when harry met soumya

“How far is London from Toronto?”

“About two hours.”

“Two hours by bus?”

“Yes”

The border agent continued sorting through the documents, tapped more keys, looked at the screen. I thought it a bit of an odd question. Maybe it was a test, meant to see how I respond. My passport does show I was born in London, Ontario. Was he attempting to measure the veracity of my claim? The picture matches, but does he know the background.

“My son is studying at Western University”

“That is wonderful.”

“Is it a good school?”

“We both studied there, and our son attended Western. It is a good school. What is your son studying?”

“He is doing his Masters in information technology. Is there work there for him?”

“Oh yes, he is sure to find something when he graduates. It is a growing field”

Stamp. Stamp. Folds the papers into the passport and hands them back. Smiles.

“Welcome to India. Enjoy your trip.”

Our driver was standing with his sign among the throng of a dozen others waiting to identify their human cargo. Shorter than most, he was at the front, holding a piece of paper with Henricus and Olga in caps. I imagine there would be only one couple with that combination of names. A point and a nod and he scrambled to break free and meet us at the exit, beaming, despite us being an hour late; we were grateful someone was there.

“I take your bag. This way.”

Walking quickly to keep pace, looking both ways several times crossing the road, through the smog and smoke with the distinct smell of dried burning grass, around the bend and up those stairs. Once in the car, we head out into the traffic, idling at times despite the late hour.

“Half hour to hotel”

“Thank you. It is great to have arrived. Is it always this busy?”

“Police check. Looking for licences.”

Four lanes jammed into two with armed personnel standing around, not paying particular attention, on the phone as every vehicles honks and nudges and inches along until finally breaking free into the open field of asphalt.

“You are from Canada?”

“Yes. A long trip. Our flight was direct, 15 hours but it passed by faster than we thought. What is your name?

“Amarit”

“Hi Amarit. Are you from Delhi?”

“No. I work here. From Dharamsala.”

“We are going to Dharamsala as part of our trip.”

“I from small town near there. My family there. I work here during winter then go home in summer. Here too hot in summer. Much better home. There, see there, that where I live with other drivers. At home I have small farm.”

We continued to have a conversation about his work, his family, the weather, his background, our heritage, all the while eyeing the surroundings and Amarit pointing out the Canadian embassy to our left and navigating another round about. India has a population of 1.4 billion people in a country sometimes described as a continent with all the variations of language and culture, economics and wealth, climate and topography. Our encounters suggest English is not as common as one might have thought for a former British colony; and, there are very few, if any, other white people, particularly outside of the centres.

We were an oddity walking through the small town near the resort several days into the trip. Our hats contributed to the looks and head turnings. We sauntered past the rows of shops, owners behind their wares staring straight out; people trudging along, glancing around, avoiding the motorcycles; but occasionally you meet them eye-to-eye and then a glimpse of a smile, a nod, the folding of the hands and saying namaste.

In those moments you meet the people of India.

“Pic?”

The young man, around 18, dressed in a mix of traditional and contemporary attire, points to his phone, points at Olga.

“You want to take a picture with me? Okay.”

He quickly moves beside her, raises his arm straight out, smiles, snaps a shot, “Namaste!”, and moves on.

Half a block later, a young woman with a long dark braid wearing a pinkish sari, meets Olga’s eye and stops her.

“Picture? With you?”

Olga agrees again and this time I retreat a few steps to take one with our camera of yet another impromptu photo session.

I ask, “And what is your name?”

“Soumya”

“Pleasure to meet you Soumya.”

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