Zerky at the Temples of Khajuraho

December 27, 1967
Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Dear Zerky, Khajuraho is where all the dirty statues are. In the United States, you can sometimes find pictures of them in expensive editions of the Kama Sutra. The temples at Khajuraho—all twenty-two of them—are a veritable cornucopia of perversions. Couples, triples, quadruples and more are depicted in countless acts of, as your mother so delicately puts it, “fondling, feeding and fucking.” One’s eyes ache after an hour of trying to disentangle all the limbs in the course of trying to figure out who is doing what to whom. The Temples of Khajuraho have been designated a national monument.

Zerky at Khajuraho

Zerky at Khajuraho

The Public Works Department bungalows we are currently staying in typically have a fenced-off section where the caretakers will often allow us to park for the night and make use of “the sanitary facilities.” Always after a day of having been surrounded by crowds, we crave privacy. Were it were not for these little bungalows, I don’t know where we would stay at night. This network of DAK bungalows was originally built by the British to house their traveling administrators. Those European conquerors had an unusual problem on their hands because of their pasty white skins. There was a certain logic behind putting the British up at the top of the caste system. Caste is a very complicated thing that your mother and I don’t pretend to understand. It has become apparent to us however that caste tends to fall along skin color lines. Along with the benefits that typically accrue to lighter-skinned Indians, who tend to be further up on the social and economic scale, there are also attendant obligations and restrictions. Certain actions are forbidden to higher caste Indians because they are seen as being “unclean.” For example, having a relationships with lower caste people is one of those unclean things. So if you were a British administrator back in the good old days when Britannia ruled the waves and you were traveling around this vast country in order to let people know who was in charge, caste restrictions would have posed a problem for you. Where were you going to stay at night when you were showing the flag in a place where there were no hotels? Going native with lower caste villagers was not an option because making yourself dependent on people below you would undermine your authority.

This Public Works Department Inspection Bungalow-Circuit House-Rest House network was the answer because it allowed the British, and later on their high-caste Indian cohorts, to travel throughout the Indian countryside without losing face as the result of having staid with people of a lower caste. But when Great Britain lost its empire and India became independent at the end of World War II, the new Indian administrators knew better how to swim in this complicated social quagmire than had the British. Accordingly, there was less need for the far-flung bungalow network, so these bungalows gradually fell into disuse and disrepair until later on when the Indian government finally began allowing them to be used as a substitute for a virtually nonexistent western style tourist hotel industry. Often these bungalows are only the simplest of cabins, but in comparison with the mud and grass huts of the villagers, they are luxurious. They have chairs, tables and beds, and, most important of all if you are a westerner with diarrhea, with toilets.

Virtually all upper class Indians speak English. Twice now since arriving at Khajuraho we have been invited to dinner and treated as guests of honor. Most of the people who have invited us, and who are quite upscale or rich, want to know about our impressions of India. After having been cut off by the language barrier for so long, this comes as a great relief.

In the villages, children often delight in using us to try out the English they have been learning in school. But of course, it is only the wealthy and educated Indians we find touring India by private car and staying in PWD Bungalows. Last night two couples that were having dinner together invited us to join them. One of them is from Bombay and is the chief photographer for The Times of India. His wife is an artist. With them was an oil company executive and his wife, who is a nuclear physicist. All four of them have traveled the world extensively, so this made for quite an interesting evening. We now have an invitation to stay with the photographer and his wife when we visit Bombay and, because they are wealthy, we have no hesitation about doing so. We are looking forward to looking them up when and if we get to Bombay.

We have also been seeing quite a bit of a second Indian family, the Patels, who have lived most of their lives in Kenya but who had recently been forced to return to India due to the new Kenyan government’s “Africa for Africans” policy. You have taken a liking to the Patels’ twelve-year-old son, Zerky, and you want to follow him everywhere. He, in turn, has taken it upon himself to act as your protector. The two of you are now becoming inseparable. I think he derives status from running around with you.

Nearly everyone here has servants except for the very poor. Labor is incredibly cheap. Not only do servants make one’s life easier, they also contribute to one’s status. It appears that it is unacceptable for upper caste people to perform menial tasks for themselves, a prohibition that works out quite oddly sometimes. Both our upper class dinner host families have taken a shine to us, and the men, especially, are fascinated by our camper about which they keep asking questions. Yesterday, I was on my back underneath the bus, changing the oil, when Mr. Patel came over to chat and see what I was doing. When I crawled out, he started peppering me with questions about car maintenance. Since he seemed interested, when I opened up the engine cowling to put the new oil into, I motioned him to come over and take a look at the engine. Getting the cap off the oil can, and positioning the spout just right for pouring, never seems to work out very well for me, so by the time I was finished I had oil all over my shirt. Mr. Patel sat there watching me getting oilier and dirtier, all the while asking silly questions to which I was sure he knew the answers. I think he was testing me. Then he started asking me statistical questions about the car’s performance. It could go from what to what in how many seconds? That sort of thing. I did not have the slightest idea. Then he started asking me about how it handled and how it cornered in tight turns. I told him it was not a Ferrari, just a tin box on wheels, but that it did do a good job of getting us from there to here. I was about to offer to let him take our VW bus out for a spin, when he said something that hauled me up short and I suddenly realized that I was talking to a man who could not drive. Mr. Patel has a driver to do that because a man of his status is not allowed to drive his own car in India. That’s what chauffeurs are for. Driving would be crossing a caste line. Here was a rich and powerful man with a passion for cars who was envious of some dirty guy in a VW hippie bus. He wanted to crawl under his car, too, and get dirty like me. Then he would have liked to take his car out all by himself, and push it to the limit. But he would never be able to do that because his caste and his culture had him in its ugly grip. So you see, Zerky, it’s not just the poor and untouchables who suffer from this archaic custom. I am no longer mad at Mr. Patel for how he is raising his son. I feel sorry for them both.

I think I have Mr. Patel very confused. Every morning your mother and I go through our household chores routine. While she takes care of you and gets squared away for the day, I do just about everything else. This includes sweeping out the van and doing the dishes. Mr. Patel is having trouble handling this. It seems that he cannot accept the idea that a person of obvious wealth could demean himself in public by performing such menial tasks. Twice he has offered to lend me one of his servants and both times I tried to explain to him why I prefer doing things myself. But I don’t think he understands what I am trying to tell him, that in America we take pride in our independence and in being able to take care of ourselves. I’m afraid that your mother and I are now an affront to Indian social standards. Even though I like Mr. Patel, I must admit that I enjoy his consternation.

We have met some other interesting people who are also staying here in the Tourist Bungalows at Khajuraho. For example, there is a Polish couple who are with the Polish Embassy in New Delhi. The woman is nuts about Tarzan. Every time she sees him, she starts cooing endearments in Polish, calling “shpitzie” or something like that. I think she is homesick. There is also the shikar man, a German who found himself interned in India by the British during World War II. When the war was finally over, there was nothing for him to go home to and he has been living here ever since. He is addicted to shikar. In America, we call it “hunting.” Year after year, he drives his old La Salle all over India, searching for tigers, leopards, cheetrai, and nelgai—the latter two being a large species of Indian deer or elk. Somehow, I doubt he has ever shot anything.

All in all, we are very much enjoying our stay here in India. We plan to stick around for a couple of more days and then get on our way to the Himalayas.

One of the Temples of Khajuraho

One of the Temples of Khajuraho

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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