To say visiting India is an assault on the senses is akin to saying that rubbing your eyes after chopping chillies is slightly uncomfortable. I spent six weeks in India, and every one of my senses was constantly battered. There was not one millisecond of silence between stepping of one aeroplane in Delhi and leaving Mumbai by another. The whole experience was utterly overwhelming, and filled me with awe. If this comes across as confrontational then think again. It was a monumentally positive experience, and I think about one or more of the kaleidoscopic aspects of it at least once a day. Above every other destination, I want to return to India before I die. Every time I smell a bonfire at dusk, or see a particular pink colour in the sky, I am transported, albeit temporarily, back.
This is the first time that I have written about visiting India, and I do so now with trepidation. I am cautious because I know that my words can never do such a beautiful, fierce place justice. Everything that I touched, heard, smelt, felt and tasted there has left a lingering and potent impression upon me, but to faithfully describe the experience? Impossible. Like all of life’s vivid and momentous happenings, words cannot suffice. Yet I will try. There are moments in my memory that are so keen that a scent or sound can take me back there instantly, and it is these that I will describe. There are so many, but I will describe three.
The first is travelling in to the countryside by train during a festival, in a third class carriage. Now the first thing a lot of people experience when entering India is the sheer press and number of people. Everywhere. All day and night. As a lone traveller in 2006 I rapidly discovered that it is simply not possible to be lonely in India, however hard one tries. Now picture the arrival hall at New Delhi Airport: a wide aisle flanked by metal grills, 100 metres long and absolutely crammed with greeters, well-wishers and family members. Now multiply that image by three, decrease the space threefold and add grannies on the luggage racks (no seriously), and you are getting close to imagining a festival train. My journey took eleven hours, and it was awesome. I slept part of the way standing up, pressed so closely against so many others that we all slept. Like penguins. Very hot penguins. I staggered off the train and then lay on a platform, my back blissfully cool against 3am concrete, and awoke at 10 am surrounded by other sleepers. I must have been comatose, because a whole family was using my legs or my backpack (still on my back) as a pillow. I had been none the wiser.
The second memory is evoked by steel railway wheels grinding on tracks. I also took a sleeper train during my stay, and spent a magical 27 hours passing through a painters pallet of landscapes. Endless towns, cities, deserts and forests, like an Edwardian children’s theatre background, rolling through pastel backdrops. This is not what I remember most keenly though. My keenest recollection is being pummelled awake by two young chaps who thought my massive backpack was hilarious, and then proceeded to drag me by the hand to meet their parents. Introducing me as Mr Tom they invited me to eat with them, and I spent the remainder of the journey reading to the boys, drinking whiskey with the dad and talking to the mum about my own mother. This was an experience that would be unheard of on a train journey in England, and I was humbled by it. That family were kindness itself, and when I left the train I felt bereft.
The third and final memory is an amalgamation of moments. I was shown incredible kindness and generosity during my stay, and felt and feel truly humbled by this. I was lucky enough to have worked in England with a wise and kind man who arranged for me to stay with his family, and I was treated as a family member. I must have looked dreadful at first, slammed with a culture shock that I had no idea could be so powerful, and suddenly realising that travelling on my own was a STUPID idea. Nevertheless, I was lucid enough to see and feel that in India, people are very tactile, and welcome you with open arms. I had strangers in the street come to shake my hand, and poke at the brand new fabric of my ridiculously oversized rucksack. People greeted me by asking after my family’s health, and wishing that I be blkessed with children. Above all though, I was and still am humbled by and grateful for being accepted. Accepted as a lone foreign traveller, away from home. I was away from home, but never once felt unwelcome. I felt embraced.
© Tom Tide 2016