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.
This time at the Sikh temple, the baby was awake and crawling.
I was welcomed back, offered chai, and ushered to sit down. It’s still October 14th and I’ve only been away from Delhi for a week, but it feels like much, much longer between the newness stretching out days, and the harassment piling heavily on my skin.
I wave and smile at the baby, who is slowly encouraged to sit in my foreign lap. Something in the kitchen pulls the women away, and I am left to prove myself with the child. What if she hates me, and I am the failed woman from a foreign country? Who cares if I reject normative definitions and roles, right now I am here and I want to communicate. And I so desperately need to belong somewhere, even if just for a few hours.
Seeing my chunky brown stone bracelet, I pull it off and hand it over. She stares at it and sticks it in her mouth.
Now I must prevent the child from choking on my ingenious plan. “Nahi, nahi, nahi” remembering Hindi and gently prying it away from her slippery fingers, I keep it close enough to entertain but not enough to threaten.
They return and laugh at the strangeness of an Indian baby in a white girl’s arms; sitting again, stories flutter up as well as they can with differing languages. Giving status, defining our relationships and place in the world, are the easiest points to communicate. I try to bend my story into simpler terms, sacrificing accuracy for connection, queerness in its many forms for cross-cultural commonality. I wonder at the ethics of this, the compromising for acceptance, the self-performance modifications to offer a cohesive, acceptable, and comprehensible narrative.
The baby pulls at my prayer beads around my neck, working to get them closer to her mouth, and I gently unwrap her fingers. She calmly explores my face, tugs my scarf a little, grabs my nose piercing with tiny fingers, and puts her fingers in my mouth — none of this bothers me. Except the nose, that hurts. I think children should be affirmed as much as possible, and I make a silent sacrifice of my health as the baby’s fingers pull my bottom lip way out to see what shape I make. Just another moment of “if I get sick, this was it.”
My companions gently laugh, and I can tell that they enjoy how comfortable the child is. My crossed legs take turns propping her up, depending on which way she is wiggling, and my ability to have a split focus means her curious tugging at various bits of my face does not disrupt our conversation.
Trading the child for vegetables and an awkwardly long knife, I slowly and carefully slice onions with my disproportionate blade to the others’ amusement. Sitting on the floor, navigating a basket and my knees, I think about how startled my family would be if I prepared vegetables like this back in the States. Soon we are up, the main lady and I, pulling pots and spices out for the evening meal. I am taught the rice to water ratio — four hand scoops to two scoops of water — and I remember my father carefully aligning his eyes with the measuring cup for an accurate read. I would be scolded if I lifted up the lid before it was done, as once was sufficient and more would destroy it. And she is estimating with a scoop.
Our freshly-cut vegetables sizzle in oil, and I take over the stirring, because I know how to do that. The construction of the spicy curry is basically a standard approach: onions and whatnot first, adding spices, building up the vegetables, soaked lentils, water…I try to communicate how similar an approach it is, but I think that fails to transfer.
Back sitting on the floor, waiting for the curry to cook, the baby reaches for me and crawls across the small space between us and up into my lap — I am delighted. Seeing her first smile and laugh of the afternoon (a very serious girl) filled me with a simple joy, and when she first clutched me in a hug, resting her head against my shoulder, I felt accepted in a fundamental way, with a simplicity that only children can offer. Racial and cultural divides faded away for her, and I was just another one in the family.
But it was when she fell asleep on my shoulder that the acceptance truly settled into my heart.
Her grandmother, my co-cook and main conversation partner, slips a silver bangle onto my right wrist and communicates that I should not remove it. It was one of hers, a Sikh-identifying symbol (there are six). I wave and fold my hands into namaste and attempt to thank her.
I take my turn eating and serving our spicy meal, and then she invites me to rest as the others disperse. We stretch out on thin blankets where we have been sitting, the baby nestled into one fold, then the grandmother, and a freshly-bangled me, grateful for a new normal in space that is supposed to be radically different.
Sikhs seemed to give without hesitation or question.
The off-duty tour guide who had corrected my foot placement freely gave explanations of Sikhism and his time despite my being clear that I could not compensate him financially. I was slightly concerned about his interest, although, at his invitation, my friends always accompanied us. With his guidance and explanations, we had observed the night’s closing ceremonies.The softly reading voices waft out of the rows of rooms where six men take turns reading the holy book without ceasing, having been hired by someone for the blessing. Each replica of the sacred book is wrapped in white and gold among incense and prayers, and carried to a special resting place — miniature carved beds with soft white cushions. In the morning, they will be taken out again with equal ceremony, and one page will be read at random, becoming that day’s wisdom. Volunteers haul the heavy golden litter onto their shoulders to carry the original holy book from the temple at the center of the pool. The text read from that book is posted on the wall, along with translations.
Our guide even took us to a few smaller nearby temples; at one, we observed a ceremony in which a lithe priest is hauled into the air on a simple wooden seat and unties the long swathe of fabric covering one of the tall sacred poles. This sought-after fabric brings good luck and prosperity; every morning the pole is wrapped with fresh cloth, funded by the donation of a particular family who would then stand and receive the blessed pieces of the previous day’s wrapping. The extra bits would be passed to the waving, eager hands of pilgrims pushing each other aside like a bouquet-tossing scene in a bad romantic comedy. Seeing two men argue, both gripping tightly to the last piece of fabric, was the most un-Sikh thing I had seen in Amritsar.
Our guide spoke to the priest, who returned with a piece of the fabric and, relatively unceremoniously, handed it to me, The Tourist. Stunned by the significance, I felt that I did not deserve such a sacred item, not being Sikh, but our guide was proud to see me with it. I stood there, stunned, as a small group gathered around to watch me having my photograph taken. I slowly began to wonder if this man was eager to indebt me to him. Although courteous and informative, he, twice my age and a bachelor, did inquire about my perspective on marriage and relationships, as the two of us walked back to the Golden Temple just ahead of my friends, as we seemed to navigate the chaotic narrow streets more easily.
Remaining respectful in case he was genuinely curious about a foreign person’s ideas, I gave a more conservative view than I actually hold, as well as tossed in a lie — that I was very likely going to convert to Judaism so that I could marry a serious boyfriend back in the States.
As I walked into the Golden Temple with my new orange scarf fluttering, an elderly Sikh woman said something I could not understand and reached to touch the sacred fabric. She may have been merely pointing it out, but, suddenly inspired, I offered it to her, remembering to hold it with both hands in the greatest respect. She looked to a younger man seated near her, eyes wide and confused; he spoke, and, of course, I could not understand him either. She slowly allowed herself to take the fabric into her arms.
It felt natural and beautiful.
I had forgotten the guide. He had walked farther ahead as my friends were sorting out their shoes (you can only walk in the temple barefoot), and came striding back, upset. I led him away from the direction of the woman, explaining myself.
Everything I had seen and heard in the temple emphasized equality, service, humility, and giving to others. The fabric had never been mine. Instead of treating it casually, I had felt it was too precious for me to have. And I try to give away what I think is beautiful, because in the giving it becomes much more than an object. It was an honor to have it for a moment, but the greatest honor was in having something worth giving.
And, since he had suggested that he somehow join me in Rishikesh, I did not feel guilty leaving a negative mark on his memory of me.