The driver tossed our bags into the trunk of a white Ambassador cab and pressed his palms together.
"Welcome to India, sir. Is this your wife?"
"No, she's my mother."
Mom giggled; neither of us was sure whether the driver's motivation was flattery or innocence. But it was an encouraging start to an adventure I had planned with anticipation and anxiety.
Bringing my mother to India had seemed an inspired idea. I'd wanted to give her something spectacular for her 75th birthday: an eight-day tour around northern India's signature sites -- Delhi, the palaces of Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal -- and of the country that had so profoundly altered my own worldview. My misgivings were equally broad. Not only was this my mother's first trip to Asia, but she and I had also never traveled together. And although she had been to Israel and Europe, including Russia, India was something else entirely.
Because India, truly, is like nowhere else on Earth. It is not a destination you visit like Paris or Beijing or Barcelona. It's a place you must surrender to, dissolve into. No matter where one touches down, first contact with it is overwhelming.
During my first visit to the subcontinent in 1979, I spent my first two days barricaded in a hotel room. On the third day, I emerged, mole-like, onto the crowded streets of Mumbai. Within minutes, every sense was overloaded. I felt like a visitor on an alien planet, a place where sounds and sights, tastes and odors, were dialed up to an unbearable volume.
Then, as I strolled along, something inside let go. My chest loosened and my neck relaxed. I began to meet the eyes of the people around me, offering a self-conscious namaste in answer to their greetings. The responses were astonishing. Every person seemed to welcome interaction with me and to accept me as I was. For the first time, I realized how little I knew about the world's inhabitants. They had a great deal to teach me about their lives and my own humanity.
Ever since, India has been a place of pilgrimage for me, a world of often mind-blowing personal growth. No matter how short my visit, I always come home a changed man.
But our October trip wasn't about me. It was about my mother, Roslyn, a lifelong educator and spiritual woman. (She had become a bat mitzvah at 67.) Mom was overdue for a glimpse into the world so important to her eldest son.
But India can test even seasoned travelers, and many things might go awry. Like health. Mom is in great shape, but even the mighty, including me, have been humbled by the parasites of South Asia.
My second concern was diet. My mother keeps kosher. She's never touched bacon or shelled a prawn. Would she be able to eat, let alone enjoy, Indian food?
Finally, there was the freak-out factor. India can be just too much for some visitors. The crowds, the beggars, the sheer intensity of life pushes some people over the edge.
How would Mom fare in a country where the Star of David is a symbol of tantric union, and the swastika a sign of good luck?
KEEPING UP WITH MOM
Mom hit the ground running. Our first morning in Delhi, we toured the grounds surrounding the 12th century Qutb Minar, one of the tallest brick minarets in the world. The area is now a World Heritage site, covered with crumbling arched porticoes and classical Indian bas-reliefs.
"Look, Mom," I said, studying my guidebook while walking over to a sandstone column. "The faces of these gods and goddesses were smashed by the Muslim invaders. . . . Mom?"
I spun around. She had wandered across the plaza and was holding court with a crowd of schoolchildren in starched white shirts. They jockeyed for her attention, shouting answers to her questions and jostling for photographs.
"I doubt," I said, leading her back to our cab, "that Amitabh Bachchan would have received a warmer welcome."
"He's India's biggest film star -- sort of like Harrison Ford, Clark Gable and Cary Grant rolled into one."
"He must really be something."
The next afternoon, our guide invited us to visit the Kalkaji Mandir, one of Delhi's most important shrines. The temple looked drab from the outside, but the inner courtyards teemed with devotees and noisy, colorful worship activities because it was the beginning of the 10-day Dasara festival. Incense in the air was so thick it muted the beating of ritual drums and strains of a harmonium. A Brahman led us to the inner sanctum.
I was astonished to see my mother, who lights the Sabbath candles every Friday evening, kneel reverently to receive a blessing from a bearded, half-naked priest. Following our guide's instructions, she then pressed her head to the ornate silver altar -- upon which an image of the goddess Durga danced -- and prayed. Her view of worship was identical to mine: a holy place is defined not by convention but by what we bring to it.
Outside in the courtyard, wailing infants were getting their heads shaved with straight razors. Once shorn, the hair was offered to the goddess and red swastikas were painted on their bare scalps.
"Oy," said Mom, who at last seemed rattled. "Why are they doing that?"
"In India, the swastika is an ancient design," I said. "The Nazis stole it, but that doesn't matter here. To Hindus and Buddhists, it's still a symbol of good luck and a sign of protection by the gods."
"The religion here," she said, shaking her head. "It's all-encompassing. I had no idea."
When I try to name the influences that made me a traveler, I think mainly of movies, which made me long for the universe that lay beyond the suburban tracts of Plainview, N.Y. But I suspected a paternal cause as well.
Dad and I were never close, and he died of heart failure when I was 30. Once in a while, though, when we would drive into Manhattan together, he would open up. One story that stuck with me was set near El Paso, Texas, when Dad was in the service.
"Your mother was pregnant," he said. "And I'd just been discharged. I was driving away from the base, alone, down one of those long, flat highways you find in the South. After miles of this, I came to a junction where a dirt road snaked off and disappeared into the hills.
"I stopped right there and stared up that road -- thinking of all the places I wanted to see, all the adventures I'd never had. . . . I could take that road, disappear and live the life I'd dreamed of living. Or I could do the right thing and go back to your mother."
There seemed little doubt that wanderlust was in my genes. And it had twice brought me to the city of Agra, where the magnificent Taj Mahal rests on a vast marble plinth along the Yamuna River. I first came in 1979, as an astonished 25-year-old, and now, a quarter of a century later, with Mom.
For the first-time visitor to India, the Taj is an unforgettable highlight. Nothing compares with walking through the domed gateway and watching as Shah Jahan's marvel in marble explodes into view.
"It's awesome," said my mother, gaping at the pearlescent dome and slightly tilted minarets. "Every aspect of its design is perfect -- down to a level that approaches magic."
The Taj does this for everyone. All who visit are beatified, united by a common sense of awe.
We strolled together around the grounds, watching as the sun descended and the creamy marble morphed into orange, pink and blue.
"It's like a dream come true," my mother whispered, then laughed. "Though I can't honestly say that."
"Because I never dreamed I would be here."
A TOUGH COOKIE
Food-wise, my worries had been for naught. Even with the need for a couple of Pepto-Bismols, Mom proved tougher than most of the backpackers I'd traveled with. Sticking to a vegetarian diet -- easy to do in India -- Mom developed a taste for the local cuisine. Lentil soup, vegetable cutlets, masala dosas (enormous, crispy crepes stuffed with potatoes and peas) and fresh lime sodas became our staples.
What she couldn't handle were the aggressive hawkers. As we emerged from the Taj Mahal or waited for our elephant ride below Jaipur's Amber Fort, packs of insistent touts pressed in on us with satchels full of wooden chess sets, silver bracelets and mirrored sandals, onyx eggs and marble trivets. They surrounded Mom, tugging at her sleeves. "Hello . . . you buy . . . 50 rupees . . . OK, 20 rupees . . . yes, yes, 10 rupees. . . ."
My mother cowered, waving her arms as if besieged by gnats. "I can't stand this!" she'd cry, trying to find an escape route. I'd take her arm and lead her to the safety of our car.
As she rolled up the windows despite the furious heat, I asked: "How could a woman who directed a day-care center for welfare mothers, surrounded all day by screaming kids, be intimidated by a few guys selling postcards and trinkets? Why were the kids any easier to handle?"
"I was bigger than they were," she replied.
Such aggression was not a problem in Udaipur. The relaxed city -- with its labyrinthine palaces, painting galleries and tradition of independence -- is a portal onto Rajasthan's past. Posh restaurants serve Mughal curries, and festooned boats ply the romantic lake.
Among Mom's few complaints was that there had been little natural charm in the places we visited. "The beauty in India," she said, "is all in the culture, the history, the monuments."
I hoped Udaipur would demonstrate otherwise.
We arrived at the Fateh Prakash Palace hotel and found a table at the outdoor restaurant. It was a sultry afternoon, and we surveyed the view over Lake Pichola -- with the Taj Lake Palace Hotel resting on its surface like a mirage.
"Well, this is lovely," Mom said as we munched on pakoras and sipped Kingfisher beers. A sitar and tabla duet played an afternoon raga. "It's good to finally see some natural beauty."
I kept silent, loath to remind her that the lake was artificial -- but she was a step ahead of me. "At least the mountains are natural," she said.
The next morning, we visited Nagda, a nearby temple complex built in the 10th century. It was an unexpected gem, surrounded by flowers and trees. The ancient Hindu shrines were covered inside and out with exquisite marble carvings. Here, again, was a place where natural and cultural beauty worked together. It put my mother in an expansive mood.
Before leaving, we stopped at a table where an artist was selling small, modernistic statues of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of auspicious beginnings. Mom purchased one.
Idol-worship is forbidden in Judaism. But Indian gods and goddesses are so colorful and compelling that Jewish travelers in Asia often succumb to the "Golden Calf syndrome." But my mother?
"Amazing," I said. "I never thought I'd see you, of all people, buying a graven image!"
She shrugged. "I won't pray to this. It's just a fanciful, mythological creature. A souvenir, not a manifestation of God."
BACK TO SCHOOL
After a week, my mother had had her fill of monuments and temples. Her questions had changed. She wanted to know where people shopped and how middle-class families lived. Most of all, she was interested in visiting the places she knew best: schools.
On our final day in Udaipur, I directed our driver to the Rajasthan Mahila Galeda Senior Secondary and Primary School. This was the first in Rajasthan to offer education to girls.
Usha Kiran, the vice principal, instantly arranged an informal tour. "There are 1,500 girls studying in this school," she said.
The grounds were spacious: big white buildings surrounded by arched porticoes, separated by gardens and playgrounds. Four teachers joined us; they were adept at answering my mother's questions about curriculum, testing and further education.
Mom was in her element. This experience clearly meant more to her than any marble monument. Here she could appreciate the similarities between her world and the lives of Indians. It was a hinge that swung everything into place and taught my mother what I had learned, with difficulty, nearly 30 years ago.
When the tour was over, I returned to Kiran's office. "Thank you so much," I said. "This meant the world to my mom. I know it seems strange to see a grown son traveling with his. . . ."
Kiran held up her hand to silence me. "There is no need to explain," she said. "Mother is Mother. There is no supplement."
Our last evening in Delhi, as I rode with my mother to the airport, I asked what she'd liked most and least about India. Topping the list was the Taj and Udaipur. For the low points, her answer surprised me.
"I didn't like taking my shoes off," she said, "and walking barefoot on those dirty temple floors."
But India transforms everyone it touches. The axiom was reaffirmed two months after our trip, when I asked my mother how the journey had affected her.
"It's not for everyone," she said. "You have to be ready, physically and emotionally, because it impacts every sense. Sight, sound, smell, taste -- even the sense of touch, because you have to take off your shoes, and be in contact with the ground."
"What about the culture?"
"It was like being in another world -- but I loved it. I felt very comfortable. And I realized that no matter where I go, what clothing people wear or what traditions they practice, we're all human beings. We all want the same things: to enjoy our lives, live in peace and be allowed to practice what we believe in.
"There's no doubt that India changed me. It wasn't a vacation," she said with a laugh. "It was an experience."
The other person changed by the trip, of course, was me.
India, I'd seen before. My mother kneeling in a Hindu temple, receiving a blessing from a holy man in a loincloth, never. By coaxing Mom out of her comfort zone, I was pulled out of mine. But the view that changed for me was not of Asia, but of what's inside my own skin.
Looking back on the visit -- on Mom's easy rapport with strangers and her ability to take the unexpected in stride -- I had a startling realization. Since adolescence, I'd believed the wanderlust in my veins had come from my coltish, distracted father. My restlessness, maybe, and my reluctance to settle. But the ability to steep myself in other cultures and thrive in alien environments may have come from that other set of chromosomes.
Mother India, that rascal, tricked me again. She sneaked in another lesson, and blew my mind once more.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times