It's nigh impossible for a Westerner travelling in India, even if he/she visits and lives there much of their lives, to truly see and feel the reality of what it is like to be Indian, surviving in their familial milieu. One can have empathy, for a life-journey with its successes and failures but eventually one goes back home to a secure and comfortable life far from the Indian reality.
You can dress like a Hindu, wear a Brahmin string and a tilak mark on the forehead but that doesnt make you an Indian, you have to be born into a Hindu family, there is no conversion process in that religion.
The Western visitor can fall into the orientalist's fantasy of only seeing India as full of exotic curiosities, stereotypical spectacles, mystical ecstasies and fabulous fairy-tale adventures, all of which excite fascination and revulsion. Some foreigners seem to think Indians constantly need saving, being helpless simpletons, and the true nature of the people is simplicity, generosity and poverty. Or they grumble perjoratives: Indians are greedy, lustful and so stupid that an honest, upright pilgrim has to outwit and evade them continuously. The reality of an Indian's life is veiled, hard to fathom, but they are definitely capable of organising their needs and overcoming obstacles, bringing up families and obeying the law of the land.
He contemplated three Indian men he had befriended and his dysfunctional involvement with them, real individuals without the overought superlatives and degrading criticisms an ignoramus might espouse.
Sonny is a Hindu taxi driver in Main Bazar, Paha Ganjh, New Delhi. He's driven Arthur on tours of Delhi for the past 7 years, usually at fair rates. Post-Covid everyone's money was tight, many Indians went into debt with money-lenders during the two year lock-down to survive their unemployment. Sonny picked Arthur up at the airport and charged him 10 times what a prepaid taxi from a govt office would charge, (4000 rupees as opposed to 400 rupees.) Arthur had money so he went along with it , enjoying the experience of having an acquaintance greet and help him on his arrival.
He charged Arthur way more for the tours than he used to and got him an Indian sim card phone connection extravagantly expensive, all the while softening him up by repeatedly telling him what good friends they were and he would never rip him off. Arthur gritted his teeth and smiled throughout for he knew the guy's story.
He had married for love and was ever faithful to his adoring wife. They had two sons, 5 and 1 year old. The one year old got sepsis of the blood and died. This devastated them. She lost her faith in the gods, he took on the gods of all religions hoping they would guard his family's future. After much praying he was blessed with a second son and Sonny swore he was exactly like the one who died, the gods had given him back to them.
Then the 2nd infant son caught Denghe fever and was on the point of death. In fear and despair they took out a huge loan from a money lender and put the baby in an expensive hospital and had him attended to by the best doctors available, and the baby revived and is now well and thriving. They now owe a huge amount and its debilitating interest to a greedy userer. Sonny has to scrounge together as much money as he can, every day, competing with thousands of other taxi drivers.
This is where foreign tourists come in, particularly Arthur. To sweetly get hin to pay that little bit more. He couldn't save Sonny's family, he couldn't even help him that much, the driver works very hard to achieve the loan repayments in many clever and opportunistic ways, because he has to, his family depends on it. He was no background character in Arthur's self-enlightening journey, he was self-interested and passing through Sonny's life-drama hoping the guy will achieve his goal of financial freedom with ingenuity and it will probably happen long after Arthur disappeared.
The second character in this reality drama is Shubham, now 27 and a student of yoga and ayurveda medicine in Rishikesh. He and Arthur had been friends for 7 years, he was a bright and pleasant character to get on with and Artie often hired him as a guide, gofor and driver. He was intelligent, strong willed, compassionate and trustworthy. In the covid years he fed the wandering cows because nobody else was bothering. If he found an injured dog he took it to a vet. During the Covid lockdown years Arthur paid him to feed crippled paupers abandoned by the roadside and he fulfilled the job with honesty and alacrity.
His parents had taken out a huge loan, again with a voracious money-lender, to build 4 rooms on top of their three room abode, hoping to earn money from tenants. Then Covid hit and nobody came to rent the rooms for 2 years. They went into devastating debt and, as they'd put their own land and home up as collateral, they were threatened with being thrown on the streets if they couldn't pay the monthly dues.
Family is everything in India, it's the central institution and organising principal of their society. Their religion/caste comes second and govt, which provides little in supportive services, comes a distant last in their daily concerns. There is no medicare, no old age pension for the majority, no sick leave, no unemployment benefits, it's every person fighting for him/her self with their family as the one saving grace.
The bride comes home to live with the son's family, the mother chooses the bride, the father decides what's the best career for the son to succeed in, the wife is a home-body, the husband goes out into the world to be the bread-winner, and the whole family usually sleeps together in one bed. The parents have as many children as they can handle, bringing them up to accept the duty of looking after mum and dad in their old age. They nurse all family members in the home and only the rich farm out their beloved to institutions and nursing homes to be taken care of. In a country of 1500 million people they only have each other to love and depend on.
Arthur trusted Shubham implicitly to safeguard his interests but when it came down to a choice between the survival of his family and the discomfort of a foreign friend he chose, of course, his family.
At one stage the two friends were discussing the possibility of buying a scooter to tour about on, each of them going halves. Arthur suggested a second-hand scooter at a cost of about 30,000 rupees. Shubham disagreed, claiming a brand new one would be better, it wouldn't break down. It would cost 90,000 rupees and Artie's share would thus be 45000 rupees,(A$900.) He reluctantly agreed and sent Shubham the money. Arthur couldn't drive on the Indian roads, they terrified him, he had 3 accidents when he drove, and one very serious when pillion with a German friend, breaking his leg badly, so was dependant on Shubham to drive. They got one trip out of the scooter, to the top of the Himalayas for 5 days and it was very pleasant.
Then Shubjam broke the news to Arthur that he had accepted a job in Kerala and was leaving in a week. He had known this for 7 months and not said a word, abandoning Arthur who now had no one to drive him. Arthur soon discovered the scooter had been bought on hire purchase, the parents paying 2000 rupees a month to the bank while Arthur's 45000 rupees were paid to the money lender. After a few weeks the scooter itself disppeared, probably sold to raise yet more money to pay that avaricious userer.
Arthur was pissed off at the deception, especially from Shubham, who, of all his Indian acquaintances, he trusted the most. But what easier alternative could Shubham have taken? It was a choice between his family thrown on the street or a bit of discomfort for his foreign friend. Family wins out every time with Indians, even if it meant losing a best friend. While Arthur understood the boy's predicament he didn't like the dishonesty, his estimation of the lad fell and he intended never to see him again. This was a real life drama, not exotic, not mystical, Arthur agreed that his discomfort at losing some money was as nothing compared to their homelessness. He empathised but still went his own way, able to team up long term with no one.
The third Indian man Arthur could never forget, had the harshest story of all and his name was Pankaj. They had been close friends for 12 years and Arthur knew every twist and turn of Pankaj's sorry road. They first met at a hotel Arthur was staying in, the Yellow Laxmi Hotel, at the back of Tapovan, Laxman Juhla. One had to walk down a long, muddy road around many corners to get to it. Pankaj had opened a restaurant there for the hotel guests and visitors, only in winter there were few guests and no visitors who found their way to the premises. Arthur only occassionally ate from the grungy kitchen and Pankaj went broke.
He next tried going partners with a wild man named Jittu. They both invested in a space on a clifftop looking down upon the Ganges River with wonderful views of jungle and mountains. They named it Tat Cafe after a famous yogi, Tatwallah Baba, who Arthur had meditated in front of in the early 1970s. It had much foot traffic past its front door and with Pankaj arranging musicians to play on many nights it was quite a success with the tourists.
While Jittu rushed about the village and jungle, yahooing drunkenly on his motorbike, Pankaj put in the daily grind of recieving guests, encouraging the cook and waiters to do their best, and watching the till. Jittu didn't have to try too hard as his elder brother, working in Canada, was pouring money into the business and keeping Jittu's side of the enterprise afloat.
It only just made a profit, Jittu smoking much of it in hash, and the waiters robbed the till claiming they weren't paid enough. It didn't take long before Jittu stated the entire cafe was his as his brother had put the most money in and he kicked Pankaj out. Tat Cafe never did succeed as a business as Jittu continued to get both high and drunk, brawling with the local lads while his brother continued to support him.
Two doors down was another space similar to the Tat and Pankaj took out a huge loan to decorate, furnish, supply utensils and foodstuffs and hire the staff, even putting in a toilet. The premises were owned by a retired Indian army officer and he strolled about the place twiddling his thumbs while Pankaj did all the hard work. They shared thirds in the profits with an old entrepreneur named Pappu, the soldier taking his share in lieu of rent.
Again Pankaj hired musicians to play nightly and connected up with the local yoga schools to have their foreign students patronise the place as well as neo-hippie tourists and trendy Indians hoping to join the cool set. Arthur was asked to name the place and he came up with Shambala,(otherwise known as Shangri-la, The Secret Community), and it was promulgated on social media and Tripadvisor as a laid-back paradise for hip cognoscenti types.
Word spread as it became a popular hang-out for wannabe hippies, this it was profitable, finally Pankaj had a thriving business and a regular income. Arthur visited daily, enjoying the milieu, except when the bongo thumpers started up their infernal racket causing Arthur to flee back to the sanctity of his room. He was lounging back one day talking to the son of the ritired soldier who said to him as he looked about at the glittering decor, "My dream is to one day have my own restaurant." Arthur thought to himself, "Oh ohhhh! It's Shambala you've got your eye on, how long before you take over?" Not long.
2020 and Covid hit, no tourists, no yogis, no people at all, total lockdown. The old retired soldier continued to demand rent, even though there were no customers, Pankaj couldn't pay so he was asked yet again to move on. Now was Rahul's chance, he and his father pounced, complaining that Pankaj and Pappu had kept most of the profits. The partners were tired of the old miser's constant complaints and, fed up, gave him all the furnishings, utensils and new toilet, even the name Shambala, as payback for any rent they may still owe. Shutdown ended, the business thrived on its previous reputation and its grand setting above the Ganges River. They made a lot of money, that filthy lucre that many unenlightened souls think is the epitome of righteous living and would sell your baby to get more of it. Rahul went to China to teach yoga, made more money and sent it home, cash raining down on them like dead frogs.
With smug, sour faces they surveyed their kingdom as they sat upon their heap of gold, hoping to hatch a few more coins. They didn't actually own the property, only the trinket shop at the front. They had encroached upon the rest, a common Indian subterfuge of claiming and building upon govt land that surrounds their meagre holdings. Apparently all the buildings lining that clifftop above the Ganges were on encroached govt property, hotels, restaurants, homes, temples, nearly every structure teetering upon the precipice was illegal.
The Modi govt had a hsrd on for the Ganges River, considering it a goddess. They were determined to clean it up, stop waste being dumped it and close all the river rafting camps set up on every beach and cove of the river to stop its further degradation. 7 years previously they had annoynced all the buildings built illegally on the clifftops of Laxman Juhla hugging the edge would have to be demolished or pushed back leaving a 200 yards wide safety zone. This was to stop the undermining of those cliffs and be safer for any residents who were in danger if the cliffs collapsed into the river, as they were want to do.
Nobody took any notice of this order and not only continued to live there but to build more, level upon level, like a tower of cards. In 2023 the Modi govt passed legislation that demanded this demolition take place soon, it could wait no longer and the residents should take heed. Again, those encroachers ignored the notification and live on in complete defiance, of the law and the danger ad they have done gor years. This includes the Shambala shambolics, one day they wake up in their plush beds with a bulldozer knocking tbeir wallscdown and their entire wealth sliding quickly into oblivion. Pankaj prayed for his own upliftment and left the fall of his detractors to their karma.
This is some of what's going on in that exotic background of temples, yoga schools, trinket shops and masala restaurants. The foreign tourist can find it all quaint, the scenery picturesque, the locals colourful, polite and servile, they are only passing through for a few weeks, they dont want to know about the daily struggle, the betrayals, the greed, the nastiness, the desperation, the scramble to get on top, the strength to get out from underneath oppression, the compassionate heart to continue and succeed in one's given lot.
Pankaj in the meantime had taken what he could salvage to other premises across the river. It was right next to the Laxman Juhla Bridge, visitors could see it as they crossed the river, a glowing sign enticing them, they marched straight in. With cushions, low tables, wall tapestries, a glorious view of the river, people again enjoyed kicking back and hanging out. Arthur was an honoured guest and given pride of place, for him it was paradisical, with no hippie bong bong twang twang to get on his nerves.
Pankaj had once taken Arthur to his home village, way up near the Tibetan border, hidden deep inside a craggy valley, as if it were indeed The Secret Community, Shambala itself. The people lived very simple lives, up before dawn, tending their milk cows and their crops, participating in age old rituals to appease their gods. They also had satellite television and it was there that Pankaj saw the wonders of the modern world, far down below in the cities with the consumer goodies and easy lifestyles on tap. He desired it all badly and migrated down, into the contemporary maelstrom.
While visiting his archaic village Arthur met Pankaj's sister, blind since birth, and partly deaf and dumb. Both his parents had died young, his aunty looker after her in the main, but Pankaj had to support them, always scrabbling to get money together to send to them, life was a trial for him. Add to this a wife and two children, and a lazy, no hoper brother and his existential predicament was dire. He visited every temple and shrine, praying to whatever god or saint his mind could lock onto, for succour and upliftment. Arthur felt deep empathy for him and gave him whatever assistance he could afford.
The Laxman Juhla Bridge Cafe was plodding along nicely for a year and Pankaj was gradually paying off all his debts, though he still continued to under pay his staff. His sister's survival was uppermost in his consideration, much money went to hiring specialists who could operate and give her some sight, but it was hopeless, her blindness was incurable.
Then the Uttarakhand govt decided the bridge was too dangerous for the amount of traffic using it, about to collapse any moment they closed it and started constructing a much bigger, stronger version in the shadow of the old bridge. This left Pankaj's restaurant empty, as it did all the businesses around it. He was unable to pay his debts, his staff's wages, or the rent. It was a disaster and he was thrown into deep despair as well as thrown on the street with all his furnishings. He just couldn't get a break.
He'd opened a daily needs shop in a shed next to a petrol station up on the highway to Badrinath. A plague of mice rushed in and ate up all the goods till there was nothing left to sell. He threw ratsack all over the place and poisoned any customers who still showed up. His brother crashed his scooter into another scooter ridden by a woman and her child, and even though she was driving on the wrong side of the road, the brother was blamed. Mother and child are iconic, they were all cut up along with the brother and Pankaj had to pay their hospital bills as well as fixing the scooters.
Will Pankaj's run of bad luck never end? When praying to Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, for sustenance she told him, "I've given you Arthur, ask him for some money." For the short time Arthur was in Rishikesh he hired Pankaj as his driver and the fellow worked assiduously to earn enough to keep his family housed and fed. Even when Arthur returned home he dent small amountscof money to help out but not near enough to keep the Indiam's head above the turbulence. This was up to Pankaj him self to achieve and he did it, without crime but with a lot of gift of the gab and applying his unstoppable ingenuity to the task.
In writing of his own fatigue at the daily grind of survival, the betrayals and disappointments Arthur had to mention his travels in India, fot it was there he could see his privilaged background and know his worries were comparably smaller. It was his story, his life, his confession, those he met were incidental to his travails, some actually played a part in his undoing, and many in his success. He didn't see them as exotic background characters in his drama totally extraneous to his survival, people existed everywhere no matter where he went, they were with him, against him or indifferent, that's life.
If he comes across as a confabulating orientalist it's because that's what he was, an outsider looking in, a lonesome traveller, a narcissistic wanderer. India was not his milieu, it WAS different, exotic and heartbreaking because that's how he experienced it as a stranger. He was existentially and sexually exhausted and lost himself there, looking for a way to begin again or end it.