Transition period : India- 1973 to 1974
The flight to Paris was smooth . I was offered champagne and excellent food being in the first class but I was thinking of the country I just left behind perhaps never to return to again. There were many friends there and I began to reminisce about my two years there.
The country was very beautiful with majestic snowcapped mountains, green meadows and Roman ruins . The beaches were so beautiful and the water so blue and clear ,you could see the deep bottom .
But the country also had so many problems , some of them man made and others not. I began to think about the man made problems of wastefulness in agriculture and social repression of women . There was also problem of racism that was quite naked . They hated the black skinned people of the desert and sometimes refused me a hotel room thinking I was a Touareg. They also disliked children who were shooed out early in the day and were allowed in only at meal times.
I had written about the children earlier. I was amazed at their destructiveness and total lack of supervision from their parents . When I tried to show affection to these children ,they over ran me and my affection very quickly. They were not used to affection and became vengeful when I would not play with them any longer.
I knew I was never going to go back to Algeria where I spent so much time working and knowing so many people but I was not sad to leave as I was when leaving Vietnam . I looked forward to landing at Orly. The Charles de Gaulle airport was still under construction at Roissy.
At Orly the first thing to do was to ship my stereo equipment to Delhi so I grabbed a push cart and took the big box to the cargo section of the Swiss Air . Having completed the formalities, I took the metro to the place where Catherine lived.
Catherine and I had gotten along splendidly since we met in Ghardaiia so it was a joyous reunion of sorts. She was very happy to receive the Beni Yenni silver jewelry I bought for her. Beni Yenni is a village in the Djurdjura mountains near Tizi Ouzou where they make very unique and nice silver jewelry studded with coral or lapis lazuli .
She took it upon herself to show me Paris the way only she could show like taking me to Les Halles where Sorbonne students hung around or to the FNAC record shop where I picked up a Jean Ferrat LP . We met many of her friends at the Halles in the smoke filled place where they all smoked the stinky Gauloise or Gitanes . I do not know why the French can not produce good quality cigarettes .
The French also liked to kiss each other’s cheek a lot. Once I saw a girl who was obviously going away somewhere and her 20 or so friends stood in line to see her off. Kissing each one three times took a while I watched from a distance quite fascinated at this aspect of the French culture.
However, the Sorbonne students were a bit more liberated and often just shook hands and offered their foul smelling cigarettes. I had to sometimes buy Gitanes or Gauloise for Catherine. She one day brought me to her mother who lived alone with a cat as company in a Paris suburb .She was happy to finally meet a Hindou and learned that Indira was not the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi. I had to explain to many that to call Indians Hindou was wrong because not all Indians were Hindous but the French are stubborn people and can not be corrected.
Catherine was a sweet girl who had traveled over land to India from Europe which must have been quite an adventure. We had some good time together in Algeria and in Paris but my time in Paris was very short so one day I said au revoir but I doubted very much if I would ever see her again . She wrote to me once in India but would soon join the list of lost friends . I do not know what happened to her .
I still had over six months before going to the Philippines so I decided to spend it in Sri Ram Pur. At this time Nirmal was expecting me to start the construction of the second floor of the house for which he had gathered materials and gotten the building plan approved. My plan was to build the upper floor for rent which would give my mother a lifelong source of income because I could not send her money regularly.
Nirmal was busy with his office work so it was very convenient that I had some time on my hand to take care of this important work. The construction of a house is a messy job and required someone to always look for cement and other materials .I was glad to help and gave Nirmal many new ideas which were then incorporated into the plan . It was hard work to look for cement, logs, bricks, iron bars and many other things but soon the walls started coming up and the masons started the preparation for the roof .It became a massive undertaking to the wonder of many onlookers .
During this time I got to know my sister in law Sabita little better. Her baby was small and she was not too busy with her household chores so we often talked. She said that she had a rough time adjusting to the family because Bengalis were a fault finding lot but now she was doing better.
I gave her a silver necklace from Beni Yenni but she ignored it and left it here and there like a cheap trinket. Indian women do not appreciate anything that is not gold . I was learning a great deal about the likes and dislikes of Indian women which had a great deal to do the way they are brought up and led to believe in certain things . Art for the sake of art had no value for them.
My mother was very helpful at this time and gave me many ideas regarding the construction and spent hours sewing up yards of curtains to be hung in the new rooms. My time in India was well spent and the house completed in six month’s time although Nirmal would continue improving it for many years to come. A new tenant soon occupied the ground floor .
So I prepared to leave for Thailand where I would spend a month before arriving in Manila but soon received a cable from Stephanie who wanted me to go to Bangladesh to see a fellow who was being considered for the post in Algeria that I had just left. There is nothing remarkable about the trip to Dacca and Comilla although I did get to see the flat featureless farmland of rural areas when I went to Comilla riding a motorbike. AIso I met the gentleman and later found him unsuitable for the job in Algeria.
Now I was ready for some free time in Thailand . My vacation in Thailand began with Bangkok where I spent many leisurely days looking at various wats , pagodas and Imperial palaces. Often I just sat near the Chao Phraya river and watched the incessant river traffic. One could sit there all day and not feel bored. The Thais used the river as the main highway and brought their farm produce like fruits and vegetables, flowers and lot more on small boats . One could buy anything from one boat to another so it was quite lively. Near the river the huge market sold food and drinks.
I tried unsuccessfully to look for Wiriya , a gentle Thai girl I had met long ago in Bangkok but the phone numbers had been changed . Soon I got to the Atlantic hotel which was a favorite of people living on a budget .It was a lot better than the hotels near the railway stations where the prostitutes sat on the stairs or knocked on your doors and gave no peace of mind.
Here in the Atlantic hotel the atmosphere was more polished and the residents more international. The joke at the Atlantic hotel was that one could not drown in their swimming pool because it was like Dead sea, so full it was of chlorine but on the whole the hotel was a lively place where you met many young people from all over the world. I also tried to look for my friend Hubert who I heard was somewhere in Thailand but I could not find him. Bangkok was also the right place to apply for a visa to enter the Philippines so one day I found the consulate to complete the formalities.
The Philippines consulate people were friendly and said that the IRRI scholarship letter was enough to grant me a resident visa but they needed a complete medical check up and suggested the Camillean hospital nearby. The Camillean hospital nurses were very efficient and gave me a thorough check up right away and the results the very next day.
Having obtained the visa, I was now free to go to Chiang Mai .It is a long overnight bus ride but the buses in Thailand were good and comfortable. Chiang Mai is well known as the center for art and handicraft specially silk weaving and carved furniture making. I also saw an artist make beautiful paintings by colored sand. He first brushed some glue on paper and then sprinkled colored sand on it to develop a painting. It was very unique and I had never seen anything like it.
Chiang Mai was also known for its jade trade. The most valuable jade came over on mule train from Burma and sold to Hong Kong traders here . There are some of the most notable wats of Thailand here as well. There was a great deal of silverware here in Chiang Mai. They sold embossed silver lighters and many such things by the roadside.
The YMCA was located in a quiet neighborhood where you could stay for only a dollar a day and the Thai food was delicious and cheap. In the restaurants I overheard some people talking about a trekking trip up north so I signed up. I wanted to see how the mountain people lived in the north .The Thai guide knew the hills and trekking routes very well so soon we made a group of 12 or 13 people mostly Americans and Australians and one Indian.
After taking a long bus ride and then a long motorboat ride on a mountain river , we arrived at a point from where we started uphill trekking for many hours to reach an isolated tribal village . Here the women were bare breasted and men smoked foul smelling tobacco in their home made pipes. Some smoked opium as well judging from the smell. Women wore interesting jewelry made mostly of silver coins .Men worked on primitive looms to make very colorful strips of clothes.
We spent the night in their bamboo hut and ate some gruel they prepared for us .The wood fire burning in the middle of their long house filled the room with acrid smoke that stung the eyes but also kept the mosquitoes away. I took some slides that turned out very nicely but life for these people in these remote hills was harsh to say the least. There were very far from medical facilities or schools or any road here . People although colorful, looked undernourished and lived a hard life.
Men and women in our group mostly Americans and Australians stripped naked to bathe in the mountain streams in plain view of the natives who were more modest but the foreigners showed a lack in sensitivity to locals and their culture. They splashed in the murky waters oblivious to their stares.
Then we trekked some more up the hills to the northern part of Thailand that were the abode of drug traffickers. This was the part of the golden triangle where most of the poppy was grown and opium made out of .It was also a dangerous territory where gun toting soldiers were seen lounging under the trees. I had no idea why the guide brought us there but I was glad to move on. Often we had to get off the boat and push it through shoals or take a short cut through the jungle to catch up with the boat downstream.
In one of the stops by the riverside, one Australian disappeared into the village. We found him soon enough in an opium den where he was lying senseless .There were opium dens in all these villages where scores of people smoked the drug and slept on the dirt oblivious to their misery.
It was very shocking to see such degradation of human beings. We had to drag the Aussie back to the boat somehow . The effect of opium on the locals was devastating. Their hollow cheeks and emaciated bodies told volumes about the misery the drug was causing but opium was cheap here and the future bleak. It was a powerful combination .
I knew of the drug problem in Vietnam where thousands of American soldiers took the drug . Hashhish, marijuana, opium ,one could find them all in Vietnam where the supply was brought in from neighboring countries and even sent to the United States . The Orient Express was not a train but a supply chain that brought drugs to the United States during the war.
In Thailand these people were destroying themselves and no one seemed to care. I am sure some Thai Farmers made some money by growing poppies that produced opium but they also ran the risk of getting arrested or hurt. The opium lords were the ones making money by exporting it to other countries. The drug problem was very serious here to say the least.
We returned after a long journey to Chiang Rai and to Fang. I had never trekked in my life but I learned a lot about the mountain people during this arduous journey but the sore muscles and mosquito bites were the price to pay . I was happy to return to Chiang Mai .
I went to see the silk factories outside the town where young women were dyeing the silk in bright colors and some were weaving the silk in simple looms. The factory was small where mostly women worked. It was interesting to watch them wind silk threads onto spools and do other chores. The quality was not as good as that of Indian silk but it was silk just the same and the colors were really very nice. I bought some silk shirts although I do not wear costly shirts as a rule.
The wood carvers I saw on the roadside shops were very young girls who were deftly carving flowers and leaves on hard wood .Some were making paper umbrellas while others painting flowers and other designs on them.
I remember going up the hill to see a famous wat in Chiang Mai but the name escapes me .There are many such wats in the area. But the most ornate ones are in Bangkok . The reclining emerald Buddha of Bangkok is really astonishing . Most Thais are Buddhist and many wear jade miniature Buddhas around their neck .They paste gold leafs on sacred shrines and Thai children are often seen in the saffron robe of monks .By nature Thais are very gentle and sweet. I remember how a very sweet Thai girl in Bangkok once showed me the sites voluntarily .
But the Ashok pillar and the four lions that is the symbol of modern India could also be seen in Chiang Mai reminding you that Thais were Hindus long before they became Buddhist. In fact , their capital was called Ayuthaya and their King Ram after the Hindu God Ram and his capital of Ayodhya in India. Now Ayuthaya is in ruins but a major tourist attraction .
Emperor Ashok as the history tells you, was remorseful after the battle of Kalinga where he won but saw the Kalinga people annihilated. He then vowed to renounce violence forever and spread the words of Buddha around the world. His daughter princess Sanghamitra was then sent to many countries to bring the words of peace and love that are the basic tenets of Buddha’s teachings . Thus Buddhism spread to Burma ,Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, China, Japan, Korea ,Indonesia and many other countries.
I had seen in Vietnam what human hand could destroy but here in Thailand I could see what they could create .Thai architecture is unique, their temples ornate ,their handicraft superb and their country is blessed with natural beauty . Of course the Vietnamese could also be very creative given half the chance but no one gave them the chance yet.
I remember the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh that was so ornate and beautiful where the silent monks showed you around the premises. Later that beautiful temple was damaged in the war .It is hard to understand why anyone would destroy a peaceful and beautiful place of worship but such things happened.
The Australian girl from New South Wales whom I had met in Chiang Mai was also staying in the Atlantic Hotel in Bangkok which was a nice surprise. I think it was she who was surprised when I treated her with dinner and movie called “The sting” on her birthday . But nice people came into my life and disappeared without a trace all the time.
My next stop was Hong Kong before reaching Manila. I will just briefly mention that Hong Kong is always fun and a good place to visit . I went to see my old friend Kam Fat in Sheung Shui who drove a taxi there and had once invited me to his place for a superb Chinese dinner. I took the boat to Macau but the officials there did not allow me to disembark so I returned to Hong Kong in the same boat full of Chinese people playing Mahjong . I still do not understand why they have to bang the table with mahjong so hard . Nevertheless ,it is a popular game among the Chinese.
The Chinese were a noisy people no matter what they did. Sometimes it would appear as if they were fighting but then they would smile through their gold teeth to completely throw you off. They also appeared to sit in their underclothes or perhaps their clothes looked like underclothes to me because I was so ignorant of their culture.
But among them one could find the most generous and friendly person one could meet anywhere. A simple taxi driver would befriend me and invite me to his home for dinner is an example .This world is full of surprises. I had accidentally met many such delightful people in my life and cherished their friendship. Most people visiting Hong Kong would never get to meet the common and good people there because they think there is nothing there but shopping but I was always more interested in people and not shops.
I always welcomed an opportunity to get to know the people and how they lived. This gave me the feel for the country as nothing else could because no one could educate you more than the Kam Fats in any country .
There were many Indians in Hong Kong but I was not interested in meeting them. I stayed away from them because I had a few bad experiences with the expat Indians. I remember once I was approached by an Indian at the Manila airport who wanted a favor. He said that it was very important that I bring a package to Hong Kong .I did not know what was in the package but I took it innocently. A stern looking Sikh came and picked it up without even saying Thank you which seemed odd .
When I mentioned this to some American friends , they were surprised and said I was very naive indeed to accept a package from a stranger .Had there been drugs or other contraband inside that package, I would have been thrown in jail for life unable to prove my innocence . I was very scared and did not understand why would anyone try to harm me this way .
Of course it was always easy to harm an unknown person than a friend but it took me sometime to realize that there were many bad people in this world and some of the worst characters came from your own country who took advantage of your trust in them .
Nirmal was also a victim of such people once when his quick thinking wife saved him from disaster. A fellow came to the house claiming that he was my friend in Nigeria and wanted Nirmal to keep a package for the time being . His wife Sabita got suspicious when she heard the word Nigeria because she knew that I had never been to Nigeria and said Nirmal should not accept the package.. Soon afterwards some plainclothes policemen appeared and asked if Nirmal knew this fellow .
They said that this fellow was a known drug trafficker and they were tailing him from Bombay to catch him red handed . It was a close call. So I learned my lessons and vowed not to trust foreigners implicitly and specially Indians. Many Indians tried illegal means to get a toe hold in a foreign country and were not afraid to do so. If they were caught and deported then they tried again somewhere else . It is the same as the Mexicans trying hard to enter the United States .
Such Indians were many and often dealt in loan sharking, black marketing and such to establish themselves .The locals disliked them and thought all Indians were like them which is unfortunate because such people tended to discredit their countrymen by their behavior.
No matter where you went ,people told you that they had heard of great poverty and misery in India . Why else they would come in such numbers and look for opportunities elsewhere ? They heard that millions of cows roamed the streets and poor people slept on the sidewalks in India. Part of it is true but India was not a starving country at all and was self sufficient in food production. It even exported food to other countries.
It was a giant in industrial production and emerging as a leader in technology in many fields with tremendous growth in the GDP but the image of India in the minds of common and ignorant people was negative thanks to western news media that harped on the negative and rarely on the positive side of any country . India was no exception but this would change later . At an annual growth rate of nearly 10%, the Indian economy was the fastest in Asia . The middle class counted in hundreds of millions and growing . But I am writing about 1974 when ignorance about India was widespread and most Indians did not know anything about others.
Most people did not travel and lived within the narrow confines of ordinary lives .Within India , people did not know about how other people lived in other parts. I tried to share my experience with them but they showed little curiosity about other countries or people. They were not interested. They were only interested in themselves and their photos . A slide show on Japan or Algeria was boring to them but they showed great joy when their photos appeared .
People in India lived in isolation and cared little about the outside world. This has not changed a bit in 40 years since I left although the CNN and BBC comes to every home through cable TV now. My family was no exception . They bragged endlessly about how great India was and her independence from foreign domination. Often the most important question of the day was what to cook.
I felt alienated and kept quiet . My desire to share my experience with photos ,slides or other means slowly declined . The topic of weather or food did not take more than a few minutes so my family remained ignorant .I could often talk to my German friend from Hamburg for hours but at home silence prevailed .
I slowly began to understand another dimension to it. I felt that people who isolated themselves knowingly or unknowingly felt threatened when they encountered something alien like information, photos, music or anything that they identified as not their own .This defensive attitude was automatic and without reason so no one could argue with them. The sense of ethnocentrism was very very strong indeed.
Now the time had come to leave Hong Kong and move on so on a nice sunny day in July of 1974 I arrived in Manila . This visit to the Philippines was going to be like no other I ever made and very profound changes were about to take place in my life that I was not even aware of.
Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography: