Thursday, March 3, 2016

India 1990 "What I did on my winter vacation" (seeing a tiger)

[This story was published in the August 1990 issue of "Open Entry" a University of Virginia Library Staff News bulletin, v. 19 #6 p. 41-46]

    I went to India on my winter vacation. It was fun, and work. Two years ago (1988) I applied to the American Institute of Indian Studies for a short term research grant. Last August (1989) the AIIS approved my project. The grant included all expenses for travel to and from India, plus living, travel, and research expenses in India for four months, from early December through late March (1990). An all-expenses-paid working vacation; a dream come true! The whole journey, like most, took on a life and personality of its own - the planned trips and the surprises, the expected and unexpected, the high points as well as the lows.

    My research project had two goals - to supplement my earlier research and writing about the impact of British rule on central Indian communities during the 19th and 20th centuries, and to conduct a survey of the types of historical documents at national, state, and local archives. I was in westernized and cosmopolitan Delhi for two weeks at the first and at the end of my trip, with short week-long visits back for recuperation in mid-January and mid-February. The rest of the time was spent traveling and doing research in Madhya (middle) Pradesh (state) at the state archives in Bhopal (of Union Carbide un-fame) and Nagpur (Snake Town), and then at four local district (India's counties) archives. Madhya Pradesh is geographically somewhat similar to a U.S. state - if you'd combine West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio with ancient, low, worn-down hills between expansive river valleys. In Madhya Pradesh it's the Satpura hills instead of the Appalachians, and the river valleys are the Narbada in the north and the Maha (great) nadi (river) basin in the south-east. In between, in the forested hills, live India's "hillbillies" - some of its tribal population, whom the river-valley farmers joke about and poke fun at.

     Two of my four selected districts were up in the wheat-producing Narbada valley - the bustling commercial and industrial town of Jabalpur, and the sleepy town of Hoshangabad, right on the banks of the wide Narbada. In the Mahanadi basin was Raipur, not too far from the huge Russian-built steel mills. For a hill district I selected Balaghat.

     My efforts at research and survey in local archives got very mixed responses. Bureaucrats at both Jabalpur and Hoshangabad were luke-warm to my searches for documents and sources. Raipur was the worst, with officials sending me from one office to another. Often I had to wait for hours for them to see me. I finally located rooms and rooms filled with documents, maps, and local records, but I was prohibited from looking at any of them. My official guide claimed the records were all confidential, and the official who might give permission was perpetually too busy, at least during my time there. (Continued on next page - page 44)

     Raipur's frustrations were offset by Balaghat's friendly District Commissioner. The Big Man had me over to his house for supper one evening. (He got me to smoke one of the few cigarettes I've had since I quit last August under a U.Va. health program.) He also opened up the district's archives for me on a national holiday (the spring festival of Holi, sort of a Mardi Gras). It meant four clerks (and their families) suddenly had to change holiday plans and work for me. He also made a jeep available to me one afternoon. His assistant, the driver, and I drove back up into the hills in search of the village of the Baigas, a tribal group I had studied. We found a small Baiga village, and had a wonderful hour with them while they showed us how they lived, cooked, etc., and kidded around in front of my camera. [See photos of the Baiga village - click here]

     Besides all the hard work at the various archives, there were side trips and lots and lots of travel. At Jabalpur I took a boat trip through a beautiful mile-long gorge, which the Narbada river had formed through white rock over thousands of years. The British named it "Marble Rocks;" the Indians call the falls at the head of the gorge the "Falling Mists." Some distance from Hoshangabad I watched farmers bringing loads of just-picked cotton into the gin on oxcarts or trailers pulled by their new tractors, and the manager of a ginning mill showed me how they unloaded, weighed, ginned, and baled the cotton. I also visited an abandoned 15th century "motel complex"; a set of travelers' rooms around a well in a courtyard, built as an act of public service and charity by the local ruler long ago. I visited the British built hill-town of Pachmarhi, with its very British architecture and church, and its many beautiful falls and cooling pools. From the highest peak of the Satpura hills, I watched the beautiful sunset with other Indian tourists. I never made it to Agra and the Taj or to Benaras (I had done that route before) but I did get to Khajuraho for the first time. This small town caters to western tourists, and more recently to Japanese tourists as well. The walls of the several temples, built in the 10th century, are carved and sculptured with hundreds of erotic statues - voluptuous women putting on make-up or dancing, and couples in many different positions of embraces depicting the text of the Kama Sutra. By the way, the beer was more expensive at that tourist trap than elsewhere in India (Rupees 30 or about $1.75 a pint in the ABC shop).

     Probably the high point of my side trips, however, was going to the game preserve, the Kanha-Kissli Park, on New Year's Eve. It was there I saw a tiger. I joined two families of Swedes in jeeps early on New Year's Day, and saw many different kinds of deer, birds, and even wild buffalo (these look like water buffalo).
Elephant ride
Riding an elephant - looking for tigers

      Finally after waiting for about two hours, we received word around noon that a tigress had been spotted, and we waited a little longer until it was our group's turn to drive to the area, climb up on an elephant with three others and the mahaut (driver) and ride, rocking back and forth, the quarter mile in to see Ms. Tiger taking an afternoon nap in the cool shade of some trees. Our guide said the elephant's scent overpowers the human odors, so the tigers are unaware of any human threat. It was amazing, and indescribably breath-taking - the size, colors, power, beauty of the animal! Wow! (Some of you at Alderman may have seen one of my photos of the tigress which I sent to Garth.)

Tiger resting in the afternoon shade    

    Kanha Park has become a center of controversy in the past months. A group of communist extremists (called Naxalites) have encouraged the local tribal population to reclaim their land, which was taken away from them by the government to form the Park in the 1950s. There have been many fires in the Park recently, and forest guards have been stripped and humiliated by some tribals.  The tribals may be reviving their agricultural system of slash and burn. Not too unlike the conflict of the spotted owl vs. the loggers in the American northwest, this conflict may be between space for tigers to live vs. land for tribals to live and grow food.

     As I said, I did lots of traveling, and one trip could be considered the low point of my journey. I traveled by all sorts of vehicles - the taxi three-wheel rickshaw scooters in Delhi, cycle rickshaws in other towns, also taxis, buses, trains, and planes. At one point, I tried to rent a bike to ride around Jabalpur, but got completely frustrated - the young bike shop employee wouldn't rent a bike to me because he didn't know me, but he finally agreed to rent me a bike if I gave him a deposit equal to the price of a new bike. Then I didn't trust him! I was afraid that he'd run off with my money, since he didn't know how to write and wouldn't provide me with a receipt. I also had much fun traveling on a narrow gauge train up and down the Satpura hills a couple of times. But the low point - oh, yes. I planned to fly from Jabalpur to Raipur one Monday at noon, and took a taxi the twenty miles out to the airport. The flight was delayed by an hour, even though they had shooed all the cows off the Jabalpur runway. Then it was announced that the flight was cancelled for the day; maybe it would come the next day. Well, I still had to get to Raipur, and I finally arranged for a front seat on a new private bus; overnight for eight hours from Jabalpur to Raipur up, over, and down the Satpura hills. The bus left on time at 9 P.M. packed with forty-five people; in a half-hour the inside lights were out and we all began dosing (except the driver), bumping along shoulder to shoulder in our seats. Suddenly, at about 11:30, we woke up. I looked up at the huge front windows which looked like an enormous TV screen. In slow motion the dirt road was going from side to side in the headlights as the speeding bus careened down the winding, mountain road. We screamed (in our various languages) for the driver to put on the brakes, but he had lost complete control. Collectively we all went "ahhh!" as the bus headed for the cliff, and then another "ahhh!" as it headed for the mountainside, and then a long "ahhhh!" and even a sort of "wheeei" (as if we were on a roller-coaster) as we headed for the cliff. The bus SLAMMED through the two foot retaining rock wall, went airborn, SMASHED through the trunk of one huge tree which hit dead center on the front window's dividing post, and then BANG into a second tree. For a split second we hung motionless, until WHAM the bus dropped to the hillside and then KERPLUNK it rolled over onto its side and onto the only exit door. There now was a collective moan, followed soon by screams and yells - I had fallen on top of others as others fell on me, and we lay in a clump for a moment. Then everyone pushed and shoved and scrambled to the front of the bus, as we smelled leaking fuel. Somehow, miraculously (because we were so packed together?), we all survived, and no one was very seriously injured. We walked back up to the road and sat down to collect our thoughts and emotions, and check ourselves. We then waited about another hour on the lonely moonlit road, until luckily a State Transport bus came, and we hopped in even though it was packed. It also was going to Raipur, and I was lucky to get a seat on the back bench at the next town when some people got off. I think I was even able to doze some between bad bumps - when all of us together were lifted off the bench and then rudely slammed down again. Raipur at least had one fairly modern hotel. I checked into it at 9 A.M. after having the rickshaw driver stop at the government's English Wine Shop to buy some beer. I don't think I ever had a nicer warm shower and beer. Then I fell exhausted into bed.

     Well, I still haven't told you about some wonderful Indian meals and food; my trip back to my high school in the Himalayas; my failed speech at the State Political Science Association (Continued on next page - page 46) Conference at a women's college with a large audience of beautiful Indian women; my getting a three-Red-Salutes greeting from comrades at a meeting of Jabalpur's communist workers union; or my ensuring that I was doing research in Nagpur on the 24th of February for my 49th birthday at my birthplace. (Why didn't I plan better and make it there on my 50th? Well, maybe I'll get there on my 100th!) Anyway, perhaps those and other stories are for some other times.

     That's some of what I did on my working winter vacation. It was fun. It was even fun getting to India and back, going through London on the way and Paris on return. I visited Cambridge University for the first time, and renewed an acquaintance with an "old" (from 15 years back) girlfriend, now married, on the way to India. At least her weekly letters almost kept me sane during my solitary journeys in India during those four months. My daughter, Julie, guided me around Paris for five days, as I knew no French and she was studying it in Lyon. One street crepe lady complimented Julie and me as a wonderful couple, and even after we explained we were father and daughter she seemed to say, "Oh sure! But you still make a nice couple," (or its equivalent in French). Though I had a PanAm ticket back to Dulles on April 1, the airline rescheduled all flights and flew none that Sunday, frightened about their ability to handle bomb threat crank calls.

     Arriving in Charlottesville the evening of April 2nd, I was greeted by new life, and a new role for me which I still don't want to deal with-there were my twin grandsons, born a month earlier, and I was a new grandfather. I am hopeful that the fun of life is not over yet, even though I'm back from my exciting journey to India and am trying to catch up with my backlog at Alderman Library.

[by Philip McEldowney, August 1990 in "Open Entry" University of Virginia Library Staff News, v. 19 #6 p. 41-46]

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