Feeling: INEXPLICABLY HUMBLED, HIGH & HEART-BROKENLY HAPPY
Tonight I experienced the real India.
Eva and I had last week said to Anil the cook about meeting his family. Nothing else was spoken about it until this afternoon when he said, “Come see my wife?”
So we did.
After dinner we told Anil to go and wait up the street, then I went to Amrit and requested (well pretty much begged the staunch bastard) if Govind could please please please accompany Eva and I to Lakshman Jhula. We were to meet a Hindi friend of a friend to collect a parcel for Eva to take back to Qatar, and needed Govind’s English translation skills and his body guardiance in the Indian night. Good cover story, no? Amrit tried to think of every reason to refuse but I fought back until I got the magic answer: yes.
You see, these men are terrified of Amrit. He holds their livelihood in his egotistical, chubby paws. They have to pander to his every whim from 6am to 9pm and often beyond. It’s sheer and utter exploration. It makes me simmer with rage. If he’d known the truth, that we were actually heading to Rishikesh centre to Anil’s home and purely wanted Govind’s company for the enjoyment of it, there’s absolutely no way Amrit would’ve allowed it.
Govind is Anil’s brother-in-law (Anil married his sister) so we wanted Govind to join us so he could see his two nieces and get a bit of time out from the ashram.
Off we set like naughty school children, cackling at our cunning craftery.
Anil walks an hour to work every morning and an hour home every night. Some evenings this can be as late as 11pm. A rickashaw to his area costs a local 5-10 rupees (23 cents at most) yet hitching a ride is a luxury he cannot afford. So jumping aboard one tonight was a great treat for his tired feet.
I was so humbled when we reached our stop and both the boys pulled out their wallets to pay. I was expecting them to if not hang back, at least sort of assume Eva and I would foot the bill. But they waved away our protests and wouldn’t expect anything from us.
We went down a narrow lane and all of a sudden we were in local territory. We were awestruck; it was real and raw India. This was the place the locals lived, where Westerners did not venture purely because they kept to the main streets. It was incredible.
We weaved in and out of lanes and streets, side stepping cow shit and speeding scooters. Anil was darting around the surrounding stalls, seemingly looking for something unavailable. Eventually he purchased whatever he was wanting and we set off on the last leg home, a further 20 minutes or so from the drop of by the rickashaw.
When we finally reached our destination, Anil proudly opened a big gate and gestured us inside. His six-month pregnant wife and two daughters were awaiting our arrival on a stooped step, and warmly welcomed us into their home.
Now when I say home, I mean room. It’s literally one room, with two single beds, a TV, a stack of shelves and a minuscule kitchen coming off the side. It’s one of four “homes” within the concrete complex, where two toilets and two showers cater to the five families of at least four who live there. I thought of my expansive space at my parents’ house and winced at my fortune.
Eva and I were propelled to sit on the bigger bed, obviously the prime spot. The wife and two daughters beamed at us. Govind and Anil beamed at us. Angali – the older girl – ran and retrieved her friend from door, and she beamed at us. Then Eva and I were fostered with food.
Anil manically at the market? He had hurriedly been buying boiled eggs, a cheese thing (kind of like feta), tomatoes, apples and a pomegranate.
Him and his wife stepped into the kitchen (divided from the bedroom cum dining room cum lounge by a thin fold of fabric) and presented the edibles on silver plates, then proffered it to us with immense eagerness. Anil turned to me sorrowfully and said, “No mango, got you this.” And passed me my own plate of pomegranate.
I wanted to cry. This man, this beautiful, beautiful man, who earns less than $145 NZD a month, had noted my penchant for mangoes and had been trying to unearth one for me. On finding none available, he went for my number two: pomegranate. Even though I was absolutely choc-a-block (sensational saying) from vegetable soup at dinner, I munched back my carefully cut pomegranate with zeal. The friend laughed at my gabbered dhanyavaad‘s (thank you’s) and said, “In India our guests are like a God.” It was certainly a case of holy shit at the incredibly generous hospitality.
The older daughter Angali nervously perched next to me on the bed. Slowly, slowly, she moved closer and closer, until our legs were touching. “Can I get Govind to take a photo of us?” She asked shyly. I wrapped my arms around her and she lit up the room with her smile. (Doesn’t look like it in below pic, but I can assure you it ’twas the case).
Angali then got out her sketch book and showed me pictures she had drawn. As a 14-year-old girl, I was tickled to see lots included etchings of boys proposing to girls and giving them flowers, with the females turning their noses up. She gestured to a picture to ask if I wanted to keep one, and when I nodded enthusiastically she pulled out a wad of pages and offered them to me. I decided that as long as I return home in possession of my passport and the pictures I’ll be happy as anything.
Angali then got out her mum’s makeup bag and did Eva and I “up” with eyeliner, lip gloss, eyeshadow and pink nail polish. She was in her element with these two real life white dolls to dote on, and her and her friend kept telling me how beautiful I was (can assure you in my sweaty, stenchy, still massage-oiled hair state it was most certainly not the case).
I could’ve stayed there all night. The happiness bouncing around the box of a bedsit was heavilly heady. But Govind was conscious of the time and Amrit’s probable wrath, so we hugged farewells and went on our way, the entire family coming to the gate to wave us away and blow kisses.
Once again, when the rickashaw deposited us at our destination Govind covered the cost and wouldn’t take a cent from us.
I went home and howled. The greatest worry in my life right now is whether to buy Hypnotic Poision perfume duty free at the airport, or to wait and purchase it from Strawberrynet. Angali will probably never ever even go to an airport.
Her pictures and my memories from tonight are my most treasured souvenirs and peak of my trip. Everest Base Camp, you’ll be hard pressed to beat that high.