It was with glee that I realised I'd booked my ticket from Hyderabad to Chennai a day too late; I checked the timetable and found I wasn't due to leave until seven o'clock in the evening. Having already exhausted Hyderabad's main attractions, I moved onto its next claim to fame, its food. According to the locals, Hyderabad invented biryani, that gorgeous combination of fragrant rice and vegetables that's so popular in England, and even if this is stretching the truth, they've certainly mastered the dish. Chicken biryani never tasted so good as in Hyderabad, and I decided to spend my extra day by tracking down the best restaurant in town, the Paradise Garden Restaurant, and parking myself there for an extended lunch. God, it felt good.
But it wasn't just excellent cuisine that my midday splash furnished me with; it also provided me with much food for thought. Seated opposite me in the distinctly middle class dining room – where most people spoke Inglish over their hors d'oeuvres, and a few even spoke English – were two well-dressed and well-pressed young men. Inevitably, as it always does in India, the census chatter gave way to the subject of money: how much did my ticket cost, did I find India cheap, what did my job pay?
'Tell me, what would be a good wage in London?' one of them asked.
'Hmm. Well, I guess a decent wage would be £20,000 a year. You could live in London pretty comfortably on that, and even more comfortably if you lived outside London and commuted,' I replied.
'What do you earn?'
'Hard to say, really. I'm a freelancer, so my earnings aren't fixed. That's the price you pay for such a pleasant lifestyle. What do you two do?'
'We are programmers. Cobol.'
'And you work here in Hyderabad?'
'Yes, but we have been offered jobs abroad. We can go to London and earn £36,000 in a year there.'
I sucked in my breath; that was nearly double the salary of the job I'd quit to go travelling. 'Wow! I'm in the wrong job...' I said.
'But we go to America instead, me to Kansas and my friend to New Jersey. The wage there is US$50,000 per year.'
'I think you'll find you'll probably manage on that...' I volunteered, wondering how to consolidate this with the beggars dying a slow death in the septic sewers of the city outside.
The flip side of the coin turned up in a conversation that invaded my privacy as I wandered the two hours back from the restaurant in Secunderabad. He just appeared; one minute I was enjoying a peaceful stroll past the Hussain Sagar, and the next I was answering census questions once again.
'Where you from?' asked the young man, who introduced himself as Rumi Siddqui. He had a clean, folded handkerchief in one hand with which he constantly wiped his lips and dabbed his unshaven chin. It was a faintly disturbing sight that was more suited to an obese and sweating man twice his age.
'England,' I said, not exactly keen to become embroiled in another Inglish conversation.
'Yes, I suppose you could say that.'
'I am Muslim. How old you?'
'Twenty-seven. How old are you?'
'And are you married?' I asked.
'No. But I always look after girls. You know any girls in England who want to marry an Indian? Can you bring me to your country and find me an English girl? Not many English girls come here.'
'Er, no, I don't think so. If an English girl wants to marry an Indian, there are plenty in England to choose from, you know. We have lots of Indians in England.'
'I am interested in travel, like you I think. Can you help me to get to your country? When you are home, can you talk to someone to help me?'
'I'm afraid it doesn't work like that. You have to go through the embassies and get visas and stuff. I'm no use at all.'
'You perhaps go home and send me a visa.'
'I don't think so. There's nothing I can do. About all you can do is emigrate, or marry an English girl.'
'Your girls at home, they are easy, no? When you ask for fuck, they give fuck?'
'Hell, no!' I said, a bit miffed at the turn of conversation. 'That's just what you think, watching all those stupid American films and soap operas. If you really want to know why English girls don't come here alone, it's because the locals think they're only after one thing and keep going up to them with such subtleties as, "Do you want a fuck?" Women in the West are far from easy, take it from me.'
'But they wear many flesh, much short clothes? Always showing off and flirting?'
'Well, they don't exactly wear burqas, but no, they don't show any more flesh than the women in Singapore, for example. Besides, every Indian woman I see shows off the flesh round her waist, and women in England don't really do that. Then again, Indian women always wear sarees down to their feet, while western women show off their legs more. Two different areas of the body, two different approaches, but no real difference. Muslim women are different, but Hindus aren't really.'
'But all your women have AIDS, right?'
'Are you kidding? There's more AIDS in Asia than there is in Europe and America. Have you ever been to Bangkok?'
'Hmm. I hope you do not mind me talking like this about your country. I try to find out, and often I am mistaken, for which I apologise.'
'You have any brothers?'
'Yes, one brother and a sister.'
'Ah, one brother.'
'And a sister.'
'Yes. A brother. What does he do?'
'He's a lawyer.'
'And my sister's a student.'
'Your brother is a lawyer. That is good.'
'Do you have any brothers or sisters?'
'I have four brothers. They are all engineers and one is going to America.'
'And do you have any sisters?'
'Four brothers, yes.'
'No, do you have any sisters?'
'One sister, but she's married. Four brothers.'
'Four brothers. I see. And are you an engineer too?'
'No, I start work as a motorcycle courier on Friday.'
'Ah, so you're going to be one of those crazy biker-men, eh!'
'Yes. See over there, that's traffic police headquarters. There many bad people pay big money for not having insurance or licence.'
'I have no insurance or licence either.'
'But you're about to become a motorcycle courier!'
'I avoid police, then. We go in here and have tea, yes? It is good to be talking to you.'
And so, on it went. I put him right about a few more misconceptions about the West – we're not all rich, we don't all shoot people, we don't all have extra-marital affairs, and we don't all eat cows and pigs for every meal – and I politely tolerated his Islamic sexism; in return I learned a lot about Indian perceptions of the West, and I bid Rumi a warm goodbye with a promise to send him a postcard on my return. He at least deserved that, especially as he'd refused to let me pay for the tea...