided all contact with) were looking at what was on offer. Some of the brands looked familiar, like Coca Cola, but there was no way that anyone with a little sense and will to survive would ever buy one of those bottled invitations to diarrhea or food poisoning or worse. Although the caps were all firmly on the tops of the bottles, the contents looked suspicious. The colors were strange. Shades of red and green that didn’t look like any cherry or lime I had ever seen bottled. And the Coke, well, it was definitely black liquid of some kind, but it looked flat and muddy. So I gave the turbaned vendor a nice smile and moved across the dirt square to the tea stand where all the Afghans were gathered drinking tea out of earthenware bowls.
You can’t travel through this part of the world without treading in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. In fact, as I found out later, Kandahar was founded in 329 BC by Alexander the Great who named the place after himself, as he often did, calling it Alexandria Arachosia. Apparently there was already a small settlement there called Arachosia.
The purpose of my journey was to get to London as quickly as possible and pick up my half-brother David who had written to us in India and said he wanted to visit. He has good memories related to our return journey through Turkey and Iran and Afghanistan. My memories of the journey toward London are untainted by the presence of any kind of companion, so they are my memories alone, even though, as I said, they are probably distorted by the passage of time.
Anyway, next stop was Herat and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. Finding out which bus actually was going to the destination you wanted was a matter of talking to three or four or even five or six different people. Nobody wants to disappoint you, so you get many different answers and all of them sound promising. What you need to listen for however are two or three answers that are the same, that refer to the same bus leaving at nearly the same time and to, if possible, the same driver, one who is visible and has not disappeared and “will be back shortly.”
While doing this research it is important to remain polite and smile and thank the people who give you the information. Maybe some people lie to you on purpose, but most just don’t know the answer and provide you with an answer that sounds like it will help you even if it won’t. They are being nice and trying not to disappoint. So, through the process of gathering more information than needed, I finally got the answers that were consistent with the truth and found the driver who would be taking me to Herat. And, as usual, the bus would be leaving in the early evening, about an hour before sundown. This would mean that somewhere along the way, also as usual, the bus would pull to the side of the road and we would sleep there until sunrise when the faithful would exit for prayers and the Kafirs, like me, would stretch their legs, have a smoke and get ready for the next long leg of the journey.
No, there was no water in plastic bottles that you could carry with you. I drank large quantities of tea before getting on the bus in the evening. During the journey the bus always stopped at small roadside settlements where more tea and simple food, along with naan, Afghan bread was available. You get a taste for naan. It’s a long wide flat bread and you tear it into smaller strips and use it to pick up the food on the plate and bring it to your mouth. Well-cooked vegetables were what I ate most with the naan. No meat. My method for choosing food was to see what the older Afghans ate and then order the same. Most of the older men restricted themselves to vegetable dishes with naan. I did the same. Meat was available, mostly roasted over a coal fire and skewered, a kind of shashlik. The smell was always good. The pieces of meat were small and well cut and skewered on a piece of iron with a flat handle. Still, nothing for me, even if it was lamb, like it was supposed to be.
The hours I spent on the bus were not wasted hours. Since I had no companions and avoided all contact with the other Europeans on the journey, I had time to think and gather in the landscape, which changed from brownish desert to green fields and back to brownish desert. This was flat land mostly. We went through some semi-mountainous regions, but it was mostly flat and mostly brown along the way. Just before we entered Herat, the green returned.
Now here is a point where memory compresses so that I’m not exactly sure of where I was when I went to a Hammam. What I do remember is that the building seemed huge to me, like a fortress, with thick mud walls. Inside it was humid, in contrast to the dry heat outside. There was hardly anyone inside, but one of the men, who had a thin cotton sheet wrapped around his waist, came to me and showed me to a private cell, where there was a trickle of water flowing, and a bowl to gather it in. The cell was of concrete, about three meters long and two meters wide. It had a concrete bank where I could sit and a hook in the wall where I could hang my clothes.
My first instinct is to say that this Hammam was in Kandahar, where the drink stand was as well. And where I had arrived at more or less the hot part of the day. But it could have been Herat. I remember that in Herat I walked about before returning to where the buses were, and from around a corner a rather corpulent man appeared, dressed in shabby brown western clothes, a wrinkled suit jacket, baggy pants, a round face, head balding on top, his eyes concentrating on me, his smile trying to charm me, though it looked more like a serpent’s smile. In his hands, which had stubby little fingers, he was kneading a large lump of something that looked like light-brown dough. He hung close to the wall and tried to coax me to follow him around the corner, all the time saying: “Hashish? You want hashish? Good hashish.” He kept kneading the light-brown mass and showing it to me, like an offering. And kept that snake stare on me, hoping to transfix me. I gave him an angry look, turned away and immediately went back to the buses.
That bit was definitely in Herat. I remember distinctly. But where the Hammam was located is not clear. At any rate, being in that cement cell was a wonderful experience. For the first time in days my pores opened and the sweat rolled out. The man who led me to the cell had given me a tiny bar of soap and a thin cotton washrag. I scrubbed myself with soap. It was simple yellow soap that didn’t foam up so much, but it did the job. I soaked the washrag in the water and scrubbed away days of dirt, enjoying the humidity after pouring bowls of water over my head and body to clean away the soap.
I sat on the cement bank and leaned against the wall, relaxed in my nakedness, enjoying the privacy and the sound of the water trickling from the tap onto the floor and along the groove in the floor to the drain. I’m not sure how long I was in there. Maybe an hour, maybe a little less or a little more. Perhaps because it was so enchanting and so unique for me, my memory has placed it in a location that is not tied to geography, only to experience.
Outside – and this I remember very well – in the dry heat of the day, I felt like I had been reborn.
Getting to Mashhad from Herat meant crossing the border of course. In those days Iran was under the Shah, a rather non-benevolent dictator supported by Anglo-American oil companies. Only about ten years later would the Islamic revolutionaries drive him from power. The border crossing had army personnel everywhere and it was clear the customs people were not going to put up with any crap from anyone. We all had to get off the bus, walk through the checkpoint, show our passports and wait until the bus joined us on the other side. Once again, being an Italian citizen had its advantages. I got a nice smile from the guy who checked my passport and the one word: “Italiano!” before he waved me through.
Back on the bus, we found we had some new passengers, two young men who were tall, had well-tended short hair, were rather light of skin, handsome, energetic and spoke perfect English. They stood up in the aisle and enticed the young European passengers, encouraging them to join them in a short tour of Mashhad when we got there, to stay in a student hostel over night. They said they were university students on vacation. Some people responded in a friendly manner and the young men would sit with them and talk and laugh. Not me. It was obvious to me that these guys, very fit and of military age, were certainly not just a couple of college students taking a bus to Mashhad from the border. I took out a book and buried my nose in it, so they had no chance to engage me in conversation.
A few kilometers after the border crossing, the bus was stopped by an army patrol. A young guy in an army uniform, with crazy eyes and a white bandage around his neck, entered the bus and went down the aisle, all the time sniffing like a dog and swinging his crazy eyes from person to person. Apparently he didn’t get a whiff of what he was sniffing for and he turned around and went back down the aisle and out. But an old Afghan man had been taken from the bus. The baggage compartment had been opened and his suitcase was on the ground, open, and full of cartons of cigarettes. In a few moments the baggage compartment was closed and the bus started back along the road to Mashhad. The old white-haired and white-bearded Afghan stayed back there with the soldiers.
The ride up through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad was, as I said, frightening, but at the same time awesome, in the old meaning of the word — it filled me with awe. What kept hitting me along the way every time I dared to look out the window of that bus was the sheer magnitude of the mass of stony earth we were climbing on this zig-zag path along its outer edge. And to think that so many invaders of the Indus Valley had come through the pass, heading down of course, and had conquered the people who had been living by that mighty river.
But I was glad to be through with that and finally on my way to Kabul. I arrived late in the evening and found a hostel of sorts, where I took a single room rather than a group room with 6 beds.
In those days I avoided drugs of any kind. I had drug years behind me. And I would have some drug years again in the future. But in 1971 I wasn’t interested in any of those things. I was learning how to see and hear and be without the blur that drugs induced. Certainly I wasn’t against drugs, I have never been one who wants to ban them. In fact, I believe that all drugs should be decriminalized, made legal, and be available in pharmacies for anyone who wants to take them. If you are not a responsible person, then too bad, you die of an overdose or you go to a hospital to endure a cure. The only purpose in banning a substance is to jack up its price on the black market. Rather get it pure and at the lowest possible price, generic and unbranded if possible. It’s your body, destroy it any way you like. As long as drugs are not “pushed” onto the buyers, then where is the problem? Ideally, 50% of the profits from their sale could be sent into the health system so that we can all benefit from the maladies of the few, because there is no way that suddenly millions of people will start injecting heroin just because it’s available for five bucks a shot at the pharmacy down the road.
Anyway, Kabul was just a stop on the way to Kandahar. There were buses leaving every day, so one wouldn’t be so hard to find, but I wanted to rest up a bit before starting on the next leg of my journey. In those days Kabul was a peaceful place. The streets were wide and the people walked most everywhere. There was a king as head of state, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was a modernizer. Women worked as doctors and lawyers and were able to move about freely without wearing special clothing or covering their heads. At least that’s how it was in Kabul when I was there. I saw women in skirts and high heels and men in business suits, and although from time to time I also saw a woman in a burka, it was more of an exception than a rule.
The country had always been clannish and tribal and I suppose that hasn’t changed. But the new element that crept in after the Russian invasion was the religious fanaticism. It was used as a tool to excite and motivate resistance against the “godless” communists, but it has since become a cancer in the body politic of the nation. Even in Pakistan, where religion had been used to split Pakistan away from India, it was not really openly visible. I had the impression that religion in these countries was like religion in Italy, a part of their lives and culture, but nothing to scream and shout about.
I only had that one rucksack with me, washed-out green like an army rucksack but nowhere near as large. A couple of pairs of underwear, some t-shirts, an extra pair of jeans, two pairs of socks. If I needed something more I would be able to buy it along the way. Clothes were cheap everywhere. The cotton fabrics came from India, most probably smuggled in so that no tariffs applied, and I had already learned in Africa that you should never wear anything synthetic in those climates, it would stick to your skin because it created a kind of sauna around you.
Yes, I was a cigarette smoker in those days, and cigarettes were cheap in that whole region, so I bought a carton of unfiltered cigarettes, which I determined not to break into because I wanted to deliver them unbroken to my half-brother David when I eventually got to London. The Afghans used a type of tobacco called naswar, a kind of snuff which they took a pinch of and placed under their lower lips or snorted. That was definitely not for me. Once upon a time I had tried chewing tobacco and it burned my mouth and made me vomit. But I stuffed the carton of cigs into my rucksack and only bought single packs to smoke along the way. Actually, during the trip I hardly smoked at all. I didn’t have that much time on my hands, even though the bus journeys were extremely long.
In fact, the journey from Kabul to Kandahar turned out to be much longer than I expected.
On my second day in Kabul I went down to what you might call a bus station. It certainly didn’t look anything like where Greyhound buses left from. It was just a place where there were lots of buses and lots of drivers and lots of people all more or less haphazardly gathered in one rather spread out location. I went from group to group and asked about a bus to Kandahar. They told me the next bus would leave early the next day. But I kept asking different people until I got the answer I wanted, which was that a bus would be leaving after lunch, which meant around two in the afternoon. I went to the bus and the driver and found out where to get a ticket for that bus. Since it was already after ten in the morning, I went to a nearby restaurant and sat down, drank some tea, smoked a cigarette, read my book (I always had a book with me) and then around noon had lunch (rice and some lamb curry), a postprandial cigarette, more tea and read another chapter of my book (probably something by Somerset Maugham, because I felt that after reading Ulysses by James Joyce while I was in Delhi – it took me six months to do that – that I was allowed some literary entertainment from an author who had passed through exotic lands).
I went back to the bus I was supposed to take to Kandahar and a small crowd of potential passengers had already gathered there. All of us were obviously anxious to get going. It was already past two in the afternoon and the journey to Kandahar is about 480 kilometers (about 300 miles). The road is on a flat surface all the way, with no mountain passes, but the buses were not capable of traveling faster than 80 km/hr (about 50 mph), and even if they had been capable, you wouldn’t want them to go faster because of the poor state of the buses and the unknown competency of the drivers.
So we were looking forward to at least a six hour journey, perhaps longer, depending on the condition of the road and if we stopped often along the way. The road turned out to be in pretty good shape, even though I heard that after the war with the Russians the road was practically unusable for most of its length.
At four, we boarded the bus. At just before five we left the station. We managed to get to the edge of Kabul around the time it got dark and that was when the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road and said that we would be spending the night there because it was much to dangerous to drive through the night. Nobody complained. I had a double seat to myself so I used my rucksack as a pillow and stretched out over the seat and fell asleep. It was cheaper than another night in lodgings.
The next morning just after sunrise we were on our way. After about 50k we stopped at a roadside shack where tea and flat Afghani bread was on offer. It was a wonderful breakfast. And behind the shack, a little way up the sandy hill, there was a place where we westerners went to pee while some of the religious passengers went to pray facing Mecca. In fact the bus stopped two more times that day for prayers, which gave the others among us a chance to stretch and pee. Smoking was allowed in the bus.
The only other remarkable moment of the journey was when, sometime after we had covered a little more than half of the distance, and we were in the middle of nowhere, just sandy plains on the left side of the bus and some sandy hills on the right, the bus stopped. It wasn’t a prayer stop and it wasn’t a toilet stop. It was just a stop, with the motor still running. Nothing but dusty plains and sandy hills. We waited about 5 minutes. Then, like an apparition, the turbaned head of a man appeared over the ridge of the hill. He grew taller as he emerged and I could see that he was toting a cloth bag over his shoulder and an ancient-looking musket-like rifle in his hand. He came determinedly down the sandy hill and the driver opened the door for him. He gave the driver a slip of paper which might have been money or might have been a ticket, I don’t know, and he came down the aisle of the bus and took a seat on the right about halfway up.
The driver closed the door and we were off again to Kandahar.
Our new fellow passenger was a man of a certain age, wiry, a sun-browned face, a thin grey beard and an isosceles triangle of a nose, large and strong with wide nostrils, as if breathing through it in the sandy environment was essential in order to filter out the dust particles in the air. However it seemed that those nostrils were also essential for the intake of some naswar, because after placing his rifle in the overhead baggage rack and his cloth bag on the seat next to him, he took out a round tin, put a few grains of its contents on the skin of his hand behind his thumb and inhaled through his nose. This did not cause him to sneeze. But it did cause him to sit up straighter. Then he pinched more of the naswar between his thumb and forefinger and placed it between his lower lip and his teeth, closed the tin, put it away inside some hidden pocket of the many folds in his roomy khet partug. (If you want to know exactly what that is, look it up in the encyclopaedia.) After about 10 minutes, he spat on the floor, a big green glob that landed directly in the middle of the aisle.
Three hours later we were in Kandahar. When I got off the bus, it was 40 degrees (C) and dry as a bone.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: To Herat and then to Mashad
On the journey, mostly by bus, I slept a great deal. After reading a few pages in the heat and bouncy noise of the bus there was nothing else to do. The view out the window was always the same: dusty brown landscape stretching to the horizon, with no vegetation, but with an infinitely deep periwinkle blue sky. Sleep means dreams, and dreams turn into poems:
she is a sorceress
drunk on submission
ejecting her soul
red blood alarm
flight from anchorage
clouds on the horizon
lights of destruction
she is a bird
any old bird will do
on the ground
thief thief thief
and three cousins from
sweet houses of voice
(our witch our)
quiet rather aphonic
united with sky
hooked fingers blue-green
frowns oppose moons
night crashes headlong
and her soul (soul?)
is not a bird
just a wandering thought
in the hermetic void
of finite infinity
From the Pakistani side of the border, I took a taxi to Lahore. It’s about a half hour drive and it was hot and I was tired and after talking with the driver for a few minutes, I fell asleep. I was sitting in the front seat, with my olive green backpack between my legs. I chose the front seat so as not to play the Pasha, but it made no difference to the driver. After our short conversation, and after I fell asleep, he must have rummaged in the pocket of my backpack because later, after he had dropped me off at the bus station, I discovered that a cassette tape with many of the songs I had written in Delhi was gone. I remember having pushed it into one of the outer pockets of the backpack at the last minute, thinking that maybe I would be able to listen to it again in Europe. But it was gone, and all the songs were gone too. Me with my guitar, singing into the cassette recorder. I was sad and angry when I found out, but there was nothing to be done about it. And nothing else was missing, so I let it go. Of what use could it possibly be to him anyway? Maybe he could sell the cassette to somebody for a few rupees, and the new owner might even listen to it once before recording over the strange music he found on it. But its real value was next to nothing. I can’t even remember which songs were on it.
Two years later, in Gary, Indiana, I would have a quarter-inch tape with new songs I had recorded in a studio in Philadelphia taken from me along with my guitar and my backpack. In that case, I had been hitchhiking to Chicago from Cove Gap, West Virginia, and the last guy I got a ride with through Indiana left me at a level crossing after sunset where a train was supposed to stop on its way to Chicago. A train eventually did stop there but the conductor came down the steps and blocked my way onto the train and I ended up trying to hitchhike my way out of there, got picked up by four guys who packed me into the middle of the backseat of the car and then proceeded to rob me at gunpoint, leaving me to stand in front of the headlights of their car with my back to a garage door.
Before that, while we were riding toward the place where they would unload me, one of them kept saying: “Let’s kill him. Let’s kill him.” But the leader of the four — who was so small he could hardly see over the steering wheel of the car — looked into the back seat and said: “You won’t tell anybody, will you?” Automatically, I said: “No, I won’t.” And so they let me out after taking my pack and my guitar and I stood there in the glare of the headlights and out of the side of my eye I saw a wire fence about a foot high and scraggly bushes and somebody yelled: “Run!” and I dove to my left over the fence, rolled through and under the bushes and was suddenly running through a passageway between some apartment houses. I stumbled blindly along, panic shooting through my body along with the adrenaline of still being alive. It was a hot summer night and I saw that one door was open behind a screen door, a television on in the background. I knocked on the aluminum frame and said: “Please, can you call the police, I’ve just been robbed.” The man looked at me and shut the door in my face.
Later, after I finally convinced a couple of girls to call the police and the police came and picked me up, I remember how they stopped in an alley and asked me a series of questions about where I was from and whether I would come back to testify against the robbers if they were caught. I mentioned my mother of course and the Italian consulate and that I would come back at any time to testify and that must have convinced them that I was just an idiot who didn’t know anything about Gary, Indiana and not some drug dealer who had made a bad deal. So at the precinct where they went in to make their report, one of the cops gave me a dollar and I called my friend in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, and he drove down to Gary with his brother and a German shepherd and picked me up. About seven months later a police report arrived at my mother’s house in Seattle and it said that there had been no solution to the crime committed against me and that the case had therefore been indefinitely suspended.
I believe the tape with my songs on it was just as useless to the guys who robbed me as the cassette tape was to the taxi driver in Pakistan. The guitar might have fetched a few bucks, but it certainly wasn’t precious, and the rest of my stuff, my clothes — mostly shirts, a pair of clean jeans and some underwear — might have served a purpose for somebody for a while, but all-in-all it hadn’t amounted to much of a catch for them. Not even the fifty-something dollars I handed over in cash could have made their night very interesting. And how many years of that life outside of jail and still alive did they have left after I was gone?
Lahore has not remained in my memory at all. I got on a bus for Peshawar and promptly fell asleep again. Pakistan was not beautiful, not a tourist paradise and the drive through run-down city neighborhoods and scruffy villages certainly did nothing to keep my interest. So I slept.
In Peshawar, I found a cheap hotel near the bus station, ate some flat bread dipped in vegetable curry and went to my room. It had a wooden chair and a bed without a mattress, a rope-spring bed. These types of beds were very common in India and Pakistan and, as I found out later, in Afghanistan as well. The hemp rope spring is tied starting at the left most hole at the head of the bed, then back and forth the length of the bed. At the right-most hole at the head of the bed, the end is carried under the rail and inside the post to the first hole in the side rail. The rope is woven over and under the rope going lengthwise. The rope spring is tightened with a straining wrench, repeatedly in the same order in which the rope was woven until the end is reached. At this point, the rope is wrapped around the wrench to secure it and tighten it and then tied with a secure slip knot as close to the outside of the rail as possible. Rope springs stretch with time so they need periodic tightening. But this rope spring was good and tight and I had a roughly woven grey wool blanket with me which I spread over the roped bed. I used my backpack as a pillow. After I propped the back of the wooden chair against the door handle, I fell asleep without any problem.
The next morning, very early, I found a bus that would take me as far as the border crossing to Afghanistan, a place called Torkham.
Jamrud Fort, on the outskirts of Peshawar, was the official entrance to the Khyber Pass. Set high above the road, at a perfect military vantage point, with thick stone walls, the fort watched over the gateway entrance to one of the world’s oldest known mountain passes along an important trade route between Central Asia and South Asia as well as being a strategic military location and an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. Darius, the Persian king, had been here, and Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan! And now here I was on a rickety bus, ready to make my way up one of the most famous roads in the world!
Of course I didn’t have a camera, because in those days I was determined to remember everything I saw and thus eliminate the need for a camera, which only rendered real one instant of a journey, anyway, and not the whole experience. Sometimes I think that maybe a couple of photos would have been interesting in terms of documentation, but then I also think that a camera would have been a liability because of its value as booty for thieves. Better to carry nothing of perceptible value. No gold or silver chains, no rings, no sunglasses, no shiny objects that might attract unwanted attention. And that included not dressing like a hippie. I wore blue jeans and a khaki military-style shirt of thin cotton, and custom-made boots of sturdy brown leather that had square toes but were otherwise like cowboy boots, with leather uppers that went halfway up my calves. Those boots were made for me by a cobbler in New Delhi and they served me excellently for years. They finally fell apart after being immersed in water and then dried in the California sun, years later after I returned to Los Angeles.
Going up the Khyber Pass in a rickety bus is not a wonderful experience. The view is awesome of course but death grins with every curve and at the approach of every bus and truck. After 20 curves and about 50 trucks you finally experience fright fatigue and fall without thinking much about it into ultimate Hinduism and say to yourself: “Life will be so much better next time!”
The bus stopped in Torkham and we all had to get off and find another bus that would take us the rest of the way, through Jalalabad to Kabul. The most frightening part of the bus ride was over. The road from here on out would be fairly straight and without steep drop-offs at the side of the road. But this little village was also the place where you could buy counterfeit weapons of every kind, from ancient British Enfield rifles to modern Kalashnikov knock-offs. I walked around the open marketplace where everybody, I mean everybody, had some type of weapon slung over their shoulder. I saw an astonishing variety of guns hanging from wires strung across under the cloth roofs of the stalls, the guns hanging like dried rabbits or geese or lambs stripped of skin in an outdoor meat market. It was weird to be among so many armed men and so many guns, and yet not for a moment did I feel threatened by anyone. The bearded men in their shalwar — loose pajama-like trousers — and kameez — a long shirt or tunic — most all of them with some type of headgear, a kufi, Peshawari cap, turban, sindhi cap or pakul, their traditional headgear, walked and talked with each other calmly, a few of them curiously looking at me, but not in an aggressive way. After all, I was the stranger here, the anomaly, with no beard, no weapon, no head-covering.
As I strolled past the stalls, the men inside smiled and waved at me to come in and have a look at their wares. I nodded and smiled back, the palm of my hand going to my heart, and kept moving. Then I came to a series of small wooden shacks, with open doorways, each with a smiling hat-less man standing in the doorway and waving at me to come on in. There were no weapons hanging, in fact nothing really to be seen, so I approached one of the huts and the smiling man walked in and I followed him. There on an unpolished wood table about a meter back from the doorway were five tallish stacks of rectangular slabs of hashish, each slab about 30 centimeters wide and 50 centimeters long and probably 2 centimeters thick. The slabs on the stacks were slightly different shades of black, with the slab on top of the darkest stack on the far right of the table sporting a large five-pointed gold star. Right next to that stack was a balance scale, a brass T with two round brass plates attached to the ends of the T with fine chains and a series of weights in a wooden holder next to it.
“Here. You try,” said the smiling man and proceeded to pick a slab up from the middle and light its corner from the sole burning candle in the room. Sweet hash smoke curled into my nostrils and I bobbed my head and smiled and quickly left the shack. Outside, the heat seemed slightly less intense and my perception of my surroundings became sharper. But I knew why, and I knew that it was imperative that I return to where the buses were gathered for the trip to Kabul. Sure, even that short sniff of hash smoke had its effect, but I knew there was no way I was going to survive this journey without being as connected to basic reality as possible.
The buses were ready to roll, and after handing over a handful of rupees, I got on the bus for Kabul.
Reality Now is a song I wrote in 2013, which includes the scene about the robbery in Gary, Indiana.
Getting to the India-Pakistan border was not the problem, crossing it was. After taking a taxi from Amritsar to the border crossing, I walked to where the Indian border guards were checking passports. There were quite a few people waiting to cross, even some Europeans. When it was finally my turn, the guard looked at my passport, checked the various pages and smiled: “Italiano?” I nodded and gave him my best Italian smile. “I’m sorry sir,” he said as he returned my passport to me. “You need an exit visa.”
I didn’t get upset, but I was incredibly surprised. An exit visa? That meant that once you were in India they wouldn’t let you out unless you had permission to leave. It was insane. But it was India and its bureaucracy and there was nothing the guard could do about it. “You will have to go back to New Delhi, sir, and get an exit visa.” There was no way I was going to go back to New Delhi. I asked him if there was an administrative center somewhere nearby. He said that about 10 kilometers away there was a town where an empowered administrator was located. I got the name of the town and, with my green rucksack in tow, I took a taxi to that little town and to the administration building.
The town was rather insignificant, and the administration building was small, unpainted and occupied by a man who sat behind a large empty desk in a room only lit by the maximum of daylight which could get through windows encrusted with years of dust and dirt. Nobody had cleaned anything on or in this building for a long long time. But the man sitting behind the desk was smiling and seemed happy to see me. I sat down and told him of my predicament. He said that unfortunately he could not help me because unless he had a directive from New Delhi, he couldn’t issue an exit visa. So, unfortunately (still smiling and leaning his head slightly to the side) I would have to go back to New Delhi.
“If you get approval from New Delhi, however, you can issue an exit visa?”
“Why yes of course sir,” he said, his polite smile not fading in the least.
“OK,” I said, “then call Mr. Singh, the Foreign Minister, he is a good friend of my mother, Mrs. Milena Antonelli, from the Italian Embassy. Tell Mr. Singh that Mrs. Antonelli’s son is requesting authorization for an exit visa.”
His smile didn’t go away, but somehow it lost its shine. He also didn’t seem able to find his voice.
“Please,” I continued, “call him right away because it is getting late and I want to cross over the border today before they close it for the night.” I gave him my #1 smile as encouragement.
He cleared his throat and slowly got up. He had managed to find a little more of the shine in his smile before he turned away to go into the back room to make the phone call, since there was no phone on his desk in the front room. He almost forgot to take my passport with him, but I pushed it toward him across the table and he came back and reached for it and said: “I am going to make the phone call now.”
While he was gone I had time to look around the bare room. No file cabinets, no other tables, a light bulb under a shade in the center of the ceiling, but it was off. The corners of the room were really dark, but my eyes had gotten used to the darkness and I could see the dust which lay across the floor and the window sills like fine grey powder. When my eyes wandered back to the desk, I noticed something that hadn’t really penetrated my consciousness while I was busy talking to the man. On the right side of the desk there were tiny little balls of what looked like the smallest raisins in the world. Then I started to feel slightly nauseous. Those weren’t raisins, nor were they mouse droppings. They were rolled up buggers, snot, which he had either flung or dropped on the right side of his desk. More than half of them were already gathering dust, so they had been there for quite a while. I instinctively pushed my chair back a few inches from the desk.
The man returned with a large friendly smile pasted across his face. He had been gone for about ten minutes, and he looked satisfied. Courteously, he returned my passport to me and said: “Your exit visa has been approved.” He paused for a moment and then added: “That will be 40 Rupees.” His courteous smile remained in place. The visa was there on the page in English and Hindi, the stamp was official, the signature was fresh. I smiled back and handed him the 40 Rupees, shook his hand (despite my misgivings about which hand he used for his snot) and found another taxi to take me back to the border.
Sitting in the back seat of the taxi for the 10 kilometer ride back to the border gave me time to assess what had just happened. There was no way in the world that the administrator from a little town near the border would risk making a call to a Foreign Minister. First of all, he would never get through all the secretaries that formed a ring of bureaucratic protection around the exalted man, and secondly, he would never risk his job by identifying himself as the one who refused to give an exit visa to the son of a friend of the minister. So, he sat in the back of the building for what seemed to him the appropriate time for a phone call to get through to the minister and for a brief conversation to have taken place, and in the meantime he put the visa in my passport, stamped it and put his signature on it. For his trouble and just to make it all look official, he took 40 Rupees and was glad that I hadn’t asked for an official receipt.
Both of us had emerged with no loss of face and with some reward. Bad karma had been avoided and maybe even some good karma had been earned.
The guard at the border was not the same one I had seen before, so there was no smile of recognition, but there was a courtesy smile and a “I hope you enjoyed your sojourn in India and that you will one day return!”
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes and yes!” Then I stepped across the line and walked the short distance to the Pakistani checkpoint.
In 1971, I was living in India. In New Delhi. My mother, who was an attaché with the Italian embassy, had been transferred there from Nairobi late in 1969 and I was dragged along with her, as always. I never really got used to leaving people behind, but I had done it often enough so that once it happened, I got over it rather quickly. And this was all happening in the era before the Internet and emails, so one could only write letters in order to stay in touch. And I had already discovered that teenage boys did not write letters. Or if they did, they wrote only once and never again. That had been my experience after we left Los Angeles for Antananarivo, Madagascar. One letter from Dick McCann and nothing after that.
In India, I remember writing a thick many-paged letter to a friend in Nairobi and handing it to a guy behind the counter at the hotel we were staying at, along with some money for the postage. Only months later did I realize that the money had probably gone into his pocket and the letter had been posted to the trash. By the time I realized that (having now been in India long enough to understand how poverty worked) it was too late to try and reestablish a connection with my lost school friends in Nairobi.
New Delhi was hot and smoggy and when it wasn’t humid, it was dusty with grains of sand swept in on the wind from Jaipur and its sandy desert landscape. There wasn’t much for me to do there. So I spent about 6 months reading Ulysses by James Joyce and playing the piano and once in a while going to Connaught Circus to search through the book stalls and find gems of English literature at knockdown prices. Books were being dumped in India at next-to-nothing prices in order to help the youth of India learn about English literature. After all those years of British domination, the main object of every middle class family was for their children to get a good Anglo education, with A-levels that would allow them entry into a British university. Even I had studied for and obtained two Cambridge A-levels during my time there: English and History.
Even though I had traveled down to Goa and spent a few weeks naked on a beach and had subsequently traveled to Benares and had a book of poetry published, time had passed slowly and I was feeling uninspired and getting depressed. Then suddenly my depression was shattered by a letter that my mother got from my half-brother David. Somehow, after years of searching, he had discovered that my mother was in New Delhi and he decided to make contact. In his letter he said he was going to travel to London and would like to then continue and come and visit us in India.
It dawned on me that this was my golden opportunity. I told my mother that I would go and meet David in London and then bring him back to Delhi.
In 1971, flights for normal people were expensive. A $500 flight to London from New Delhi would cost about $2900 today. Yes, seriously! That’s why we traveled mostly by ship. It was much cheaper. In 1972, when I returned to Europe from India, I went by ship and it cost me $350. It should have only been a 12-day journey through the Suez Canal to Genoa, but the Egyptians and Israelis decided to have a war, so we were rerouted to go down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape, and so the journey lasted 32 days instead. That means it cost about $2000 in today’s money. That’s about $62 per day, with full board — three meals a day and wine with lunch and dinner!
For me, traveling by plane would have been much too expensive. Traveling by ship was not practical at that time, so I decided to travel overland.
India and Pakistan have been fighting with each other since partition in 1947. In December of 1971 there would be another conflict. But by then I would be back home.
The main obstacle to the journey would be crossing over the India-Pakistan border. I had heard it was possible, though it was slow going. In fact, a few months before David’s letter had arrived, I was going to travel back to Europe with an Italian guy and his girlfriend. They had a VW van that was tricked out as a camper and I rode along with them as far as Amritsar but then was so ill that they had to put me on a train back to Delhi. Actually, I wasn’t really ill at first, I was disturbed by the guy. There was something about him that had begun eating away at me shortly after I had agreed to go with him and the girl. Maybe it was the fact that the girl – who must at one time have been extremely beautiful – had had one half of her face burned so that her skin looked like melted plastic, all buckled and pocked.
It wasn’t her or her face that bothered me. She was a brave soul to move around in public looking like that and having to deal with the reactions of people who saw her. And she was a sweet girl. She bore her affliction with equanimity. No. It was him. There was something about him that made me uncomfortable soon after we returned from a visit to the Taj Mahal. It was like he felt responsible for the way she looked. He was taking her on this long journey from Italy to India and back to give her a glimpse of a world that she would perhaps never see again. He was taking her back to Italy so that she could begin a long process of skin graft operations which would try and repair her face to make it acceptable to European eyes. And then, perhaps, after having done his duty by her, he would feel that he could leave her.
The longer I was in his company, riding in the van, the less I trusted him and the more determined I was to escape. So I made myself look and feel ill. And by the time we got to Amritsar, I looked so ill that he couldn’t help but let me get on a train back to Delhi. He was angry of course, because I was going to help pay for the journey back to Italy. And maybe he sensed that I was exaggerating my discomfort in order to get away. But it worked, and I made it back to New Delhi. And then I spent almost a week in bed because my wanting so badly to get ill actually got me ill!
NEXT TIME: Crossing The Border
What follows is Chapter 2 from my novel Shoot The Albatross
Humid August oppressed anything obliged to move. My cotton shirt was plastered to my skin. Outside, the white marble mirrored a dancing sun that blinded the pilgrims who had gathered to worship at this shrine to motherhood.
I leaned my shoulder against a cool interior wall. Eyes adjusted to the darkness, I watched her. She was shuffling around in the special cloth boots and inspecting the marble latticework of the fence that enclosed the false tombs. She traced her fingers over the inlaid slivers of pink jade which had been worked into the marble as an endless chain of flowers. Eventually, the chain drew her attention up toward the perpetual night of the famous dome. She cocked her head to one side and listened as the dome faithfully echoed the rustle of cloth, camera clicks, sighs and whispers. Then, step by step, she disappeared below to inspect the chamber where the young bride and the old king were buried, side by side, in identical marble caskets.
Together, they came up from the tomb. Again I was startled by her disfigured face.
“Fire,” her husband said. He looked on avidly as I inspected the smoky crescent moon on her forehead. It edged down as far as the bridge of her nose and then sliced across one cheek. The flesh within the crescent was pocked and scaly, like charred pigskin. On her other cheek a soft layer of down reflected the sun.
Her eyes were emeralds. They shifted nervously from him to me. Then back again to him. Then to me.
One of her eyebrows was gone, along with the eyelashes. Her hair was dusty blond and cut straight at her shoulders. She might have been beautiful.
“I’m writing,” he said, forcefully marking time with his bony hand, his fingers spread against the sky, slicing the air between us as we walked through the narrow streets on our way back to the hotel.
I looked at her and decided.
“The book begins … ,” he droned.
The back of my hand brushed her wrist as we walked. Her eyes burned into mine, half fear, half curiosity.