Anyone who follows this site knows I am so intrigued by India and Indian fiction. I am THRILLED to welcome Elle Newmark today, the author of the fabulous The Sandalwood Tree, which will be released on April 5th. Elle recounts below her trips to India. Don’t you love her descriptions-“polychromatic human mosaic”- love it!
I had yearned to see it for as long as I could remember. But, intimidated by the profound otherness of the place, it took many years of travel in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa—seasoning, if you will—before I worked up the nerve to visit in 2001. I remember standing in a street near Mumbai Harbor, feeling swamped by the intense sun, the smell of diesel fumes and dung fires, the dizzying swirl of dust and veils and turbans, the press of sweat-slick bodies, the tumultuous traffic with everyone “playing the horn,” the confusing mix of Marathi, Hindi and English, the ragged beggars, the cows, the goats and… I thought, yes, I had been right to be intimidated. The place was a perpetual motion kaleidoscopic, dirty and beautiful in a way I didn’t understand. It would take enormous hubris to try and capture that ancient, layered, paradox-ridden subcontinent in a novel, and it took several more years for me to take a stab at writing a book set in India.
After two years spent researching and writing a first draft of The Sandalwood Tree, I went to India again in March 2009 to check facts and remind myself of Indian sights (marigolds heaped before stone idols and plush opulence alongside rock-bottom poverty) and smells (curry and smoke) and sounds (small drums and winding flutes and the swell of a billion voices) and colors (all I’d ever seen and some I’d never imagined) and tastes (complex and hot).
When my husband and I landed in New Delhi, we plunged into the smoke and noise and crowds, gobsmacked by heat and a polychromatic human mosaic. Porters, mostly children and old men, vied to carry our bags, and taxi drivers called out and motioned urgently for us to get into their cars, quick, quick, as if someone were chasing us. Chaos reigned, and when we finally arrived at our hotel, I remember feeling vaguely ashamed of how happy I was to sit down in a quiet, posh, air-conditioned lobby with an efficient staff at my beck and call. I looked forward to a nice cool shower followed by room service. And everyone had a British, not Indian, accent. What a relief!
The female staff wore saris, but they were all made of the same cobalt blue silk with a rich gold border—an exotic uniform to amuse the tourists. One of those lovely girls served me Earl Grey tea while my husband checked us in, and I thought she looked like Miss Universe. I really enjoyed sitting in that clean marble lobby where everyone spoke in hushed voices, and it worried me. If I could be overwhelmed by a ride from the airport, so glad to sip milky tea in a hotel with all the comforts of home, how would I survive a month in a car, swerving around rickshaws and bullock carts and beggars? Eating…what? Sleeping…where? Even though I’d already spent two years working on The Sandalwood Tree, I wondered whether I, an American, could really get close enough to that enigmatic place to write a believable novel.
The next morning we woke jet-lagged but excited, and we wasted no time getting out of the hotel, hoping to lose ourselves in Old Delhi. We hired a car and driver (we’re adventurous, not crazy) and headed for the bazaar. Our driver twisted through the choked improbable trans-species traffic, idled behind rusted buses and alongside men and women carrying platters or jars or bundles on their heads. We dodged bullock carts and suicidal dogs, a plodding camel, and we squeaked around three-wheeled tuk-tuks spitting noxious fumes and stuffed with people sitting on each other’s laps or hanging perilously off the sides. We stopped for the occasional bony cow, which, of course, always has the right of way.
In Old Delhi, where the streets are too narrow and congested for cars, we climbed into a bicycle rickshaw and bumped along alleys packed, shoulder-to-shoulder with shoppers dressed in a rainbow of turbans and skullcaps, veils and saris and multitude of fantastic costumes I couldn’t name. The lanes were packed full of tiny shops open to the street and spilling over with color and sparkle. There is so much glitter in an Indian bazaar I got the feeling that if I dropped a leg of lamb it would come up with gems stuck all over it like a meaty scepter.
The air smelled like smoke and the women, in their brilliant saris, looked like tropical birds fluttering through a veil of dust. I held on tight while the rickshaw bucked and rumbled down Silk Street, Paper Street, Bird Street, Tassel street, Shoe Street, Barber Street, Samosa Street…you get the idea. I was the very picture of a wide-eyed, rubbernecking tourist, and still I couldn’t take it all in. It was just too much, a sensory overload, and I wondered again whether I had made a colossal mistake and wasted two years.
Maybe some of my disorientation was jet lag, but I became increasingly aware of what a huge and baffling thing I had chosen to write about. How could one month possibly be enough to scratch the surface of this rich, complicated culture that ran back into pre-history? But there I was, sitting in a rickshaw, and it was too late to turn back.
Instead, we turned down an unexpectedly quiet and deserted lane, and I assumed we would now be murdered for our credit cards and passports. (Surprising myself, I became curiously philosophical. Oh, well, it had been an interesting life and I probably couldn’t pull off a book about India anyway.) But the sweating rickshaw wallah, dismounted his bike and gestured graciously for us to enter an unmarked shop. We walked into a small room lined with shelves of luxurious Kashmiri needlework—pashminas, tablecloths, pillow covers, bedspreads…a breathtaking abundance.
The merchant wore kurta pyjamas and had orange henna hair, and he stood behind the counter with his perfectly beautiful eight-year-old son who had big, dark, liquid eyes. The man spread out his wares and I selected a one-of-a-kind-dear-god-that’s-gorgeous pashmina. I’m not going to wear it; I’m going to frame it.
The little boy watched the transaction solemnly, learning the family business. After the merchant showed me how a drop of water would not penetrate the finely woven wool, the boy carefully tipped the single drop of water back into the cup; his father smiled and said, “Water is precious.” For some reason, I know I will never forget watching that drop of water slide back into the little boy’s cup, the child’s gravity and his father approval.
The orange-haired merchant served chai and kindly asked us to visit him at home in Kashmir. He invited us to be his guests in his houseboat in Srinagar, and he seemed sincere. I was intrigued. I’d always wanted to see Srinagar—the elaborate houseboats furnished with crystal chandeliers and velvet settees, the ghost of George Harrison playing a sitar. Outside I’d see the faded palaces reflected in the water, and in the background the mighty Himalayas, enormous and powerful, a white mirage hard against the blue sky. Tempting.
I thanked the merchant but suggested that it might not be the best time for an American to go to Kashmir, which is still hotly disputed between India and Pakistan and shares a border with Afghanistan. He shrugged, as if I was being overly cautious. For him, a Kashmiri, ongoing war was a way of life. He said, “Come anytime. You only have to know someone.”
Putting Srinigar on hold, he took me on a tour of his Delhi house, of which the shop was only one ground-floor room. The building was a long-ago-Moghul-mansion that had been sectioned off into apartments, and his family lived on two floors of rooms that opened onto a cracked cement courtyard. He was justifiably proud of his home in a city where millions live under a tarp thrown across a couple of shaky bamboo poles. He grinned and pointed proudly to a dusty houseplant, listing in a corner, and said, “See? Greenery everywhere!”
He introduced me to his scrawny, smiling, barefoot mother, who appeared to be doing nothing but sitting on her rope bed, (a charpoy, I later learned). She didn’t speak English but was obviously proud to be the widow of a freedom fighter in Gandhi’s nonviolent War of Independence. She pointed up to a formal black and white photo of a stiff, unsmiling man in a Nehru style cap. I was forced to crane my neck backward to look up to that man whose photo hung only about a foot from the high ceiling, the placement symbolic of his stature in the family and in India
The friendly merchant let me take pictures of everything and everyone—the shop, the charpoy, his mother—and we talked about Indian history. I asked him what he thought of Partition (the division of India between Hindus and Muslims) and he said it was the worst thing that ever happened to India. He said, “When you create a border based on ideology, you create something to fight over. When you live side by side you create a reason to get along.”
I looked at him, his orange hair and kurta pyjamas, his shy son and proud, if withered, mother, and I had the sudden thought that maybe India wasn’t really so different after all. It runs on human reasoning, human love and hate, human greed and generosity, human war and peace. And that’s when I knew I could write The Sandalwood Tree. As any novel worth its salt should be, The Sandalwood Tree not about a place, it’s about being human—in India.
Where are you going and what are you reading?