Tuesday, January 17, 2012


The Haridwar Hustle

It's difficult to sleep properly on a night where one has to get up very early to take a train or plane. I had set the alarm for 5:30 but did not sleep very well, having drunk too much tea and gone to bed by midnight. I kept waking up. Then Auntie Gulati woke me up at 5:25 anyway and I was mildly upset for missing that extra five minutes when I really was asleep. Having showered and packed most things the night before I didn't have much to do, so we left early for the Metro, which was running. I realized I absolutely had to go to the bathroom, and when I found myself waiting 9 minutes for the next connection, I was horrified at the thought of not being able to wait or to miss the connection. I did drag my three pieces of luggage up the stairs, and found out the toilets, maintained by some sacrosanct sounding society, were outside the Metro, so I had to drop in my token and run. The female metro operator was not only completely indifferent, but I am quite sure I heard them all laugh as I schlepped my belongings to the loo. The toilets were a disaster... the doors were rusty and ill fitting in this new Metro, the seat was dirty with muddy water, the flush did not work, you had to use a small piece of branch poked into a little hole where the handle used to be, to choose between low flush and high flush. I was immensely relieved that I did have some toilet paper, as the requisite little bucket and water tap were filthy. The floor was filthy too but I had no choice but to put my bags somewhere. It was preposterous, to be crammed into a dirty little toilet with three pieces of luggage, harem pants and down jacket, running late, with no sleep, to be unable to suppress nature's call, and at the same time be stuck deep in the cement bowels of a "new" Metro. Is this what I am reduced to when I try to hold my head high? It's funny of course, yes, in an absurd, film noir kinda way, but it was damn stressful, and the only thing that saved me was my steady breathing and refusal to give up. On the way back into the metro, I had to yell to wake up the security personnel who were fast asleep on the job of preventing terrorism in the fancy new Metro, a world class target for some ancient tribal feud. Perhaps these guerrillas could skip the security check and bomb the toilets?

I finally made my way through the pre-dawn concrete jungle at Ashmeri Gates of New Delhi train station, dodging mud and excrement pools, and found my way to my car and chair number with five minutes to go. The usual anti-terrorist squad were inattentively passing all our bags through a huge screening machine. Someone had taken my window seat and pointed to me to take their aisle seat, so he could sit next to his brother, but I refused. I asserted my right to look out the window at this country that was mine to be revisited, and viewed especially after I had reserved it that way. He relented, and moved, but left his shopping bag hanging from a hook over the seat. I didn't notice at first, but once the train started to move, it kept gently knocking into my head, so I asked him to please take it, which he did. My neighbour got to talking to me, and I discovered he was from Ottawa, had lived there for ten years, and was here for his father's funeral rites. His father had died suddenly, so he and his wife had flown into Delhi just a few days ago. He was on his way to Haridwar, and as a devoted Hindu son, he and his brother were bringing the ashes to the Ganges River in this most holy of cities. I expressed my sympathies, and he nodded towards the bag hanging now next to his brother in the next seat. Those were his father's ashes. I nodded and kept a poker face as I realized his father's ashes had been  knocking against my head in a benign looking shopping bag. It is a little unsettling intellectually to think of this, but on a biological level, I could only think "so what, some more organic matter, his ashes, my head, distributed in some random permutation". I focused on the landscape, the endless trail of plastic trash in various states of compression, but not degradation, refusing to disappear, the stern, grimy, grim, tired, depressed faces of thousands of early morning risers and workers and students at the railway stations and crossings. I was hoping for a sign, a signal, something to reassure me that this was not all staged by a very dark humorist.

Sunday, January 01, 2012


A few hours in the winter sun

I am sitting here in this tiny mountain village with my down jacket on. This morning I decided to count my blessings, as I sat next to a very ancient woman, so bent over she was incapable of standing up straight. She indicated to me to sit down next to her in the sun, the few hours of winter sun limited by the surrounding hills to maybe five hours a day. We sat for a few minutes and she indicated "let's turn around", and there we sat, two old women, with our backs to the sun, soaking up the rays, and I could feel her muttering and trying to
revitalize her bones, so used to bone cold winters, no heating system, hard labour, poor clothing, poor nutrition, feudal superstitions and traditions, personal pain and loss unrecognized and disregarded.

All I could do was sit there and decide to count all the things I am grateful for. I thought about my father, his migration to Canada, as he was leaving behind the people he loved to escape from that which was not good for him, and his move gave me the things I normally take for granted. Suddenly the old woman got up painstakingly. Into our little courtyard came a wailing woman with an entourage of kids and other women. She had lreceived news that her father had died this morning. Since she was married, she had had to move villages and her father was far away. She wailed and wailed inconsolablly, and the old woman took her place along with other ancient woman to surround the young woman wailing. They sat there, rocking back and forth, every now and then trying to say something consoling, sometimes berating, and otherwise just looking very old and haggard. There is so much pain in life. We all have pain, and I am grateful for the presence of people
and a culture that acknowledges my pain, does not dismiss it, and is not entirely helpless in the face of the expression of my pain. Someone listens to me when it hurts. I am grateful for human migration, for evolution, for the moving forward of life, that the planets rotates fully once a day and the seasons in our lives. In this
moment, whatever I have learned is forgotten, and gives way to simply sitting in the sun, with a tear in my eye, grateful for the vessel that carries me here and there.

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