Travel in India

My Cheap Timex

MYSORE — My Belgian novelist-and-artist friend Claire Veys (on Facebook; or wrote to me about traveling in India.

“Yes,” she said.  “I remember how every little things become difficult…and how you have to change your intern time to be in time with there.”

“I have a suggestion, or a request,” she said. “I’d like to offer to a friend some particular gift. He’s collector of things of life, and he will turn 63 soon. I’d like to offer him time passing, everywhere in the world.

Could you take a picture of your watch, or clocks where you are, and write a little comment to explain – the history of your watch, an anecdote, why you take this particularly clock, what happened when you did … something like that, and write too your name, the city where you are… I’ll compile and print all the contributions for him and offer him when I’ll have a good collection, from all over the world.”

And she wanted a title.

“Dear Claire,” I wrote. Here’s my clock story.”

It’s not old. I bought it in 2003 when its predecessor, identical in form and quality and nearly 20 years old, went bonkers and couldn’t decide if a day had 23 hours or 25.

The first one cost a little more than twenty dollars. This one, from a little shop in Burlington but available too in the better truck stops, was 29 or so. It has a second hand, so one can see the past appear moment by moment. It keeps perfect time, losing only one atomic second a decade, or maybe it’s a minute a month, I can’t remember for sure. It is reliable enough.

It also has a black leather band and an “Indiglo” dial which glows like a Carribean moon when a button is pushed, which discerning women for some reason find sexy.

I wear it when I feel corporate. It’s shown here, Nov. 11, 2013, in the Chandra Palace Hotel in Mysore.

In this purposeful photograph it is lying on my well-worn back-pack (which was delighted certainly to come to India again and ride on trains and buses); and it rests most immediately on a dimpled passport case of silkily smooth leather, bought from a conspiratorial dealer in the medieval suq in Fez, Morocco in 1978. In the background is a favorite hat featuring an expertly-ridden jumping horse, which suggests that I am a rider of great timing and balance.

My watch, for Claire,JPG

The watch (and its predecessors), the pack (rescued for $25 from a flea market in Waterbury, Vermont), the cap (a gift) and the venerable passport case encourage me that it isn’t just blather that we can find the tools we need and do what we need to do on the cheap.

Don’t wait, my humorless watch reminds me: Begin today. It’s time to go.

Our own time clocks go bonkers often even at an early age and begin to chime, “I wish I had, I wish I had, I wish I had…

At the moment, heat flavored with urine and diesel fumes rises from the churning, blaring street outside my window, my $11 hotel room isn’t cooled, and the electricity has failed three times in the past 10 minutes; but ancient Mysore waits outside, and after I take a brief nap I’ll strap on the watch,  slap on the cap at a jaunty but honest angle and find that rare someone who did.

Cheap Travel in India, Travel in India


Downstairs from my squalid room in the Hotel T.A.P. Silver Square, the amplified BOOM, BOOM from the Fusion Night Club makes the floor shake as though workers with sledges were trying to get at me from beneath.

The club is bearable. I have ear plugs, and the patrons, once outside, are mostly quiet Himalayan exiles in their 20s. Anyway, the noise comes to an end at 11:30, 15 minutes from now, so the women, not all of them escorted by men, can get home safely.

Unready, I say, because Indian grunge seems worse than ever, and I hadn’t expected to be shocked — Shocked, I say! — again. Thirty-eight years ago, my first trip, reeking Bombay’s teems of ragged people, old men dying in the gutters, children offering to sell themselves for pennies, the wealthy seeing none of it and flicking the beggars from their path with a flick of the wrist, gave pause. I retreated to my room and sucked my thumb.

Bangalore is India’s wealthiest city, and my hotel, its inner walls as unwashed as the jagged sidewalks outside, is in the midst of it. A treat of some sort — misery and hopelessness with a sweet  center of gold; or a lovely piece of candy that is foul when you bite into it.

In 1975 I met an embittered American woman who had stayed too long with too little money. India, she said, was a cesspool, and it was our future. India’s was the world’s oldest culture, and it was in a downward spiral. We were just slightly higher in the whirlpool…

Today, I had a conversation with Shrinivas Bairagi, a restaurant worker. I mentioned I had seen two policemen step up to a frail news stand vendor and each take a newspaper without paying, snarling at the old man.  “They take everything!” he said. “They are very well paid, and they have free houses to live in, but still they take. Not just newspapers but in restaurants, they have a meal and pay nothing.”

I nodded toward the jagged pavement beside us, the electrical wires dangling, the dirt which covers every surface with a crust of filth. He nodded. He was not optimistic about India, he said, and he explained: “They are all corrupt! All of them!”

ImageShrinivas Bairagi

Those who struggle here are flooded with images of gorgeous, bare-shouldered, glossy-haired women selling this or that, and the flash of modernity, cameras, phones, Ray Ban sunglasses –“Authentic since 1937,” according to the sign — cars…  The masses reach for it all, but “they,” the corrupt, grind them down.

Shrinivas, in recovery now because he must save money for marriage, said he had wasted his money on Faceboook and in “cyber cafes. But now, he said, “I spend much less.”

His idols, aside from a famous cricketer, run to Warren Buffet, Bill Gates… men who made themselves “big.”

Altruism, he said, including in himself, but in most everyone, is dead. “And if I wanted to help India,” he said, “to make it better for people, they wouldn’t let me.”

But I am still reeling, and my feelings aren’t to be trusted. India is a friendly country, mostly, and its charm blows over the broken sidewalks: I hear girls laughing together, the Himalayan dancers gathered outside the club in friendly, animated conversation (though they shoo off the beggar children remorselessly), two poor boys walk down a dark side street each with an arm draped over the other’s shoulder. They stop by a pile of trash and one boy, barefoot, tries on a pair of discarded shoes, and in the small” restaurants, the workers have uniforms and an identity.

“I like writers,” Vaseem Akram, manager of Au Bon Pain coffee shop and snack bar, told me, seeing me writing in my notebook. “They take the knowledge which they have in them and express it with the words. They don’t keep it in themselves. They don’t keep it to themselves. They let the world know about that.”

ImageVaseem Akram

I liked the little beggar girl. She was insistent. I made her go away, and she tossed a sarcasm over her shoulder. It would have been good to talk with her, but give her Rs 20 and she would demand 40; give her 40, and the whole family would make me their own… My fondness for this baffles me, but the night air here could lift a magic carpet.