I’m thinking of Rashid and Zahid and Humar. I’m thinking of the mirror man who makes the glass with which we see ourselves.
For the tourist it spells abundance, India. With its millennia chronicled in stone, at forts, castles and in the ruins of ancient citadels; and its spirit dancing in the mystical myriad of mosques, gurudwaras, churches and temples; from its sky-embracing peaks to its biting Thar winds, India mirrors all we are. But of this, you are aware.
The traditional tourist towns need to be savoured and honoured. There’s no disclaimer to add. Yet it’s not only tourists who flock to those places. There are also touts, also rogues, also tricksters. And there’s a greater risk: with so very much to see between castle and fort, and in the bustle of the business of all the seeing, it’s absolutely possible to neglect the very seeing of it, India. And that would be a shame.
Yet for the malady there’s a remedy and it’s simple. When the touts have been paid and whatever scams have unfolded, just unfold the map and close the eyes and let the index finger waggle away in small circles of fate until it randomly drops upon the paper. And go there, where the main sight is likely called India. Go there, in the very way that, at the turn of 1996, we went to Patna.
The mirror man was waiting although we didn’t know it and neither did he. He must’ve been busy that afternoon with whatever mirror men of an afternoon do, as we arrived at Patna Junction train station and checked into a nearby hotel. Even from the station we could tell: people stared at us in a way that in the traditional tourist towns they didn’t, and it seemed exotic, rather like for a westerner it should be, India. Without inhibition they dared to look into the mirror.
We’d thought to see the old town. It’s a normal thing, except Patna’s arms spread wide and from colonial Bankipur the old town at Patna City was still tens of kilometres to the east. The locals directed us to some kind of tempos and we powered off, squashed in and unaware just how many bumps there’d need to be.
We were told to get out on a large metropolitan road. How could it be the old town? The sun was lowering and the mirror man must’ve been moving about in preparation for evening when we wandered, directed by locals, down an alleyway. It turned out the alley was connected to others in a great maze of alleys and although we knew, the guide book had said, there was an important gurdwara to see, it was just as well to let the alleys take us as they pleased. People stared.
We met the mirror man first in actuality, but I’m thinking of Rashid and Zahid and Humar.
Night was impatient by then. The sky was darkening and in the midst of the alleyways we had no hope of knowing which one might take us to the main road. Humar was there. He was our age and more than a bit surprised to see two foreigners in his street. We wished to ask directions but as it turned out he spoke almost no English. Yet he took us, it might’ve been by the arm, to his nearby house and we had to stoop to get in his front door. He understood when we said ‘Australia’, although we’d already learnt to say it in the Indian manner, ‘Os-tre-li-a’, for he mimed cricket. His mother was soon enough busy making tea as we sat there, not knowing how to communicate. We really wanted to be going but we’d come especially to see it, India. It was afterwards that Humar went to fetch Rashid and his English.
Like us, Rashid was a university student and he’d never met any foreigners before, so he said. We learnt that Humar’s father was a train driver often away somewhere down the line, and at Rashid’s insistence we agreed they’d come the following morning, all the way to Bankipur, to show us their Patna, India.
The following day was of rickshaws, two in procession, as the four of us roamed about Bankipur. They took us to the landmark silo, the domed Golghar that we climbed to admire the view of the Ganges. They took us to the museum to be impressed by the tricky displays of mirrors and the box that made it look like your head was detached from your body. They took us to the zoo where we rowed a boat on a small lake. And they took us to Mayfair for ice cream.
Rashid asked numerous questions about Australia and we did our best to answer, taking turns on his rickshaw. Humar was a bit lost for words. Rashid was enthusiastic about his coming graduation, in economics I think; but his ambition was tempered by concern about job prospects. Bihar was struggling.
There was nothing wrong with Bihar, Rashid said, but there was political instability that had slowed development. This was in the days before Jharkhand.
By evening we were back in Patna City, and we did visit the gurdwara, the Takht Harimandirji Patna Sahib. It’s one of only five Takhats or Holy Seats of Authority for the Sikhs and Guru Gobind Singh was born there in 1666, we learnt. What we knew already was that Sikh tenet which proclaims all humans equal and who would not be impressed?
Two years later it was, when I stopped by for the second time. We’d kept in touch by post and I stayed at Rashid’s house, and met his younger brother Zahid, and heard of the political troubles in the villages. It was another few days to chat and learn, not least how to count in Urdu. Rashid’s fears had been founded: he was a graduate and ambitious, but after two years still unemployed. He was thinner and he felt it, I believe, shame for his situation, though the city’s economy was no fault of his. And when I left the second time, they presented in silver and topaz a handcrafted ring.
But it was before all of that, before the zoo, before the gurdwara, before Rashid and Zahid and Humar. There’d still been light left in the day when we’d stopped for tea on our own in a little shop on one of those alleys. One of the customers had struck up a conversation and he said he made mirrors. He asked if we wished to see them, his mirrors, as his house wasn’t far. So we’d agreed and gone a short way together before he told us to wait, disappearing into a shack. When he returned his face was sadder than the winter Ganges. His wife, he had to say, wasn’t prepared for visitors. I thought perhaps she had only one sari which on that day had been washed. Or perhaps it was a fight.
Whatever the reason, the mirror man felt it I believe, shame for his situation, but he shouldn’t have: he’s the man who makes the mirrors by which we see ourselves. As he is, so we are.
There’s good news from Patna in more recent years. I’ve read about it. There’s been revival and double digit economic growth; Bihar had the fastest growth of all the major states in India and tourist numbers have multiplied by six. Patna is transformed, I believe. Yet just I hope, and sadly contact was lost with time, that in all its gusto the upturn didn’t forget them, Rashid and Zahid and Humar; and of course Mr. and Mrs. M. Man. Yet just I hope Mayfair is still serving ice cream.
By the whims of an index finger we saw it, India, and in it we saw ourselves.
Andrew Eagle is an Australian travel writer currently based in Dhaka.