It was late, possibly after midnight, or at least it seemed that way to my seven-year-old mind. My father had returned from the airport where he had collected my twenty-year-old brother from his flight back from India. My brother laid out presents for our mother and sisters; for me there were some bracelets of deep pink and purple, sprinkled with gold dust. Holding them in my hand in the warm summer’s night I had a sense of the exotic and spices scenting the air. I tried on a bracelet, it slipped over my fingers but got stuck on the broader reach of my hand. I would never be able to wear the bracelets. A sense of something intangible that I could not seize or hold came over me.
Fast forward 44 years. I am in India with my elder daughter, aged twenty. We are in the courtyard garden of a yoga centre, a calm place with lawn and potted plants. We have had a yoga class led by an Indian teacher, who has focused on our breathing. We have learnt to take deep breaths down in our stomachs to fuel our practice. We take an Uber from the centre and we spin around the roundabouts of The Connaught, the broad boulevards of the former imperial heart of Delhi. From then on, we hardly have time to catch our breath.
Being in India is like getting on a bolting horse; you need to hang onto your hat. You move fast, often to the tune of beating drums or ringing bells, and always to the sound of honking horns. You race along footpaths or squeeze along the side of roads when the footpaths are non-existent. Adrenalin races through you as you scan the traffic for a slight chink where you might make a run for it. You catch trains that pass through town after town, taking you further into your journey. You visit cities, towns, and smaller villages where the children pour out of doorways and turn their faces to you, pleading for a photo. Before long, you are engaging with the locals in their villages, taking photos with them, all of you enjoying the interaction with someone different to yourselves. The women are remarkable with the colours they wear, a sari of one colour and a head scarf of another: pinks and yellows combined, or reds and oranges, sometimes even blue and green.
We stay in a fort, a castle adorned with murals of elephants and maharaja , coloured ornate archways and other intricate details. Sunrise brings mist and the swirl of outdoor kitchen fires as well as the chatter of villagers getting ready for their day. The countryside is a khaki green. We set off again to a city where we leap into tuk tuks and hang on for a bumpy ride. We stop at a corner and a city is laid out below us, a thousand rooftops bearing children flying kites and music blaring: a festival. We climb up to a fort and see elephants being ridden by men in red turbans. We look through the fort and see relief sculpture of elephants, murals of ladies in a royal court from days gone by wearing colourful saris as Indian women do now. There are sections of tiles and tiny mirrors, elaborate courtyard gardens, latticed wooden walls with a cross-hatched pattern, alcoves with pointed archways where we can sit and take in the view. We see across towns, over rivers, into the sky with slowly swirling birds. We walk down from the fort, over cobblestones. We journey on. The next day, the train is dirty but we manage to see the sunrise through the window, the mist turns from grey to golden, the fields from khaki green to emerald; we chatter as we journey along, the Indian passengers staring at us, but we are equally intrigued by them.
We walk quickly through bustling markets, stalls selling food, spices and clothing (and the ubiquitous elephant-patterned pants), we are invited in by many to their shops but we press on, through the labyrinthine streets, pressing back as stall owners walk through with a large load on their head, perhaps rice or flour or possibly spice. Encouraged by our Indian tour leader, we try samosas and coconut water, a member of the group buys nuts, someone bargains over clothes. I buy some gold bracelets for my younger daughter.
When we are getting tired, our spirits are revived by reaching a town nestled around lakes. We do a sunset cruise and go past palaces on islands and up above is the royal palace, its stone transformed to golden in the evening light. We go to dinner in a restaurant on an upper floor, we look out at the dark waters and the shimmering lights of the palaces. It is a romantic place, perhaps one of our fellow travellers will go there in the future as a honeymoon destination. We journey on to a land of camels, sand dunes and a holy lake, we walk bare-footed across ghats and in the evening listen to the chiming of bells at the setting of the sun, the Hindu’s day framed by sunrise and sunset.
We return to Delhi, its crowded footpaths, we are constantly pestered to buy food, go on a tuk tuk, have our shoes shined. But as our taxi goes through the crowd on the way to the airport, we see the people pressing back to make way before they surge over the roadway again and we are already missing the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the horns and the constant beat of the drum….
We return. I give my younger daughter the golden bracelets. She holds out her hand, her skin olive, a different tone to mine. She slips a bracelet over her fingers, over the broad reach of her hand; it moves downwards and slides over to her wrist, where it settles.