A friend welcomes me back in Majnu Ka Tilla after I stagger off the night bus directly linking the two Tibetan communities. McLeodganj was roiling sickness and a blank wall in a darkened bedroom, but I’ve been uncorked, and I wouldn’t be able to handle the intensity of what is to come otherwise. There are a few significant spots left on my list, and I’ve decided to finish out November with a couple of them: Bodhgaya (the spot where the Buddha attained Enlightenment) and Varanasi, the city of death, life, and the Ganges.
My friend, Jyoti, is Belgian and lives in Nepal. We drink lemon ginger honey tea, sitting on a bench outside a tiny counter-in a-window-sized store; rest for the afternoon; and go out to Paharganj, the budget neighborhood in the old market area near the train station — we want a night out, a mini (technically Thanksgiving) celebration.
The metro releases us into the crowd moving up and into the New Delhi Railway Station. A phalanx of auto rickshaws waits at the curb, but they don’t bother us as we weave around and across and between the lanes and people, taking the short cut through the station to get to Paharganj. Passengers wait in clusters, facing inward, some sitting on small plastic or cotton sheets. We climb the tall stairs to the enormous walkway stretching across dozens of tracks, staircases branching out and touching down on platform after platform, destinations flashing between Hindi and English on the overhanging screens.
Down the other side, another line of autos and taxis, and into a larger-than-usual crowd. A real crowd, not the typical it’s-a-crowd-to-an-American amount, filling and spilling out of the main drag.
We move closer and realize that there’s a parade!
The turban-bound men quickly indicate that this is a Sikh holiday, although neither of us know what it is. We add ourselves to the masses slowly moving alongside the parade line. The volume of people isn’t distressing… it’s a light, happy atmosphere, with delighted children and a fair mix of women. There are stalls handing out free food (this is a Sikh event, after all) in pressed-leaf bowls, spicy curries and some mashed sort of thing I do not recognize. The volunteers scurry to scoop and deliver the steaming dishes.
Various bedecked vehicles define the parade, with laughing smiling waving children. And there are serious pilgrims carefully dressed in traditional uniforms with sashes. The parade line is sprinkled with groups of sweepers brushing garbage and the random to the curbs, followed by groups of pilgrims walking barefoot. Men come cheering and dancing, but not in a dangerous fervor. Lights drape buildings and stretch across the street; people peer down from balconies and rooftops. It is cheerful chaos, and eventually the sacred book rolls by in a glass-encased trailer, tended by priests — the climax.
I feel comfortable, welcome, safe; able to join the swirl of people without being overwhelmed. Able to add my joy to the vibrancy, brightness, jubilation. The giving, feeling, expressive experience of life dancing through streets in the happy commotion.
We slip across the road, following a burst of people crossing the parade, and find the narrow staircase. The cement steps pass through a fabric store and climb farther in tight turns to a rooftop restaurant. We order our Thanskgiving meal — falafel, hummus, pita, dal makhani, naan — and settle in to watch the parade streaming by below.
A wide circle forms in the street and performance fighters take the space to dance with blades. We have a perfect view, watching their acrobatic lunges and spinning demonstrations. It’s the last event, grabbing the parade line’s caboose for attention.
Eventually, they move on too, and the road slowly empties into normalcy, save for an elephant or two wandering away into the night.
In the afternoons at Brahma Vida Ashram, I am free to rest, read, and reflect. I spend my time speaking with the older sisters, the ones who have been at the ashram for decades. This post is a compilation of two interviews with a particular lady in her eighties. She is devout, informed, and dedicated. May I share her words well.
“’I, me, mine,’” the elderly sister tells me, leaning forward from her pillow in earnest, “that has created all the problems.”
Her simple room near the ashram’s gardens is dark and cool in the afternoon heat. She sits on her bed next a table stuffed with books, an alarm clock, a radio, and bits of paper. Her gray and white hair is cut short, a radical style for India; sometimes she takes a deep breath as she speaks, wind in her chest emphasizing her most important points. “A calm state of mind is essential, all the time observing your breath,” I am told. She squints slightly at me, serious but kind. Sometimes she augments our conversation with a book pulled down from the shelves behind her – something on Vinoba, the ashram’s founder, or various aspects of life. The conversation flows from her travels in America to questions about my work. At this particular moment, we are discussing the future of humanity.
“From the moon, there are no lines on Earth. […] The identity of “I” is fake, it has no meaning. When we get rid of the I-ness, I am nothing, I am an instrument in the hands of a power, I want to keep links with that power.” Her eyes are calm but grave. “These wars, the bloodshed, exploitation, trying to find some place for myself, I depend on this person — I don’t depend on any person, I am empty.”
She tells me stories: how she gave away her inheritance after keeping just enough for her needs, how Gandhi was careful to take no more than his share, Vinoba’s simple way of life. Producing a pair of pink pants made from thick, handmade cotton, her hands perform the movements of sewing a patch — for twenty-two years. She owns a summer outfit and a winter outfit. Waving at the things on the table beside her, she tells me, “Objects are here with me temporarily, they will move on,” her hand flings out and I imagine the books speeding away from her. “We have to use objects to their ultimate end, you can’t use and then throw away.” Counting on her fingers, she explains that mass production and consumption mean mass waste.
Our conversation turns to India, its problems and heritage. “India is a land of unity in diversity,” she explains, her voice soft but her words railing against corporate systems, the dangers of globalization, the monopolization of seeds and that variety will be finished, that regular folk won’t be able to get seeds from the fields, as they always have. Vinoba’s peace walk for land reform floats up from my memory; I hear the vital role of agriculture in her words, echoing the man who started the ashram seventy years ago.
Thinking about role of giant corporations in America’s government and economy, I ask the question I’ve carried with me for the Gandhians: how can young people have hope?
“When we see positive and negative things in this world, we get confused. But there is — positivity is in a bigger number than the negativity. And the whole world is standing on some harmony. In human society, negativity is in bigger number than positivity. But because God has created this whole universe, Divinity will be more successful… there is a survival instinct in human beings, in insects and everything. Through violence, we cannot survive, we need nonviolent means. The language of love need not be learnt, any individual animal or insect understands the language of love. […] So our mission of life is to give love, to everyone who comes into your life flow — serve them with a compassionate and loving heart. If I can do that, then my life is worthwhile. You will be so much happy, and so much enjoy. On a certain level, that’s how the Divine power works. People catch our vibrations, and it becomes something magical.”
I scribble notes and promise to write something that my university community back home could read.
When we say our goodbyes, she hands me a book of poetry on nature’s beauty, and takes my hand. “I have realized the significance of your name. Bridget. You build bridges between people.”
Remembering Chicago, the interfaith community, and their nickname for me, I know it is not a great leap to make but I still stagger away from her room in awe of the experience.