Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Tim Silverwood

‘Depressed, lonely, feel like you’re just another face in the crowd?  Come to India and be everyone’s best friend!’

It’s true, travelling in India can do wonders for your self-esteem; people want to see you, talk to you and be seen with you. When I ventured to Amritsar, home to the sacred Golden Temple I became embroiled in a bizarre love triangle that only India could compose.

The walls to the Golden Temple complex obscure the gem hiding within. Like a gleaming pearl from a roughly hewn oyster, the central shrine or Gurdwara takes the breath from devotees and tourists alike. Hypnotic music vibrates throughout; children smile, clutching sweet, precious prasad; beautiful men bathe, a lifetime of knowledge and memories trapped in their beards; a rainbow streak of saris fills the path to the island shrine. An oasis built to honour God, any God, where devotees, tourists, anyone from anywhere can worship, eat, sleep, drink chai and feel welcome for free, 24 hours a day every day.

Dodging jutti dealers and bandana brokers I slipped through the walls of the complex and into the hectic haven of the hostel in search of my free bed. With hundreds of rooms and dozens of ‘halls’ the place is teaming with people every minute of every day. I’d been mentally psyching myself for the experience of sleeping in a dormitory with 40 Indians for some time but never had the opportunity given my meeting with the two Hameeds.

Hairy Hameed worked in the complex as a tourism liaison officer and immediately ushered me into an adjacent room where he insisted I drink chai and eat samosas with some of the staff. Overwhelmed but quietly appreciative of the free meal I socialised amongst the crowd which included Doctor Hameed, the on-call doctor for the hostel. Both Hameeds took an immediate liking to me and began sharing opinions on what to see, taste, do and buy in Amritsar. It was clear both were from privileged families and eager to prove their status. With growing generosity came growing tension between the two. “No! My car has AC, and I’VE got a personal driver! We’ll take that!” Not five minutes in the building and I was sipping chai, masticating samosa and watching live Indian Jerry Springer! Resistance was futile; I came psyched to sleep amongst 40 snoring, staring men and failed miserably into private rooms, private cars, free food and fights for friendship.

The communal kitchen of the Golden Temple complex feeds up to 30 000 people per day, a superhuman feat requiring human-sized super-saucepans. Great halls are filled and emptied of people on constant rotation with remarkable precision. The obligatory ‘one hand dining technique’ adopted throughout India can be difficult to grasp as a foreigner, add three hundred staring faces to the equation and it becomes impossible! Children laugh, adults gesticulate the correct method and everyone waggles their head side to side on a smooth ‘dal to mouth’ entry. During dinner on the floor with Doctor, he unfolded the story of how he and Hairy became friends. He chewed his way through an elaborate tale of attending the same school, graduating and of their fathers being businessmen who worked together, it didn’t explain the tension between the two.

Amritsar lies just 28km from the only official road border between India and Pakistan. The Partition of India in 1947 divided the Punjab region and its people, Amritsar went to India whilst Lahore to Pakistan. There is no better way to visualise the tensions still rife between the two proud nations than a visit to the Wagah Border and the daily closing ceremony. The ceremony is as ludicrous as it is entertaining, the most common and apt description is to visualise the entire Monty Python team on methamphetamines and wielding AK-47’s whilst hundreds of people dance and cheer in support of their country. How ironic, here were my friends cheering, boo-ing, cursing, yelling “Hindustan is Great” yet they too were involved in their own ridiculous display of bravado.

The fight for my friendship between the two apparent friends escalated over the coming days, I wasn’t alone for five minutes without offers for lunch, walks to temples and ice cream in the park. Hairy took me ten-pin bowling and go-karting all the time insinuating how good a friend he was for doing so. In between rolls of his fluorescent green bowling ball I asked Hairy why there was so much tension between the two friends, resulting in a peculiar confession. The men were not high school pals, their fathers weren’t chums, in fact they’d met for the first time when they met me in the hostel! Hairy was knocking me down like bowling pins with each confession.

I was looking for the hidden cameras, “You been Punk’d, India style!” Standing with mouth agape I contemplated dropping the bowling ball on my toe to see if I was dreaming. Things deteriorated further when Hairy confessed that he’d insisted on seeing the Doctor’s bank records to prove his apparent wealth, “He didn’t even have 5000 rupees!” Hairy snickered. I felt utterly used; everything I’d known of these men was based on lies. They’d fought each other in a game of status behind my back for the trophy of my friendship and it hurt. 

Leaving Amritsar, watching the ever changing landscape whoosh by from the train window I thought of my ‘friends’, they’d gone to considerable financial lengths to make my visit memorable yet they needn’t have, I travelled to India to marvel at the human race, to meet people who possess nothing yet adorn the greatest smiles imaginable, to believe in the power of people not the power of money. I don’t need a fancy ceremony to tell me “Hindustan is great”, just the memory of a child laughing at me, dal running down my chin, sitting on the floor, in a room of hundreds, we are from everywhere but we eat as one.