Indian Encounters

Returning from a long trip is never easy. Coming home after a month in India was particularly tough. There was the ten hour jet lag, keeping me up at odd hours and turning me into an afternoon zombie. There was the return to the routine, suffocating me with its mundaneness. Another unfamiliar challenge presented itself: sharing the trip with friends and family. Depicting that destabilizing of an experience using mere words is an impossible, borderline infuriating task. Pictures are helpful aids to showcase food, nature, monuments, but they just never quite do them justice. What about a town’s character and its residents’ quirks? What of curious customs and disheartening social dynamics? Here, both images and conversation are pathetically inadequate.

What follows is an attempt to do better. I want to focus on three particularly memorable people I crossed paths with. By sharing their stories, I hope to paint a clearer picture of my trip and of India itself.


My sister and I met Gudu in Jaipur. We were bargaining for a ride home after a taxing day in the desert heat. By that point we were well acquainted with the special surcharge that comes with our skin color, usually double the local fare. But this rickshaw driver, likely sensing our fatigue, was pushing his luck. In came Gudu, undercutting the anonymous driver: “OK. 150 rupees. Come.” We obediently followed as he strutted back to his vehicle parked a few meters ahead. Before putting it in gear, he turned and, with a grin, asked if I wanted to drive. I’ve never driven stick and am terribly unqualified to navigate chaotic Indian traffic, but I didn’t give my brain time to remember any of those details.

Two miracles occurred over the next 20 minutes. First, we somehow survived. Second, we became friends with a man we could barely understand through his broken English. So much so that we spent the entire next day with him touring the city’s attractions, getting to know each other better along the way.

Gudu was born outside Jaipur, to parents who owned little other than the sand they stood on. Like many others, he came to the city hoping to break the generational cycle of extreme poverty. His life now revolves around his three children and his wife, who we met the day we left. She was squatting behind a tiny stand, selling grain to bored passersby for them to throw to pigeons. While his wife works their stand, he drives. He’s been driving all his life, starting with a traditional pedal-powered rickshaw. He taught himself English, allowing him to start driving tourists and save a little more, eventually enough to purchase a motor-powered rickshaw.

Gudu is the poorest person I’ve spent meaningful time with. He’s also the happiest person I’ve ever met. His mouth only stops smiling to allow him to speak. His favorite expression is “very happiness.” In fact, his whole life revolves around the idea that one can be very happy with a basic level of comfort and a carefree attitude. While he was dealt an incredibly shitty hand, Gudu isn’t mad at the dealer or at the other players at the table. He directs his energy towards his family and friends and is thrilled by the simple miracle of being alive.

While driving us to the airport, Gudu ran out of gas. He bolted out of his rickshaw and stopped the next available driver. In Hindi, he explained the situation, transferred our bags over, and gave the man some money. We hugged in the middle of the busy roundabout, my sister and I feeling more like friends than clients.


The head bobble is a fascinating Indian habit. It involves a side to side or diagonal tilting of the head and can convey agreement, encouragement, and a myriad of other emotions during conversation. Everyone has their own unique bobble. Sameer’s is very energetic, his head shifting side to side in small and speedy oscillations. Accordingly, Sameer is full of life. He comes from Ladakh, a region tucked away in the Himalayas, far from the normal chaos of Indian life. Its night sky is bursting with stars and its empty pastures are infinite. Sameer is proud of where he’s from. Most of our conversations revolved around this utopic province as he eagerly shared pictures with me. On my next trip to India, I’ll be going to Ladakh.

Sameer and I met at a wedding in Kishangarh. At this traditional wedding, drinking occurred inside the rooms, far from the judgmental eyes of the older generation. Sameer and I bonded over marijuana as he graciously shared some hash he had brought from home. As I learned, Himalayan stuff is the only thing worth smoking in India, where most weed is not much more potent than dried grass.

If there’s one thing Ladakh lacks, it’s opportunities for a young man like Sameer. So he recently moved to Bangalore, India’s IT capital. The sights and sounds of the metropole make him nauseous. In Bangalore, there’s no space and no air. But Sameer wants to make a decent living, and doing so is too difficult back home. And unlike in North America, remote work is not the new normal post-pandemic. For now, he’s forced to uproot himself. Climbing the social ladder in India requires sacrifices. There are 1.3 billion others willing to make them, and not enough seats at the table for all of them. It’s a wildly competitive game. I hope Sameer doesn’t get lost playing it and can find a way to get home soon.


Arun is a king. He’s not regal in the snobbish, entitled, King Charles manner. He has a commanding and dignified presence. In his humble entourage, he’s made it financially but is still grounded in his community and does all that he can to give back. That commands a ton of respect in India.

Arun is my good friend Abha’s father. They hosted me on two occasions, first for the wedding in Kishangarh, and the second time at their home in Kolkata. At the wedding, I witnessed his generosity firsthand. He went out of his way to make me feel welcome, dragging me to get my head wrapped in a wedding turban and inviting me on a day trip to visit the family’s native village. His standing among the community was evident. People rose to meet him, eager to show their gratitude. This is a man who gifts honeymoons to underprivileged newlyweds and who helps cover prohibitively expensive medical bills.

Arun also hosted me briefly at his home in Kolkata. Abha and I showed up in the middle of a big family fight. In India, where it’s common to have ten family members sharing the same roof, it’s easy for feuds to go nuclear. I saw an angry side to Arun that I don’t want to get on. It took an hour to boil over, but once it did, it was like nothing ever happened. We all had lunch around the dining table and engaged in riveting conversation, focusing on the most striking differences between Indian and Western ways of life.

Arun recently suffered a stroke. He mostly recovered and is still sharp, but he’s slowed down noticeably on some fronts. His spatial perception will never recover and he gets fatigued more easily. Like everyone, he is weakening with old age. But even in the descending arc of his life, Arun is someone to look up to.



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