20 November 2019

Conversations with former strangers (India)

These posts will be thrown together quickly — I don't want to spend my time in India agonising over them. However, I hope they'll give you some idea of what it's like here and will reassure you that I'm still alive and well 🙂

Friday 15 November 2019

The flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur was awful — bad food and cramped seating — but at least I had an aisle seat and could move around enough to stay alive. Fortunately, the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi had far roomier seats ( one of the more significant differences between a Boeing 737-800 and an Airbus 330-200), but the food was just as dire. I shouldn't complain, though — one of the most important things to leave behind when travelling, other than one’s dignity, is fussiness about eating (not to be confused with enlightened awareness of the way food might have been prepared).

At Delhi I was, inevitably, accosted by a taxi tout. Where was I going? Pahar Ganj? Oh, the Airport Express Metro doesn’t go to Pahar Ganj. 
'Taxi 400 rupees — cheaper than Airport Express,' he said.
I knew that wasn’t true and pointed out that the Airport Express would take me to New Delhi Railway Station for one hundred rupees (I discovered later it was just sixty: phenomenal value), but he kept insisting the Airport Express wouldn’t take me to Pahar Ganj.
‘But Pahar Ganj is directly opposite New Delhi Railway Station,’ I said. ‘Are you telling me the Airpot Express doesn’t go to New Delhi Railway Station?’
He knew the game was up and could only smile. 
‘You like India?’ he said.
Yes, I like India, even though people like him would try it on.

Saturday 16 November 2019

The tasks were going well. I’d signed up for a VPN and it appeared to have minimal effect on connection speed. After leaving a message for my bank to let them know transactions from India or Sweden (the VPN’s base) were legitimate, I walked down Main Bazaar to the ATM I’d used on my previous trip. It was still there, still working, still apparently straightforward. I inserted my card, asked for a large sum of cash, and tried to relax while it thought about the request, while I hoped I wouldn’t be freaked out by something disastrous like a ‘card declined’ message. The lights blinked to indicate I should remove my card. I heard the sound of rollers counting out cash, and I knew I’d be OK.

I carried on, intending to loop around and back to the Smyle Inn, and as I passed a side alley, a small boy in a startlingly white uniform and a backpack stopped and looked up at me, his eyes clear and bright in his copper-brown face. The previous evening I'd been walking along an alley when he'd called out to me. I'd answered in Hindi, and that had been enough to start a conversation. He'd thought I knew Hindi, and I had to explain I knew almost none. I asked him if he went to school, and when he said yes, I asked what his favourite subject was.
He thought for a moment then looked up at me from his bike and said, 'Science'.
'Science? Great! I teach people how to explain their science better,' I said.
This was a little too much for him to understand, though, because he asked if I was a science teacher. I tried my best to explain what I did, but I think my communication skills were lacking. We'd had an enjoyable discussion, though.

This morning he looked slightly uncertain whether I'd remember him. He looked hopeful, too. 
‘Hi Satim,’ I said, and he grinned up at me. ‘Are you on your way to school?’
‘Yes, school today.’
‘What time does school start?’
He looked startled and cast about for a reply, finally managing to say, ‘Seven and a half.’
He nodded, and I hoped it didn’t sound like I was correcting him. I hoped he’d now know to say ‘seven-thirty’, and I realised that if I’d been thinking faster I should have said ‘half-past seven’, but one lesson at a time was enough.

A man, tiny, no taller than Satim, came over and stood next to him. I wondered if he was Satim’s father, come to see what was going on, suspicious of the tall foreigner talking to his son. He said nothing, perhaps lacking English, and Satim didn’t introduce him. The man’s silence and questioning look took the edge off an otherwise enjoyable meeting, but eventually Satim said, ‘He is my friend.’ At the time I thought he was referring to me rather than explaining to the man that I was a new friend, but in hindsight that wouldn’t have made sense if the man didn’t understand English. I liked the idea that Satim might introduce me as a friend, but maybe that was just wishful thinking. 
‘I’m Pete,’ I said to the man, hoping that identifying myself might set his mind at rest.
‘Peety,’ Satim repeated for the man’s benefit. At least it wasn’t the usual Indian pronunciation of my name: ‘Peach’.
Satim said something in Hindi, something brief and barely discernible, to the man, who nodded and left. He looked reassured, or at least mollified, and I hoped my impression wasn’t also just wishful thinking. I looked at my watch. If Satim was right, school started in ten minutes.
‘Have a good day at school,’ I said, and he smiled. He seemed a little over-awed. I was no one important or significant, just one of innumerable foreigners passing through Pahar Ganj, but perhaps I was significant to him for a short time because I’d taken the time to listen to him and show an interest. It was just a few minutes, but how much contact had he had with people from other places, other cultures? I felt sure I'd contributed something to his learning, even if it was just how to say 'seven-thirty'. After all,a brief, fleeting conversation with someone in another language can teach a person more than hours of language lessons. 

I learned that lesson later in the morning when I was walking down Basant Road. A rickshaw wallah pedalled up beside me, and, emboldened by the way my attempt at Hindi the previous evening had led to the conversation with Satim, I said ‘Arp kaysa hair?’ — how are you?
His face creased into a big smile, his eyes disappearing into his leather-brown face.
‘Teek uh,’ he responded and added something I guessed was ‘You’re fine too?’
‘May teek uh,’ I said. I’m fine. He understood my rudimentary Hindi, but when he said something else, I had to confess in English that I knew little more Hindi than what I’d just used. I held my thumb and index finger up, close together, to indicate something infinitesimal.
‘Hindi good,’ he said, flattering me outrageously. I thought — at least I hoped — he’d appreciated my attempt to use his language, and he was happy to continue the conversation in his limited English, which was far better than my almost non-existent Hindi. Of course, if that had led to a fare for pedalling me to Connaught Place, so much the better, but, as I’ve felt so often in India, that would have been an additional outcome, not necessarily the main benefit of the interaction. In hindsight, I should have hired him, but I was enjoying the mild exercise.

Sometimes language might be almost insignificant for the communication, but even then, understanding a few words can add to the appreciation. Last night I ate at the open-fronted Capital Hotel dhaba opposite New Delhi railway station; I’d eaten there regularly on my last visit and liked it. Dal fry urad, half rice, and a plain naan cost me just 75 rupees — $1.64 NZ. I recognised the dangerous-looking cook with his puku like a bulging sack of rice, and I also recognised the man who made the naan and prepared the rice at the back of the restaurant. He delivered the naan promptly and carefully, and, later, as he walked past, he looked at my handwriting in the cahier.
‘Mast!’ he said. ‘Mast! Mast!’
He pointed at the writing and grinned with obvious delight. I could have guessed what it meant, but it added to my own enjoyment to know immediately that it was the equivalent of saying in New Zealand, ‘Choice’ or ‘Sweet’ or ‘Wicked’ or ‘Awesome’.

After my conversation with the rickshaw wallah, I carried on to Connaught Place, past a man who’d just finished pissing against a wall and was now wiping his hands on a thin stray dog, which didn’t appear to mind. I dodged an amorphous shit on the footpath and managed to cross the road into Connaught Place, where I tried to remember the location of the Coffee Day I used to visit. I failed, but with unsolicited assistance from a persistent but eventually helpful man, I found another Coffee Day and spent an enjoyable hour there, writing. The franchise is appallingly expensive — about the same as New Zealand prices — but it’s an indulgence I was prepared to afford. 

Partway through the session, a businessman walked in, saw my writing, and came over to peer closely at it. We started talking about writing; I held up the Lamy.
'Not many people use fountain pens now,' I said. He nodded.
‘When I was a boy at school, this was the only pen we were allowed to use,’ he said. ‘Your writing, … this pen, … it makes your writing better. Not so messy.’
‘No ballpoints allowed.’
‘No ballpoints.’ He wobbled his head, the all-purpose gesture of acknowledgement that can mean yes, no, or more often ‘I disagree or don't know but don't want to say so’. He gestured at an empty chair and I invited him to sit down. We talked for a while. He was from Chamoli District in Uttarakhand. I told him how much I liked Uttarakhand and rattled off some places I liked to visit: Almora, Kausani, Josimath, Rudraprayag. He repeated the names after me, nodding and smiling, and he added more, asking if I’d been to those places. Karanprayag, Badrinath, Rishikesh. Yes, I said, all of them, feeling an unwarranted affinity with him.
He wanted to visit New Zealand. He’d heard about how beautiful and clean it was — I heard this every time I said I was from New Zealand and had so far resisted the urge to point out how many of our rivers were now considered unsafe for swimming — and he’d also heard it was inexpensive. At that point I felt obliged to caution him, urging him to plan carefully and listen to the advice from his friend in New Zealand. He went a bit quiet, mostly restricting himself to nodding, but I think he appreciated my comments. Perhaps if he was used to Coffee Day prices, New Zealand prices wouldn’t surprise him excessively.

Finally, he stood up and held out a hand gleaming with rings. I shook it, he smiled and thanked me, and left. I didn’t see him order or leave with anything and hoped for the café’s sake he hadn’t been distracted by my presence. For me, though, an expensive coffee had been worth every cent.

1. Tailor on the street in Main Bazaar, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
2. It's not India without chai.
3. Musical instrument sellers, Main Bazaar, Pahar Ganj.
Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor