Backpackers on bananas knit East and West together

'He took a step toward me and, in a moment of weakness, I beckoned him over'

Sat, Jun 22, 2013, 01:01

In the spit-strewn dust outside Khim’s chai shop a group of sherpas squatted on their heels, eating off stainless-steel platters into which indentations had been hammered for every portion of the meal – idlies, dhal, chapatti and subji. There was even a groove into which slotted a stainless steel beaker: a peculiar Indian custom, as though the nation eats its meals ready, at all times, for a bout of turbulence.

I watched as a backpacker clambered off a bus, repositioning his pouch like a mutant marsupial and glancing regretfully around, as though realising he may have drifted too far off the banana-pancake circuit. Almora had been dropped from most guidebooks, having lost the cachet it used to share with the likes of McLeod Ganj, Srinagar or Pondicherry. No one now boasted of visiting.

I could see him trying to catch my eye, no doubt wanting advice: tips for the best guesthouse or a restaurant that sold passable spaghetti or pizza. He gave a tentative wave, but I ignored him. He made himself busy, snapping a sterilising tab from its foil and dropping it into his water bottle.

I felt irritated by him, but I knew the irritation was directed as much at my former self as at him. I recognised the two conflicting desires in him – the wish to puncture the wall of alienation surrounding him and the equal and opposite desire to protect himself from it. He had just spent 10 hours on a bus; no doubt having had his face pressed into somebody’s armpit, having been stroked in places he regarded as off-limits and been befriended and interrogated many times by many people.

It was understandable that he might now seek space. Or at least it was from a Western perspective: in the Indian tradition everybody is one so why try to create the illusion of separation?

He took a step toward me and, in a moment of weakness, I beckoned him over. Khim’s kitchen boy, spotting a customer, came tripping out with a dripping dishcloth to wipe first the chair and then the table, in that order, and went to fetch us two gold-rimmed shot-glasses of industrial strength chai.

The backpacker laid down his guidebook and a mottled copy of Harry Potter. I used to be surprised that other backpackers weren’t reading Naipaul or Kipling or Rushdie, but perhaps it is precisely this tendency towards extended infantilism that gives them the idealism to go off exploring the world in the first place. They are an army of Peter Pans, all hell-bent on quixotic adventure, and willing to suffer definite discomfort and potential danger along the way.

I read somewhere that backpackers were like stitches, knitting the Eastern and Western hemispheres together. They are threads through contrasting cultural patches. It struck me that this boy seemed a bit frayed at the ends and, fearing the quilt might start to unravel, I found myself telling him that Khim could rustle him up some banana pancakes if he really wanted them.

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