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No cows were harmed in the production of this blog: Week 15: Blogging for survival

Knee deep in the smoky water of the Ganges they sieve through the earthly remains of every body cremated here. There are teams of six, working in shifts around the clock. Scooping, sieving, flushing, scouring. Their job is to collect the jewelery of the dead. It belongs to the owner of the Ghat. It is the work of the untouchables. Except they don’t exist. Anymore. They say.  

Our jeep hurtles along a dusty outback track. Attempts are being made to seal sections of these roads. By hand. It is women who do the bulk of this work. The dry horizon is dotted with saris in every colour. Labouring in 45 degree heat with baskets of rubble on their heads. Their job is to pave the way of the future. The future that belongs to all people. Because the caste system doesn’t exist anymore. They say.

Returning from a night of feasting, our guide insists on stopping for a Jaipur delicacy at a road side stall. Our tuk tuk pulls over and he jumps out. I move to follow him and see that next to the stall is a small child, naked, sleeping. She is vulnerable and unprotected. His foot lands precariously close to her tiny form. I recoil, hiding in the shadowy darkness. Wrapping my sadness and indignation around me. Because this doesn’t happen where I come from. Anymore. They say.

I’m in the modest kitchen of the Gurdwara Sikh temple in New Delhi. Volunteers move around me. Stirring, chopping, mixing, rolling, serving, washing, measuring. Working. Without clamour, a mountain of food is being prepared and served. It is aromatic and nutritious. I ask how many are fed here on a daily basis. 20,000. Per day. I ask again. I cannot comprehend the arithmetic of this generosity. Because this doesn’t happen where I come from. If 20,000 people needed feeding in one day we would declare a state of National emergency.

And then I’m striking a deal for a beautifully embroidered kurta. It’s a well choreographed dance. He sets an astronomically high price and I say ‘I got two for less than that elsewhere’. He asks me where. I name another Indian city. He says ‘it’s different here’. ‘Not so much’ I say. ‘People are still people. Everyone is still trying to get by’. We move out of the temporal momentarily. ‘Ah yes’, he says, and nods his head. ‘But it’s not really about the money is it’? And he eyeballs me. ‘It’s about the dignity of the exchange’. And I nod my head and say, ‘yes, it is different here’.

And I’m losing my place in the dance. Because like Marion Milner says “Everything that one thinks one understands has to be understood over and over again, in its different aspects, each time with the same new shock of discovery.”

And I’m shocked. That doesn’t happen where I come from.

This train is bound for glory: Week 14: Blogging for survival

Overnight train from Varanasi to Agra. Going to sleep with the memory of the haunting ghats and waking to the anticipation of the Taj Mahal. Our little band of travelers quivers with excitement. We have been advised to bring our own food onto the train. The journey will be long. The food inconsistent and of dubious quality. We ask the hotel. They make us good food to go.

I cradle my carefully packed falafel and fruit salad during the tuk tuk ride to the station and guard it from harm as we push through the throngs on the platform. As we wait for our train I nurse a feeling of ‘I’m just so pleased with myself right now’. Having negotiated the physical and emotional territory of India during my journey I feel that really, I can rest smugly on my resilience and probably spend the long train journey writing a blog about how I have ‘found’ myself in India.

Our group is a source of curiosity. A little theatre within the larger drama of public transport. People watch us. We watch our bags. The gods watch the trains. And I watch my falafel. One of my travel companions has been valiantly attempting to get a mental foothold on the family tree of the Hindu gods. All 3 million. I wonder which one is present today.

We all turn towards each other, forming a loose boundary. Staking our little bit of personal space. Space that we have no claim to. In India. Space that we surrended when we chose. To travel. To ‘meet the local people’. ‘To see the real India’. Space that we each cling to. In our own way. Mine is in the shape of my falafel. Everything could go to hell in a handbag, but it’s OK. I have my supplies.

One brave soul makes a border crossing. Standing next to me in a green sari asking for something. Quietly and insistently. I feign indifference. And deafness. I avert my eyes. The epic horror of giving money to one needy person in India and being trampled to death on a train station flashes before me. She continues to ask. Only me. I continue to look away. And then she takes my hand. Gently. It’s the law of love. Compelling you to turn to those that touch you. She is beautiful. But her hands are a disaster. Burned and clawed. She isn’t asking for money. She needs food.

The falafel moves seamlessly from my hand to hers. She makes a small sound of pleasure. There is no stampede. One million starving kids don’t run me down looking for falafels. Life moves on.

Later we board the train. Indians are excellent travelers. They can make themselves into whatever shape is required. Compacting life into a cameo. And yet we struggle with our bags, ipads, travel blankets and sanitisers. We create impasses wherever we stand. Desperately seeking space and not finding it. Seizing it from others and not meaning too. Trying to share and not knowing how.

The night passes. Along with the many vendors. Bearing tray after tray of aromatic and exotic delights. Masala tea and enticing snacks. Offerings from the 3 million gods. Who are surprisingly alive and well. Riding the trains of India. And blessing the food. And the people. Even the silly ones. Who bring their own falafels.

Joy. India in Four Acts. Act One.

I am the last person in the immigration queue.

“What are you doing in India?” “I’m here to see a friend” “What friend?” “Anil” “Anil who?” “Anil the policeman” “You don’t have a friend who is a policeman in Mumbai!” “Yes I do!”  Jeepers, where has this guy been? Doesn’t everyone in India know Anil?

“OK then, where are you staying?” “At a hotel”  “What hotel?” “The hotel Anil booked for me” Audible sigh and major eye roll from the immigration officer “OK, OK, where did you meet this Anil the policeman?”   “In Bangkok.  Of course”

Clearly struggling he decides to have one last go at establishing at least one verifiable fact. “Who is your favourite cricket player?” “I don’t like cricket” I think I have him on the ropes now as his eyes go wide with horror and I see the dawning understanding that I am less a risk to national security than to his equilibrium.  He stamps my passport. “Just go now”. I happily trot off. I am safe and self assured in the knowledge that when I exit into the moist heat of this Mumbai Sunday my friend Anil will be there to greet me. And he is. He strides towards me with the joy of the world bursting around him. If I can bottle this moment I will have enough happiness to last until the next super moon rises in the Mumbai night sky.

Next thing I am in the backseat of the car with Anil’s youngest boy Sunny and it is like joy in stereo. Father and son seamlessly filling the space with questions, observations and all round isn’t it good to be alive type energy. I look out at what could be the setting for an action movie. Cars, taxis, auto rickshaws, motorbikes and people converging in waves and wonder out loud if my driving skills would pass muster in the Mumbai traffic. As I send a little wish heavenward for that to happen, Anil turns and gives me the Anil smile.

By the time we reach the hotel Sunny has ascertained that I know nothing useful about cricket, wrestling, computer games or auto rickshaws and sets himself the task of giving me helpful bits of information. At one point in the afternoon, quite unsolicited he says, “My Dad is his Mummy’s favourite” and it is clear to anyone listening that in Sunnys mind the logic of that particular truth is incontrovertible.

During the afternoon I start to glimpse the treasure that is my friend. His family are busy preparing for their annual holiday to Pune however they take the time to welcome me into their home with a bounty of love and kindness that blows apart my staple diet of Anglo Australian emotional anorexia. I’m struggling to find due North with my inner compass, overwhelmed as I am with the touching and gentle attentiveness I am being given. I joke and say “if you were a guest in Australia, we would make you go to the kitchen and wash your own dishes”, they all laugh in disbelief and I die quietly inside. It’s that moment when the rawness of my cultural grace deficit rubs. Ouch.

One by one the neighbours drop by, to greet me, to meet me, to bless my time in India, to share a moment. Anil and his family are the centre of this world. Or maybe love is the centre of this world and they are all drawn into it through the simple acts of everyday life, living close to one another and filling their lungs with the very stuff of community. It’s all so mysterious. My Australian backyard keeps me immunised against this kind of closeness and I feel the familiar whip crack in my insides. It’s the homesickness I don’t feel when I travel.

Tonight Anils family will leave by overnight train for their two week holiday. He will stay in Mumbai. It’s OK for about 3 days he says, and then the house feels very empty without them. I think about how I met him and the three months of separation spent in Bangkok studying. I am starting to understand the enormity of the sacrifice they all made and wonder about the lonely offices of peace.

Enter Khodi. Mr. Interesting. Motorbike riding, street dog feeding, philosopher on life and the universe. He appoints himself my guide, caretaker, mediator and taxi for the days to follow. Before I know it, I have agreed to a sunrise tour of Mumbai on the back of his bike the next morning, sans helmet!

Evening arrives and with it Khodi and the motorbike. And the helmet. I have been invited to farewell Anils family at the train station and Khodi will be my India- in- all- its- beauty- and -chaos experience interpreter. He is very gallant but I wonder how hard it could really be getting myself to the station and finding the right platform. I’m reasonably able. Maybe he thinks my cultural ineptitude goes beyond the emotional terrain, maybe he thinks I’m intellectually failed as well? By the time I have had this conversation with myself we have arrived at the station. I need to hold his hand just to get a ticket to the platform. Finding the platform is another journey again. It’s like paying the ferryman to cross the river Styx. Without Khodi, I would be Mumbai train station mincemeat.

The farewell feels disproportionately sad. The sounds of Mumbai swell around me and in me. Maybe I am tired? Maybe I have said too many goodbyes? Or maybe these are people I think I could love and I am grieving for the loss of that possibility. Or maybe it’s because I am with Anil. And everywhere he goes, love follows.

To be continued………

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