“Slowly, sir! Walk slowly!”
He’s in his prime, well built with upright bearing: neatly trimmed beard still black; polished tan shoes and pressed shirt arcing over a respectable paunch to suggest a man of substance. A man to heed on such matters.
He’s right of course. The rules for negotiating safe passage across Chandpol Bazar in Jaipur’s Pink City are also those for traversing the equal and, since there’s method below the chaos, equally illusory lawlessness of Saigon’s Dien Bien Phu Avenue. Disregarding the alarmed doom-screech of a too sensitive, a too – this is a metaphor for Enlightenment, you understand – westernised central nervous system, you must step out with confidence and slow steady pace the moment you register a fleeting lacuna in the first decile of tarmac. Wait for the whole road to clear, or more modestly a three metre corridor of it, and you’ll still be at the kerb as the Four Horsemen thunder past at the end of time.
Consistency is king. The cars and scooters, lorries and tuk-tuks, rickshaw and camel cart wallahs will read your direction and pace in making due adjustment to their own. You have to trust to that. What you must not do is freeze in panic, or make sudden alterations in course or speed. The one will throw drivers into confusion, with serious implications for their wellbeing. The other may take you out of the path of that bus but its threat was also an illusion. This is a land where culpability calculations carry little weight, and those whose vehicles hit pedestrians are routinely lynched on the spot. Less illusory is the truck emerging from the side road opposite, into whose path your ill advised diagonal leap has carried you. Think frying pan. Think out of. Think fire – for you and trucker both.
No harm done this time. My well wisher is issuing a general caution is all. Palms raised in mea culpa, I stop at the far side and wait for him to join me. Courtesies are exchanged. We go our separate ways, his parting words that I should not miss the fine Krishna Temple three minutes up Chandpol Bazar on the south side, the side I’ve just crossed from. I need only do an about turn to follow two pieces of advice with one stone. So to speak.
I landed in Delhi Indira Gandhi at 04:00 local time on Saturday. My layover at Istanbul Ataturk had been twenty-one hours but passed quickly. Stretched out on plush seats in the most dimly lit of a hundred waiting areas, cabin luggage as pillow, I slept as well as I do at home. Next day I read my Kindle, finishing John Lanchester’s excellent Capital before turning to Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. (I couldn’t get into the latter when a friend recommended it last year. Now I’m as hooked as the opium addicts it speaks of.) Other times I meditated, listened to Louis, Stan Getz and the Stones on my iPod or watched the comings and goings of a bustling, international hub airport. Ye who are jaded should sit in such a place while coffee coloured kids shriek with laughter as they run a delighted standstill against the direction of a moving walkway. Einstein would click with them.
Clearing Indian customs was fast, even allowing for the fact I waited ten minutes in the wrong queue before being brusquely told I had a tourist visa so must go “there” – delivered with sideways toss of head as indicatively useless as it was dismissive. Along with other disoriented palefaces I found the correct queue, and was through in fifteen. Just as well since, having previously only flown in and out of India, I’d not realised domestic routes are served not by a different terminal but by a separate airport a twenty-five minute bus ride away. In the dark I waited, Indira to my back, at the bus stand I’d been directed to. I was already sweating from the heat but noted with surprised approval that though the rainy season is not officially over, humidity levels are pleasantly low. They’ll be lower still in the desert state of Rajasthan.
When the bus comes it’s mayhem but I’m ready for it. Like dormant malaria, some aspects of surviving India stay in the bloodstream. Forty two years and two months – not that I’m counting – after first seeing this sensory riot of a country, I know what to do. As wiry men block the door closest to me and swing unfeasibly large bales of baggage in like dockers of yesteryear, I wade in with neither doubt nor daunt. The rules are rugby union. Elbows to face are frowned on, ditto fist to nose or knee to genitalia. Otherwise it’s Cole Porter: anything goes. You may push with flat of hand on (male) chest. You may insinuate some small part of yourself into the narrowest interstices then drive home the advantage with firm outward pressure from both upper arms as, in a simulation of rowing – many sports can be looked to for useful analogy here – those to left and right of you are silently invited to seek alternative space. You may and should do all these things; no one will mind. This is the east, where fleshly contact with one’s fellows does not – caste transgressions aside – inspire horror. Ditto intrepidity in the furtherance of self interest.
On the bus I’m delighted to see and instantly occupy a spare seat, with space beside it for my suit case. Not that I’d mind standing; that isn’t the point. Getting on an Indian bus while there are still vacant seats shows I haven’t gone completely to waste; can still give a fair account of myself in this situation and others to come. An early test and, though I say it myself, one I pass with flying colours. Minutes later the bus is a can of sardines, pulling out into the turbulence of India – on the move as always, though it’s not yet daybreak.
My first argument is with the bus conductor. He wants twenty-five rupees (thirty pence). In my hand I have boarding pass from Istanbul, and flight details for the 07:25 Indigo to Jaipur. That’s what the sign at the bus stand had told me I needed, to qualify for a free ride. It doesn’t do to be made a fool of so I duly protested but had reckoned without India’s insane levels of red tape. To qualify for free ride I needed to present the aforesaid documents to an invisible overseer outside Indira Gandhi. Only he could give me the third piece of paper, in exchange for which the conductor would give me a ticket. I learned this when, as my fellow passengers leaned in to this diversionary exchange between angrezi and conductor, I looked to them for confirmation. Yes, they nodded. I should have shown these documents, irrelevant here, at the bus stand. I must now part with twenty-five rupees. Just as well then that I changed money back there, when I might easily have left it till I got to the domestic terminals or Jaipur itself.
Mine is the first terminal. Suitcase in one hand as the other swings camera rucksack – holding well over £4,000 in kit – over each shoulder, I make my way to Departures. There’s a tap on my shoulder. A pretty lady in emerald sari holds up the blue down jacket that had kept me warm at Ataturk but won’t be needed again till I hit Heathrow in a month’s time. I recognise her as one who’d assured me the conductor was honest. Now she’s smiling and, over her shoulder, so is the bus wallah from the step of his vehicle. I thank the lady with a smile of my own; throw the bus man a big curving wave. India, I think – and not for the first time – is the perfect metaphor for the human experience. You never know what’s going to happen next. You just never know.