India is a big, colourful and densely populated place. It is impossible to see it all. Most travellers therefore try to order their Indian journey in some way, to give form to what would otherwise be an unstructured jumble of sights and experiences.
We had met some backpackers who were following the hippie trail across the sub-continent; others doing a grand tour of temples or palaces; others following a spiritual path, hopping from one guru and ashram to the next. Some travellers were focussed on a particular region, others on highlights they especially want to see.
Our cunning plan, however, was to draw a rough, clock-wise circle on a map of India, beginning in Varanasi and finishing in Delhi. Now, after more than four months on the road, we had finally arrived in the capital, which was to be our last stop. A year earlier, when we had pre-booked our departure flights, this had seemed like a faraway future that would never arrive. But here we were, one last week left before we would be leaving India, and returning to the world we knew.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
So what did we do in Delhi, to make the most of our final week in India? Pretty much nothing, if truth be told.
One day was spent kicking around in an area known as Paharganj, or Main Bazaar, the gateway to most of Delhi’s northern markets. Here we had our last taste of the bursting alleyways and heaving crowds we had become so familiar with all over India. We wondered around, tasting at the fruit and vegetable stalls, sniffing the aromatic spices and pungent perfumes, soaking up for the last time the hustle and bustle and sensory overload that defines an Indian market.
Another morning we went for a stroll around Connaught Circle and the government sector of town. Delhi is the grand old dame of Indian cities and most of India’s government ministries and offices are here. Many are quite monumental structures, leftovers from the British era, and the streets in this part of town are wide and neatly laid out, flowing with a steady stream of diplomats, businessmen and bureaucrats.
And that was about it. We could have spent the rest of our time sightseeing – exploring Old Delhi, and the many museums, markets, temples, mosques, parks, public squares, fountains and gardens, but we just weren’t up for it. Apart from a few obligatory rambles, we spent our final days hiding out in a hotel room, enjoying its air-conditioning, Zee-TV, and in-room dining menu.
You see, we were tired – completely and utterly wrecked. Four months of travel in India had taken its toll, and we were physically and mentally exhausted. India is a fascinating country, but is also a draining, demanding place to travel in. As days had turned to weeks turned to months, our fortitude had been washed away, in the same way that relentless waves will break down even the most solid of rocks.
We had endured searing temperatures for so long that we had become heat-fatigued and lethargic. Being sick once is bad enough, but that is nothing compared to having a running stomach for weeks on end. I had wiped grime off my face and blown black into a handkerchief so many times that I now felt permanently dirty, like the dust of India had coloured my skin, a permanent tattoo to remind me of my time there. For months we had not had a home, instead living like snails carting our lives around on our backs; we had moved from one low-grade hotel room to another, interspersed with long journeys on clunking railway carriages, and endless queues, bureaucracy and red-tape.
I had also begun to notice changes in myself. I was speaking louder, shouting to be heard above the constant din; I was less sharp; less concerned with time; less punctual. I had started to apply the rules of Indian Logic in my daily interactions with other people. I felt less secure in my own company, and needed a daily hit of a bustling, overcrowded marketplace environment to feel “normal” in the same way as a coffee drinker might need a cappuccino to get going in the morning.
In short, after all these weeks and months, the physical environment of India – the unrelenting heat, pollution and crowds – had finally got to us. It really was time for us to leave, and in Delhi we were simply going through the motions, counting down the days until our departure.
The epicentre of Delhi is Connaught Place, enclosed within a very un-Indian traffic circle known as Connaught Circus, around which traffic zooms at breakneck speed, at all hours of the day and night. It is quite large – around twenty minutes to walk the full circumference – and also quite lovely to look at, surrounded fully by gracious, curving buildings, with stately English style facades and columns, apart from where seven main arterial roads emanate from the central circle, like the spokes of a very big wheel.
In a way, Connaught Place is also the epicentre of India. Pick any spot in the country, and you can get there (with a little latitude for poetic license) by driving off along one of the seven roads that lead away from it. Standing in the scruffy grass park at the centre of Connaught Place is like standing at, or rather right on, the heart of India. It seemed like a fitting spot from which to say farewell to India, and so on our last day, after checking out of our hotel, we headed there for a final look around and a quick meal.
Thus it was that at 7:00pm we stood on the side of Connaught Circus, weathered backpacks at our side, ready to leave. Our plane was only scheduled to depart at 2:00am, but we had decided to make our way to the airport early. We thought we might read, hang-out in the relative comfort of an airport lounge, and maybe even have a shower before the long flight.
We hailed a rickshaw and asked the driver to take us to the bus-stop from where the airport express bus departed. This was almost exactly opposite from where we were standing across Connaught Place, and we could have walked it in less than fifteen minutes, only our bags were heavy.
The rickshaw driver nodded sagely, and without so much as indicating, sped out onto the Connaught Circus formula-one racetrack. Weaving in and out of the traffic like a possessed madman, we were on the other side of the circle in no time. Only the driver didn’t stop, and we whizzed past the airport bus-stop at lightning speed. “No!”, I cried, “its back there!”.
The rickshaw driver nodded sagely, again, and swerved violently off Connaught Circus, onto a side road. For the next fifteen minutes he drove us through an impenetrable maze of back alleys and dingy streets that we were now belatedly discovering surrounds Connaught Place like a finely woven net. I became increasingly frustrated, and started shouting at the rickshaw driver, although it was patently clear that not only did he have no idea where the airport bus departed from, but he barely understood English.
It got to the point where I was about to reach out and throttle the fool, but Camilla saved the day, calling out to him “Connaught Place”. The driver’s eyes lit up with a flicker of recognition, he made a number of quick manoeuvres, and then brought us out onto the main ring road, not twenty metres from the spot where we had begun this particular journey.
Here we jumped out of the rickshaw, and walked across Connaught Place, after all. Only that the weather had turned, and so now we were walking in a vicious wind, that was whipping the sand up around us.
Our final moments in India were thus spent dodging traffic in a blinding dust storm, tripping under the weight of our bags. I had hoped that in the dead of night we could silently slink out of the country without much fuss, like two weary phantoms finally leaving the house that they had been haunting for a time. Instead, it was a traumatic effort, and when we eventually boarded the airport bus we were irritated, puffing from the exertion, and caked in a layer of grimy dust.
Not all that different to the rest of our time in India, really.
At the airport we were stopped by a security guard, who asked to see our tickets. He studied them carefully and then informed us that in accordance with airport policy we could not enter the terminal building until three hours prior to our scheduled departure time.
“So we’re a few hours early”, I said. “Does it really make a difference?”
Evidently it did, because the security guard glowered at me fiercely, and his eyes filled with suspicion – our arrival at the airport almost five hours early could only be part of a devious terrorist plot. Negotiation proved fruitless, until I pointed out that the alternative was for us to sit down on the sidewalk right where we were, and keep him company for the next few hours. At this the guard gave in, and allowed us entry. But even then, only on the strict proviso that we sat on a nearby bench, within sight of his post – clearly we were not going to be blowing up the building on this hero’s shift.
Our permitted bench was hard and uncomfortable. Then again, so was every other bench in the large and shabby room that was masquerading as the airport’s departure “lounge”. The magazine store was closed, and so we were unable to buy any reading material. We were hungry, but for the first time ever in India I could not find anyone selling food. The most I could manage was a rather miserable cheese sandwich on plastic bread from the official airport “canteen” (although maybe I am being needlessly fussy – two elderly English ladies, who had each purchased similar cheese sandwiches, commented that they were “really rather nice”).
Moving down the list of our planned airport activities, I approached the “service desk” to inquire as to the location of the airport showers. The man behind the counter was barely able to suppress his laughter at this preposterous question. “No sir, there are no showers at the airport!”, he said in a tone of voice suggesting he thought I was insane for even asking. The best he could offer was that I leave the airport terminal, walk to the nearby airport hotel, and use the showers there.
This in turn meant that I had to negotiate an exit with the guard, whose suspicion level, already high, now went into the Red Zone. I mean, first I wanted to come into the airport, and now I wanted to go out? Again, after a five-minute discussion he gave in, but insisted that if I was to leave the terminal Camilla would have to remain behind, as collateral.
After all this the airport hotel turned out to be an overpriced flea-pit, and the receptionist would not let me use the shower unless I agreed to take a room for a whole day. To his surprise I immediately agreed, at which point he slowly paged through a large book before informing me: “I am sorry. We are full”. For the second time that evening, I felt like reaching out and throttling someone.
Anyway, I returned to the terminal annoyed and unwashed. We thus proceeded to take turns “bathing” in the basin of the public toilets, our comings and goings closely scrutinized by the ever watchful guard.
Finally, at midnight, which could not have come a moment sooner, a voice on the PA system invited us to check-in. The clerk at the check-in counter processed my ticket first, handed me a boarding pass, and then turned to Camilla: “I regret to inform you, but there is no record of a Miss Mahony on this flight”.
Panic stations. We immediately launched into a full explanation of how we had confirmed our flights three days before, and I dug around in my bag to produce the paper copy of our itinerary and tickets. I said that perhaps he had made a mistake, and the clerk became quite angry at the mere suggestion. After scanning his list again, once more he repeated the bad news. “And the flight is fully booked” he added for good measure, with just a touch of malice in his voice.
Surely this could not be happening. I was on the verge of bursting – into tears or murderous rage, possibly both. Camilla implored him to have one final look at his list, and perhaps sensing my imminent explosion he begrudgingly agreed.
After a few very long seconds, he looked up at us. “Ah, I am sorry. It seems I have made an error. Miss Camilla Mahony, right? It is here on the list, under M”.
“Oh, hiding there under M is it?” Camilla responded, her voice heavy with sarcasm.
“Yes, it is under M. M for Mahony”, the clerk cheerfully replied as he handed over her boarding pass. It was all I could do to hold back from jumping across the counter and throttling this prize moron, too.
And then, the most bizarre of the lot: while waiting until 3:00am for boarding (the plane’s departure was delayed an hour, of course) we discovered that in the international departure hall of Delhi International Airport, which can only be accessed after checking your bags and going through customs, there is a beautiful marble bathroom, complete with a luxurious shower.
I could not resist the urge to conduct an impromptu inspection, and not surprisingly, the shower had not recently been used. An airport employee was cleaning the adjacent bathroom, and I asked him what on earth a shower was doing in this part of the airport, where it was of absolutely no use to anyone.
“But sir,” the cleaner protested, “it is for your convenience”.
Dirty, tense and tired, we finally collapsed into our seats. While we waited for the plane to taxi, I put my head back, closed my eyes, and tried to capture in my mind’s eye one overriding image of India; to formulate a single visual snapshot that I could carry with me forever as the defining memory of the time we had spent travelling the length and breadth of the subcontinent.
And what came to mind, fighting its way past the Taj Mahal, the lake at Udaipur, and sunset in the desert with Babu and his camels, was a vision of our rickshaw driver from earlier that day, doing the head-waggle.
Indians, you see, have a seemingly national ability to waggle their heads. Neither up-down nor side-to-side, it’s more of a non-directional waggle, like the head of a jack-in-the-box mounted on a bouncy spring. Wherever our travels in India had taken us – the mountains of Darjeeling, the coconut groves of Kerala or the depths of Rajasthan – the head-waggling was always there.
In the “cultural notes” section of our guidebook this tendency to head-waggle had not even rated a mention, although as far as I am concerned understanding the head-waggle is one of the keys – if not the key – to understanding and surviving India. It can mean “yes”, it can mean “no”, it can mean “maybe”. It can mean “I don’t have a clue”, or it can mean “don’t ask me, I just work here”. It can mean all of these things at once, and maybe a thousand other things as well. Or it can mean nothing at all.
When we’d confront a person after they had lied to us or cheated us, the standard response was a confused look and a waggle of the head. When we would ask directions of a stranger, the reply would often be prefaced with a knowledgeable head-waggle. Oftentimes the head-waggle was the only response. When taking our order in restaurants, usually the waiters would “do the waggle” so that we were left in the dark as to whether they even vaguely understood what is was that we wanted to eat.
Head waggling is an inescapable part of India – be it when negotiating the price for a box of spices in the market (waggle waggle); hailing a rickshaw driver to take you to the train station (waggle waggle); checking on the availability of a hotel room for the night (waggle waggle); or inquiring as to the train departure time (waggle waggle). And so on.
A traveller soon learns that life in India is a matter of waggling one’s head, and it annoyed the hell out of us until it dawned on us that we, too, could become wagglers. And although at first waggling had felt rather stupid, with practice it had become easier. Initially we tried waggling in response to questions, then waggling in a variety of other situations, and finally we were even waggling our heads at each other. It was strangely quite liberating – an Orwellian reduction of an entire lexicon of words and gestures into a single, all-encompassing action.
And once we began waggling, life on the road in India became measurably easier, less stressful, and dare I say it, vaguely pleasurable. For India to become even slightly comprehensible, I first had to come to terms with the waggle, and its highly specific meaning (or more precisely, non-meaning). I had to let go of my Western expectations of hand-shakes, or head-nods, or direct responses to questions, and embrace the uncertainty. I had to accept that in India even the most elementary of communications operated from a base principle that was totally unlike anything I understood.
It is not just head-waggling, of course. India is, quite simply, different – a more or less self-contained society in a country that seems to function without reference to any other.
So for example India supports a highly popular domestic film-industry, and most Indians don’t watch Western films. Ditto with television; ditto with pop music. Madonna could walk down the main street of Calcutta and no-one would turn their heads (in fact they probably would turn their heads at the sight of a blonde and female foreigner, but you get the point).
India is largely self-sufficient in food and energy production. The majority of vehicles on the road in India are domestically produced by the Tata and Bajaj conglomerates. Many Indian men still wear traditional clothing, almost every Indian woman wears the traditional sari, and jeans have had almost no impact on Indian fashion trends. India has its local cuisines; there are hardly any Western fast-food outlets; there are uniquely Indian architectural styles; Hinduism is almost a self-sustaining domestic Indian religion.
True, as we had learned first-hand on our travels, India is not homogenous, and there are significant regional differences. But these only serves to make India more, rather than less, of an insular, self-contained world. When Indians holiday, they holiday in Darjeeling or Kashmir – places which, to a native of Madras say, are as exotic as Paris. A range of distinct regional cuisines means that there is no need for foreign foods – in India, culinary variety is right there, and a Gujurati thali house in Calcutta is as out-of-place as a Mexican restaurant in Melbourne. The different languages, traditions, and cultures which define and separate the numerous Indian provinces also ensure that within its borders India contains all the diversity of a multicultural society. Apart from the odd colonial imprint here and there, present-day India seems to have remained largely untouched by foreign influences.
I am not saying this is a bad thing, but for me as a backpacker it was bewildering and unsettling to be so completely immersed in a place so immeasurably different. Whenever I found myself feeling nostalgic, I couldn’t grab a familiar newspaper, or see a trashy Hollywood film, or reach out for some other comforting reminder of “home”. Perhaps that is why some of my strongest memories of India are of unexpected encounters with familiar objects: Coca-Cola in the desert; leather-clad night-clubbers in Bombay; cable TV in Jodphur. After months in India these objects had become so foreign to me that to suddenly see them again had seemed strange, bordering on unnatural. In the late 20th century, India remains supremely Indian.
To truly experience India means leaving your Western preconceptions and expectations at the baggage check-in. It means that you have to accept Indian Logic as the operative paradigm; it means adjusting to Indian time and the Indian way of doing things. It means a basic reappraisal of notions such as personal space, community and identity. It means learning to waggle your head. This is the sort of cultural realignment that requires years, if not decades, and I don’t think I even got close. It took me months just to become a moderately competent head-waggler.
So what’s the punch-line? Well, I don’t think that there is one, other than the fact that visiting India is like visiting another world. Only it is the same world, on the same planet, and, now that I mention it, India comprises an extremely large part of that same planet. This in turn means that at least one in seven of us see the world in an Indian way. One in seven of us is a head-waggler. For me, this knowledge alone has made my trip to India a worthwhile experience, which I would, without hesitation, do again.
Whether I want to revisit India at some time in the future – to endure once more the trials and tribulations of travel in India – is another matter altogether. Camilla asked me that very question shortly after our plane took-off from Delhi International. I thought “yes” and “no” and “maybe”, and I thought “I’m tired and I want to sleep”. But my instinctive response was to waggle my head.