What do you do, reader, when caught in the vicegrip of nostalgia?
For me, flipping through old pictures is the cure. In fact, this is largely the reason why I always have my camera at my hip while in interesting places. Not for the Instagram likes (okay, maybe that, too), but for future Jack, inevitably, hopelessly longing for the good moments he will never have back.
So it’s in this vein that I invite you to join me on the road of recollection, the way of wistfulness, to pre-Wayward Duck times, to a place that I found to be endlessly enchanting when I visited four years ago: India.
Read on to check out 25 of my favorite pictures I captured while working and doing some limited traveling within the country in the summer of 2015, framed by excerpts from the journal I kept.
Day #1: Tuesday, May 19th, 2015
The AC wasn’t working when I boarded the plane at DCA for my first leg to Doha. I figured it was a minor fix, but we ended up sitting there for over an hour waiting for the damned thing to start working. It was a scene out of a nightmare. The cabin got progressively hotter, everyone was sweating profusely, babies were crying, kids complaining, and it was pitch black most of the time. Even adults started voicing their complaints, pleading with flight attendants to let them off the plane. Finally it kicked in and we were off, but that initial episode made for an uncomfortable plane ride. Sweat was stuck to my body, others around me seemed uncomfortable too. Plus the concern about making my connecting flight in Doha lingered in my mind.
Thirteen hours later we arrived in Doha and I hurriedly navigated the massive, heavily amenitized, high tech terminal to find my connecting flight to Bangalore. After a five hour flight, I touched down in India around 2:30AM and planted my feet in Asia for the very first time.
After getting through customs I went to retrieve my bag, which hadn’t shown up. I spent almost an hour working with several confused baggage service attendants and left with some paperwork and a bad feeling that it wouldn’t turn up. I left the airport and found a throng of people offering transportation. In the thick of the crowd I found a small, portly, friendly Indian man, Raja, holding a sign bearing my name. He spoke virtually no English.
The drive to the hotel was about an hour. Shortly after checking in to my room I collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.
Day #2: Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
This is a city of vast riches and rampant poverty. Indeed, the bougie residential skyscrapers and chic tech campuses are built atop a colorful cavalcade of homelessness, stray dogs, and piles of garbage lining the streets. The sidewalks themselves have not been maintained, there are holes in the concrete everywhere. Food carts and stands selling anything from knock-off luxury goods, shoes, Bollywood DVD’s, trinkets, and hand-made garments, are also ubiquitous. The air is thick with the smell of exhaust, trash, and other toxins.
I caught a street game of cricket, and took some portraits of street vendors, they mostly seemed enthused about someone taking their picture. They offer warm smiles, though most were averse to smiling for the pictures themselves, which was curious.
A small child followed me for two blocks pleading for food in a dialect I couldn’t understand. He looked hungry so I gave him 100 rupees.
Day #4: Friday, May 22nd, 2015
Hari took me to dinner at a place called the Punjabi Grille, about a 5 minute walk from the office. We started with some sort of spinach pattie dish and grilled prawns for appetizers. For the main course I had Murgh Malai Tikka, a chicken dish cooked in yoghurt and spices, served with butter naan.
Our conversation jumped around without notice and cohesion throughout the evening; such is the norm, I’ve found, when talking with Hari.
We discussed the housing and job market in India, specifically Bangalore. Apparently retail space is very expensive which drives up the price of housing as a lot of residences are situated above businesses. The influx of IT to Bangalore and elsewhere in India has contributed to this. To combat expensive retail space, business owners can pay workers minimal wage and offset their overhead. There are big holes in the social safety net here, says Hari.
We talked about illegal immigration to India. Hari said that India has the largest population of illegals in the world, which I did not know. Most are Bangladeshi or Nepalese. They come here to escape social strata, which are now (relatively) suppressed in parts of India, and to find work. He said the government refuses to address it as an issue because if they were to be made citizens, they would dominate the vote.
We discussed the Sikh culture and its roots. He said their faith originated in western India and that they clashed with the Mughals living in modern day Pakistan for centuries. Now, a diaspora of sorts has seen them disperse throughout the world. They are a tranquil, intelligent, and often self-deprecating group of people, we agreed.
Day #6: Sunday, May 24th, 2015
My first morning in Delhi, Rajesh takes me to India’s largest mosque, the Jama Masjid. When we arrived to the site I was immediately approached by a beggar girl holding her baby sister asking for money. I couldn’t resist giving her 100 rupees and she rewarded me with probably one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.
The Jama Masjid was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who also commissioned the Taj Mahal. It was completed in 1656. There are three gates to enter the premises, they lead into a massive courtyard that could fit thousands. The West side of the complex is where the mosque sits, facing Mecca. The mosque is the largest in India and second largest in the world. In the middle, there is a pool of holy water where some were resting or praying.
I had to take off my shoes and paid 300 rupees to enter. A man accepted my money and led me through the gate and started telling me about the place. He spoke about the architecture of the mosque, walls, and gates, all marvels to look at. It was built using materials from many different countries, including Pakistan, which, of course, has quite a fractured relationship with India.
He said that the prophet Muhammed was known to pray there when in Delhi. There is a cage around a small area next to the pool of holy water where he is said to have given worship. He led me inside the mosque where I saw men in silent prayer below beautiful Islamic archways and intricate carvings on the walls. I only saw a small portion of the mosque.
Near the north gate is a small room with a large marble “cabinet” on the inside. He took me there and shortly a man in robes joined us and disappeared into the large cabinet to retrieve some relics of the prophet Muhammed. While we waited for him, my guide pointed out a 100 year old man standing close by who has been working there virtually for free his whole life. I took a portrait of him.
The robed man came out of the cabinet with three items: a clay fabrication said to be Muhammed’s footprint, his sandals, and a small glass vial supposedly containing one of his hairs. It was red at the tip, which is accurate according to my guide. I am always skeptical of these things, like when I saw the vial of Jesus’ blood in Bruges. But I paid my respects.
Our next destination was the Raj Ghat. This was the site of Mahatma Ghandi’s cremation a day after his assassination in 1948. The actual site of his cremation is surrounded by massive, sprawling gardens with beautiful trees, flower beds, statues, and inscriptions. I saw people relaxing and praying throughout while making my way through the grounds.
A stone footpath led me through the gardens to a walled enclosure which houses the memorial. I removed my shoes before entering. Inside, a black marble platform marks the spot of Ghandi’s cremation. It is left uncovered and open to the sky while an eternal flame burns next to it. People were walking by and making gestures of prayer in silence. I made my way through and observed the spot, before taking some stairs to the upper wall where I could take pictures from above and not be a disturbance. It was pretty staggering to be in the presence of Ghandi’s cremation site. Considered the “Father of India”, he is revered by his countrymen and by people around the world for his teachings of nonviolence and religious plurality, ultimately what led to his death.
Pushing onward, Rajesh took me to the Qutb Minar. This is a towering pillar sitting 72 meters high in the middle of sandstone ruins of a small, ancient city which has all but succumbed to the elements. Established in 1193, this would be the oldest monument I would see all day. The purpose of the tower was to deliver the Adhan, the muslim call to worship. It is covered from top to bottom with verses from the Quran. The bottom of the tower is a small mosque which is said to be the first mosque in India. I made conversation with a kind security guard, and he showed me the best angles for taking great photos of the tower.
I learned that, before 1981, the general public were allowed to walk up the seven-story, narrow staircase to reach the top of the tower. The reason why no one can anymore is tragic. On December 4th, 1981, a Friday, an electricity cut plunged the tower’s staircase into darkness. Panic ensued as everyone inside scrambled down the stairs to get out. 45 people died as a result of the stampede, most of them children because, at the time, school children were allowed to visit monuments for free on Fridays. Thus, entering the tower is now forbidden.
We then made for the Baha’i House of Worship, colloquially known as the Lotus temple. I entered to a throng of people walking toward the massive structure shaped like a giant lotus flower. It is an architectural marvel, both imposing in its scale but delicate in its features much like its namesake flower. Surrounding the temple are five giant pools of water.
It is apparently the most visited building in all of India, and one of the most visited in the whole world. It is estimated to welcome more that 70 million people per year, surpassing even the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower in tourism.
I removed my shoes and walked up the steps toward the building. Inside, all faiths and spiritualists are welcome to come and pray, per the Baha’i way of worship. I enjoyed sitting in silence among countless others in thought and reflection.
I then walked to the visitor’s center which turned out to be incredibly well done. I walked through the chronological display and learned about Bahá’u’lláh, the Baha’i founder, and his teachings. I was incredibly moved by his quoteables. He preached acceptance, peace, and religious plurality, believing that all humankind needs to unite as one to enter into spiritual harmony. He suggested that all religions at their core preach the same agenda, only their nominal, non-essentials are what differ them. One of his quotes I had heard before but never attributed to him:
“The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens”
I progressed through and ended up watching a video on the construction of the temple. I learned that architects came together from around the world to help design and execute the Temple’s construction. The execution of their plan was extremely challenging given the ambitions of what the end result would look like. Local Indians served as the bulk of the workforce, fittingly representing a variety of faiths all working together to achieve a common goal. Schooling was provided on-site so that children of the workers could learn in a polytheistic environment. After the video was over I continued through to the end of the visitors center where photos of people of all colors, shapes, and sizes visiting the Lotus Temple were on display.
It was my favorite monument.
Day #7: Monday, May 25th, 2015
We walked into a courtyard surrounded by sandstone dormitory-style rooms. Vishan said this was where the workers lived during the construction of the Taj Mahal. We then entered through the Holy Gate and I laid my eyes on the second wonder of the world I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Pictures truly don’t do the Taj Mahal justice. I could feel my eyes getting wide as I gazed out over the water channels and gardens leading to the architectural masterpiece. It was so beautiful it almost looked fake. Made almost entirely of marble, the Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical down to the last detail, except for the side-by-side resting places of Shah Jahan and his wife. Jahan built the tomb to honor his late wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child. This was one of her requests of him on her deathbed, along with him never remarrying (he did, which ruins the magic a bit). Still, it is surely the most epic and elaborate display of love the world has ever seen.
Vishan and I strolled through the grounds as he told me more about the history of the Taj Mahal. We put on shoe covers and climbed the stairs to enter the tomb. Vishan pointed out the mosque which sits to the left of the Taj, facing Mecca, and the identical guest house on the right. Apparently the guest house was never occupied, it was built solely to balance out the mosque on the other side. He pointed out that the four towers were actually leaning about two degrees away from the Taj. This was done intentionally so that in the event of a natural disaster, they would fall away from it.
We entered the the upper level of the tomb where people were walking around. There was a blocked off staircase which led down to the actual graves. Vishan said it is open only once per year for the general public to view on Shah Jahan’s birthday, which changes every year due to the lunar calendar. On that day the Taj sees upwards of 150,000 tourists and it can take 7 hours just to get in to the premises.
We proceeded through the upper level of the tomb and through the back exit which opens into a huge terrace overlooking the Yamuna River. A horde of water buffalo were wading in the water. Vishan told me that Shah Jahan had planned to build an identical Taj Mahal out of black marble across the river and connect the two with a bridge made out of silver.
Unfortunately he fell ill in his later years before he could commission the project and was confined to Agra Fort by his successor son for the last 8 years of his life. Vishan said that, according to legend, Jagan had all the workers’ hands cut off after building was complete so that no one could duplicate the construction.
Day #9: Wednesday, May 27th, 2015
Swati works in advertising and copy writing for an agency that works mostly with nonprofits. Music is her passion, she said her favorite styles are grunge and rock, which I did not expect. She grew up in Hyderabad, lived for 5 years in Delhi, and has now been in Bangalore for 2 months. We talked about the state of the Indian government, travel, our future ambitions, and shared affinity for South Park.
We also had an interesting conversation about Ghandi, his legacy, and his accomplishments. She doesn’t have the reverence for Ghandi that the rest of the world does. She said many other Indians did more for Indian independence, yet he is considered the “Father of India” and is featured on all the paper bills. It was stimulating and made me think of how some icons lose the support of the masses over time if the general public just gets tired of them. I imagine Swati, along with the rest of India’s youth, were force-fed praise for Ghandi from a young age, numbing them to a point where they no longer revere him.
She also lamented the extreme turn that feminism has taken in India, claiming she’s seen many of her young friends renounce all men completely. “It was once a righteous movement” she said. Could the actions of her friends be indicative of some higher level, reactive measure? The patriarchy has historically had an especially ugly history here.
Day #12: Saturday, May 30th, 2015
We left at 6 AM and hopped on Mysore road to reach the city for which the road is named. Mysore means “city of Kings”, so we were driving on King’s road. We had to navigate through several cities to reach Mysore: Ramanagara, Channapatna, Maddur, Mandya, and Srirangapatna. Each specializes in something different.
Ramanagar is famous for its sericulture (silk production), and is nicknamed the “Silk City”. The silk produced in this region forms the input for the famous Mysore Silk. It is the largest market for silk cocoons in Asia, bringing in over 50 tons every day.
Channapatna is famous for its wooden toys which I’ve seen everywhere. Our driver said that when Michelle Obama visited India, the town made special wooden toys for the Obamas and their daughters.
Maddur is know for making delicous vada (a savory donut/fritter type snack that I’ve eaten without really knowing what it is). Apparently the use of specially grown onions give their vada a distinct flavor. The Mysore Sugar Company Ltd. is located in the heart of Mandya – they export sugar all over Asia. Srirangapatna, about 14 miles from Mysore, is the oldest of these cities. We made our first stop there.
Our driver explained that Srirangapatna was a fort city, the standing walls could be seen as we approached. It was fortified enough that it was left unscathed until the British arrived. Here we mostly stopped to see the Ranganatha Temple. This is a beautiful and intricate Hindu temple that casts a shadow over an otherwise poor and desolate city. Tons of stalls with tourist items and eager salespeople lined the path leading up to the temple.
The temple itself featured beautiful, elaborate Hindu carvings and sculptures. From what I could see there were a bunch of hidden pathways and rooms. We explored the initial courtyard but unfortunately the line to enter into the main chamber was very long. So we decided to forgo the wait because we had a lot to do.
Our next destination was Chamundi Hills – a mountain range that overlooks Mysore. Our driver took us through Mysore and then through a series of winding roads up the mountains. After a steep 45 minute hike, we reach the top. The views were beautiful. I enjoyed the fresh air, sprawling vistas, and all the monkeys hopping around.
After lunch we went to Mysore zoo. It was a huge zoo, we walked the entirety of it which was about 1.5 miles around. Some of the highlights include: a huge male Bengal tiger, Indian elephants, two lemurs having a playful tussle, two sloth bears having a less playful tussle, a reptile exhibit with huge cobras, African rhinos, Indian spotted deer, giraffes, and exotic birds. The zoo was nice in that the cages for animals were pretty big, but the premises were a little unkempt.
Our last stop for the day was Brindavan Gardens and the KRS Dam. It was about a half hour drive to get there. As we drove up we saw the huge KRS Dam overlooking the KRS Lake, named so because of the dam that creates it. The dam crosses the Kaveri River and its reservoir provides most of the sustainable drinking water for Mysore. We walked across a bridge to get to Brindavan gardens, which featured fountains, flower beds, communal sitting areas, and walking trails.
A little before 7 Ashvin and I noticed a large crown gathering in sets of bleachers. I figured they were waiting for the light show to start, which I heard about from Manju. We stuck around for a few minutes to see the colorful show.
Exhausted, we stumbled back to the cab and endured the long three hour drive back to Bangalore.
Day #15: Monday, June 1st, 2015
Looking back, my brief slice of life in India was pretty great.
My time in the office was always collaborative and productive. Everyone was super nice. Awkward around me, surely, but very friendly. Manju brought around delicious coffee and snacks everyday. Swati and the other Purposely girls near my desk chat with me during idle moments. The development team is almost always available and eager to talk with me. When Hari is around I head down to his office occasionally to pick his brain. There is a transparent, “in this together” culture here, which I appreciate.
Outside of the office, I was lucky to spend time, whether a day, an hour, or a fleeting moment, with some amazing people.
Saying goodbye to Sunil was the hardest.
As security guard for the office, his smiling face was the first I saw in the morning and the last when I left. He was always so excited to see me. Ever eager to practice English, he often made statements like “I am happy to be here in this room with you, Jack Murphy, and we are talking in English” and “It is good for me to talk in English with foreigners like you, Jack Murphy, for me to practice”. I can especially relate as someone who practices Spanish the same way every chance I get. At the onset, I told him how well he is doing and encouraged him to practice with me – his eyes lit up and he thanked me several times.
We shared a few lunches, many laughs and stories over the past few weeks. He asked endless questions about the United States, and what I’d seen in the world. A fellow curious soul, I implored him in kind every day. Over the past few days he’s jokingly been referring to me as an “American Hero”.
I could tell he was distraught with saying goodbye. I took my leave late in the day as he was wrapping up his shift, so he started walking with me to my hotel.
After walking in silence for a moment, he took my hand in his. I didn’t dare let go. I had seen Indian men holding hands before – Ashvin explained that they aren’t necessarily gay, it is just a sign of friendship. So Sunil and I walked hand in hand for three blocks before hugging goodbye.