Post 1 – Introduction (Pt 1)

Post 1 web

To Thusnelda, my friend and consort, who was with me all the way.

“To seek wisdom in another’s words is much less difficult than to find it in another’s experience.”

Sherwin Nuland, How We Die, 1997

By Way of a Beginning: and yes, it was the ‘60s, except the wrong ones; I got to India 50 years too late, idiosyncratic Australian biologist that I was, and way out of my comfort zone. I live in a subtropical rainforest, my nearest neighbour is kilometres away. My world is one of wildlife, lots of trees, and fresh stream water that you can drink without fear of a hurried journey to a hospital. For me, India was the opposite of all this, entrancing as it nevertheless was.


You know how, in the middle of the night, you stumble by chance on the lost map to El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold, purchase the winning ticket in the Irish Sweep Stakes, or by divine intervention or good timing discover that ‘must have at any price’ 1931 1 rupee New Delhi inauguration postage stamp that completes your really collectable stamp collection. And you place them all carefully below your bed in a little box, snug and safe until daylight, but in that instant of waking from joyous sleep, some filthy little maggot of a miss-shaped demon, with no compassion in its twisted soul and a hell-begotten parentage it wouldn’t care to brag about, steals them,…and they’re gone. Stolen, right down to the last speck of anything worth keeping. Not even a glimmer of Hope hiding deep down in a dark corner. Just like elf gems and dragon hoards, the stuff of dreams, gone by morning no matter how real and manifest they seemed in the realm of sleep.

And like many mornings before, mornings that extinguished dreams yet rarely expunged nightmares, I woke up. However, this time the image that I had grasped and held fervently to, did not go away, though I was not certain if it was a dream or a nightmare that confronted me. So by way of my preceding and tortuous grammar, here I am. Or more correctly, was; Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, India. In excess of 20 million passengers a year trundle in and about its halls and foyers, and they are planning for more, many more. My little airport suffers the feet of maybe 50 people on a busy day, 100 if I exaggerate, these wandering through a part-time terminal serviced by an attendant who must lock and unlock the premises twice daily so as to greet and farewell the lone aircraft of the single regional carrier. No one stands guard, and no one has too much to do.

But how did I get here? I mean, India wasn’t even on my short list of the 32 countries I’d most wanted to travel to. As a destination it was somewhere down there with some of those Central American states where tourists travel unwisely amongst the political wreckage of their uncertain history, or Afghanistan on an especially despairing weekend. It’s not that I didn’t like India, nor Central America or Central Asia for that matter. In fact, I had come to be attracted by what I had read about it. Hell, my doctor of some twenty five years standing was Indian; dashing Sikh beard, stylish turban and all. He was so adept at his profession that it is with some pride that he can lay claim to discovering I was likely born a geriatric, I didn’t have to age to the condition. What better bone fides could I give the country? If my family doctor was anything to measure the place by, then it surely was a land of wise and gifted people. It was just that India came with some seriously negative press; toilets and general sanitation being way up there on the hit list, for didn’t even the sublime Gautama Buddha fall foul of a near-lethal onslaught of dysentery. I had a stomach that grew bugs at the best of times. I didn’t need to leave Australia to encourage them. They rumbled often enough without needing to leave the continent to stir them to greater bouts of devilry, or the ejecting of deluge-like proportions of extraneous body matter in public places. Plus I had a bad habit of drinking water that you would think someone with a higher university degree would have more sense than to touch. I had already proven my level of folly and blatant stupidity many years ago in Papua New Guinea. I’d partaken of the waters, so to speak, on numerous occasions. I gulped without constraint when abstinence should have won out. The particular stream in question was crystal clear, cool to the throat and tasty to the palate, and the surrounding rainforest gave the water’s imbibing a certain romantic ambience. Except it was loaded with lime in solution, and there was at least one village upstream that used the stream for various activities, bodily ablutions not least among them. So I drank, copiously and often, and it ruined the better part of the holiday. But I survived, and though on that occasion death did not choose to take me, I was severely scarred. Time had neither healed nor concealed them, they remained bloodied and deep. There was a sense of fear about foreign water supplies that sometimes ventured to terror. I had nurtured this fear well.

I hadn’t dared travel overseas again for the best part of a half century. Beards had come and gone out of fashion several times in the intervening years, and though I possibly could favourably palm myself off as a Western sadhu-wannabe, or some other ascetic form of religious aspirant, I no longer had the benefit of youthful resilience. Bits had broken off, some had seized up, and dependence on the use of other body parts was increasingly unwise. Yet here I was, in the fabled land of victims of frenetically active gastrointestinal tracts, and where rumour had it that hot curries and extra chilli were hard pressed at times to keep endoparasites at bay. Only ‘Bali Belly’ and ‘Montezuma’s Curse’ contended for the heavyweight title of the fatal bane of the traveller. Students of zoological biogeography might wish to ponder long the almost pan-tropical circum-distribution of this complaint.

So to finally answer my question as to how I found my way to India? Well in truth it was a woman that was to blame. Two actually, and both quite young. One a daughter, and the other a daughter of someone else. They, and me, and one or several others as I recall, were in a restaurant in Sydney. One, the second of the two, said “would you like to go to India?” this invitation delivered with a nuance that would have translated in the colloquial vernacular speech of outer Sydney suburbs as “ow about it”, and an invitation that was both supported and re-emphasized by a jab in the ribs by my daughter. Old men should know better when confronted by beguiling young women. But we rarely do, and as a consequence we fall with remarkable frequency on our faces, there to suffer the butt of jibes and suppressed laughter. However, I was a poor student of commonsense, so my mouth moved before my brain and the miserly nature of my bank account kicked into gear. I said ‘yes’, and that was it. I’d made the commitment. I couldn’t go back. I was stuck at the beginning of a train of events, numerous, painful and expensive inoculations against all manner of potential diseases amongst them, that would bring me to the Indian subcontinent. I could only hope that my fellow travellers would all see the wisdom of their ways and rework the country of destination, or by evening’s and meal’s end own up to the joke. This was no dream.

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