Morning arrives and I am back at the fire drinking chai and chatting with Dadaji, Jerry’s grandfather. These mornings remind me of when I would visit Sage’s mom on the land she lived on. We would meet outside the building where the kitchen was, sit around the table, and talk over our coffee. Sometimes we’d talk about the news, other times we’d talk philosphy. Today Dadaji and I are talking about personal philosophy and our nature. We agree that we should always be learning our whole lives, every chance we get. Being curious and kind is also important. And, Dadaji adds, always try your best. I really like listening to him speak because he speaks slowly and with gravitas, giving every word the maximum importance. I might have guessed he was a teacher if Jerry hadn’t already told me.
After chai it’s time for breakfast and then it’s time to run out the door. Jerry has a plan for us to go to Jhunjhunun, the district capital where he has more family. We run out the door, briskly walk down the road and then wait at an unmarked intersection for the bus. If I didn’t know anyone here I would never be able to find my way around.
Soon we hear a tootling horn in the distance. The bus is coming. This horn lets us know, and also those who might be relaxing inside houses nearby that they need to get out for the bus. When it pulls up, I am surprised. Nobody has boarded yet and already it is as full as the most full Toronto bus I’ve ever been on. Two people get on before me and Jerry tells me twice to get on – as if there is space inside. Where will I sit? Then I understand. I get on, walk up one step and hold on. The bus starts off with Jerry just inside, one foot on the bottom step and hands on the railings. Slowly, slowly we push our way inside as people get more and more cozy with one another. Teenagers sit on their grandfather’s laps, and every space is minimized between us. I am holding on to the luggage rack above the seats and contorted a bit but somehow not only made it inside but half way down the aisle. A man with a wad of cash makes his way up the aisle, asking each of us for our fares. Jerry pays both of ours: Rs.25 ($0.50 Canadian) each for the one hour or so journey to Jhunjhunun. Jerry asks me if I want to ride up on the roof. The word “no” comes out of my mouth and I almost instantly regret it – that would’ve been fun. But it’s too late, we’re underway.
Off we go and music starts. There’s a pretty decent sound system on the bus. Jerry laughs and says that when we’re all crammed in like this, the music makes us happy because it feels like we’re in a movie. I can’t disagree. I am transported to another world.
A few people talk to us and others point out the ‘videshi’ (foreigner) on board. I’m not bothered – after all, Jerry tells me I’m the first foreigner to visit this village.
More and more people board and miraculously they seem to fit in. But then, as we get closer to Jhunjhunun the tide begins to go out and soon Jerry points out a seat and I take it. The man next to me starts talking to me in English. When I meet an English speaker I have to temper my desire to practice my Hindi and give them a chance to practice their English – and so our conversation becomes a mix of both of our languages. He is from a village near to the one we left and is on his way to Jhunjhunun to work. In the seat on the other side of him a toddler looks at me. I sometimes wave and she turns her head away. “I wasn’t looking!”
We arrive in the city at the main bus stand. Buses are everywhere coming and going. People are shouting their destinations and horns are honking and tootling as they try to make their way through the crowds to leave. We pass through a market where vegetable sellers chant a list of what they’re selling: “Aloo, matar, gobhi, gajar” (potato, peas, cauliflower, carrots,” over and over while his neighbour chants “moong phali, moongphalimoongphalimoongphalimoongphali” (peanuts peanuts peanuts) while sitting behind a mountain of fresh roasted peanuts, a smoking incense stick burning over them to keep flies away.
We get to the autorickshaw stand and Jerry talks to the driver. We jump in the rear-facing seats and ride across town. Jerry tells me that these autos only charge Rs.10 ($0.20 Canadian) per person regardless of distance. We go through the centre of the city and then out the other side in to the outskirts.
We reach a big house in the village where his bua ji lives. (Jerry’s father’s sister). He lived with her while he studied in his last few years of high school. I’m introduced to her and we sit on the porch together and talk. She tells me that her husband passed on several years ago and now she lives mostly alone though other relatives often come and stay.
After everyone leaves, Jerry and I sit inside and talk. He asks me if I can come back with my family in March for his sister’s wedding. It isn’t the first time I’ve been asked. He has asked before as have most other members of his family back in the village. I tell him that as much as I would love to have our families meet, I am going to be so busy. The project I’m on, I tell him, will be so busy that I might not even get some weekends off during 2020. I tell him that, in fact, my original plan was to come to do this bike ride in November of 2020 as a 50th birthday celebration but by then work will be so busy it will definitely not be possible. He is disappointed but understands.
Another relative comes by with their young daughter Sunaya. Like the toddler on the bus, she is also simultaneously curious and wary. The family asks them to wave and shake hands with me but she is having none of it. I tell them it’s OK, she will see me when she’s ready and she goes off to spend time with Bua ji.
Lunch is brought over and it’s another delicious feast. As always dairy products feature heavily. Though I am lactose intolerant I make an effort to eat what I can. It tastes delicious but I will pay for it later. Still, it is so much a part of the culture that even when I mention that my doctor says I should eat less dairy, the meaning of “less” is still more than I probably should be eating.
Today’s lunch is delicious: Dal, vegetables, curd, red chili chutney (they always bring me a lot because I enjoy it so much), sooji ka halwa (a sweet made from cream of wheat), buttermilk, yogurt, and fresh roti with ghee. It is all delicious and every meal is more than I can possibly eat and still more is brought and put on my plate as I eat. It will be impossible to leave the table hungry. I feel a little bad for what I leave, despite there physically being no physical space in my stomach to put it. But what I don’t eat won’t be thrown away. It will be given to the cow (or buffalo when in the village) and some will become tomorrow’s milk, or dung to fertilize the fields or heat the water for washing..
I’m really surprised to note how much difference is possible with milk. I tell people here that back home milk tastes just like “milk” to me, yogurt like “yogurt” and so on. But here, there is a huge difference between the milk from the cow in the city and the milk back in the village. There’s a difference in fat content and even flavour. The milk from the village has noticeably more fat and a delicious earthy/smoky flavour.
When I finish it is almost time for Sunaya and her mom to leave. They come by to say goodbye and we try to get a picture of the two of us together. They sit her down on the charpoy next to me and she seems OK with it. Then Jerry takes out his camera for a photo.
This is perhaps my favourite photo of the trip so far. Jerry has a real talent for capturing moments not just in video but in still photos.
When the photo is done we sit for a bit but then when I look down at her she holds out her arms to her mom to be picked up. She’s curious but not curious enough to stay. I wonder if she’ll remember the time that strange person came to visit when she is older.
Now well fed, Jerry says “Let’s go” and we get on a scooter and ride across town to the Rani Sati Temple. It’s the biggest temple in India devoted to Rani Sati, a woman who lived sometime between the 1400’s and 1600’s. There are many stories but all involve a battle of her husband with the king’s son over her husband’s beautiful horse. Her husband is killed and she fights the king and kills him. Once that is done she commands the horse’s caretaker to make arrangements for her to be burned along with her husband at his cremation. (Sati). More of the story is here and still more about Rani Sati is here. After that it was said that they told the caretaker to let the horse walk, and where he stopped, there they would build a temple.
This story brings up an important point for me about how it is as a foreigner to visit India. Not everything will make sense to our value system. The idea of a woman burning herself alive with her husband seems extreme and for it to be celebrated is impossible to grasp. It seems so different from our own culture’s stories and though Wikipedia describes it as celebrating the strength of women, it’s hard not to see it as something else.
At the same time, I have to recognize that this is only a piece of the culture – one I’m not able to fully understand and there are so many other pieces that do make sense and are positive. It’s very common in our current world to give up on a person or group based on one aspect of their personality or culture. I think doing so is short-sighted. Making a judgement of a whole group of people, and every aspect of their lives based on a few stories I heard out of context would be wrong. For me this is a lesson to take home to my own life – to be more open to others with whom I disagree on some points without simply discarding them from my life.
The temple is massive inside but photography is not permitted for much of it. After passing the armed security guard, we enter another courtyard. There we can leave our shoes and visit the rest of the temple. In this first area are many rooms that are available for travelers and pilgrims. Each costs only Rs.300 ($6) per night. I’m told they are simple but good. A canteen is available for the lodgers and a dhobi is available there to take care of clothes washing. There is everything one needs for one’s stay – which is good because many many people come from all over to visit.
We go in to the next room to the temple proper. In the main temple we all file in. There’s a bit of a backup as everyone slows to ring the bell as we enter. A little boy jumps a couple of times to try to reach the bell but isn’t having any luck. Jerry reaches down, picks the boy up and lifts him up so he can ring the bell.
We pay our respects at the temple and then move out of the way. There are many people here along with us and I’m told that they’re here for marriage blessings.
Outside there are more temples for several other gods and we pay our respects there as well. Finally, as we exit we take prasad. This is a blessing in the form of food with different temples providing different foods and some temples being famous for how good their prasad is. Here the prasad is kheer – warm rice pudding. We take ours, go outside and enjoy it.
When we walk back to the scooter, two small children come up. They are begging. Now that my Hindi is better, I’m able to understand what they’re saying and it’s heartbreaking. They’re hungry, their younger sister is sick and their father has left them. At the same time my friends have told me not to give money to beggars. So I’m conflicted. But Jerry has the obvious answer. He tells me to wait by the bike and off he goes with the kids. When they come back, the kids have food. “OK, let’s go.” Jerry says.
We only stay back at the house for a few minutes before it’s time for another trip on the scooter. This time to another Bua ji’s house. We sit outside and talk. As we sit I notice two neighbours on their front porch watching and smiling, and two more neighbours on the balcony above them doing the same. Chai is brought out and while we drink several more people join us, more of Jerry’s relatives as well as the neighbours who were watching earlier. I’m fielding questions from all sides now, some in Hindi, some in English. I find the local accent, or maybe the vocabulary, or both a little challenging to understand but Jerry is there to help. One of Jerry’s uncles is a teacher and he may be the most earnest person I’ve met. He tells me with great conviction how glad he is to meet me. He’s still looking for a government job but is happy to tell me that though he married a little late, he now has two beautiful children.
The weather is getting cooler and I’m invited inside. I go in the sitting room with everyone and chat with them. The teacher’s sons, one almost two and the other almost five are on the floor in front of us. One of the uncles is reading an alphabet book with the youngest. He points at the photo next to the letter P and the boy says “Mor” and then “Peacock”. The five year old is writing out the numbers between one and two-hundred in a notebook. Their dad and uncle are working with them, not pushing but making it a game as much as possible. I remark that it is always good to see kids having fun learning – learning when they think they are just playing.
Bua Ji is back with us and has lots of questions about Canada. Many are the same like what food grows there or do we have cows or buffalo of our own? (No, we live in a small apartment 400 feet off the ground. There’s no room for cows). Then she asks an uncomfortable question: “How much did the plane ticket cost?” This one was very expensive due to the fact that I changed it at the last minute and it is the Christmas holiday season. I tell them: “Almost 1.5 lakh (150,000) rupees” (Nearly $3,000 CAD). They are shocked and I am embarrassed. That is so much money here that someone could live simply for months. Jerry told me earlier today that I could rent a nice house in Jhunjhunun for Rs.5000-8000 ($100-160) per month. I don’t really know what to say so I say as little as I can.
Soon we make our way out and the kids have stopped playing and are now on little toy cars, pushing themselves in circles as we say our goodbyes. The older one bumps in to me and I laugh and start to chase them. “Pakad lunga!” I say as I laugh. “I will catch you!”. The boy laughs harder and chases his younger brother. The three of us laughing together as we run in circles around the room. The other adults are laughing now also as they film us.
Now it is time to go and Jerry and I get back on the scooter. Some of his cousins are coming back to the house with us on a separate motorcycle and they accellerate off in to the distance. We’ll catch up with them later.
The night is cold and peaceful. The streets are nearly empty. As we go back to the house, Jerry points out the school which he went to when he was here. He tells me that they had such a strict master in the hostel watching over them that they were never allowed to do anything. Some nights, though, they would knot their sheets together, put them out the window and climb down from the third floor. We ride further and he points out a marriage hall. “Some nights we would climb out the window and come here if there was a wedding. Then we would eat delicious food. The food in the hostel was not so good.”
When we get to the house, Jerry’s cousins are there. Jerry tells me I can rest in the room now and goes out to the sitting room with his cousins. Five minutes later I hear Jerry: “Todd, come here!”
I go to the sitting room and everyone is smiling and looking at me. On the table is a cake with candles burning on it. Jerry says “You said you wanted to celebrate your 50th birthday in India and so we’re having a surprise pre-birthday party for you!” Then they all sing Happy Birthday to me and then I cut the cake. He tells me that the tradition is for me to then take a piece of cake and feed everyone a bite. I go around to everyone and when I come back to Jerry, he’s there waiting for me with a piece of cake of his own. He feeds me a bit and then smears cake and frosting on my cheeks and forehead. “It’s another part of our tradition.” he says.
He then asks me how I’m feeling. I take a deep breath so as not to cry and make my frosting run. I tell him “This is the very first surprise party I have ever had and I am so happy. (Deep breath) I am so happy and blessed to have such such great friends.”