That morning in 1997, on our first trip to India, my partner and I had just boarded the bus in Jodhpur and taken our seats according to the numbers on our tickets at the front of the bus, when, with much noise and clatter they boarded the bus, a group of well-dressed middle-aged men and women, with that slightly hysterical gaiety of the middle class when they are slumming. All doctors, we soon realised from their conversation.
They settled around us according to their tickets. But two of them — women with heavy bangles that clanked with the weight of good gold, gilt-strapped plump handbags over shoulders, sunglasses perched above brows — stood in the aisle muttering and frowning at their tickets in disbelief. They eyed us. “Excuse me,” one of the women demanded, “you are in our seats.” We looked at her in confusion, brought out our tickets and showed them that we were in the correct seats. “No, no,” the other declared emphatically, “you are in our seats. Move, you must move.” It was an order, delivered in that harshness so much a part of life here — a harshness which, despite all the Indian novels I had read, surpassed expectations because of its quotidian presence.
In Sri Lanka, even with the ongoing war, people on an everyday basis were easy and friendly with each other, soft-spoken and quick to smile and help. A stranger addressing another like this, would have led to fisticuffs. “No,” I insisted politely, “these are our seats. Can we see your tickets, please?” I added trying to be helpful. The women held their tickets to their chest and glared at me, with that same glare Indians directed at beggars, who were treated so differently from the way we treated ours back home. In Sri Lanka, when a beggar boarded a bus, people often reached into their pockets, mothers giving their children the money to offer the beggar, so that the karmic merit of that action would pass to them. Here in India, if a beggar dared even get on the footboard of a bus, the passengers would shriek at him or her to get off. But then beggars too were harsh in India, grabbing and pawing you, snatching the money you offered without thanks, certainly not calling down the blessings of the Buddha on you in song, as Sri Lankan beggars did.
The women insisted we were in their seats, we insisted we were not and soon the other doctors got involved, shouting at us to get up and go to the back of the bus. We sat down refusing to budge, but the doctors weren’t giving up that easily. They rose from their seats, surrounded us and began to shriek at us to give up the seats. We held our own as best as we could but finally — in what I would later jokingly call a microcosmic playing out of India-Sri Lanka relations — we got up and gave up our seats, ordered to the back of the bus.
Throughout that trip, I sat hunched over in gloom, listening to the loud gaiety of those doctors at the front, hating them, hating the country, wishing I had never come. But then, in the distance, like a mirage, there was Jaisalmer, its walls and turrets golden and shimmering in the lowering sun, seeming to have grown from the very sand itself like an exotic desert plant. As I gazed out at it, suddenly the indignities of the trip did not matter. In the days to come, as I visited Jain temples whose sheer abundance of carvings made me giddy, as I walked the narrow streets, gazing up with mute wonder at the intricately lattice-worked haveli balconies, as I marvelled at how the passing women’s clothing could combine vivid oranges and turquoises and fuchsias without being in the least garish, marvelled at their ornate nose rings from which heavy silver chains travelled across one cheek to meet dangling earnings, I was in awe of this country and its people who had produced so much beauty. We had nothing in Sri Lanka to match the sheer grandness and abundance of this splendour. And I was in love again with India — a love that has lasted all these years, over repeated visits, for a country that, in its harshness but also its magnificence, always exceeds expectations.
(The writer’s latest novel The Hungry Ghosts is published by Penguin India.)