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.
JANUARY 10, 2009, CONTINENTAL FLIGHT 83, SEAT 34L: Northerners know that particular silvery light of the winter moon on snow; how a scene can look both dark and perfectly illuminated. The Boeing 777 has reached 30,000 feet. Beneath us, the jagged wall of the Himalayas rises from Kashmir and joins the snow-swept Tibetan plateau. Crisply detailed, the glaciers, peaks and arid plains of the highest land on Earth hold such shocking beauty that it leaves me breathless: How do I say farewell to India?
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.
JUNE 2008, E. MORROW LEBEDEFF HALL, NORTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY: A poster of a bejeweled dancer leapt out from a bulletin board as I breezed by. Even in my rush, I could swear I saw the flutter of the dancer's red sari. I turned back to read the invitation to join a Study Abroad Cultural Tour of India, a collaboration of three universities on a two-week exploration of the cultures and crafts of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi and old Delhi.
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.
NOVEMBER 26, MSNBC-TV: It is a day now known in India as 26/11. Back in Fargo, through the small window of my television, I watched the news of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. In the fear and confusion, the State Department suggested that Americans might be targeted for violence. By the time our study group departed, it had shrunk by more than half. The six of us who remained were all from NDSU - three staff, two retired staff and one professor. Travel plans were precarious through Christmas and right up to 24 hours before the flight, giving us plenty of time to fret. As friends and family worried about my safety, I worried more about the thousands I was spending. I am not a courageous person, but for some reason I have never feared bodily harm - at least not until my first ride on an Indian highway. Now, as this trip became real, I clung to the inspiration of my Sikh name, given to me by a great yogi when I earned my teaching certification. I was called Ranbir Kaur, or "princess who is victorious in battle."
No matter the risk, I couldn't forfeit the chance to know India.
DECEMBER 28, NEW DELHI, INCENTIVE DESTINATIONS MINI-VAN: We arrived well after dark, claimed our luggage and were claimed in turn by a handsome young guide whose quick-witted negotiating skills would smooth several of our journeys. We were greeted with garlands of marigolds and roses, then buttoned up in a cozy van that featured white linen slipcovers and a steady supply of cold bottled water. Eager for our first glimpse of India on the drive to the hotel, we peeked through the window curtains only to find ourselves gasping as motorcycle riders, carrying sari-clad women sidesaddle, darted through traffic with bare centimeters to spare.I dropped the curtains and chanted mantras for safe arrival.
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.
NEW YEAR'S DAY: We travel across the state of Rajasthan, from Jodhpur to Jaipur, through desert, farmland and mountains. Women work with bent backs in fields of mustard, fenugreek and chickpeas. Men sit in circles at roadside cafes, drinking tea and arguing politics. Old-fashioned red Massey-Ferguson tractors, festooned with glittering tassels, haul impossible loads of goods and people.
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?
JANUARY 3, THE ROAD TO AGRA: It takes an eight-hour drive from Jaipur to Agra to discern the pattern, but traffic ceases to be a high-voltage carnival ride. We relax and see details in the passing scenes. A village, lifeless except for the ever-present dogs, is home to a hundred people we see gathered at the side of the road a mile down the highway. It's an open-air town meeting, apparently to plan a community improvement project at that site.
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.
DRIVEWAY OF THE RAMADA PLAZA INN IN NEW DELHI, THROUGH THE VAN WINDOW: On our first morning in India, as we prepared to fly to Jodhpur, a young girl tapped at the van window then tapped her mouth: "I am hungry." Inside the van, we looked away. We have been warned against giving money to beggars, who might be pawns working in organized rackets. But I trembled with the effort of avoiding the girl's eyes. She wore a grimy tattered shift, and had just one arm. I fumbled with the window latch and handed her 10 rupee - about a quarter. She smiled and won another 10 rupee. Our guide gave me what became a familiar scowl.
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.
JANUARY 8, VARANASI, ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES: When that poster fluttered its invitation to me last summer, it was Varanasi that beckoned. Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world according to Indian scholars. It is built on the ruins of older cities that stretch to the dawn of time. It is sacred to Hindus as the home of the god and goddess, Shiva and Parvati, and to Buddhists as the home of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha after his enlightenment. There's more of everything here: more beggars, more holy men, more sellers, more dirt, more temples, more soldiers, all swirled together in a spicy blend that had me constantly tasting the air.
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.
JANUARY 10, 2009, SEAT 34L: My seatmates are sleeping. I close my shade and click through 437 photographs. Every digital impression peers into another culture, but also into myself. As we leave, we are eager to return to the privileges we take for granted, abundant toilet paper and water treatment plants high on that list. We carry back trinkets and pictures to share with friends and to sustain our memories. Of course, we are clutching at glimpses. India is much more than the six cities we visited; each city is more than its tourist attractions. Yet through the gauzy windows of our little van, the symmetrical archways of palaces and the eyes of our new friends, we see our own lives in fresh ways. We fell in love, and eventually we fell back to earth.
FEBRUARY 2009, THROUGH MY KITCHEN WINDOW: Moonlit snow in Moorhead, Minn., lacks the surreal quality of India from 30,000 feet. The intensity of my Indian adventures has had a chance to cool and integrate. There is no money tree rising through the frozen ground of my back yard. But I nurture the seeds of many stories and that is enough. I have always prided myself on my sense of adventure and was humbled to learn that I am more homebound and less flexible than I believed.
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.