The driver tossed our bags into the trunk of a white Ambassador cab, and pressed his palms together.
“Welcome to India, Sir. Is this your wife?”
“No; she’s my mother.”
Mom giggled; I was less sanguine. Still, it seemed a promising start to an adventure I’d planned with anticipation and anxiety. Bringing Mom to India had seemed an inspired idea; I had wanted to give her something spectacular for her 75th birthday. A tour of the country’s signature sites—New Delhi, Rajasthan’s palaces, the Taj Mahal—would provide an indelible impression of the subcontinent’s history and culture, which had profoundly changed my own world view.
My misgivings were equally broad. The inspiration was short on precedent, and long on bravado. Not only was this my mother’s first trip to Asia; we had never traveled anywhere together before. And though she’d been to Europe, Israel, and Russia, this was something else entirely.
Because India, truly, is like nowhere else on Earth. It is not a destination you visit, like Paris or Capetown or Tokyo. It’s a place you must surrender to, dissolve into. No matter where one touches down, first contact is overwhelming.
During my first visit, in 1979, I spent my first two days barricaded in my hotel room. On the morning of the third day, I emerged, mole-like, onto the crowded streets. Within minutes, every sense was overloaded. I felt like a visitor on an alien planet; a place where sounds and sights, tastes and odors, were raised to an unbearable volume.
Then—as I strolled along the sidewalk—something inside of me let go. My chest loosened, and my neck relaxed. I began to meet the eyes of the people around me, offering a self-conscious namasté in answer to their greetings. The responses were astonishing. Every single person seemed to welcome interaction with me, and to accept me as I was. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders.
I had broken through. I shed my bulky space suit, and let the atmosphere in. This “alien planet,” I realized, had a name: Earth. For the first time, I realized how little I knew about the world’s inhabitants. They had a great deal to teach me about their lives—and my own humanity. My spiritual journey in India had begun.
Ever since, India has been a site of pilgrimage for me; a world of often mind-blowing personal growth. No matter how short my visit, I always come home a changed man.
But this trip wasn’t about me. It was about my mother. A lifelong educator, occasional artist, and very spiritual woman (she had become a bat mitzvah at the age of 67), Mom was overdue for a glimpse into the world so important to her eldest son. Granted, a trip to India isn’t the most luxurious gift (she might have preferred Hawaii). But it was the kind of gift we’re meant to give: something that we ourselves cherish.
India can test even seasoned travelers, and any number of things might go awry. Health is one issue. I’d gotten violently ill during my first visit, and several times since. Mom is in great shape—but even the mighty have been humbled by the parasites of South Asia.
A second concern was diet. My mother keeps strictly kosher; she’s never touched bacon, or shelled a prawn. Would she be able to eat, let alone enjoy, Indian food?
Finally, there was the “freak-out factor.” India is just too much for some visitors. The crowds, the beggars, the sheer intensity of life pushes some people over the edge. When I lived in Nepal, a doctor friend was sometimes required to sign medical forms for tourists who lost their minds, and had to be evacuated home. He stamped their medical forms with the anagram PUTIA: “Psychologically Unfit to Travel in Asia.” Would my Mom, who had never visited a non-western country, be branded with this tragic moniker? How would she fare in a country where the Star of David is a symbol of tantric union, and the svastika a sign of good luck?
* * *
Mom hit the ground running. Our first morning in Delhi, we toured the grounds surrounding the 12th century Qutb Minar: the tallest brick minaret in the world, and the first example of how Islamic arts would transform northern India. It’s now a World Heritage site, with crumbling arched porticoes and classical Indian bas-reliefs.
“Look, Mom!” I studied my guidebook while walking over to a sandstone column. “The faces of these gods and goddesses were smashed by the Muslim invaders…. Mom?” I spun around. She had wandered across the plaza, and was holding court with a crowd of schoolchildren in starched white shirts. They jockeyed for her attention, shouting answers to her questions and jostling for photographs.
“I doubt,” I said, leading her back toward our cab, “that Amitabh Bachchan would have received a warmer welcome.”
“He’s India’s biggest film star – sort of like George Clooney, Ryan Gossling and Jimmy Stewart rolled into one.”
“He must really be something.”
“I’d say so. He might be the best-looking guy in India. The best looking middle-aged guy, anyway.”
The next afternoon we were invited, by our well-connected guide, to visit the Sri Kalkaji Mandir, one of Delhi’s most important shrines. The temple looked drab from the outside, but the inner courtyards seethed with devotees and noisy, colorful puja activities. It was the beginning of the 10-day Dasara festival, dedicated to the bloodthirsty goddess Durga. Incense filled the air, so thick it muted the beating of ritual drums and strains of a harmonium. The Brahmin priest led us to the inner sanctum; the temple was so crowded we had to be ushered in amid a police escort.
I was astonished to see my mother, who lights Sabbath candles every Friday evening, kneel to receive a blessing from a bearded, half-naked sadhu. Following our guide’s instructions, she then pressed her head to the ornate silver altar—upon which an ancient image of Durga danced with a necklace of skulls—and prayed. Her view of worship was identical to mine: A holy place is defined not by convention, but by what we bring to it.
Outside in the courtyard, wailing infants were having their heads shaved with straight razors. Once shorn, the hair was offered to the goddess, while red svastikas were painted on the babies’ bare scalps.
“Oy.“ My mother, at last, seemed rattled. “Why are they doing that?”
“In India, the svastika is an ancient design. The Nazis stole it, but that doesn’t matter here. To Hindus it’s still a symbol of good luck, and a sign of protection by the gods.”
“The religion here!” she said, shaking her head. “It’s all-encompassing. I had no idea.”
At sunset, we hired two sinewy rickshaw wallahs to take us through the seething markets of Old Delhi on their creaking bicycles. It was like being injected into the barrel of a kaleidoscope. We wove through fallopian lanes blinking with colored lights and draped with saris and bangles and glass bead necklaces, past showcases full of earrings and false gems, between vats laced with swirls of frying honey, past pan-sellers and pan-spitters and mules, pineapples and pokoras and a dozen varieties of dates, past printers’ stalls selling tinseled wedding invitations, illuminated statues of elephant-headed Ganesh and blue-faced Krishna, beneath clouds of spice and hookah smoke. Our rickshaw drivers’ acrobatic legs performed a constant dance of approach/avoidance, waltzing back and forth on the pedals as we threaded through alleys so narrow they’d challenge an anorexic unicyclist.
Emerging from the bazaars, we dismounted and caught our breath. Even our wallahs seemed exhilarated. We tipped them generously, a bit stunned to be back in the “real” world. Above us loomed a huge billboard, upon which a familiar face endorsed a brand of Indian cement.
“Look, Mom!” I pointed. “That’s Amitabh Bachchan.”
My mother glanced upward. “Oh, Honey,” she said. “You’re much better looking than him.”
* * *
When I try to name the influences that made me a traveler, I think mainly of movies: epic films like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which made me long for the universe that lay beyond the suburban tracts of Plainview, New York. But I suspected a paternal cause, as well.
My Dad and I were never close, and he died of heart failure when I was 30. Once in a while, though, when I was a teen, we’d drive into Manhattan together. That’s when he’d open up. One story that stuck with me was set in Texas, when my Dad was in the service.
“Your mother was pregnant,” he said. “And I’d just been discharged. I was driving away from the base, alone, down one of those long, flat highways. After miles of this I came to a junction, where a dirt road disappeared into the hills. I stopped right there, and stared up that road—thinking of all the places I wanted to see, all the adventures I’d never had. It was a real dilemma. I could take that road, disappear, and live the life I’d dreamed of living. Or I could do the right thing, and go back to your mother.”
I never resented my father for his ambivalence. It often seemed, in fact, that I was his other half: looking back over my shoulder, wondering what the world would be like if I’d stopped moving long enough to have a family. There seemed little doubt that my wanderlust was in my genes.
And it had twice brought me here, to the city of Agra, where the magnificent Taj Mahal rests on a vast marble plinth along the Yamuna River. First in 1979, as an astonished 25-year-old; and now, a quarter-century later, with my mother.
For the first-time visitor to India, the Taj is an unforgettable highlight. Built during the first half on the 17th century, it is the most iconic—and ironic—building in the world. Intended as a mausoleum, it is conclusive proof of immortality.
Nothing compares with walking through the domed gateway, and watching in awe as Shah Jahan’s marvel in marble explodes into view, filling a place in one’s heart that one never even knew existed. The closer one gets to the Taj itself, the more one appreciates the words a forgotten historian wrote of the Mughals: “They built like giants, and finished like goldsmiths.”
“It’s awesome,” said my mother, gaping at the pearlescent dome and slightly tilted minarets. “It’s as beautiful as a natural wonder. And like a natural wonder, it is exquisite because it’s not showy; it is in absolutely perfect taste. Every aspect of its design is perfect—down to a level that approaches magic.”
I shared her sense of wonder. The Taj does this for everyone. All who visit are beatified, united by a common sense of awe. It’s the opposite of what happens after an earthquake, or tsunami. Here people are brought together by a shared experience of the transcendent, a statement that blesses all with its indelible proof of the human spirit, its celebration of imagination, its testimony to the power of human love.
We strolled around the grounds, viewing the building from all angles, watching as the sun descended and the creamy marble morphed into orange, pink, and blue.
“It’s like a dream come true,” my mother whispered, then laughed. “Though I can’t honestly say that.”
“Because I never dreamed I would be here.”
* * *
Mom had the constitution of a horse. Aside from some unavoidable congestion, and the need for a couple of Pepto-Bismols, she proved tougher than many backpackers. Food-wise, also, my worries had been for naught. Sticking to a vegetarian diet—easy to do in India—Mom developed a taste for the local cuisine. Lentil soup, vegetable cutlets, masala dosas (enormous, crispy crepes stuffed with potatoes and peas) and fresh lime sodas became our staples, enlivened by the addition of palak paneer (soft, cube-shaped cheese with spinach) and aloo gobi (sautéed potatoes and cauliflower).
What she could not handle were the aggressive hawkers. As we emerged from the Taj Mahal, or waited for our elephant ride below Jaipur’s Amber Fort, packs of insistent touts descended upon us from all sides, pressing in with satchels full of wooden chess sets, silver bracelets and mirrored sandals, onyx eggs and marble trivets. They surrounded my mother, tugging at her sleeves. “Hello… you buy… 50 rupees….okay, 20 rupees… yes, yes… 10 rupees….you buy…”
My mother cowered, waving her arms as if besieged by gnats. “I can’t stand this!” she’d cry, trying to find an escape route. I took her arm and led her toward the safety of our car.
“There’s something I don’t understand,” I said, as she rolled up the windows despite the furious heat. “How could a woman who directed a day care center, surrounded all day by screaming kids, be intimidated by a few guys selling postcards? Why were the kids any easier to handle?”
“I was bigger than they were,” she replied.
This kind of aggression was not a problem in Udaipur, one of my favorite spots in India. The relaxed, exotic city— with its labyrinthine palaces, painting galleries, and fierce tradition of independence—is a porthole into Rajasthan’s past. Posh restaurants serve Mughlai curries, and festooned boats ply the romantic lake. One can find mosaics made of millions of colored mirrors, and murals enlivened with brilliant yellow paint made from the dried urine of cows on a mango diet.
Among Mom’s few complaints (or observations; in India, they often amount to the same thing) was that there had been little natural charm in the places we visited. “The beauty in India,” she observed, “is all in the culture, the history, the monuments.” I hoped Udaipur might demonstrate otherwise.
We arrived at the Fatepur Prakash Palace Hotel, and found a table at the outdoor restaurant. It was a sultry afternoon, and the view over Lake Pichola—with the Lake Palace Hotel resting on its surface like a mirage—was like a scene from a James Bond film (to wit, Octopussy). A sun of hammered gold set behind the Araveli hills, and swifts dipped crazily in the sky.
“Well, this is lovely,” Mom said. We munched on pokoras, and sipped Kingfisher beers. A sitar and tabla duet played an afternoon raga. “It’s good to finally see some natural beauty.”
I reminded her that the lake was artificial—built by King Pichhu Banjara in 1362. “At least the mountains are natural,” she shrugged.
The next morning we drove out to Nagda, a nearby temple complex built in the 10th century. It was an unexpected gem, surrounded by flowers and trees. The ancient Hindu shrines were covered inside and out with exquisite marble carvings. Here, again, was a place where natural and cultural beauty worked together.
Before leaving, we stopped at a small table where a local artist was selling small statues of Ganesh: the elephant-headed god of auspicious beginnings, and the protector of travelers. Mom looked them over, and purchased one of the deities.
Idol-worship is forbidden in Judaism. But Indian gods and goddesses are so charming that Jewish travelers in Asia often go native, succumbing to the “Golden Calf Syndrome.” I have a Ganesha at home, which I petition for success before any journey. But my mother?
“Amazing,” I said. “I never thought I’d see you, of all people, buying a graven image!”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t mean the same thing to me that it means to you. Praying in a Hindu temple is one thing; one can pray anywhere. But I won’t pray to this. It’s just a fanciful, mythological creature. A souvenir, not a manifestation of God.”
* * *
After a week in India, my mother had seen her fill of monuments and temples. She no longer cared where Aurangzeb’s second cousin was buried, or how Moghul observatories predicted the solstice. The questions she was asking had changed. She wanted to know where people shopped for clothes, and how middle-class families lived. Most of all, she was interested in visiting the places she knew best: schools.
On our final day in Udaipur, I cancelled a visit to an art gallery and directed our driver to the tongue-twisting Rajasthan Mahila Galeda Senior Secondary and Primary School. This was the first institution in Rajasthan to offer education to young girls.
Usha Kiran, the Vice Principal, had luxuriant graying hair, and red blessing cords tied around her wrists. “There are 1,500 girls studying in this school,” she explained, “which is funded 90% by the Indian Government.”
In America, if two foreigners wandered into an all-girls school asking to see the classrooms, there might be some complications. In India, a mother and her son are above suspicion. Mrs. Kiran instantly arranged a tour of the campus.
The grounds were spacious; big white buildings surrounded by arched porticoes, separated by gardens and playgrounds. Four teachers joined us. They proved adept at answering my mother’s questions about curriculum, testing, and further education. We ducked into the classrooms, where neat rows of desks stood beneath walls covered with the same sorts of posters, maps, and animal drawings one might find in Pasadena. The girls were immersed in their studies, but always managed to greet us with a big “Good Morning!,” or sing an approximate version of their A-B-C’s.
Mom was in her element. This experience clearly meant more to her than the sight of any marble monument. She had been floored by the Rajasthani palaces, and the bazaars of Old Delhi. But here was a place where, rather than be astonished by the exotic, she could appreciate the similarities between her world and the lives of the Indian people. It was a hinge that swung everything into place, and taught my mother what I had learned, with difficulty, nearly 30 years ago.
When the tour was over, I returned to Mrs. Kiran’s office. “Thank you so much,” I said. “This meant the world to my Mom. I know it seems strange to see a grown son traveling with his.…”
Mrs. Kiran held up her hand to silence me. “There is no need to explain,” she said. “Mother is Mother. There is no supplement.”
* * *
Our last evening in New Delhi, as I rode with my mother to the airport, I asked what she’d liked most, and least, about India.
Topping the list was the Taj Mahal, and Udaipur. For the low points, I expected her to mention the aggressive touts, the traffic, the noise and dust of Jaipur and Delhi. But her answer surprised me.
“I didn’t like taking my shoes off,” she said, “and walking barefoot on those dirty temple floors.”
But India—as centuries of invaders have discovered—transforms everyone it touches. Two months after our trip, I asked my mother how the journey had affected her. By that point, even the liabilities had become virtues.
“It’s not for everyone,” she admitted. “The heat, noise, and dust are oppressive. You have to be ready, physically and emotionally, because it impacts every sense. Sight, sound, smell, taste—even the sense of touch, because you have to take off your shoes, and be in contact with the ground. It’s such a sensual experience.”
“What about the culture?”
“It was like being in another world—but I loved it. I felt very comfortable. And I realized that no matter where I go, what clothing people wear, or what traditions they practice, we’re all human beings. We all want the same things: to enjoy our lives, live in peace, and be allowed to practice what we believe in. That opened up a whole new vista for me. There’s no doubt that India changed me. It wasn’t a vacation,” she laughed. “It was an experience.”
* * *
The other person changed by the trip, of course, was me.
India, I’d seen before. My mother kneeling in a Hindu temple, receiving a blessing from a holy man in a loincloth, not so much. By coaxing Mom out of her comfort zone, I was pulled out of mine. But the view that changed for me was not of Asia, but of what’s inside my own skin.
Looking back on the visit—on Mom’s easy rapport with strangers, and her ability to take the unexpected in stride—I had a startling realization. Since adolescence, I’d believed the wanderlust in my veins had come from my coltish, distracted father. The fact I’d become a travel writer, by this reasoning, was thanks to him.
What I suddenly discovered was that only a part of this was true. My restlessness, maybe, and my reluctance to settle, I owed to my Dad. My attraction to risk. But the ability to steep myself in other cultures, and thrive in alien environments? The sponge-like openness to experience? The wonderful gift of befriending strangers, and winning their trust? Those attributes, I saw, may have come from my other set of chromosomes.
Mother India, that rascal, had transformed me once more. She’d sneaked in another lesson, and blew my mind again.