There are places that move through time so much faster than anywhere else. A large part of the world straggles behind, striving to catch up with the latest technology, fashion, trend, conviction. Other places instead move ponderously slowly, and even seem to go backwards. Though they may often be remote or rural areas isolated by bad weather, poor roads, or dearth of communication lines – sometimes they are hidden within your own bustling neighborhood – a shop, diner, or street, that seems to be stuck in another era, while rubbing shoulders with the contemporary.
Sometimes traveling, you come across pockets of the archaic out of which surface customs older than the hills, modes of thought and behavior that make no sense today– even influences and forces invisible to the modern eye yet which shaped the beliefs of entire cultures and epochs. Once you have been in contact with those atmospheres, you can never quite be the same, for you now know that what we call reality is a shifting fabric of conflicting truths.
It was to such places Shelley Buck travels in her new memoir India Bound, the Making of a Woman Journalist.
The book opens in Northern Europe where the author has gone to recuperate from her overland trek to India and Nepal, recounted in East. Adrift and in transition, still reeling from the whirlwind of her Eastern experiences, she isn’t yet ready to return stateside to the world of work, study, family, career or to the political ferment shaking up America in the early 70s. Her old self has sloughed off but a new one hasn’t quite grown back. Wandering from West Berlin to Stockholm, sampling the lifestyles — austere but progressive Germany – purist, nature-loving Sweden, she compares their values with those of her own middle class background of comfort and privilege. After hanging out on the hippy fringes, she lands a job teaching English composition on a US army base and spends her free time in a darkroom, pulling prints of her travels, mainly portraits of the people she met. As timeless eyes stare back at her across a gulf of centuries, she realizes she must return to India with a new goal: to become a journalist. She must learn how to make sense of the pieces—the impressions– she has picked up along the way, fit them against a background of greater understanding. “Who had been the watcher, the I of those adventures? “ she asks. The only way to find out is to make the trip again.
Now that she knows the ropes and the route of the old Silk Road, she sets out again with a friend. This time, along with camera equipment, she lugs along an Olivetti portable typewriter in her backpack – and a letter from a contact in the US asking her to do some research on day care in Asia. The typewriter and letter are talismans, proof that she isn’t just another hippy tourist, but a journalist on a mission.
As she trundles from Goa to Bombay with newly found friends in a battered VW camper or journeys in a purdah train compartment on her way to Delhi, she snaps photos, scribbles notes, keeps her eyes wide open. The short chapters are vignettes of the small epiphanies of travel – minimal encounters which convey telling details about a person, a place, or a people at an unrepeatable moment in time, “images of ordinary people’s ordinary lives.” Shared meals in welcoming households, puddles of red splashed at the Holi festival, an emaciated boy dead in the street, an exchange of clothing at a market – her old Swedish wool sweater for a gaudy, gauzy tie-dye skirt and a blouse with pointy breasts. An elfin woman herding geese gestures to ask: has she a husband, a baby? “These are images of my companions now, the people of my world, met face to face.” These moments of connection to local people flash against a turbulent backdrop of political unrest and growing famine about to engulf India.
As in her previous book reviewed here, Buck is keenly aware of the status of women in the countries she visits. With sympathy she observes a teenage bride dressed in gold finery, furious about her fate but powerless to escape in impossible sandals. Or a young mother whose Madonna-like face is full of tenderness for her child and yet also full of wistfulness for the freedom and opportunity she will never experience, unlike the young western women she hosts at her home.
When money becomes scarce and a check sent by the author’s parents is stolen at a Bombay bank, she finds herself dispossessed and disenfranchised: “Halfway swallowed into the women’s world,” and “starved, ill, frightened by the non-arriving money, battered by the famine, the street life, the precursors to the emergency that will be declared by Indira Gandhi for a reason I can’t clearly understand.” Still even in impecunious circumstances, the presence of a camera dangling around her neck gives her an identity, a mask of authority needed to safely navigate the world.
Learning that a Swedish friend is in India, enjoying “an unrecognizable, unattainable freedom,” she comments, “he has been climbing in the Himalayas…where the gurus live, with an Indian friend, also male. Viktor has made an entirely different journey, a journey in a man’s India, it seems to me just now.” A man’s India of physical and spiritual adventures, not subject to gender-bound restrictions, which she has subtly noted all along the way during her journey into woman’s India. But even while teaching in Germany, there had been an episode. A soldier had complained that she had given too high a grade to his wife’s composition – a wife must be kept in her place, her self-expression moderated, even in the west. Or so it was in the military culture of the mid-seventies from which the author fled.
With one dangerous exception, a violent episode on her return trip, the drama of this narrative is mostly internal, as Buck learns to live “amid conflicting realities.” “Events had taken place that just didn’t fit in what I knew to be true of reality. Or even believed to be true.” She learns to exchange her western one-pointed vision for the pointillism of the bee’s mosaic eyesight, to capture truth from myriad details, the way women have sewn quilts, piece by piece into a whole, for generations. The attainment of that vision is her new goal as a journalist.
As she was leaving India, the country was plunged into chaos during the Emergency and the Viet Nam war came to an end. A short time afterward, Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan, and Khomeini seized control of Iran. These events changed forever maps and borders for the young backpackers who once streamed overland along the Silk Road to India in search of illumination, drugs, or simply a more magical reality.
“India Bound,” doesn’t mean “Heading for India” but rather “tied to,” or “linked,” “I am starting to become bound into the kaleidoscope of worlds that co-exist and intermingle in this place,” she writes. What she gives her reader is a patchwork of these intermingled realities, often with a telescopic approach to time moving forwards or backwards, in a whirl of color and sensations, of people “met face to face” who now, so richly drawn by the writer, also dwell in the readers’ imagination, ghosts of a vanished world.
- INDIA BOUND: The Making of a Woman Journalist
- Shelley Buck
- Paperback: 278 pages
- Publisher: WriteWords Press (July 1, 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 173352200X
- ISBN-13: 978-1733522007