“Someday,” I promised Iris, unable to completely quell my bourgeois roots, “I will take us there in grand style.” It didn’t happen like that.
In the fall of 1972, a year into marriage and our first jobs, my bride, Iris, and I agreed that if Richard Nixon was reelected U.S. President, we would leave the country for as long as our money lasted. On November 8, we laid a world map on the floor of our one-bedroom in Boston and chose India. The book that compelled us was Be Here Now, by the former Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert, who’d changed his name to Baba Ram Dass after finding a guru in the foothills of the Himalayas. Iris wanted to find that guru; I went along for the Kiplingesque journey.
Three months later we found ourselves in a funky hotel just off New Delhi’s Connaught Place in the city center where snake charmers and masseurs tried to charm naïve Western tourists out of newly converted rupees. It was a different India then. This was 30 years before “Brand India” and “Incredible India!” and “Call Center India.”
We hit some of the traditional tourist spots—the Taj Mahal in Agra, the erotic temples of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, the Red Fort in Old Delhi, the burning ghats along the Ganges River in Benares. We took third-class Indian rail (slept in the luggage racks), stayed in government guesthouses, and slept on the beaches of Goa in self-made palm huts.
In Mumbai, then called Bombay, we discovered a Red Cross Salvation Army hostel for 10 rupees a night each (equivalent to $1 then). I have only two other distinct memories from that city. One was a visit to an opium den in one of Bombay’s seediest neighborhoods. The other was standing in front of our hostel, looking into the distance at the world-famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, built in 1903 by the wealthy Parsi industrialist Jamsetji Nusswerwanji Tata. “Someday,” I promised Iris, unable to completely quell my bourgeois roots, “I will take us there in grand style.”
It did not happen quite like that.
In 2004, my journalism career in high gear but my marriage long over, I returned to India researching a story for National Geographic about the growing worldwide popularity of Buddhism. By then I had changed a great deal. India had changed more. Now there were malls, Bollywood had become an international film phenomenon, there was a rising middle class, and Western clothing was much more prevalent among that class. Tourism had become serious business. Cars outnumbered the three-wheeled auto rickshaws; leg-powered rickshaws had all but disappeared. But some things had not changed. “Just now coming,” a common phrase that people uttered, still could mean anytime from later today to never. Genteelly queuing up in line remained a foreign concept. The smells, the symphony of street cacophony, the bureaucratic chaos were all the same, but amplified.
Also amplified, thanks to the magazine’s generous budget, were my accommodations—at the Taj! My corner room, No. 641, was called the Sunrise Suite. It had a low ceiling with odd angles and asymmetrical cut-off corners. The living room couch was an L-shaped loveseat with a patchwork of rich maroon fabric adorned with hundreds of tiny mirrors. From one balcony I looked across the street at Mumbai Harbor, which opens to the vastness of the Arabian Sea, and further down at the iconic Gateway of India.
I had to pinch myself. It had all come true, minus Iris.
Somehow all this sentimentality got wrapped up in my mind with the womb-like Sunrise Suite. Other than a few outings, I barely left it, cozied up on the loveseat rereading the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and the guru Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, which Iris and I had devoured in Goa. I was set on finding that hostel we’d stayed in, and one early steamy morning I walked many blocks surrounding the hotel but I could not find it. Disappointed, I headed back when suddenly I saw the familiar Red Cross signage; it was literally diagonally across the street from the Taj. What had seemed so far away back then was just across the street. The life lesson did not elude me.
In 2008, the Taj Hotels commissioned me to ghostwrite a chapter for a hotel trade book. I spent a month living in the Taj, interviewing and writing. My room faced the Gateway of India, even closer than I’d been four years earlier.
On November 26 that same year, now back in New Jersey, I was out for dinner with my mother when a close friend called my cell. “Get to CNN right away,” he said. I rushed to the restaurant bar and asked the barkeep to flip on the cable network. The first images I saw of the terrorist attack on Mumbai—now known in India as 26/11—were flames shooting from Room 641, “my” Sunrise Suite. Later, I learned, the Indian journalist Sabina Sehgal Saikia had been trapped in that room and lost her life.
About two years later, I attended the emotional reopening of the original wing of the hotel. I walked into Room 641, now renamed the Bella Vista, ready to be thrown asunder by a wave of reminiscence and depression. But it had been so completely transformed, elegantly redesigned in the spirit of a Mediterranean residence, that I could barely envision its past incarnation. I fully appreciated the importance of erasing 26/11 memories the room may evoke, but on a purely visceral level, no amount of redecorating could change my feelings for the room and what it meant to me.
The night before the official opening, I returned to the Palace’s sixth floor, following the unlikely sound of loud chanting echoing through the halls. Outside No. 641 a dozen Hindu priests, bare-chested and in traditional white lungi skirts, lit incense and poured milk over a statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha, who reigns over success and surmounting obstacles. Mesmerized by the rapid-fire rhythmic repetition, I joined them. Later I was told they chanted for three hours, endlessly repeating lines from the 2,500-year-old Vedic scriptures:
“Please do away with all evil that happened here. Remove any defects from this place. May the souls of anyone who lived or died here rest in peace. And for the people conferring this hospitality, let all their wishes be fulfilled.”
I, too, prayed for those lost, and for those selfless staff who would now return to these halls and rooms. I also gave thanks that my own life had brought me full circle to that moment. To be alive at all, to know that evil was not in my heart, to acknowledge any of my own defects and continue to work on removing them, to be able to find moments when I could rest in peace, in … this … breath.