India has always been on my bucket list. Since I have been living here in the Asia Pacific region for close to twenty years now, it is surprising that I’d never been there until last week. Then again, the same holds true for Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and other places I visited either for the first time within the past year or else for the first time in nearly 30 years.
As a young boy, it was music that first drew me to India in spirit if not in flesh. I am speaking of the songs and stories of the Beatles, which introduced me to that magical string instrument known as the sitar and also to the tabla drums and the complex beats and philosophy in George Harrison’s song “Within You, Without You”, and eventually to the great musician Ravi Shankar. So of course I was primed to look for traces of their voyage to India back in the 1960s—and in Bombay, I was not disappointed.
That this was my first trip to India is an embarrassing admission for a guy who claims to be an Asia expert. After all, I was an Asian Studies major at Dartmouth all those years ago. But in reality, I was more of a Chinese language, culture, and history major. And when I went on to Columbia for grad school, I joined the East Asian Languages and Cultures program. Sure, I learned Japanese (and should have learned Korean but didn’t), and learned a great deal about China, Korea, and Japan.
China is a country literally and figuratively surrounded by mountains, deserts, and great walls. Once you are sucked into the China sphere, it is hard not to think of this country as the center of the Asian universe, if not the entire universe. As a China specialist, outside of Korea and Japan, the other Asian countries were always on the edge of my event horizon—beckoning from far away, but somehow unreachable.
The truth is, I was too poor to travel extensively in Asia for much of my career, or else too busy doing other things, like getting married, writing books, building a China-focused career as an educator, and raising two daughters. Moreover, whenever I did travel it was almost always to America to visit my family, and/or for business once I started working as an administrator.
This past year has been different. In my role as a board member of SAS I had the opportunity to travel to two countries I’d never visited before: Vietnam and Malaysia, and though most of my time was spent in conferences and workshops in Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur, this was a real eye-opener, and I did have some time to tour both cities. Then, earlier this year, as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs, I was asked to travel to eight countries/regions in Asia to recruit for our new undergraduate program at Duke Kunshan University, which launches in fall 2018.
All my travels were organized by our partner organization, and in most cases I was accompanied by a locally-based officer of that organization. We managed to visit around ten schools per country/region (I include the latter because my visits include Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan which technically are not separate countries). I also had plenty of time, including Saturdays, to explore each city I visited on my tours, which greatly expanded my knowledge, curiosity, and above all my interest to learn more about these Asian cultures and societies.
I blogged my previous mega-trip to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Seoul last June. I’ve also been blogging my latest trip country-by-country to Singapore, Hanoi, and Bangkok. The final stage of this trip was India. I knew it was going to be an amazing journey into a country as large, ancient, and diverse as China. And even though I only scratched the surface with a five-day trip to Delhi and Bombay, it left me with the feeling that I will be spending the rest of my life trying to get to know this country and its people better.
I landed in Delhi late in the evening of Sept 10 and was immediately struck in the airport by the strangeness of this country, and yet also its familiarity. I say strangeness because I had never been surrounded by as large and diverse a group of Indian nationals before, and I was bowled over by the variety of facial features and facial hair (for men). The mustaches and beards and Dundreary whiskers were what initially caught my attention. For the ladies, it was the colorful outfits they seem to wear so naturally without any thought to their exoticism in our modern world. In other words, the ability of Indian people to be so at home in their traditions, while also so modern, is the first impression I had of the country.
After passing through the e-visa section of the airport, which took a while, I was asked to show my entry stamp by a surly attendant at the passport-check exit area, who had the most intensely dun colored eyes, and when I hesitated (because I didn’t quite understand his request) he showed little patience with me. Rather than take any umbrage, I found myself having great respect for the man and his job. What a thick-headed foreigner I must have seemed to this man. Finally, I gathered my suitcases and was greeted at the exit gate by a man who led me to an awaiting car.
The car whisked me to the Taj Mahal Hotel in the middle of Delhi. This has to be one of the finest hotels I stayed in during my extensive Asia recruiting trip, and throughout my experience there I was fawned upon by the attendants, whether at the elevator bank, in the Taj Club Lounge, or in the lobby. Still, given the recent terrorist incidents, especially the one in Bombay in 2008, everything in India is high-security, and every time I entered the hotel my car was checked in both bonnet and trunk and I had to pass my belongings through an x-ray machine and my own self through the security gate check, where I was subject to a brief frisking. I didn’t mind at all of course—it’s good to know that everyone, whether in hotels or shopping malls, is taking such great precautions to keep the guests and the establishment safe.
My room in the Taj looked out over the center of Delhi, where the bulbous tops of the government buildings stood out from the thick green foliage of the city. Delhi is far greener and lusher than I imagined it would be. The streets and avenues near the center are broad and stately—built by the British for efficiency and the projection of imperial majesty I suppose. I’m told Old Delhi is a warren of ancient twisting alleyways and I would have loved to explore this part of town but did not get the chance.
The officer who organized my meetings with schools arrived the following morning, along with a driver who would take me on my school visits to other parts of town and the outlying districts. We spent many hours caught up in some of the worst traffic jams I’ve seen or experienced anywhere in Asia, but made it to all of our school meetings in time. I had many fine conversations with counselors and school directors, but the highlight of my school visits was giving a talk to around 50 Indian high school seniors—all boys. Some of them took a clear interest in our program and hopefully we will see many applications from India this year—and certainly for many years to come.
This is a good thing, because one thing that came across very clearly during my visit was how little people in India and China know about each other. I think that our school and others can play a bridging role, helping future leaders in government and industry in these two great countries to come together on issues that may currently be dividing them. Given all the complicated history of the 20th century, this is not an easy task, but if Indians and Chinese are to build more cooperative relationships in the future, there is no telling what could be accomplished for the world.
While in Delhi, I did have two evenings to explore. The first evening, I asked my driver to take me to a famous Sikh temple known as the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. There I was asked to take off my shoes and socks and store them along with everyone else, and then I had to don a turban (or basically, wrap a colored towel around my head) before walking into the temple. Inside, musicians were performing on instruments and vocals a religious song, which I learned is part of the Sikh equivalent to the Bible or Koran, a text which all Sikhs need to learn. Worshippers were sitting in open spaces surrounding the center where the musicians were playing, and where a bearded Sikh was apparently leading the ceremonials. (If I am not explaining all this clearly or correctly, please forgive me as this was my first visit ever to a Sikh temple.)
After spending some time inside the temple, I went outside and walked around the temple. The story of this temple is that once functioned as a palace for a Raja back in the 1600s, and that a Sikh guru named Guru Har Krishan resided there in the 1660s and helped the town through a smallpox ordeal, only to contract the disease himself. A tank of water was later constructed with healing powers that guests of the temple still use to treat themselves or their family members.
The pool of water next to the temple/palace was one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen in my life. Men walked around it in robes and women in colorful saris, taking photos or dipping their hands in the pool. I saw one woman bathe a young man in the pool—perhaps she was given permission to do so. At the time I walked around the pool, the sun was just setting, and the golden light cast on the pool, temple, and people was one of the most magical most of my Asia journey to date.
The following afternoon, after my school visits were over, I was asked to give an interview for an Indian online journal called braingainmag.com, which covers educational matters for a wide audience in South Asia. After talking about the value of liberal arts and our DKU UG program, I listened to Vinamra Mathur, a Delhi native who joined our GLS program last year, give an interview about his own experiences in Kunshan and how much he had gained from the experience. I had asked Vin, who got in touch with me when he found out I was going to be in Delhi, to join this interview session since his word might be far more effective in reaching out to students in India and South Asia. I can’t wait to see the results when they post the interviews online.
Afterwards, Vin took me on a tour of the city. We first stopped at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, a temple dedicated to one of the Sufi saints, Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 - 1325 CE). We arrived in the evening just in time for the prayer session, and entered as many Muslim men in white clothing and caps were rushing into the temple for their prayers. It was quite a sight to see all of them (there must have been a few hundred in the temple at once) assume their bows, kneeling with head on ground as the prayer session began (again if I am not describing this correctly, please forgive me). I did take a couple of photos but was asked very politely by one of the men not to do so, so I didn’t capture this moment on camera, but it will remain in my head for a long time to come.
Readers of my blog will find that I am fascinated by religious rituals and experiences and especially sacred spaces such as temples and churches. Everywhere I go in Asia, I try to visit the most significant ones in that city or area.
After a quick visit to the Sufi temple, we then drove to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in the middle of town, where we entered briefly to check out the interior and saw a few Christians at prayer. Afterwards, we headed over to the India Gate and walked around it along with hundreds of other Indian people enjoying the relatively cool evening air.
Following that, we headed back to the Taj where I treated Vin to a well-earned meal at the Indian restaurant Varq. We started dinner around 7:30 when the restaurant was relatively empty; by 9 pm the restaurant was completely packed with diners. Our meal was a decadent extravaganza of Indian dishes smothered in rich sauces and spices. As usual, the service was impeccable.
The following day, I had one more school visit on the outskirts of town along with the usual traffic jams. Afterwards, I was taken straight to the airport, where I bid goodbye to my driver and boarded a flight for Bombay, otherwise known as Mumbai.
Prior to taking this trip, I had gotten in contact with Naresh Fernandes, with whom I’ve been in correspondence for around seven years. Naresh is a journalist based in Bombay, who wrote a wonderful book called Taj Mahal Foxtrot about the history of jazz in India. The story he tells in his book intersects with the story of jazz in Shanghai, since at least one of the big jazzmen to play in 1920s-30s Shanghai, Teddy Weatherford, also played in India. Teddy Weatherford had come to Shanghai in 1926 to play with Jack Carter and Valaida Snow in the Plaza Hotel, and after they left he stayed on and played at the Canidrome Hotel and many other nightspots in town. He was the man responsible for recruiting Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen in 1934—perhaps the best hot jazz band to play in Shanghai if not all of Asia during that era. He also traveled frequently and performed in other Asian port cities, and because I was inspired by my Asia travels to write a paper about this phenomenon of the rise and spread of early jazz in Asia, I thought to contact Naresh and let him know I was coming.
After checking into the Taj Santa Cruz, located just next to the domestic airport, I phoned Naresh and he invited me to visit him in his neighborhood. We hung out for a while in his apartment, which has the most amazing collection of Bombay-related books as well as an equally impressive collection of figurines of leading statesmen from India and elsewhere around the world. Naresh is very well connected to others researching the history of jazz and popular music in Asia, and he alerted me to a number of works of scholarship on this topic, but he also talked at length about current political affairs in India, as he now manages an online journal covering Indian politics. Later that evening, he took me for a neighborhood walk in the posh area of Bandra West and brought me to a gymkhana, a fitness center that also serves as a restaurant and pub, where we had a few more beers and a wonderful meal of Goan food that included a spicy chorizo dish that I wish I could find in Shanghai. It was great getting to know Naresh after all these years and I hope he will someday find a reason to come visit Shanghai where I can repay the favor.
I only had one full day in Bombay before flying back to Shanghai early the next morning, and so the next day (Friday Sept 15) I got in as many meetings and as much sight-seeing as possible. I awoke early that morning and was met at the hotel entrance by my assigned driver, who took me to a school meeting in South Bombay. It was quite an experience to cross the long bridge known as the Worli Sea Link and see the ocean as well as a fishing village foregrounding that tall towers of the city. Bombay is just an unbelievably colorful experience—the entire city is festooned with slum areas that appear in the most unlikely places, which contrasts with the fancy new developments and tall buildings some of which house the richest families in India. Naresh wrote a wonderfully concise and trenchant history of the city called City Adrift which he gifted me the night before, and I was reading it as I toured the city for the first time.
After my first school visit, I headed northward via the Sea Link bridge for more school visits, including the American School of Bombay, which I mention because later that evening I would be treated to a fantastic tour and dinner by their board chairman, Rajiv and his colleagues. I had met Rajiv and other board members of ASB during the UNIS Hanoi workshop (see my previous blog) and he had very generously offered to meet up with me in Bombay after my last meeting. He and his driver picked me up in another part of town that afternoon and the first place he brought me to see was a famous temple known as the ISKCON temple in Juhu. I photographed several scenes at the temple dedicated to the movement known as Hare Krishna in the West, founded in the 1970s by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, whose likeness is preserved in a sculpture in the temple grounds. Rajiv introduced me to the temple and its rituals and history.
Eventually we were told that I was not allowed to photograph inside the temple (and indeed there were signs saying so). However, I was very keen on getting a few more photos for my growing collection of temple rituals and so I asked Rajiv to approach a man dressed in the garb of the temple caretakers, with saffron robes, shaved head, and a streak of yellow from forehead to nose. Rajiv spoke to the man in Hindi, but he replied saying “speak English” and then addressed me directly. Turns out he was from Mauritius and had joined the temple many years ago, and he proceeded to discourse in fluent English about the history and philosophy of the movement, and in such convincing and beautiful language that I could not help but think that there must be a way for some of these principles to embed themselves more deeply into the sphere or at least the spirit of higher learning.
He spoke of the need of the Indian people to share their spiritual consciousness with the world, and talked about how most religious rituals only address the superficialities rather than the core of what this movement is trying to achieve, which is about attaining a higher consciousness. This made me think of the ancient distinction between Theravada and Hinayana Buddhism, i.e. the “small vehicle” versus the “large vehicle” and its manifestations in all forms of Buddhism as well as analogies to other religious movements. While most religions have taken on a mass form wherein people are encouraged to worship deities in return for worldly blessings, at the core of each major religion is the effort of certain people to achieve a higher consciousness, whether through meditation or other means, and to discover the deeper dimensions of the human soul as well as the cosmic forces that underly our existence. This is one of the things that drew me to Asian cultures in the first place, and I told the man and also Rajiv that when I was a youth, I was exposed to books on yoga, Zen, and ancient Indian religious philosophy (the Upanishads) both in high school and in my freshman year at Dartmouth, and this is one thing that attracted me to Asia in the first place. Rajiv and I both left with a very favorable impression of this chance encounter with such a deep and eloquent believer and how fortunate we were to have it, and all because of my desire to take photos in temples.
Afterwards we visited two more temples, one a Hindu temple nearby that featured an impressive variety of statuary arranged on seven floors—one had to take an elevator to the top floor then make one’s way down praying to the different deities along the way. Then we paid our respects to the Ramakrishna Math and Mission and the enigmatic figure of Swami Vivekananda and the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. I wish my own mother Elizabeth Field had been with me for these visits, as she would have loved to see these places. Maybe someday…
After our temple visits, Rajiv and I headed to posh Bandra West district, where we dined at the Pali Bhavan, an unassuming restaurant with nary a sign outside, yet which inside is quite a special place. It is a wooden house, nicely decorated with old photos of Bombay and Indian society. We had a fantastic meal there along with colleagues from ASB, and afterwards we headed out to the legendary Taj Mahal Hotel on the southern tip of Bombay which I had to see given its connections to the jazz age in India and to Teddy. Yet there was also a connection to the Beatles--one of the items on display in the historical wing of the hotel was an autograph of George Harrison from 1966, with the title "His Majesty the King of Liverpool."
I knew that my trip to India would be a special one and that I would be entranced by all the life and color, the contrasts and the historical depth of this country, and indeed it was so. As I told everyone I met along the way, this was my first visit to India, but it will certainly not be the last. I see a future that involves more extensive travel, journeys, connections, friendships, and adventures in this other ancient seat of Asian civilization.