My initial arrival in India was apparently much like everyone else’s. Two in the morning – or should that be night? You can never be quite sure in Delhi. Hot and dusty, as all my friends in Japan had said when I told them I was going to India. First experience of an Indian ‘Q’ at an exchange counter; somehow fought my way out with some cherished rupees. Through the near-absent customs check – keep up now, we’re all in a hurry – and into the maelstrom which, fortunately for me, had at its centre a 20-something guy holding my name on a discoloured piece of A4. Whisked away without a word into a beaten-up blue van and off into the night. India smells different from anywhere I’ve been before, I thought. Driver and his pal got me to the hotel but became angry when I only tipped them Rs. 20. I trusted no-one, not even the albino gecko on Hotel Vivek’s lobby wall, until I was locked away in my room and could put my head down on a pillow and…
Waking up around midday after a fitful night’s rest, I ordered in a terrifically bland palak paneer from the restaurant on the roof of the hotel. I had a full day to kill before my 40-hour train to Bangalore, so I ventured out into bustling, overwhelming PaharGanj. Overwhelming for me, at least, coming as I had from pristine, ordered Tokyo into the comparative chaos of Delhi. Drug pushers accosted me – “Hey man, where you from? I can get you anything, man, hash, H, E, you name it” – and shop owners barked instructions at me to come and buy things at far too high a price. I lasted twenty minutes before returning to my room. It wasn’t the warmest welcome to India and as I boarded the train that night, I felt like a true outsider among both the locals and the other foreigners, who all seemed to know exactly how to cope.
Fortunately, the train yielded the type of human contact I’d craved and improved my mood endlessly. I sat with a group of men who were travelling all the way to Bangalore, and to pass the time they asked me anything they could think to ask – about New Zealand, Japan and my purpose for being here. I noticed in these men an ability to be honest, genuine, open and friendly despite rarely offering a smile. Everything was in the eyes. There was nothing to see through or translate.
I couldn’t say the same for myself. I had a lot on my mind about whether I could make it in India and whether I would find what I hoped, but outwardly I extolled the virtues of India and Indians. One of the men was a swami of the Sivananda Order, clothed in flaming orange, and he very quickly saw through my happy veneer to the unease rumbling beneath. “You have too much feel,” he said. “I think. No feel, no worry…” and, with his hands lightly falling, “…everything is clearing.” I felt a calm that I can’t describe, and those words have stayed with me to this day. In times past I might have scoffed had someone recounted this story to me with the same earnestness; after listening to these and other simple words from Swamiji, I had an idea of their weight.
Stepping off the train in Bangalore, my enormous suitcase felt so much lighter than it had. I can do this, I thought. What PaharGanj and Delhi had taught me about when to be wary, my train mates had taught me about letting myself live a more open and vulnerable life. That was why I had come to India. And there would be so much more to learn. For the first time since leaving my Japanese friends, I felt excited and ready to move on.