Flying for hours over dry arid land cut through by massive snaking rivers was like encountering a foreign planet. No sign of life, no vegetation, nothing of comfort for a mortal human in such a place. The vastness of this land took my breath away. Looking down I could imagine having crossed three or four New Zealands that afternoon. Our tiny country could be mapped multiple times on this landscape before a single human could be found.
Before I’d even landed India had taken hold of me and shaken me free from the edges of my world.
My colleagues farewell was weighted down with warnings of death on the streets of Delhi…my own …and of the un-navigable heaving mass of people I’d find at Delhi airport that would make it practically impossible for me to even reach the taxi stand outside.
My family and friends gave me hugs and smiles of assurance that I would have a wonderful time. They wished me well and said that they waited with interest to hear of my experiences on the road.
Not surprising I had a sleepless night before my departure. I kept telling myself that fear was something to welcome as it would provide balance to the excitement I felt. It was more than a little unnerving to be about to do something I had never imagined I would have the courage to do – travel in a foreign culture, alone. Much of my courage came from my children – two of them had already travelled in India in their twenties. So, if they could, I could.
As it turned out navigating Delhi airport was a doddle. It was nothing like the horror my India-travelled colleague had warned me against – what was that all about, I wondered. Even the women’s bathrooms accommodated western toilets. It was the drive to the hotel that brought me closer to the chaos I had been warned about.
The roads swirled with trucks, buses, vans, cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians. Sitting in the back seat I quickly found it best not to look through the front window of the taxi as that resulted in my constantly depressing the brake with my right foot – but of course there is no brake in the back seat of a taxi! The driver seemed to be in gamer zone, driving as if the windscreen was in fact a video screen and, as if in this video game he was playing, he had multiple lives.
So I kept my gaze out the side window which relieved me of the fear of death by vehicle accident, but that tumbled me down a rabbit hole I’d never imagined … crowded dirty buses, old Delhi taxis, a cacophony of horns and sirens, slumbering cows, scrawny dogs, slum dwellings, young girls sifting through the ubiquitous piles of rubbish on the road side, bicycles transporting oversized loads, car accidents …. The traffic shunted us staccato like along barely formed roads, sometimes holding us up while cows or people or other vehicles dived and darted around us.
We came alongside an overcrowded bus where a small boy sitting on a man’s knee was leaning his head out the window to find some relief from the suffocating bodies and heat inside. His face, lean, his eyes staring forward, his jaggedly cropped hair thick with Delhi dust. Lines of vomit streaked arches on the side of the bus – not a Banksy this time. A little further alone we passed two boys, maybe nine or ten, digging drains on the dusty dirty roadside. I watched their bodies, all arms and legs, jerk and turn like stick figures. How is it to be their mother, I wondered. How my mother muscle ached for those boys, for their mother. No amount of cultural relativism or constant exposure could dispel this ache. It simply isn’t right that some, by fortune of their birth, raise their sons in New Zealand, and others raise their sons on the streets of Delhi.
On my first day exploring Delhi I went to the place where Ghandi lived and died, Birla Bhavan or Ghandi Smriti. Ghandi was leader of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule, murdered by a Hindu extremist where he conducted his multi-faith prayer meetings every evening. Ghandi’s legacy has always been strong in my heart – a man who promoted peaceful resistance to challenge injustice. Many times my children would hear me repeat his words as they were growing up … ‘an eye for eye makes all the world blind’. I hoped they would never act out of revenge, and that they would seek non-violent ways to address the challenges they inevitably face in life. It’s no wonder that tears slid from my eyes as I walked in Ghandi’s last home and garden … my reverence for this great person like a sari around my soul.
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world”
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”