India: Brief Encounters


India’s fastest train, the Shatabdi Express is running on Indian time: forty minutes late, but could arrive at any moment. We wait on the platform in Jhansi and watch, open-mouthed, as a cow saunters along the track.

“You saw it too?” asks a silver-haired Anglo-Indian, who introduces himself as Mr Thomson. “Most people around here don’t even notice.”

He’s a Christian preacher and trustee of a charity school in a village near Chennai.

“Our school dates from before Independence (1947),” he tells me. “Nuns started it as a nursery for the children of village women. Before the nursery, the women used to give their babies opium so they’d sleep all day, while their mothers worked in the fields.”

The school has prospered and clearly provides a good education. Mr Thomson introduces me to his travelling companion, Gabriel, a recent graduate from the school, who has a PhD in Sanskrit and now works as a teacher himself.

In India, such chance encounters enrich the travel experience. Past and present constantly collide, while traffic survives near misses. It takes a while to adjust to motorists travelling the wrong way up highways and drivers, straddling three lanes. Motorised rickshaws or tuk tuks flaunt their banana-yellow canopies, weave between cyclists and dodge the trucks bearing down on them with blaring horns.  But if drivers are manic, animals are docile; dogs, goats and cows trek alongside roads, singly or in packs, remaining largely unscathed. 

Our journey on the Shatabdi Express transports us between two places renowned for celebrating love. Earlier in the day, we left Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage site with twenty temples surviving from the tenth century. The temple walls are carved with stone friezes depicting a panoply of daily life from those times and fascinating erotic scenes that have been compared to the Kama Sutra. Our next stop is Agra. But will the Taj Mahal live up to its hype or fade into cliché?

We visit at sunrise. Soft light filters down on the famous dome so it shimmers like a puff of cloud above the glassy lake. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan to fulfil a deathbed promise to his favourite wife, Mumtaz, who died, aged 39, giving birth to their 14th child. He crystallised his promise to immortalise their love in this mausoleum of sandstone and marble, inlaid with jade, jasper and lapis lazuli. We pose on ‘Princess Diana’s bench’ while a photographer takes our picture. Later, when I view the print, I realise my husband has tarnished this romantic image by wearing socks with his sandals!

We press on to explore the splendours of Rajasthan: the pink city of Jaipur, which is actually a shade of terracotta, the Amber Fort and Udaipur City Palace. All are splendid and surpass our expectations but, amid the bustle, quirky encounters continue.  Local tourists accost us, always politely, to marvel at our pale complexions and ask us to pose with them for their holiday snaps.

Images linger, often gleaned from village walks: an ancient bike propped outside a blue-washed hut; a potter squatting over his dusty wheel, a barber offering on-street haircuts. The scent of spices overlays the whiff of urine; a street vendor’s carrot halwa tastes like toffee; horns and gulls honk incessantly and marble temple floors feel chilly beneath our bare feet.

In India, your senses stay on high alert for encounters with colour, taste, sound and smell. The vibrancy is in your face and under your skin. Perhaps even in your soul. 

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