In truth, I would have happily bought every single one of these shoes, being something of a shoe-a-holic, but fiscal constraints held me back. And besides, in the Scottish climate, how many opportunities would I have to wear any of these more than once in my remaining lifetime?
The shoes and I were in Jaipur, taking part in the twin-cities Bookaroo book festival (well, I was, but the shoes were just hanging out on the street), and we had a free afternoon to go sightseeing and shopping, for as we know, all Westerners love to shop. I was excited beyond all measure to actually be in Jaipur because I’d always wanted to see the Palace of the Winds, but we flew past that in approximately twenty seconds flat because the guys wanted to shop. Not the women, but the men. Deepna and I watched in some amusement as the guys tried out manbags, kurtas, selected a rainbow’s worth of silk scarves and throws for assorted womenfolk, checked out more kurtas and then finally, it was time to go back for dinner.
So I didn’t get to see inside the Palace of the Winds but I did get to see inside a tiny shop while its owner showed us silks and yet more silks and hand-embroidered bedspreads, and all the while, at the rear of the shop, an elderly man perched across bales of kurtas and tried to sleep through all the bartering going on up front. I was so overwhelmed by the experience of being in India for the first time that I was tempted to join him.
There is a beauty overload everywhere you turn. There’s also unbelievable squalor, sprawling mountain ranges of trash surrounding the outskirts of the big urban conurbations and a rush hour when the air turns so thick with hydrocarbons you could almost chew it. India is wonderful and awful at the same time. I travelled hoping to have my horizons expanded and my mind blown and, yes, both of those things surely happened. The contrasts between old and new, rich and poor are enough to render one breathless, spinning like an uncertain compass needle caught between opposing poles of awe and horror.
We travelled from Jaipur to Swati Madhpur to visit a school and spend two nights in a very upmarket glamping establishment where we had our own white tents complete with little en-suite bathrooms and the sound of the wilderness of a tiger reserve right outside our canvas doors. To my dismay, all that stood between me and a Tiger Coming To Tea ( What’s for tea? Guess what? You’re it!) were a few strips of velcro.
Velcro? To ward off a marauding tiger? Not to mention the crocodiles we’d been peering at through binoculars? I have no idea how I managed to sleep on our first night, but I did. And woke to birdsong. Birdsong as part of an astonishing call and answer sequence ; first a bird sang, then Jose in the next door tent answered on a viola. Bird; Jose: bird: Jose – what a perfect way to begin a day. I lay awake, entranced.
We took a train back to Delhi the following day and disembarked at a station with the longest platform I’ve ever seen. Our luggage was immediately whisked away atop the heads of two porters with unfeasibly powerful neck muscles ( three heavy suitcases, piled one on top of the other? HOW?) and the only way to navigate our way through the crush of thousands of people on the seemingly endless platform was to follow the undulating pile of suitcases weaving their way through the crowds up ahead.
Streets in Old Delhi were so narrow you could hardly make your way through the throngs of people, and we found ourselves pressed back against walls and doorways to allow passage of motorbikes with sometimes as many as four passengers riding pillion. I stood on something soft as I tried to get out of the way of one of these overloaded vehicles and looked down to discover I’d stepped on a dead rat. At least, I hope it was dead…
In the Spice District, a red fog of chilli powder engulfed us as we made our way past sacks of cardamon pods, cumin, coriander, turmeric and fenugreek. And those were only the ones I knew ; there were many other open sacks, full of mystery ingredients, but light was leaching out of the sky and it was time to return for dinner.
The book festival sessions were hilarious and emotionally exhausting in equal measure. I was there to talk about picture books, but also to talk about my book about a personal journey through depressive illness ( Night Shift). I was nervous about mangling cultural mores or stepping on shibboleths or causing any upset by talking about depressive illness or any MH issues. I needn’t have worried. The generous and open-hearted audiences were only too happy to talk and ask questions and share their stories and finally, on the final session of the last day of the festivals, as a helper at the back of the tent was making the ‘last question’ signal, and I was happily anticipating a lie-down in a cool hotel bedroom, a young girl put her hand up and asked –
‘What advice should I give to a friend who is thinking about killing herself?’
Suddenly, I was walking on eggshells. My voice wobbled, my eyes filled up and I said something along the lines of – ‘Tell her she has no idea of what lies ahead of her. None of us can see the future. To cut it off, to make that awful irrevocable decision to end her life means she will never experience all the joys and heartbreaks and bliss and whole range of human experience that she is standing on the threshold of. I imagine she is having a terrible time right now, but this will not last for ever. Nothing lasts for ever. Things change, she will change with them. Her future self is begging her to reconsider. All of life lies before her. All of it.’
Thankfully, what you can’t hear or see behind these words is the halting, wobbling, nose-blowing wreck that was delivering them. This was not what I was expecting, but now, in retrospect, what I’ve taken from the experience is that this, this terrifying moment at the end of a book festival was why I went to India. Regardless of the outcome, the best we can do is to reach out and be kind to each other. To have compassion for all others and ourselves.
India was so massive, so full of people that I felt utterly insignificant. A tiny human ant among billions of others. Blessed by the fortunate circumstances of my birth in Scotland, blessed by my education, my friends and family, all of these contributing to the fact that I am warm, have a roof over my head and food in the cupboards. India made me appreciate that this gift of a life is mine by the merest fluke of fortune.