I awake from a restless sleep punctuated by men snoring and babies crying. Sitting forward in my seat, I peer out of the window. The horizon is on fire: a dazzling curve of flame sandwiched between the darkness and the dawn. Beneath us, spread out like an old embroidered carpet, lies the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire: India! At last!
We disembark into the dirtiest airport I’ve ever seen. The once-white marble is grey with grime, the walls splattered and stained, the floors filthy with food and coffee spills. Flying insects buzz about. A moth the size of a sparrow flaps past my face. I duck in terror and beat my hands about my head, suddenly afraid to breathe. What other horrors lurk in this fetid air? Will I catch cholera, typhoid, dengue fever? My first Calcutta cramp heralds a bout of Delhi belly, confirming my stomach’s total disregard for geography.
I exit through immigration into a heaving horde of humanity. An onslaught of sweat and spices assaults my nostrils. Meeters and greeters swell forward straining to find their arrivees. They wave and call out in Hindu and Bengali. Behind them, buses and taxis hoot impatiently as they try to navigate the stragglers who’ve spilled into the road. Goats graze indifferently alongside old men crouching on their haunches against the terminal building chewing betel leaves and smoking bidis.
I peer at the hand-written name cards but none of them bears mine. A mild panic besets me, then there, amongst the mêlée, like an oasis in the desert, stand a regiment of beaming, white-clad drivers bearing boards. The comforting logo of the Oberoi Grand Hotel beckons me like a long-lost lover as my name hoves into view. Take me home, Shankar, I mutter, and allow myself to be guided towards the air-conditioned car.
The journey from the airport is sphincter-clenching. I can’t work out which side of the road they drive on as they appear to use all the lanes at once. Knackered old buses with passengers hanging off the roofs, motorbikes a-wobble with entire families, cyclos, taxis, trams, trucks, tuk-tuks, rickshaws - all hurtle towards each other in a dance of Destination Death.
Road signs advise: Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow and Take Your Time Not Your Life. When my driver goes over his third red light, I ask tremulously: “Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” to which he laughs jovially and replies:
“Oh no, Madame. Red light is only a suggestion.”
As we approach the city centre, a modern monolith or two rises up out of the gutters which house huddles of rag-clad beggars. Beneath a flyover flying nowhere, a market has been set up selling cracked toilet cisterns, sections of old piping, scrap metal, rusty chains.
A dead dog lies in the road, its entrails spilling out, inviting anyone peckish enough to sample its bloody buffet: Come Die With Me.
The driver points proudly to the Victoria Memorial looming out of the early morning mist. Standing in a lush green garden, it bears testament to the long gone Days of the Raj and the supremacy of its ruler, Queen Victoria, Empress of India and all her dominions.
Eventually we arrive at the wrought-iron gates of the Grand Hotel and enter this hallowed enclave which, as the week progresses, becomes a haven of calm and karma from the madness of the street.