We had been in India for three weeks, and my partner and I hadn’t yet learnt to trust anybody. The official travel alerts and warnings about the shady characters were so intense that fear was an extra bag that new travellers in India had to carry. We avoided taxis and autorickshaws as much as possible, out of fear of being ripped off. We called ahead to book hotel rooms so that we wouldn’t fall prey to touts the moment we stepped off the train. We ate only at restaurants listed in our guidebook to reduce the risk of dysentery or hepatitis. After arriving in Delhi we immediately headed to the mountains, where, we’d read, the people were less in-your-face and gave tourists some breathing room. But we felt ready to leave the relative safety of the mountains after three weeks.
On our first night in the plains-city of Chandigarh, while sitting down to dinner at a café presided over by smiling, bouffant-haired portraits of Sai Baba, we were approached by an elderly Sikh gentleman. He smiled broadly. “You are very lucky to have met me,” he said. “Since fifteen years I have been helping tourists in my Chandigarh city. I am Narinder Singh, and they call me the tourist’s best friend. See…’” He pulled out laminated, Punjabi-language newspaper clippings from his satchel. There he was, smiling in the grainy black-and-white photographs, but the text could have said anything.
Our self-appointed guide wore a dusty pink turban, bottle-end glasses, and a salt-and-pepper beard. “Here,” he said, and held out a box of sweets. I gladly accepted. I loved the cloying density of barfi, laddoos, and gulab jamun.
“It is my mission to help tourists in Chandigarh,” he continued. “There are too many bad men in this town.” He explained that he had observed the way taxi drivers and touts descend upon travellers in his homeland, and wanted to counteract their annoying ways. Still, there was a funny look in his eye – he didn’t quite meet our gaze as he was speaking and his spiel felt rehearsed.
We had been descended upon in Chandigarh, he was right. Our carriage companions in the slow toy train down from Shimla had advised us to get off before the train came to a full halt in Chandigarh station. Sticking our heads out of the iron-barred windows, we saw why: crowds of young men were pushing to get onto the train before it was even close to stopping. Any confidence that we had mustered at travelling through the North Indian plains dissipated. We grabbed our bulky packs and jumped from the moving train timidly. The forewarning saved us from being swept back on by the surging crowd but did nothing to deter the hotel touts and drivers waiting for us. This city didn’t get many tourists. The few of us who stumbled there were the objects of intense competition.
Mr Singh told us we could meet him here at the restaurant the next morning at ten and he’d show us Chandigarh’s sights. He seemed harmless, an eccentric old Sikh man, but we had other ideas about what we wanted to do, and we weren’t about to follow someone we’d just met. We responded in a non-committal way. “We’re not sure what we’re doing yet tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll see.”
After a stuffy night’s sleep—the air being thicker than in the mountains—we forgot all about Mr Singh’s invitation. We visited Le Corbusier’s minimalist town hall, a rare bare, angular building in a country full of flourishes. The Punjab Government went about their work with barely-disguised disdain for the tourists traipsing in to see the masterpiece of Modernist architecture. Afterwards, we went to the Nek Chand Fantasy Rock Garden, a wonderland of clay figurines, human and animal, decorated with salvaged scraps that twinkled. Children ran screaming around the labyrinthine garden landscaped with waterfalls and reflecting pools. Mirror shards, broken glass bangles, and cast-off pottery decorated the walls and paths, and satisfied my magpie eye.
In the afternoon we went to the railway station to buy a ticket for onward travel to Lucknow. An overnight train was the only option. I was already nervous about leaving the relative calm of the mountains, and I didn’t think I was ready for this next step. That evening, before boarding the train, we grabbed dinner at a curry joint down the road. I wanted to avoid the Sai Baba restaurant where I suspected Mr. Singh hung out. But he found us.
“I missed you this morning!” he said. “I waited for you at 10:00, but I was a little late so thought maybe I had missed you.”
My partner suddenly became absorbed in the menu. “We woke late,” I mumbled. “We had to get to the railway station, then sort a few things out…”
Mr Singh’s head did a lateral dance, which can mean almost anything in India. He remained cheerful. He hovered and glanced at our large packs on the seats. I shifted them to the floor and he took a seat.
“You’re leaving?” he asked.
“Yes, we’re getting a train to Lucknow tonight.”
“That’s a pity,” he said, pulled something out of his pocket and set it on the table. “I thought I could take you here tomorrow.” He’d put a little Punjabi Tourist Board leaflet about a nearby lake, as well as a red glass bangle, in front of me.
I couldn’t look at him. I realised the weight of the fear we’d been carrying, the warnings about the ulterior motives of Indians that had been reiterated as we had planned this trip.
“Let me present you with these gifts,” he said, picking up his offerings. I giggled nervously at the performance, but played along.
“You stand here,” he instructed me. “I will hold these out to you, and he can photograph us.” Mr Singh didn’t have his own camera, so my partner was instructed to take the photos with ours.
“I hope when you return home, you will tell your friends that there are many helpful men in India.” He wanted us to spread the word that the country is not comprised entirely of crooks.
Later than night, we boarded the train and settled into our foam-padded berths. I took the glass bangle from my bag and squeezed it onto my hand. It was a size too small and cracked before it passed the base of my thumb. I felt tears in my eyes. I had wanted to wear the bangle as a reminder of Mr Singh’s steady kindness.
My partner saw the tears forming. “Don’t be silly, those things are sold everywhere,” he said. “We’ll get you another one.”
I looked down at the delicate, splintered ruby glass and thought, that’s not the point.
Elen Turner is a Kathmandu-based writer and editor, with plans to divide her time between Nepal and India. She's into good literature, street art, white-water rafting and pretty Indian textiles. Her personal blog focuses on travel in South Asia: www.wildernessmetropolis.com