When I told my family that I was going to India for a few weeks, they couldn’t imagine why I was choosing to go to such a poor and dirty place where children begged for money on the streets. My dentist, who was Vietnamese like us, also had a less than encouraging reaction on my annual check-up. Although he had travelled extensively since migrating to Australia, he said that if someone bought him a ticket to India, he’d slap them in the face.
At the exit of Indira Gandhi International Airport, there are hundreds of men behind the railings, trying to get the attention of the dazed foreigners walking past. I scan the crowds and eventually find my name scrawled on a piece of cardboard. It’s being held up by the driver from my cheap hotel in Paharganj, New Delhi. I greet him, stick out my hand and confirm that he’s holding my name. He tells me his name is Ajit.
He pulls my small black suitcase through the carpark, while I talk about how exciting it is to be somewhere that already feels so different to anywhere else I’ve been. I get into the front seat of the car and Ajit turns on the ignition. The music that suddenly blared out of the crackly speakers sounded completely foreign.
It’s late in the evening and there seem to be more trucks and lorries than cars on the road. I start chatting to him though I’m not sure he understands what I’m saying. He probably doesn’t speak much on these drives, carting tourists back and forth. Still, I ask him lots of questions and he starts to tell me his life story in broken English.
Ajit moved to Delhi to support his family back in Nepal and only went home once a year to visit for a few days. It was hard work because of the long hours, but it was better than the two years he spent working in Qatar which was “a very bad place”. He makes disapproving clicking noises and shakes his head as he talks about Qatar. A lot of what he’s saying is news to me; I’d heard that cheap manpower from this part of the world made its way to the Middle East, but I didn’t realise that India was also such a place, where people from nearby countries came for work. It said a lot about the state of countries like Nepal if India was considered the land of opportunity.
Ajit is the same age as me and the fact that we’re both twenty-five is a bit of a shock. Somehow I start to feel a little guilty about my cushy job back home managing a website for a city council. I have no idea how much Ajit earns but it’s probably a tiny fraction of my annual salary. So by sole virtue of birthplace, I’m the one commanding him.
And yet, it’s not as though my family has had a wholly comfortable First World existence. My parents arrived in Australia as refugees from Vietnam with only the clothes on their backs. There’s an irony in that Dad works as a driver back home; but unlike Ajit, his job has enabled him to rise far above his initial poverty. For the first time in my life, I’m truly conscious of the fact that if I had grown up in Vietnam instead of Australia, my life would be more like the lives of people here. From Ajit’s sidelong glances he may well be wondering why a young Asian woman is travelling on her own to a place like Delhi, for what seems like no particular reason.
Our conversation is interrupted by the thud of a young boy with bloodshot eyes draping himself across the front of the windscreen as we wait in the heavy traffic. He talks to us through the dirt-streaked glass, asking for money, begging for assistance. Yet Ajit doesn’t seem to notice him. Maybe on India’s seemingly rigid social ladder, Ajit exists a few rungs above the ground so he doesn’t see the people below him. Whereas I had frozen at the sight of someone throwing himself in front of our car.
My attention now turned outward, I see people walking in and out of traffic with no shoes and ragged clothes, while others sleep on the dusty banks by the side of the road under shrubs choking in the thick air. Stunned into silence, I leaned back into my seat as we drive towards Paharganj, wondering what I’m getting myself into.
Even after spending the next few weeks in India, I’m not sure I gain much more insight. Apart from a handful of discussions, like with Ajit that first night, it was a struggle to find real conversations with locals while trudging along the tourist trail. I could count the number of meaningful exchanges on one hand. What did people here think about, feel hurt by and dream about? My usual state is to burn with curiosity about the people around me, but in the overwhelming poverty, endless noise and shocking colours of India, I felt muted.
On my last morning in Delhi, the trishaw tackles for space on the road, along with the other common forms of transport: cars covered in dents, rusty rickshaws, the occasional malnourished elephant. The incessant honking of horns is my soundtrack to Delhi, often while listening to the actual soundtracks of Bollywood movies, which are blasted from old tape decks. As we enter the noisy din of traffic, fumes from the trishaw’s two-stroke engine penetrates my nostrils. Back home at the time there was a lot of talk about ethanol-based fuels, but the world of clean fuels and environmental sustainability seems like a conversation from the distant future. I hadn’t wanted to come back here after more than a week on the tranquil shores of Goa. Delhi was really just a prolonged stopover in both directions. I missed the space and silence of Sydney, the antithesis of this city.
As soon as the trishaw drops me off in Connaught Place, a man ambushes me from behind a column, asking me where I’m from, how old I am, do I know where I’m going and do I want to go to a local government bazaar? I smile and politely shake my head, making it clear that I am not interested. By the third time I’m approached with the same story, I’m no longer smiling and even display a rare flash of temper. “Do you all work for the same company?!” The man backs away.
Within minutes, another man shouts out to me as I walk past. Why can’t people leave me alone? I move quickly without acknowledging him – but then I hear him shout, “I am a human being!” I stop. Did he really say that, or was I hearing things?
Walking back to where he’s standing outside a travel agency, my words come out in a rush: “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be rude but in India I’ve learned the hard way that when people talk to me they want something from me…I’m normally really friendly, sorry…”
He smiles and nods, seeming to understand. “It’s okay,” he says, “I just want to say hello. Where are you from?”
I relax a little, and talk more than I have in a while—though I emphasise it’s my last day in India. Yes, my very last day. Yes, sadly, I am going home tomorrow. We shake hands at the end of our brief tête-à-tête and he says, “Would you like a tour?”
It’s this brief conversation that makes me succumb so easily to the next solicitation from a young man standing outside a nearby shop. “Hello madam, would you like to see some beautiful shawls?”
Suddenly I’m walking up narrow wooden stairs into a crowded shop brimming with glittering objects, fabrics inlaid with little round mirrors and shiny papier-mâché jewellery boxes. The smell of sandalwood permeates the two showrooms. Sitting down on some cushions, I pull my skirt over my knees as far as possible. He hands me a shawl and averts his eyes, saying that I can place this over my legs.
He looks much like the hordes of young men working the tourist trade from the northernmost parts of India; clean shaven, shirt tucked firmly into his pants. That’s one thing I’ve often noticed here: people take care with the way they dress. You don’t see people wearing t-shirts and shorts with flip flops on their feet. In Goa I had seen women wearing bright coloured saris, walking along the side of the road with bundled sticks piled high on their heads. They looked like tropical birds trapped in a monochromatic, dusty landscape.
Going through the pile of colourful shawls on the ground, I see that he’s right, the shawls are indeed beautiful. I drape some over my shoulder while looking in the mirror and he makes approving comments like, “You look ravishing madam”. He asks the usual questions about where I’m from, how long I’ve been here. I answer absently but focus on the shawls because I’ve decided to buy some. I particularly admire one that looks like denim and when held up to the light, has glints of gold. He says this one is popular with women from the West who like to wear jeans. I didn’t think that my shawl choice would mark out my origins.
After negotiating a price, I say, “You’re from Kashmir, right?”
He seems surprised to hear my question. “How do you know?”
“You look different to other people here. Your face is different…your eyes. I’ve met a few Kashmiri here.” I speak as though India’s states have always been known to me.
“Yes, I am from Kashmir. This is my uncle’s shop and I came here to work for him.” He smiles. “It is beautiful there, very beautiful. I don’t like Delhi. Have you been to Kashmir?”
I haven’t been to his homeland, and I start to feel the pull to go to a place which for so long I had only associated with violence and bloodshed because of the news. Kashmir is often on the news back home because of the ongoing territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.
I find out his name is Sajad. When I tell him my name, and he says that it’s popular in India. He asks if I have a boyfriend. I say yes and he acts disappointed. I’ve no doubt it’s all an act, but I’m okay with that. I’m enjoying this.
“I don’t have a girlfriend. I have never had a girlfriend.”
I say nothing and smile encouragingly, wanting to hear more.
“Can you believe it? I am 25 and I have never had a girlfriend before! I have also never had sex before. Have you?”
He looks at me straight in the eyes and my face burns despite my scepticism about his sincerity. “Erm…well…” I don’t quite know how to respond.
Not waiting for me to finish he says, “It is difficult here. Everyone always watches you. When you wear a new shirt and leave the house, people wonder why you are wearing a new shirt. Everyone is always talking. I don’t like it here – I would like to live somewhere else. Another country…maybe America.”
I doubt he’d ever have this kind of conversation with an Indian woman he didn’t know, but I’m an outsider, and maybe that makes it easier for him to be frank with me. It suddenly strikes me that I’m again talking to someone who’s the same age as me.
On my last day in Delhi, I sat there among all the colourful shawls as Sajad talked, telling me what he thinks about, feels hurt by and dreams about.