I was 28 and he was 50 at the time. He sported long, silvery hair that was always clasped into a thin ponytail. He looked like an active member of a retired rock band. His name was not Paul. But I'll call him that anyway to respect his desire for anonymity.
We first met in a classroom setting where I was to conduct a cross-cultural training on what to expect, especially for Westerners, when working in India. Or dealing with Indians.
I was a natural at doing that job. Or so I thought. For I was born and raised in the urban madness of New Delhi and even though I had left India at the age of 25, India barely left me.
Photo Credit: Mona Singh
Born in the wrong country
Paul greeted me with a pleasant Namaste by folding his hands in front of his chest. He made a terrific impression of a native Hindi speaker by hurling out the few sentences he knew in the language. It was enchanting. Listening to a German native speaker switch to colloquial Hindi.
I think that was the starting point of our friendship. Paul was more Indian in ways than I had ever been. Every year he travelled to India for a month or so. Not to get high on weed in Goa. Or to meditate in the Osho ashram in Pune. He was never the one for a clichéd experience.
His travel diaries were replete with experiences of solitude in the lap of Himalayas. Or living the life of a commoner in the dingy streets of Old Delhi.
He haggled with hawkers to buy overripe bananas. Accepted invitations from strangers to share tea in the comfort of their homes. He traveled in old, rickety rickshaws and buses. Exchanging food with other passengers. Sharing stories about the big cosmic mistake of being born in Germany not India.
Paul in Germany or Prakash in India
Paul was in a live-in relationship with a German woman and he had a son of my age from his ex-wife. But he was exceptionally wary of sharing these details with anyone in India. For he felt morally obligated to project a fulfilling family image in a country where joint families are still as common as potatoes.
So he created another avatar for himself. An emotional Indian passport, as he would call it. He chose to be Prakash (meaning light in Hindi) in India. A man with five children, two sons and three daughters and of course a devoted wife. For him, it was like living the life he was born to live.
A striking contrast to the red Porsche he drove at full throttle on German autobahns. A steep downgrade from the life of a high-powered CEO he led in a first world country. But none of that mattered. For he found profound happiness in roaming the congested arteries of Delhi and riding a donkey for hours to reach a monastery on the top of a mountain.
Photo Credit: Mona Singh
How to behave on your first night with an Indian bride?
His trip to India is his annual spiritual cleanse. That adds richness to his life. And to our friendship. Every time he gets back from India, he gives me a call. Sometimes to rave about his discoveries. And sometimes to rant about his discomforts.
On his last trip, he bought a shoddy manual that had instructions on how to behave on your first night with an Indian bride. To confirm that it wasn't porn, he read out some of the key pointers from the book in his broken Hindi:
• Look deep into her eyes
• Say yes if she offers you a glass of milk
• Praise her beauty, her eyes, her moles (if she has any)
• Tell her you would like to hold her hand
• If she says yes, tell her how soft her hands are
It's been seven years since we have known each other. We have moved to different cities. We have taken up new jobs. I have mothered a child. He has become a grandfather.
Yet whenever we meet, Paul aka Prakash opens a new window to my own country. A new perspective that sometimes makes me feel like a tourist in my own land.