It felt as though I would never get there.
India was somewhere that had been calling to me for such a long time, in such a consuming away that it was almost painful. I had longed for India like someone who had been cruelly torn from their lover’s embrace, and all I wanted was to be there.
It all started with Shantaram.
Before I took the 900-plus paged tome in my hands, India had been on my list of places to go, but I didn’t ache to be there. I watched Slumdog Millionaire and was excited by the country and its people, but I was sure it was somewhere I would visit, and didn’t lose any sleep over it.
I was first handed the book that would change me forever as I sat in the front seat of A’s little Polo one freezing winter night in Dublin. My friend passed it to me from the back and I remember the way my open palm dipped under its weight. She had previously told me that the writing in it was beautiful and that she thought I should read it. I was intrigued, but at that moment, all I thought about was how I was going to fit yet another fat book into my already dangerously heavy backpack.
Little did I know the effect that book would have on me.
When we first took off on our adventure, A was actually the one carrying Shantaram. I had the Lonely Planet, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, and about four other books in my bag. An insane amount, I know, but as a giant bookworm I feared running out of reading material like an alcoholic fears that last trickle left in a bottle, and the way that it clings to the bottom, one last sip to never be released onto a tongue that is aching for its nectar.
But then, one day in Phnom Penh, I opened its pages and instantly fell down a rabbit hole into the expertly spun imagination of Gregory David Roberts.
Bombay grabbed me and entered my soul, and it never left.
It pulsed through my veins and wrapped itself around my heart, so that the pumping of my blood seemed to chant ‘India’ on a loop, as I tried to continue on with my life as I had done before. Before Shantaram, before India and before Bombay.
Suddenly, as I travelled around Cambodia, my favourite place that I had been to in Asia, the urge to go to India was overwhelming.
Reading Shantaram, I felt as though I had found a book that was written just for me. The only thing I could compare it to was when I first read Are You There God, it’s Me Margaret? at the angst-ridden age of 12, and was amazed that books could be so honest.
I vividly remember sitting in an old wicker chair on the wide stone balcony that wrapped around our accommodation in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. My feet resting up on the hard and cool grey balcony railing, Shantaram pressing its weight gently onto my thighs as my neck tilted towards it like a swan dipping for food in a slow-moving canal. The sound of the relentless rain barely registering in my mind as I smiled to myself and savoured Robert’s artistic way with words. It rained for most of our time there, which made it acceptable to spend my days sitting on that balcony, my mind a million miles away, as the rain beat down on the beach below.
I consumed it with a fierce hunger and the smiling relief that a book-lover feels when holding a sufficiently large book in their hands. Knowing that you are free to binge-read in the knowledge that there is no danger of finishing the book in one night is a luxury, but, at the same time, you know that no matter how long it is, soon the last page would come.
It’s funny, but the way I felt reading Shantaram was exactly how I felt when I was finally in India; euphoric and joyful, yet with an unshakable feeling of horror at the knowledge that soon I would have to leave this place, and leave my heart and some of my soul behind.
It felt like it took me forever to get there.
As I waited impatiently for India, I watched Slumdog Millionaire with a racing heart. The colour and life flashed before my eyes, my imagination was realised on the screen. I went to see the Best Exotic Marigold on my own one night, in the sleepy town of Keri Keri, New Zealand, as I simply couldn’t wait one more night for my friends to come with me. As the beauty of Jaipur played out on the screen, I felt both delight and a tear in my eye as I longed to be there.
It took three years after opening that first page of Shantaram. Three years of feeling a flutter of panic every time I thought of India. Three years of fearing that I would never get there, and that I was missing out on so much by being everywhere else. New Zealand and Australia at times seemed so hideous in comparison to the magic that was India.
Three years after falling in love with a place I had never been to, finally, finally, it was my time to be there.