We felt its pull an ocean away. Several oceans, actually. India’s guttural tugs started way back—back in the days of our stint working with the international students at our hometown university.
Those were the days of barbecues smoldering late into the nights, of the jangling languages clanging room to room, of the music some would shout along to and some would shake their heads and smile. The days of curries and burritos and stir-fries mingling together around a common table of plastic dishes and too-few forks, and of friendships that knew no time zones.
The world’s youth gathered at worn kitchen tables in worn-out apartments inhabited by far too many students to be safe or hygienic. But we gathered, and we laughed, and we postponed till tomorrow what could be postponed. And plenty that could not. Through all the chuckles and tears and songs in all the languages and all the tastes and tales and teas, it was always the mystery and the color and the volume of India that called us.
Other lands we’d seen, we’d known—we’d at least touched our toes in the current of their cultures. But India—well, here was something new, something removed, something that seemed walled off in a section of the word all its own. India was flavors so strong they rattle your teeth loose and colors so bright they put jungles to shame and chai so abundant it might drown a flock of elephants. India seemed so much like so many crowds and so much noise, such madness and such poverty sprawling through tiny streets and ancient alleys, such gory temples and such glimmering palaces— all in all, the broad, dusty plains and lush, hungry forests of humanity’s subconscious piled into a giant diamond spiked down from the Himalayas into its churning gulf of ocean. Yet somehow, perhaps somehow, India made sense.
We saw that much from a distance.
And we needed to see it up close.
We tried it two Decembers ago. We found ourselves with the semester spooling down and the exams piling up and the planning under-done and the funding somewhat shaking and the visas still not requested. We wanted to, but thought the wiser and backed out. “Next year,” we consoled each other. “Next December we’re stepping into India.”
We thought we knew what we were getting into.
India has been called a rite of passage for the backpacker. It’s been the joy and the shame and the scourge and the bliss of travelers hardy enough to brave its crooked streets and blasting horns and steaming rotis and glistening palaces. It’s broken more than few into desperate tears and belly-blasting humility, and it’s been the bright point in the entire lifespan of others.
India is chaos to the outsider and a maze to the insider; it’s poverty and it’s glory and it’s history and it’s dignity lifting its head about the creeping decay of the centuries.
Nowhere in the world, perhaps, were the colonial machinations stronger. Nowhere, perhaps, do the scars of colonialism run so deep and still seep discord. (Well, no—on second thought, there’s always South Africa.)
For the traveler, India is a high-stakes roll of the dice: joy or despair—or more likely buckets full of both—await. For us, India symbolized not just a long longed-for travel, but three weeks to pit ourselves and our backpacks and our Canon against the juggernaut of travel.
We thought we were ready, and we carefully drew up the itinerary—a Google Map with pinpoints carefully dropped in the swirling streets of Delhi, in the ancient wonder of Punjab’s Amritsar, in the icy heights of Kashmir, in the dust and the gold of Rajasthan’s Jaipur and Jodhpur and Udaipur, and of course, in the majestic Agra.
Three weeks in nine blood-red drops on the screen.
“Ready to save?”
Andy nodded. I turned back to the laptop, and I clicked in a title: Operation Pav Baji.
That brought us a little grin, naming our epic journey after a Mumbai snack of our old college pals.
“It’s only a corner,” Andy sighed, “only a little corner of India up there in the north. We’ll have to come back for the south another time.”
I nodded slowly. It was true: vast tracts of the subcontinent spread wide, wide beyond the tiny red blips of our plans.
Only three. Three weeks of Operation Pav Baji. We printed our flight confirmations, and copied our passports, and fidgeted.
India was about to happen.
During Operation Pav Baji, all the following happened:
We were barred from our hotel due to ethnic protests, and we gaped in wonder at panoramas we never thought possible. We froze in unheated alpine rooms, walked barefoot over freezing marble in wet feet, and wolfed plate after plate of sizzling street food.
We may have ruined one man’s livelihood, and we befriended a family to the point that, when terrorists struck Jakarta, it was this lady who first called to make sure we were OK.
We haggled over prices for more than six hours straight, savored chai after chai after chai, and glutted ourselves in lava curries bursting with generations of flavors. We got in a shouting match with a tuk-tuk driver at midnight over a one-dollar difference in fare.
We checked item after item off our bucket list, and shamelessly dozed in hotel lobbies when we couldn’t find a room. We riled a crowd of monks for refusing to toss a flower into a sacred lake. We threw rocks at sacred monkeys. We ran out of gigabytes on our memory cards.
We uncovered the underbelly of tourist scams and signed a car rental deal with Lucifer and demanded old men stop smoking hash on a public bus.
At one point, I gazed in awe, saying, “I cannot believe mankind is capable of this.”
At another, I shook my head, saying, “I cannot believe mankind in capable of this.”
Andy has more than once reminded me that in India, I once uttered, “I think I’m losing my faith in humanity.”
Operation Pav Baji concluded more than nine months ago. Only now—now, after so much time to reflect—do I attempt to write it out. Hang on, everyone. Here comes India.