The air smelled of burnt rubber.

That was the first thing that Smita Agarwal noticed as she stepped out of the cool, rarefied air of the airport and into the warm, still Mumbai night. The next instant, she recoiled as the sound hit her – the low rumble of a thousand human voices, punctured by occasional barks of laughter and shrill police whistles.

She gaped at the sight of the wall of people, standing behind the metal barriers, waiting for their relatives to emerge. She wondered if the old Indian custom of entire families converging to drop off travellers still prevailed in 2018, but before she could complete the thought, she felt her throat burn from the smell of exhaust fumes and her eardrums thrum from the blare of the cars just beyond the waiting crowd.

Smita stood still for a moment, cowering just a bit. She travelled more days of the year than not, her foreign correspondent job taking her around the globe, and yet, barely a few seconds into India, and already the country was overwhelming her, making her feel as if she had been hit by a force of nature, a tornado, maybe, or a tsunami that swept away everything in its path.

Her eyes fluttered shut for a moment, and she again heard the lap of the waves in the Maldives, the paradise she’d left hours earlier. In that moment, she hated all the weird confluence of events that had brought her to the one place she had spent her entire adult life avoiding – the fact that she’d happened to be on vacation so close to India when Shannon had desperately needed her help, that Shannon’s contact had procured her a six-month tourist visa in a matter of hours. Now, she wished his effort had failed.

Get a grip, Smita thought, echoing the stern talking-to she’d given herself during the flight. Remember, Shannon is a dear friend. A memory of Shannon making Papa smile during the dark days following Mummy’s funeral flashed through her head. She forced herself to cast the image aside while peering through the mob, hoping to spot the driver that Shannon had sent.

A man stared back at her brazenly and pursed his lips in a suggestive pout. She looked away, scanning the crowd for someone holding a sign with her name on it while reaching for her cell phone to call Shannon. But before she found her phone, she saw him – a tall man in a blue shirt holding up a cardboard sign emblazoned with her name. Relieved, she walked over to him. “Hi,” she said, from across the metal barrier. “I’m Smita.”

He looked at her, blinking, confusion on his face.

“You speak English?” she said sharply, realising that she had asked him the question in that language. But her Hindi was rusty, and she felt self-conscious using it.

The man spoke at last, in perfect English. “You’re Smita Agarwal?” he said, glancing at his sign. “But you were not supposed to get here until...The plane was early?”

“What? Yeah, I guess so. A little bit.” She looked at him, wanting to ask where the car was, wanting to get out of the airport and into the Taj Mahal Palace hotel at Apollo Bunder, where, she hoped, a long hot shower and a comfortable bed awaited her. But he continued staring at her, and her annoyance rose. “So? Shall we go?” she asked. He snapped to attention. “Yes, yes. Sorry. Sure. Please. Come around this way.” He motioned for her to walk toward a gap in the barricades.

She passed the boisterous, squealing reunions that were occurring around her, the profusion of kisses bestowed on the faces and heads of teenagers by middle-aged women, the extravagant bear hugs with which grown men greeted one another. She looked away, not wanting to lose track of her driver as he pushed his way through the crowd toward an opening.

On the other side, he reached for her carry-on suitcase, then looked around, puzzled. “Where’s the rest of your luggage?”

She shrugged. “This is it.”

“Only one bag?”

“Yup. And my backpack.”

He shook his head.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” he said as they resumed walking. “It’s just that...Shannon said you were Indian.”

“I’m Indian American. But what does that...?”

“I didn’t think there was an Indian anywhere in the world who could travel with only one suitcase.”

She nodded, remembering the tales her parents used to tell her of relatives traveling with suitcases the size of small boats. “True enough.”

She peered at him, puzzled. “And you are...Shannon’s driver?” Under the glow of a streetlamp, she caught the flash in his eyes. “You think I’m her chauffeur?” She took in the blue jeans, the stylishly cut shirt, the expensive leather shoes – and knew she’d made a gaffe. “Shannon said she would send someone to pick me up,” she mumbled. “She didn’t say who. I just assumed...” She took in the bemused way he was looking at her. “I’m sorry.”

He shook his head. “No, it’s okay. Why sorry? Nothing wrong with being a driver. But in this case, I’m a friend of Shannon’s. I just offered to pick you up since you were arriving so late.” He flashed her a quick half smile. “I’m Mohan, by the way.”

She pointed to herself. “I’m Smita.”

He waved the cardboard sign. “I know. Same as the Smita on the placard.”

They laughed awkwardly. “Thank you for doing this,” she said.

“No problem. This way to the car.”

“So, tell me,” Smita said as they walked. “How is Shannon doing?”

“She’s in a lot of pain. As you may be knowing, the hip’s definitely broken. Because of the weekend, they couldn’t do the operation. And now they’ve decided to wait a couple more days until Dr Shahani gets back into town. He’s the best surgeon in the city. And hers will be a complicated case.”

She looked at him curiously. “And you’re – you’re close to Shannon?”

“We’re not boyfriend-girlfriend if that’s what you mean. But she’s my dear friend.”

“I see.” She envied Shannon this – as the South Asia correspondent for the paper, Shannon could put down roots, form friendships with the local people. Smita, whose beat was gender issues, was hardly ever in the same place for more than a week or two. No chance to stay in any place long enough to plant the seeds of friendship.

She glanced at the suitcase that Mohan was carrying for her. Would he be surprised to know that she kept two other identical bags packed in her New York apartment, ready to go?

Mohan was saying something about Shannon, and Smita forced herself to listen. He mentioned how frightened Shannon had sounded when she’d called him from the hospital, how he had rushed to be by her side. Smita nodded. She remembered the time she’d been laid up with the flu in a hospital in Rio, and how isolating it had felt to be ill in a foreign country. And that hospital was probably paradise compared with this one. Although Shannon had been covering India for – How long had it been? Three years, maybe? – Smita couldn’t imagine her having to undergo surgery alone in a strange country.

Excerpted with permission from Honor by Thirty Umrigar, Swift Press.