How a local’s kindness helped spark a traveller’s 30-year love affair with India
NOWHERE FILLS ME WITH SUCH ANTICIPATION AND EXHILARATION AS INDIA. IT’S A CARNIVAL RIDE IN PERPETUAL MOTION.
It Is thrills and terror, laughter and tears, colour, noise and pandemonium. It’s life at full tilt – exhausting when you’re there and a bittersweet relief to leave behind.
India was the first foreign country I visited, 30 years ago, and the only one I’m compelled to return to again and again. But having spent more than three years all up exploring the Subcontinent on my countless trips, its appeal is never easy to explain. In India there are no straight narratives, no black and white, and no earthly comparisons. It is, as many travellers have remarked before, unlike anywhere else on the planet.
“The most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his round,” wrote Mark Twain in 1896. “Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.”
For first-time visitors, it’s a fairly reliable rule of thumb that the city they arrive in will be the one they least like because it embodies all the apprehension, shock and confusion of their introduction to India. In my case, that would have been Bombay (now Mumbai), if not for the intervention of Mr Bakhtyar Khan.
I landed in Bombay in 1987 in the middle of the night and woke to a confronting vision of despair; a world of beggars, touts, and insistent postcard sellers who pursued me down the broken streets.
The sight that troubled me most was that of a young woman, scarred and blind, sitting silently on the busy Colaba Causeway shopping strip with her hand outstretched. Haunted by the depth of her suffering, I took off for Delhi.
The capital felt provincial by comparison. I woke to women sweeping dirt streets at dawn, sending dust clouds billowing into the sun. I remember the aroma of smouldering cow dung and the astonishment of having tiny pebbles extracted from my tympanum by a grubby ear-cleaner on Connaught Circus.
At Humayun’s Tomb, now a major attraction but then a dilapidated monument strangled with weeds and empty of tourists, a deaf boy greeted me with a note offering his services as a guide. He then led me around the mausoleum – a sort of reverse Taj Mahal, built for the emperor Humayun by his widow, Bega Begum – pointing out its 16-metre gateways and the mihrab cut into a screen of latticed marble.
Emboldened by Delhi and its likeable characters, I struck out for Agra, to see the Taj Mahal and sleep in a shabby guesthouse where a mouse ran over my face while I laid in bed. Then a month in Rajasthan, riding the trains, being dazzled by rainbow turbans and saris and gold jewellery flashing in the sunlight, marvelling at palaces, fortresses and walled cities that rose from the desert like mirages and succumbing, with each terracotta cup of chai, to the country’s hypnotic spell.
A month later, at Delhi Airport, I met Mr Khan in the waiting lounge. We were both Bombay-bound and he was eager to know what I thought of the city. I told him – and he was mortified. He vowed to change my mind if I’d let him.
So we touched down at Santa Cruz Airport and each night afterwards, he would collect me on his motorbike and take me on adventures: to the Haji Ali Juice Centre for Alphonso mango shakes; to his friend Farhat’s apartment in Kemps Corner to break the Ramadan fast; to Juhu Beach’s sideshow alley to shoot balloons with air rifles; and to family dinners at the Khans’ Warden Road home, where his sister, Kashmira, a sensational cook, taught me how to make palak paneer (I still have her handwritten recipe).
Mr Khan’s father was a leading figure in the local Islamic community, his mother was raised a Parsi and his brother married a Hindu. They were the perfect family to teach me what makes India tick.
On my final night in the city, we zoomed along Marine Drive at midnight, the sea air cool and charged against my skin, to the top of Malabar Hill. We stood in the Hanging Gardens, gazing down at the Queen’s Necklace, the string of streetlights that trace an arc from Chowpatty Beach to Nariman Point. The city shone beneath us, the night hiding its imperfections and accentuating its beauty, and I conceded to Mr Khan that Bombay did have its charms.
Four months in India taught me more than four years at university. I learnt the virtue of patience – a necessity when dealing with any form of bureaucracy but especially the labyrinthine rail-ticketing system. I learnt to love solitude, to trust my instincts and to trust others.
I learnt the wonder of random acts of kindness, the social ritual of tea and the supremacy of Indian cuisine.
In India, I’m sometimes feted like a king but always treated as a friend. As a local tourism chief once told me: “We may fight against each other but we treat tourists like gods.” At the start of an epic journey aboard the Gitanjali
Express from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Bombay, the shy young man on the top bunk opposite caught my eye and smiled. “Hello, my name is Shah Jehan. I am your friend. You have any problems, tell me.” We spent the next 40 hours living 50 centimetres apart, Shah Jehan checking on me with the occasional “Okay? No problem?” By day two, I had lent him my Walkman and introduced him to the canon of Madonna.
India is not one country but many – and no two are alike. The jungly wilds of Assam and the fantastic creatures that dwell there, from one-horned rhinoceroses to Bengal tigers and Ganges dolphins, are a world apart from the emerald oases and lavender mountains of alien Ladakh, high on the Tibetan plateau. The breakfast views down the magnificent Ramganga Valley in Uttarakhand, in the Himalayan foothills, bear no resemblance to the crumbling glory of Ahmedabad’s old city and the minor palaces and temples of Gujarat. And the burning ghats of Varanasi, where Hindus are cremated and sent straight to nirvana, are the antithesis of Goa’s palmlined beaches and Portuguese churches.
India is a kaleidoscope of faiths and a multitude of gods. Its cultural diversity is written on every rupee note, inscribed in 17 official languages. And its melting pot of peoples has produced a cuisine like no other, its repertoire running from Parsi dhansak and Goan sorpotel to Kashmiri rogan josh and Gujarati thali.
On the surface, India is anarchy. But the great marvel of the world’s largest democracy is that it works, for the most part. There is some comfort to be found in the fact that 1.3 billion souls, or almost a fifth of humanity, can coexist relatively peacefully when unprecedented turmoil reigns elsewhere on Earth.
Perhaps the best description of the country was the one related to me by an old man during a diabolical traffic jam in the heart of Varanasi’s Chowk street market. Stuck fast in a crush of lorries, bullock carts, bicycles and rickshaws, with everyone honking horns, ringing bells and yelling abuse at maximum volume, we both surveyed the baroque scene and he grinned and shouted at me, “India! Different!”
Marble latticework at Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Jal Mahal (Water Palace) seemingly floats on Jaipur’s Man Sagar Lake