JOURNEY TO INDIA
By Kartar Dhillon
I sit in a courtyard warming myself in the early morning sun of an Indian winter. The sun is an enormous red-orange disc almost touching the earth. Great flocks of green parrots have been flying away from it the past half-hour. They perform these flights as a daily ritual at sunrise and sunset. Their numbers are interspersed with flocks of crows, flying in the same direction at the same time.
The local train comes thundering from the east, spewing noise and smoke onto the sleepy dew-drenched countryside. A bullock-drawn cart, loaded with grain from the bazaar, waits for the monster to pass.
My hostess, visible through the open kitchen door, is serving and preparing breakfast for ten or twelve of us: children, relatives, guests. She sits cross-legged on an inch-high stool in front of a “choola,” the charcoal-burning stove which resembles a milk bucket. A shaft of sunlight pierces the smoke in the room and glances off a stack of gleaming brassware. The brassware: a work of art, a painter's dream, but for my hostess, mere culinary equipment.
She has neither heat nor refrigeration, neither sink nor running water. With deft manipulations of pots and pans over the single burner, she has prepared tea, eggs, pudding, pan-bread. The children sit cross-legged on the cobblestone floor and eat the food she hands them.
Sparrows fly in and out of the house. The windows are barred, but have no glass. The wooden shutters have been opened to let in the freshness of the new day.
A universal tableau of Indian mothers in their kitchens, their children huddled close to the warmth of the hearth-fires, while they create the magic of their cuisine. Warmth, love, hospitality. Peace. Shanti. Shanti is the word for peace, peacefulness. Shanti is also the name of my lovely hostess.
Jeetho, the domestic worker, comes from across the neighboring field to wash the breakfast dishes. Her two infant sons come with her; a third is still in her womb. The children play silently, without toys. They make no demands on their mother. She polishes the pots and pans with ashes held in the palm of her hand, then scrubs the kitchen floor. She will close the shutters against the sparrows when she has finished, and Shanti will remove her shoes before she enters to prepare the next meal.
Milk-buffalo drowse in the sun near our house. Crows perch on them and peck at the insects which inhabit their thick coats. Crows are a sassy lot—they are bold and raucous as geese. I am told that if someone injures a crow, he will be attacked by them. I am also told that if a bat should attach itself to your flesh, part of your flesh will be torn out before it can be released. Yet in the tiny thatched-roof hut next door, bats have a found a home in the thatch. I can see them float out at dusk. The human inhabitants express no fear.
India is a gentle place. Even dogs sit at respectful distances from the people. They never beg, never whine. In some villages, the dogs are fed by residents at random. No one owns a dog, but the dogs who have chosen to adopt a village, guard all the houses against outsiders. People set food outside their locked doors for the animals.
I am served dinner in the company of my host. Shanti remains in the kitchen, sending piping hot food to the table. The children wait on us. My host is a delightful raconteur. He entertains me with stories of his life in military service. He tells charming anecdotes of family history, but I am miserable.
Can't we all be together? My hosts are gracious. Changes are made. The charcoal burner is brought to the bricks of the living room floor, a brass urn of water placed near it. An Indian kitchen can be moved anywhere. Shanti has told me how she prepared the family's food with a charcoal stove on the floor of their train compartment during military travels.
Now we are all together. Tradition has been broken and I think everyone likes it. The coals glow hot and red, and in the coziness after dinner, we play chess, children and adults alike. Children are no longer waiters; they are our companions.
Today is the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth, last, and most heroic of the Sikh gurus. I catch a whiff of the Arpege which I brought as a gift for Shanti from the London Free Port. I smile as she enters the room. “Are you using the perfume in honor of his birthday?”
“Yes.” She is smiling too. “But I'm not using it. I sprinkled some on the holy book. It's for him, not for me!”
Meeku, little ten-year-old Meeku whom I have come across the world to see, asks my permission to use his rifle. I am flattered that he asks my approval, but I am appalled at his request. It is his rifle, however, given to him by his doting Indian family, and there's nothing to stop him from using it except my expressed distaste for guns. I say, “Be careful not to kill anything.”
“We just want to scare crows away from the wheat field,” he says, but that afternoon one of the older boys walks in carrying a dead sparrow. Its death was an accident; it had darted into the line of fire.
Meeku puts away the rifle and plays with a slingshot. There is no further talk of rifles.
Concern for this boy's welfare has brought me from the other end of the planet. He has come from San Francisco to be entered in a boarding school in Chandigarh. In coming here, I have also fulfilled my own obsession with the land of my ancestors. I had grown old waiting for this opportunity, and I am here now discovering my roots.
With the resiliency of childhood, the boy has become a part of his extended Indian family. Watching him and the family together, I am no longer worried on his behalf.
I pull a ligament in my knee and am forced to hire a bicycle riksha for transportation. I have wrapped a blanket around me for protection against the fierce cold. The cyclist has bare feet thrust into worn sandals. A thin, ragged shawl flaps in the wind as he pedals. His trousers are frayed pajama bottoms. I wonder how he has strength enough in his skinny body to pump the heavy bicycle.
We talk, the cyclist and I. In response to my questions, he quotes the politicians: “Vote for us and we will end your poverty, they say. But after we elect them, they forget that there is poverty.”
I cannot forget it. There's a man I can see right now, sleeping under the pillars of a bridge. In this cold! He has only rags covering him. Perhaps for someone with pockets full it could be possible to forget poverty. People look prosperous here in Punjab. They are well-groomed and well-dressed. But last night in the train depot, I almost stumbled on what looked like gray bags of mail lined up on the floor. They were actually people sleeping, homeless people.
I paid the riksha driver double the fare. Meeku scolded me. “You only make it worse for the next person,” he said. He was right. Indians have to live with the poverty. I would soon escape—and escape from my guilts also.
Jeetho, the servant-girl, gives birth to another boy. She is the envy of the neighborhood. “The luck of some people!” they all say. Boys are an asset. Wage-earners. Providers. Girls are born only to be given away. And with dowries. The theory behind the dowry is that the girl then becomes the liability of her husband who must provide for her the rest of her life.
One day, I climb aboard the noisy train and go to seek my former husband's village. It is where I would now be living if he and I had been able to follow our dream to come to India—and if we had stayed married.
I am made welcome by my husband's family although my arrival was not announced and I am stranger to them. They persuade me to stay with them for many days. I arise with the rest of the household and bathe with cold water freshly pumped from the earth. It is pitch black night. I bathe in the open in the courtyard, wearing a cotton gown for privacy. The water is warm enough, not cold like stored water. I change into dry clothes in a corner of the stone-floored bedroom. It is four-thirty in the morning. The young mother of the family has arisen even earlier and has tea ready for me.
Permanency. That is India. These are the rooms, the house, the courtyard where my husband was born and lived as a child. These are the rooms where his father lived before him, and his father's father. This is where he would be living now if he were still alive, and where I would be living. In the Indian way, I would belong to my husband's family, my destiny forever intermingled with theirs. A son never leaves his father's house.
“Why don't children in America love their parents?” I am asked. “But they do!”
“How can they? What kind of sons would go off and leave their parents?”
Here again, in a village, the same tableau of kitchen rituals: churning butter from buffalo milk, kneading fresh dough for bread. Woman's work, just as man's, starts before dawn and continues through the day and into the night. No servants here. The young wife-mother-daughther-in-law does it all. The one who must bring a dowry to offset her being a liability!
She feeds the children, then combs and braids them, boys and girls, and sends them off to the village school to sit three to a desk on straight-backed wooden benches for hours and hours throughout the day, no recesses, no sport curriculum. A few minutes for lunch and study, study, study to make up for the years of illiteracy imposed by foreign rule. Education with a vengeance!
Villages that do not have a school building, have the children bring gunny-sacks from home for protection against the cold earth on which they must sit all through the day. The earth does make a good slate. It can be wiped clean with the palm of the hand and used again.
I take the cold baths to prove myself the equal of my hardy people. For them, there is nothing to prove. They do what they must, they way it has been done through the centuries.
When the village bells toll in the temples each morning, it is only the men who attend the prayers. The women are busy stoking the hearth fires. Their chants can be heard in the kitchens.
The first day of each month is a religious celebration. I am taken to the Golden Temple of Amritsar to be shown such a celebration. We go to the community kitchen for our free meal, a basic tenet of the Sikh faith: food, free of charge, for all worshippers. I am astonished to find myself surrounded by scores of young Americans. All are welcome.
At home, I ask the beautiful teen-age daughter of the family how often she attends the Golden Temple.
“I have never gone,” she says.
“Never!” Only ten miles removed from the world-famed, most highly revered of all Sikh temples—and she has never been there?!
Her mother quickly explains: “It would be unseemly for an unmarried girl to be looked upon by strangers. People would not consider her a fit bride.”
Her mother, like all the other women of the household, wears a loose scarf on her head. She is quick to draw it across her face when her father-in-law appears or when she finds herself in the presence of men other than her husband.
“Why” I ask.
“Because it would be shameful. It could incite lustful desire.”
“Then I must be considered extremely brazen!” I exclaim.
“Oh, no! You are our elder. You are as a mother to us. The eldest brother's wife is respected by all.”
How generous they are. They forgive me my divorce, my shorn hair, my ignorance of their values.
I am served dinner with the men of the house. I am seated in the company of the men to receive the many guests who come to pay their respects to me. I am an elder. I am their dead brother's wife. I am a foreigner. I am their guest.
According to Indian poetry, a guest, a “prouna,” is the most important person in the house.