I originally intended to write a poem about this experience, but sometimes poetry can be a bit strenuous. If a journal entry is like a window into someone’s life, then a poetry is like a prism. Disconnected events, colors, feelings, and fleeting moments are condensed into a single ray. Two days ago I arrived in my family’s village, a small community outside the city of Nashik (distance), and simply put, the experience is so new to me that the details just don’t seem to fit together into a single poem. Life here is raw and real. It is simple, frank, beautiful, austere, rich.
This is not just a causal visit either. Essentially my host family’s entire extended family is in town for two very distinct reasons.
1. My host father’s 95 year old grandmother, who is effectively the heart and head of the family, is on her deathbed. This bed happens to be on the other side of the wall of the room I am staying in.
2. It is my host brother’s cousin’s engagement today, and a large function will be held in the city later this evening.
These two facts seem to bring the family together in a beautiful way – in both solitude and celebration. I feel that this house is alive; it breathes people. In and out, new faces pass, conversations rise and fall like waves, and brothers laugh heartily over a game of cards. In one moment each person is busy with an individual task. One aji (grandmother) is heating bathwater on an open fire, one is carefully measuring out tea leaves for the morning chai, another is hanging laundry on the yellow lines that run across the ceilings. The next moment we are all sitting crossed legged on the floor scooping up fingerfulls of rice or enjoying hot samosas, with sauce and crumbs dripping everywhere. It must be noted that I cannot sit like this for long. I have bony ankles and I am not yet inured to the pain of a hard floor.
I have not felt the difficulty of the language barrier as acutely as I feel it now. Sitting in a circle of plastic chairs in the orange porch-light, I feel the foreign words and sounds wash over me like lukewarm water. I watch faces, expressions, wait patiently for the handful of words I have learned in Hindi class to be uttered. I am a linguistic paleontologist, trying to reconstruct a whole dinosaur from only a handful bones. Every once and a while, brief and charged words are exchanged- and the room erupts into laughter! I sit with a quiet grin, but soon find myself caught up in the contagious hysteria.
I have been reading voraciously since I arrived in India and until this weekend, I have not considered that this has become a true source of comfort for me. The familiarity of reading and writing in English allows me to let my guard down for a moment. However, being here has given me newfound resolution and clarity that I will have to study Hindi (and hopefully Marathi, the regional language in the state of Maharashtra) arduously, if I want to get the most out of this year. Until I can communicate, my interactions with non-English speaking locals will be quite limited and utilitarian. As someone who strives to create genuine connections with people, even those I meet only briefly, this is deeply dissatisfying to me.
This being said, there is a great deal that can be communicated non-verbally. One of my host brother’s uncles, a gentle man known affectionately as Baba, has been kind enough to show me around the city, introduce me to a few of his dear friends, show me the famous temple and five sacred trees of king Rama in the center of town, and even take me to the Ashram where he used to study and practice meditation. He has told me a number of incredible stories about the siddhus (spiritual powers gained through meditation and exerted through mantra) of his guru, Babaji, some of which he swears to have witnessed with his own eyes. In one story, a young woman’s tongue was paralyzed. She could not speak and had to be assisted in eating and drinking. She was brought to Babaji, who promptly cured her with a firm pinch to the cheek. In another story, a foreigner was in a nearly fatal motorcycle accident in the city. Several of her bones were broken, and the local hospitals denied her treatment, claiming her condition was too severe. Of course, Babaji was able to heal her bones through mantra and sheer mystic will. We have also discussed the Ramayana (the classic Indian epic), and Vedic astrology- all this with only his very basic English and my very limited Hindi. I feel that we have come to a natural understanding over the last few days, and now we need less words to understand each other.
Today, I went on a walk to see the river that runs through town. Some things were quite difficult to look on neutrally. The water, in which we had planned to swim, has become quite polluted, and there is trash splayed out all across the riverbank. There are ruins of old and unfinished houses, huge stacks of brick lying about, and enormous garbage fires that send smoke drifting into nearby neighborhoods. But there are also vast fields of flowers, wide open skies with magnificent clouds, and at night, a bright, waxing moon.
The family has had this house for generations and it is the central hub that everyone returns to. When I told my friend that I have never felt a sense of community this strong before, she told me that nobody in India is really from the city; it’s important to always have a place Iike this to return to. My older brother Sumedh told me he has been coming here since he was a baby. He told me he used to crawl out of the front door and watch the trains for as long as he could. Last night I sat in the dark and watched the parade of cabins- their dimly lit windows carrying a multitude of different worlds through the night. I can’t explain the lightness I felt in this moment- love came so easily here. I fell asleep to the sound of the crickets, my heart open wide.