Sunday 8 December 2019At the Haldwani bus station, I learned there was indeed a Volvo to Delhi at ten. Anxious about misunderstanding the instructions I’d been given, I checked again at another ticket window.
‘Dilli Volvo kahaan hai?’ I said — ‘Where is the Delhi Volvo?’
As usual, I got an answer in Hindi, but when I clearly didn’t understand, the man told me in halting English that the conductor was coming outside soon and would meet me. Shortly afterwards, an elderly man came up to me and told me the number of the bus I needed to board.
‘Your bus is number one five one nine,’ he said, and repeated it: ‘One five one nine.’
He wasn’t the conductor, just an elderly man who understood English well enough and wanted to help me out.
When the bus arrived, I joined the queue to board, hoping the advice I’d been given that I could buy a ticket on the bus was correct. The crowd looked as if it would completely fill the bus.
But the conductor, a young, slightly timid man, suddenly looked at me and said, ‘Your seat number is 39.’
I found seat number 39 and settled in. I love this feeling of knowing the last obstacles have been cleared and I can look forward to a long journey with no responsibilities and no decisions to make until I arrive hours later at my destination.
Two young men took the seats across the aisle. One immediately began talking to me: where was I from, where had I been, did I know Naini Tal, and so on. He seemed confused about whether New Zealand was a country. Was it part of Europe? To which region did it belong? His companion, embarrassed, leaped in and explained to him that New Zealand was independent, a country in its own right, but I wasn’t offended by his poor geographical knowledge. Depending on the definition of a city, New Zealand only had 4-6 major cities, some of which would hardly register on an Indian scale.
‘New Zealand has almost five million people, total. Wellington is the capital. Auckland is the largest city; about one-and-a-half million people. Only small compared to Indian cities.’
He appeared mildly astonished: ‘Oh!’ he said.
‘But we have a good cricket team,’ I said. ‘Kane Williamson is a good captain. I like his attitude.’
They both nodded, agreeing and commenting on Williamson’s skill with the bat. The man who didn’t know New Zealand was a country, nor where in the world it was, could nevertheless talk knowledgeably about New Zealand cricket and commiserated over our World Cup final loss. The other man asked if I was a cricket fan.
‘I like cricket,’ I said, ‘but I don’t know as much as I should about it.’
This was true, and I half expected a quick lesson in the arcane terminology of cricket, but he had other advice in mind. After enquiring where I’d go after Delhi and hearing I was headed for Bharatpur and the Keoladeo bird sanctuary (again, he had to explain to his companion where Bharatpur was, and that it was famous for the sanctuary), he suggested I visit Jaipur. He’d studied there for three years as well as spending time studying in Kerala — no doubt the reason his geographical knowledge was so much better than his fellow traveller’s. But I had no intention of going near Jaipur, one of the few places in India I disliked after several bad experiences. The only highlight for me had been spending time with two young Scottish cyclists who shared my interest in birds and proved excellent company over the 2006/7 New Year, and I wasn’t going to count on finding similar good luck to compensate for corrupt rickshaw drivers, expensive accommodation, and the absence of anything of significant interest to me. I thanked him for the suggestion and left it at that.
Once the bus got going, my two new friends settled back and I could relax and look out the windows — more accurately, the small amounts of window exposed between the curtains most passengers had drawn to exclude the blazing sun. This lack of a clear view of the outside world no doubt contributed to several other passengers suffering from motion sickness, and when I finally disembarked in the evening in Delhi and smelt the acrid stench near the front of the bus and saw a large volume of vomit covering two of the seats, I realised the nine-hour journey must have been a nightmare for some passengers. Fortunately, the journey hadn’t affected me, and the closest I came to feeling nauseous was when I saw and smelt that awful mess.
Some haggling with rickshaw pimps achieved nothing, and after a half-hearted attempt I gave up. In hindsight, I thought the rate fair, given it was rush hour and the journey took about three quarters of an hour. I got the driver to drop me near the New Delhi Railway Station entrance to Main Bazaar and walked quickly to the Smyle. Stepping in the door felt like arriving home.
Monday 9 December 2019In the early morning a black kite cruises through the brown-tinged haze above Pahar Ganj and, soon after, a pigeon and a crow alight simultaneously on the aerials a short distance from the rooftop where I’ve come to write before the breakfast crowds. On this journey, I’ve relied more heavily on writing directly on the laptop and, as I do so, I find the flow of words becomes easier and the way I think more closely resembles the way I think when writing by hand, which is to say I’m less conscious of the process of typing and more caught up in the thoughts themselves. The obvious advantage of typing over handwriting is that it’s so much faster: if recording events and thoughts is important, which it is, then typing’s much superior — or at least more comprehensive. The obvious question, then, is why do I write by hand at all?
The answer’s simple and probably unsatisfactory for those who don’t write much by hand: I enjoy it. Something about the feel and sight of words forming on the page, of seeing page after page of handwriting accumulating, forming a unique pattern, and knowing that the things and thoughts contained and described there are new, that they did not exist until they arrived almost spontaneously from the pen onto the page, delights me. In some ways it’s comforting, too, although I don’t fully understand why. Perhaps it’s like the solace of ritual?
Perhaps it’s also something of a displacement activity, although a constructive one. Instead of scrutinising my phone and ‘consuming content’ (that execrable phrase), I’m at least creating something. Whether it’s of any value depends on the reader, even if that’s just me or the psychoanalysts who might, far in the future, find in it interesting material for their case studies of weirdos — I mean, who, at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, writes by hand with a fountain pen in a paper notebook, for reasons he doesn’t understand? Of course, I could just sit here thinking these thoughts, hands in pockets to keep them warm, but within minutes most of those thoughts would be gone. Anything worth remembering would require special, repeated effort to remember, and would more likely result in my taking out the Notebook and scribbling down the thought.
Other answers are at least partly true. From time to time, the sight of me scribbling in my cahier can be a conversation starter. On my last evening in Naini Tal, I was writing at a small, green table while I waited for my veg pasta when a man approached and asked if he might join me.
‘Of course,’ I said and indicated the other chair.
He sat down and complimented my handwriting.
‘Lots of practice,’ I said.
He asked lots of questions — so many and so persistently that the conversation began to feel like an interrogation. However, unlike the usual questions about my marital status, number of children, etc., he wanted to understand what I was writing.
‘Travelogue?’ he said.
I didn’t want to try explaining in detail what I wrote because I didn’t know how to describe it accurately. He kept pressing for detail, though, and I tried listing various things I wrote about: things that happened; things I saw; people I met; conversations; things I was thinking about.
‘It’s just something I do,’ I said. ‘I’ve written since I was about this high.’
I held my hand close to the floor.
I then tried deflecting the questions by telling him I teach writing back in New Zealand; it’s close enough to the truth. He wanted to know if I was working here on my trip to India.
‘No, just travelling.’
‘For personal reasons.’
‘Yes; personal reasons. Not working.’
I asked where he was from and what he did for work.
‘Haridwar,’ he said. ‘You know Haridwar?’
‘Yes; I’ve been there several times.’
He explained where Haridwar is anyway.
‘I work for the Government. Government Office.’
‘Yes? What work do you do there?’
‘I am a tax inspector,’ he said, smiling at me, and I wondered whether part of his curiosity was professional; whether he was checking whether I was breaching my visa conditions. Probably he wasn’t, but I’m glad I had nothing to hide and gave him no cause for suspicion. I suspect, though, that he was just curious in the way most local people anywhere would be curious about someone obviously foreign, obviously doing something out of the ordinary, like writing by hand with a fountain pen in a paper notebook.
Tuesday 10 December 2019The Madan at a quarter to ten is the busiest I’ve seen it so far, perhaps because this is the earliest I’ve managed to get here. Three foreigners sit outside; one on one bench seat lights a cigarette soon after I arrive; the other two sit uncomfortably side by side, politely ignoring each other. One of those two leaves soon after, and the other, with what sounds like a French accent, orders another short black. He sits again and fiddles with an irregular lump of reddish stone about two-thirds the size of a golf ball. He turns it over and over and shines his phone’s flashlight through it, apparently entranced. Perhaps it’s a displacement activity, like a phone is for so many people now, or like my scribbling by hand. If not, I wonder how thoroughly the man must examine his rock to be satisfied.
He fidgets, looks around, catches my eye, and responds to my acknowledgement with a smile.
‘What is the rock?’ I ask.
He grins and says, ‘Ruby.’
We try to talk from a distance, but the noise from the street makes anything meaningful impossible, so, gathering my bag and pens and cahier, I move to his bench seat and ask if I might join him.
‘Sure. Of course.’
The ruby is uncut, still with encrusting dirt in its pits, but he shines the phone light through it to show me the gorgeous colour. He’ll clean it, getting rid of any dirt, and polish it with increasingly fine abrasives, but will otherwise leave it as it is.
‘You lose a lot when it’s cut,’ he says, and suggests roughly half the stone might be wasted.
He sells these uncut gems to New Age stores back in Europe. By now, I’m convinced he’s from France, but experience has taught me it’s better to ask than misidentify someone’s nationality. Besides, my ear for accents isn’t great. This time, though, I’m correct, and when I ask, he confirms he’s from France.
‘How often do you come to India?’ I say.
‘About once a year,’ he replies.
He’s keen to talk, almost agitated. He explains how you can’t buy just one stone like this from the mine; you have to buy a huge bag — one or two lakhs’ worth of stones (roughly two to four thousand NZ dollars) — and hope it contains enough good stones to turn a profit.
‘It’s like gambling,’ he says, laughing. ‘You can’t go through the whole bag.’
Then he adds, ‘You won’t lose your money though. You get your money’s worth. I won’t lose my money.’
His insistence that he won’t lose on the deal sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself rather than me.
He thinks I’m Australian — I don’t take offence — but even when I say I’m from New Zealand he tells me there’s good money to be made selling opals in India (Australia’s renowned for its opals). I tell him New Zealand doesn’t have a gem industry but we do have wonderful jade of several types, which we call pounamu or greenstone. I show him the pounamu poria, the bird-tethering ring, I’d been gifted when I left Landcare Research in 2004, and he immediately shines his phone light through it.
‘It’s beautiful!’ he says. ‘Very clear.’
He explains how his ruby isn’t top quality because it contains lines instead of being perfectly clear. He shines his light through an edge of the stone.
‘See the lines?’ he says.
‘Ah, yes,’ I lie.
I can’t see any lines, just a beautiful, luminous, ruby red, but I assume he, with his younger and well-trained eyes, can see obvious lines.
I’ve enjoyed talking with him and have learned a little more about India and the kinds of things other travelers do here, but the time has come for me to move on. I’m about to ask if I might photograph him but he jumps to his feet, pays for his coffee, then puts his hands together in an unaffected namaste and thanks me for the conversation. Later, I think I should have asked him for the photo then, but hindsight’s only useful for the next time. I should, I decide, think faster, act sooner, and muster more gumption. For now, though, acknowledging my shortcomings won’t retrieve the portrait that got away.
1. The rickshaw wallah.
2. The banana wallah who (typically) stopped smiling until after I'd photographed him.
3. Bala, the vegetable wallah I photographed on my last visit to India. He still had the print I'd given him, and he now has a new one.
4. One of the other veg wallahs near Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj. He too, like the others I photographed, received a print the next day.