"I have girlfriend. I ask her to marry me many, many times. But always she say no."
Tara, Matt and I made collective sympathetic noises. We were in a taxi on the way into Amritsar from the airport and the driver, Shubha, was proving to be something of a talker. After the usual interrogation about where we were from and what we thought of India, we had moved on to Shubha's own life. He was proud to be the only one working for his taxi company who could drive foreigners - "because only I am speaking English any" - so "I get the bigger tips, yes?" (the last with a hopeful sideways glance at Tara, who had the front seat).
Shubha's love life, though, clearly was not going as well as his business. So why, Tara politely enquired, had his proposals been rejected?
"Her family do not approve. They think is bad marriage. Because we are related."
There was a pregnant pause, punctuated only by the sound of Matt's foot hitting mine in the back seat as we exchanged a "did you hear that the same way I did?" glance. Tara, to do her credit, managed to carry on the conversation with only a slightly strangled tone.
"Oh...so, er, that's considered...a problem then?"
"Yes," Shubha said, sadly shaking his head, "in India is not considered good for relatives to marry."
"Oh. Um. Yes, that doesn't really happen in England either."
"Really?" Shubha perked up momentarily at this apparently surprising news, then slumped back into gloom. "I will never marry another. I will stay alone and I will keep asking her to marry me. When I am 70, if she needs me - I will be there."
None of us had the nerve to ask the question we were all thinking about: exactly how related were they? And Shubha looked so disconsolate about it all that we didn't really have the heart to push him further on the topic. He brightened up a bit when we changed the subject to the World Kabbadi championships, which were happening in Punjab at the time and in which India had just, unsurprisingly, trounced England.
Our encounter with Shubha may have been a trifle disturbing, but it was nothing compared to the auto rickshaw driver who picked us up outside the Golden Temple to take us back to the hotel the following day. What seemed at first to be a natural exuberance and cheerful disposition quickly transpired to be something verging on the lunatic - even for an Indian auto driver. With a grin permanently plastered on his face, he merrily weaved at full speed in and out of the traffic, looking mostly at us through the mirror rather than at the road, occasionally taking his hands off the wheel to salute passing friends. There was a maniacal glint in his eye that had me convinced, as we were thrown around in the back like puppets, that we might not make it back to the hotel alive.
We passed a roadside stall which particularly seemed to delight him. Pointing at it, he leaned back to face us (entirely failing to notice that he'd come within a whisker of flattening a stray dog) and yelled excitedly: "Bhang! You know??!"
For those who don't know (as I didn't at the time), Bhang is a cheap and potent intoxicant made from cannabis, which is legal and popular in India and is frequently consumed in a drink colloquially known as a bhang lassi. Matt, who's a bit more versed in the ways of India than I am, knew what our driver was talking about, and asked (understanding beginning to dawn) if he himself ever frequented said stall.
The driver gave a wicked laugh and said "Twice a day I am going! One in morning, one in evening!"
"So...you've already had one today then?" An elderly lady in a faded sari flattened herself in terror against a wall as our rickshaw careened across her path.
"Hahahahahahahaha! Yes! Very good! I have one half an hour ago!" And on we rocketed, bouncing from one side of the road to the other, while our chauffeur continued to laugh in delight at our discomfiture.
I will never, ever, criticise Delhi auto drivers again. They may drive like nutters, but at least they are not usually high as a kite when doing so.