Windows into India
It is a little after midnight, shortly after take-off, and the flight attendant asks us to close our window shades. We will be traveling along the path of the sun as it rises to our right, and the glare might disturb sleeping passengers. The heavy fog that had plagued our tour group for the last two weeks still sits on the city, and the lights of New Delhi blur into a smear as the plane climbs. My vinyl shade slides smoothly shut. I don't like feeling closed in, but I manage to comply for about 45 minutes before melancholy and curiosity overwhelm obedience. I edge my shade up and peek out.
Five days earlier, my companions and I were touring religious sites in the ancient and holy city of Varanasi. We rode in bicycle rickshaws at dawn, wrapped in our warmest layers, to see devotees of the Hindu God Shiva bathing in the Ganges River. We walked among dozens of stupas, or shrines, at the site of one of the first Buddhist monasteries, and watched as thousands of maroon-clad monks prepared for a visit from the Dalai Lama. Our last stop of the day was at the Bharat Mata, the Mother India Temple, a quiet refuge where five pillars converge into one, representing the five elements - earth, air, water, fire and ether. It was inaugurated in 1936 by the Father of the Nation, the Mahatma Gandhi, as a shrine to peace as well as to a beloved land.
Inside the temple stood a modest statue of Mother India, represented as a beautiful woman. But it was the altar that captured my attention - a room-sized, three-dimensional map of the Indian subcontinent and Tibetan plateau, hand-carved from white marble, inlaid with onyx, and perfectly scaled both vertically and horizontally.
Now, gazing out the airplane window, it is that carving I see below me, a living map. And I can only wonder: How did those master carvers know in the 1930s what this land looks like from five miles above under a full moon?
The idea of India had enchanted me since I read my first book about yoga 31 years ago. My mental album was filled with the media snapshots of grinding, ubiquitous poverty. But it also held gauzy images of enlightenment, the belief that the touch of a holy man would put me on the path to goodness in ways other disciplines could not. After a childhood of Sunday school, and an adulthood of yoga, I had come to believe that one cannot visit India without experiencing some profound transformation. When I finally had the chance to travel there myself, I jokingly told friends I wanted mine in the form of a money tree, a bower of security waiting in my back yard upon my return.
But of course it doesn't work that way. Instead, I found my enlightenment in a series of moments, glimpsed through a series of windows.
I was less than four months into a new job. How could I justify time off for such a personal yearning? Yet the poster would not be denied. It was as if a window had opened, beckoning me to venture outside my assumptions and to dare to discover reality. Maybe to dare enlightenment.
Maybe to dare learning that enlightenment is an illusion.
No matter the risk, I couldn't forfeit the chance to know India.
Days later, after traveling by prop plane, midnight train, elephant, bicycle, pony, rickshaw and our own good feet, that little white van had become a container for our experiences and a tranquil home. The window curtains mostly stayed open, offering a view of daily life, both rural and urban.
Halfway to Jaipur, we pull into a village rest stop with clean western-style bathrooms. I wander off to shop. I buy postcards and an antique pillow cover in faded pink. Rounding a corner, I see a woman peering at me through a gap in a low wall. I smile. She smiles. I step closer. She bids me to enter and soon I am sitting on the dusty ground, conversing through smiles and nods rather than language. She splashes water into a shallow bowl of pale yellow flour. I snap photos. She kneads and pats the dough into a roti, and cooks the flatbread over a wood fire.
A teenage boy appears and scowls at me to leave. I don't learn the woman's name or speak her language, but I know we talked about what it is to be mothers raising teenage sons. Is it foolhardy to step off the expected path, to believe you can wander into a stranger's home and make a connection?
At the edge of this same small village, we bow and nod as we watch elementary school students sing the Indian national anthem. We peek into classrooms where students sit on individual floor rugs instead of at desks. We admire the children's artwork along the walls of an open-air hall.
Back on the van, we talk:
"What is the most surprising thing you've seen?"
"What has the most meaning?"
"What do you dislike?"
As India flies by outside our windows, we try to capture our relationship with it.
What is romance? What is real?
We see construction projects everywhere. No orange markers or heavy machinery. No hard hats. Just steel pans on the heads of women carrying rubble, stone or brick to and from construction sites. Our guide tells us that when the government doesn't supply the infrastructure, people build it themselves. We see that play out through the windows of our van: here a road project, there a carefully calculated excavation to catch rainwater. Men in dirty white dhoti dig with shovels and pickaxes; children break rock with hammers; women walk gracefully under heavy loads, their saris splashing color across the dusty landscape; girls circle with water jugs and cups. The pace is steady but unhurried. I think, "This is how we've worked for thousands of years; how we can work when machines fail us," and it comforts me.
In New Delhi and Gurgaon, pickax brigades work side-by-side with heavy equipment. Bamboo scaffolding gives way to sturdy metal armature. Military surplus tents, patched and faded, cluster along boulevards and in vacant lots. I assume they house the homeless. It takes time to see another story: these are temporary shelters for construction workers, not unlike those for migrant workers or roughnecks following work in the U.S.
We see the great office buildings, the call centers that have lured jobs from the U.S. We glimpse the new Indian middle class and see evidence of great wealth in the palatial homes, each gated and guarded by unsmiling men in crisp uniforms.
But mostly we focus on traditional crafts and traditional ways: hand-tied rugs, block printed fabrics, blue pottery, tapestries woven on ancient looms with gossamer threads. For all the chaos of traffic and construction, the people we meet are kind and patient whether they are explaining their arts, helping us cross a street or selling us flowers. Yet we can't ignore the other reality of India: hunger and poverty that may have no equal. As Siddhartha found riding from his father's castle for the first time, sometime before 400 BC, there is no escaping the suffering in India.
India is the second largest country in the world. Its economy is only now rebounding from years of conflict and colonization - just as a global recession threatens to undermine that progress. But the gap between rich and poor remains extreme. And a temperate climate allows the poorest to survive on the streets, making them more visible through the windows of the West.
Two weeks later, as we load to leave for the airport and our trip home, the same girl taps on the window of the van. This time I ask and learn her name is Munji. She is older than I thought, perhaps 15, maybe 20. We chat in gestures and a few shared words. She grins and backs up so I can take her picture, then waves as we pull away. All the way home, and even now, I wonder what Munji, an untouchable in Indian society, could do with a little financial support - some micro-credit. I wonder if she goes home with her face tired from smiling at tourists all day.
Shopping here becomes another window, as does bargaining. India has the highest density of retail shops of any country in the world - more than 15 million - 95 percent of which are in stalls or on the streets. (The U.S. has about 900,000 stores with a market that is 13 times larger in terms of value.) In India retail provides the most jobs after agriculture, mostly through tiny, family-owned shops. The progression up the economic ladder climbs from beggar to trinket seller, then to a cart or a blanket on the street, then a stall fitted with overhead doors that are padlocked at night. Tourists are encouraged to bargain and to spend, and so we do - some with care and some with abandon. I am the abandoned one: soft-touch sensualist who cannot get enough of the fabrics, scents and tastes spread before us.
One shop owner snorts when I say 250 rupees - about $5 - is too much for a canvas bag. "You people, all you ever say is 'too much,' " he grumbles. Is he gaming me? I walk on, feeling embarrassed and defensive. Then I realize: the shop owner, too, is a window, one with a view into ordinariness. For us, this is an exotic adventure. For him, it's another day at work. He will go home with sore feet and a headache from dealing with tourists. I return to his stall and pay the Ru250.
I am no more able to deny the beggars of Varanasi, especially the women and girls who carry babies whose bloated, malnourished bellies serve as a further persuasion. Through the van window, I again speak without shared language to a woman who begs with a toddler and a teenage girl. They are harassed by a group of boys who call them "dirty" and "ugly," and chide me for talking to them. Finally, the girl spits on the ground to show her disdain for their insults. Then she and the older woman smile for my camera, trying to cover their black and missing teeth. I give them a little money. Our driver walks back to shut my window and draw the curtain.
I hope to go back to India some day and spend more time, perhaps a year. But I know that even if we travel openhearted, hoping for epiphany or transformation, the view of another culture is screened by our emotions and deeply rooted beliefs. I had only a little glimpse of India and it changed me - or so I hope. We can't live another's life, but can't we dare to enrich our own by trying to understand others? Look as closely as possible at someone else and you will see yourself. That's what happened to me. Windows are for illumination, for seeing out of our safe places so we can choose to risk the world beyond the glass.