In November 2005, I took a trip to India. I was 30 years old and I'd never visited the country before, despite having a south London childhood that I can only describe as half-Western, half-Eastern.
My father was a Christian but my (white) mother loved Indian culture, so The Bible and The Bhagavad Gita jostled next to each other on our bookshelves, and I was brought up to treat my health problems with Ayurveda – of a more authentic kind than the branded variety you tend to find in shops selling fancy bubble bath.
For years I'd been planning to go to India, yet never got round to it; invitations popped into my inbox, but there always some commitment that held me back.
Then in 2005, I met a writer and experienced a wild love affair of such intensity that it burnt me through even before it ended and broke my heart. I practise meditation (another Indian quirk from my upbringing) which normally keeps me calm, but my lost love had turned me into an uncharacteristic nervous wreck, sleeping three hours a night, my inner compass whirling from one direction to another until I found it impossible to make even the simplest decisions. So I decided to escape. I booked a flight to Delhi.
Everyone I know who visits India returns recounting such diverse experiences that it seems they are talking about entirely different countries. Some do drugs in Goa; some find spiritual joy in ashrams; some eat dodgy curries and come back as quivering skeletons, having lost three stone. From the moment I stepped off the plane at 3am and got into the back of a taxi, I fell in love with the country. I was staying with some friends who ran a hotel in Delhi and when I entered they greeted me by putting garlands around my neck.
A lot of the Britons I met there were suffering from culture shock. One complained how appalled he was by the roads pitted with pot holes, where cows strolled at a languid pace and rickshaws veered and jiggled around them. But I felt far more at home in Delhi than I ever had back in England, whether in genteel Surrey or thriving Manchester. I felt my heart repair and heal.
When I came home two weeks later, I had culture shock in reverse: there were too many cars in England, a severe lack of cows, and everyone seemed so harsh compared to the warmth of Indians.
India is a country where you cannot really maintain a sense of privacy – you feel constantly invaded, pulled into interaction with every moment, but there is a much stronger sense of being part of a whole. India had changed my heart – though it took an unexpected incident to make me realise how.
I found myself standing in a taxi queue late one Saturday outside Morden Tube station. A drizzle was falling, the wind was icy and the pavement was pock-marked with cigarette butts. An old man in the queue started talking to me. He sounded as though he was drunk, his speech a slur of words.
Before India, I would have ignored him and politely edged away. But that night I realised that India had changed my heart, dissolved boundaries, softened a certain shy stiffness in me.
I looked into his wizened face and saw beauty and amusement in his eyes. I offered to share a taxi. As we slipped into the back, a female passerby told me off for taking a risk with a stranger; even the taxi driver gave me a concerned glance.
It turned out the old man couldn't speak properly because he had throat cancer. My offer to share a taxi with him made him as merry as though he'd drunk 10 beers.
We talked about India and he told me how he'd travelled there as a young man and had never forgotten the surreal experience of standing on a beach and seeing an elephant, decorated with silver, lumbering casually past. A girl standing nearby had been enthralled by the sight, too; they'd struck up conversation; within a year they were married. They had stayed together for the past 50-odd years.
He kept thanking me for sharing the cab and saying how he couldn't wait to tell his wife about the girl who'd offered to share his taxi, and behaved as though the roads of Morden – long, grey, suburban – were Parisian boulevards.
It was the most magical taxi journey of my life and though I only met him for 20 minutes, when I said goodbye, it felt as though I was shaking hands with family, with a long-lost grandfather, and I felt a great love for the eccentric, funny old man I'd risked sharing my cab with.
Sam Mills is the author of 'The Quiddity of Will Self' (Corsair)Reuse content