‘In­dia for soft­ies’ helped me cope with tragedy

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Stella How­ells

This week’s win­ner: falls in love with the coun­try that claimed her brother’s life

It took me 22 years to face my demons and visit In­dia for the first time, at the age of 60. Why so long? In 1996 my brother and his part­ner were un­law­fully killed in a car crash in Goa state. I came to the de­ci­sion that the only way to en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence with­out it be­com­ing a pil­grim­age was to take the travel group route. Goa, even af­ter all this time, felt too raw. The ob­vi­ous choice then was to see the sights. The Golden Tri­an­gle beck­oned and, with my hus­band, I joined a group for a whis­tle-stop tour of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra over eight days.

From the mo­ment we landed I fell un­ex­pect­edly in love. Delhi was ev­ery­thing I imag­ined and in­fin­itely more – black kites wheel­ing high over the traf­fic, women gig­gling and wav­ing. Huge, furry fruit bats in a flurry over the trees on the Lu­tyens round­abouts.

At Hu­mayun’s tomb the sight of builders on a roof, weld­ing wear­ing flip-flops and sun­glasses, was as po­tent as the tomb it­self.

Our guide was a pro – fend­ing off un­wanted hawk­ers, guid­ing 24 naive and obliv­i­ous Bri­tons around the haz­ards of cows, tuk-tuks and bazaar ven­dors, watch­fully keep­ing his as­sets (us) safe.

Nat­u­rally, I had is­sues with the roads. I knew the sta­tis­tics. I watched the on­com­ing traf­fic keenly and re­fused to sleep on the long jour­neys be­tween cities. Be­sides, I was too en­er­gised by the com­plex­i­ties of the scenes un­fold­ing to want to miss any­thing.

No one in the group ap­par­ently saw, as I did, a three-wheeled truck, driv­ing at speed, fell an el­derly whiskered man and cat­a­pult a sari into the air, to land on top of its owner. A flash of white, cit­rine yel­low, and she was gone. Six­teen peo­ple on the same

A flash of white, cit­rine yel­low, and she was gone. No one else saw it

side of the coach and not one per­son reg­is­tered it. In con­ver­sa­tions over five-star dining, fel­low trav­ellers mar­velled at the skill of the In­di­ans in avoid­ing hit­ting each other. I kept the sta­tis­tics to my­self.

In­dia lives up to all the clichés: ev­ery­thing about it is stag­ger­ing. The ab­so­lute beauty of the Taj, the bru­tal­ity of streets, the hor­rors of its his­tory, the count­less mon­u­ments built by the sweat of in­signif­i­cant labour­ers. In­va­sion, dy­nas­ties, power grab­bing.

The pres­ence of the Bri­tish and par­ti­tion all swirl into the fas­ci­nat­ing story. Re­li­gions jos­tle on the streets, the tem­ples and mosques. Dur­ing our stay un­rest over the caste act in Delhi re­sulted in the death of a child when the pro­test­ers re­fused to let an am­bu­lance through. We avoided the street vi­o­lence en route to our last ho­tel.

In­dia for soft­ies? Don’t knock it. It was the in­tro­duc­tion I needed. The coun­try is chal­leng­ing enough and this op­tion kept me safe and ready for more. My present to my fam­ily was to re­turn home alive.

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