No One Ever Told Me How to Reject a Billionaire
I have a habit of getting into cars with strange men. And despite what your mother may have told you about such activities, I’ve had a good run. I’ve lived to tell the tale of Venetian musos, Nepali gurus, Indian politicians and Spanish royalists, all prepared to give a reckless Kiwi lass a lift in their vehicles of varying functionality.
So when, at a backpacker’s hostel in Amritsar, a majestically bearded, pink turbaned, 30-something-year-old Punjabi man opened the door to his Range Rover, what was I to do?
Him: “I’ll grab some food and beers for everyone, my car’s just outside.”
Me: “Okay cool! I’ll come with you.”
*waddles out of hostel and into big black vehicle of a stranger*
The hostel was tacked on to the far side of the city as though as an after-thought. The subdivision was part un-kept mansions and part well-kept marijuana plantations, with an indiscreet bright yellow backpacker’s plonked smack-bang in the middle.
Fresh off a sleepless overnight train ride, an empty dorm room and a rooftop overlooking fields of wacky-tobaccy was my kind of Nirvana. I unpacked my things — two filthy t-shirts, a manky copy of Shantaram and three remaining socks — and made myself right at home.
It was a familiar kind of Indian start-up hostel: a local young guy whose self-proclaimed job title is “entrepreneur” buys abandoned mansion outside the city for close to nothing, chucks some bunk beds in it and charges pittance for a night in one. Their hostelworld display picture was a mural of a turbaned John Snow captioned ‘Singh in the North’, the owner’s girlfriend padded around in fluffy pink slippers, and at any one time at least four of the owner’s mates would be hanging out or lighting up around the place.
One of these mates showed up on Friday night with more-British-than-the-British English and a suave pink turban, and proceeded to let me annihilate him at table tennis. Loser was to shout beers, so I jumped into the passenger seat of his shiny, spotless car without thinking, and we drove off through the abandoned subdivision towards the city.
Amritsar at night is an entirely different place to during the day. The heat finally fades, the traffic lulls and the fast-paced commotion of the city’s waking hours turns in to slow cups of chai and beedis smoked down to ash. Brightly lit hotels and shopping malls tower over make-shift corrugated-iron shacks, the contrast sardonic and unseemly.
Wealth and poverty manifest themselves in the space between skyscraper and slum. Looking out the window of my Range Rover carriage and into the lives of people whose hardships I could never understand, I felt again the pangs of guilt that had become so familiar.
With contrasting brazenness, my companion seemed to peer down at me from the driver’s seat: one hand on the wheel, the other holding his second Kingfisher beer. He pointed at one of the gargantuan hotels as we drove by.
“That’s the first hotel my father bought for me.”
“It’s a chain now, must be 13 of them. Or 14… yes 14.”
He said it nonchalantly, with an almost bored tone, and as we drove on through the city he continued to point out his possessions — hotels, jewellery stores, shopping malls — as though they were items on a supermarket shopping list. I did the maths in my head.
He turned the conversation towards love and relationships and suddenly I was hyper aware of being alone in a car with a stranger in a strange city. This was the exact situation my friends and family got riled up about when I announced a solo India trip, the situation I so adamantly refused to fear, the fear that I frequently jumped into the cars of strange men to prove unfounded. I’m not sure my loved ones were picturing a Punjabi billionaire as the antagonist of their embellished imagined scenarios.
“I had a Kiwi girlfriend once.”
His hand had crept decidedly onto my side of the hand brake.
“I was in love with her but she was just clued in on Forbes List. New Zealand women do have a certain… exoticism though. I like the way you speak.”
I snorted very un-exotically and looked at him sideways, pushing myself closer to the car’s door with failed subtlety. Kiwis exotic… that’s a new one. I didn’t know whether to feel flattered, objectified or terrified. No one ever told me how to reject a billionaire.
We collected the food for our hostel companions from a restaurant-cum-palace. Three staff members passed-the-parcel of food to each other adding final touches — a sambal, a business card, a bag tied up with flair — before handing it to me with both hands and a bow. My companion swiped his credit card, the equivalent of my travel budget for a month gone before he had even glanced at the total.
As we left the centre city with the bags of dahl and biryani, my companion slowed outside an enormous house with dark windows and pointed at the street facing balcony.
“The view from my bedroom up there is magical. Want to see?”
I tried to keep my cool, but the faltering in my voice was transparent. Was it my stutter or my squeaky, cracking voice that he was mistaking for titillating exoticism?
“No thanks, can we just go back now? The guys are probably starving.”
He sipped on his third beer, smiled knowingly at me and, seeing my obvious discomfort, put the car into gear. His mansion looked oddly small as we gained some distance from it.
My privilege has never been so conspicuous to me as in India. It tugged at my skirt in the form of child beggars, scratched at my conscience with the prominence of disease, made my stomach churn with every $1 meal.
On my way to Amritsar, a ‘General Seating’ train ticket had got me a prime spot: crammed in between two Sikh pilgrims headed to the Golden Temple, the legs of three kids hanging down in front of my face from their perches in the luggage rack, and a young sari-clad woman at my feet, her head unashamedly resting in my lap. A small girl clambered over my unfazed neighbours to get at the gori, white girl. She raised her tiny fingers to her lips and asked me for chapati, the quickly learned symbolic plea for 10 rupees. This time, ignoring everything I know about this kind of beggar, I made an exception and gave her 20.
At home, 20 rupees would buy me the equivalent of a single counter-top lolly-pop — it was as little to me as a round of beers and posh dinner for 12 was to my pink-turbaned friend. I thought about the blasé way he spent my entire month’s budget on a single meal, and how I, after giving the girl 20 rupees, had thrown 50, 100, 300 rupees at chai and samosa sellers as if it was Monopoly money.
There are 1.3 billion people in India, and 1 per cent of them are like my Punjabi friend. India’s rich are rich, and they swallow up half of the country’s wealth with their hotels and malls and fast food chains.
India’s poor though, are poor. 650 million Indians, half the population, are living on a tiny 4 per cent portion of their country’s wealth. So many of these people are impoverished, sick, and living in slums that are unavoidably visible from the doorstep of my companion’s first 5-star hotel.
My interactions with Indian people had been with the 99 per cent. Middle-class Indian backpackers, hostel managers and train companions; tuk-tuk drivers and chai wallahs who were just getting by; and beggars, both adults and children, for whom every day was only about survival. Suddenly confronted with India’s 1 per cent, I didn’t know where to look: at him, and his strikingly open and obvious wealth in this home of the world’s most needy, or at myself, and my own hypocrisy for judging him.
My pink-turbaned friend didn’t stay at the hostel to enjoy the food and beer. I assume he went back to his bedroom with the magical view. But the rest of us — my hostel manager, his friends, fellow backpacker guests — gorged ourselves on the feast he had bought for us, thrilled to have a free meal. Soon we were singing and dancing jovially, our worn sandals bouncing up and down on concrete floors, well-fed and drunken on the favours of a billionaire.