1 Gateway to India
Arriving late at night, the chorus, men dressed in summer jackets and glee club ties with musical staves on crimson background, women in sensible blue skirts with floral blouses to match, drifted out the doors of Bombay’s Santa Cruz airport, stale and humid, our clothes smelly and crumpled, as if sleep-walking. The air smelled vaguely tropical, an odd mixture of fresh and rotten fruit. Downtown the full complement of smells arrived: fresh mango, ripe banana, green coriander, feces, urine, rotten vegetables, incense, bedi fumes and sweat, all suffused by the penetrating reek of diesel. As I floated into this miasma of smells, which both attracted and repelled me, I found myself stuffed into a tank-like black and yellow Ambassador cab with my roommate Sean. The windows were up, so the smells retreated, but now the streets of Bombay presented themselves, cows and bullocks at almost every turn, a few scruffy pigs and skinny mongrel dogs rooting and snuffling through the piles of garbage everywhere. Then came the bodies.
I was dead tired. But I began to notice that we were threading our way through thousands of bodies scattered along the sidewalks, sometimes in the gutters. The driver casually drove on, oblivious to the horror. I turned to Sean, who was asleep, slumped heavily against the cab door. Now I was bolt upright, dumbfounded by the raggedly clad bodies of men and women, children, old people, flung everywhere along our route. I had seen dead bodies before, a couple of times amidst highway carnage on family trips and Grandpa McGahey lying stiff and formal in his coffin when I was twelve. This was eerily different. We had entered a city beset by the Plague, and nobody had told us. The bodies began to thin out, disappearing by the time we reached our hosts’ beachfront home in fashionable Breach Candy. Was this a dream? By the gray sea, the tips of the waves curled successively into the dull light, high walls, steel gates, the trailing branches of bougainvillea.
Our host, a wealthy industrialist in coat and tie, greeted us stiffly and quickly excused himself. He reminded me of Mountain Brook Country Club types from Birmingham in my teen years. His wife, resplendent in her silk sari, stayed to show us our room.
“You have had a pleasant journey?”
Sean looked as if he were still asleep, managing a wan smile. The driver brought in our bags as I answered, "Yes, thank you. I am sorry to have kept you up so late.”
“Oh, that is no problem at all. My little boy will want to meet you in the morning. Now we shall all take rest.”
“Certainly,” I answered. “But excuse me. On the way here I saw bodies everywhere along the road. Is there a problem?”
Mrs. Mehta laughed. “Those are the homeless. They are simply sleeping.”
The Asian Tour segment in Malaysia had been canceled due to civil strife there, so we had spent quite a long time in the Philippines—long enough to encounter their civil war in Mindanao. Our bus was commandeered one evening by government troops, and the walls of the brothel where Sean and I were accidentally bivouacked were peppered with rebel machine-gun fire in the middle of the night. Unable to awaken Sean, I dove under my bed and waited for quiet to return. The world was a dangerous place, and music was a form of peace diplomacy. Our country was at war, the longest and most costly since World War Two. I had been spared, but those bodies were my introduction to war of another kind, an underworld descent that turned my comfortable world upside down.