Amid the madness, a touch of humanity

I'M on a train to Mumbai, warm wind rushing through open windows as nearby passengers lean over to watch my laptop.

The screen flickers and lights up to show my husband and two sons, in our Melbourne home, casually bare-chested before a wall of books. For them, their iPad blinks up with the interior of an Indian train carriage, and my boys see men in white kurta pyjamas asleep on bench seats, and chai wallahs passing up the aisle, followed by men selling ice-cream and omelets and idli. They see barefoot kids who snatch empty plastic bottles to recycle, and the young couple opposite me, well-dressed Indians from Mumbai, who wave at the computer. Out the windows, small Hindu shrines flash past, with rubbish and mountains and a train station where people carry suitcases on their heads, no hands.

Twenty years ago I travelled alone around India for six months, and I collected mail in three places. In this 10-day trip, I use Skype, Facebook, Twitter, email, text and mobile phone calls to communicate with home, and within India. I see Indian labourers with one hand balancing a bucket of bricks on their head, the other hand holding a mobile phone to their ear. I see slums with rows of satellite dishes on collapsing roofs. Twenty years ago I stayed in $1-a-night dormitories; this time hotel rooms with televisions offer me another window into India. Many channels have singing and massed choreography; there are ads for home loans and mobile phones and face cream.

Twenty years ago India was, for me, like being dropped on another planet. Technology and rising wealth have brought change since then, and yet so much is as it was. The whisk of twig brooms in the morning. The smells: cardamom and incense and rubbish and diesel and jasmine and urine and woodsmoke; a stream of olfactory commentary about every street you traverse. The women's long, black hair and gilt-edged saris in deep blues and pinks and reds. The barefoot holy men, the elephant god shrines bedecked with wreaths of flowers. The broken pavements and the wearying dust and the endless honking horns of traffic. Temple carvings, some so old we don't even know who created them.

And the incredible food, best eaten by hand. I steal glances at one Indian uni student in a restaurant; she eats her thali with the tips of her right fingers, making it look neat and elegant while I suspect I look like I'm in a sandpit. I remember a meal 20 years ago with a family down south, watching a toddler expertly roll balls of rice and curry and flick them into his mouth, and I wonder where that grown-up child is now.

Twenty years ago I was asked continuously by Indians: ''Married? Children?'' And there was consternation when I was not. This trip, the main question is: ''How much was the ticket from Australia?'', and if I mention my husband: ''What work does he do?''

Twenty years ago my trip was open-ended, and I would spend more than two years wandering the world before coming home, not a thing to consider except my own selfish whim. This trip, to attend a conference, is 10 days long and every precious day I feel my children's impatience for me to return, and my own to see them again. Sentimentally, I take the same blue backpack out of which I lived two decades ago. After 10 days of carrying it, my back is wrecked.

At my conference on language, literature and culture, one speaker says we love literature and art for the surprises they offer. The repetitive routines of our days kill emotion, and art counters this by mimicking our life, but deviating from it in startling ways that give new perspective on the ordinary. Travel is like this, too - we love the exotic, the new twists on what we know as life. But within the foreign, I find I'm most touched by the reminders of how much we humans are alike.

One day I'm in the middle of a busy road, nervously awaiting a break in the stream of cars, motorbikes, buses and rickshaws, and I see a fragile little old woman in a faded sari also waiting nearby. Finally she sidles close alongside, peering up, about the age of my mother, who died last year. I sigh inwardly, thinking she's going to ask for money, like half a dozen other people have done today already, but whatever. Let's get off this road before we're killed. I offer my arm and she puts her tiny hand in mine and emboldened by our new partnership, we shuffle timidly into the craziness. We dodge and stop and rush and weave and make it to the other side together. And on the pavement she turns her eyes up to me and says clearly, ''Thank you,'' and walks away.

''No, thank you!'' I call after her, and an Indian man who has watched us smiles at me, and suddenly I stop feeling like a freaky Western tourist doing everything wrong, and I feel, just for a moment, like a member of the human race.