Welcome to India (or, This Guy Was No Prabaker)

I’ve had an itch to go to India for several years, the beginnings of which I can trace back to when I read Shantaram for the first time. Shantaram is one of my favorite books of all time; incredible story based loosely on real-life events, incredibly powerful writing, and an epic scope that touches on all of life’s grand themes.
It seems like everyone who comes to India nowadays has read and been inspired by Shantaram. I’ve heard two people disparage the book because they hate the expectations it creates; they say it paints of a rosy picture of India that just doesn’t exist in reality. I’m not in this camp, but I thought it was interesting to hear of Shantaram spoken that way.
In the story, the protganist escapes from prison in Australia and makes his way to Bombay (which today is called Mumbai). When he first arrives, he immediately befriends a rickshaw driver named Prabaker. Prabaker helps him get settled. I can’t do him justic here, but Prabaker is an unforgettable character, someone you’d love to befriend you if you arrived in India with no friends.
Which brings me to my arrival in India. After landing in Chennai, I took a cab to the heart of the city to try and find a hotel. The cab ride was 45 minutes through intense traffic, and the air-conditioning and cleanliness of the taxi did little to prevent me from quickly being overwhelmed by all that was going on.
My first impression was “this is crazy!” So many people dressed in fantastically colored costumes, farm animals wandering the streets, trash EVERYWHERE, and signs in English and Tamil advertising a ridiculous array of products.
When I stepped out of the cab, two backpacks in tow, to the locals standing around I must have looked like a giant bag of money ripe for the taking. After checking three hotels that were fully booked, I knew that some assistance would be required if I were to navigate the craziness of Chennai and find a decent hotel.
Enter Raja, a rickshaw driver who seemed less-sketchy than the four others that approached me and promised he could find me a decent hotel. I liked him enough, but I had a gut feeling that he was untrustworthy. But I didn’t have a choice, and I’d have to trust someone, and Raja was all I had.
For the next three days, Raja and his cousin Sadha would be my companions. One of the first things I realized upon arrival was that my plan of working in coffee shops each day to get internet wasn’t going to fly. All of the work I do is over the internet, so I needed to find another solution.
That solution took the form of a 3G Photon USB drive that basically gives you internet access anywhere in India. Long story short, after several consultations with telecom beaurocrats, I was informed that I could not acqure this or even a SIM card for a cell phone without a proof of Indian address. A passport won’t do, so basically if you’re just traveling in India you (ahem) “can’t” get one.
The logic is that in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year, which were coordinated using cell phones, the Indian government wants to keep tabs on all electronic communication. Find idea, but identification doesn’t get more legitimate than a passport, so it was a little frustrating at first.
Sadha solved this problem for me by registering a SIM card and Photon under his name. Phone and internet-equipped, by the second day I’d cleared a major hurdle for my plans here.
Chennai doesn’t really have a lot of tourist attractions per se, which was fine by me. I’d only flown there because the only flight to India from Penang was to Chennai, so Chennai was just an entry point. For the three days I was there, I mostly worked ¬†from a few restaurants, picked up a few pounds eating the amazing food, and watched the World Cup.
Three days was more than enough, and on the third day I arranged to take a four hour bus ride to Pondicherry, a former French colony and seaside town that promised to be more manageable and less intense than Chennai.
Raja and Saddha came to drive me to the bus station. Before we left, I put my backpack in the rickshaw before running across the street to grab a few waters. At one point I looked across at the rickshaw, and saw Raja and Sadha quickly look up at me. This was the only time in three days that the backpack had been out of my sight, and while their reaction seemed odd I didn’t take much notice.
There was insane traffic getting to the bus, and I arrived two minutes late. Over the three days, I’d given Raja and Saddha almost $70 for their troubles and paid for two meals with them (the Photon drive is so critical I’d have paid $500 to get it, so the $70 was justified in my opinion). Not bad for these guys.
Sitting on the bus, I thought back to when they had suspiciously looked up at me from across the street. I remembered that they had also seen me take some money from the passport holder on the backside of my backpack, which still had $100 in it. I reached over and pulled out the passport holder, hoping that I was wrong. I wasn’t, and to my dismay the $100 was gone.
Lessons learned:
1) Trust your gut. I’d had the sense that Raja wasn’t the most straightforward of characters, and it cost me going against my gut.
2) Trust no one. Actually I’m kidding. You can’t live that way, especially traveling. Sure, be careful who you trust, but I’d rather live as a trusting person and get burned every now and then than go about living treating everyone I meet with suspicion. Maybe just don’t trust Indian rickshaw drivers is a better rule.
3) Don’t let anyone see where you keep your money.
So, Raja was no Prabaker. Then again, I’m not living Shantaram; this adventure is all my own.
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  • http://twitter.com/realitybitesin Syed Rizwan Ali

    Hi Jesse
    Looking forward to your Bangalore experience

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  • Mark

    Hey,
    (I've come upon this blog through Ms. Maddox, she also recommended Shantaram to me while I was in her eigth grade Language Arts class., and since I was familiar with the book, I thought that I ought to leave a comment.)

    In his essay on The Architecture of the Novel, Gregory D. Roberts mentions that “All of the characters in the novel, Shantaram, are created. None of the characters bears even a remote resemblance to any real person [he has] ever known.” Perhaps that's why Raja wasn't Prabaker, since Prabaker was manufactured to be one ideal tour guide. Thanks for posting the “Lessons Learned”- they're definitely things to keep in mind.

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