It was 1988 and I was wending my way to Khajuraho in June. I remember that trip with clarity, despite the 26 intervening years. Partly because the muddy dull light of the height of summer crept into every one of my photographs, whether I took them at 6 am, 3 pm or 7 pm. And partly because of the character I met. He was a young, 20-something lad and was from Khajuraho itself. I hadn’t realized how remote Khajuraho was, and how, but for the temples with their ornate carvings with sometimes erotic motifs, it wasn’t even a town but a village. The young man, whose name was Rajesh, would have been the toast of the town today. 26 years ago, he was just a misfit with a strange attitude. You see, he loved the temples, knew each carving by heart and could discourse on the trivia about hairstyles and jewellery with tourists at length. To his parents and neighbours, he was nothing more than a no-gooder. It was doubtless because he didn’t cajole us for money but treated us all like equals.
Still worse were the other guides who didn’t quite know how to handle Rajesh. They could hardly object to him on professional grounds because he took no money. Yet they could not keep quiet because when Rajesh was around, none of them got any business. Rajesh taught me a valuable lesson in life: keep your eyes open on your travels because you never know where and how your travel experience is enriched.
So when I went to Switzerland, it was a nameless café owner who defined my trip for me. Hergiswil on the banks of Lake Lucerne has a world famous glass factory that our friends the Kollikers had taken us to see. After wandering around the factory and the attached shop, we crossed the road to an open air café for an espresso, and – I still kick myself for it – I left my handbag on the floor near my chair.
Next on our list was the town where a member of the Kolliker clan lived, so we drove a considerable distance before I realized that my bag and I had become separated. Andrew Kolliker the default driver for our adventures across Switzerland, had to check his map (in the days before GPRS), figure out a way of getting off the motorway, all the way back to Hergiswil. My heart slammed painfully against my rib-cage for the hour that it took us to reach the café, while Andrew gritted his teeth at the waste of time. I needn’t have feared. My bag was waiting for me, passports, cash and credit cards intact at the cash counter. When Elisabeth Kolliker tried to thank the lady at the café, she was brushed off. “We haven’t done anything out of the ordinary”.
Perhaps she hadn’t. In a country where the very sound of an ambulance alarm causes every car on a motorway to stop and turn at a 45 degree angle to make an instant passage on the road, keeping a handbag till the owner claims it, really isn’t such a big deal after all.
India and China are always compared to one another. “The elephant and the dragon” are two giants of Asia. But my experience in the centre of Shanghai showed me that there was, in fact, no comparison between the two. My friend, the glamorous Tao Yin and I walked from my hotel in Huaihai Road to Nanjing Road, via the India Gate-like expanse of park and museum. Being a pedestrian walkway, most of the young lovelies there were 20 year old fashionistas in mini skirts and sheer stockings, walking on the highest heels one can find. Loitering, walking, strolling, standing… In the midst of all this was a man from the countryside. He was laying large limestone kerbstones on the sides of the pavements.
He worked with fierce concentration, never taking his eyes off the stones. He would measure each stone, then measure the space it would take. Next, he would place the stone with great reverence in its appointed area and measure again and again, surveying it from all angles till he was certain it was exactly in line with its neighbour. After which he would go on to the next one. Yin was on a rather lengthy call to her colleague in Beijing, so I had around 15 minutes to get a ringside view of the action. A middle-aged man, straight from a village in India working in, say, Khan Market or Pali Hill, would probably spend more time shirking work, if not actually gawping at the fashion pageant around him. Plus, he was sitting on the road and the young lovelies were all standing. Yet, his eyes never strayed once. I call it a miracle. And not just an economic one!
So, you’ve heard of the South Beach Diet and the Californian lifestyle. But have you been at the receiving end of it? I have. On a work trip to Los Angeles, I was to meet the Communications team from an almond and pistachio company. After we flew down to Death Valley in the private jet of the company Chairman, the three ladies and I had dinner at a hotel. Each of the ladies was of a different ethnic origin, including one Russian. Dinner was fascinating because of the conversation, where they effortlessly spoke of their childhood. Although the setting was LA, each lady had a totally different experience because of the first generation culture. From conversations with grandmothers about native cultures to becoming health-conscious Californians takes just two and a half decades.
At our dinner, the dishes that were ordered by my hosts had the optimum amount of nutrition and the least amount of calories. Still, there was an apple crumble on the dessert menu that I secretly had my eye on. When the waiter came to take our order for dessert, the three ladies shrank back in horror. “No no,” they said with one voice. “No desserts for us at all,” followed by an outraged roll of the eyes. That’s when hope died.
I always think of the USA as a vast, open-air United Nations. The races that have been assimilated into that country encompass half the world. One rainy evening in Seattle, my friend and I were trying to guess the nationality of our cab driver. He kept stringing us along. Finally, he told us that he was from Ethiopia. “Wow,” I squealed. Ethiopia has some mighty fine coffees. “Where in Ethiopia?” “Sidamo,” was the poker faced reply. (Sidamo coffee is highly prized in the international market). So now, when I want to boast, I tell people that I’ve been driven in a cab by the owner of a Sidamo coffee plantation.
Then there’s Shahrukh Khan. He has travelled the world either in person or through his movies. And collected many tens of thousands of fans from the most unlikely of places. When I went to a barely inhabited island off Malaysia, called Pulau Tioman, the single resort there had a small spa. I promptly booked myself for a treatment and spent a decadent hour in the hands of a young lass who said she was from neighbouring Indonesia. As I was leaving, she idly asked me where I was from. Equally idly, I replied “India”. She shrieked “India? Shahrukh Khan?” She refused to take the modest gratuity I was offering her. Instead, she gave me a message to deliver Khan. “Tell him to come to Pulau Tioman. I am waiting to give him a massage.” Promising to deliver the message when I next met Khan, her words still ring in my ears: “Tell Shahrukh I’m waiting”.
So imagine my surprise when I went to Bali and a tour guide took to calling me ‘Ibu Marryam’ (ibu meaning aunt) because he loved Indians – they shared a country with his idol. You guessed it. Shahrukh Khan. Sudra – for that was his name – would sing me songs of King Khan’s movies in Hindi. Being Balinese, he didn’t speak or understand a word of Hindi, but could, apparently sing in that language, inspired solely by SRK. I myself didn’t think it was possible, until I went to Paris.
Sonu Nigam and I arrived in Paris more or less simultaneously, though not, I must clarify, by design. The Marketing Manager for a very large multinational company who I had to meet, could hardly concentrate on telling me about the cheese his company manufactured. All he could blabber on and on about was the number of songs of Shahrukh Khan films that Nigam chose to sing at his concert the previous evening. Loic told me with shining eyes how the entire auditorium would sing along loudly for King Khan’s songs. “And how did all you Frenchmen figure out which was an SRK song?” I wanted to know. That was when a wheel of Vacherin was almost flung at me in exasperation.
My travels have taught me one valuable lesson: leave your pre-conceived notions at home.