I awoke to the muffled beeping of my mobile phone’s alarm, heard through airline issue earplugs and the metal of the train clattering on its tracks. Fumbling through my handbag, I found the phone and switched the alarm off. The faded sari fabric of my bag, seen through sleepy eyes, comforted me; I had awoken at involuntary intervals during the night to confirm its presence. It’s green and gold strap was still tied to my arm.
I shot a look toward Iain, who was asleep on the upper bunk across from mine. Yes, the laptop bag was still there, chained to the caging beside his sleeping head. It was 4:30am, fifteen minutes before our train was due to arrive in Hyderabad. I woke him up, with just enough time to splash water on our faces in the grimy carriage toilet, and unchain all of our belongings from under the bottom bunk.
An hour later we had still not reached our destination. I watched the man on the lower bunk across from me fold up a sheet he’d brought with him and deflate his blow-up pillow, which was covered by a clean cotton cover. Our fat, thumbed guidebook had been a pillow for Iain, and I’d used our grubby (but softer) yoga mat; we alternated the two on overnight train journeys.
The man looked clean, and refreshed. He had anticipated the train’s inevitable delay, so had slept for an extra hour. With hands and faces washed with our indispensable Dettol soap, it was easier to ignore our grimy clothes, sticky after a night on linenless bunks. But could one can call the semi-hallucinatory experience of dozing with clanging tracks and noisy passengers sleep?
I had found Iain and I whispering before dawn that morning, while trying to dislodge our baggage from under the lower bunk. Shh, people are trying to sleep I heard myself think, in my mother’s voice. Despite falling asleep to the blaring voices of Indian families, who talked when they wanted, shouted when they wanted, and switched on the light when they wanted, there I was whispering, so as not to wake them up.
A man in a tatty maroon uniform walked past calling, “CoffeeeeCoffeeCoffee!” I paid five rupees, and began sipping my second cup that morning, feeling more refreshed with each sip.
A movement on the ground caught my eye. Below me, on the carriage floor, a bedraggled child crawled past on his hands and knees, wiping a filthy t-shirt along the carriage floor, in a gesture of cleaning. I averted my gaze automatically. He was the second child that morning to crawl past, t-shirt in one hand, holding the other out for coins.
My coffee-fuelled contentment was gone, and I snapped back into the reality in which I was living; this cruel reality in which I was a privileged spectator. A five rupee note lingered in my purse, and I remembered it – it was the smallest denomination in my coinless, note-stuffed wallet. The child dwelled at our feet, ineffectually wiping the floor, looking up at us with mournful eyes. I looked sideways at Iain. He shrugged. The man across from us appeared not to have noticed the boy.
Refusing children money was the one decision about begging we’d made upon arrival in India. By then we’d heard enough rumours about young children being stolen by ‘beggar masters’ who force them to beg, while profiting from the takings. Beggars whose bodies have been mutilated, often having had entire limbs removed, or those who have been blinded, earn better money for their masters. The five rupee note remained in my wallet.
But guilt soon crept up. What if this child has no parents, no food, no access to an orphanage, no other option but to beg? But perpetuating the cycle is worse. What if I give him money which goes straight to a beggar master?
“We must start volunteering,” I said in my head, then to Iain. We had intentions to do some volunteer work for a few weeks while in India, but this had not yet materialised. I sipped my coffee. The child had gone. Five minutes later I may have forgotten about him. The coffee, at least half milk, had formed a creased brown skin on top.
I fumbled in my wallet for money to pay a rickshaw wallah. He sat waiting in the small scrappy contraption, which belched acrid black smoke onto my damp skin. Standing beside the vehicle, my wallet and white face had already attracted plenty of attention.
“Ugh, ugh,” groaned a woman, her hand held out. Another grabbed my arm, “Ten rupees! Ten rupees!” she demanded, pointing to the baby on her hip. “Yes please, yes please,” said a man, covered almost entirely in handbags, as though we had already agreed to purchase one of the bunch being thrust in our faces.
“Let’s get out of here!” I said to Iain, once the rickshaw man had been paid. But where to go? More vendors were beginning to approach. The hounding beggar women were not reacting to the dismissive wave of my hand. We darted through the mangle of traffic; a picture of chaos and collision which moved in slow motion, the occasional optimist tearing through a gap with millimetres to spare.
The pavement was lined with more vendors, their wares set up on wooden wagons – at least they could not pursue us. But as we passed, the familiar cries followed. “Yes, have a look… You like? Nice shawls…” and with it, went my exasperating habit of feeling a duty to reply, to at least acknowledge these salesmen. “No thank you… No… Uh, no…” my head perpetually shaking, my nerves increasingly taut.
Burka-ed women shopped, holding their children by the hand. Skull-capped men stood by wagons of watermelon, sprinkling them with murky water in the fierce heat, their tunics as white as their trousers; incongruous amongst the faded filth.
This was Hyderabad’s Old Town, established by an ancient Muslim dynasty, later conquered by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The city was once the centre of Islamic India; a focus for arts, culture and learning – a somewhat difficult reality to imagine amidst the mayhem.
The Charminar, Hyderabad’s principle landmark, stood 56 metres high, in the centre of the mess. The structure’s four columns were joined by elegant Mughal arches, facing the cardinal points. A minaret graced the top of each column.
Beyond the Charminar, we approached Mecca Masjid, one of the world’s largest mosques. It can accommodate 10 000 of Hyderabad’s large Muslim population. With my head covered by a Middle Eastern scarf, we entered its enormous courtyard, and soon noticed that I was one of the only females with her head covered – out of respect for one of Islam’s primary practices. No woman was permitted to enter a mosque without a headscarf in the Middle East.
People lay in the shade of the towering building, chatted in groups, or wandered the courtyard. Most of the women wore saris and a handful of burka-ed ladies were splattered like black ink across a vast cement courtyard. A few men wore the traditional skull cap and tunic.
Still wearing the headscarf, I attempted to enter the mosque, where I was sure it would be required. But the mosque itself was not open. Neither would it open at all that day, or on any day, according to anyone we asked. The courtyard was simply a communal Muslim space, where no worshipping was taking place. All wore shoes, though the filthy ground did not invite other options. Young boys played cricket at the mosque’s rear, haughtily insisting that we photograph them. We left, the mosques of the Middle East now just an enchanted memory.
It was just after 1am when we first met Robin, at a lone omelette stand outside our station hotel. Everything else in sight had shut, and the omelette stand provided the only promise of food, late that night when hunger struck.
Iain was still making his way from the hotel room when Robin swaggered up to me, hands in the pockets of his tie-dyed shorts. “Hey, how you doing?” he asked, in a self-consciously un-Indian accent. His hands dangled from pockets below a pink t-shirt with the sprawling letters ‘US ARMY’.
“Fine thanks,” I answered, while nodding to the vendor’s grubby-fingered pinch of chilli.
Just then Iain appeared, and Robin casually enquired as to our relationship. “We’re a couple,” said Iain.
“Way to go!” Robin shouted, and lurched forward to slap Iain on the back. He worked in one of Hyderabad’s many call centres; full of thousands of money hungry young Indians like Robin who could speak decent English, and in his case, master the American accent required by the American company that employed him.
A few other men surrounded the omelette man, who rubbed chilli onto sliced white bread with his fingers, and whisked onions, tomato, and more chilli swiftly into the egg mixture, taking payment between batches. After tasting the omelette, I could ignore the hotplate’s blackened grease and the man’s money-soiled hands. Trusting our taste buds, Iain and I each ordered another.
Robin usually went to the omelette stand after work. He had just finished a shift; the hours were an unsociable 6pm to 1am.
“So do you sleep all day?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I sleep in the day, but tomorrow is Sunday – a holiday – so I will not sleep. Tonight I am going out with my friends,” and he pointed to a man standing beside a motorbike.
“Where are you going?” I asked. We were yet to meet an Indian who actually went to the nightclubs that we’d found empty, during two hopeful attempts at a night out.
“One of the clubs…” he said vaguely. “There are so many in Banjara Hills.”
Hyderabad has an alter-ego: Cyberabad, which is home to a moneyed middle class who work in India’s booming IT sector. They live in upmarket parts of the city, where Western style consumerism is growing fast. Banjara Hills is one of those areas.
“You been to Imax?” Robin asked, with sudden enthusiasm. We shook our heads. “Oh, you must see this place,” he said.
The Imax Centre was Cyberabad’s newest shopping mall, although Robin was not familiar with this concept. “It is a place where you can do everything: eat, shop, go to cinema, have entertainment, all in one place! ” He looked to us for a reaction, waited, and then insisted that he take us to see for ourselves the next day. A shopping mall, held in high esteem, on a Sunday, filled with Indians; it sounded worth the outing. We agreed to let Robin “pick” us at 11am “sharp” the next morning, and said goodnight.
It was 11:30am, and I sat in the sun on our hotel’s steps, watching traffic approach the train station. The collective noise from the hooting was incredible, but the distance I kept was comfortable enough to avoid the usual attack from the rickshaw drivers: “Where you go? Where? Come! Yes! Where you go?”
Every morning in Hyderabad I had gritted my teeth and delved into the madness that dominates any Indian train station, and its immediate surrounds, and walked the fifty or so metres onto the platform, in the name of real coffee. Bangalore and Hyderabad’s most pleasing modern conveniences, for me, were undoubtedly the take-away espresso stalls. But that walk – clambering over piles of rubble, dodging goats, dangerous drivers, shaking your head at rickshaw drivers, shaking your head, shaking your head – was only possibly worth it; Iain considered me quite the caffeine addict to bear it.
While I sat on the steps, Iain called Robin to make sure he was on his way. But he had not even left home yet. Neither did he perceive any inconvenience, while we sat, waiting, outside our hotel. “Ten minutes, ten minutes,” he told Iain casually.
When boasting of his training in “American consumer thinking” the night before, he had mentioned, “American accent, no grammar mistakes, proper customer attention, and punctuality,” as his areas of expertise. He had obviously missed something. At 12:30pm, he arrived, by which time we’d thankfully decided to be rude enough to wait upstairs where it was cooler.
Robin, Iain and I sat sipping Mirinda from disposable cups in a burger joint that honoured the Hindu holiness of cows – it was beef-free. Robin began telling us about himself.
“I am from a high caste family – we are Brahmins,” he began. “My father is a priest. He also teaches Sanskrit.”
Robin grew up in a small town in Andhra Pradesh, a neighbouring state, where his parents still lived. Landing a job in an American call centre justified a move away from home, to Hyderabad, the capital of Andra Pradesh.
“So you must be quite religious,” I suggested, after he had made his caste clear.
“No, I am not really. But I live as a Brahmin: I do not eat meat.”
“Have you ever?” I asked.
“No, never. I could not do this.”
“So you don’t drink either,” I said, knowing the basics about high-caste Hindus.
“Yeh… Sometimes. When I go to the club.”
Living independently from his parents – a rarity for Indian sons, especially unmarried ones –allowed Robin to live beyond the constraints of convention. Modern Hyderabad, or Cyberbad, offered a taste of another life that was vastly different from growing up alongside an orthodox father in rural Karnataka.
At 27 he wasn’t in the process of planning a marriage yet, but was “looking”. “My father knows I will make my choice wisely,” he said, “so he is not planning for me.”
Robin knew, he explained, that in conjunction with his success in having a good job, a wife would be the second part of his assured “success” in life. He had his eye on a very attractive Brahmin girl who worked at his company, and asked for our advice on how to proceed.
“Have you spoken to her before?” I enquired. He shook his head. I began to advise that this was the essential first step of a courtship.
“I have heard that she has a boyfriend,” he interrupted. A declared “boyfriend”, especially in traditional Brahmin circles, is one step away from a fiancé, and just one more away from a husband.
“Even if she has a boyfriend,” I continued, “talking to her is the easiest way to find out.”
“No, she is traditional. I should speak to her parents first,” he insisted.
Asking a woman’s parents whether she is ‘taken’ or not, without having ever spoken to her, was obviously beyond my comprehension. I couldn’t possibly give advice on a romance which subscribed to cultural nuances that were unfathomable to me. And in any case, Robin appeared to know better.
He piled three twenty rupee notes up on the table. As he tucked his wallet back into a stone-washed pocket, he told us, “India has become such a major location for call centres these days, you know.” He wore his call centre job like a badge. “It is because of our neutral accent,” he told us, while we nodded, forcing silence upon ourselves.
He strolled back into the mall, with us behind, and began to point out its highlights. “The Imax cine-complex is up there,” he said, pointing to an escalator beside an enormous poster for the latest Bollywood hit. “And there are so many games you can play here,” he said, as we entered the arcade.
Hiding a lack of interest in a games arcade, while your reactions are being closely monitored, can be a tricky task. Robin pointed to a counter where game tokens were sold, and informed us, “First, you go to that place and pay. If you give them ten rupees, they will give you two tokens. You need this tokens to play the games. You cannot use money in the game.”
“Well,” I mumbled to Iain, “we’d better go and get our tokens.” It was obvious that opting out, or explaining that our affection for video games had faded with childhood, was not going to be well-received. I couldn’t be sure that Robin even considered that we had so much as seen a games arcade before.
I raced beside Iain on a plastic motorbike, while his knees pointed up towards his ears. Robin watched blankly, and declined to play. He didn’t appear to think the arcade was particularly exciting either, but assumed a serious stance while touring us around the mall, showing us what modern India had to offer. It was all for our benefit. And somehow, within the next hour – through a combination of polite appreciation for what Robin proudly showed us, and our six-month-long deprivation of ordinary Western commodities – we became like children on an outing, coaxed into a bizarre form of excitement. We paid to walk through a hall of mirrors, we ogled at the chocolate fountain outside a Belgian chocolate stall, and Iain kicked off his shoes and pulled himself to the top of the climbing wall. Towards the end of the afternoon, Robin was smiling.
As we walked back into India, and back into the train station turmoil, we were greeted by the country’s contrasting persona, Mother India. She nurtures a beautiful chaos where rural life merges with the railway stations – the country’s pulse. I was relieved to be away from one of India’s few Westernised enclaves, where the Mother is stripping herself of sari and sandals and basking in the glory of globalisation, soulless, imitated and superficial, though it is.
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