We are moving slower now, smiling more easily, giving off a different light. Months in Goa have left their mark on us. Back in Delhi everything seems too fast, everybody too loud. People are different, with that big city hustle again, that underlying edge of anxiety. But it’s still India. Mangos are in season, and Indians are connoisseurs. Conversation revolves around the relative merits of mangos from different places. We failed to bring any with us from Goa, to general incredulity.
In English the expression Indian Summer denotes a period of unseasonal warm weather in late September or October, a last breath of summer again after the onset of autumn. The leaves will already be turning, there will be mists and heavy dews in the morning and a chill in the air, but suddenly, for a period of a few days, temperatures will rise again, and the sun will feel hot once more despite the freshness of the breeze.
The real thing is quite different. Summer in India. The heat changes everything. In the tropical south the humidity rises till it becomes unbearable. Every breath is heavy with moisture. You sweat incessantly, perpetually wet. Far out in the Indian Ocean, beyond the southernmost tip of the subcontinent at Kanniyakumari, the gigantic anvil-headed cumulonimbus clouds are building. Soon they will arrive over the land and the monsoon will sweep northwards up the country, bringing relief. The water level has dropped in the ancient wells which have become a sanctuary for frogs and turtles. Some nights, stifling, sultry nights, there is a brief patter, a miniature shower like a rehearsal for the real thing. Everybody is waiting, the skin of the earth parched and as tight as a drum, echoing under your footsteps. Lightning flickers, silhouetting the branches of the palm trees, their fronds like giant feathers against the night sky. Occasionally they stir themselves gently in the faintest breath of a breeze with a soft clicking like raindrops. Everyone looks upwards expectantly. But it is an illusion. Let it only rain.
When we left Goa the temperature was in the high 30s. In Delhi it is 45. And in Gujarat, where we were in February, it is over 50. I’ve been in 50 degrees before, in Africa, but to experience it in a snarling traffic jam, or in the stink of the old city, is something quite different – especially when the power goes off and the fans get slower and slower before coming to a halt completely. Even after sundown it’s over 40 degrees, and every surface exhales the sun’s stored heat. The walls of buildings turn into vast radiators. The metal sides of vehicles are like an oven, too hot to touch. The water that comes out of the tap, which is stored in tanks on the roof, is too hot to wash in. We are all slowly being cooked alive.
Then, lying in a darkened room in mid-afternoon under the cool draught of the AC I suddenly wake. Something has changed – there is the charge of electricity in the air. Opening the curtain the light that floods in is orange. It’s as if a photo filter has been applied to the world outside – an eerie, Martian light. It’s a dust storm. The air crackles with static, and then there is a tremendous crash of thunder. The wind whips clouds of dust along the streets and the trees sway back and forth. People scurry for cover, pulling scarves over their faces. The scent of the earth changes, as if it is preparing to receive rain. The first spots begin to fall – the first rain in Delhi for months – giant fat droplets that land sizzling on the stone balcony that still radiates heat from the afternoon sun. Soon it comes down in torrents, washing away the dust, sweeping leaves into the overflowing gutters. The wind brings down a branch, which crashes into the road, causing even more chaos than usual.
We need to head to CP – Connaught Place – the circular hub of shops at the heart of the vast city, built in the 1930s as a showpiece of Lutyens’ New Delhi. Hailing a cycle rickshaw we perch primly in the back, sitting upright on the hard bench with knees pressed together like a couple of aunties, shuddering as rivulets of rain trickle off the canopy roof onto us. The rickshaw wallahs are a wild bunch, dark and sinewy; this one wears a South Indian lungi, a vest and a colourful bandanna on his head. For thirty rupees (30p) he drops us at the entrance to Lajpat Nagar metro station, and we have our bags X-rayed and pass through an airport-style scanner, as khaki-uniformed cops in green berets sweep us up and down with metal detectors. The metro is modern, the carriages all merging into each other like the Metropolitan Line on the Tube. Up at the front is a Ladies Only carriage, but the trains aren’t too full today so we board a regular carriage and stand near the door, myself the object of great scrutiny as always. One man standing near us stares quite openly, his eyes switching from K, to me, then back to her again, then back to me. There’s nothing hostile in this, though his expression is unreadable – it’s just complete and unabashed curiosity.
K says to me: “Which station do we need to change at?”
I look at the map overhead and realised I am being tested – it’s all in Hindi. Slowly I decipher the letters. Monday Horse? It makes even less sense than usual. No – wait: that sprouting squiggle has no vertical stroke. “Mandi House!”
“And what line is that on,” she asks with a wink.
I read it out. “Blyoo Layeen”. It might equally have been grin, iello or wiolet.
Reassured somehow that I can read Hindi, thus establishing my credentials as a human being, and perhaps even an Indian one in this land of countless ethnicities, the man who has been staring at us looks away once more.
We emerge from the metro into a downpour and splat wetly around the colonnades of CP in our flip flops, past designer shops. A curtain of silver water falls outside. An endless tide of humanity perambulates: all the colours of the subcontinent. Holy men from the hills in orange robes, sunglasses vendors, skinny boys in skinny jeans, college girls with protectively scornful pouts, businessmen in designer specs and slimfit shirts, the occasional tourists in outdoor gear looking somewhat overwhelmed, wild-haired beggars with their belongings on their back. Kipling would’ve recognised half these people – some of their costumes haven’t changed. We stand arm in arm on the kerb beneath an umbrella, watching the endless traffic, whistling: raindrops keep falling on my head. Others come and stand with us, and eventually, by force of numbers, we manage to cross, wading through the puddles.
We duck into a tobacconist’s – an old man who grins delightedly as he greets us. I bought a pipe from him years ago, but I doubt he remembers me – he is just exquisitely mannered and charming, with that old world courtesy the city was once famed for. We discuss different types of tobacco, including the arrival in India of a brand called American Spirit, which claims to be 100% additive free. In a triumph of consumer-driven marketing with a rather hipster edge to it, this has become the tobacco of choice for many of the somewhat alternative people who hang out in Goa. It’s curious, amongst this price-conscious crowd, because 25g of American Spirit sells for the same price as 50g of Drum – around 450 rs, or £4.50 – and the stuff itself is invariably dry as hay. But perhaps people think it is somehow better for you for being ‘additive free’. The tobacconist’s shelves are stacked with agarbatti incense, its rich aroma perfuming the night. I buy some Borkum Riff Cherry Cavendish pipe tobacco instead, which I used to smoke in Australia. It was nearly £30 a pack there. Here it is £3. I shall perfume the Himalayan nights with my own clouds of cherry-scented incense.
Later, in a taxi, we stop at a red light, behind a car which has three teenage girls in the boot, squashed up against the rear window. They are all staring at a mobile phone, watching something. On the pavement a group of perhaps 20 or so homeless lie curled up together on their sides, stacked like cordwood. Rain spatters on the windscreen, and an old Hindi movie song plays softly on the radio. In a companionable silence the four of us look out at the rain. The homeless sleepers begin to stir, packing up, seeking shelter beneath a flyover. A sign on the traffic light warns that drivers jumping a red light will lose their licence for three months and face a fine. A traffic cop stands in the shelter of a tree. The light remains stubbornly red. As if at an unseen signal, suddenly everybody starts hooting. The traffic that has been turning across our path begins to diminish. Cars start to creep forward – the one with the girls in the boot accelerates away, veering between two approaching motorcycles, stragglers from the oncoming stream. One of the motorbikes is a young Sikh in a turban with a mobile phone clamped between ear and shoulder. The other is a kid in a red shirt who is texting with one hand. The traffic starts moving again, five lanes of cars crossing the junction, weaving from lane to lane, watched by the cop under his tree. The traffic light remains stubbornly on red the whole time. Impossible city.
One dawn in Delhi I woke with a tremendous sense of peace, listening to the almost silent rain. It felt as if I was finally free of something, of an underlying anxiety that I had been holding on to for too long. Only half awake, I mentally ran through a list of things: what did I need to do that day? What was there to occupy my mind with? I tried out a few things experimentally – book tickets for the mountains, pack bag, call someone about a motorbike – and found that none really mattered; slowly the worries slipped away and I entered this strange state of serenity once more. I realised, almost like a revelation, how much I loved this country. How, despite its numerous faults and impossibilities, like all relationships it took time to build something, but in the end you gradually came to genuinely appreciate it, flaws and all. At times it was immensely frustrating, the scale of everything utterly daunting, and you felt unequal to its dimensions – but that in turn has the effect of making you small, of removing any illusion of control. You can’t hold on too tight. Life is an endless succession of letting go, and never more so than in India. You simply had to go along with the stream of it all and see where it took you. I realised that after countless trips each had involved a progressive letting go, over and over again, from the first wide-eyed moment when you step out of the airport and undergo half a dozen miniature freakouts en route to your accommodation, to the sights that you see each day that confront and challenge you, with not a day going by that you don’t experience something extraordinary. After so long in India, the light in me has utterly changed. Once the place begins to feel normal, you know you belong – in this, the greatest and most enduring of all my relationships with places. I like how it has made me – the lightness of being it has induced – and who I have become because of it. When I think of going home, I have to pause for a moment to think of which one I mean. But it’s not a choice that has to be made, really. I can love and appreciate both.
But before I fly back to the UK there’s one more adventure planned. We are following in the footsteps of the British in the Raj era, and heading for the hills to escape the heat. Hills is something of an understatement – we’re going to ride through the Himalayas on a Royal Enfield motorcycle, following National Highway 22 initially – the old Hindustan-Tibet Road through the districts of Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. It’s an ancient trading route between the two countries, first made motorable in 1860, and apparently it featured in a programme on the History Channel called ‘Deadliest Roads’. The full circuit runs anticlockwise from near Shimla in the south, through the small town of Reckong Peo, up to the now closed Tibetan border and the last settlement in India, the unforgettably named village of Pooh. From there it turns north, before reaching Kaza and Kibber, and the Kunzum La pass at 15,000 feet, then back to Manali via the Rohtang La – which translates ominously as “piles of bodies”. Most likely the Kunzum La will be closed due to snow, so from Kibber the plan is to retrace our steps and do the circuit in reverse, clockwise, the direction of a prayer wheel.
The overnight bus to Manali is booked. A guesthouse there has been reserved. A bike is being delivered to it tomorrow. It’s 40 degrees in Delhi and the bags are packed with gloves, scarves, waterproofs and ‘heavy woollens’. In the film Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole stares at the map of Sinai and points at Aqaba. “It is there,” he says. “It is simply a question of going.”
So chalo – let’s go.