A Month Alone In: India

by The Hairpin

Writer Shona Sanzgiri took a trip to India last year, and we asked him about it.

Edith Zimmerman: Shona, how was it, and how did you end up there?

Shona Sanzgiri: India was a mixed bag. And that was my fault. After a bad breakup, I was — surprise — depressed, exhausting my friends, and in a wallowing binge. And what a theatrical bummer: one night I ate an expensive dinner alone and tore up a 200 page manuscript I’d worked on for three years. Smart.

In general I was desperate for social interaction, but whenever someone paid me any attention, I deflected them with my neediness. I had nothing to say and couldn’t engage with people in ways that weren’t about my perceived suffering. So a vacation sounded like a good idea, preferably to a place that required me to be present.

Coincidentally I had been working on a documentary about India at that time. It attracted a little bit of money and started to seem like it was really going to happen. And I knew that sooner or later I’d have to actually go there and chart the logistics. Having family in Bombay, I decided to start there.

How did you end up on the … memorable train ride you described in your email?

Right, the most ominous 14-hour train ride ever.

After two weeks in Bombay, doing little besides visiting mosques and museums and drinking rotgut gin at night, I was antsy. It’s a beautiful city, with gothic architecture, swaying palm trees, all specimen of humanity on display. Visually, it’s never a dull moment. But meeting people there is damn near impossible. Most travelers stay for a couple days then head elsewhere.

By this point, my documentary was in limbo. I was still freelancing for a few magazines and newspapers, and one of my editors asked me to check out the Goa Literary Festival.

Goa is a beach state four hundred miles south of Bombay, and the preferred getaway for Russian Mafioso, trance DJs from Israel, and the kind of leering ex-cons who hole up in Asian backwaters. It’s not the first place that comes to mind if you’re looking for literary culture. It’s more ‘Margaritaville on acid’ than Chapel Hill, let’s say. But The New Yorker’s Teju Cole and Heems from Das Racist were going to be there. And then if that didn’t work out, I planned on knocking back any and all drinks containing umbrellas in them.

Instead of taking an hour long plane ride like a sensible person, I bought a ticket for a train departing at midnight from a station in Bombay that, by the looks of it, neighbored both a swamp and slum. Even at that hour, the place was packed with people, mostly men, just milling around, sleeping on the ground, smoking cigarettes, stray dogs and mosquitoes galore. The schedule in the station estimated that the trip would take 11 hours. Then the train got delayed, so I was now three hours early, and very thirsty.

One thing about India is that you need to carry small bills. Anything over a 100 rupee note and good luck getting change. For some reason, I only had big bills. I relented and forked over something like 500 rupees for a bottle of water — 20 times the asking price.

Around 2 a.m. I boarded the train and found my ‘bed.’ I’m 6’3″ and 190 lbs. This wasn’t a bed, it was a bench made for someone half my size. I leaned back with my feet hanging two feet off the edge, and strapped the laptop to my chest. For the next 14 hours, I lay there listening to the conductor and a passenger yell at each other in the next compartment. Sometimes the conductor would disappear and I thought it was bedtime. Instead he would storm back in every half hour to trade insults. I could also hear what sounded like people jumping on, and off, the train throughout the night.

Travel by train is mostly safe. Mostly. I haven’t done it enough in India to give you a definitive answer, not that there is one, but I do know that pickpocketing is a huge problem. In my stupor, I probably looked like an easy target, though no one approached me. Once someone tugged at my laptop strap, but a quick whack with my water bottle sent them away.

Then suddenly it was afternoon and I was in Goa, where a rickshaw took me to the apartment I’d rented on AirBnB from a retired German woman. She served me fruitcake and invited me to dinner with her friends, all of whom were either diplomats or chiropractors. I never figured that one out. Anyway we danced.

Best thing you ate?

The berry pulao at Britannia, a Parsi cafe with high ceilings and chipped walls. Bombay used to have a huge population of Parsis: followers of the Zoroastrian faith who came to India from Persia sometime in the last thousand years and more or less maintain a distinct culture despite their small numbers. They worship fire, and make fantastic bread. They’re responsible for most of Bombay’s cafes, where you can get excellent snacks like spiced scrambled eggs, called akuri, raspberry soda and caramel custard (flan) for under $5.

But the pulao: wow. It’s a mound of steamed rice, stewed chicken, and these little red berries imported straight from Iran, layered with fried onions and cashew slivers: $3.

Also I had some incredible ice cream sandwiches. Again, a Parsi thing: they load up two thin wafers with Indian ice cream — pistachio, cardamom, a sweet, malty fruit called ‘chickoo,’ etc. — and it’s less than eighty cents.

Smallest thing you ate? (Haha, I don’t know, maybe this question is not useful.) Something-est thing you ate?

Hmm. I had a McPaneer sandwich at a McDonald’s. This might sound dumb, but I like finding out how other countries do McDonald’s. I know Japan used to have a dedicated Quarter Pounder outlet, which I find intriguing despite possessing a stomach that actively rejects Quarter Pounders.

In India you’ll find a lot more vegetarian options. And something called the Maharaja Mac, which is a Big Mac they used to serve with lamb. Lamb at Mickey D’s! #globalization

Please tell me about the beaches.

The beaches in Bombay are what you’d expect from a densely populated city that has such a stark divide between the ultra-rich and the staggeringly poor. Some of the beaches are home to nothing but unsightly oil tankers and jagged rocks and used syringes, and others have gorgeous, sprawling stretches of clean sand, water the color of jade, and impossibly romantic sunsets. At night, Marine Drive, the long curved promenade that hugs the bay, is called the Queen’s Necklace, on account of the bright lampposts. All of the buildings are done in an Art Deco style. It looks a bit like a gently crumbled Miami.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Bombay was a big jazz town. Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck played there later on. Some nights I’d go for a walk, drinking shaved ice flavored with rose water syrup, trying to get into old jazz on my iPod. I don’t like jazz too much, but it was easier at moments like that.

In Goa, the beaches were almost too perfect. In December, the place is teeming with tourists — usually trying to get to the Anjuna Beach Flea Market. You can buy jewelry, sandalwood elephants, engraved bongs made from imitation ivory. It mostly sucks. I bought a dozen elephants and ate an overpriced but passable shrimp curry. There was a Judi Dench lookalike who had clearly been there for years, not at all bothered by the flies that collected on her dissected coconut. She was reading a book and enjoying the attention of a young guy who looked to have been also carved from imitation ivory. Everyone is in their own stupefying, contented bliss; no one is noticing anyone else. Chakras are aligned and such.

One night it got weird. I hiked up a big hill at dusk and watched the sunset, then descended a towering flight of stairs to the beach. I saw a dining table set for two, with a lit candle in the center. Nobody was around for almost a mile, having vacated to the nearest rave cave. It was the loneliest I’ve ever been, and yet I felt inexplicably tranquil, happy, and safe.

I heard music. You always hear a faint stereophonic thump at about 140 BPM in Goa. I followed my ears and attempted a party. Meaning that I tried to enjoy the music, stumbled around, and napped on a deck chair while everything around me was pulsating and gyrating and trying to mimic the flames of a carefully manicured bonfire blazing in the center of the outdoor dance pit. Still tranquil, still happy, still safe. I got lost trying to find my way and walked down a jungle road in total darkness back to my apartment, with nothing but my iPhone as an impromptu flashlight and the moos of several wandering cows as encouragement.

The beaches are serene and picturesque. But next time, I wouldn’t spend so much time there alone. Day four of solitary beach life can be its own private hell. At least I’d advise bringing a book, if not a friend.

Who was your favorite person you met there?

Oh boy. ‘Favorite’ might not be quite the right word. There was the fashion student from London and his coterie of girlfriends. He spoke dramatically about worlds I would never know — in fact that’s what he said to me: “these are worlds you may never know.”

There was a Dutch graphic designer and his Indian wife who invited me to take DMT with them. A slippery lizard of a man named either John Michael or Mohammad Ali (I kid you not, he alternated between the two names depending on who he was speaking to) suggested we go to a club in the hillside with his friend Mary, a skinny, model-pretty Indian girl who was married to a short, muscly Brit about 20 years her senior. He had a heavy Cockney accent, and always helped himself to my french fries. He claimed to be a reformed skinhead who now just sells magic crystals on the beach. They would sometimes bring their baby to the bar, a little brown cupid, wide-eyed and sweet, but obviously a little denatured by his parents’ bad habits. It made me sad. I gave them money, which back in Bombay, my aunt would say was the stupidest thing I could have done, that the baby probably didn’t belong to them, and who the hell did I think I was giving money to former skinheads.

But to answer your question: my cousin and her friends. They’re in a band called Spud in the Box, which plays melodic rock in the vein of, I don’t know, Coldplay. They’re all between the ages of 18–22, and they went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. They were considerate and generous and charmingly sardonic. They were endearing to me even when singing John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland” to each other in crowded bars.

What was your lowest moment?

I had several, ack. One day I took a ferry from Bombay to Elephanta Island, where there are a bunch of caves with various rock sculptures. When the ferry landed, I just went for a walk on the pier, realized I had to get back to meet a family friend, and turned around and got on the next ferry. My stomach felt like it was going to burst, and I was homesick, longing desperately to talk to someone I knew, as I sobbed quietly into my hands. Then a water wake splashed against the side, and I was drenched. The ferry is a six mile ride either way, and it felt like an eternity. When I got off the boat, an old woman literally grabbed the side of my face to steady her as she stepped onto the landing. I think I just laughed after that.

Best moment? Or, one of?

There were more of those, thankfully. My aunt’s colony — an apartment complex, home to members of a specific caste — borders a huge Muslim neighborhood. In the center of this district stands the tomb of a 14th-century Yemeni scholar named Makdhoom Ali. Every year, thousands of people come to visit the tomb, and they hold a 10-day celebration known as the Urs Festival. To the untrained ear, it sounds like a drone strike, which, given the part of the world I’m in — not implausible. Lots of explosions, fireworks, little kids wielding guns, men dancing atop moving buses, bullock carts carrying sound systems that play entrancing Islamic chants and electronic music that incites devotees to go into hypnotic states not unlike a Goan beachgoer. The police also pay tribute, and participate by shepherding the people through the street. The music is so loud I could feel it deep in my chest. The feeling is intense, but for an adrenaline junkie like me, it’s a lot of fun.

Another night I rode a motorcycle along Marine Drive with the son of a family friend. He gave me a tour of the city and we drove fast, without helmets, stopping only to smoke cigarettes and talk about girls.

The other best moment was going antique shopping in the Chor Bazar, or Thieves Market. It’s one of the largest flea markets in the world, a maze of sketchy storefronts and disassembled car parts, Victorian postcards, scimitars, record players, bejeweled door knockers. Anthropologie, eat your fucking heart out. They say if anything gets stolen in Bombay, it ends up here.

If you could pass one piece of advice on to someone else traveling alone there (or anywhere?), what would it be?

Don’t go because you’re trying to run away from something: you’ll just get closer to it, psychologically speaking. Read a book as if you had all the time in the world. Don’t be the person who later on regrets not having done something.

Did you CRY at any point? (?! ignore if too personal!)

Ahem. Yes. Notably on the flight back from Goa, a few thousand feet in the air. I was seated in an Emergency Aisle row and feeling angry and frustrated at so many things, I might have punched the door. The soft-spoken old English man sitting next to me leaned in and said, “in a hurry to leave, are we?”

Did anything go horribly wrong?

Not horribly wrong. At its worst, bad times felt like a series of small but salvageable blunders. It was mostly about enduring the loneliness. I realized I wasn’t clingy, but I was always comforted with the knowledge that a friend was close by. In 26 years, I had never really been alone before.

At that hillside club, I tried to talk to what looked like two Arab princesses. They resembled the Kardashians. They behaved similarly. In fact, that entire night was about planet Earth rejecting me, and looking up to see John Michael Mohammad Ali the Lizard King shaking his head in disgust.

Was there ever a moment when everything went magically right, or unexpectedly right?

Most days it was smooth sailing, when I wasn’t taking pity on myself. Maybe when the fashion student and his girlfriends and I were all drinking pina coladas and an Orbital song came on and I went for a swim: I sort of thought I had dreamed all of this up.

Where to next?

I have this plan to take a very long trip through Latin American, starting in Mexico and ending up in Argentina. It’s unclear if I’ll have a motorcycle and a diary. Italy and Greece sound just as magical — I finished Geoff Dyer’s “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” some months back and thought the Venice Biennale sounded excessively indulgent in all the right ways. I suppose it’s less the specific place I’m interested in, and more the company, the climate, the ineffable mix of things that offer a pedestrian transcendence.

Oh, Iceland. I want to go clubbing and then sit in a geothermal spa.

Previously: A Month Alone in Southeast Asia

Shona Sanzgiri is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in GQ, Bookforum, Interview, and The Believer.