'Take a number' says the sign at the visa section of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa. Only, there isn't any number to take. Somebody, apparently, has taken the number dispenser itself, and it hasn't been replaced.
'Take a seat' advised the girl at the counter, seeing my harried expression. But, again, there were no seats to take ' all the chairs were scrunched up together, with no sitting space in between. It was a bit of a madhouse at the visa section ' crowds of angry visitors, limited space, and, frustrated lines of people waiting for hours on end. The paperwork was processed by hand, as the High Commission doesn't, obviously, believe in computers. The hi-tech revolution, it seems, has gone straight to India, by passing the High Commission. But after many hours of waiting, I finally got my visa, and my homeward journey to India took shape.
I was returning to India after an interval of 14 years, and, in my declining years, I desperately wanted this trip to be a spiritual journey. My wish came true almost as soon as we landed at the airport at New Delhi, and I boarded a taxi for my sister-in-law's home in Gurgaon, about 20 km away. Since there are no driving lanes in India, the taxi driver drove confidently with one hand, creating his own lanes, squeezing between trucks, finding driving space between scooters, ignoring all traffic signs as a matter of principle, and, holding on to the overhead luggage with the other hand. In the meantime, I had an out- of- body experience with all the blood rushing to my head, while my wife could hardly stop her hysteria. We both prayed as never before in our lives, to all the gods of the universe.
It was a life changing experience; my entire attitude to life changed with the vivid realization that human existence is short and unpredictable, at least in India. But our combined prayers worked, and we finally made it to Gurgaon without seeking rebirth.
It took a few days to get the jet lag out of our systems, and, even longer, to get the Canada lag out of our minds. We soon realized that people in India didn't really mean what they said ' very often they meant just the opposite. We had to travel to Jaipur, about 270 km away, for a wedding, and we asked how long the journey would take. Three hours, I was told. It was only later that I realized the true meaning of the response ' the journey could take three hours, if there was no traffic, if there were no toll barriers, and if we didn't stop for fuel, or for traffic lights (we didn't, actually).
In reality, the journey took about nine hours. There was more traffic on the highway than in mid-town Toronto. We stopped two or three times to pay toll tax, once to refuel, and once for refreshments. In addition we were stopped four times by traffic policemen; incredibly, we were even stopped once for speeding, even though we averaged 30 km/hour for the entire journey. We had five near-death experiences on the highway, each leading to a higher state of consciousness. In fact, we almost reached nirvana about 50 km from Jaipur, when our taxi drove on the wrong side of the highway for 5 kilometers, facing incoming traffic, due to some lane closures.
I soon discovered that the residents of my beloved home country had a perfect sense of timing ' a skill that we had lost completely during our sojourn in North America. People in India know exactly how late they should for different types of occasions, and they can figure out to within an hour what is meant when somebody says 'please meet me at 7 p.m.'
We tried to be two hours late for a wedding in New Delhi, but we were, in fact, one hour too early ' neither the bride nor the bridegroom had arrived. Luckily, the caterer was present, so we ate the food, and left with a thank you note for the bride. It was a good wedding, perhaps the best we ever attended.
My uncle in New Delhi very kindly invited me and my wife to visit him at his home at 4 pm on a Sunday. We tried to be as late as we could, but with our Canadianized brains, we could only manage about two hours. We reached his house at 6 p.m. but my uncle wasn't home - he hadn't returned from his lunch engagement. Luckily, I could get him on his cell phone ' he explained he would be home in a few minutes. For once, he was right, for 'few', technically, means any number greater than one. So, he did show up 90 minutes later, while we waited outside his locked house. He blamed the delay on the traffic, which seems to be especially bad on Sundays when we are visiting.
Due to our lack of time sense, we found it very difficult to invite people over to visit us while we were in India. We just couldn't be sure whether they would show up for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and we couldn't impose on our hosts to cook all three meals for our guests.
We soon discovered it's almost impossible to be late for a local flight in India. Morning flights are always late in winter, due to morning fog. Afternoon flights are late, due to afternoon delays. As the day goes by, the delays accumulate, and by evening, any aircraft worth its salt would be running two or three hours late.
Of course, it doesn't really matter, as the flight delays are compensated for by traffic delays in getting to the airport. It is, indeed, a foolproof system, if you are a local resident and know the art of balancing one delay against another.
Train travel, it seems, is much better. In fact, some trains in India have been known to leave exactly on time, when they are exactly 24 hours late. This is simply not possible with air travel.
I also discovered that the so-called 'worst' airline in India is actually the best. Our relatives told us never to fly a budget airline as it wasn't punctual, the in-flight service was bad, and, the tickets were cheap. But we flew it anyway, for our trip from New Delhi to Luck now, a city in north India. The plane was only 30 minutes late (insignificant by local standards), there was no in-flight lunch, and no in-flight movies, but it didn't really matter much for a 45-minute flight. And the airfare, at $180.00 roundtrip for two, was a steal and, with the money we saved we could enjoy the best restaurant meal that Lucknow offers.
Later, we flew the national carrier, Indian Airlines, to Bombay, at a five times higher cost. Sure, we got a good meal, but the plane was 2 hours late one-way, and about 3 hours late on the return journey. For the return flight, all the computers at the check-in counters were down, and we had to be checked-in manually. Not a big deal, except that the airport staff wasn't quite sure how many people they were checking in for each aircraft, and we had to make sure we were amongst the first in the line.
During our month's stay, we re-discovered that India is a great country ' perhaps the greatest of them all. It has many problems, but they tend to cancel each other out. You can buy all kinds of medicines in India without a prescription. As a result, all our relatives in India are over-medicated. One of our close relatives starts her day with painkillers, followed by a generous dose of antibiotics to forestall any potential viruses lurking in the air. This may be followed by some Valium, some ointments, and, a cough syrup or two, depending on how she is feeling. Of course, it doesn't really matter, as most of the medicines are fake, anyway. There is a thriving industry in Old Delhi selling empty capsules labeled as Penicillin, Chloromycetin, or, whatever. Retailers fill them up with placebos and sell the fake medicine for a profit. The retailers are very honest, however ' they will not put any harmful products in the capsules. It's a win-win situation; some people make money, and, nobody gets hurt.
While India is, no doubt, a great country, we soon discovered that the Canada factor worked against us everywhere. But most of all, we had difficulty shopping. There were great bargains to be had in every Indian market, but as non-residents, we couldn't get any of them. Although we were born in India, we ate Indian food, and we talked the local language with no trace of an accent, the shopkeepers could always figure out that we were from the other side of the world. They not only charged us more money, but also gave us an inferior product ' chances were, we wouldn't be back anytime soon to complain.
What gave us away? A shopkeeper in New Delhi finally explained the obvious to us. Firstly, we were too polite; we used words like please, thank you and sorry. Sometimes, we even apologized for a mistake, something that no self-respecting Indian will ever do. Further, we didn't know how to bargain. We would stop after a couple of polite attempts.
But, most important of all, we spoke to the shopkeeper in flawless Hindi, the official language of the country. This he explained, was a dead give-away. It seems only non-residents like us talk in Hindi ' all the local residents are too busy practicing their English!