“Driver, Darwazaa Kholo!” (“Chauffeur, Open the door!”)
It was a stentorian voice and one that could be heard above the cacophony on the street. I was staying at a gymkhana in Ahmedabad (in India) and I heard the distinctive voice, as I stepped out for my evening walk. It was the first day after my arrival and I had a fair amount of stored energy (that you need to accumulate before you take a holiday in India). I stopped and looked around. The lady in question was sitting in the backseat of an Audi A5 and I could hear her voice because the window had been pulled down. The reluctant driver of the car, in the meanwhile, could not open his door because it was being blocked by an auto-rickshaw driver who, in turn, was arguing with a man on a rickety bicycle.
I decided to help out and quickly hastened to open the door for the lady to step out. People in India seem to get startled with etiquette because she suppressed a faint scream and then managed to put on a smile.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You are welcome,” I replied.
I moved on hastily towards the park.
This particular park was a respite for me and provided a wonderful sense of liberation from the milling crowds. The park was in very good condition, had soft music playing on concealed speakers and was incredibly clean. But it was not without its own mishaps and strange encounters.
On the third day after my arrival, I decided to take an early morning walk in the park. It was a crisp morning and not very cold. Just pleasant. The birds were chirping, some ladies were trying to jog and some men were laughing loudly at one of the popular ‘laughing clubs’ that proliferate in many parks in India. It is quite refreshing to hear men laughing loudly when they really don’t want to. Gives you that little zing of hope in life. As I picked up my pace, I passed a group of men coming from the opposite direction. In their midst was a hefty Sardar. For those who are uninitiated in the Indian sub-classes: a Sardar is the guy with a beard and a bright turban; the macho fighters with a disposition of geniality. As we crossed, I saw the Sardar giving me a curious look. I was sure that I had seen him before. By the time, I passed him on my third round, I was sure that it Pawanjit Singh, my school mate. I had not seen him for 35 years. On the fourth round, we could not control our emotions.
I ran towards him and clasped his hand. Sardars usually don’t shake hands; they hug you. And so he did. He embraced me in a big bear hug and laughed loudly. We hugged, smiled, laughed and shook hands (in that order) for approximately five minutes before he let out a final laugh that shook his ample frame.
“It has been so many years,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes.
“Thirty-five years, to be exact,” I said, slightly out of breath after the animated hugs.
“Ahh!” he said. “You have changed quite a bit, Rohit.”
I blinked at him and then froze. There was an uncomfortable pause before I found my voice.
“Erm… My name is not Rohit, Pawanjit.” I managed a smile. “You are mistaking me for some other school mate.”
That was another silence.
“Pawanjit?” He asked. He tried raising his eyebrows but the tight turban was a hurdle. “My name is Amanjit.”
“Really?” That was the wrong question, of course. “St. Xavier’s High School?
“No. C.N. Vidyalaya.”
The third pause ensued. He let out a hollow laugh and said, “Nothing to worry about, my friend. Are you on Facebook? I can send you a friend request.”
After exchanging names, we parted. It was not the first time that I had mistakenly identified a Sardar as another.
My best adventures were during my walks. Another curious incident occurred as I was walking home late at night after a scrumptious dinner at my sister’s place. It was well past midnight and I was hurrying along a deserted road, looking for an auto-rickshaw to take me back to the hotel. As I turned a corner on the road, I spied upon a dog charging down. When that happens in India, the first thing you need to do is look after your vulnerable ankles where the stray dogs love to sink their teeth into. The locals just pick up a small stone or pebble and go on the offensive. I however just slowed down my pace because the dog was rushing towards some food that someone had thrown on the footpath (as is often the case with people who do not believe in the “Clean India” political movement). After taking a few steps, I turned around to look at the dog.
I could have sworn that the dog was smiling at me. Possibly because I did not pelt stones at it and let it enjoy dinner in peace. The dog, I am sure, must have been pleasantly surprised.
On my fifth day, I decided to take a walk down a busy road in the heart of the commercial quarter of the city. I knew that road well and it had been my favorite haunt during my university days. I hardly realised that things had changed drastically. Especially with the scooter riders. I had chosen to walk on the left side of the road along a very narrow footpath because the footpath on the right-hand side had been dug up. I was quite sure that it was dug up when I had visited Ahmedabad a year earlier. As I sauntered along looking at the brightly lit shops, a man on a scooter came charging down. I don’t have a problem with that, except that he was flying down the footpath on the wrong side of the road. He screeched to halt about 2.5 centimeters from me and then glared at me. I waited momentarily for a ‘sorry’ and then realised that the word was a rare commodity in certain parts of India.
“You were coming down the wrong side of the road and on the footpath,” I nearly screamed.
He looked at me for a brief moment and sized me up.
“You from phoren?” he asked. I realised that he meant ‘foreign’ and nodded my head.
The sneer on his face was getting more prominent by then.
“From US?” he asked.
I also realised that everybody who is ‘phoren’ in India was presumed to be from the United States.
I shook my head and said “Australia.”
In reply, he sneered, snorted, let out a guffaw and disappeared in the dark in a blaze of petrol fumes; still on the wrong side and still on the footpath. I am still at a loss as to what the sneer and guffaw implied. I am not worried because many years ago I have given in to the fact that certain mysteries of the world are best unsolved.
I looked up and found an interesting shop across the road and decided to have a quick look inside. But therein was the problem because I needed to cross the busy road in order to get to the shop. I am not sure if you have crossed a very busy road in India. I would recommend that you try the exercise; it might help you sharpen your audio-visual skills and also drive you to look for a better life insurance company.
I found a faintly-marked pedestrian crossing on the road and parked myself near it. After twenty minutes I realised that these crossings are theoretical designs in the country. Nobody stops for you. People just stare at you from the passing vehicles, as you would when an alien lands in your backyard by mistake. However, a tap on the shoulder startled me. An elderly gentleman stood next to me, smiling with some much-needed benevolence.
“Follow me,” he said, stepping on the road amidst the oncoming traffic. I followed suit, a sinking feeling in my stomach. Cars came to a screeching halt, auto-rickshaw drivers shouted profanities and a couple bicycle riders nearly fell off, as the gentleman calmly walked me through to the other side of the road. Once we had reached the footpath on the other side, he turned towards me.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Australia,” I replied. I was still gasping for breath after my adventure.
“This is India.” He smiled at me very kindly, nodded and without another word, turned around and walked away. I have never come across three words that have succinctly expressed such volumes of knowledge.
After my extraordinary “crossing the road” adventure, I stepped into the shoe shop that I had targeted from across the road. A couple of shoes displayed in the window had caught my attention. As I walked into the shop, three young men (all dressed in black) appeared from nowhere and stood around me, at close proximities. Every time I took a step, they moved with me. It was, I must admit, quite alarming. However, to an onlooker, it must have looked like a beautiful piece of choreography. Soon, all of us moved in tandem towards the far corner of the shop, and as I picked up a pair of shoes from the shelf, the young man on my right stepped a little closer.
“The price is 4000 rupees,” he reminded me.
“Plus a discount of 20%.” This was the young man from my left. I could feel his breath.
The third voice from behind was quite welcoming. “We can show you some more colours and designs.”
I had seen enough ‘colours and designs’ that evening. I started retreating gently towards the door, walking backwards and followed closely by the trio, in a display of breathtaking harmony. It was a beautiful exit from the shop; very similar to the final exit that you might enjoy in a “Swan Dance” performance. However, at the very last stage of my exit, I crashed into a man who was walking into the shop.
I turned around. It was Amanjit Singh from the park! This time, I was not going to confuse him with Pawanjit Singh.
“Hello, Hello, Hello,” he said with a distinct note of joviality.
“Hello,” I said, making it a rounded even number, “Amanjit?”
“Yes,” he sounded jubilantly happy. “Come in, come in, come in, come in.”
Obviously, he had a habit of repeating himself.
“Erm…. no. I just had a look at some shoes.”
He hugged me again; slightly tighter than at the morning walk. Once again, I gasped for breath in his tight clutches.
“I am the owner of the shop, my friend.” He was grinning at me. “I will get you the best prices.”
I just wanted to buy a pair of shoes. He sold me six.
I decided to get back to the hotel and tried to hail an auto-rickshaw. Took me 20 minutes. Primarily because some of the rickshaw drivers just looked at me and refused to stop. Possibly because they were not interested in a fare or maybe they found me uninteresting. Anyway, by the time I entered the hotel room, I yearning to drop into the bed. Nearly dead with exhaustion, I decide to watch the local news on TV. Wrong move. The channel that came on had a program that is commonly referred to as a current affairs program. In most countries, such programs usually have a host and a string of guests who discuss news and current affairs. The format is quite simple; the host asks the questions and the guests give their replies. In this case, there was one host and seven guests, all asking questions and answering at the same time. The entire exercise was most confusing because the screen was partitioned into eight sections, each showing a participant. The viewer, therefore, had to organise his vision to accommodate eight people on the screen, talking, sneering, laughing, gesticulating and swearing simultaneously. Within five minutes I was struggling to keep my eyeballs in their sockets and trying to understand what it was all about. To add to my misery, there was a kind of hypnotic, suspenseful background music that accompanied all this. I thanked my stars that I was exhausted and mercifully dropped off into a deep slumber in exactly six minutes.
The rest of my short stay passed quite peacefully. I hardly went out and ate most of my meals indoors. I continued with my morning walks in the park and did not meet Amanjit Singh. After palming off six pairs of shoes to me, he might have changed his park. On the last day, as I sped towards the airport in a cab, I was itching to get back to Sydney. I had heard many good stories about the new ‘international’ airport at Ahmedabad and was looking forward to enjoying the new facility. As the cab approached the ‘drop off’ point, I looked at the huge crowds outside and exclaimed under my breath. The cab driver was, however, most helpful when he saw the incredulous expression on my face. As I got down from the cab, he put a restraining hand on my shoulder.
“Trolley le lo aur dhakka maaro, saab,” he yelled at me. (“Grab a trolley and start pushing through, sir”)
It took me a while to grab a trolley after searching from one end of the airport to the other. After that, I loaded my bags on to the trolley and, based upon the sagacious suggestion from the cab driver, I joined the long queue and started pushing. Pushing very hard. It was not very difficult because there were other people pushing me from behind. The trick was to get into the rhythm of the push with each new wave. I am a quick learner and before long I was pushing like I used when getting on to a third-class compartment at the Ahmedabad railway station 35 years ago. Not much had changed. After 20 minutes of shoving and ramming, I suddenly realised that all my efforts were in vain when the gentleman in front of me turned round and looked at me quizzically. He looked like a decent man and spoke like one too.
“Why are you carrying so many bags?” he asked, looking at the trolley.
“It’s not much. Well within the 60 kilos allowed.” I smiled back.
He stared at me.
“Do you need 60 kilos to watch people board a flight?”
Before I could reply, I felt another wave of heaving humanity hitting me from the rear. In turn, I heaved myself forward with great alacrity and pushed the decent gentleman ahead of me.
He looked around at me and managed to maintain his decency. “Are you about to board a flight?”
“Yes,” I managed to say.
He looked disdainfully at me. “You are in the wrong queue.”
“Sorry. What did you say?”
“This is the queue for all those who are here to see off passengers. The passenger queue is on the other end of the airport.”
I cursed loudly. It was a futile exercise because everyone around me was cursing loudly. Nobody had warned me about this ‘special’ queue comprising of people who are non-passengers! I managed to escape from the throng and ran towards another long queue. Once I reached the queue, I gave a huge shove to the gentleman in the front. My cab driver would have been proud of me.
The gentleman in the front turned around and stared at me.
“Why are you pushing?” He had an unmistakable American accent. “We are all waiting for the queue to move. The flight won’t leave without you”
Without waiting for my answer, he turned around, rolled his eyes at his wife and muttered something under his breath that sounded like “Fucking idiot.” I disregarded the comment. I was too bloody tired. As I entered the main entrance, I looked at my watch. It had taken me forty-five minutes to get to the main entrance from the cab door.
Within the next 30 minutes, I was at the customs clearance queue. With each step, I heaved a sigh of relief. At last, I said to myself, at last. From there on, everything was quite smooth sailing except when I came close to the customs area and looked at a friendly notice on the wall: “ARMS AND AMMUNITION NOT ALLOWED”
Aah! What a timely reminder. I quickly looked into my handbag to check if I had mistakenly packed an AK-47, a few grenades or a mini-bazooka. After confirming that I was strictly following the rules, I heaved a deep sigh of relief and waited for my turn to pass through customs.
After that, mercifully, there were no incidents to write home about.