Poor Me! – a short story from India.
Cover photo courtesy of McKay Savage from London.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
The plane journey to Delhi was horrible. There was an especially bad Adam Sandler movie and the usual unappealing sludge masquerading as food. Not to mention the colossal middle aged man next to me who coughed, snored and farted his way through the entire flight. Even worse than all that though, was the stone cold moment when it suddenly struck me what a huge mistake I was making. What the hell was I doing flying to India? This unexpected moment of clarity exposed all my previous talk of character building as little more than naivety. Who exactly had I been kidding?
Not that this would be my first time exploring a foreign land. By this point I had two years of English teaching under my belt. I spent my first twelve months in Qatar’s capital city Doha. My second contract meanwhile took me to Slovakia’s main metropolis, Bratislava. And while both experiences had certainly provided ample travelling opportunities, this would be my first indefinite period out on the open road.
This time I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I pleased! The thought of it all had been oh so exciting. But now, my mind racing at forty thousand feet, I was feeling stressed. As a result, I spent the remainder of the flight in a muddled state of half sleep dreaming up all kinds of dismal scenarios. The highlights of these nightmares included losing my passport, having my wallet stolen and a dodgy curry. Followed by a crippling case of diarrhoea. Thankfully my mid-air meltdown turned out to be little more than a temporary panic attack. Beginning our gentle descent into Delhi, my heartbeat stabilised and I began forming a steely resolve. Mentally preparing myself for the coming hours if you will.
Poor Me! – a short story from India.
As we moved into the arrivals hall at Indira Gandhi International, I scanned the landscape, backpack slung over my sleep-deprived shoulders. Thankfully, just as planned, I was met by a friendly face and a reassuring handshake. “Welcome to hell!” he said in a lilting Scottish accent. “Let’s grab a taxi”.
I’d first met Allan just a few months earlier standing in the visa queue at The Indian Embassy in Edinburgh. What began as time-killing small talk eventually led to coffee at The Edinburgh Film House. There we chatted about our travelling aspirations before exchanging email addresses. “Drop me a line, maybe we can meet up’’ I said, taking one last gulp of my latte. I hadn’t expected anything to actually come of it. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when a week later Allan got in touch to say he’d meet me at the airport.
From the bustling chaos of arrivals we made our way to the prepaid taxi rank to request a chariot into the city. Our destination was Paharganj, a teeming market street in Central Delhi. A backpacker’s haven of budget hotels and dirt cheap eateries. The guy behind the taxi counter sat chewing on a gnarled pencil, monitoring our approach with an expression of mild disinterest. “Paharganj? Umm… 400 Rupees”. “What?” spluttered Allan, “no way, I’ve done this trip for two hundred”. “No sir, 200 not possible” replied the man, his head jerking from side to side. “350” he continued, in a tone that insinuated he was doing us a big favour.
Allan laughed, rolling his eyes. “No thanks” and suddenly we were walking away. I was just about to concede that I really didn’t mind paying three quid for a forty minute taxi ride when a now desperate voice called after us. “Ok… Ok… no problem 200, for you special price!” “Thank you” replied Allan, sounding not at all grateful. Thus the curtain fell on my first haggling lesson.
1: Await ludicrous quote.
2: Produce a condescending laugh/roll eyes.
3: Half the quote.
4: Walk off.
5: Allow yourself to be called back before getting in the taxi for a reasonable price.
We were still paying too much of course. But it remained a victory of sorts that set me in good stead for the endless negotiations that lay ahead.
Any inner tranquility I thought I’d amassed since meeting Allan disintegrated a few minutes later. Pulling out of the airport, we hurtled down the highway like a greyhound out of the starting blocks. Fumbling desperately for a seatbelt that wasn’t there, I glanced around trying to take everything in. The experience could only be described as a real life episode of Wacky Races. Although to be honest a spin with Dick Dastardly himself may have actually been a safer proposition.
We overtook, undertook, cut up and narrowly avoided collision with a number of blurred vehicles. Our mute driver pretty much ignoring the lane system and making up his own rules. I use the word rules in the loosest possible sense, because the only prerequisites I could establish were the following:
a) The bigger vehicle always has the right of way.
b) You must honk your horn continually, regardless of the situation.
The honking is an engulfing ritual that reverberates around Delhi 24-7. Honestly it’s enough to give you a permanent headache. Painted onto the back of most heavy goods vehicles is the request please using horn. Which, amusing grammatical errors aside, felt like a wholly unnecessary dose of encouragement.
Weaving in and out of the lanes at high speed, we zoomed past trucks, taxis, rickshaws, bicycles, homemade vehicles and miscellaneous cattle. Many of these forsaken animals sat slumped at the side of the road, eyes glazed, chewing on garbage. Furthermore, I watched in disbelief as the odd motorbike whizzed by, whole families perched precariously on the back like badly stacked tin cans. One such machine came so close to crashing into us it audibly skimmed the side of our taxi. Yikes!
Poor Me! – a short story from India.
Unfortunately, colliding with other vehicles wasn’t my only concern. Above all, I was feeling anxious that it was only a matter of time before we killed a pedestrian. Subsequently, I could only watch in horror as young boys, suited businessmen and hobbling pensioners idly meandered across the road. All of them supposedly unconcerned that their lives could end at any moment. Finally, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when congestion brought us to a temporary stop. At long last I had a chance to scrutinise our dubious surroundings.
The traffic stood back-to-back, with the honking having now risen to an almost ear shattering level. Sweat trickled down my forehead in competing streams. In search of some oxygen, I rolled down the window, a soon to be realised blunder. Within twenty seconds a small boy appeared. He was dirty, visibly undernourished and dressed in rags. The poor guy couldn’t have been a day older than ten years old and had the saddest looking eyes I’d ever seen. Clutched firmly in his grubby little hand was a pack of blue pens. “Only 50 Rupees sir” he said, eyeballing me forlornly.
“No mama no papa. Pooooor me sir… pooooor me!”
“No thanks” I replied with a sympathetic smile. I was well off in the pen department and could only lament the fact that he wasn’t selling something to aid me through my current ordeal. A bottle of Whiskey would have been just dandy. “Please sir…” he persevered, “…no mama no papa. Poor me sir… poor me!” I looked away and, sensing he was losing me, the kid upped his game and brought out the big guns. “No mama no papa. Pooooor me sir… pooooor me!” he whined.
Without making any kind of conscious decision, I found my hand wandering down to the money belt strapped around my waist beneath my T-shirt. “No” said Allan gently, placing his hand on my arm. The boy was no fool though and knew he’d made an impact. So he turned the dramatics up another notch. He repeated the “poor me” line again and again, this time putting in an Oscar-winning performance that involved the wringing of his hands. And oh lord those damn eyes reached a whole new level of despondency.
Seconds later the taxi pulled away and I was off the hook. I watched glumly as he faded into the distance. All the while those eyes remained locked into mine, right until he was out of sight and swallowed amid a sea of metal and dust. Feeling crappy, I scolded myself for not giving him the equivalent of sixty pence for his bloody pens. Later of course, I learned more about the street kids of Delhi. About how generally they’re sent out by pimps to collect money. Usually to fund drug addictions and prostitution. For the most part the children see next to nothing of the cash they bust a gut begging for. So I learned that as a rule it was better to give fruit, maybe even a chocolate bar. Anything really that would have brightened his day up a little.
Leaving the death-mobile for the equally chaotic flow of Paharganj was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. I had never seen so many people crammed into one space. In fact, it made Saturday afternoon on London’s Oxford Street look like a leisurely stroll in the park. With the sun mercilessly beating down on us, we slowly picked our way through the crowds. Edging further and further into the cauldron. Soon we found ourselves set upon by feverish vendors, so-called tour guides and other entrepreneurs. All of whom appeared desperate to sell us anything that wasn’t nailed to the ground.
“Come my shop”.
“You want Kashmir?”
“This way for cheap”.
The touts were relentless, with the more persistent offenders even chasing after us and blocking our way. Nevertheless we battled on, our eyes fixed on that all-important sign in the distance. This was my beacon of hope, the promised oasis. I focused hard on those words for all I was worth, determined to get through the madness intact. Progressing slowly but surely, we passed cripples, beggars and filthy, flea-ridden dogs. Moreover, there were collections of street urchins who tugged at our arms and legs with impish smiles.
Finally, to our uncontainable delight, the crowds thinned out and we arrived at The Hare Krishna Guest House! Safely ensconced in its dimly lit lobby, Allan and I threw off our rucksacks and flopped out on a pair of plastic chairs. Catching my breath, I gazed up at the ceiling, monitoring the journey of an enormous beetle as it scuttled towards a network of spider webs and certain death.
“You want room?” deduced the fiercely intelligent receptionist. I laughed out loud for the first time since stepping off the plane. For a moment I briefly considered telling him no. That in actual fact we were looking to purchase twenty kilos of snow for the ski slope we were building next door. However, I think the joke would have been lost on him.
Following another round of tedious negotiations (“Yes sir, 250 one night is special price”), it was with some trepidation that I turned the key to the door of my room. To say my expectations had been low would be an almighty understatement. Hence I felt incredibly relieved when I was met by a basic but clean room. Even better, it also appeared to be free of street touts and pen-selling children. The bed itself was comically slight with all the comfort of an antique ironing board. Elsewhere, the similarly rickety table was held up by a beer mat wedged beneath one of its gnarled legs.
I felt totally drained from the exertions of the flight, dicing with death on Delhi’s roads and dodging the street predators. Consequently, I was asleep on said ironing board the moment my head touched what the receptionist would have insisted was a pillow.
‘Poor Me!’ is the first chapter of my short story series Incidents In India.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.