“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” – John Steinbeck
The people I meet are a highlight of the journey. I meet good people, kind people, funny people, mad and sad and one or two bad people. But mostly it is a random selection of good people. Many invite me to their homes for chai, for food or to spend the night.
One day a stylish man stops his motorbike to chat for a few minutes. His hair is swept back, he has a big bushy beard and a smear of red paste on his forehead. He wears three gold rings and a chunky gold necklace. His pretty wife and daughter are perched on the back. They are sharing the headphones of an iPod Shuffle. He works in a bank. He hands me his business card.
“Come and drink tea when you reach my town!” he calls as the family hoot, wave and roar away.
I take up the invitation. The bank is the first air-conditioned building I have been into in India. I am aware of how dirty I am. I find my new friend at a computer, data-entering a pile of cheques. My shoes stink. He smiles in welcome, shakes my hand and slaps me on the shoulder.
“Let us drink tea.”
I want to ask some of the questions I’ve been unable to answer walking through areas where nobody spoke much English. About rural poverty and India’s rising power, about the caste system, inequality and water wars. But he is not interested in any of that. He only wants to know about England. It’s good to be reminded that my normal life, my normal home and normal country are as interesting as anywhere else when seen with fresh and open eyes. The barrage of questions is charmingly frank.
“Are you having love marriages or arranged marriages? If your father does not like your girl will he ban you from his home? Are you circumcised? How many castes are there in England? Are you Christian? Are English villages like Indian villages? Do villages have water and electricity as well as the towns? Does it really rain everyday?”
I still have not seen an angry person. Indians seem to share the same mild characteristics as their revered cows. But one day I see an Indian cry. The sight jolts me. A middle-aged man, his spectacles askew, a friend’s arm round his shoulder, pushes through the market crowd. His eyes are shiny and numb with grief. Surrounded by the noise and rush of so many strangers it is easy to forget that each has an individual story.
Most of my memories of people are from the briefest of connections. Moments that flash through the gulfs between our lives and simply connect on a human level. A woman, about my age, is running down the road towards me. She is wearing a red and orange sari. It is rare to see Indians running, particularly women. I like the way her gold bracelets jangle and the self-conscious look on her face as she runs. I smile. She catches my smile, grins back at me, but keeps running. Two people on the same road at the same time. Our lives meet, but in opposite directions and then we pass out of each other’s life for ever.