“It’s that dream that we carry with us
that something wonderful will happen,
that it has to happen,
that time will open,
that the heart will open,
that doors will open,
that the mountains will open,
that wells will leap up,
that the dream will open,
that one morning we’ll slip in
to a harbor that we’ve never known.”
~ Olav Hauge (translated by Robert Bly)
His two bags were lying at his feet in the bedroom, wonderfully clean, square, tied up. Slowly, he had dressed with the clothes he had carefully chosen for the trip, had slipped his black leather belt on, in which slept a few bundles of neat traveler’s cheques, had put on his brand new, too new sneakers. Already, he imagined them, old and wrinkled, worn out, tanned, alive with six months of wandering in the land of gods and poverty. He was afraid of this journey, afraid of having to face, one by one, patiently, the thousand problems, the thousand worries, but also the joys, the discoveries, the surprises that would inevitably mark his path. He had prepared as thoroughly as his character allowed him and, at the time of departure, he looked like a bourgeois and shy little son who was about to fight the battle of his life. Nothing will ever be the same now, the die was cast, he would tread the foothills of the Himalayas, the Ganges plain, the Rajasthan desert, he would get drunk on wondrous visions, he would taste the smell of spices, he would marvel at beautiful faces.
He joined his family in the kitchen. When they saw him enter, they all adopted the half-joyful, half-anxious air of custom. Peter smiled and approached to say goodbye. To see these known faces turned towards him, to feel their fears, their resignation to see him go alone and so far away, to feel himself full of will and courage, yet still fragile and timid, he received the situation like a tornado in the mind. He had to make an effort to come to his senses and not sink completely. He kissed his mother, father, and sister, carefully avoiding their eyes. He turned around and ran away to catch his train, trying to stop thinking.
The train was on its way to Paris. Peter had no trouble finding a free compartment to lie down in. He didn’t want to sleep. The tension of the two months of preparation had just shattered, and for the first time, his mind was empty, free. His heart could no longer contain itself. He was leaving!
Oh, he had already flirted with an end-of-year trip in Austria, with his classmates, tried a one-week adventure in Morocco, by car, under the guidance of a friend who had already been there. But this time, he was really committed, alone, and for a long time. A little, he liked to think, like these mountaineers he admired so much, who set out to conquer unexplored peaks. Of course, in 1986, leaving for Benares or Kathmandu was no longer an achievement, even though he had noted, with secret delight, that his departure commanded the respect of his most reckless friends. How could he, so unassuming, so impressionable, take up such a challenge? Was he able to do it? We were about to see.
In fact, Peter had never made the decision to leave. It would have been too much to bear, a fatal blow to a still fragile trust. No, he had rather managed to create, week after week, a fait accompli. For example, he had first shared his intention with colleagues, family members, to test their reactions, to test his determination. Then he had bought a travel guide to learn about the practical details and the steps to take. In his drive, he even went so far as to establish an itinerary, with sites not to be missed and addresses of the best hotels. Later, he found himself in a doctor’s surgery to be prescribed the necessary drugs, and vaccinated. After all, it did not engage him yet. So when he took his car one morning to go to a tour operator, he thought that he was a little out of line. But the day was beautiful, cloudless, and it didn’t cost anything to find out. In the street, he had some hesitation before entering the agency. But when a seller asked him and invited him to sit at her desk, he let it happen and answered as if in a dream. Yes, I would like a return trip from Paris to Delhi. Yes with open return and stopover in Kuwait. The price, the insurance, all the details were worked out. Once outside the agency, a sense of pride invaded him, quickly accompanied by a panicky desire to retract. All he needed now was a visa.
While he enjoyed delightful serenity that night on the train, Peter knew he was playing big. He will have to be more independent, more responsible than he has ever been. Everything had been gathered together, materially, to manage alone in this great country. His mind was sharp, ready for the performance. All that remained for him to do was to interpret the score.
The train had just emerged from the last alpine valleys and was gaining speed. Everything was accelerating. Every minute that passed brought him closer to the fateful moment when the crazy dream would become reality. In short, a leap into the unknown.
As he turned around to the west, Peter looked out the plane’s window at the last glow in the sky. In front of him, the black curtain of the night had just been drawn. Fatigue and anxiety now prevented him from getting any sleep. The prospect of landing in Delhi after midnight was not pleasant, and the journey had already been long and painful. However, he could not avoid some satisfaction. To find oneself, at the end of a simple flea jump, transported into one of the most fascinating cultures of the East seemed outrageous to him. It was normal, even desirable, to have to overcome some hardships to deserve this privilege. It gave value to the venture, gave it a magical meaning. In other words, the delay so far of some fifteen hours was a sign of good news. At least he hoped so.
It all began in an idyllic way. It was first of all the excitement and emotion of a first flight by plane. The sparkling whiteness of the alpine mountains was followed by the intense blue of the Mediterranean, before a brief stopover in Rome. But in Kuwait, a sandstorm forced the aircraft to land further south in Bahrain, where passengers spent part of the night in a hotel near the airport. In the morning, they were able to reach Kuwait before flying on to their destination. All this at the cost of endless hours of waiting and uncertainty.
The plane was purring peacefully into the night. Peter nestled himself in the suspended time and space offered to him, considering once again the purpose of his coming trip. India was his dream and promise, and he was the offering he would bring to the most subtle parts of this country. One plea: ‘Show me! Guide me to the truth of this world.’ Peter could not remember how the choice of India had imposed itself on him. At most, the childhood memory of the banks of the Ganges in Benares in a television documentary, or the name ‘Bombay’ he once heard and which had sounded like a place full of mystery, or the Himalayas, — oh the Himalayas! — the mountains dear to his heart. Above all, it was a reputation as vague as it is prominent in terms of spirituality that drove him towards her.
Peter was not strictly speaking a religious person, nor even a spiritual one, at least not in the terms accepted in the society where he grew up. He was a very young man and spirituality represented for him a hope, an intuition that a truth existed in this world, a reality, that would allow him to live a happier and more harmonious life. He took the decision to not go to any ashrams, or to any guru for that matter; to stay simply a tourist visiting India. He didn’t want to be influenced in any way. In his heart, he knew very well what he was here for, but sightseeing was his only intention, while keeping an eye out for some evidence of the eternal India. In terms of understanding life and human interiority, India had seemed to him to be the most plausible choice. His expectation was immense, without knowing what to expect, his hope was unreasonable without doubting the path to which he was committed. He was ready to offer himself to it all.
Everything was quiet in the plane. The hostesses had temporarily disappeared and there was a kind of feverish expectation. Peter could not tell whether it was real or the consequence of his own anguish. Suddenly the aircraft made a strange noise and was shaken slightly. A steward approached to open a locker and close it immediately with force. Two hostesses quickly walked up the aisle. This unrest seemed to herald an event which he was waiting for with fear and impatience. The plane shook again and the lights above the passengers were turned back on. This time, he was in no doubt. The descent was well and truly underway.
A few minutes later, the aircraft had reduced its speed considerably, and was preparing to land. Peter was impressed by the first landscapes he discovered through the window, and was already probing their strangeness. The lights were yellow, pale. The earth looked like a kind of wasteland and a few rare vehicles slipped along these bands of light that were the roads of the outskirts. A few low uninviting houses were dotted here and there. There was an overall feeling of threat. His heart started beating very hard.
It was more than one o’clock in the morning when Peter handed his passport to the policeman who leafed through it. After examining it at length, he then conscientiously applied his stamp, not impressed by the endless queue that roared in front of him out of sight in another corridor. With his impressive moustache and solemn appearance, he commanded respect, even if his clothing showed an unusual degree of sloppiness for his function. When his passport was returned to him, Peter entered the large hall where the first suitcases were already running on the conveyor belt. It was a dark plain room, impregnated with an indefinable smell. Nowhere did he see the picture windows that had been described to him in some books, behind which hundreds of people swarmed and gathered, curious and eager for freshly disembarked travellers. He was relieved. He had heard that some tourists are so scared when they arrive here that they return back home without even leaving the airport. He didn’t mean to fail so miserably. He’d hold out.
After picking up his luggage and changing a few banknotes, he felt ready to face the outside world. Mechanically, he looked up towards the exit and stopped, stunned. A multitude of faces were watching him, observing him, glued behind the airport window. The book hadn’t lied. He was going to be offered as food to the crowd. He adjusted his bag on his shoulders and, not reassured at all, walked towards the exit.
The air was fresh, fragrant and still filled with the sweetness of the day. In the midst of a busy crowd, he had put his bag down and stood up without knowing what to do. A young Indian would came up to him repeatedly offering its services:
— Sir, do you want a hotel? I know a good hotel. Cheap. Only twenty rupees!
Peter stammered a timid refusal, then undertook to ignore him, without really succeeding. The young man’s unfailing obstinacy was reinforced. What should Peter do? The travel guides had warned him: “If you arrive at night, watch out for scammers, don’t give in to any advances“. He decided to wait for a group of French people he had met during the long waiting hours in Kuwait. Perhaps he could share a taxi with them to get to the centre of Delhi and from there look for a hotel.
— Sir, a very good hotel. First-class. Come on. Come on. Only twenty rupees!
The minutes were passing. A row of taxis waited nearby and the drivers looked at potential customers with questioning eyes. More and more travellers were leaving the airport and the excitement was building up around Peter. He was getting impatient. The French group was slow to appear. How long was he going to have to wait? He was disoriented and confused, attracted, in spite of himself, by the tempting offer that the young Indian chanted at regular intervals. He decided to make sure that the hotel was located in the city centre and made him repeat his ridiculous price. Then he pretended to lose interest again.
Something was boiling inside him. He was getting irritated. Why was he waiting? Had he come all this way to end up looking for the protection of the group, wrapping his fear into a benevolent and familiar national cocoon? It was his journey. He had wanted it more than anything else, and at the edge of the big bath, he was wavering and shyly dipping his toes. He thought: “How am I supposed to truly meet India, to truly meet myself being an outsider, a visitor staying safe at a distance? How will I understand anything of my own life and mystery by not engaging fully, by not being completely one with my endeavour? No. I had to dive right in, get wet right away.” There was no more hesitation. He didn’t have time to say a word; a look, an imperceptible hand gesture, that’s all it took for the young Indian. His prey had taken the bait.
A new voice was heard behind Peter. Another man came out of the shadow and engaged in an incomprehensible conversation with his friend. Then they asked him to follow them. Peter grabbed his bag and rushed after the two men who were already moving away and pressurising him. His inhibited expectation immediately turned into a determined surrender. In cha’Allah. The first cogs of the great Indian machine were set in motion and carried him irredeemably into the night.
Text and photos by Alain Joly
(Translated with the generous help of Jenny Beal)
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