Usually I jump at the chance of new experiences, but the prospect of a trip to India, first mooted by my son, now resident there, didn’t grab me. Too similar to Africa, I thought; better to invest the time and money getting to know my birth continent better. But Son has thrown in his lot with Teach for India, http://www.teachforindia.org a charity set on giving slum children an educational leg up, and I wanted to see what had inspired such commitment from my firstborn and his girlfriend. So, in January 2013, the remainder of the family set off, conscious we could sample only a samoosa-sized chunk of this subcontinent, what travel agents call the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur. We’d be adding a tangent by taking a narrow gauge train ride up to the hill station of Shimla.
Behind us in the Jet plane, sat a yellow–turbanned Sikh gentleman with a particularly fine, flowing white beard. He attracted the lens of an aged English Goth, gone purple in patches. He was sanguine about the intrusion. “In Delhi, she will get her turn,” Mr Singh murmured. (True, as we were to discover; even nowadays, Europeans are unabashedly scrutinised in India. Studded white women with purple bits even more so, I imagine.) Mr Singh had another fan too; an Indian aunty appeared in the aisle around bedtime and stood singing to him in Hindi. It sounded like a lullaby and worked for me.
I awoke to a hum drum airport: homongenised concourses, ubiquitous duty free brands; beige uniforms, grey cloud, drizzle — just like home, till we spotted the 'uniforms' of the airport gardeners, saris, sodden at the time; the weeding women looked like bedraggled birds among the exotic planting.
There were three people to meet, greet and transport us. Son had said this was a land of micro-job creation and here was evidence, The youngest walla’s duty was to heft luggage and wipe condensation from the inside of the car windows. I wished he wasn’t so diligent when I saw the traffic we were quickly emmeshed in. All of India seemed determined to pour onto the road circling this city of 16 million. People were crammed into cars, buses, hanging off of lorries, wedged into the green and yellow three-wheeled auto rickshaws, riding three to four on a motorbike (only the driver wearing a helmet despite the fact that the last in line was often a women seated side saddle, holding an infant. There were also pedestrian cyclists, pushing bikes laden with chai-making paraphernalia or piled so high with cardboard they look like mobile Jenga towers.
I held my breath as we squeezed passed other vehicles with literally a few centimetres to spare. Were the distance sensors disabled in Indian cars, I wondered. How would my car with its nanny-ish Nearness Warning System cope? It would it be in a permanently flat-lined, flashing red, apoplectic state, I decided, gaping as vehicles of every size and shape insinuated themselves into impossibly narrow gaps in a bid to keep moving. And keep moving we all did, despite additional obstacles like cows, pigs, buffalo, dogs, beggars, open sewers, unmarked roadworks, Indian Ocean-sized puddles and piles of garbage. Indian congestion is epic, yet still the traffic inches forward. I can only conclude that Delhi drivers have a breathe-in button fitted to their vehicles instead of a whining, wimpy parking sensor.