Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lumbering Together Towards Home

I was glad to make it home last night.  Don't be alarmed.  Nothing bad happened.  The day, however, carried a fragility I have not experienced before, a tenderness which opened the edges of my experience a little wider, like a camera slowly expanding it's lens and my view from a small point to a larger frame of reference.

I decided to return to the tourist hub and have a gander at the old majestic buildings from the days of the Raj, and to check out the Colaba Street Market.  It meant another long journey on the train.  As I set out, I stopped to say my "good-days" to Rajiv, this is when I noticed the first flutter of nervousness, like I could be leaving an old friend for the last time.  Such a delicate way to start the day.  Part of what made me uncomfortable was that I had chosen to wear a blouse without a camisole.  It was the first time I had not had layers and I felt perhaps that I was too exposed.  Which, if you saw me, I think would make you laugh; I'm sure I looked rather frumpy.  Regardless, I promptly went to the little market at the end of the street and bought a long scarf to drape about me.  I felt a little better.

At the station, I encountered many small children who started to reach into my bag for my water bottle, or my bright orange security whistle which hangs on my purse, anything that was exposed.  Only later did I realize that they had managed to take the caps of both my pens.  Waiting in line, I watched three young kids, one girl around 5 with two boys closer to 3.  She had a little plastic phone that made music and she was cradling the smaller boys head in her lap, holding the phone to his ear so he could listen to the tune it played.  She held him so lovingly, tenderly, like a small mother would hold a large baby.  She smiled softly, genuinely when he would smile.  Then she looked up and saw me; like a movie star when the camera turns on, her smile became radiant.  Both boys turned to see what she was looking at.  The boys started to come towards me, reaching into my bag.  The larger boy reached for the same thing the younger boy went for, there was an altercation.  The big boy hit the little boy on the nose, the girl smacked the big boy on the top of his head, the little boy began to cry.  The small mother picked up her large child, gave the big boy a stare that would melt ice, and walked away in a huff.  The large boy stayed to try and win something from me.  I bought my ticket and got on the train.

Getting on the train was a relative breeze. The stairs were less daunting than the day before.  I had left later, and many school kids were on their way home for the day, so I shared the car with several groups of both girls and boys.  Where my tender edges had been frayed earlier, they started to breath and expand.  One of the girls smiled at me with such genuine warmth and curiosity.  I smiled back.  I pulled out my camera and the boys really perked up, swarming to see it.  I started taking pictures and showing them to the kids.  The first girl who'd said "hello" with her eyes did not want her picture taken, but changed her mind when she saw the other photos.  Here she is, the tall one holding the very old school primer.

And one of the boys:
When the girls left the car, they all waved or said, "Good-bye."  There was such tenderness....tenderness meeting tenderness.

It wasn't just kids either.  One mother wanted me to take a picture of her children.

Another woman riding in the second-class car behind mine, saw my spying camera, and subtly, warmly posed.

 It was like drinking water on a hot day, these connections.

Downtown was more harrowing.  Even more than the day before, the streets were buzzing with noise and people and beggars.

I have tried taking so many pictures of the streets trying to capture, I think, the pure cacophony of sound and movement.
It's impossible.

But trust me when I tell you that not even New York can compare to the sound and chaos and color of Mumbai.  I imagine Tokyo, maybe, with all its technicolor neon might hold its own, but somehow I don't envisage Tokyo carrying with it such an assortment of crumbling mansions and troops of armed police and groups of people sleeping in the middle of busy thoroughfares.  It's amazing what kind of emotional noise and light all of those things add to the experience of a city.

I gave into one family of beggars.  A mother who managed to tie a bracelet of flowers on my wrist, saying, "no money, no money" then wanted powdered milk for her baby.  I bought her a can of formula.  I wish I could carry around cans of formula.  This makes sense to me.

I decided to invest in a couple of traditional Punjabi suits, you know the long flowy shirts that can be worn with leggings or billowy pants.  I chose billowy.  I am not feeling brave enough for a sari yet....but I'm sure the time will come.  In one shop, I was helped by the oldest man in the store.  He was 85 if he was a day.  He pulled out top after top after top, a measuring tape for me to make sure I had the right size.  He spoke little English, but understood enough to say, when I said I had to think for a minute, "Thinking?  Don't think.  Thinking not good for you."  We haggled over prices.  He let me feel I'd gotten the better of him.  Connection.

Back out on the streets there was too much connection.  I was hounded by vendors and beggars and even one grumpy British expat who was annoyed by my "pre-occupation".  I was trying to get away from a particularly persistent vendor, but doing a poor job of it, my politeness getting the better of me.  I realize now, I need to follow that old Brit's lead next time and just barrel down the sidewalk with little consideration for anyone else's feelings.

Shortly after the encounter with the Grump, I crossed the street to seek refuge in a tiny Methodist Church.
Looking out at the noisy world

Looking into quiet and peace.
With it's open air windows, fans, wicker pews, it was not hard to imagine English missionary ladies in white linen dresses congregating on a Sunday morning.  I sank thankfully into a chair and closed my eyes and just breathed for a few minutes.  I was reminded of a similar refuge in a different city, St. Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.   That was a magical Bedouin tent in the middle of the financial district in London.

As I sat now in Mumbai, aware that at some point I would have to go back out into the noise and traffic and mass of humanity, I began to understand the role a Christian God might play in a place like India.  It was suddenly very clear why a person who lived in the chaos of such heat, both environmental and emotional, navigating the harsh societal chasms between the wealthy and the untouchables, vying for space amidst the pure press of so many souls crowded into one place at the same time would be drawn into the quiet calm of a properly ordered Christian sanctuary.  If Jesus' Father could make the noise stop for twenty minutes or an hour a day in the little house on the corner, what kind of eternal peace might he be able to grant at the end of one's days?

Eventually I tore myself from the Church, but sought a different kind of refuge a few blocks away in a Western Style cafe.  Even after a delightfully bland lunch, I was unsure I could carry on in the city.  I was truly shaky at this point.  Feeling almost threatened by everyone I encountered, the cars, the noise, I ordered a cup of tea just to stay in the cafe a little longer.

Here's where I learned about a good strong cup of tea.  Geez Louise, did that tea both perk me up and fortify me.  After just a wee cup, with three sugars, no cream, I was ready to try and find the last landmark that called to me in the major downtown area: The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue.  The guidebook told me it was "an impossibly blue", old building "lovingly maintained by the city's dwindling Jewish Community."  I knew from the map, that it had to be somewhere close by in the warren of streets shooting off from the large round-about just outside my cafe doors.

I set off in the late afternoon sun, dodging traffic, stares, peeing men, in search of my synagogue.  Yes, I had a map, but as street signs are impossible to find, I was going on instinct.  This being the case, and as I was feeling so tender, edgy, and therefore vulnerable to God knows what, and let me tell you my brain started creeping in all sorts of bad ideas about what that "what" might be, I felt certain I wouldn't find the building.

You see, I have a theory that I developed while traveling in Europe.  I began to understand that I would either love or hate a place depending on how easily I could navigate it.  Rome...I got lost for hours, even though my map and the street signs were very easy to follow.  I did not care for Rome. Paris, on the other hand, I always seem to know which way to go.  Paris and I have an understanding.

I went in the direction I thought sure the map wanted me to, but suddenly knew it was the wrong way.  I turned around and, almost like a hound dog, I circled large museums, stopped in a little art bazaar, hesitated when my fear and the fading light began to alarm me, and then just as I was about to give up, something told me to walk a few steps forward, look to the left, and voila: peeking out from a tiny corner of an alley was an "impossibly blue" edge of a building.  I made my way over, got through security and went upstairs to yet another of God's sanctuaries.

Did I ever tell you that I've wanted to be Jewish since I was a little little girl.  It's true.  It's not just that I think Jewish men are kind of the dreamiest, the culture, it's people, just calls to me, speaks of a kind of home.  Like this beautiful little sacred hall.  I wondered as soon as I set foot in it if I hadn't been there before, if I hadn't known it like an old friend you'd forgotten but remember suddenly when you meet again years later at a reunion.  It was not gut punching, shake me to my core familiar, but it was known to me, warm.

When I left, I found my way easily to Churchgate Station and the train home.  Based on my personal Theory of Navigation, Mumbai and I must be better friends than I had first supposed us to be.

At evening time I spoke at length with Rajiv and Payel.  Or should I say, I listened at length while they told me why they love running the B & B.  They have made friends all over the world, many of whom return again and again when they could easily stay in five star hotels.  Their guests love them and have featured them in magazine articles from around the planet.

Turns out, Rajiv and Payel also have second and third jobs as social workers in their "spare time." Rajiv is interviewed for tv every few days on some matter pertaining to social justice which they relate to running the B & B.  They explained that when the government gives them a license to have people stay in their home, it requires them to introduce travelers to a genuine Indian home and experience, right down to the bedding, the cooking, the all-in-one bathrooms.  But Rajiv and Payel take it further.  They often host medical tourists, some of whom have needed rushing to the hospital in the middle of the night.  They have saved one guest's life by making calls at three a.m. to friends in order to track down a rare blood type when the guest needed a blood transfusion to survive the night.

Rajiv said, "This, too, is part of the Indian culture.  It is what our forefathers expected of us.  Mumbai has become so commercialized.  Other hotels will kick you out at the first sign of sickness, of trouble.  That is not our way.  They have forgotten what it is to be truly Indian, to be part of humanity."

This reminded me of the train ride home.

If you ever make it to Mumbai and you have occasion to ride the train, you might want to follow some advice that I didn't follow: don't ride the train at rush hour.  If you do ride the train at rush hour and you are a woman who has bought a first class ticket, then you might want to at least wait for the first class car to appear.  Don't think, "oh, here is a second-class women's only car, it is not too crowded, I will just take this one, how different can it be from first-class".

Sardines, I think, have more room to move in a can filled with other sardines.

I was in awe of the amount of human beings that can cram themselves onto a single train car.  As the car filled and filled and filled and I debated wether I should get off and wait for a first-class train, I pressed myself up against a partition and let myself be held in place by the sheer weight of people a few of which exchanged themselves while departing with new passengers coming on.  Sweat poured down the backs of my legs.  I couldn't move one arm which was wedged firmly against my body.  I covered my face from time to time with the sleeve of my other arm when women would cough in my direction.  (There is a cough here in Mumbai that is prevalent, a deep and raspy cough.  What it speaks of, I do not know.  I do hope, whatever it is, that I got that particular vaccination.)

Despite the fact that it was so exhausting to be surrounded by that many people, there was something wonderful about it too.  There was one particular woman who stood sometimes next to me, sometimes a person or two away from me, depending on how other folks pushed and pulled their way into "our" space; she kept checking in.  We would see each other and smile, as if to say at the same time, "can you believe we live like this.  Isn't this absurd?"  She was not comforting me, or apologizing.  I was with her.  I was part of the "we".  One of the mass.  I felt so deeply in the thick of it.  Wholly myself and wholly of the great wide world all at the same time.

It was amazing to see women who just stood in the car with their eyes closed, peacefully held up by their "sisters,"seemingly oblivious to the angst of some of the other women who pushed and argued and vied for a quarter of an inch here or there.  A couple of ladies managed to carry on long conversations on their mobiles.  This was a regular part of their days.  Life was simply being lived while we all held each other up with the weights of our bodies; the train lumbering us towards home.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I am seeing India through your eyes and loving it. Also loving that Woofie is with me for the trip. Love you.

Christopher said...

Human beings are such amazing creatures; our ability to adapt to even the most trying circumstances is truly remarkable.

And if I ever DO make it that far, I'll be sure to tell my host/concierge that I'm O+!

Thanks for the lesson!

melymelm said...

how amazing that you found that b&b. i've also never thought of christianity or why anyone would convert to christianity in that way...just a cool refuge from the noise. interesting.