I’ll admit, it started off (well, about mid-morning) with an upheaval.
We were sitting at our usual day-off-breakfast-cafe, when Priyanka told me she was FB stalking me.
“Poppy. You look so, so, SO much better now,” she said.
You know that expression, “my heart dropped”? Mine didn’t just drop mate. It plummeted, full force, out of my body and to the core of the earth.
“Priyanka, please, please don’t say another word,” I said.
I felt like I was suffocating. Negative emotions stormed in and buzzed about my head like a swarm of the most aggressive bees. The waistband of my pants sucked in like plunger. My arms expanded and blew out like balloons before my eyes. All the good, great feelings I’d been floating in were replaced with despondency and despair and desperation to get away from the topic asap.
So I did. I’m ashamed to say, I left the others to their breakfast and took off on the pretence of a gurgling tum. I powerwalked faster than Kel and Kath back to my room, where I sat on my bed and tried to numb myself into oblivion.
I know it sounds dramatic. Because – mate! – it is dramatic. Such sentences unleash emotions in me akin to being told a close family member has just died. I know, I know; ridiculous, right? Irrational? Might even go as far as to say pathetic? Because such a statement is actually a compliment, at the very least of why so. I recognise that wholeheartedly. I know it’s over the top and untenable and absurd. But when you’ve trained yourself up to respond in such a way for more than a decade, sometimes you can’t just shake it off.
I remet with the quartet to go to the pool and teach Priyanka to swim. And I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t step out of my tenebrosity. I halfheartedly tried to get Priyanka do doggie paddle, but the extreme excitement I’d felt of Googling “how to teach someone how to swim” had absolutely dissipated.
(Spirits rightly lifted when a monkey scampered over and hustled Maria’s king size bag of peanuts to her dismay, but the lightness of laughter sunk into gloom once again).
I had made plans to go and see an Indian family I met during my first time in Rishikesh. (Mentioned in the previous post). But with my mood, the pull to cancel almost consumed me. No, I told myself sternly. You’ve already let it wreck the greater part of your day, and affected the other girls in doing so; do not let it overcome this afternoon.
So I packed my bags (I know, a week before departure; but such organisation is the only way to get my head around to another frame of thought) and waited for 4pm, the time of my confirmed pick up.
So first off, a bit of explanation. My time in India in 2015 had me stay at another ashram, where there was a young lad called Govind working in the admin side of things, while his brother-in-law Anil was the head cook. Along with my yogi friend Eva, we went to Anil’s home one evening and met his beautiful family, an experience that touched me to the very core. Himself, his two daughters and his heavily pregnant wife were living in a tiny bedroom with two single beds, minimum possessions to the extreme, on the point of borderline poverty. Yet they welcomed us in with grace and generosity, buying scotch eggs and apples and pomegranates to feed us.
In the past two years, both have left the ashram. Govind has taken up an MA in yoga science at the local university, with Anil having had an accident four months prior to today and not being able to work (upon reaching their – if you can all it – abode, I found out he had fallen off a high level and smashed his hip, requiring extensive surgery and screws to get it back in place).
I was already worried about them perhaps saying something about my weight gain. And after Priyanka’s compliment-taken-as-the-ultimate-in-insults, I was terrified. When Govind and I finally managed to understand where each other were so I could go clamber on his scooter (literally his motorised machine – not alluding to any kind of copulation), I said a quick prayer to have the more-built-bod not mentioned.
God obviously had bigger things to deal to, as we were a mere kilometre or two down the road when Govind leaned back and said, “When you were here last, your health was not good. But you look good now. Much better health.”
And you know what? While it did do a slight gut, there was an element of warmth to it. I pulled myself away from the pain and analysed the situation detachedly: when I last saw this lad, I was just hitting 47kg. In BMI classifications, I was hitting the anorexic range. Even I look at photos of myself from that time and have to admit I looked a bit scarily skinny. A tad too tiny. A hint too hollowed. Yet I can clearly recall I was the happiest with my body I had ever been.
This is disgusting, and I truly apologise for the sickness of it. But I only saw the truth of it today. Do you know what I secretly hold as the highest height of my life? My greatest achievement to date? Not uni. Not Base Camp. Not any number of other things I could potentially take as my prized point.
Getting on the scales after EBC and seeing I was almost 45kg.
Saying that (well, typing it) both let loose a wave of catharsis and an avalanche of horrid realisation.
So when Govind said that, I closed my eyes and welcomed it with an open heart.
Do. Not. Dwell.
So there we were, me straddled on the back of Govind’s scooter, his expert weaving of the potholes keeping my Poona from being turned purple (I.e., being bruised up). About 5km into our journey, he turned into a side lane and I immediately recognised the way.
“Oh! That’s the vegetable market Anil stopped at last time!” I said excitedly.
“What a good memory!” He said. “It is! But now they have moved round the corner to another place.”
Then suddenly, there was Anil. Hanging out the front of his new place, one arm leaning on his walker, other flicking a little ciggy from his mouth (I’d forgotten his smoking disposition).
“Anil!” I cried. And his face lit up in total recognition and welcome.
They led me to their door, and stepping in (removing my shoes, of course) I straight away looked into the smiling face of their older daughter Anjali. I was astounded at the height of her; two years ago she’d been a girl, whereas now she was only slightly shorter than I. (In my mind I had thought she was ten or so, but upon asking her her age now I realised she is actually 16). And there was Anil’s wife (Govind’s sister) and their youngest child, a boy (who at first I thought was a girl; here, they grow the sons’ hair out until they’re about three or four) who was the bump of the aforementioned’s belly on my last visit. And there was a fourth body in the room: the two’s other sister Nilam, who I had not yet met.
Chai was offered. Chai was taken up. A plate of apples was proffered – I was humbled, as they remembered my tendency to their taste from last time. As we caught up (Govind translating as none of them spoke any English) I cast my eyes about the room, comparing it to last time.
Rather than two single beds, it appeared to be one queen – though my perching on the end of it had me realise it was actually a single with a build of wooden boards masquerading as an add-on. The whole space would’ve equated to half of my kitchen in Cambridge (well, Papa Henio and Mummy Deb’s) with a few photos, posters and calendars adorning the walls.
Then my eyes caught sight of a pile of pillows, and I recognised a familiar pink leopard print burrowed beneath.
My heart felt like it was leaching.
When I last came to see them, I’d gifted them with my travel pillow – picked up in a panic upon leaving my room as I felt I couldn’t go empty handed. And here it was, immaculate amongst the cushions. I could tell it hadn’t been placed there purely for my visit; I pointed at it and exclaimed, and they excitedly retrieved it so I could give it a clutch.
We chattered on, and soon Anjali felt the bravity to ask if she could do my makeup (as per last time). She applied some eyeliner atop my lids (with deft skill, I must say) then asked if it was ok if she applied a bindi. (Of course it was, I replied). The mother (I feel awful, but her name has evaded me) enquired (through Govind) a number of times about my age: was I really 26? Truly? Sure I wasn’t only just 20?
By now, the time was about 6pm. Tea having been drunken (me the only one with; they didn’t have enough cups nor ingredients for all to have one) I expected Govind to say he’d take me back home. But then there was a torrent of talk; did I want to stay for dinner? Aloo ghobi, my favourite like at the ashram? Anjali would cook.
Even though I’d decided that morning I would not eat again that day, I found myself saying yes. I mean, how could I say no?
Plus, I was enjoying myself immensely.
(I’d also gifted them the bag of goodies I’d bought and after graciously accepting it, they had retreated behind the kitchen curtain and tucked into some Cadbury).
Well, while Anjali got dinner going, did I want to go and see Nilam’s room? (Note “room”, not “house”). “I would love to,” I replied, so Nolan, Govind and I went to walk the kilometre, her stopping along the way to pick up the kids from school as Govind and I went on to wait for them at home). (Youngster education hours run 7am until 1pm, then back 5pm to 6pm).
My goodness, what a spindly set Nilam had. Three long-legged beings with ear-splitting smiles. Each of them walked in absolutely spellbound at this white skinned, blonde (ok, brassy blonde and brown) haired alien sitting on their bed (two singles for the four in this case), walking up to shyly shake my hand (the little boy pulled his appendages out of his mouth just before he grasped mine, so our hand clasp had a lovely spit sheen to it).
Nilam then insisted I take something. An apple? Banana? Chai? We settled on a mango juice, which she especially went out to the shopfront to retrieve (I felt awful). I was given a clanker of a silver cup of it, constantly asked if I wanted a refill.
Nilam was so proud to have me there. She took out family photos to show me the kids in their finery (what with the boy having long locks upon toddlerhood and the girls being shorn, I couldn’t tell Dick from Harry) (those weren’t their names, I’ll clarify; they were classical Hindi appellations that I cannot quite recall), then stepped up on the bed to pull down a photo of her and her husband from her “marriage day”. “They rent this room here for the kids to go to school,” Govind explained. “They have an actual house four hours from here, where her husband is.”
She then came and sat next to me on the bed-cum-couch-cum-table and squeezed my shoulders close to her. “She said you are welcome to stay the night here if you want,” Govind translated as she spieled.
These are life’s real memories, I thought. (Then had to bite back a burble of hilarity at the though of me sharing the single beds with the entire family).
Suddenly, we were overrun with the neighbours. (The complex had five rooms, each of which housed an entire family). Word had gotten round there was a funny-looking, yellow-haired person in the Cauchan area, and all came for a gander.
About six woman in saris came in one by one, to which I rose up and shook the hands of each. Children darted in and out, moving between shy and daring as they came close then clambered away again. They all asked if I was married (each of them asked as they arrived), asked I I had a boyfriend (I had to show them photos of The Pedaller) and wanted to know I wanted to go for dinner in each of their rooms.
One of the older children introduced herself as Shalab (Saldana? Salaba?), saying she was 22. “Do you have a brother I could marry?” She asked. I showed her a photo of James. “He looking cute,” she said. “Send him a picture of me.”
(I hadn’t the heart to tell her James prefers blondes and already has one I’m pretty sure is his one).
I was there for about an hour, genuinely enjoying myself immensely. Some of the children had gathered up in the corner of the bed-cum-couch-cum-table, watching a proudly prominent TV displaying Disney Channel. Soon Govind declared it was time to be getting back to dinner; all around burst out: when would I be back? Did I want to stay the night? Would I come again?
Goodbyes were said, and as we went to the gate Nilam hugged me hard. I clasped her back, and suddenly the thought came across my mind: I don’t want to let this woman go. There was something special in her, some synching with my soul and I felt a bit of heartbreak as I waved on my way.
(Not going to lie: I did the Babcia cross blessing).
Govind and I walked the kilometre back to Anil’s, discussing his yoga course and what he wants to do after its completion. He is genuinely the most sweet hearted someone, so lovely and clean and clear. (In the nature sense; not his skin). (Though that is too).
We got back to the other family arm where cauliflower mingled with potato scents were wafting out the walkway. Anjali had been prepping painstakingly, and proffered a carefully set out tray for me to eat.
I enquired if the others were eating; no no, it was only 7.30 – they wouldn’t for another hour or so. After saying I felt bad being the only one, a tray was retrieved for Govind to join me also.
I had a mere moment of freak out when I saw the multiple chapati and silver pottle of something sweet. Potato I could do; bread-ish stuff? No way. Then I swallowed my stupidity; this was all made with love. It would be received – and eaten – with love also.
And I ate every semolina-with-sugar and floury-chapati bite.
(Just to clarify; Govind and I shared the plates of apple and cucumber. I didn’t switch on my head and ingest with gusto).
There was a moment I felt truly awful upon asking Anjali what she wanted to do when she finished school. “She’ll get married,” Govind translated. “There’s no money for further study.” This poor, poor girl (sorry; just to clarify I don’t mean that in the monetary sense, though that is where it is stemming from really); she is literally sentenced to wed as the next step in her life. I mean, she probably hasn’t even entertained dreams of an alternative, but to not even have that option open? To me, that is true unfairity in the world.
Her mother then asked me (translated through Govind) if I had any tips to help Anjali lose weight. “She’s too healthy,” Govind explained. I looked Anjali right in the eye. “You are absolutely beautiful just the way you are,” I said fiercely. “But if you do want to do exercise for wellbeing, you should do yoga.”
At 8.30, it was time to go. (I was aware they would be wanting to eat their dinner, and I felt their pride kept them from eating it in front of me. I feel my plate didn’t contain the exact same mix match that theirs would be – cauliflower is expensive, you see). As I farewelled Govind, I slipped two notes in his hand. “To pay for the girls’ schooling,” I said. He nodded in gratitude, then I saw his eyes grow round when he noted (embedded pun there) I had handed him 4000rupees – enough to pay both their fees for the next four months (I’d asked how much education was for each earlier).
And in giving that money, there was no sense for a need of recognition. I wasn’t actually going to include that here in writing. But just the idea that $89 NZ dollars can truly turn a family’s life around for a little bit is simply astounding.
Govind took me back to my hotel, and I felt horribly greedy upon entering my room. Both of the sisters’ abodes could probably fit in it, side by side. I was about to jump in the shower, then quickly chucked back on my pants and ran upstairs to see Priyanka.
I gave her a full on hug and said sorry for being all Downer at the pool. She hugged me back and stared to apologise (she’d clicked onto what was wrong; Sabina and her had asked me a few weeks earlier about my foe with food as they witnessed my weirdness at mealtimes) when I told her to shush it. Any other person would be joyous at being told they looked eons better; she was in no way to say sorry. I showed her the photos from my four hours with the family, and she was incredulous. “Do you know how expensive that meal would have been to make?” She said. “Apples and cauliflower especially. For a family of such means, it would’ve been a considerable cost. You obviously mean a lot to them.”
I went to bed pondering my earlier admittance; that my greatest achievement is weighing in in the mid 40s. I realised it’s actually ED’s greatest achievement, not mine; in fact, my own should really be purposely putting on weight and going against it. While I see myself of a fuller form as being weak and of no control, in actuality it shows extreme strength and comeuppance against a metal maladity that has haunted me since I was eight years old.
Plus, the height of my life thus far should have NOTHING to do with my physique.
And in the scheme of things?
What’s being skinny when a 16-year-old Indian girl has no other option but to share a room with her entire family, only to be upped and married off to do the same with the generation she produces?
There’s that whole joke about “first world problems”.
Today was the first time I realised ED really is one.
(By the way: sugar infused semolina is DELICIOUS).