Incredible India

A blue public bus has passed thrice before me, bearing across its side a large-lettered legend: "Begging is a Punishable Offence." On the right end of it are the cupped wrinkled hands of the beggar. On the left, there’s the face of the Chief Minister grinning his brightest, as if in triumph at passing such daring legislation.

This is a politician whose secular intentions satisfy the liberal in me. He is also a socialist of a type and has been cool toward business and industry through the four years of his Chief Ministership. As regards me, I work in the avionics industry, and I’ve been vexed at a lingering opportunity not grabbed with both hands — to our general detriment.

So, now in this moment, I draw deep a sip of cold-brewed iced-coffee and close my eyes a moment and feel my emotions dissolve and disappear.

The bus takes a long time each time to negotiate the roundabout I'm facing. There's not enough width on the streets, and cars and motorcycles swarm around the bus, and the big long thing appears like a lizard bobbing among small and big ants of many hues.

I’m sitting in Starbucks, looking out, with the *Enchantress of Florence” in hand and jazz in my ears. The book is set in Agra and Florence and Turkey and Samarkand and shows off how Rushdie can weave an enchanting story using just those touristic places and the lands and the seas and the times that bind them. I've been in three of those locations, Samarkand not yet in my plans, but I haven't been able to get Florence and Agra and Istanbul into a decent blog post even.

(Rushdie is so expert he can word-paint with astounding brilliance Akbar the Great, but hush! To recognise greatness in Akbar is sacrilege these days.)

I should’ve been in Krakow this week, walking the streets and admiring the architecture and learning on site its near and long history. Instead, here I am at our local Starbucks, where I'm counting the rounds a commuter bus has been making and watching during pauses from reading Rushdie the Barista Cafe across the street, and the tree that conceals a half of it. A man is offering earnest prayers to the trunk of the tree. I say amen.

And I sip my coffee for which, when I stood in line, I had to tell off three men in whites who tried to jump ahead of me. But they were all right. They went to the back without making a noise, though each of them was burly, and clearly from the wealthy builder class, or the political — separations which when they exist, are thin and faint.

I had bought the tickets, made the hotel reservation, picked my seats on the plane for all sectors, but forty-eight hours before departure for Krakow a gloom came over me, black like the season’s clouds hanging overhead. In minutes I cancelled all reservations and leaned forward and settled in the pose of Rodin's Thinker, seeing grey, thinking nothing.

I haven’t missed the recurrent news of protests against tourists in Europe. In Venice, the voice of pain of the diminishing, 55000-strong populace is smothered under a daily deluge of tourist numbers multiples its size. Echoes of the protest are ringing out in Barcelona, and in Majorca, and in Rome where the mayor has asked visitors to leave his fountains alone.

Until now, visitors sought the fountains to relive cinematic moments, to rub some star dust on themselves. But folks need water, any water, across Europe this summer, because a heat wave is roiling the continent — so the news goes. Even Poland, where I was going, wasn’t exempt from Lucifer. Settling into schadenfreude, exclaiming how fortuitous I didn’t go, I checked the weather in Krakow: 26ºC daytime;16ºC nighttime; no rain in the week. The cloud over my head came down an increment.

But the protests have gotten me thinking. Now that everybody is travelling, is the cool thing to stay home? Home needn't be my residence in Bangalore. It could mean this Incredible India which I can cover by car, in long and short trips over time.

The Europeans could learn from us. We have monuments as old as theirs, and great and minor rivers, and mountains and valleys of flowers, and music and yoga and Bollywood and yes, oh yes, our touted culture and hospitality. And yet we keep tourists from abroad to a minimum. With such little effort. Ask the European who's been here already, I say.

Can you write a decent blog post staying put at home? I feel my clouds descending another notch.

Behind me, the three men in whites whom I’d told off at the counter are talking big-time politics. The second-most powerful man in India, and perhaps the feistiest, has been in town three days. These men, who are from the northern part of my state, are critiquing that leader in the lyrical Kannada of their region, in their diction that I love. I should’ve been accommodating toward them at the counter, I tell myself, and start warming toward home and note that the blue bus has arrived the fourth time.

Begging is banished, I see again. How nice. Where have those wrinkly joined hands gone now? I ask, rising to leave. Coffee is good at Starbucks, but I must go home for rice and sambar.