Ardor, Red Dye, Foreign Girls. India, 1982.
I had heard one could sleep quite well in the railway retiring rooms for women. However, that night the only space was in the dormitory. Where we were to sleep on plank benches that rimmed the large room. Which stank of rats.
I wrote, as I sat, with my luggage next to me on the bench.
"It's very weird to be sitting here, knowing that I'll be spending the night exposed to this extent. It goes against the grain. I take my anxiety out in small worries. Where does the bus to Khajuraho leave from? Who can I ask to find out? Where will I leave my luggage while I ask? How will I avoid talking to the retiring room people I have already annoyed? How will I eat dinner? How will I wake up on time? What if rats bite me?I must have survived the night. Growing older means surviving so many things and not remembering how. I made my way to Khajuraho on this bus.
The sparrows are very loudly singing away the sun."
Which I also survived. Turns out you don't really need windows when you have canvas shades against the dust.
Arriving at my destination, I settled into the hotel, planning to spend two nights and one day. Got up in the morning, made my way to the temples. Quite ugly from a distance, they were. To a classical Western sensibility, that is. No soaring arches, no flying buttresses. More like 17 castles made of wet, dripped sand. Their setting, however, was beautiful. Green gardens under a blue sky. Apparently British colonial governors hacked inappropriate lawns out of dry brush and overgrowth.
A few of the temples are populated by creatures. Elephants, for example.
But, for the most part, and to their great and enduring fame, the temples at Khajuraho are carved with people making love. Imaginatively and with a keen sense of community. Look at her beautiful foot.
Honeymooners visited Khajuraho as a matter of routine, in 1982. They may still do. As I walked through the gardens, from temple to temple, and carving to carving, I passed more than one couple holding hands. I was particularly aware of myself alone in those moments. Everything smelled of flowers, softly. The sun was hot.
I walked back to my hotel. Past mothers with their children,
men, talking to other men, taking a break from their pedicabs,
and fuchsia signs of the Holi festival. Probably best compared to our Mardi Gras. Characterized by throwing colored water, lifting restrictions, and lighting bonfires. I knew none of this. It would turn out to be important. When I got to the hotel, I found out that Holi was also an occasion to cancel transportation, including the bus I had planned to take back to Jhansi next morning.
What to do with an extra day in Khajuraho? The next morning, I thought I'd write a letter to the newspapers interested in my story about the Indian film industry. I asked at the front desk for a typewriter. They gave me one, but it was too old and I couldn't make it work. The young man I was dealing with, a Mr. K.K. Thali, offered to type for me. And then he invited me to the company holiday picnic.
Well, OK. Picnics. I knew about company picnics. I had nothing else to do and the group of young professionals seemed so familiar. Mistake. I was assured I would be able to catch a bus after the party. Mistake.
The picnic unfolded in almost total darkness. Other women attended the event, mostly wives who talked to each other, leaving me alone with Mr. K.K. Thali and his fellow employees. They all worked for Indian Airlines, so why he had helped me at the hotel is lost in the proverbial sands of time.
We stood around, chatting. Someone lit the bonfire. Mr. K.K. Thali carefully explained his great ambition to kiss a foreign girl. I wrote down his exact words. "Come Miss Lisa, why you have hesitation?"
We walked, with another man and his young wife, down to the river. Mr. K.K. Thali had a mustache.
On the way back up the hill, Mr. K.K. Thali insisted on his kiss. I declined. At which point his boss came down the hill and pushed us together. Gently, humorously, but with a hand on my back. I now understand it was Holi, after all, in Khajuraho. Then I wrote,
"Good lord, it seemed so silly. So I kissed the poor man. I honestly believe that he had never kissed a woman before in his life. Then we ate, and I noticed again that Indians at a party eat in a hurry, with no ceremony, and then everyone goes home right away."Nothing but a kiss seemed to be required.
We might wonder now why I felt sorry for Mr. K.K. Thali, given that I was the one under duress. Looking back I seemed so completely witless, but maybe I had an awareness of my privileged position, even then. Like most archeologists or historians working with text artifacts, I am never going to know for sure. I don't remember the actual kiss. I do remember that we ate in noticeable darkness, despite the bonfire. Then someone, I don't know who, brought me back to my hotel. Safe, but impatient. Unsurprisingly, I had missed the bus. Apparently another would leave tomorrow. Surely another would leave tomorrow.
me and someone unknown for the snake
*If you are interested in India today, the artist of bigBANG studio is living in the Himalayas for a year and documenting with extraordinary photos.