Shortcut: Shantaram

I have learned about freedom. When I was in tortured in prison I was still free. Free to hate or forgive. The choice becomes your life. I escaped prison in Australia and ended up in India.

 

First I noticed the smell of India. Ten thousand restaurants. Five thousand temples, churches, mosques. Hundreds of bazaars with perfume, spices, incense and flowers.

India smells sweet like hope. Sour like greed. It smells of machines, humans and rats. It smells of gods, demons and empires. The smell was exciting. I loved it.

 

Next I noticed the heat. My clothes stuck to me. It was hard to breathe. A wet jungle heat, day and night.

 

Then there were the people. All religions, all skin and eye colours. Every different face was a part of the beauty that is India.

 

I got on a bus at the airport. It filled with a mix of Indians and foreigners. I sat in the back. Two long-haired travellers sat next to me.

 

The engine roared. The bus took off with great speed. Pedestrians jumped out of the way. The motorway was like the one in Melbourne. But as we got closer to the city, the road got narrow. Then I saw the slums.

 

Contrasts of Mumbai There were acres of brown and black shelters. They were made from rags, scraps of plastic and paper, bamboo sticks. It looked like a refugee camp. Every week five thousand villagers come to the city slum. They are running from poverty, famine and bloodshed in their villages.

 

I felt guilty and heartbroken. Then I felt angry. What kind of government allows this? The slum went on for kilometres. After a while I saw the people, not just the shacks. A woman brushed her black hair. Another bathed her children. A man led three goats tied with red ribbons. Another man shaved himself at a cracked mirror. Children played everywhere. Men carried buckets of water. Men fixed the huts. Everywhere people laughed and smiled.

 

Then I saw a foreigner come out of a hut. Pale-skinned like me, but wearing a wrap of Indian cloth. He stretched, yawned, scratched his naked belly. Neighbours smiled at him. I envied that foreigner.

The people were all busy working. Inside the huts were clean. The women were beautiful, wrapped in cloth of crimson red, blue, gold. The men were white-toothed, handsome. The children were fine, the older ones taking care of younger ones.

At seeing all this, I smiled.

 

The young man next to me on the bus was Canadian. He said, ‘It ain’t pretty. This your first time?’

I nodded.

He said, ‘Don’t worry. From here on, it gets a little better. Not so many slums. But Bombay is the crummiest city in India.’

His friend said, ‘You got that right. Some big British buildings are okay. But this ain’t India.  You gotta get out of the city to find the real India.’

The first one said, ‘You staying in Bombay? If you want we can share a room. It’s a lot cheaper with three. And safer.’

Safer? I was running from prison. I had a false passport.

But I pretended I wasn’t worried about safety. I looked out the bus window. The traffic was a dance of buses and trucks, bicycles, cars, ox-carts, scooters and people. The air smelled of spices and perfumes, diesel smoke and oxen manure. On every corner were gigantic posters advertising Indian films.

The first Canadian said, ‘Sure it’s safer. This is Gotham City, man. The street kids know lots of ways to steal your money.’

The other one said, ‘All cities are dirty and crazy. You’ll love the rest of India. This is a great country. But the cities are fucked. Get out as fast as you can. Hey, look at that!’

Some of the slums were on fire. A man ran toward the sea, his clothes and hair on fire. A woman and child put the fire out. The traffic slowed down. No cars stopped.

Soon we were on a street of modern buildings. Grand hotels. Fancy restaurants. Gardens. Polished glass and brass office buildings. Here the Indian men wore business suits. The women wore silk. They looked serious. They walked with a purpose.

Everywhere was a contrast. I saw what I knew and what I had never dreamed of. At a traffic light a bullock cart stood next to a modern sports car. A man squatted to go to the toilet behind a satellite dish. An electric forklift unloaded an old wooden cart with wooden wheels. It seemed an old way of life had crashed into the future. I liked it.