Weird Karma

The Ganga Aarti Ceremony at dawn over the River Ganges Credit: Getty Images

This story originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of Men's Journal.

I never went to India in the old days, when people were going there to get mystical, meditate their heads off, and achieve the perfect state of spirituality that we see embodied even now in George Harrison and Mia Farrow. I guess I wasn’t evolved enough to follow my bliss. And, come to think of it, I don’t have the kind of bliss you’d care to tailgate.

I never went to India at all until this past summer, and then, instead of meditating, I took a daft, relentless road trip organized by Land Rover as part of an around-the-world test of its new Discovery sport-utility vehicle. Four journalists, three Land Rover employees, and a photographer were put into two vehicles and sent 1,700 miles over six days from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Calcutta, through the most populous part of the subcontinent at the hottest time of the year.

The equivalent would be to drive U.S. Route 1 from the outlet shops of Freeport, Maine, to downtown Miami in August. Consider if the driver had never been to America before. What would he think, after being Blockbustered, Safewayed, Chevroned, Shelled, Dodged, Nissaned, Wal-Marted, Dress Barned, Gapped, Burger Kinged, Dairy Queened, and Taco Belled? Would he have a good impression of the United States? No. Would he have an accurate impression? That’s another matter.

Yet even the most accurate impressions may be deeply confusing. You can come back from India in tune with the godhead, I suppose, or you can come back realizing you know nothing about India — or, possibly, anything else. I attained reverse enlightenment. I now don’t understand the entire nature of existence. My conscious mind was overwhelmed by a sudden blinding flash of . . . oncoming truck radiator.

Nirvana, from the Sanskrit word meaning “blow out,” is the extinction of desires, passion, illusion, and the empirical self. This happens a lot in India, especially on the highways. Sometimes it’s the result of a blowout, literally. More often, it’s the product of a head-on crash.

We did our driving mostly on the Grand Trunk Road, the “river of life” and “Backbone of all Hind” made famous in Kipling’s Kim. The Grand Trunk begins near the Khyber Pass, ends just short of the Bay of Bengal, and dates back to at least the fourth century B.C. For the greater part of its 1,600-mile length, the Grand Trunk runs through the broad, flood-flat Ganges plain. The road is straight and level and would be almost two lanes wide if there were such things as lanes in India. The asphalt paving — where it isn’t absent — isn’t bad. As roads go in the developing world, this is a good one. But Indians have their own uses for the main thoroughfare spanning their nation. It’s a place where friends and family can meet, where they can set up charpoy beds and have a nap and let the kids run around unsupervised. It’s a roadside cafe with no side — or tables, or chairs — where the street food is smack-dab on the street. It’s a rent-free function room for every local fête. And it’s a piece of agricultural machinery. Even along the Grand Trunk’s few stretches of tollbooth-cordoned “expressway,” farmers dry grain on the macadam.

The road is a store, a warehouse, and a workshop. Outside Chandigarh, on the border of Punjab and Haryana states, a blacksmith had pitched his tent on a bridge. Under the tent flaps were several small children, the missus working the bellows, and the craftsman himself smoking a hookah and contemplating his anvil, which was placed fully in the right of way. The road is also convenient for bullock carts, donkey gigs, horse wagons, pack camels, and the occasional laden elephant — not convenient for taking them anywhere, just convenient. There they stand, along with sheep, goats, water buffalo, and the innumerable cows sent to graze on the Grand Trunk. I watched several cows gobbling cardboard boxes and chewing plastic bags. There may be reasons besides sanctity that the Indians don’t eat them.

With all this going on, there’s no room left for actual traffic on the Grand Trunk. But here it is anyway, in tinny, clamorous, haywired hordes — Mahindra jeeps made with machine tools used on World War II Willys, Ambassador sedans copied from ’50s English models, motorcycles and scooters of equally antique design, obsolete Twinkie-shaped buses, and myriads of top-heavy, butt-spring, weaving, swaying, wooden-bodied Tata trucks, their mechanicals as primitive as butter churns.

India’s scientists had, just before our arrival, detonated several nuclear devices, yet everywhere around us was Indian technology that seemed more akin to the blunderbuss than to the A-bomb. The Tatas, Ambassadors, Mahindras, and whatchamacallits were coming right at us, running all day with horns on and all night with lights off, as fast as their fart-firing, smut-burping engines would carry them. The first time I looked out the windshield at this melee, I thought, India really is magical. How can they drive like this without killing people?

They can’t. Jeeps bust scooters, scooters plow into bicycles, bicycles cover the hoods of jeeps. Cars run into trees. Buses run into ditches, rolling over on their old-fashioned rounded tops until they’re mashed into chapatis of carnage. And everyone runs into pedestrians. A speed bump is called a “sleeping policeman” in England. I don’t know what it’s called in India. “Dead person lying in the road” is a guess. There’s some of both in every village, but they don’t slow traffic much. The animals get clobbered, too, including the sacred cows, in accidents notable for the unswerving behavior of all participants. Late in our trip, in Bihar state, the car in front of us hit a cow — no change in speed or direction from the car, no change in posture or expression from the cow.

But it’s the lurching, hurtling Tatas that put the pepper in the masala and make the curry of Indian driving scare you coming and going the way last night’s dinner did. The trucks are almost as wide as they are long and somewhat higher than either. They barrel down the road taking their half out of the middle, brake-less, lamp-less, on tread-less tires, moving dog-fashion with the front wheels headed where the rear wheels aren’t. Tatas fall off bridges, fall into culverts, fall over embankments, and sometimes just fall, flopping onto their sides without warning. But usually Tatas collide with one another, in every possible way. Two Tatas going in opposite directions ahead of us snagged rear wheels and pulled each other’s axles off. And Tatas crash not just in twos but in threes and fours, leaving great, smoking piles of vaguely truck-shaped wreckage. Inspecting one of these catastrophes, I found the splintered bodywork decorated with a little metal plaque: “Lucky Engineering.”

In one day of travel, going about 265 miles from Varanasi to the border of West Bengal, I recorded 25 horrendous Tata wrecks. And I was scrupulous in my tallying. Fender benders didn’t score; neither did old, abandoned wrecks or broken-down Tatas. Probable loss of life was needed to make the list. If you saw just one of these pileups on I-95, you’d pull in to the next rest stop — clutch foot shivering, hand palsied upon the shift knob — saying “Next time, we fly.” In India, you shout to your car-mates “That’s number 19! I’m winning the truck-wreck pool for today!”

As we drove from Lahore, Pakistan, to the Indian border, it was clear that we were approaching a land of mysteries. We went down the only connecting road between two large and important countries and, suddenly, there was nothing on the Grand Trunk. No one was going to or fro. They can’t. “Pakistani and Indian nationals are only allowed to cross the border by train,” says my guidebook. This utter lack of traffic has not prevented the establishment of fully staffed customs posts on both sides of the border.

Getting out of Pakistan was a normal third-world procedure. A customs official explained the entire system of Pakistani tariff regulation and passport control by rubbing his thumb against his forefinger.

“Fifty dollars,” he said. I opened my wallet, foolishly revealing two $50 bills. “One hundred dollars,” he said.

Things were very different on the Indian side. The rules concerning the entry of two Land Rovers and a trailerful of spare parts into the country occupy a book large enough to contain the collected works of Stephen King and the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary.

The Land Rovers had already passed the customs inspections of 13 nations, including Bulgaria and Iran, without hindrance, delay, or more than moderate palm-greasing. The Indian officials, upon hearing this, clucked and wagged their heads in sympathy for the hundreds of brother customs agents from London to the deserts of Baluchistan who had lost an opportunity to look up thousands of items in a great big book. Everything had to come out of the cars and the trailer. Everything had to go through a metal detector, even though the detector didn’t seem to be plugged in. And everything had to come back through an X-ray machine that the customs agents weren’t watching because they were too busy looking up items in a great big book.

All this took four hours, during which the seven or eight agents on duty met each hint at bribery with the stare you’d get from an octogenarian Powerball winner if you suggested the 25-year payout option. The fellow who was recording, in longhand, everything inside our passports did take two cigarettes, but he wouldn’t accept a pack.

None of the cases, trunks, or bags — unloaded and reloaded in 105-degree heat — was examined, except for a wrench set. Perhaps there is one wrench size that requires a special permit in India. Our tire pressures had to be checked, however, in case the all-terrain radials were packed with drugs. The Indian-government tire gauge wasn’t working, so we offered ours. We were halfway through checking the tires when we realized that nobody was accompanying us. I walked around behind the customs building to take a leak and found drugs to spare. I was pissing on $1,000 worth of wild marijuana plants.

By the time we left customs it was late afternoon. The staggering traffic and whopping crowds of India materialized. We still had 250 miles to go that day to stay on schedule. A brisk pace was required. Think of it as doing 60 through the supermarket parking lot and the school playground.

This is the India ordinary travelers never see — because they’re in their right minds and don’t drive down the Grand Trunk. And we didn’t see much of it ourselves. The scenery was too close to view, a blur of cement-block shops and hovels in unbroken ranks inches from the fenders. But my map showed only open country with occasional villages meriting the smallest cartographic type size. There are a lot of people in India, some 970 million. I don’t know what they want with the atomic bomb; they already have the population bomb, and it’s working like a treat. And yet India, with a population density of 745 people per square mile, is not as crowded as the Netherlands, which packs 940 people into that same space. But nobody comes back from Holland aghast at the teeming mass of Dutch.

Indian crowding is not the natural result of baby-having but the unnatural result of too many people tied to the land by tradition, debt-bondage, caste, and illiteracy. Business and industry is pushed into the road by subsistence agriculture, which takes up a lot more room than making a living with a laptop, a phone, and a fax.

Life is jammed tight in India to keep it out of the picnic-blanket–sized rice field that’s the sole means of support for a family of 10. Every inch of land is put to purpose. At the bottom of a 40-foot-deep abandoned well, which would be good for nothing but teenage suicides in America, somebody was raising frogs. Public restrooms in Calcutta employ the space-saving device of dispensing with walls and roofs and placing the urinal stalls on the sidewalk. No resource goes to waste, which sounds like a fine thing to advocate next Earth Day, except in the real world of poverty, it means that the principal household fuel of India is cow flop. This is formed into a circular patty and stuck on the side of the house, where it provides a solution to three problems: storage space, home décor, and how to cook dinner.

Therefore, what makes a drive across India overwhelming (and odoriferous) isn’t population, it’s poverty. Except it’s even more complicated than that. It always is in India. The reason for those ranks of shops and houses along the Grand Trunk — and for the cars, trucks, and buses bashing into one another between them — is the money from an expanding economy that people now have to buy and build these things. And the reason for the great smoldering dung funk hanging over India is that people now have something to cook over those fires. The chaos of India is not just poverty’s turmoil, it’s also prosperity’s stew.

When India gained its independence in 1947, the nation’s political elite instituted an economic system that combined the perplexities of the capitalist old-boy network with the intricacies of socialism and then added the extra something we’d experienced going through customs. (Britain has a lot of paperwork and is a rich country, so if India has a lot of paperwork, it will be a rich country also.) The result was known as the “license-permit-quota raj.” The Economist once said, “This has no equal in the world. In many ways it puts Soviet central planning to shame.” Indian industries were trapped and isolated by the government. Like an aunt locked in the attic, they got strange. Hence the Tata trucks, the Ambassador sedans, and the motorcycles that Evel Knievel would be afraid to ride.

But by 1992 India had begun to surrender to free-market reforms. Imports were allowed, foreign investment was encouraged, and customs regulations were (amazing as this seems after having been through Indian customs) simplified. The Indian economy has been growing at about 7 percent a year ever since. As many as 200 million people now make up the Indian middle class — a number roughly equal to the total middle class of the U.S. There are plenty of flat bellies in India but few of the distended kind that announce gross malnutrition. And the beggars, whom Western visitors have been taught to expect in legions, arrive only in platoons. A kid selling trinkets in Agra was irked to be mistaken for such. “I’m not a beggar,” he said. “You want to buy, you get. Eighty rupees.”

The quaint, old India is still there, however, just beyond the clutter of the Grand Trunk Road. In West Bengal we visited a beautiful farm village full of amusing thatch architecture and cute peasant handcrafts. Here the handsome patina of tradition glowed upon lives that were quiet, calm, and as predictable as the lifelong poverty, semiannual famine, and the dowry needed to marry off the 10-year-old daughter.

The villagers were friendly enough. But what if carloads of French tourists pulled into my driveway and took happy snaps while I scrubbed down the barbecue? I preferred the messy hopes on the Grand Trunk.

Maybe — on a brief trip, anyway — it’s better to make no attempt to understand India. Just go to the beauty spots like the rest of the international rubberneckers and stand agape, getting your tonsils sunburned. We tried that, too. (Land Rover needed PR photos with something
other than wrecked trucks in the background.)

We took a side journey into the Himalayan foothills, to Shimla, the colonial hill station that was the summer capital of British rule. It’s built at a higher elevation than Katmandu. The road up was like the Grand Trunk except at the same angle as your basement stairs and in the shape of used gift-wrap ribbon on Christmas morning.

Shimla is a mulligatawny of concrete and roof tin, with the only charming parts being the leftovers of colonial oppression. Along the Mall there’s a row of dusty shops that the British — seeing mountains all around them and not knowing what else to do — built in Alpine-style. The parade ground has views to die for (or die of, if you lean against the flimsy railings). Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister of India, was headed to town. Preparation consisted of a minor government functionary’s loudly testing the PA system:

HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO 

HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO

HELLO HELLO HELLO ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE

SIX SEVEN EIGHT NINE TEN MICROPHONE TESTING

HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO

HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO

For an hour. This was the crowd warm-up. The speech must have been a dilly. Meanwhile, behind handsome batik curtains, tribal women in full native dress with nose jewelry the size of baby shoes were repairing the pavement.

Back on the Grand Trunk, we visited the Taj Mahal, an impressive pile built with public funds in Agra while a famine scourged the countryside. The Taj was commissioned by Shah Jahan to memorialize his favorite wife, who died in 1631 giving birth to their fourteenth child. If Jahan had really wanted to show his love, he could have cut back on the Viagra.

And we saw the holiest place of all, Varanasi, where millions of pilgrims descend the ghats into the Ganges, using its waters to purify themselves of sins, as well as to carry away the funeral pyres of friends and relatives. Everybody but me made a sunrise trip to see these sacred rites. I stayed in bed. No death before breakfast, please. Plus, there’s the matter of barging in on other people’s religious ceremonies: Yo, is that the Holy Eucharist? Cool! Can I taste?

And once you got started looking at religions in India, how would you know when to stop? There are Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis (Zoroastrians), Christians, Jews, and 800 million Hindus.

I am confused enough by the material surface of India without delving into its metaphysical foundation garments. Hinduism is said to have 330,000,000 gods, which is fine by me if folks want that many. But such multiplication of divinity can’t help but add to the profound obscurity of Indian culture, as do the 17 officially recognized languages and the intricate caste system that somewhat resembles American ideas about social class, except you can’t touch Wayne Huizenga because he founded Waste Management, Inc.

Everything in India seems to be a brain-teaser. Just getting dressed is a riddle. This is how you put on a sari: Take a piece of cloth 4 feet wide and 25 feet long and tuck one corner into your underpants. Turn around clockwise once. Tuck the upper hem into your underpants. Make a pleat by holding the fabric between your thumb and little finger, spreading your hand, extending the fabric around your forefinger and bringing it back to your thumb. Do this eight times. Tuck the top of the pleats into your underpants. Turn around clockwise again, and throw everything that remains over your left shoulder. (And I still looked like hell.)

Each little detail of India is a conundrum. Painted above door frames you see the Sanskrit character for the sacred, meditative om, bracketed by a pair of swastikas. The swastika is really just a Hindu symbol for self-energization and the accomplishments of life (the Nazis swiped it for the Aryan look). Nonetheless, the message over the doors seems to read “Sieg heil inner peace sieg heil.”

Which isn’t too far wrong at the moment. The current coalition government in India — the one that likes atomic bombs — is headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP is avidly nationalistic and espouses Hindu fundamentalism — sort of like Pat Buchanan and Ralph Reed but with 330,000,000 Jesuses. And the BJP believes in rigid observation of the caste system, so it’s like Pat and Ralph have gotten together with the people who do the Philadelphia social register. Or worse, because the most influential support for the BJP comes from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the RSS, a secretive, hard-line Hindu brotherhood that was almost certainly responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and whose half-million members wear matching khaki shorts to early-morning rallies and make funny, stiff-armed salutes. One reputed RSS leader, K.S. Sudarshan, has said, “We don’t believe in individual rights because we don’t think we are individuals.”

Modern India is, in ways, an unattractive place. But things could be worse. And the BJP seems determined to make them so. The country has a population greater than those of North and South America combined. Its land area exceeds France, Germany, Great Britain, Iraq, Japan, Paraguay, and Ghana put together, and its citizens are that similar. They get along as well as everybody at the U.N. does. India is as complicated as the earth. Indeed, if a person were to announce his nationality as “earthling,” there would be a one-in-six chance that he was Indian. To all this, the BJP responds with a slogan: “One nation, one people, one culture.”

Just when you think you’re not getting India, you start to get it even less. East of Varanasi, in Bihar state, we encountered a Communist rally. Hundreds of agitated-looking agitators waved red flags and brandished staves. We were a ripe target for the anger of the masses — eight capitalist prats in fancy Land Rovers with a trailerful of goodies protected by only a tarp. We were ignored. It seems the ideological fury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) is directed primarily at the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The latter runs Calcutta. According to my guidebook, “they have somehow succeeded in balancing rhetoric and old-fashioned socialism with a prudent practicality. . . . Capitalism is allowed to survive, but made to support the political infrastructure.”

Not that you’d know this by driving into Calcutta, where the infrastructure doesn’t look like it could support another flea. Certainly the Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River couldn’t. It carries 60,000 motor vehicles a day, and they were all there when we tried to get across at 5 p.m.

I spent the next four days trying to accomplish something in India. If you’re going to be confounded by the country, you can’t go as a tourist. Tourism is a pointless activity. Pointless activity is a highly developed craft in India. You could spend months touring the country, busy doing fuck-all. Meanwhile, the Indian government and business bureaucracies are busy doing fuck-all of their own. You could accidentally come back thinking you’d caught the spirit of the place. If you intend to be completely baffled, you have to try to accomplish something. Any task will do. For instance, the Land Rover Discoverys and the trailer had to be put into a cargo container in Calcutta and shipped to Australia. This should take 20 minutes. Adjusting the clock to official Indian Daylight Wasting Time, that’s four days.

First, the port was closed. Well, it wasn’t really closed. I mean, it is sort of closed because the Port of Calcutta has silted in and is nearly useless. Only about three ships were there. This doesn’t keep hundreds of stevedores, shipping clerks, and port officials from coming to work, of course. But there were citycouncil elections that day, with attendant rioting. So the police had to suppress voters and weren’t available for harassment at the port.

Then the port was closed because it was Sunday.

Then our shipping agents got into an argument about when to pick us up at the hotel the next day. Not that they disagreed with one another.

“We will go to get them at 9:30 in the morning,” one said.

“Oh, no, no, no, no,” said another. “It must be 9:30 in the morning.”

“How can you talk like this?” said a third, stamping his foot. “The time for us to be there is 9:30 in
the morning.”

We had about 10 shipping agents. There’s no such thing as hiring an individual in India. In a Bihar village it took the services of two shops, four shopkeepers, and a boy running for change for me to buy a pack of cigarettes.

While I waited for the port to open, I wandered the streets of Calcutta. The city is a byword for squalor, but parts of Washington, D.C., are dirtier (Congress, the White House), and Calcutta smells no worse than a college dorm.

The poverty is sad and extensive, but at least the families living on the streets are intact — talking to one another instead of to themselves. I did see some people who seemed really desperate, addled and unclean. But these were American hippies getting mystical at Calcutta’s Dum Dum airport. I was standing in the ticket line behind an Indian businessman, who stared at the hippies and then gave me a stern look, as if to say “These are your people. Isn’t there something you can do?”

Calcutta’s pollution is more visible than it’s fashionable for American pollution to be — smoke and trash instead of microwaves and PCBs. The food sold on its streets may be unidentifiable, but it’s less likely than New York City hot dogs to contain a cow asshole. The crowding is extreme, but you get used to it. You get used to a lot of things in India — naked ascetics; 100 sheep being herded through downtown traffic; costumed girls parading in single file linked by electric wires, one carrying a car battery and the rest with blue fluorescent tubes sticking out of their headdresses.

I was waiting to cross the busiest street in Calcutta when a four-story temple complex on wheels went by, complete with high priest, idols, acolytes, clouds of incense, blazing torches, and banging gongs. And what I noticed was that I hadn’t noticed it. Imagine the pope (and quite a bit of St. Peter’s) coming down Broadway at rush hour and you thinking Should I wait for the walk signal?

There’s a certain pest factor in Calcutta, caused mostly by roving market-bearers who double as shopping touts. But it’s not without its entertainment value. Bearer number A49 from New Market told me to avoid the other bearers because they would get me into their shops and cut my throat. Lesser merchants, squatting on the street, sell everything from new Lee jeans to brightly colored pebbles and pieces of broken mirrors. The poster wallah’s selection included photographs of kittens tangled in balls of yarn and a rendering of the goddess Kali holding a severed human head by its hair.

In the midst of this was the Oberoi Grand Hotel, its guards stationed at the gate with sticks to use on touts and beggars. At the Oberoi everything was efficient, crisp, clean, pukka (except when the electricity went out). The Indians inside seemed as perplexed by the India outside as I was. I told Alex, the restaurant manager, about the muddle at the port. “Oh, this country,” he said. “There are no two ways around it.”

We had parked the Land Rovers and trailer in the hotel’s courtyard. The shipping agents came by to inform us that everything in the vehicles had to be clean and packed exactly as described on the customs documents. We set about amending 1,700 miles’ worth of dirt and equipment disorder. It was 100 de-grees in the courtyard. Removing the trailer tarp, we discovered an ax had come loose from its lashings and punctured a container of beef stew and a can of motor oil. The trailer bed was awash in oil and what Hindus euphemistically call “brown meat.”

On Monday we went back to the port, where the customs inspectors ignored everything about our cleanliness and packing except the ax. “What is this?” asked the chief inspector.

“An ax,” we said.

The officials conferred at length and decided it was so. Then there was a seven-hour delay because of an engine serial-number discrepancy. The customs inspectors were worried that we’d stolen one of the Discoverys from Land Rover. “We’re from Land Rover,” we said. “These are the only Discoverys in Asia, and they can’t be stolen because they’re both right here.” The inspectors returned to their office cubicles to ponder this. We sat on the dock.

I asked one of our shipping agents why so many of the Tata drivers had decorated their front bumpers with one dangling shoe.

“Oh, for the heck of it,” he said.

Finally, the Land Rovers were rolled into the cargo container. I stayed on in Calcutta for a few more days, in awe at a dundering flux of a place that seemed in total disarray but where I couldn’t even get lost because everyone with a clean shirt spoke English. In the midst of the street stampede (not a figure of speech, considering the sacred cows), there are young hawkers with what look like shoeshine boxes. What’s offered for sale, though, isn’t a wingtip buff. The youths crouch in the hubbub, juggling the tiny wheels and springs of wristwatches, setting timepieces running again. There is a whole street in Calcutta lined with tiny stalls where artisans with soldering irons rearrange the logic on the latest computer circuit boards.

Indian journalist and novelist Gita Mehta says her country produces 5 million university graduates a year. That’s four times the number of bachelor degrees awarded annually in the U.S. Yet nearly
48 percent of all Indians are illiterate, and almost two-thirds of Indian women are. It is the smartest country in the stupidest way.

You walk by a newsstand — a “newssquat,” to be precise — and see the Calcutta Telegraph, the Calcutta Statesman, the Asian Age, the Times of India, and stacks of newspapers in Hindi, Bengali, and other languages. A Telegraph feature section contained a “KnowHow” pullout on particle physics. A Statesman op-ed page had an article on energy efficiency: “The heat rate of the power plant, in layman’s terms, refers to how much kilo calorie of heat is required to produce 1 kwh of power.” You think you’re in a nation of Einsteins. Then you look up from your newspaper and see a man walking along wearing a bucket upside down over his head.