Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Indian constitution, celebrated as Republic Day. India is proud and thriving.
I remember twenty five years ago, when the air is clean and the sky is eye-blue on this January national holiday in New Delhi. I am with someone I have been dating for more than a year, my boss, and we have been on a two-week press trip in India, from Bombay to Agra.
I amuse this man, and sometimes he amuses me, but I plan to leave him when we return home. I do not love him. For days we have talked of personal things with our driver and guide as they wend us along the narrow, dusty Indian roads, and I feel as uneasy at my inability to break this relationship off as I do about the dangers of the traffic.
The road is a dismal carnival. We pass a bear on hind legs, chained to a tree, and a dead man in a gutter, like roadkill. The driver keeps going.
Cars dart about like schools of fish. Overloaded trucks, silent as beached whales, sprawl on their sides every few miles, and pedestrians and animals cross the highways in the dark of night as vehicles head toward us, headlights off. I close my eyes much of the time as we drive along.
The driver and guide are happy in their arranged marriages. My companion and I are both divorced after failed "love marriages."
"Ah," says the driver. "You expect so much, and are disappointed. We expect so little, and are pleased."
On Republic Day in New Delhi this January 26 we are near the end of the journey, attending a daylong celebration of marching men, military hardware, elephants, camels, bands, floats and overhead jets. Hundreds of thousands of spectators have steadfastly walked miles to line the parade route, many in white celebration dress, and they line the main boulevard, dozens deep.
We are in our black car, windows closed, and we move at a walker's pace through the swirling whiteout of people. The mass seems so large that a satellite might have picked it up as a snowstorm in India. Miraculously the car avoids hitting anyone as we crawl along toward the parade, a massive black bug in a blizzard of bodies. The walkers seem to ignore us, except for a few men who ominously thump the vehicle's hood and pound the windshield.
I am overcome with feelings: fear that we could become victims of this mob, turned suddenly sour in the midday heat; awe at the stoic Indian people; sorrow, for their poverty; guilt for being relatively well-off; misery for being here with someone I don't even like much.
The man I am traveling with stays in the car, but I decide to break away and make it to the edge of the huge boulevard to an island of folding seats in a sea of standing souls. Across the way, behind a bullet proof screen I see the handsome prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and his western wife Sonia.
Our rows of seats, facing theirs across the way, seem to be the only ones along the entire miles of parade route. The guide escorts me to my place and I observe close-up the panoply of booming guns and waving politicians. Streaming jets fly low above the crowds, ark-fulls of animals and costumed villagers pass. I'm uncomfortable with the disparity of sitting while so many are standing, but not so uncomfortable that I give up my chair.
Our stay at the parade lasts perhaps an hour, but the ride back to our nearby hotel, parting the throngs, takes another hour.
"Did you like the parade?" our driver asks.
"Oh yes, magnificent," we answer in that condescending tone first-worlders use in third-world countries."
"You had a wonderful seat, Lea." You know you were sitting next to a movie legend to half a billion fans."
Next to me? Nobody glamorous was next to me. Well, there was that large woman in a gold sari who never glanced my way. A Bollywood star? She looked like just another woman. Famous? How was I supposed to know?
But there was so much I couldn't realize on that sunny January day in New Delhi, so long ago: that the young prime minister across the road would soon be assassinated, and that his blond wife would 20 years later be elected herself, only to turn the position down. Or that India, so desperately poor, would become a rising star of the next millennium.
And I did not know that it would not take me a few weeks but another year to leave the man I was with. Or that I would be single for 12 more years, traveling, observing, and growing more independent with each trip spinning me around the globe into cultures that both unsettled and challenged me.
I would not find easy answers to life's disparities and ironies. Like the Indian Roads - dark, chaotic and full of the unexpected - the world would continue to throw surprises my way. And I would continue to deal with them, best I could. And learn.