As usual I wake up before the sun and hide underneath the two heavy blankets, waiting for it to be late enough that there will be a fire. Outside I hear the morning activity with Jerry’s mom, sister, and aunt out doing the morning chores, tending to the cows and buffalo, starting fires for cooking and wash water heating.
At 7:00 AM I leave my blanket cocoon. It’s about 10 degrees outside and maybe 12 inside. If nothing else, this trip has made me realize just how much we count on our central heating for comfort. In a few months Torontonians will see a 12 degree weather forecast and cheer at how warm it is, but it only feels warm when we have our 22 degree refuge in which we can live and work. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to live on the Toronto streets year round where temperatures can drop to -20 and feel even colder when the wind starts to blow. I step outside and the fields look magical – they are filled with mist. It must have rained a little bit last night.
The fire is going and as usual, a clay pot called a matka is sitting on top, warming the water for Rajneesh’s pre-school bath. A chair is brought out for me and I sit by the fire. Sometimes I sit alone, sometimes Jerry’s uncle comes. At one point I am alone and Jerry’s grandmother Dadi ji comes over. When we first met she heard me speaking Hindi and turned to her son, laughed and said “I can’t understand a word he says.” And, in fact, it was equally difficult for me. Her accent was different than I am used to and her language mixed with Marwari. Over the course of my time there, we talked from time to time when we’d meet outside. Slowly, slowly we learned to understand each other.
Dadi ji goes away for a moment and comes by with two small cups of chai. Instead of leaving as she often does, she squats down by the fire next to me and tends it contemplatively. I watch her hands competently turn the fire from embers to a roaring warm fire for both uf us and I’m reminded of Sage’s mom who would do the same thing, gone for nearly ten years now and I miss her terribly.
After some silence, Dadi ji speaks: “You need to stay three or four more days. Bad weather is coming. It’s not good to travel in the bad weather. Please stay with us.”
I tell her that unfortunately, I need to go the next day. People are expecting me. She looks back at the fire, adjusts it some more.
“It’s not good to travel in the bad weather.”
“I know, but I really do have to go.”
She adjusts the fire one last time and it’s now keeping me so warm. I am moved by her caring for me, and reminded of my own mother in law who was so similar.
“Do you like shakkar?”
“Do you mean with jaggery? Sweet?”
“Yes, do you like it?”
“Yes, it’s good. But I eat only a few sweets. Not too much sugar.”
“Do you like kheer? [rice pudding]”
“Yes, I also like that. It’s delicious.”
Without another word she slurps the last sip of chai from her cup, sets it on a stone next to the chulha and leaves to continue her day.
When I finish my chai, Jerry is there. He’s got a plan for my last day. We get up and walk towards his other uncle’s place in the middle of the moolie field where we went my first day there. On the way he films some for Youtube videos he’ll be making of my visit. We come to a ker bush and from it are hanging big red berries.
“Would you like to try fresh ker?”
I’ve only tried it in cooked food and I’m curious. Of course I do.
He squeezes a berry and a bunch of seeds come out of one end. It looks to me like a miniature tomato with yellow seeds in a bit of jelly. I put them in my mouth, and then, like he tells me, I suck the juice from them and spit out the seeds. They don’t have a great deal of taste and he tells me this isn’t the best time for them. Still I’m happy to have had the chance to try them.
We get to his uncle’s place and find him in the field next to his house. He’s rerouting irrigation pipes to water different parts of the field. It’s still chilly outside and a few drops of rain are starting to fall so we sit on a charpoy in a three-sided shed. His uncle joins us, filling a chillum with tobacco and putting a hot coal from the morning’s fire on top to get it started.
Jerry goes to the field and gets several radishes and slices them. while his uncle goes back to working in the field. He puts salt on them and I eat them greedily. Jerry then shares an idea with me.
“I think we should have a bonfire in the jungle.” he suggests. I’m completely up for this. Except neither of us have matches. “I’d like to ask my uncle, but I think he’ll think we’re smoking.”
However, the next time his uncle returns, he asks for some matches. We’re given a box with four wooden matches. We finish our moolie and get on our way. As we walk, Jerry grabs a few things, some dry grass here, a bit of newspaper discarded there, some brush. When we veer from the path, I join in, grabbing larger sticks and twigs. By the time we stop in a clearing we’ve got a nice pile of wood and tinder. It’s time to have a fire.
Jerry takes off his backpack, removes a bluetooth speaker and puts on some music, a mixture of Hindi and western pop music. He looks around and finds a big rock and carries it over, dropping it on the ground for me to sit on. He gets a second rock for himself and some more for the fire. Then he arranges the tinder and sticks, lights a match and… Poof.
He rearranges the paper and sticks, lights a match. The paper catches, he presses the sticks down closer to the flames and….
It’s out again.
He tells me “I don’t think this is going to work.” but he rearranges things one more time and tries again anyway and this time he’s successful. The fire grows until it is a foot high and I can feel its warmth. Jerry records some more for his Youtube channel and then sings and dances happily around the fire. I huddle closer to the fire, keeping warm. I watch the flames consume the big piece of wood and toss in a few sticks that I find.
When I look up from the fire, I’m shocked. My entire field of vision, left to right, is filled with sheep and goats, all heading directly at us. Because of my perspective it looks like those videos of cattle stampedes you might see in a 1950’s western movie. It’s a little unnerving though once I stand up it’s no longer scary at all. I am still beside myself at how completely unexpected and wonderful it is to see them.
The shepherd routes the animals around us but Jerry calls to him and asks if we can take some photo and video. And so he comes back toward us. He takes his long bamboo pole and beats the sangri tree branches, making leaves and twigs fall. This makes the animals so excited – delicious food! – that they come running over to him.
We take some pictures and pet the animals a bit before all of us go our separate ways. As we walk, Jerry laughs at how amazed I was. For me this was a magical surprising moment where an empty forest suddenly was filled with animals. For him it was a day in the village.
Drops start to fall and we start to walk more quickly to avoid getting wet. I’m just in a cozy blanket, not a waterproof jacket so a rainshower is going to make me really uncomfortable.
By the time we get back, the rain has stopped again, and I have lunch inside. My favourite dish of the trip so far, the homemade ker sangri is in one of the bowls, and there are five hot fresh rotis covered in ghee sitting next to it all.
When I’m finished eating, I go out on the roof and Jerry is there with his camera. I’m really surprised to see the sky. On one side it is quite light, but on the other it looks like night. The cold Siberian wind is coming from over the Himalayas. Looking out over the fields I can see people jogging out of them, taking shelter. I think they’ve got a good idea so I run inside.
As soon as I go inside, the rain starts. As it’s around ten degrees out, the downpour is icy cold. I bundle myself up under all my blankets and write.
Hours later dinner arrives. There is even more of my favourite ker sangri, but also two sweets from Dadi ji: shakkar and kheer.