India: Sometimes tough …and sometimes touching, beautiful and overwhelming

August 2008

In the afternoon we moved into another house, followed of course by the usual crowd of faithful observers. There was no more room left in Baba’s brother’s place. Seven children, Baba’s brother and his wife, a pregnant cousin, the dying grandfather and an aunt who had come to take care of him were already occupying all available space.

Patio life

Patio life

Our new “home” was at a Brahmin’s family house, Baba referred to them as uncle and auntie. In India you don’t have to be physically related with someone to have a big family, it’s more kind of a how you feel towards the other person matter. Because of that you can actually have countless brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts.

I loved that house from the beginning. It had a spacious open patio around which the living area was built. In the middle of the patio was a deep well, which looked like the ones you see in horror movies, a water pump and a lovely puja place. The house was completely plastered with the typical mix of clay and cow dung, which made it look pretty comfy. Besides the uncle and auntie, the grandparents and four bigger kids were living there. The three girls were extremely beautiful. I have to say that I was generally amazed by the beauty of the village women.

The toilet

The toilet

Puja and Shilpa who were twelve and thirteen years old became our personal caretakers. They would follow us wherever we went with their palm tree fans to alleviate us from the sizzling heat. First Pagli and I felt pretty embarrassed about that, but they did their job with so much love and dedication that in the end we really ended up appreciating it. It was also truly comforting that they had a “toilet” which was actually a mere hole in the ground inside of the cowshed with some bricks on each side; BUT it was a private space with a door you could close behind you, a fact that I highly appreciated after my crazed action earlier that day.

At some point the people who did not directly belong to the household left for lunch, Baba went somewhere on a mission with the men of the house and finally we were asked if we would like to have a shower. Pagli and me wrapped a pareo around our bodies and stepped out into the patio. In India it is a common thing to take a shower with something covering your body; while men shower openly everywhere under public water pumps in underpants riddled with holes, the matter is a bit more complicated if you are a woman. The girls were pumping water for us into a bucket from where we then scooped water over our soapy bodies with a jug. The mud floor became pretty slippery and after I had finished with the bathing ritual and wanted to leave the patio, I slipped and almost fell. I managed to hold on to the wall and ended up with a huge piece of it in my hands. The grandmother appeared and I apologized:

“Sorry, Mataji! I think I broke your house!

She started laughing and made me understand with a gesture that there was no need to worry. If you are used to take a shower in private and don’t have much practice with the Indian way, then it’s pretty much of an art to get rid of all the soap from under the cloth. I guess my technique was especially poor; a couple of hours later I was covered with a nasty, itchy rush.

We westerners soon discovered our private Kingdom of glory:

THE SIZZLING HOT ROOF TOP

We escaped there from time to time to have a smoke and a bit of rest from the crowd. There we would sit for a short while motionless like lizards in the frying heat, but the few moments of peace were worth the suffering. Every time we went there Puja and Shilpa followed us until the steps watching us from there with horror and shouting

“DON’T GO UP THERE, YOU WILL GET BLACK !”

Getting black is one of the biggest fears of Indian women. The TV ads are full of skin bleaching products and if you go through the dating services in the newspapers (which by the way is a fabulous time pass), you will find a lot of emphasis put on the fair complexion of the bride. The world is a strange place; in the west people fry on the beaches to get sun-darkened and here they want to be as white as possible…

In the evenings though everybody would gather on the big roof top,  well actually only the women and the kids would join us there. They really seemed to enjoy that the westerners were women, too. This made them have something special that was not meant to be shared with any men. We sat there for hours, trying to understand jokes and to have conversations, singing songs, holding small babies in our arms and having kids sitting on our laps. It felt like having been adopted by a tribe of amazons and even if it was a bit trying at times, it was an amazing experience!

Our beautiful caretakers

Our beautiful caretakers

Suddenly a cracking sound filled the air. Then a squeaky voice of someone talking through a speaker could be heard.  We realized that there was a great number of speakers hanging on posts all over the village. The voice started singing and the someone played the tabla. Shortly after, a harmonium and more singers joined in.

Eventually Baba showed up and we finally got the chance to find out what was going on:

The villagers were doing this every single evening since his grandfather fell sick. Actually they were doing Kirtan to pray for his soul

…TOUCHING, BEAUTIFUL AND SIMPLY OVERWHELMING !

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Trouble in my Bubble

July 2007

My wonderland bubble was about to burst!

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The town was getting crowded; pilgrim season had started. Each year people arrive from all over the country to pray on the shores of the Ganges, visit their Gurus in the Ashrams and to offer holy water to Lord Shiva in the Neelkanth Temple. The bridges leading to Ramjhula and Laxmanjhula were so crowded, that crossing them could easily take more than half an hour.

For a foreigner this season can become kind of annoying. There are many villagers among the pilgrims, who probably never saw a Westerner in all their life, not even on T.V.

To leave the guesthouse for a cup of chai, turns into a challenge. Once you are out on the street, Indian women point at you giggling and groups of young fellows look at you in most uncomfortable ways whispering behind your back. It is not a good idea to get yourself into posing for a souvenir snap. If you do so, you will be expected to stand there for hours, because the entire group also wants at least one shot with a smiling Westerner. In the meantime a long queue with more pilgrims is waiting for their turn. Indians can be really persistent and it is almost impossible to break out of the situation without getting rude.

If you did not give up and eventually made it to the chai shop, you will probably be sitting in the middle of a lot of young male pilgrims, who will be staring at you constantly without even blinking. To us this might feel pretty uncomfortable, but staring is actually not considered impolite in India. As a foreigner you turn automatically into the center of attraction. It is irrelevant what you wear or what you do and it doesn’t make any difference if you are just sitting there doing nothing or if you are performing a hula dance; people will just stare. Feel free to do the same, there is no need to feel shy if you want to find out more about an unusual situation that attracts your attention.

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Another fact is that if you have spent a longer time in Ramjhula, you automatically become part of the local society and its gossip. Sometimes it is better not to understand Hindi, I guess.

I was pretty surprised, when several strange Sadhus approached me in a funny way to give me some unasked spiritual advises about how to reach illumination and telling me stories about their superpowers. Each time the encounter ended with this guideline, referring to my Baba:

“This Baba no good, you take care! You better no meet!”

Actually they wanted to convince me that hanging out with them instead would be much wiser and they were more than likely trying to woo away a Western sponsor.

Things are really not easy when you (are a woman and) befriend a Baba in Rishikesh. The police was constantly annoying us. Some said that their duty is to protect the female travelers from getting into trouble, but my impression was rather that they tried to make life impossible for us to get some baksheesh out of the situation. The police would stop us on the street and sternly insist that I was not allowed to go along with this Baba. We were not even doing anything wrong or unmoral such as holding hands or kissing in public.

The police even appeared out of nowhere to make trouble when we were just sitting at a chai stall with friends or playing an innocent game of LUDO together with a couple of Sadhus in the shadow of a tree. I started to wonder if they were spying on me. I tried to convince them that I am a grown up and may walk with whoever and wherever I wished. This did not impress them much and they even threatened to beat Baba up or to put him into jail. I wondered with which reason they would imprison Baba. But if they really wanted to do so, they would probably invent any silly motive. I already had learned that the Indian police doesn’t waste much time with talking, they don’t hesitate to pull out their clubs and proceed to the so-called “Bamboo-massage”.

Eventually we ended up walking on the road separately to meet up somewhere later on. What happened to our freedom?

All the signs were pointing to the same direction:

The time had come to move on!