India

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A sojourn to the nether world

It happened to be the most consequential tour of my life when I visited Port Blair, the capital town of Andaman & Nicobar Islands of India. Situated at the juncture of Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea, the islands are the major tourist hub. The place which actually acted as a change agent for me was Cellular jail in Port Blair. Something inside me was drastically changed on returning from Port Blair. Visuals and the enlivening atmosphere of the place where our freedom fighters received hell of the tortures galvanised me to be more courageous.

Reaching there in the afternoon, I opted to take rest for two hours that rejuvenated the spirits and in evening as advised by my trip planner, I visited the famous cellular jail. The light and sound show described the history of Cellular jail in brief. This monument is a symbol of indestructible spirit of the great freedom fighters. It is a mute witness to the barbaric actions of the authorities of that time which were borne by the prisoners, who were mostly freedom fighters of Indian origin. I was deeply touched by history of that place which speaks volumes about the sacrifices made to attain freedom.

Next day, even though I had a plan to visit other islands but my heart & soul got entangled in the jail. I changed the plan and visited the cellular jail again in the morning. The Jail, completed in the year 1906 justified its name, ‘cellular’ because it is entirely made up of individual cells for the hermitical confinement of the prisoners. A massive three-storeyed structure has three wings connected to a central watchtower. This was a facility where 698 prisoners could be kept at a time.  The Jail, now a place of pilgrimage for all freedom loving people, has been declared a National Memorial. The patriots who raised their voice against the British Raj were sent to this Jail, where many perished. The thing that disturbed me the most was the diminutive jail cells which were quite suffocating. Between every two wings, there were working areas where freedom fighters were given tasks like oil extraction. Even after working like animal, the set targets were impossible for anyone to complete. When they failed to do so (which happened everyday), punishments were inevitable. They were given just enough food to survive and were not even allowed to attend the nature’s call except for specific times. People who rebelled and went to hunger strike were fed forcefully which filled their lungs with liquids and some even died while protesting. Even then they continued the protest and set an example of utmost courage for our country. Living in isolation inside the miniature cells they used to sing patriotic songs to convey their messages and get other’s attention.

Many models are displayed which are exact replica of the kind of work the inmates did. A trip to the gallows is something of an unnerving experience. The gallows are preserved with three nooses recreating the atmosphere of an actual hanging. Adding to it is the underground place where the bodies fell after the hanging. A feeling of jolt runs down the spine merely by the very thought that one human being can treat to other human in that way.

Thinking about the sacrifices gone in the foundation of my country, I was ashamed of myself and my friends who are always in search of the comforts of life. Promising for not doing a bit of an action which degrades the image of the great country, I took an oath to make the country free from evil practices. The need of the hour is not the struggle for freedom from slavery but freedom from corruption, freedom from unemployment and freedom from poverty. One shall not shy away from the responsibilities but shall stand for the things which are right for the country, as many souls have paid a hefty cost in getting the freedom for us.

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Never in my wildest nightmares did I think I would return to India. Not after last time and the following months of therapy, depression medication refills, and reoccurring dreams of a man’s face melting off in an open fire. Yet here I am, sitting by a different window wearing my old saffron salware kameez, listening to the honking traffic and an ethereal woman’s voice singing in a language I still don’t understand on a radio at a idly food stall below.

India is not the same and neither am I. It has been three years, after all. Coming here was almost unavoidable in my year-long trip around the world, but why a whole two months? In one of my novel writing classes before I graduated we talked about characters, and how the characters we love and trust are the ones who face the one thing they fear the most. I am not a fictional character. My experiences were more than letters on a page. But I wondered as I boarded the plane from Thailand and filled out the Indian immigration card if I too can recreate myself. Maybe I can reincarnate bravery and healing from the ashes of old fears and trauma.

I am hopeful, but some discomforts and annoyances are familiar and remind me of the past. I still don’t care for sensory overload, darting across the road almost sure I will be hit by a rickshaw one day, or the unidentifiable pungent liquids snaking through the broken up sidewalks. I have given up on being comfortable with blatant inequality and poverty thrust in my face and the never-ending war in my heart and head when a beggar approaches me with a pan. But this time I’m trying to pull that back and look deeper for something I missed.

There were good things, I admit, as I look out this window and remember flickers of what I forgot to appreciate. They have flooded back to me, even though I have only been back a week. There are the obvious answers: the food, the music, the ancient cultural heritage, and the people. But there are also the sounds—the faint jingling of gold jewelry, the monk’s reverberating mantras—and the colors.

I can’t ignore the colors, especially the indigo saris, the emerald jewels, the red walls lined with cracking textures, and the bright yellow lettering on buildings. I can’t dismiss these any more than the chalk art standing guard in front of doorways, the marigolds paving the way for a wedding, or the overwhelming hospitality of the people I meet here.

And then there are the smells beyond the sewage—sweet smelling cinnamon, whiffs of masala and peppermint tea, and savory wafts that come from the tandoori oven. I especially love the smell of hot dahl I squish together with my fingers before eating with my hand. I admit to myself that these are some of the best smells I’ve encountered in my travels around the world.

Looking out the window I know I have choices. I can note the steel bars lining the glass and see this as a kind of prison, a tribute to the past and testament to my stubbornness, hopelessness, and fears. I can also see past the bars to admire the orange blossoms on the Paras Pipal tree standing nearby, signaling second chances. Even better, I can take the pieces and see a whole. And if I am feeling brave and look even closer, I can see my own reflection in the hidden glass looking back at me, framing everything.

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Are You Willing To Give Up Your Life for You?

 

A few years ago my best friend was debilitated by an unrelenting illness and was anticipating a diagnosis that would mean further deterioration.  She was a single parent and I routinely traveled the seven hours between us to accompany her to her myriad of medical appointments as an advocate and witness.  I had told her that if she was diagnosed with the illness that was expected, I would sell my business and move in with her to provide the care and parenting support she would need.  She called one day informing me that she did not receive the diagnosis we had expected and dreaded.  Although still ill, she had a chronic condition that would not worsen.  I sagged with relief, and promptly decided I needed to get out into the wilderness for some time to reflect.  Hours later my tent was erected by my favourite lake and I was pondering life by a campfire.

 

Staring into the flames, I reflected on how close I came to giving up my life as I had carefully built it to support my friend.  I asked myself, “are you willing to give up your life for you?”  I answered immediately with a firm “yes”.  “What do you want to do?” I asked myself.  I was floored when my brain responded with “go to India”.  I had never given India a thought.  A few friends over the years had gone to India and always came back smitten with a particularly intense travel bug.  I knew there was something about India that suffused one’s being; that changed you.  But I found the idea of going to India daunting, and believed it would require more than I had.

It took two months to sell my house, my possessions, and close my business. During the relatively quick process of preparing for my trip, I questioned the sanity of my decision.  I was a single woman in my mid forties who according to my society’s mores ought to be working hard and saving for my retirement. I had reached some success in my profession and kept thinking, you don’t “arrive” only to throw it away.  It didn’t help that when people asked me why I was going to India that I didn’t really have an answer.  Numerous times I had to face my fears – especially my fear of being lonely and of being overwhelmed.  Stories and stereotypes of India crowded my consciousness and I feared the onslaught of bodies, the curiosity of the people and their endless inquiries, the myriad of rules and regulations and the poverty of a country of one billion people. 

I arrived in Delhi at 2:00 am, exhausted and fairly tense after having listened to a ninety something year old Indian gentleman provide extensive advice about matters of safety in his country.  He was the oldest man I had ever laid eyes on. He was implacable.  Calm.  As our wheels hit the tarmac, my ancient seat companion turned to me and spoke in an authoritative tone.  “There’s just one thing to remember while you’re in my country,” I was eager for his advice.  “…nothing in India makes sense”. His pronouncement was unembellished and emphatic. His words resonated with me through out my three months there.  They were the best guide I could ever have.  I heard him often in my head.  “Nothing makes sense”.  His deep wisdom allowed me to let go, surrender, and be amused.

 

Carrying my inner ancient Indian guide, I relaxed into nothing makes sense.  Laughed often at my disbelief.  Laughed at my discomfort.  Laughed at my unknowing. 

 

India was the biggest gift to me I will have in my lifetime.  It’s intensity – the intensity of pollution, poverty, harassment, abuse of women, children, animals and the intensity of its generosity and beauty – forced me to live in the present moment.  I could walk a mere street in India and be completely taken over by joy, amazement, mirth, disgust and rage all in a matter of minutes.  India taught me that I could detach from my emotional states, allowing them to flow through me of their own volition leaving me to keep moving forward, keep experiencing, keep engaging.

India also taught me gratitude.  Not only for my privilege and comfort, but a deeper sense of gratitude taught to me by a legless beggar.  This unnamed man had been inching his way towards our bus, dragging his torso across unspeakable filth to beg his sustenance from us.  My pity was instantly humbled into a deeper connection, when he bestowed a beatific smile upon me as I gave him a small offering, and I was bathed in his joy.  Gratitude expands beyond circumstances and experiences.

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If I live through this, I will consider myself reborn” I thought,  clinging to my 14 year old daughter’s shirt to avoid sliding off the Rajnee the elephant.   We were riding the leathery gray giant as she swayed her way up a stone staircase.  Bella and her 10 year old sister Sophia sat between the elephant’s caretaker, or mahout, in the front, and me in the back. We were sitting on blankets with nothing but each other to hold onto.  The angle of Rajnee’s back slanted dangerously as she climbed the stairs.  I was seconds from sliding off and falling fifteen feet to break my bones on the stone steps below.   All I could reasonably hope for was that my daughters would manage to stay on.

We met Rajnee the day before, at the ashram beside the river .   India’s domesticated elephants serve humans in a variety of ways.  Some work in the jungle carrying loads.   Ancient royals travelled on elephants and used them in battles.  Rajnee was a festival elephant.  During Hindu holidays,  she was painted bright colors, adorned with flowers and paraded through the villages.  Rajnee had her own caretaker, her  mahout.  This 80 pound slip of a weathered old man lived in the stable beside her on a straw mattress.

We brought Rajnee bananas and she took them out of our hands with her slime-tipped, hoary trunk. . We were fascinated by the massive but gentle creature who radiated intelligence and looked  like she was from another world.  Rajnee let my children stroke and hug her.  The mahout, through a young translator, offered us a ride during tomorrow’s daily walk for a small fee.  We accepted.

When Bella, Sophia, and I returned to her stable the next day, the mahout grunted  a command, and Rajnee kneeled down to the ground.  He threw blankets on her back  and secured these with rope around her belly.  Barefoot, he climbed onto the crook between her head and neck, and gestured to us to scramble on behind him.   As I painfully straddled her wide back, I realized there was nothing to hold onto.   I started to say something, but he grunted again, and Rajnee stood up. Her front legs went up first, and I screamed as my girls and I tipped backwards and nearly slid off her backside.   Then her back legs stood too and her back evened out.  I knew, in that moment of terror, that this was not the best idea.  But with no common language between me and the mahout, there was nothing to do now but ride.

Elephants ambulate their enormous bodies with a languorous  swaying motion. I relaxed into the motion.  For a few minutes  my girls and I felt like the queens of the world.  We were ten feet up, observing life along the river as we passed by.  Beautiful shrines decorated the bases of spreading banyan trees.   Women in colorful saris walked with pots and baskets balanced on their heads.  Boys played cricket with weathered sticks and battered balls.

We rode to a wide stone staircase leading down to the riverbed.  “Oh no she is not….oh yes, she is.”   I thought.  Rajnee turned her massive bulk and slowly descended the steps. We leaned in and were fine.   But I knew that coming back up these would be… interesting.   I looked for something to hold onto.  I could almost clutch the knot of rope that held the blankets we were sitting on.  But as I examined the knot in the frayed rope, I saw that it could easily come undone and the ramifications of the blankets sliding off…..never mind.

Rajnee walked through the vast dry riverbed and I tried not to think about the return climb on those stairs.  I breathed into the moment;  the swaying, and the blue sky, and my daughters and I atop this elephant like maharanis, for goodness sake.  I looked at the people we passed, conversing in Hindi with the ancient mahout.  I imagined they were saying, “Today is your lucky day, isn’t it? Three foreigners to ride with you, ah?  What will you do with the money?”  I hoped they were not saying “Look at this. This would never pass American safety standards. I wonder if these girls will manage to stay on? Remember what happened to the last bunch who rode?”

Rajnee turned around to head home.  We got to the stairs, and as she climbed them I fell to my death in my mind, and then we were at the top and I was still on, clutching Bella’s shirt with desperate clammy  hands.  We paid  800 rupees and walked away intact and whole.   Thus, I was reborn on the back of an elephant, mostly just the same me but also a little more fearless.

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      It was my last day in Varanasi – I would catch an east-bound train that night. I awoke early and headed into the twisting warrens of the old city to visit  Kashi Vishwanath  Temple.  I was told that  I should go early in the morning before it gets “crazy”.  And to bring my passport for the security checkpoint there .  This temple, the holiest site for India’s millions of Hindus, was a frequent target of Islamic terrorist threats.  I also gathered a stack of 10 rupee notes to keep in my pocket for priests, blessings, and flowers.

The narrow lanes of the old city were empty and silent, and my footsteps echoed on the cobblestones.  As I neared the temple, the throng of activity began. I passed  flower-sellers, sacred souvenir shops, chai stands, bakers, and then clusters of armed soldiers. At the  security checkpoint the numbers in my passport were carefully written into a massive ledger.  A fellow bobbled his head at me and gestured to a rack of shoes.  It was time to take my shoes off. I hesitated as I looked at the marble floors ahead – sopping wet with Ganges river water  and gooey with spots of cow dung and monkey droppings.  I peeled my socks off and surrendered to the moment, trusting that a bit of holy offal on my feet could do me no harm.

I stepped out of the security checkpoint, and a woman gave me a little leaf bowl filled with milk and flowers. I handed her a 10 rupee note and crossed into the temple, nearly bursting into laughter as I beheld the chaotic beauty.

Silver, gold, marble; statues, gods, altars, within and within and within each other filled every inch of space. Thousands of bright orange and magenta flowers were strewn about and piled on the altars, the smoke of incense filled the air, and there was a constant SPLASH as Hindu pilgrims tossed  big copper kettles of Ganges river water over gods and altars.  The marble floor was slippery with puddles of holy water.  The sounds of chanting and chattering and constantly ringing bells resounded off the marble walls and floors.  It was colorful and wet and loud and crowded;  and on top of that the whole place pulsated with movement – of the monkeys.   Monkeys climbed everywhere, and were sitting on every altar munching on flowers.

The center of the temple was an inner sanctum containing a  Shiva lingham, or phallis, on a pure silver altar.  That space was packed full of people making offerings, with a high priest on a stool overseeing them and giving blessings. The sanctum was so jam-packed that I had no interest in going in.  But in the Indian spirit of “there is always room for one more!”, people gestured at me to come in, come in. I squeezed in, poured my milk over the lingham, got my blessing from the priest in exchange for a handful of rupees notes, and then just wanted out.  I felt my ribs being compressed by the push of people leaning in to touch the lingham.   There was  no easy way out and more people were crowding in.  It took several minutes of patient doing, to worm my way out from the center of that smash.

Parvati is the wife of Shiva. I found her shrine room off to the side, with much more breathing room.  I placed my flowers at her feet.  I thought I was alone in there until I noticed the priest in the corner.  He was wild-eyed and grinning as he dabbed my third eye with his red paint. I reached into my pocket and discovered I was out of rupees. I sheepishly smiled at him, and then we both watched as a four-foot long garland of marigold flowers spontaneously fell off a Ganesh (elephant god) statue. I picked it up off the floor and reached to put it back on the statue but the priest cried out “No, No!  It is for you! Ganesh has given it to you!”  He placed the garland around my neck and  I slipped out of the room with a bow and “namaste”.

Stepping into the courtyard I saw a couple monkeys out of the corner of my eye.  Suddenly, ZOOM, a monkey leapt at me and his perfect fetal hand yanked a flower from off my neck. He popped it in his mouth and gobbled it up. I was stunned and frightened at first , and then a feeling of delight crept  through my whole being.  I laughed as I tore more flowers off my neck and tossed them to the monkeys to eat. “Here!” I told them, “Ganesh has given these to you!”

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India is a traveler’s paradise. It is rich and diverse; there is variety in climate, vegetation, terrain and much more.  So, lucky was I when I embarked on a journey from north to south via land transport.

Principal part of this journey was completed in a train much to my delight. This way I caught a brief glimpse of all five well marked physical divisions of this incredible country.

Being born in a valley so beautiful, makes you feel lucky all the time. The form of nature here is supreme and superlative but the umpteen creations that lie beyond it, are just as magnificent. The more you see, the more there is to admire.
The highway that takes you out of Srinagar to Jammu is a traveler’s joy. The ride to Jammu is like a roller coaster.

The Himalayas live up to their reputation of being splendid and majestic. They stand like guards and tower above us. There are as many of the mountains as there could be; sitting together in a round table conference. There are gurgling rivers, beautiful ravines and fabulous waterfalls too.

Patnitop is the highest point in the highway. As you look down from a height you realize that you have scaled great heights and yet you have to go down again. The standard curve of life!

In Jammu you are free to go anywhere in trains which are still unknown to Kashmir. If your heart longs to see nature at its best, take a train from anywhere to anywhere in India!

As the train left the station to traverse the vast expanses of India, the curtain rose and there in front of me were all the things I could possibly have wanted to see.

The moving train traversed the picturesque, never ending fields. Lush green meadows were a perfect site and the seemingly infinite railway track added to the mystery of the land. The never ending river basins were dry. They awaited summer and water. Hutments, temples, trees and houses could be seen scattered here and there too.

The air that blew through the window chilled me to bones but refreshed my soul. It hit my cheeks and sent waves of serenity and bliss to my heart.

The plains of Punjab and Haryana are followed by the desert of Rajasthan. Mounds of barren land stretch far and wide. Desolation and parched earth was all there was to see.  There was a feeling of hardship in this land and the sense of leisure that you find in Kashmir was nonexistent.

Gujarat that followed was greener. Its nearness to the sea could be felt in its vegetation. The poplars were long gone and with them went every trace of winter. Trees like palm and coconut could be spotted.

Seeing the sea for the first time was like discovering the end of the world. The magnificence of the waters, the magnitude of the waves, the power of the wind, the softness of the sand, the distant yet seeming near horizon, the blue sky and the peace!

The waves wash ashore a million times a day and they represent the transience of life. They distort all sand structures and level the land without effort. Footprints, inscribed words are washed away as if they were never there.

When sunlight falls over the rippling waters, it gets scattered to bits making it seem as if a million mirrors are afloat.

 The deep blue sea hides in its bosom secrets of the land, troubles of hearts and sayings of the soul. It takes all you have to give and leaves you in peace.

My journey to Chennai, via Bangalore and Hyderabad, revealed more pearls of nature. Apart from typical vegetation with coconut and palm trees dominating, there were hills to be seen at a distance. The summits had rocks strangely carved like works of great sculptors. The stones were soft shades of brown and colossal, jetting out at odd angles to the hillocks. The livestock that I spotted in this region was also very different from north India.
The site of one sunflower is enough to make your day, to say nothing of a meadow full of these flowers. There were fields planted with cotton too. It was like seeing miniature snowballs on plants.

Next came Central India. The plateaus of Madhya Pradesh are marvelous. There are no peaks; the earth rises only to end like a table top. The terrain is uneven and the railway tracks wind and unwind in a zigzag manner unlike the plains.

 

Thus the train moved on to make the complete circle, to leave me back at the place where it first picked me up. Each bird that leaves its nest will one day return home.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” John Muer

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   While sifting through the gravelled paths of my inwardly fruitful past, I now vividly see the subtle indentations that has softly marked my unquenchable past; a phase of my life that held in its abyss a soaring powerful force marginally enough to unequivocally make me stronger and courageously fearless. Then a while ago, I greatly wondered why I was no more that minimally brave person I thought I was in those formative years of my life, and how could I have possibly let my faith in the receding handful of hope and every shred of my courage I had ever owned to be dented with fear, which then by some random chance had unimaginably and invariably grown on me as I grew in a fragile world of my own, from which I could almost never free myself from for many a year up until recently….

  A thought from a thought that just wouldn’t cease, out of the unexplored nowhere had birthed itself and crept into the soul of my varying thoughts, but at last it has bravely yet steadily begun to unveil itself before me; and thus for the first time ever I have stumbled upon the theory of my life which now gently resists the fear that lay concealed in me and harshly refuses to let go of what has made me, the fragmented me I am now. I plainly see that which I had so brutally failed to see in plain sight; the stirring fear that was never in me once before has now remarkably purposed itself to undeteringly remind me of a particularly significant journey that I had once made in the year 1991 to the Virgin of Velai, a town in the Nagapattinam district in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, which indeed was truly a memorable family pilgrimage; and it will never fade away from the recesses of my memory, even if I mustered all of my remnant energy to do so.

  But sadly in 2004, the very soil of this beautiful town witnessed the passing away of many precious lives by the so called waves that masqueraded as though they were seemingly harmless at first. Out of the absolute nowhere, their lives were snitched in a blink as the wildly ferocious Tsunami waves returned to its dwelling and receded from everyone’s sight after having rendered its merciless purpose. Nonetheless, having said that, it would be mighty wrong of me not to mention the very shrine that this aged photograph has captured, which is the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, very often and popularly known as the “Lourdes of the East”. This shrine was said to have been built by Portuguese sailors in the mid-sixteenth century. Meanwhile, it has been testified that during the time that the incident had occurred those who were inside this church were miraculously saved and untouched by the surging waves that hurled outside and encircled it. Sometimes, a hint of hope or a morsel of faith drawn from around or within is almost enough to inspire the bravery in us all.

  Finally coming back to my due purpose, and so as I fondly rummage through the whirling past of my clueless past, I see the undeniable truth that even the beige grains of sand that once surrounded this shrine had held for nearly a fraction of a second the firm imprint of my tender feet which I believe had then reflected the glaring strength in me. Yet now, I painfully realize that it was always within me, but never had I once tried to draw it out of myself and see how the impressionable journey that lay hidden in me, has now effortlessly embarked on its most spirited journey to inspire the fragmented me and complete the real me, who was once brave enough; yet at some point in my life the piercing shards of griefs that fragmented me, hid from me the secret recipe of bravery, which gladly I have now unearthed and so understand that it always is, and it always will be at the heart of every quest like those in search of the holy grail; and in the soul of every tale wrapped in a sheath of inspiration.

  There have always been rousing moments wherein I have felt that a journey to the farthest destination can bring back what I once had or perhaps render it better than I had ever dreamt of. But now, every waking minute I can’t help but think that my inspiration was within me all the while, and that the destination journeyed to was just a catalyst that enabled the bravery I had in me from the start of life, which I never knew, but I so do now and forevermore.

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 That night before going to sleep, she asked me if I regretted anything in life.

Today, when I look at those dusky sand dunes, those elegant attires, those royal palaces, those grand food servings. I feel proud. Proud of the decision I took back then.

The most awaited month of the year had arrived. My birthday month, which fortunately coincided with my vacations. And all I wanted as my 18th birthday present was a trip to Rajasthan all by myself. These were the perks of turning an adult you know. I put across my wish to my parents that night and they said they would grant me the permission if their morning self agreed with their night self. To my surprise I woke up in the morning just to find a ticket to Rajasthan from my parents. Without wasting any further time, I got ready, hugged them and boarded my train to Rajasthan, ‘the land of great kings.’

Travelling by yourself makes you appreciate the finer things in life, makes you realize how beautiful the world is, makes you realize how important time is and leaves you with a gift of keen observation.

Within 40 hours, I was In the Pink City. City of Jaipur. I had streams of excitement yet nervousness flowing through my body, because this was my first outing alone. I booked my room and after my sleep, I was off on my tour. My uncle had arranged for a guide to show me around the city. The forts, the temples, the culture were all mesmerizing. Pictures don’t do it justice, it is a must see in person. But what constantly kept grabbing my attention was the teen girl called ‘Fulwa’ with the guide. I wondered if she was his daughter. She looked daunt, quite dominated. Not for once did he give her a fatherly look. When the guide stepped out of the cab to quench his thirst, the girl with some hope in her eyes said that she wanted to run away with me. I knew there was something terrible happening. Without even giving her request a second thought I took a rickshaw which stopped only in front of my hotel.

I comforted her in the room and made her tell me what was wrong. As she proceeded with her story, I realized this 16yr old was not a daughter but a wife to that 30yr old man. She had been sold. Sold by her parents to kill their hunger and other greed’s of life. Their daughter meant nothing more than a material to them. The practice of selling daughters to older men and tagging the process as marriage was no new thing in her village she said. I hugged her to give her a homely feeling but then I realized that a homely feeling must have been totally unfamiliar to her. I promised myself to help this girl out by admitting her into a women’s organization. My decision was not just because she was a victim to injustice but also because she was brave and had big dreams which she wanted to fulfill. When she talked of her dreams, her eyes spoke more than her words. She knew she had no resources, no support but she somehow wanted things to change and be in her favor. “What do you want to be Fulwa?” I questioned. “A pilot” came a beaming reply. “I want to fly, I want to see the world, I want to be respected and” “And what?” I encouraged her to talk. “And I want to show my parents that I am no material to be sold. That I am priceless” Tears started rolling down her eyes. Wiping her tears, I told Fulwa about admitting her into the organization, and she was on cloud nine. Her eyes beamed with hope again. She felt courageous.

 That night before going to sleep, she asked me if I regretted anything in life, “I wish I was a little more beautiful.” I said smiling.

 

The next day when I dropped her at the organization, she looked at me with teary eyes and whispered in my ears something which still resonates in my ears, “someone will always be more beautiful, someone will always be more intelligent but someone will never be you.” I knew why she said this. I hugged her tight because I felt quite emotional now. With a promise to visit at least once a year I asked her to step towards her dreams. This was her first step into the big world. I was really proud of Fulwa for the bravery she had shown and I patted my own back for helping the helpless. I felt proud. I felt brave. I felt beautiful and I felt me.

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Bharat. My father’s name is synonymous with India’s traditional name, which in turn comes from one of India’s earliest kings. It’s a good name for him; he was kingly in his own way. Even as as a tumor ravaged his brain, he maintained his dignity and loving nature. In the hospital in Houston, a nurse asked him when his birthday was to test cognition. He immediately replied,”September 15, 1954.” Although that’s my mother’s birthday, it tells you what was important to him.

It’s harshly ironic to me that I am doing my father’s death ceremony in my mother country. It’s five in the morning here at the shore of the Ganges River, and the water numbs my bare feet as I immerse them. My feet turn pale, and my blue veins resemble rivers in a white desert.

           My brother, Kunal, is suffering the same. The Sanskrit mantras barely squeeze through his chattering teeth. As soon as the puja is over, we escape the icy water and limp to the car. As we near the parking lot, the insulated serenity of the riverbank gives way to a line of street stalls. Most of the vendors sleep beneath their stalls on sleeping bags, sharing mutual fires to fight the cold. They sell everything from jewelry to shirts, rosaries to hot tea.

Kunal and I stop at a tea stand. The tea scalds my tongue, but I don’t care. The stream of fire travels down my throat and to chest, where my heart pumps the heat through my chilled veins. It’s a temporary relief, and I’m tempted to thaw my frozen feet with the boiling beverage.

About 100 feet to my right, I notice an elderly man standing with his feet in the river. The man is terribly thin, and his clothes resemble rags, but as he stands erect facing the rising sun with clasped hands, he resembles a saint. With no warning, he dives into the water. My brother and I simultaneously cringe as the man rises to the surface. Although the man is hyperventilating from the cold, he acts as if he’s in a hot-tub. He runs his hands through his hair and sings devotional songs through his halting breaths. If serenity was person, it would be that man.

Kunal. My brother’s name means lotus. When I imagine a lotus, I think of something thin and tenuous. That wasn’t my brother. He was more like a solid oak, but his ashes don’t retain those qualities. They curve and bend with the ripples and eddies of a small river in the city of Gondal in west India.

The same priest who performed by grandfather’s ash ceremony does it for my brother. He’s old and has a bad leg, so he uses a red scooter to get around. However, his laugh is of someone much younger, and he guns his old scooter like it’s a Harley. When I look at the priest, I’m reminded of the man my brother and I saw bathing in the Ganges three years ago. The priest and that man share a longevity that I’ve never seen.

I’m not speaking of longevity in the sense of life-span. I’m talking about the endurance of vitality. The children of “Bharat Mata”, or “Mother India”, as we are so fond of saying, display that same energy. My father brought it over with him to America, and it took him through many surgeries, economic depressions, and racial persecutions. And then he handed that hardiness off to Kunal and I.

 India fosters that sense of bravery, that need to fight for one’s goals. Now that my father and brother are gone, it’s my turn to carry the torch forward. One day my children will return to India, for my final rites, and they will find something new. They will find an energy, an almost spiritual need to keep fighting through adversity. Maybe it’s something in the air.

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You Can Have Coffee With Gandhi Here

“You can have coffee with Gandhi here.” That’s what the tour operator said when he shook hands with us at the airport. If you are fascinated by the Gandhian doctrine and want to explore India alongside the footprints of one of the greatest thinkers and world leaders of all times, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi, then Gujarat is the place for you. Just think that you might actually drop in for a cup of coffee with a member of the Gandhi family, or get a chance to attend a musical prayer session at the Gandhi Ashram on the banks of the River Sabarmati, Ahmedabad.

Gujarat is not just about Gandhi. It is also about the grand palaces of the medieval Maharajahs and the majestic Lions of the Gir forest. It’s about the breathtaking White Desert Rann of Kutch and the architectural marvel of temples at Palitana, Girnar and Sankeshwar.

My romance with Gujarat started because of my fiancé, Yesh. Yesh planned for me a 3 nights 4 days Gujarat trip. Our itinerary included Ahmedabad – Patan – Modhera – Dasada – Gondal – Junagarh.  We decided to tie-up with a traveling agency. Our first day began with

 

 

 

arrival at Ahmadabad airport, followed by welcome at the airport and transfer to hotel.

The tour operator informed us that after lunch and rest, he had arranged for afternoon city tour of Ahmadabad. Ahmadabad is the commercial capital of Gujarat, but it’s a colorful and vibrant destination. Amidst malls and buzzing bazaars, we visited the five floor deep Indo-Islamic architectural wonder, Adalaj Stepwell. Just as I was recovering from the stepwell experience, we were taken to the world famous Sabaramati Ashram of Gandhi. We spent the evening literally sipping coffee and hearing about the Satyagraha Movement at the cafeteria of the Sabaramati Ashram of Gandhi!

 

On the second day, we left for Dasada early morning. Dasada is a small village situated on the outskirts of Rann of Kutch. This village is mainly inhabited by pastoral communities. Rann of Kutch wildlife sanctuary is one of the largest sanctuaries in the entire country. Covering an area of 4950 sq ft, it is famous for its attractive chestnut brown Asiatic (Wild ass), a species of wild horses.

The third day began with our visit to government office to obtain the special permit which is required in order to travel to tribal villages and border areas deep in the Rann of Kutch. As we drove out of Bhuj the landscape changed rapidly to semi-desert with pockets of scrub and thorn bush. Not surprisingly, we met a many camel and goat herders on our way. There were many villages scattered around the region, each with a specialty which enables them to make out a living from this harsh region. Many of the villages specialize in the creation of beautiful traditional arts and crafts. We were spellbound to see numerous leatherwork, embroidery, painting, wood carving, fabric dying and mud-work.

I am an Indian but I cannot say that any other state in India exemplify the essence of India so beautifully as the Gujarat does.

  Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.