‘They can make you so paranoid’. These words were whispered to me.
Mid September 2002
Back then New Delhi still slept at night, but my introduction was loud and frightening. As if the hunt had begun almost as I arrived.
In the year before I left home, warnings became more frequent and direct. Not from my inner circle of mates but from dodgy blokes I’d befriended along the way.
Life had dealt me an eclectic mixture of interesting associates. There were journalists and informers, police officers and drug dealers, publicans and private detectives. Mum once said ‘be careful who you mix with in life’. I should have listened.
My journey started from Birmingham Airport close to home in the West Midlands. I was happy and relieved a new chapter in my life was beginning. I had wanted this moment. I had dreamed of it.
Most of my fellow passengers got off in the United Arab Emirates where we’d had a short stop-over. When we eventually landed in New Delhi I was almost alone, I collected my rucksack quickly from the baggage area and passed through immigration. I felt really good.
India is different, normal rules do not apply. On arrival you do not just hail a taxi outside. After I changed Travellers’ Cheques for rupees I went to the government-controlled pre-paid taxi booth where I ‘secured my taxi’. I didn’t think much of it, but I noticed two portly officials exchange my driver three times before we were allowed to leave.
I felt relaxed. More relaxed than when I’d first arrived in Mumbai three years before with my elderly Grandfather. I was not a newcomer to India I was aware arriving here alone could prove challenging.
Though I had been offered the middle seats I chose to sit next to the driver. Slight of build and dressed in regulation khaki uniform. We said ‘hello’. My knees were jammed against the plastic dashboard.
The pungent odour of post monsoon New Delhi filled my nostrils that evening. It has a unique smell quite unlike any where else I’ve ever visited. Whilst not entirely unpleasant it permeates your soul.
‘New Delhi, sir?’ ‘Connaught place please’ I said confidently, pretending I knew my destination.
We joined the Old Gurgaon Road.
Even early in the morning all manner of traffic occupy India’s streets. Cars and taxis auto-rickshaws, Lorries, along with bullock-driven carts, jostle for space.
My young driver thrashed the engine, hogging the outside lane for the first few miles, refusing to be bullied from position.
It was then I became aware that the chase had begun. I heard the sound of distant sirens. Police?
If I was their prey, their intelligence must have been spot on. I saw the red and blue flashing lights grow brighter, bouncing off every surface within the white Suzuki taxi van.
I looked over my right shoulder and tried my best to peer through the small square window in the back of the van. I couldn’t see much. I leaned out of the window. I saw it was police.
I glared at the driver. He didn’t seem bothered, he gave a gentle Indian head shrug but I was panicking. I’d just arrived in the country and now I felt on edge. Were the police after me? There weren’t any drugs in my luggage. I hadn’t smoked anything for months. Had I been set up? Had the driver switch been planned?
The intermittent glow from over-head orange street lamps made visibility inconsistent, the disorientation of this only made my anxiety worse. As the police vehicle swerved menacingly behind us I pleaded with the driver to pull over.
Hotels and guest houses of all standards and sizes lined our route. Stray dogs and street dwellers lurked amongst the shadows.
Words that had first been uttered in a Midlands pub were now ringing loudly in my ears. ‘These people can find you anywhere’. I’d been told.
The police car passed us. I was safe I thought, but immediately the chase began afresh. This time they were definitely after me.
Another police car caught up with us. My driver once calm began to panic but sensibly this time he pulled across the expressway and stopped. A police officer ran from his vehicle screaming at us. At this point I raised my hands in the air. He shone his touch in our faces in anger he smashed it against our windscreen. The windscreen shattered.
A huge lorry that was travelling at terrific speed passed within inches of the police officer, our taxi shuck. It was so close it caught our breath as it passed. More police chased behind. Of cause they were not chasing after me.
There was a moment of quiet before my driver put his hands to the top pocket of his shirt and he pulled out a Beedi. He struck a match, breathed, lit it then inhaled.
Welcome to India I thought.