Writing in Hindustan

tour bus

I was on a bus in India, staring back at a little girl with the blackest eyes.

Not black like death, but abyssal; pools of deep wonder staring back at me. Nothing else.  These black pools belonged to a small round face, which had a flat, round button for a nose, and a rose bud for a mouth. Black tendrils of corkscrew curls framed this orbital face. She looked no older than five. Her kurta, so tiny it looked like she had worn her doll’s dress, was red and faded as the earth.

Her curls bounced up and down and so did her tiny ball of a head as our bus—this rickety pile of metal and wood with a 3rd-hand engine and four wheels—bounced and rocked its way down a #####-mile highway of rocks and pebbles. Her eyes though, those abyssal black pools, remained as steady and fixed on me as a placid lake. A tiny thumb was lodged inside her tiny mouth, like it belonged there.

The bus screeched to a halt, throwing most of us forward. I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds and blinked them a few more times. I glanced outside the window, my gaze lost out into the dark nothingness of night. I tried to peer through the thick clouds of smog, the dark layers of night, for any mere indication of current location. My watch said 4:30 in the morning, which meant I had been riding through Hindustan for over five hours now.

An infant, the round-eyed little girl’s sibling, started to cry.

What am I doing here?

The question blared at me for the tenth time since I plopped on that torn seat. It was a literal question and less of an existential one, though I knew there would be no escaping the latter for long.

Our driver, this frail little man with three layers of clothes on, jumped out to inspect the engine, muttering words I’d never understand. The baby’s crying grew into full-on wailing. The person behind me was kicking my seat, restless. My temples began to throb.

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So, about India.

“No Worry. Come, come.”

In Kozhikode in Northern Kerala, at the crack of dawn, I stumbled into a small decent-looking hotel and straight to the concierge. I was ravenous and exhausted from a rough 5-hour bus ride from Mysore. All I wanted was a decent meal –paratha, dossa, idli, anything, anywhere within 20 metres. It was the crack of dawn, the hotel kitchen and restaurant was not open until some 2 hours later. The tall man behind the front desk informed me of this with a polite apologetic look on his face. Disappointed and hungry, I thanked him and retreated. He suddenly raised a hand, stopping me, then beckoned quickly. I followed him to the closed hotel kitchen, which he opened, wordlessly gestured for me to wait in the restaurant, and in 15 minutes I had toast, butter, jam and freshly brewed coffee in front of me.

I love how everything, anything, can be arranged in this country. (Was what I tweeted, oh hipster me)

I think one of the things that struck the most and implanted itself in my heart forever was the easy openness of people in India. Traversing from north to south, jumping from bus to bus, landing in random cities, navigating a system of organised chaos, constant negotiating. This was how I met and experienced India, albeit not long or far enough. And amidst all the haphazardness and frenzy and occassional scamming mishaps, were people who helped, welcomed, received me, so openly and effortlessly that even I would have the urge to remind them that I was still just a stranger. In fact, at some point I did, and the response I got was a quizzical look and a jumbled mumble that sounded like, “You are now part of family, what are you talking about?” 

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On that same day, still in Northern Kerala, I found myself adopted by a family. Yes, a family. Complete strangers, booked in that same hotel for the long weekend and ready to tour around Wayanand for a day trip. The kind man from the concierge had asked them if they would let me, a lone traveller not even booked into the hotel, join them. Without much fuss or drilling (save for the standard “where are you from?”) I hopped into a van and found myself on a roadtrip.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, on that same afternoon, I knew this was the highlight of my entire trip. No majestic sights and altitudes such as The Himalayas and the Taj Mahal. Just a day of driving around tea estates and coffee farms, meeting the farmers themselves, some kulfi, jokes and laughs with the kids, feeling like a kid again. Before the day tour ended, we were welcomed into the home of one coffee farmer and his wife offered us some snacks and the standard good ol’ masala chai.

The day began with me hungry and disoriented in an unfamiliar city, and ended with friends I would remember forever. And a long hot shower and the first really good horizontal sleep in 4 days.

This was how I ended my few weeks in India. Well, not quite, it ended in Bangalore and equally received and welcomed by a group that were strangers for 5 minutes and with whom spent the last seconds of 2011 and first of 2012. And this was pretty much how the entire trip began. In my first three days upon arriving in India, from Delhi to Chandigarh, I was welcomed and offered a bed and food and even chapatti lessons and words of wisdom from a Punjabi mother (but that’s for another post).

Yes, I might be generalising and wrapping up a summation of all my pleasant encounters from those 2-3 weeks wandering about a foreign country. I could quickly assume that all this was based on a certain bias of debunked notions and expectations. I am from a country supposedly known for its culture of warm hospitality and generousity especially to foreigners (our history more than tourism reports is main proof). Yet I was (and still am) overwhelmed by the constant response I experienced, from bus to bus, city to city, start to end.

So, about my strong emotional and nostalgic reference to all things India: how could I not?

India = Open doors, open kitchens, open hearts.