I crossed the invisible border into 2023 while in India. The occasion: my son’s close college friend, Rish, is from Bengaluru and wanted to show us the country. The Christmas break worked well for this bunch of students and teachers; the only other break we have in common would be summer, when heat is extreme. He ended up heroically organizing a complex trip for nine people: Rish himself and two families of four (my family plus the family of their other college friend, Neville). It was a rich and intense adventure I’ll be processing for a long time. I’m not a TOTAL ignoramus–I listen to people, read a lot, follow the news–yet the barrage of new information, sensory and otherwise, put me in a constant state of awe.
We arrived in Delhi at 2 am on the 24th, and by 10:30 we were already on the move. Our very first stop began to open up histories that were unfamiliar to me. The Qutub Minar complex, mostly built around the year 1200, is in the Mughal style but provides glimpses of many versions of Delhi and the conflicts that shaped this palimpsest of cities: it contains a mosque, minarets, and cloisters built with the stones of earlier Hindu and Jain temples. I’d read up a bit on the Mughals before traveling but seeing so many forts, mosques, and monuments made that history more vivid, of course–and uncovered some layers within contemporary Indian cultural conflicts that I hadn’t understood. Even just talking to tour guides is revelatory, because each describes the history through different lenses and sometimes biases. And why didn’t I know that the Taj Mahal, commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved Mumtaz, is roughly contemporary with the British renaissance? What an important thing for an English professor to understand!
Visiting the Taj Mahal was a metaphor as well as a lucky experience. It was magical watching the symmetrical silhouette of the marble mausoleum take shape in the mist (we arrived before sunrise, at 6:30 am). It was amazing in a different way to get up close, where all that whiteness yields to complex detail: much of its surface is carved with flowers and inlaid with precious stones or painted in Quranic verses. Proximity to the past changes you.
Later the same day, on our way to Jaipur, we visited Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned capital city of the Mughals, and Chand Baori, a step-well that dates to the 8th or 9th century (step-wells are ponds or wells that can be many stories deep–13 stories, in this case). I had what was pretty close to a panic attack watching my kids peer over the edge, but this stop was also a highlight of the trip for me. We arrived at sunset, as birds wheeled overhead and the sky changed hues, essentially joining centuries of pilgrims who had faced those 3500 steps leading down to the water (none of them with railings).
Forts, palaces, and the observatory in Jaipur came next. It’s a famously pretty city in pink sandstone, a treat to tour, but the most special part of that leg, for me, was visiting the elephant sanctuary Dera Amer. Jaipur is in the desert state of Rajasthan where the landscape is beautiful, so getting out of the city hustle for an evening and eating outside by a bonfire was great, but it was also wonderful to interact with the two elephants there, both of whom are middle-aged, adopted after years in the city tourist trade. In Jaipur, people paint and ride elephants; at Dera Amer, you just meet them and take walks with them, then they go to bed like middle-aged people.
From Jaipur we flew to Bengaluru, a heaven for dosas and bookstores–the top image on this blog is poetry at Blossom Books, a section of any bookstore I’m always curious to assess. We stayed in Rish’s family’s high-rise apartment and watched kites (the birds, not the toys) soar by at eye-level. Our last stop was Kochi in the state of Kerala, where we toured Fort Cochin by the Arabian Sea and various warehouses and other spaces housing the Biennale (I hope to write a second post about the latter–stay tuned). I loved exploring the waterways by boat, but it was also fascinating how much of a different country the south is from north India, where we started. Up in Agra, the air was dry and morning temperatures were in the 40s; in Kochi, the humid days reached highs of around 90. The food is very different (still delicious!), the air isn’t as smoggy, and the historical conflicts contrast the northern ones, too– Portuguese colonization left the city with more of a Christian presence, and the oldest active synagogue in India is in Fort Cochin, too (although without the tourists, there are no longer enough Jewish residents to form a minyan).
Odds are I won’t make it to India again, which makes me wistful. There’s SO MUCH I didn’t see! But it’s an expensive trip, and if it sounds tiring, it was. Chris and I arrived home Tuesday night from some 30 hours of airports and planes and promptly got colds (I’m testing negative each day for Covid, so it’s probably just the ordinary kind of sickness you get from air travel and lack of sleep). I’m also feeling, shall we say, Not Young. It isn’t getting any easier to haul myself around multiple historical sites in a day. And there’s more to contemplate about how sobering as well as exhilarating the trip was–I hope I’ll never take clean air and water for granted again; my life seems both more privileged and smaller now, in relation to India’s deep history and population of 1.4 billion. But I’m so grateful to Rish and the kids for getting me off my ancient ass to look, listen, and taste in an extraordinary place.
Now I’m catching up with other people’s blogs and new year’s social media posts, thinking about everybody’s resolutions, what tallies and plans they’re making. My main 2023 objective is to stay small. I removed badge notifications from the email app on my phone so I wouldn’t feel pressure to read messages in India, and that strategy is a keeper. I need to shut off work in the evenings and generally stop overcommitting myself. And I would like to stop obsessing about productivity, maybe submit less work and spend less effort keeping my writer-self visible. Last year, for me personally, was hyper-public, because I was thrilled to publish Poetry’s Possible Worlds and wanted to get the word out. Would I be abandoning the book to do less in 2023? I don’t know, but I would like to shift the balance back from publicity to practice, if this new old year will let me.