India has a remarkable effect on the usually well-organized traveler: It bewilders, disorients, infuriates and then delights. It was in Bhubaneswar, I think, that I realized that the animals of India are as important as the people. Our guide spoke -- perhaps seriously, perhaps not -- of tigers in the jungle on the horizon. We didn't see them, but we saw almost everything else.
Looking back, as I write these words, I am assailed by such vivid memories that I long to be there for an hour, a day, a week, if not perhaps forever: For Bhubaneswar, as so much in India, was magical. Simply to gaze from one's bedroom window was excitement enough. The dogs, the frogs, the goats, the cows lapping up the overflow from the swimming pool! Exasperating and exhausting it all was at times, but it was also extraordinarily interesting and, at least retrospectively, invigorating. A land of contrasts, everyone says, and it is so.
An invitation to India, in the cold of an English winter, is irresistible. So off we went -- my husband and I -- on an ambitious British Council itinerary, to lecture on English literature in more cities than I can recall and to meet innumerable students, teachers, professors, librarians and authors. Some of it was much as I had imagined -- the animation, the poverty, the strange colors of the huge landscape at dawn, the chaos of railway stations, the bright saris in the streets -- but other aspects were more unexpected. It was in the small town of Bhubaneswar that I fully realized I was in India, in a country where life was unlike anything I had ever known.
We were in India for three weeks, rushing from place to place, usually departing at 4 o'clock in the morning, a popular time for travel there. It was at 4 o'clock that we arrived, in Bombay, and as we were driven into the city through my first hot, damp, strong-smelling Indian night, I saw my first Indian animal, which at once struck the right note of ambiguity and confusion.
Was it a pig, was it a goat? It was far too big for a pig, this vast hairy-backed creature rooting in the middle of the road; it was unidentifiable, like the animal that collides with the car in which Adela Quested is traveling in E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" -- a hyena, a buffalo or the mystery of India itself, incarnate? Readers of "A Passage to India" (which was for me as for so many an invaluable introduction to the unknown) will recall poor Adela's desire to name, to label, to identify the elements and inhabitants of the amorphous highly colored new world she had entered, and for me, as for her, the strangeness of the bird and animal population in India took on a peculiarly representative significance.
The barriers between human and nonhuman appear so completely different there from the barriers we draw in pet-loving, meat-eating Britain. Most conspicuously different in status is the cow, the sacred cow, which freely wanders the road, halting traffic in the center of Delhi, munching garbage from rubbish bins on Patna railway station, strolling in gardens sampling flowers, going for solitary walks through the countryside: revered, eccentric, placid, ubiquitous, omnivorous. The cows vary in shape and size from small creamy-fawn doe-eyed beauties to the battered old bull that lay like a monument at a crossroads in Varanasi, its ancient black back humped like a camel's, its dusty flanks showing scars from vehicles that had attempted to miss it and failed.
These animals are independent, they belong to themselves, and their omnipresence is witness to a scale of values, a pace of life vastly different from our own. And after the cows comes a vast menagerie of monkeys, mice, rats, mongooses, goats, deer, crocodiles, kingfishers, hens, piglets, gnats, horses, squirrels and vultures, all mingling with the equally heterogeneous human population in the most disarmingly informal way.
The streets of old Hyderabad are shared about equally between man and beast, as, it would appear, are many of the dwellings. The scurrying, the squeaking, the bustle are tremendous.
The only elephant I saw was helping himself to bananas from a roadside store on the outskirts of Madras: We were told he always visited the shops at 5 in the afternoon, and was well received there. He, like the cows, seemed independent.
Equally at home in the human world, though slightly more sinister, was the kite that swooped down on the remains of my Chicken Sizzler at the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta, and whipped them from under my nose. Live and let live; share and share alike. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to smile at the scurrying mouse in the lobby, the cockroach in the television, the pigeons roosting in the air conditioner. One may even, rashly, save the life of a mosquito and live to regret it in the fevers of the night.
Most self-consciously entertaining were the monkeys of Varanasi. In the bedrooms of the celebrated Clark's Hotel are notices warning guests to beware of monkeys and flying insects and to keep their windows shut. This advice was endorsed by the 70-year-old green-turbaned roomboy, a man of infinite gentleness and with a smile so mischievous-melancholy, so world-weary and yet so sweet, that one welcomed his regular half-hourly visits to inquire about laundry. It was on one of these visits that he told me of the monkeys.
"He very, very naughty," he said, smiling in ecstasy. "He come in bedroom, he open cases, he drink water, he . . . " -- and here words failed him, and he mimed the vast confusion created by monkey, who had emptied thermos flask into bedding, tipped clothes out of window, made off with hairbrushes and earrings . . . "He very, very naughty," he repeated, and then said, shaking his head with that baffling, God-like amusement, "He is two." No doubt I looked puzzled: He held up two fingers, and said again, "Two, he is two." Two monkeys, I realized he meant, two especially naughty monkeys, especially fond of roomboy's own rooms.
The loving familiarity and mild condemnation with which he spoke of these two creatures were entrancing, and when, later, they came to sit on the windowsill, I felt much honored. There they sat, separated only by a pane of glass, gazing in with an intent curiosity, as though -- well, as though I were the monkey, they the residents. I went to sit by them. One ran off, the other met my eye. Surely, surely one could speak, be spoken to? Gravely he eyed me, less gravely he eyed the thermos flask, the sponge bag, the lecture notes. Then off he whisked, with his friend, along the ledge, down the trees, onto the cars and bicycle rickshaws lined up at the front gate, to frisk and jump and swing, a source of innocent, endlessly renewed, slightly irritated mirth.
It was on an excursion from Varanasi to Sarnath that we saw the strangest animal of all. We wandered peacefully there around temples and gardens, seeing nothing more exotic than a puppy and a cageful of budgies, and congratulating ourselves on having declined a visit to the burning ghats. Then, suddenly, as we drove away from the Tibetan temple, we saw this thing by the roadside.
It lay in a crumpled heap, more like a bundle of old laundry than a living creature -- indeed, it wasn't until it lifted up its head and looked after us that we saw it was a beast at all. But what manner of beast can it have been? Its face was inexpressibly shapeless, bunched and peaked and flattened at impossible angles; its eyes were vast and mournful, its hairs were long and white. Scared it was, certainly, and sad, too: It looked out from the heart of its disorder in tragic dignity.
Had someone put it out to dry? Was it at the point of death and transmigration, its bodily form already half-transmuted? No answer, in India, would be too bathetic or too sublime. It was simply one more of India's enigmas, half-joke, half-vision, a natural product of a land where mysteries of the most everyday nature abound.