Mate in India

Encountering unexpected kindness from a stranger in India.

India is one of those places whose reputations precedes it. Reports of local and foreign young women getting raped in recent years made international news, and when people at home learnt of my travel plans more than a few people raised their eyebrows.

Entering the workforce last year has not done a whole lot to change my travel habits. I still sleep in hostels and stake out discount sites to bag the cheapest airfare. This time I paid a little more than SGD1200 for return flights to London on Jet Airways, which included a 24-hour layover in Mumbai on the way there.

I had reservations of my own about India, but in the lead up to this trip I not-so-wisely decided that the best way to deal with them was to not deal with them. For weeks I skirted the issue of flights and airfare to avoid discussing it with my parents. I usually enjoy planning to a certain degree, but this time I completed evaded the process.

*

I land at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport at noon and realise how unprepared I am for my virgin India foray. In the immigration queue I strike up a conversation with Sajid, an Indian national working for a shipping company in Singapore. He is well spoken, a family man laden with luggage and multiple boxes of appliances going home to his wife and daughter for Hari Raya Puasa. Home is the town of Pume, three hours away by road, a journey that could get him there well before nightfall.

Instead he takes me under his wing and made it his personal mission to get me settled in Mumbai. Singapore has been good to him, he says. This is his way of paying it forward.

As a solo female traveller I am used to being wary and at first, despite his best intentions, I hold Sajid at arm’s length. I hoist my own backpack off the luggage carousel, refusing his offer of help; when we leaves our luggage in a trolley outside the toilet I make sure I return to it before he does. But Lonely Planet advises sizing a person up within three seconds of meeting them, and I choose to go with my gut.

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Sajid negotiates a cab and takes me to my hostel, casting a discerning eye over the accommodation before deeming it safe enough. I tell him I have about 2500 rupees (SGD52) on me, and he says that is hardly enough, before withdrawing 8000 more from an atm and handing it to me.

“You can return me the money in Singapore,” he says. At this point he knows nothing about me beyond my first name.

He plans a day’s itinerary for me and briefs the taxi driver three times. “I told him to show you both and good and bad side of India,” he says.

By the time we drop Sajid off at a taxi operator who will take him to home, it is well into the afternoon and I am sticky in the tropical heat. His khaki shirt is soaked through with perspiration and it strikes me once more how far he has gone out of his way to help me. It is not the first time I promise myself: I will find a way to pay it forward.

Everyone cautioned me about coming to India, as they did with my grad trip in China last summer. I’m glad I came anyway; there is kindness beyond measure in the most unexpected places.

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