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TRAVELING IN STYLE | LAST STOP

Passage To India

A Maelstrom of Sights and Sounds Greeted a Future Nobel Laureate in Bombay. He Never Forget It.

March 16, 1997|OCTAVIO PAZ | Octavio Paz is the literary patriarch of Mexico and one of its most trenchant social critics

We arrived in Bombay on an early morning in November 1951. I remember the intensity of the light despite the early hour, and my impatience at the sluggishness with which the boat crossed the quiet bay. An enormous mass of liquid mercury, barely undulating; vague hills in the distance; flocks of birds; a pale sky and scraps of pink clouds. As the boat moved forward, the excitement of the passengers grew. Little by little the white-and-blue architecture of the city sprouted up, a stream of smoke from a chimney, the ocher and green stains of a distant garden. An arch of stone appeared, planted on a dock and crowned with four little towers in the shape of pine trees. Someone leaning on the railing beside me exclaimed, "The Gateway of India!" He was an Englishman, a geologist bound for Calcutta. We had met two days before, and I had discovered that he was W. H. Auden's brother. He explained that the arch was a monument erected to commemorate the visit of King George II and his wife, Queen Mary, in 1911. Later I learned it was inspired by an architectural style that had flourished in Gujarat, an Indian state, in the 16th century.

Behind the monument, floating in the warm air, was the silhouette of the Taj Mahal Hotel, a delirium of the findesiecle Orient fallen like a gigantic bubble, not of soap but of stone, on Bombay's lap. I rubbed my eyes: was the hotel getting closer or farther away? Auden explained to me that the hotel's strange appearance was due to a mistake: the builders could not read the plans that the architect had sent from Paris, and they built it backward, its front facing the city, its back turned to the sea. The mistake seemed to me a deliberate one that revealed an unconscious negation of Europe. A symbolic gesture, much like that of Cortes burning the boats so that his men could not leave. How often have we experienced similar temptations?

Once on land, surrounded by crowds shouting at us in English and various languages, we walked along the filthy dock and entered the ramshackle customs building, an enormous shed. The heat was unbearable and the chaos indescribable. I found, not easily, my few pieces of luggage, and subjected myself to a tedious interrogation by a customs official. Free at last, I left the building and found myself in the middle of an uproar of porters, guides and drivers. I managed to find a taxi, and it took me on a crazed drive to my hotel, the Taj Mahal.

A bellboy in a turban and an immaculate white jacket took me to my room. I put my things in the closet, bathed quickly and put on a white shirt. I ran down the stairs and plunged into the streets. There, awaiting me, was an unimagined reality:

waves of heat; huge gray and red buildings, a Victorian London growing among palm trees and banyans like a recurrent nightmare, leprous walls, wide and beautiful avenues, huge unfamiliar trees, stinking alleyways,

torrents of cars, people coming and going, skeletal cows with no owners, beggars, creaking carts drawn by enervated oxen, rivers of bicycles,

a survivor of the British Raj, in a meticulous and threadbare white suit, with a black umbrella.

another beggar, four half-naked would-be saints daubed with paint, red betel stains on the sidewalk,

turning the corner, the apparition of a girl like a half-opened flower,

gusts of stench, decomposing matter, whiffs of pure and fresh perfumes,

stalls selling coconuts and slices of pineapple, ragged vagrants with no job and no luck, a gang of adolescents like an escaping herd of deer,

women in red, blue, yellow, deliriously colored saris, some solar, some nocturnal,

a banyan, image of the rain as the cactus is the emblem of aridity, and, leaning against a wall, a stone daubed with red paint, at its feet a few faded flowers: the silhouette of the monkey god,

the laughter of a young girl, slender as a lily stalk, a leper sitting under the statue of an eminent Parsi,

in the doorway of a shack, watching everyone with indifference, an old man with a noble face,

the gold and black grillwork of a luxurious villa with a contemptuous inscription: EASY MONEY; more grilles even more luxurious, which allowed a glimpse of an exuberant garden; on the door, an inscription in gold on the black marble,

in the violently blue sky, in zigzags or in circles, the flights of seagulls or vultures, crows, crows, crows. . .

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