Monday, September 29, 2008

A Beautiful Life


Saturday morning I get up at six thirty. I’m going to a yoga lesson at Mister Singh’s house. His daughter-in-law told me to be there at seven o’clock, “on the dot.” I can’t be late.

I put on a t-shirt and track pants and walk next door. Mister Singh sends me to the third floor where his son and daughter-in-law live. We’ll have the yoga lesson in her living room.

His daughter-in-law brings out a blanket for herself and gives me the nice, padded yoga mat that I suspect she uses when she’s not sharing her yoga lesson with a white chick. The instructor arrives and they talk in Hindi to each other, sometimes gesturing towards me. I’ve told her I’ve done yoga before, so I shouldn’t be a burden or drag down the quality of the lesson for her, at least I hope not.

Mister Singh opens the door carrying a blanket. He will also join us for the lesson today. He spreads out his blanket and stretches out his legs in front of him. “See?” he tells me. “You start by stretching, then do like this.” He shakes his legs out.

This man with his long white beard, who has to be in his seventies, then grabs his legs and folds himself up into the Lotus position. “I’ll show you,” he says. “Yog is not exercise. You cannot do it quickly. You have to go slow.” He calls it yog, not yoga, just in case you were thinking that was a type-o.

The instructor is ready to begin. He stands and narrates in Hindi, and Mister Singh and his daughter-in-law do as he says.

“Can you understand?” she asks me.

“No,” I say, but it works for me just to watch them and mirror their actions. We start with some breathing, then do some simple stretches and bends, then it’s onto the mats where our legs get tangled up in front of our heads.

“Nose touch,” the instructor walks over to me and says. Nose touch? I look at Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law. Her nose is touching her feet which are folded up in front of her face.

“Oh no, my nose no touch,” I say, laughing.

I should say now that I am the most flexible person I know. People actually make fun of me for the way I sit with my legs knotted up. I stretch all the time. I’ve had years of dance and lots of yoga lessons where I’m the one that the instructor points at to show everyone else how it’s done.

But not in India. This is one of the reasons I wanted to take a yoga lesson here; to see how different it would be.

It’s different all right.

Next our feet are in the air over our heads. “Floor touch,” the instructor tells me, and takes my legs and stretches them all the way onto the ground behind my head. I think they’ll snap right off. It kills. I can barely sustain the position and my legs begin to shake.

My legs shake for the rest of the lesson as we hold weight-bearing positions that use muscles I’ve let slacken for who knows how long. All the while the aged Mister Singh is pulling and pushing his body into variations of all the positions we are doing with seemingly no problem.

Mister Singh leaves a little early. He’s going to work on food donations for the gurdwara. We wrap up less than an hour after we began, but it’s not soon enough for me. I feel slightly tortured.

“We usually go faster,” Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law apologizes to me. “If you come tomorrow it won’t be so slow. We had to go easy today because Dad joined us.”

Easy? I almost died. “Thanks, but I’m going to the gurdwara tomorrow morning at five,” I tell her.

“Well maybe you’ll be back in time. I’ll send someone over to check.”

I thank her and hobble off down the three flights of marble stairs marveling at how Mister Singh must have just taken this same path.

Back at my room, I try to steady my quivering Jello legs. I call up Mohinder, the man who’s meeting me at the orphanage. He tells me I should have my driver drive towards the Ashram towards Mathura, then we should call him and he’ll give him directions from there. It sounds like a shaky plan, but who am I to dispute it?

I call up Palminder and tell him to come pick me up at noon. Until then, I catch up on some blogging. There’s lots of spare time when you get up at six thirty in the morning on a Saturday.

Palminder arrives on time and I describe my plan to him. We have to go to Ashram towards Mathura then call this man at this number. He gives me a funny look. He wants to call Mohinder before we leave. It seems like a fine idea to me. He dials the number and talks to him, then passes his cell phone to me in the backseat.

“Yes, Vicki? I’ve told your driver how to get there and I’m just leaving, so I’ll see you there,” Mohinder tells me.

Palminder finds the place with no problem, pulling up to a three-story concrete building and pointing it out to me. “Welfare Home for Children,” he says to me, pointing to big red lettering on the top of the building.

There is a large gate around the place and no way to get in. I don’t see Mohinder anywhere. Palminder calls him back up. We should go around the building to the other gate, he tells us. We do. A man opens the gate and ushers me inside. Mohinder isn’t here yet. Can I sit for a few minutes and wait? Sure.

There’s a little plastic molded play set behind the entrance: a few slides and ladders to climb on. That’s a good sign. Inside, the building is very clean and tidy. The air isn’t on, but there is a huge window unit in the room they take me to where I sit and wait. Two women offer me water and I say no, then they bring me water anyway. There is no refusing Indian hospitality.

I’m sitting in a large room with a couch and a table and a fridge. There is a bulletin board full of pictures of children. On one side are the kids who’ve been adopted. They are embraced by smiling parents. On the other side are pictures of kids at the facility. Many of them are embraced by this portly white woman in a sea green dupata who appears in photo after photo.

Mohinder arrives just a few minutes after I sit down. He introduces me to two men. One is the architect of the building. The other is an aging Indian man with a British accent, and I don’t quite catch the reason he is there to tour the facilities. Is it to donate money? From the way Mohinder dotes on him and rather ignores me, it seems this may be the case.

I present my large bag of biscuits. The woman says I can only give two biscuits to each child and they’ll get the rest after dinner. She takes the bag away and comes back with just four or five packs that she’ll allow me to take upstairs to the children. I am not to be trusted with my wealth of biscuits, apparently.

Mohinder takes us around the ground floor, showing us the kitchen and a storage area. The room where I was waiting, he says, is used for counseling the parents and the adoptive parents, he explains. The white woman on the bulletin board is Dutch. She’s not here right now, but she’s the one who’s in charge of the facility.

He shows us the social worker’s office and takes us up to the second floor, pointing out the quality of the woodwork. There was no skimping when this building was erected. It’s of fine construction.

On the second floor landing, there is a large shelving unit full of tiny black shoes and several sets of large blue plastic sandals. We have to take our street shoes off and put on a pair of sandals before we enter the room where the girls are. They take pains to keep it clean and nice.

We open the door to a roomful of bunk beds and little girls. There are three women here who greet us. The men walk off, Mohinder talking about the construction and the capacity of the building. I open a package of biscuits and am swarmed with tiny hands reaching up towards me. I pass out biscuit after biscuit. A woman points to a small girl curled up on the bottom of one of the bunk beds. I figure I should let her sleep, but the woman shakes her awake a little roughly so she can get her treat. Sleepily, she takes the biscuit from me and munches it. A little munchkin about two feet tall wearing a t-shirt and a diaper has decided that she wants to stock up. She holds her biscuits in her right hand and reaches up to me with her left, making insistent noises and grasping the air. She follows me into the second section of bunk beds where another little girl is sleeping and is roused in a similar brisk fashion. Three or four older girls wait patiently in the background while the younger ones flock around me. When I give them their biscuits, they bow their heads and smile and say “thank you.”

The men are back. Are we ready to see the third floor? We get our shoes back on and ascend the staircase. About twenty boys are seated on a big Persian rug. The boys are all older than most of the girls upstairs. No one here is in diapers. I only have about four biscuits left, so I refrain from handing them out. In the back of this room is a quarantine room so when a child gets sick, it doesn’t spread. There’s also a small classroom. The institute brings teachers in rather than sending the children away to school.

We go up onto the rooftop. Here is where they hang the wash. You can get a view of the surrounding buildings too.

I follow the men back downstairs and ask the woman at the desk if I can have more of my biscuits. The boys didn’t get any. She brings several packages out. I go upstairs and see that the boys have been dispersed from their rug. They are now sleeping. It’s one thirty in the afternoon and these little boys are sleeping. It seems there are not a lot of other things for them to do. I wonder how much time they spend merely asleep or laying around.

I ask the woman if I can give the boys some biscuits. She assents and calls them to attention. They jump up out of their beds and form an orderly line, each one taking his treats and saying thank you in turn. When I’m done I have a few leftover. I ask the women in the room if they want them. They are only too happy to accept and nibble the rest of the package away.

I rejoin the men downstairs. They are talking about sponsorships and companies who give money to the facility. I ask if they do adoptions in the United States. “Yes. You can ask my wife all about that.” She works here full-time as a social worker. I don’t know anything about adoption. I don’t know if domestic adoption is cheaper than international adoption, but the plane tickets alone to India for one trip would set me and my husband back $4,000. And I know we’d have to travel here more than once. This may be an utter impossibility. Still, I wanted to see the facility and make the connections while I was here just in case.

I barely sit down when the men stand up. They’re ready to go. I take this as my cue to leave as well. I shake Mohinder’s hand and thank him for the tour. Palminder is waiting for me at the door. I follow him out to the car and tell him to take me to Malviya Nagar. We’re going to pick up Katie at Susie’s place, then head to the Museum of Modern Art. Katie’s a painter, so she’s been eager to see the place.

I call up Susie. “How was the orphanage?”

I was surprised. I was surprised at how nice it was, at how the children there are pretty advantaged compared to the poor kids I see out begging in the streets. These kids have clean clothes and three meals a day. They go to school instead of working. They have multiple people looking after their well-being. It was still sad to know they don’t have families, but it wasn’t as sad as what I see on the way to work everyday: kids in filthy clothes or no clothes at all begging for a few rupees or food, and little boys using every fiber of their will to try and sell useless magazines that they can never hope to read themselves. Those kids need more help than the ones I saw today.

We pick up Katie and find the museum easily. It’s a stately building with a rounded dome just outside of India Gate, probably built by the British because it smacks of the same architecture as the President’s house and government buildings in this same area.

Inside we find a jumble of paintings: portraits and miniatures and sketches and landscapes. The artist’s name is posted next to most of the paintings on a typewritten card, but there is almost never a year given. Some of the pieces don’t look very “modern” at all. I wonder how this collection got assembled: who decided what works got admitted? Where did they come from? They’re almost all Indian artists, but most of the works are in imitation of western art styles. Surprisingly, there are many, many paintings and sculptures in the Surrealist style: bodies with missing pieces and visible, melting bones. I wonder how surrealism made its way to India and why it seems to speak to artists here.

There is one room full of oversized canvasses that makes the place worth the trip. Here there is a wall-sized painting of three Indian bicycles with milk jugs hanging off the handlebars. It’s titled “Three Cows.” The milk jugs look like you could grab them and pick them up, and the background is like a comic book. The bicycles are life-sized, and as you walk past the painting, somehow the front wheels move and are always pointing at you. The effect is mesmerizing. There are also pieces here which blend traditional Mughal painting style with modern art. These artists are using their artistic heritage rather than throwing it aside and their work is all the richer for it.

The museum doesn’t take that long to cover, so about an hour later, we are walking through the little sculpture garden back to Palminder’s car. On our way, an auto-wala stops us. I flag him away thinking he’s bugging us for a ride, but he is insistent. “No,” he says, “Madam, madam, bomb blasts. There are bombs today. It’s not safe. You must go home. Go to your hotel. Go to wherever you are staying and stay in today, madam.”

Being so close to India gate, I wonder if a bomb has gone off nearby. I thought I overheard a conversation about bombs when I was in the museum, but I figured they were talking about the bombs that went off two weeks ago. I guess I was wrong.

I worry that we won’t be able to cross town to get home. I remember Jonaki telling me that they sometimes close down access to roads when bombings happen. But travel is just fine. There doesn’t appear to be anything unusual. The streets are neither empty or closed down. Everything seems normal. I wonder if the auto-wala was just trying to scare us for some reason.

Back at home, I turn on the news. Two men on a motorcycle threw a crude bomb in a lunch bucket in a crowded market. A kid picked it up and died. Twenty-three people were injured in the blast. There don’t appear to be multiple attacks this time. It looks like a much less sophisticated operation than the last attack when the bombs had timers and were planted all over the city.

I’m Skyping with Scott when my phone rings. “Hello. Kandhari. Where are you?” I hear.

It’s Mister Kandhari. He wants to know why he hasn’t seen me walk past his house today. Almost every night I walk to the market at some point and usually stop by to talk to him.

“I’ve been out today, Mister Kandhari.”

“You come and sit and we can talk,” he tells me.

I tell Scott I’m going to go. He is unnerved. Even though Mister Kandhari’s house is only a block away, I don’t think he wants me going out tonight and I don’t blame him. If he was in a city that was having multiple terror attacks, I’d want him to lock himself up in his room and shove a pillow under the door crack, not go roaming around his neighborhood at night. I promise I’ll steer clear of the market where I was planning on going to get some souvenirs. I’ll get them some other time, or I won’t get them at all, I tell him. Mister Kandhari’s house is safe, I tell him. I’ll be fine.

I eat dinner with Mister Kandhari. He asks me what I do in the evenings when I’m at the guest house. I tell him I write a lot. About what? About my time in India. I keep a blog on the Internet. Do I write about him? He wants to know. Yes, I tell him, thinking he might find this troubling. Instead, he is delighted. He smiles broadly. Have I talked about his garden and the gurdwara? Yes I have, of course. “Thank you,” he says.

Who reads it? Mostly just my friends. Does he have the Internet? I can show him the site. Only at the office, he says. But he wants to read it sometime. He wants to read it. We sit for a while then he says we should get to bed. We have to get up early to go to Bangla Sahib tomorrow. Am I still going with to feed the hungry?

“If you call me to make sure I’m awake,” I say. He shakes my hand and smiles. It’s a deal.

The little black dog follows me home again. I run upstairs to get him biscuits, but as I’m coming back down the stairs, I see him in the hallway of the guest house. He’s followed me all the way inside. I think the guard is slacking a little bit. What if this was an intruder instead of a little black dog? The thought is a bit troubling. I share some biscuits with the dog and the guard comes down from the balcony. I think he might be upset that I have the dog inside the gate, but instead he coos at it. “Indian doggie,” he says in a thick accent, smiling and chuckling. The dog trots off and starts drinking out of a puddle, and this gives the guard an idea. “Water,” he says, and comes back with a pot full for our little furry friend. This is the same guard who played so much with Ralphie when he was here. I like this guy. He strikes me as a very kind person. I’m not so sure what kind of a guard he makes, but he’s always sweet and considerate, even to a lowly stray dog.

I’ve met so many people here who have been so kind, I think, and I’ll be saying goodbye to all of them in just two weeks. In just three short months, I’ve discovered a beautiful life here in India with my friends from work and from church and from my neighborhood. I’m fortunate to be staying at such a nice place with such a helpful, sweet and good-natured staff. It’s a beautiful life I will leave behind—or rather carry with me. I’m so fortunate to have lived it.

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