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.
©2015 Danny Antonelli