How a lo­cal’s kind­ness helped spark a trav­eller’s 30-year love af­fair with In­dia

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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!”

Cover pho­tog­ra­phy by Tuul and Bruno Mo­randi

Mar­ble lat­tice­work at Hu­mayun’s Tomb, Delhi

Jal Ma­hal (Wa­ter Palace) seem­ingly floats on Jaipur’s Man Sa­gar Lake

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