My camera crew was filming in the dry riverbed of the Yamuna river and I was standing near a beautiful woman on the bank, just the two of us, a little way apart, watching a gang of barefoot children playing cricket, and I was trying to think of something to say to her that wouldn’t seem creepy. I say she was beautiful but that’s not enough: she was impossibly, perfectly beautiful, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had smiled at me once but we hadn’t spoken. I wasn’t even sure she knew English.
Beyond the kids playing cricket, the sun was setting red behind the Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest marble monument to love, the white gleaming declaration of Shahjahan’s unending adoration of his lovely wife Mumtaz: a teardrop, the poet Rabindranath Tagore said, trembling on the cheek of time.
I glanced at the woman on the bank beside me. Soon it would grow dark and she would turn away into the dusk and disappear forever. I had to say something to her, but what? What?!
Then one of the kids wandered up. He was maybe 8 years old and even he could see that this was the world’s most beautiful woman. He stared at her, his mouth hanging open. I thought, “You’re not wrong, kid.”
He stared at her some more, and then he turned to me and said loudly: “What is your wife’s name?”
And that’s when I realized that I’d been searching for this moment all my life.
One of the reasons we travel is to find those moments that never happen at home: those points at which all the strands of experience momentarily intersect: beauty and strangeness and luck and timing and wonder and magic and grace, all touching at the same time. Or perhaps those moments do happen at home, but it’s only when we travel that we’re sufficiently alert and attuned to the world to recognize them.
As I stood there, I thought about how much serendipity went into creating this moment: a beautiful stranger; a crimson sunset; the Taj Mahal; a group of happy children; a flight of storks passing to their evening roost, white wings washed red and gold in the last light; the day’s heat easing to giddy coolness, and now – gifted from the universe – a small, sweet child giving me the perfect opening line.
“I don’t know,” I said to the kid, then turned to the beautiful stranger with my best smile, hoping I didn’t have spinach stuck in my teeth from that palak paneer at lunch. “What is your name?”
She laughed and said, “I am Valentina.”
Could there have been a more perfect name? She was Slovenian but spoke perfect English, lightly accented the way a chilled Sauvignon Blanc on a hot day tastes like lightly flavoured sunshine. She was traveling through India on her own, wearing traditional dress to discourage unwelcome male attention.
“Please,” I said, “tell me if this male attention is unwelcome.”
“It’s very welcome,” she said. Her eyes were a clear, bright green.
She told me she was studying for a Masters in English literature. Her great interest was South African literature.
I stared at her. “I’m from South Africa.” I said.
“My favourite writer is JM Coetzee,” she said.
“JM Coetzee supervised part of my Masters degree,” I said.
She stared at me and I stared at her. I heard the distant thrum of traffic and a cheer from the kids as a wicket fell. She must have wondered if I was lying. I was definitely wondering if she was lying, because surely JM Coetzee is no one’s favourite author. And then we both knew that the other was telling the truth, and that we had somehow fallen into a fairy tale of serendipity.
It was a dream. We talked about books and traveling and being lonely and looking for connection in a world full of strangers. She laughed at my jokes and I laughed at hers. She told me that she was leaving on a bus to Fatepuh Sikri early in the morning, so she was eating dinner at the Kamal restaurant and staying in a cheap hotel near the bus station. I told her that my camera crew and I were leaving early in the morning for Delhi, and then home. Now it was a bad dream: we might never see each other again.
The crew had wrapped and had to leave for the hotel. We shook hands goodbye and her hand was slim and cool and her green eyes caught every particle of sunlight still drifting through the dusk. I walked dazed to the minibus and slouched in my seat and stared at the traffic with unseeing eyes.
What did it mean to have met such a person in such a way at such a moment? Think of everything that needed to align, to coincide, to coalesce. What luck, what serendipity was this? How could it not mean something? How could it not mean everything? Surely this was the most important moment in my life yet here I was in a minibus in rush-hour Agra traffic, inching further and further away from my destiny.
The hotel was a couple of kilometres away, which means ninety minutes in Indian traffic. As soon as we arrived I ran back out into into the street and waved down a tuk-tuk. “Take me to Kamal restaurant!” I gasped. “Hurry!”
“There are three Kamal restaurants,” said my driver.
“Take me to all of them!”
My driver’s name was Rajiv and I think he was fourteen years old. He was a fellow who understood fate and necessity. When I explained what was happening his face lit up like a leading man in a Bollywood movie hearing the music for the happy ending. “Yes!” he said. “We must find her!”
He gave a whoop and steered us straight into the oncoming traffic, which parted around us, honking and hooting and yelling. We were a salmon swimming up a river of metal.
“Rajiv!” I shouted. “We’re on the wrong side of the road!”
“Quicker like this!” he yelled over his shoulder.
It was all a roar of headlights and horns, the dark night, the rush of fear. “We will find her!” shouted Rajiv. “Or we will die trying!”
“No dying!” I yelled.
“We will find her!” shouted Rajiv.
I closed my eyes and felt the hot metallic night air on my face and surrendered myself to a universe that seemed to know better than I.
“Kamal restaurant!” yelled Rajiv, forty-five minutes later.
I ran in. I ran out. We plunged back into the traffic.
Forty minutes later I ran into the second Kamal restaurant. Also empty. Rajiv’s jaw set with determination.
Half an hour later I ran sweating into the third restaurant. The waiter said there had been a European woman in a headscarf who ate at the window table. I searched the table for a clue. Had she wistfully carved her cellphone number into the tabletop with her fork? Written her email address in lipstick on the window? Nothing.
“Rajiv! Is there a low-cost hotel near the bus terminus?”
Rajiv looked at me fearfully. There were at least two hundred low-cost hotels near the bus terminus.
After the sixth or seventh hotel I wanted to give up. There is only so much you can do in pursuit of your own destiny. But then I remembered the extraordinary serendipity of that meeting, the perfection and symmetry of it. I thought of the story we would tell our grandchildren.
An hour later, exhausted, hopeless, lurching like a zombie, I heaved my way into the umpteenth shabby hotel lobby. It was dark and narrow and the receptionist was a tall gentleman with kind eyes and a moustache like a pair of ragged sheep.
“I’m looking for a guest,” I mumbled. “She’s Slovenian, with eyes like sunshine sparkling on a green sea …”
He waggled his moustache and looked pointedly over my shoulder. I turned.
“You found me,” she said.
Shyly, we went to the bar next to the hotel. I bought a beer and she had a Coke. We sat and I looked into her eyes and she looked into mine, both silently marveling that our lives had brought us to this place. And just like that, at the same time, we realized that actually we didn’t have a thing to say to each other.
I suppose moments of perfection are perfect precisely because they are moments. Serendipity is magic enough – why ask for longevity too? We sat an awkward half-hour, making small-talk at first and then lapsing into uncomfortable silence, and then I said I’d better get going, and she said yes, she’d better get going too because she had an early start, and we shook hands again but it wasn’t electric this time and then I went back out to Rajiv who was still waiting with his tuk-tuk.
“Yes?” he said eagerly. “Yes?!”
Then he saw my face, and he became solemn and nodded thoughtfully.
“Well,” he said, “it was an adventure.”
Kulula inflight magazine, February 2019