Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Hail India, hail Indians

India’s foreign minister SM Krishna must be busy man these days.

He’s strengthening India’s ties with other nations. He also has to register protest with other countries for their racial bias towards India.

Presenter Jaremy Clarkson in a BBC programme shown around Christmas last year was accused of making racial comments against India.

In the show named Top Gear, Clarkson travelled around a slum in India in a car with its boot fitted with a toilet seat.

He said in the programme that a toilet seat in the boot was necessary as foreign tourists in India often suffered from diarrhoea.

India’s foreign ministry was quick to react.

Should we expect only praises for India from foreign tourists; even if they have a hard time in the country?

Reading about Clarkson in newspapers, I recalled my meeting as a reporter with a British biker 14 years back.

I was working in Kanpur with an English newspaper in 1999.

One evening as I was about to finish my day’s work, the office boy came to me and said, ‘Ek angrez aap se milne aaya hai.’ (A white wants to see you).

I was surprised as Europeans or Americans rarely visited Kanpur. The moment a white lands in Kanpur, he or she becomes a spectacle. People in a semi-circle follow him or her everywhere.

I went to the reception and saw a man with shaggy hair and beard sitting on the sofa.

'Excuse me, how can I help you?’ I said.

On a closer look I found his face was covered with grime.

He introduced himself and shook my hand. His grip was so strong that I winced and would have shrieked if he had held my hand longer.

Fourteen years is a long time and today I remember only his surname – Paul. He was globe trotter.

Paul was travelling around the world on his Harley Davidson bike.

He had spent three months on the highways of Europe and Asia. Any man who had travelled thousands of kilometres on a bike ought to have dirty hair and beard and a grimy face.

Paul was travelling across India and had made a stopover at Kanpur.

He wanted me to write about him. He was meeting reporters in his stopovers. The newspaper reports were going to be a proof that he had travelled across the world.

Paul had many interesting stories to tell. But I did not have the time that evening. I called him to my office next morning at 10.30 am.

I reached the office as usual late at 10.45 am and found Paul waiting.

He wished me good morning and said, ‘As asked by you I reached here at sharp 10.30.’ I was embarrassed. ‘Sorry. I was caught in a traffic jam.’ I gave the excuse to a person who had experienced the traffic of numerous cities. I do not think he was convinced.

Paul looked very clean in the morning. It seemed he had spent an hour in the bathtub. His hair was wet and neatly combed and his face pinkish.

He was in a white t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. Paul was in a hurry. He wanted to be on the road as soon as the interview was over.

The Harley Davidson was parked outside the office.

Paul started telling me about his journey.

He had started from his home England and was travelling eastwards.

Crossing the English Channel by boat, he entered France.

On his way towards Asia, Paul biked through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and finally reached Istanbul.

He once again sailed and reached Asia.

'I have been riding the bike ever since I landed on the shores of Turkey,’ said Paul.

‘Asia is different. The landscape and roads are not the same even in one country. And Asia is a big continent,’ said Paul.

Paul biked through the rugged terrains of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly two months and finally reached India.

‘Europe and Asia are entirely different – considering the terrain, roads, the dust or the weather,’ said Paul.

‘Roads in Europe are good. The weather throughout is more or less the same,’ said Paul.

‘Asia is totally different. Terrains very rugged, climate very harsh and roads potholed,’ he said.

‘How did you find the people, especially in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan?’ I asked.

Paul got my point.

‘I frequently came across persons or groups armed with automatic rifles. They looked menacing but they never bothered me,’ said Paul.

‘At times armed men stopped me. They questioned me but were friendly and allowed me to continue with my journey without any trouble,’ he said.

Paul was not rich. His travel was being sponsored by rich businessmen or industrialists.

One entering a new country, he had to search for prospective sponsors. His journey in India was being sponsored by a company that manufactures chyavanparash and other Ayurvedic healthcare products.

‘I try to save as much as possible so that I can continue with my journey. I try to spend nights at parks. If I don’t find a park, I find the cheapest hotel. I eat the cheapest food. I prefer roadside stalls,’ he said.

The sponsors were able to keep a tab on Paul through two aerials fitted at the back of his motorcycle.

From Pakistan, Paul entered India through Punjab and went north to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh.

He came down to Delhi a couple of days later and took the GT Road to travel through the plains of north India.

‘What about the Indian food?’

‘It’s too hot and spicy. I often suffer from diarrhoea. But I can’t help as I have to save money,’ he said.

I wanted to ask him about another Indian thing that American and European men find too hot. But I did not ask because I had realised Paul was not interested in beautiful Indian things. The road and his bike were his only passions.

The interview had stretched for an hour. Paul was itching to go. I asked him the last question.

‘Have you lost anything during the journey?’

'Four of my things have been stolen,’ he said, ‘the canvas cover of my motorcycle, the tool box, the spare tyre and one of the aerials.

‘In which countries did you lose the things?’

'India,’ he said.

I became sheepish. I cleared my throat.

I thought whether I should write about the thefts in my report.

I felt it would be a disgrace to mention that a foreigner after travelling through two continents and around a dozen of countries has four things necessary for his journey stolen in India.

The interview was over. Paul once again would take the GT Road for going to Allahabad, Varanasi and Calcutta.

The photographer had reached the office. He wanted to click while Paul rode the bike.

Coming out of the office with Paul and the photographer, I saw people were surrounding the Harley Davidson. Some were even touching it. Harley Davidson is rare in Kanpur.

Paul became angry. ‘Get lost,’ he shouted and moved towards the motorcycle.

People stepped back but did not disperse.

‘The aerial was here,’ he shrieked pointing at a place just above the number plate at the back of his motorcycle.

'The aerial that was stolen was fixed there?’ I said looking at the place where he was pointing.

‘No. Not the one that was stolen earlier; the second aerial. It has also gone,’ Paul shouted. He had lost his temper and glared at the crowd.

I could not believe his words. He had left his motorcycle outside my office for one hour and somebody had stolen the second aerial also in that short period of time. There were guards outside my office but they also failed to check the theft.

His body started shaking with anger. ‘Now how are my sponsors going to track me?’ he shouted.

‘I am sorry, Mr Paul,’ I said.

‘To hell with you and your sorry,’ he shouted at me. I felt guilty and helpless.I was also scared. His friendly handshake was so painful. I could guess the results of his punch or slap. I stood at a safe distance from him.

A white in Kanpur is a spectacle. A white creating a scene becomes a better spectacle.

He was no more bothered about the interview. He wanted to leave immediately and started getting ready for his journey.

A sack that had his belongings was tied at the back of his motorcycle. He opened the sack and pulled out a pair of boots. He removed the flip-flops and put on the boots.

He picked one flip-flop, slammed it into the sack and shouted, ‘Fuck India.’

He took the other flip-flop, slammed it into the sack and again shouted, ‘Fuck Indians.’

He was ready to leave.

I wanted to console him.

‘Mr Paul, I know you have lost an important thing. But don’t you think that such incidents will make your journey more interesting and spicier?’ I said.

A grin replaced the scowl on Paul’s face.

He posed for the photographer, squeezed my hand and left to take the GT Road.

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