Zerky in Shivpuri

(A National Park in India)

Map of India

Last week one of the New Delhi newspapers carried a muckraking expose about the shameful condition at Bombay International Airport. Bombay International is one of the most modern airports in the world, but recently a number of foreign pilots have been complaining about having to dodge cows on the runways during landing and takeoff. Because most of the airlines that have landing rights at Bombay International belong to foreign airlines, most of the pilots are not Hindus, the newspaper points out, and therefore cannot be depended on to fully appreciate the privileged status of Indian cows.

There once was a fence around the airport that has fallen into disrepair because of a dispute between the airport and the City of Bombay over whose responsibility it is to maintain the fence. Everyone involved, according to the newspaper, finds it a most vexing and wondrous problem. The dispute has been in the courts for many years now and is being pursued diligently by people on all sides of this contentious issue. The newspaper is on a crusade to have the perplexities resolved once and for all by the highest appellate court in the land. Meanwhile, newspaper readers all over India are following this trial with utter fascination and infinite patience, as complex legal arguments about culture, identity, history and religion are played out in a Bombay courtroom. Nobody seems to think this problem will be resolved anytime soon.

The cows and bulls of India are handsome beasts of the Brahma bull variety seen in American rodeos. They are slick, white, and strong, with big humps and large folds of skin dangling beneath their throats. Along the road today we passed many such cows—oxen really—some grazing peacefully beside the road but most of them drawing carts. It is a common practice here to dress animals up with jewelry and makeup, and their faces are often dyed with blues and reds, with the tips of their horns encased in gold or silver caps. Often on top of their heads, and between their horns, are turban arrangements made out of wrappings of brightly colored cloths. Necklaces and beads dangle beneath their necks, and makeup is quite common in India. Eye shadow is often used on children and is often depicted in paintings of gods in their animal forms that are frequently made up in all kinds of bright colors. India has a way with color. It is everywhere.

It has been raining here these last few days, and it is frightening to see how the countryside seems to disintegrate in the midst of all this water. Yesterday we were on the major through road going from India’s capital, New Delhi, to its second largest city, Bombay. After a few days of only moderate rainfall, the highway became nearly impassable. We saw where two large trucks traveling in opposite directions had each moved over partly off the pavement in order to pass each other. The front ends of each were half buried in the bog that in dry weather constitutes the opposite shoulders of the road.

Your mother is really enjoying the wildlife here in India. The countryside does not appear to be divided into civilized areas and semi-wilderness areas, as is commonly the case in our country. Here you find people living just about everywhere and sometimes in places where wild animals intermingle with human society. Driving along on various roads we have been following, your mother has discovered a treasury of wild birds. There must be billions of them: flamingos, cranes, storks, parrots, and countless others of all sizes and descriptions. Naturally, she has bought a book and is busy cataloging them, just as she did with the mountain flowers in the Swiss Alps. Many of the birds here are as pretty as flowers as they hop from place to place, preening and strutting and exploding into riots of color when you approach. We have also seen some very beautiful fish and many orchids.

Yesterday morning we passed a mongoose and an elephant standing in the middle of the road. Later, while having pulled over beside the road for our periodic liquid refreshment, a monkey wandered up. Tarzan spotted him first and started going crazy. Snarling and barking, he began chasing the monkey as fast as his pathetic little dachshund legs could carry him. The monkey, who had long, strong legs and was twice Tarzan’s size, loped off slowly. I am sure he had never before come across such a noisy, stubby-legged annoying little creature as Tarzan. Soon the monkey stopped backing off, and, as Tarzan closed in for the kill, humped himself up like a cat and bared his teeth, which were quite formidable and which made an instant impression on our hard-charging little dog. Then, as Tarzan slammed on his brakes and veered off at close range, the monkey reached out with his long arm and took a swipe at poor Tarzan, who yelped but never slowed down. Tail between his legs, he executed a hundred and eighty degree turn and, still going full-throttle, jumped back into the bus with a thud. Fortunately the victorious monkey did not bother to pursue his defeated opponent, especially after seeing your mother and me running like the posse to the rescue. Instead, the monkey climbed up a tree and sat there, hurling profanity and abuse down upon the four of us. Now that Tarzan has been suitably chastised, I do not think he will ever chase monkeys ever again.

This morning in Agra, we went to see the Taj Mahal. It truly is as lovely as it is cracked up to be. With its three Muslim domes flanked by four lovely minarets—all of them in white marble—the Taj is an architect’s dream, a building designed and built for the sheer joy of looking at it. Many of its rooms are separated by nothing more than an open and delicately carved marble latticework. The exterior rooms converge onto a central tomb, like spokes radiating outward from the hub of a wheel. Unfortunately, someone has seen fit to fill in the countless holes of the lattices with pieces of glass, in order to try to turn the latticework into a solid wall. That was a truly dumb idea if ever there was one. This no doubt cuts down on the breeze inside, but the glass is impossible to clean and over the years has become so filthy that it is no longer possible to see through the latticework. This has done much to destroy the lacy openness of the interior. The dirty glass also has the unfortunate effect of cutting down on the interior light, which in turn makes it harder to see the interior of the world’s most beautiful building.

The tombs—two of them instead of the one the building was originally designed for—lie at the hub of the wheel. Both tombs are fakes; the real ones are resting in an identical position inside a small room directly below. This was done so that visitors might pay their respects to the phony tombs above while the Lady sleeps below, undisturbed. Muslim Empress Arjuman Bano Begum, beloved wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, 1627-1665, the fourth in the line of the Mogul Dynasty, died in childbirth. They say the Taj is a monument to love.

Early tomorrow morning we are going to go hunting tigers at Shivpuri, a National Park not far from where we are camped. But tonight is Christmas Eve and your mother and I feel a whiff of nostalgia in the air. You, however, feel only the call of nature. The bug has got you and you are celebrating Christendom’s most sacred holiday with a bout of diarrhea. Your mother, God bless her, gently cleanses you with all the love and adoration of a virgin, while your father, convinced that he is indeed in a stable, opens up all the doors and windows and moves into the front seat of the bus in order to get as far away from you as possible. Your gentle Joseph then spins the dial on the radio, in search of a wayward Christmas carol. Not a single one. No Hallelujah Chorus, no snow, no pine trees, no jingle bells—only the warm Indian night, the buzz of mosquitoes and some very strange unknown sounds emanating from the forest. They must be elephants and probably tigers, too, and cobras and worse!

I’ve got to wind up this hyperbole now, Zerky, it is late and time for bed. We have to be up by 5:30 tomorrow morning so we can pick up our guide and get to the game sanctuary by daybreak. That’s when the tigers come down to the water hole to drink. But tigers, cobras and elephants are not the only things we are going to protect you from this fine night. One of the Indian tourists staying in the nearby guesthouse tells us that Shivpuri is notorious all over India for its Dacoits, a group of bandits who run around kidnapping people. He says not to worry, however, they never kill people, they just hold them for ransom. So tonight, as we turn off the light, we are thankful that there is nothing about which to worry. Our magic boy will protect us in the night. This Christmas has been so rich, Zerky, that our senses are overloaded.

Tiger Photo

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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