Last week-end Katie, me and an Indian friend went off for a holiday in a small town called Koonoor in the Nilgiri hills. Away from the heat and dust of Chennai, we went walking through tea plantations and rejoiced in cool, fresh air.
At the end of our three days away the time came for us to catch the bus back down to the plains, from whence we would catch an overnight train to Chennai. We wandered through Koonoor to get to the bus stop and joined the hundred-odd people patiently waiting for the next rickety old hulk to arrive.
We sat down on a bench next to a couple of wizened old men who’d settled in for the long wait. On seeing Katie and my white faces, one old man gestured to us and pointed across the road. There was a vehicle there that was also heading down the hill he said. For 50 rupees (about 60p, and about five times the price of a standard bus fare) we could get there in double quick time.
Feeling slightly guilty we left the gathered mass and went searching. Sure enough the old man was right and ten minutes later we were pulling out of Koonoor in a garish silver mini-bus decorated inside with plush seating, and a carpeted ceiling impregnated with an array of twinkling multi-coloured LEDs. We whooshed past the bus stop and left the poor plebians in our wake.
And suddenly it hit me: Rich people are nothing more than queue jumpers. Perhaps this truth is so self-evident you wonder why I bother to record it. I guess I’d always known it, but it was only at that moment that I truly understood. I’d just finished reading Orwell’s Coming up for air, which perhaps reinforced the effect; but really the conclusion was inescapable. The little self-deceptions that I practice every day as a rich Westerner living in India simply weren’t up to the occasion…
So here’s the main fact: the people at that bus stop had less money than me. What’s more they’d no doubt worked harder, and suffered more, for the pittance they had. The realisation made me feel sick. Even sicker to think that that old man had seen our white faces and known exactly what the score was. We weren’t going to sit and wait with the Indians, when we had a ticket for the front of the queue in our pocket.
It’s a ticket that’s in our pocket every day of the week. In a thousand little ways money eases our way through India, indeed through life. It smoothes the hard edges, improves the food, softens the beds, and shortens the queues.