Readers' World: Thank you, India

02 March 2014 - 02:11 By Sara Essop

Sara Essop ponders the gifts that this nation of her childhood gave her

Blaring horns, thick smog, the incessant screeching of tyres, the scent of marigolds mingled with the smell of cows, the red stains of betel leaves . India overwhelms the senses.

A few months ago, my husband and I took a trip to India's Golden Triangle. We marvelled at the Taj Mahal; rode an elephant in Jaipur; and enjoyed the sound and light show at the Red Fort in Delhi. We also took a detour to Mumbai, where we just missed the monsoon rains.

It all took me back to another trip to India, more than 20 years ago. That trip had been an impulsive decision by my father, who had qualified as a medical practitioner in India. Frustrated by life in South Africa in the 1980s, he decided to take his family to experience life in that country.

My mother missed her family. To my brother and me, it was all a big adventure. We moved around from place to place, soaking up the crowds, the exotic culture, the diverse people and the delicious food. Every experience was an adventure, which I beheld with the wide, fresh and innocent eyes of a child.

We spent our first few days at an airport inn in Mumbai, which still bears some of my fondest memories. We befriended mischievous staff, who taught us to fill water balloons and throw them onto unsuspecting passers-by from the terrace, then duck before they could see us.

Then we found a flat in a suburb, where we shared a domestic worker named Sushila with an ageing Bollywood actress.

A few months later, we moved to Bandra, which many Bollywood stars called home. The house next to our flat was used as a movie studio. Unfortunately, it was shaded by too many trees so our star sightings were minimal.

We lived an idyllic life. We would take walks on the beach every evening and sample the culinary delights of top restaurants and street vendors alike. I don't recall ever having "Delhi (or Mumbai) belly". We played with the local kids and went to our neighbours' traditional weddings. We visited scenic hill stations, where magicians thrilled us with their magic in exchange for rupees. I went for French lessons to a lady whose husband played the piano at five-star-hotel bars. Our local transport was the black-and-yellow tuk-tuk, known as the auto-rickshaw in India.

When the monsoon came, it arrived with a bang. We went shopping one dry and sunny afternoon and when we returned to our flat a few hours later, the streets were flooded with more than a metre of water. But it was all part of the experience.

After a few months in Mumbai, we moved on to a village in Gujarat. Here, life was much more peaceful. We attended a local school and learnt to speak Hindi and Gujarati. We had picnics in the fields with the village kids. We helped them to harvest their crops and to milk the cows. We would drink fresh buffalo milk everyday. Everything tasted so much better because it was fresh and organic. We travelled by trains but sometimes by ox-cart too. Life was so much fun.

Then in 1990, when our beloved Madiba was released from prison, my parents decided it was time to return to South Africa. My extended adventure in India came to an end.

However, India still held a special place in my heart and this is what led my husband to accompany me there, to see it for himself.

We went but it was not the same India from my childhood. It had changed. That was alright because I still had the gift it had given me, my love affair with travel, and that is something nothing and no one can take away from me.

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