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India Part III / The one with new friends. And an extortion racket

I arrived back in Mumbai just after 5pm. The late afternoon light had created a soft haze across the city and the penetrating sound of car horns could be clearly heard as I pulled into the train station. I knew what to expect this time and was prepared for the attention I would receive, particularly as I was now alone. Walking down the steps of the train, I leaned forward to place my bag on the platform edge. A hand came up from the platform and clung tightly to my left wrist. As I pushed back to release myself from the grasp of the stranger, I looked at who had caused the markings on my arm. A woman no older than I was looked directly at me. I placed a little money in her hand, forcing myself to remove any emotion from the situation.

The next few days allowed for an experience of the real Mumbai. No longer connected to the negativity Charles brought with him, I was free to see the good in the city. People were helpful and kind. I was offered food, guided to beautiful places within the city. I offered money for their time, but it was seldom accepted. I found that those who spent time walking with me simply wanted to ask about my home, the city where I lived. My days were filled with an openness I have yet to experience anywhere since.

Before deciding to use only the guide book to set my route across the country, I had no plans or exact destination. Following the notes in the book, Fort Kochi had been recommended for New Year’s Eve. It was a pretty former-colonial area in Kerala, accessed by a small road from the mainland of Ernakulam. The week-long New Year celebrations had put the place on the map. Now around lunchtime on the 30th of December, I had just over a day to get there. Having researched the route, if I travelled by train, I would be lucky to arrive by the 3rd of January. I would have to go against the promise to myself to only travel by land and find an internal flight.

Needing a few hours of calm and to be away from the frenetic streets of central Mumbai, I took a taxi to Kamala Nehru park, high up on a hill which overlooked the city. The space was the only one I had read about that offered any real peace. It was busy, but nothing compared to the swarming streets where I had spent the past four days.

Before reaching the park, I asked the driver to stop on a small street so I could buy some water. As I got out of the car, I noticed a small open-fronted shop that looked to be some kind of newsagent-cum-travel agency. Leaning through the door, I asked the man seated inside if he knew of an internal flight that would take me close to Fort Kochi. He explained that the flights were frequent and for me as a traveller, inexpensive. I had vowed not to take any internal flights during my months in India, but with the Kochi festival happening only once a year, it was necessary if I wanted to make it in time for New Year’s Eve. There were no options to travel that night, so the two-hour flight was booked for late-morning the following day. Many of the recommended Kochi hotels had no availability, but the travel agent found me a small, pretty hotel close to where the main New Year festivities would be taking place. Without a phone and nowhere to stay in Mumbai that night, I paid the agent to call the hotel that I had checked out of a few hours earlier. Thankfully they still had a room.

Arriving at the airport at close to noon on New Year’s Eve, I pushed my way through the people congregating outside to where I understood the departures hall to be. There were disorganised crowds at every desk. The Indian people clearly didn’t believe in the concept of queuing. Locating my airline, I saw no other way than to push my way forward through the mass of people waiting to check-in for the same flight.

I was drowsy when I boarded, affected by the four days of extreme heat and smog in the city. Once I had found my seat on the plane, I closed my eyes in the hope I could sleep for the two-hour flight. Not long after falling asleep, I felt a knock to my right leg. The passenger next to me was clumsily attempting to get something out of a bag that was tightly packed under the seat in front. I wasn’t particularly irritated, nor did I feel like making polite conversation, so closed my eyes and tried to sleep again. He said something in an American accent. I opened one eye and smiled politely. He asked where I was heading. I couldn’t ignore him for fear the rest of the flight would be uncomfortable. I told him I was planning to spend New Year’s Eve in Fort Kochi. We spoke for a while longer. His name was Santosh and he lived mostly in New York. He had arrived in Mumbai that morning and was heading to visit his parents in Ernakulam. By the end of the flight, I had grown fond of the stranger beside me. His humourous stories of growing up in India made me laugh. He spoke of the eccentricities of older relatives and the expectations from his parents that he would find a nice Indian wife. He was working in finance and dating strong New York women. He told me he was prepared for the interrogation he would receive in the coming days, but didn’t want to disappoint his parents, so would tell them he was dating only Indian girls.

As we collected our bags from the arrivals hall, he asked if I wanted to join him at his parent’s house for dinner that night. We would first eat there, then he gave me his word that he would take me back to Fort Kochi in his father’s car to see the New Year in on the beach. I didn’t have a phone number to give him, but promised I would be at his parent’s house by 8pm if he gave me the address. He said to tell the taxi driver to take me to the white house on the hill where they shot Bollywood movies. He assured me that would be enough.

The road from the airport to Fort Kochi was old and filled with potholes. The constant dips in the road made me nauseous. I reached for a large chocolate bar that I had taken from the plane in the hope the sugar would help. Chocolate had always helped my travel sickness before.

I arrived at my hotel late-afternoon. The building was prettier than it had appeared in the photos I had seen in Mumbai. A small courtyard was filled with an array of flowers, they smelled like freshly bloomed honeysuckle. Outside the entrance to the hotel, two domesticated dogs were laying out in the sun. Their tails wagged as I bent down to stroke their wirey fur before making my way inside.

Greeted with a smile, I was immediately asked to wait while a member of staff was called from an office behind the reception. A man came to the front desk, explaining that he was the manager and had something to ask. He led me to a small outside area at the back of the hotel.

Waiting for me were three girls from London. Sophie and Faye were friends and had set out on their India trip together. They had met Susie a few days before and had all made their way to Fort Kochi. Like me, they had read about the festival and wanted to experience it for themselves. The girls were all friendly and open. I immediately adored Sophie for her quips and quick wit. The girls explained that they had been trying to book a hotel for days, but finding a room for three people so late had been impossible. On calling several hotels in the area that morning, they had been told that an English speaking single female had booked a room in this hotel. They had spoken to the manager, who suggested that they come to the hotel that day and ask me in person if they could share my room.

Nobody had a mobile with them. It was 2000, some years before it was considered normal to travel with a phone and as I hadn’t called the hotel to reconfirm my room, the hotel had just assumed I would show up. The girls had arrived six hours before. They had waited in the hotel for that time, not leaving for fear of missing me. I was their only hope of finding somewhere to stay that night. I arrived sometime in the afternoon, having taken two buses and a slow moving rickshaw from the airport.

The hotel manager was kind and although I had only booked a single occupancy (and very small) room, he allowed us to create makeshift beds on the floor using spare pillows and blankets from the housekeeping supplies. Due to the size of the room, once the makeshift beds were down on the floor, there was no space left for bags. Ever accommodating, we were permitted to leave our belongings in the corridor outside the room. As lovely as the staff were, I was not so convinced about the fellow guests and hoped our bags would still be there in the morning.

I explained that I had dinner plans with Santosh and we agreed I would meet the girls on the beach just before midnight. We chose a meeting point, which would be the beginning point of the enormous traditional fishing nets that Kochi had become best known for.

I hadn’t expected to attend a dinner that required anything other than casual clothing while travelling. There was nothing in my case that was fitting for a New Year’s Eve celebration in my new friend’s home. Sophie pulled out a denim skirt from her case that she said I could kindly borrow, and Faye had a black top that would at least make it look as though I had made an effort. Due to the house being a Bollywood location, I imagined there would be a glamourous film industry crowd there when I arrived for dinner.

Hailing a taxi just down the street from the hotel, I gave the driver the loose directions to the house. I explained that I wanted to be taken to the white house on the hill where they shot Bollywood movies. No further questions were asked. I looked down at my trainers. The party was clearly going to be a dressy affair and I was wearing borrowed clothing and Nike’s that had seen better days.

I had been in the car for some 30 minutes when the driver began pointing to road leading up a hill. I could see a sprawling white house in the distance. From my driver’s excitement, this was clearly where I would be spending my evening. We made our way slowly up the hill, passing houses with perfectly manicured lawns and pristine cars parked in the driveways.

Santosh was waiting to greet me at the door. I was relieved to see he had on simple trousers and a relaxed shirt. If the party had been black tie, I think I would have felt too out of place to stay. We walked into the imposing entrance of his parent’s house. Staff quietly hurried by and I noted the fine art on the walls. Judging by the house, I was probably right to assume the paintings were all originals. Santosh led me through to the sitting room. His parents, polite and unassuming, greeted me with a warm embrace. I wondered what time the party would be starting, as I was the only one to have arrived. I asked Santosh. He laughed and said there was no party, it would just be us for dinner. I was hugely relieved, my trainers and slightly too small skirt now didn’t seem so out of place.

The evening was enjoyable, if not a little unexpected. Their chef had created an Indian feast for us. I had never seen so much food laid out for just four people. Dinner conversation focused mainly on Santosh and his job in New York. I loved hearing more about his life. I was asked non-intrusive questions about my own life in London and edited out any parts that may have come across as inappropriate to my hosts. After dinner, we settled in to watch the Indian version of Who Wants to be A Millionaire on the leather sofas that occupied much of the living area within the vast dining room.

I wondered how the girls were getting on in Fort Kochi. I pictured them drinking and dancing on the beach and discreetly signaled to Santosh that I would like to leave. It had passed 11pm, but if we left soon, we would make it in time to meet the girls and ring in the new year on the waterfront. Thanking my hosts for a lovely evening, Santosh and I climbed into the back of his father’s car. His parents’ driver would take us back to Fort Kochi.

As we approached the single road connecting Kochi to the mainland, we could see at least twenty policemen blockading the route. A few of them were questioning passengers in the car that had been stopped ahead of us. Santosh took off a ring from his left hand and told me to put it on my wedding ring finger. He instructed to me to stay silent and let him do the talking. The only thing he said from then on was that if I was asked, I must say that I was his wife.

A policemen leaned through the front window of the car to speak to the driver. He held up his gun so I could see the tip of the barrel from the back seat. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Perhaps it was better that way. The officer seemed agitated and began shouting at the passengers in the car behind, before turning his attention back to us. Our driver got out of the car.

The headlights of the car were still on and I could clearly see the driver out of the windscreen. He was gesturing animatedly with his hands, pointing to Santosh and I. Pulling out a piece of paper, he handed it to a policeman. We sat in silence. It wasn’t encouraging to see Santosh with a look of such fear on his face. He could hear the conversation and, unlike me, was able to understand what the men were saying.

The illuminated clock on the dashboard showed it was close to midnight. A few minutes went by, after which an excited announcement could be heard on the car radio. Fireworks went off in the distance as we watched the sky light up from the back seat. Santosh squeezed my hand, his way of wishing me Happy New Year. I don’t think he dared look at me, assuming it a safer option to look directly ahead so as not to bring attention to us.

It was another 40 minutes before the driver got back in the car. We had been stopped in what I could only imagine was some kind of extortion racket. The paperwork our driver had handed the police contained information that involved the government. Santosh’s father had connections to senior politicians, which had somehow allowed for us to pass without handing over any money, or worse, being handled by the men who had stopped our car. I never found out what had been said that night. After we had passed through the roadblock, Santosh and I didn’t discuss what had just happened. We travelled in silence for the remainder of the journey to Fort Kochi.

I asked to be dropped back to the hotel. I couldn’t face the tens of thousands of people celebrating on the beach and knew I wouldn’t be able to locate the girls in the crowd. I said goodbye to Santosh. We didn’t exchange emails or telephone numbers. I knew that would be the last time I saw him.

The girls were already asleep in the room. My bed had been taken, so I sunk down into a pile of pillows on the floor. Even with the padding beneath me, the floor was uncomfortable. I was unable to sleep anyway. I lay awake thinking of the intimidation I had experienced that night and hoped Santosh had been able to pass without any problems on his return.

The following morning, I told the girls of my experience, explaining why I hadn’t been at our agreed meeting place before midnight. Thankfully I was able to find the sense of adventure in what had happened, but I was shaken.

We spoke of our plans for the coming days and decided we would go forward through Kerala together. At least for another couple of days. Susie had plans to travel inland, while Sophie and Faye wanted to explore more of the Kerala beaches before their flight back to London. I had ten more weeks in which to follow the footsteps of the traveller in my book. My route would take me down through Kerala to the southernmost point of India, Kanyakumari, before making my way up to Delhi.

After my intimidating experience the previous night, the prospect of travelling alone on male-dominated trains and staying in cheap hotels wasn’t appealing. I hoped in the coming days, with the security of travelling with the girls, I would regain the spirit that had led me to leave Charles and embark on this journey alone.

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