A Passage to India
As we came out to the airport entrance after arriving at Delhi Airport from Heathrow Airport in London, we looked about for the man who was to meet us there. We were going to stay at a budget hotel [recommended in Lonely Planet] located in the Tibetian colony outside of the city and touted as an oasis of calm away from the frantic downtown pace of the capital.
We spotted our name held up on a piece of card, exchanged greetings with our driver, and followed him in a jet-lag haze to his taxi.
This was the beginning of my first trip to India. However, I have imagined what it might be like many times in my head: First as a child reading English novels where nine times out of ten some character somewhere somehow had a connection with India (either as an orphan of wealthy parents or otherwise, that is); and then as an adult, where the colorful exoticism portrayed in books and drama like A Passage to India, A Jewel in the Crown, and Monsoon Wedding further tempted me.
So far, however, besides the smattering of lovely saris and turbans that I had noticed in our Virgin flight and in the queue going through Immigration for Customs, nothing extraordinary had hit my senses.
Spring and Soot
Now as we exited the airport lounge with our driver, I felt the delight of spring-like temperatures and the wealth of light and sun. What a treat it was, coming from dreary wintertime in northern England where we live!
We walked to our cab. I couldn’t help but notice immediately how worn the car was. We scooted in the back, and a few moments later I was bit perturbed to find out that there were no seat belts.
Within An Inch
My Western brain had only absorbed that fact when out we shot into the traffic. Our shy driver was in his medium, we observed. What we were in was nothing short of astonishing. From all locations, there was hooting and tooting. Buses with colorful Indian script came barreling down lanes awash with motorcycles, scooters, bikes, and rickshaws. Everyone threw caution to the wind, and it looked like a race as to who could get within inches of another vehicle yet not get into an accident.
“How long have you been driving a taxi?” I piped up in the back, figuring it would be nice to strike up a conversation with our amiable driver.
As he turned around politely to answer me, David’s brain was working where mine was not.
“Maybe don’t talk to him, he has to concentrate on the driving!” he said.
I heeded his wise caution and though I hadn’t slept more than a few hours in two days, I turned my attention solely to the sight outside our car.
We passed houses that looked like they were crumbling in the midst of towering, gaudy-looking billboards advertising in English and Hindi (or some other Indian language). Although I had been ‘warned’ about India’s standards, I was still taken aback by the lack of pavement and the mounds of dust that swirled in the streets. The street was packed with people, but the vehicles reigned supreme.
A moment later we passed a sparse gathering of trees where I exclaimed with delight when I saw a small troupe of wild monkeys playing about, seemingly oblivious to the traffic that scraped speedily by their sides.
Rags and Roses
I fell asleep in the back, however, overcome by fatigue. I awoke a bit when we came to a light. Somehow I felt like I was being watched. Sure enough, I looked to my right – and there a little girl of no more than seven or eight who was very poorly dressed and with disheveled hair. She peered into the car, her face pressed up against the window with her hand cupped around her eyes. She clutched some artificial red roses that she was trying to sell, looking at me beseechingly as she motioned to me.
Not paying any attention to the traffic, she then came around the back of the car to my side, her gorgeous dark eyes warm and pleading inches away on the other side of the glass.
At that point, the driver turned around and shooed her away. I felt a mixture of shock and pity at what had occurred.
The light changed, and we were off. And what caught my eyes next in the sea of charging cars was a large, white, placid-looking bullock. I think it was attached to a cart, but I can’t remember exactly.
What I do recall was its pure vanilla color, its large horns and massive body impassive in the traffic. It was like an island of serenity in the midst of chaos.
“Did you see that?” David said with great excitement.
“Amazing!” I replied.
Our driver snaked onwards, handling anything that tried to muscle in on him with great adeptness and agility. David and I sitting in the back were greatly impressed.
And then, once again – another huge, unperturbed bullock was on display for us in the middle of everything, its blanched skin shining in the afternoon air.
In Another Life
I thought about the Indian concept of reincarnation, and I realized then and there that the idea of coming back like one of those two bullocks etched in the Delhi setting that day was positively delightful because of the peace and calm that they radiated even when surrounded by an ocean of craziness.