Miranjit Khapur, a brick maker in the slums of Nagpur, surprised friends and family by giving up the security of a stable 16-hour-a-day job, a standpipe within an hour’s walk, and two sheets of corrugated iron over his head to go on ‘a spiritual journey’ up and down the A roads of Britain with all of his belongings on his back.
‘It was the crass materialism of India that got me down,’ says Khapur. ‘On every street corner, it seemed, there was a poster urging you to buy something, often featuring a young model with a bare midriff and toes sticking out all over the place. I know it’s a cliché, but yes, I came here to find myself in that mystically evocative land of middle England, which is why I am currently crashing at a Premier Inn in Stevenage.’
Like many from the Indian sub-continent, Khapur struggled to adapt to Britain in the first few weeks. ‘The conspicuous wealth was shocking, of course, but sadly in the end you just screen it out. But on the plus side, the temples are so old and atmospheric, unlike the gaudy concrete dens of noise at home and the British are not nearly as rubbish at cricket as I had been led to believe. The conditions they make people put up with on the railways is frankly beyond the pale, mind.’
With his visa about to run out, Khapur is hoping to extend his stay. Rather than take the easy route of teaching Gujarati to evening classes of council outreach workers, he hopes to do some voluntary work among the dispossessed street kids of Stevenage, many of whom aren’t even allowed a plasma screen TV in their bedrooms.
‘I miss India sometimes, but I feel that my spiritual destiny is here in Hertfordshire. These poor, deprived people need me,’ he says. ‘Mind you, some of their customs really are hard to take on board. Do you know when they come back from Disneyland, they don’t even have to use cows’ piss and shit to purify themselves? How weird is that?’