Thursday, 27 November 2014

India 1980, India Now; the India in me

No sooner had I taken a solitary step from the barely manageable chaos of Delhi airport into the heaving uncertainty beyond, than I parted company with about ten Australian dollars; the equivalent of at least a full day’s living. A conman had successfully spruiked a bus allegedly city bound that was, in fact, fixed to the spot. This experience shaping occurrence was 34 years ago, almost to the day.

As all good salesmen do, he recognized his customers. The ‘lame duck – never been to India’ label was clearly pasted across my forehead in all the languages I couldn’t speak. He knew the going rate for the bus to the centre of the city, so offered me a figure clearly within the guide book’s ball park.

Handing over my money, he scrawled something on what looked like a ticket and told me to wait ten minutes. I waited longer having heard about ‘Indian time’. I could have waited ten years. That bus was going nowhere. In the meantime my money served to confirm his accuracy in spotting innocents abroad. As such I’m sure he was back at work perusing arrival flights bearing foreign backpackers just as gullible as me.

After cursing my own pitiful naivety, I got it together enough to negotiate myself onto the right bus and later found some accommodation. Once I had caught my breathe I quickly realised I had to wise up. My lame duck persona was a beacon to the street smart. If unable to take heed my three months of funded travel around the country was likely to last me about a week.
My second visit six years after my first happened to coincide with the last year an Indian Prime Minister visited Australia; 1986. And not stopping there; on the same trip I journeyed to Dharamsala, the north Indian home in exile to the Dalai Lama, and he was touring Australia. What the...?

Now I am back in India and the newly elected Indian PM with a pop star following, Narendra Modi, has just been to my homeland.  Meeting the Australian PM, Tony Abbott, would have presented him with its own challenges regarding Australian values and idiosyncrasies.

India is the first country I visited on my own. It is where, while on the back of an elephant, I proposed to the beautiful woman who became my wife. It is the country our second daughter’s middle name bares. It is where my ideas on life were confronted; my values challenged. The safe boundaries that had defined the suburban boy were now porous. Never again would my upbringing be the key shaper of my outlook. The horizons of my world had expanded tenfold in this very place. Indeed India had taken some of the Australian out of the boy - and I never got it all back.
It was from this land I learned to open my eyes and my heart. It started me along the road of my toughest juggling act; the contrary arts of toughening up and opening up. Almost twenty eight years to the day, I have come back to a place where part of me was re-born, so in this regard it is a homecoming.

PS. As an interesting aside, the same Australian PM told the media and assembled throng of Modi admirers that he had backpacked through India. As it happened his time coincided roughly with mine. He too said his values and attitudes had been challenged. It seems we went through similar experiences yet our attitudes headed in opposite directions. A line from former PM, Paul Keating, comes quickly to mind. The major difference he said existed between his lot and ‘the other mob’ was that they have ‘miserable hearts’. Mine appeared to open, the Australian PM’s appeared to close. Asylum Seekers - I rest my case.

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