Last week I wrote about my encounter with cows on Linking Road in Mumbai and I was asked what my first impression of the country was as a first timer in India. I’ve often said I have no known relatives in India. For my family and me, India is just another holiday destination to tick off from the must-see places list.
I was in my twenties when I went to India for the first time. The India I knew was only from Bollywood films and the anecdotes my Mum told us from her trips to India for pilgrimage. My eyes would widen and my mind would race in delight as I imagined everything she related to us – from the beautiful temples she visited with historical value right down to Roshan Di Kulfi in the narrow alleys of Delhi, the wonderful tales of shopping in little boutiques and stalls and haggling away until one was satisfied that one had landed a bargain.
I went with the determination to see Mumbai, I wanted to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and maybe go to Amritsar, my Mum’s ancestral town and Jallandhar too, my Dad’s family town. Along with that, I had dreams of shopping for Indian outfits, lots of bangles, anklets and a big supply of Lakme eyeliner, which I’d seen in Indian film magazines. Of course, the need to catch up with my favourite Bollywood stars was also on the list.
So here’s what actually happened. I landed in Mumbai and someone ran his trolley on the back of my foot and tore off a chunk with the sharp edge and I hobbled to catch a taxi to get to my hotel. I cheered up to know that the designer Anna Singh who only ever dealt with the colour purple had her boutique opposite my hotel. Later, after a rest, I walked over to Chowpatty beach and watched monkeys do tricks and dared eat a samosa and pani puri from the beach stalls. I survived that! I didn’t get to see Amitabh Bachchan but I did pass by his house and that was sort enough for me to go back home and boast about.
Hyderabad was an experience and a half. I checked into a palace that was converted into a hotel. It sounded grand when the travel agent talked about it but it had rats in the courtyard! I quickly got into a taxi and went to a more upmarket hotel and finally relaxed. I got myself some pretty pearl necklaces and bracelets from the City of Pearls and then headed towards Punjab.
Seeing the Golden Temple has been one of my most memorable moments in life – for some reason I just couldn’t stop crying. I loved being there and loved seeing the places within the temple that had been narrated to me during religion classes, by my Grandma and Mum. I didn’t get to go to Jallandhar but I did visit Ludhiana and also the most beautiful city in India, Chandigarh. I fell in love with the place as soon as I was driven through it and was very impressed at how clean and organised it was.
I will be lying that in the two weeks I was in India I didn’t fall ill with horrendous food poisoning. It wasn’t even food I might have eaten from roadsides because after eating at the beach I was warned by the hotel people not to do that or I’d fall ill. I have no idea what triggered my food poisoning but I do know that I was at least three kilos by the time I came back.
Honestly speaking, seeing India for the first time was a culture shock for me. I didn’t speak like them even though I spoke my mother tongue Punjabi and a little bit of Hindi. They laughed at my pronunciation and the way I spoke and I kept telling myself ‘We don’t speak like that!’ and wanted to come back home and say ‘sufuria’ and ‘kisu’ as if they’re Punjabi words. True story. We don’t think twice when we speak a mixture of Punjabi and Swahili and everyone understands.
India is beautiful, no doubt, but there’s no place like home.