Posted by on 25 Nov, 2010 in Travel Bites, Writers' Corner | 3 comments


As the morning sun seeps in, I look out over the city. From the 15th floor of Le Meridien Ahmedabad, I see a vast slum below – ramshackle tin huts strewn with tires and tarpaulins, criss-crossed by an irregular grid of dusty lanes, where the impoverished residents wile away the long hot days. Three goats trot aimlessly across an open wasteland between the shacks and the river. At the river’s edge, a man squats, tissue paper in hand, and does his business over the edge of the steel-fortified riverbank.

Glancing back around my hotel room, I notice the dazzling silver platter where three rosy apples sit, perfectly reflected in the sunlight. Below the 24-inch HDTV, my drawer is still ajar. Each pair of freshly laundered socks is neatly folded in a cardboard sleeve, proudly bearing the hotel insignia.

I feel a sudden contempt for those who built this palace of Western opulence right next to a shanty town. Then a pang of guilt for enjoying the provided creature comforts like the king-size bed and the rooftop pool. But this initial culture shock subsides, and as the week progresses we discover another side to India. Saturday comes – our first day off – and we hire a car (driver included). We visit the spectacular Shaking Minarets, where devout worshippers remove their sandals and wash their feet in special troughs before entering the Mosque.

The many temples are islands of calm in a city of chaos. At Teen Darwala, a street market is in full swing. A swarm of shoppers engulf the road and we slow to a crawl. A woman in a bright green and pink sari walks alongside us, balancing an oversized bag of rice on her head. From a rickety trestle table, a moustachioed man sells pulses, spices and dried fish in assorted plastic tubs. Two young men in bold yellow and blue shirts cross in front of us, chatting. One has his arm draped over the other’s shoulder, an unfamiliar sight yet clearly platonic. A wizened grandmother leans out of her balcony overhead, hanging vibrant red, orange and purple clothes on a washing line. A gust of air delivers a tapestry of smells – exotic spices and the enticing aroma of barbecued meat, mixed with diesel fumes, human sweat and a faint odour of bad drains.

As we leave the centre, the crowds dissipate and vehicles take over. Tiny green and yellow motor-taxis rev past rainbow-painted trucks, darting like wasps from lane to lane. Horns beep all around us, short sharp bursts and chirps that say simply “I’m here,” not “Get out of my way.” Family-owned shops with hand-painted signs are replaced by four-storey office blocks with plastic facades of primary colours, like the handiwork of a child with a new Lego set. An astonishing array of vehicles passes by, from bicycle-powered flour trucks to donkey-pulled wooden carts. Most common is the family motorbike – father in front wearing the helmet, wife in the middle, sari flowing in the wind, and two children hanging on at the rear, grinning.

We come to a standstill on an old concrete bridge. A young girl of eight or nine stands by the roadside, naked but for a pair of red shorts, with a pail of water beside her. As I watch, she dips a shirt into the pail, wrings it out and lays it on the railing to dry. I am transfixed – but my lack of reaction disturbs me. Shouldn’t I be appalled at her destitution?

It’s not until a couple of days later that I understand. She wasn’t starving or malnourished.  She wasn’t begging. She hadn’t given up on life. She was smiling and completely at ease. For her, it was routine. I realize that in India, people make the best of what they have – no obsessing over material wealth. Poverty and happiness, hand in hand.

That night, I look out from my hotel window with new eyes. I see that the “slum” below is anything but. The populace sit outside their homes on plastic chairs and sacks of rice, illuminated by bare bulbs strung like fairy lights between the rooftops and the overhanging trees. A fire crackles as they cook dinner. I can just make out the chatter of conversations and shrieks of delight from children at play.

 I am a victim of my own prejudice. This is not a slum as I’d imagined it from African famine appeals and geography textbooks. These proud Indians are well-dressed, happy families with a roof above their heads. I’d imagined the streets of India piled with rubbish, people stricken with disease. Instead I find them filled with vibrant colours and smiling faces. As the sun sets, my eyes are opened.

Author’s Note: This was the second piece of writing from my non-fiction course. The assignment here was to write about a defining or pivotal moment in your life and write about it. At first I was a little stumped, the only pivotal moments I could think of were too personal to share – then I remembered how India had given me a totally new perspective on poverty – as well as encouraging me to question my prejudices. I’ve written about India before, so the challenge here was how to do justice to all those experiences in under 800 words. More on what I learnt in the comments.



  1. I think this assignment really taught me that there isn’t such a divide between creative writing and fiction writing. In the previous assignment (writing a journal for the week), I had tried to stick to the absolute truth, rather than constructing a good read. And it failed miserably, it just wasn’t interesting to read (one of the reasons I didn’t publish it). So with this assignment, I tried to apply the techniques I learned from creative writing to make this read well, even if that sometimes meant bending the truth, changing small details, or reordering things. I realized that when writing non-fiction, the truth is not the most important thing, you need to make sure you have an enjoyable and well-structured piece of writing. So while everything in this story really happened, some of the details are altered… My hotel in Mumbai and my hotel in Ahmedabad are merged, and two distinct car journeys from the two cities are combined into one. I think that the story is stronger for it, and so it turns out you really can bend the truth for the sake of better writing.If you want the true form as I blogged it, you can read the original posts here. Also, another trick I used here was to refer back to old photos for some of the vibrant detail, which has faded a little in my mind in the two years since the trip. Referring back to the photos helps add colour. But it does mean that if you look though my photos (here and here) you will see some of the scenes I described. Some might say this is cheating. Again I think I learned that you can do what you like if it makes the writing better.If I was to criticize this piece I would say that it is a little too descriptive, there isn’t a lot I’m actually doing in it (though there is action around me). Perhaps this is ok in a piece which is all about how you perceive the world before your eyes.

  2. It’s a fascinating piece, well-structured, with a thoughtful and rounded conclusion. Though I agree to an extent with your own comment that it’s a tad over-descriptive, there are some characterful individual details; I loved the notion of the horns beeping to say ‘I’m here’ not ‘Get out of my way’ – there’s a joyousness about that which comes across, as does the striking image of the young girl unselfconsciously washing her shirt. Glad to have read this.

    • Thank you for your kind words David. India is definitely a place that evokes a sense of joy – and wonder. I am glad to hear I have managed to capture some essence of that!

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