Stella Howells wins £250 for surviving the Indian assault on the senses
It took me 22 years to face my demons and visit India for the first time, at the age of 60.
Why so long? In 1996 my brother and his partner were unlawfully killed in a car crash in Goa state. I came to the decision that the only way to enjoy the experience without it becoming a pilgrimage was to take the travel group route. Goa, even after all this time, felt too raw. The obvious choice then was to see the sights. The Golden Triangle beckoned and, with my husband, I joined a group for a whistle-stop tour of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra over eight days.
From the moment we landed I fell unexpectedly in love. Delhi was everything I imagined and infinitely more – black kites wheeling high over the traffic, women giggling and waving. Huge, furry fruit bats in a flurry over the trees on the Lutyens roundabouts.
At Humayun’s tomb the sight of builders on a roof, welding wearing flip-flops and sunglasses, was as potent as the tomb itself. Our guide was a pro – fending off unwanted hawkers, guiding 24 naive and oblivious Britons around the hazards of cows, tuk-tuks and bazaar vendors, watchfully keeping his assets (us) safe.
Naturally, I had issues with the roads. I knew the statistics. I watched the oncoming traffic keenly and refused to sleep on the long journeys between cities. Besides, I was too energised by the complexities of the scenes unfolding to want to miss anything.
No one in the group apparently saw, as I did, a three-wheeled truck, driving at speed, fell an elderly whiskered man and catapult a sari into the air, to land on top of its owner. A flash of white, citrine yellow, and she was gone. Sixteen people on the same side of the coach and not one person registered it. In conversations over five-star dining, fellow travellers marvelled at the skill of the Indians in avoiding hitting each other. I kept the statistics to myself.
India lives up to all the clichés: everything about it is staggering. The absolute beauty of the Taj, the brutality of streets, the horrors of its history, the countless monuments built by the sweat of insignificant labourers. Invasion, dynasties, power grabbing.
The presence of the British and partition all swirl into the fascinating story. Religions jostle on the streets, the temples and mosques. During our stay unrest over the caste act in Delhi resulted in the death of a child when the protesters refused to let an ambulance through. We avoided the street violence en route to our last hotel.
India for softies? Don’t knock it. It was the introduction I needed. The country is challenging enough and this option kept me safe and ready for more. My present to my family was to return home alive.
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