E.L. Doctorow's India (EXCERPT)

E.L. Doctorow's India

The following is an excerpt from The Condé Nast Traveler "Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Volume II: Great Writers on Great Places." It is author E.L. Doctorow's account of India, entitled "The Taj, the Tiger, and the Treepie."

Morning at the Oberoi hotel in New
Delhi. Breakfast in the room— croissants
and watermelon juice and the teapot
in its cozy. We are in India to see the great
Bengal tiger. But to see the tiger we
will have to see India.

We have a look at Delhi, which, perhaps from its heritage of discordant rulers, is a spread- out low- rise city of no visual distinction. It is a city of wealthy green enclaves, polo clubs, and former British mansions, bejeweled in metropolitan catastrophe. There is lassitude built into the constructions going up. Older buildings, monuments of tenuous, halfassed business ambitions, are falling to rubble at their edges. . . . Ditches and empty lots are strewn with garbage. . . . Every imaginable kind of vehicle crawls along, honking, pressing its advantage by inches. The buses can’t accommodate the crowds waiting at the bus stops.

The air is fetid. Families of squatters living in open lots rise from their sleeping bags to make their morning ablutions at hydrants. They cook their breakfasts on makeshift stoves assembled from the bricks lifted from nearby construction sites. Delhi is supposed to be one of the better- off cities in India. The squatters are internal refugees— rural people moved off their land or flooded out: A network of dams is being constructed peremptorily across the subcontinent. Apparently in this nation of one billion, the Indian government is willing to sustain losses.

As tourists, we courteously attend to the architectural relics of the ancient rulers. At each historic site— Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort of Shah Jahanwe are assailed by peddlers and importuned by beggars, some of them severely disabled. One man scuttles like a crab in the dirt at our feet. Small children run alongside us with their hands out saying “hello, hello!” as if this achievement of the English language will release rupees into their palms. There are no fat people in the streets of Delhi. The only fat people are in the Oberoi. We are back in our rooms watching the cricket matches on television.

We board our train early in the morning and head southeast, clacking along the route that will take us through Agra, Gwalior, the Bhopal of the infamous toxic petrochemical disaster of 1984 that killed almost four thousand, and on to Gondia, where we will disembark for the road trip to the tiger reserve. It is a journey of about six hundred miles, an overnight ride.

Our train is known as the Palace on Wheels. It is a modern take on the original accommodations, presumably by divine right, of a raja of Rajasthan: fourteen air- conditioned cars, or saloons, each containing four staterooms with twin beds and private bath and a small sitting room at one end; a pair of turbaned attendants to see to the needs of the travelers in each saloon; two dining room cars, the Maharaja and the Maharani; a bar and lounge with upholstered seating; and a beauty parlor and spa car whose staff includes a masseuse.

Our party of friends is a fraction of a larger group of American birders and nature lovers traveling under the aegis of Victor Emanuel, the youthfully white- haired, passionately idealistic, natural- world tour operator who has serious ornithologic credentials and a loyal cadre of conservationists and earth- loving adventurers along with him on this
expedition. All told, there are about sixty of us, travelers and guides. Our destination, the Kanha National Park, is the home of Bengals, leopards, several species of grazing animals, wild dogs, monkeys, and innumerable birds of the kingdom. Something for everyone.

As spoiled Americans, we are pleased with the service, particularly of our car attendants, who are sweet tempered and accommodating; less pleased with the food, which is indifferent Indian; and disappointed in the condition of the train, having noticed about our luxurious Palace on Wheels that the lounge furniture is sprung, the wall-to-wall carpet has never known a vacuum cleaner, the baths are tiny, the fixtures temperamental, and the white towels gray. But we are not inclined to criticize: In the middle of the day, with the sun at its height, our train pulls into a provincial station. On the adjoining track is a train of the India Railways, its ancient coaches packed tight with citizens who sit, stand, and hang out the windows to breathe, while the importunate sway en masse at the coach steps, attempting to board with their babies, bundles, and bags, all of them heedless of the train whistle blowing and various officials running along, shouting at everyone.

We see this from the coolness of our interior.

We are traveling a route through the state of Madhya Pradesh never before undertaken by the Palace on Wheels, which heretofore had been restricted to the state of Rajasthan. Schedules have been rearranged in our favor up and down the line. Strings have been pulled by Raj Singh, Victor Emanuel’s Indian counterpart, an amiable, elegant, mustached fellow in his forties. Raj, the author of a book on the birds of the subcontinent, is a graduate of the Scindia Public School, founded in Gwalior in the 1890s for members of royal families. Scindia’s graduates, of whatever generation, need no introduction to one another. They move as if by inheritance into positions of influence and know how to get things done.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Condé Nast Traveler "Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Volume II: Great Writers on Great Places." Copyright © Condé Nast Publications, 2012

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