Learning the Hard Way – India

Learning the Hard Way
by Kiran Summan

The phone rang. It was my friend Sarah from Somerset. I’d moved from the sleepy town over five years ago now, and luckily still managed to keep in touch with some the people I’d grown up with.

“So…you planning to go to India this year? You know, to see your family like?”

Ermm… well I suppose it was about time I thought, since I hadn’t seen them since I was nine.

“I hadn’t thought about it. But, yeah I could go. Why do you want to know?” I asked.

I could almost hear her grinning on the other end.

“Well, just wondered if you wanted some company…”

And that’s how it began. A month long trip to India to visit my family, who I barely knew, with my friend, who I hadn’t seen for a year, and all planned in a mad rush exactly two weeks before, during my exams.

I still don’t know what I was thinking. Now I’ll admit it right now, I probably did everything wrong, and nothing went to plan.

I think I need to explain a few things before I go on. I’m Indian, except I’ve never really been very good at it. I can speak the languages, and I know how to act all traditional. I just can’t keep it up for very long without sticking my foot in it. And my friend had no idea what she was letting herself in for. She was thinking luxury holiday with beaches, parties and plenty of alcohol.

But, we’d agreed to visit my family, and upon hearing I was on my way they were all whipped up with excitement that their ‘English’ niece was coming to stay with them. I didn’t have the heart to say all we wanted was to go sightseeing during the day, party at night, and that seeing them was really only an excuse.

Seeing their happy faces, guilt won out. Needless to say, there was no alcohol, parties, and as for the beaches; beautiful but spoiled by the monsoon, and the dead rotting fish at our feet.

My family didn’t quiet understand the concept of visiting temples, unless you’re going to pray, or museums, or simply relaxing and enjoying the scenery. This is not to say that we didn’t get to go sightseeing. We just had no idea what we were seeing most of time.

They’d always just say, ‘oh you will like this, it’s very good’, and then shrug when we asked any more about what we seeing. Frustrating isn’t the word.

I learnt later we’d seen all the famous places in Bombay, Tipu Sultan’s palaces in the South (don’t ask where exactly I still haven’t worked it out), some of the most beautiful places in Bangalore, Goa the and most amazing Amritsar: the Golden temple.

Okay I knew Amritsar when I saw it, what Sikh wouldn’t?

The Golden Temple
It was during the third day of our stay in Chandigrath my aunt asked if we’d like to go see the temple. Not really knowing what she meant, as I was still a little shaky on my Hindi having been brought up only a diet of pure Punjabi, I simply smiled and nodded. (I really have to learn to find out what I’m letting myself in for before I start agreeing to things…) Then she told us only that as it was likely to be a bit of a long drive, we should wear something comfortable and loose. So, I opted for a nice skirt and a vest top, although only after being repeatedly assured by my aunt that we’d stop in a hotel to change before entering the temple. Shrugging away my worries at her insistence, I packed away my salware kamise to put on later.

We rented out a Tata Sumo (white Indian jeeps my family used to travel everywhere.) for the weekend. The drive was fairly uneventful except for the fact that our driver almost got me killed. Maybe I’m exaggerating.

My friend was obsessed by the idea of seeing an elephant. It was all she raved about on the long, long flight over, and since arriving a few days earlier. About ten o’clock that night we finally did.

Screaming like a maniac that she is, she insisted that we stop to get a closer look. To my surprise the driver agreed and managed to convince the elephant-herder (I have no idea what his job description is really), to let us near his precious livestock.

Now I love wildlife, but I have to say this was the biggest, dopiest creature I have ever seen. It stood there, seemingly solid but swaying slightly with its long curled eyelashes drooping slowly, and looking at us as if to say, ‘let me go to sleep, you damned tourists…’

Respectful as ever to the wishes of all lazy creatures, I politely declined the herder’s invitation to ride the animal. So, we trooped off, letting the poor creature sleep, and the leaving the herder standing looking forlornly as we, and his prospective money for the ride, departed.

Our eyes were still lit up with happy excitement at seeing a real live elephant as we clambered into the back of the Tata Sumo. As we had the whole of the back four seats to ourselves, which were facing each other, Sarah and I settled down comfortably with our legs up on the opposite seats. Sarah was on the side closest to my family who were sitting in the front two rows, and I was semi-leaning on the back door, tapping away at my mobile phone to tell people at home my news. Still amazed at our good fortune and blissfully unaware of anything going on around us, we failed to notice that the driver didn’t shut the back door properly. We did notice eventually. Once, that is, the jeep started moving and the back door swung open, and I went flying out…

For once I was glad of Sarah’s high pitched screaming, because without it they probably would’ve driven off and left me. Luckily he’d only driven a few feet. So, unhurt apart from only a few scrapes and bruises, and feeling a little dazed I dusted myself off and scrambled back in. We continued on the journey, but not before slamming the door several times, just to make sure.

I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was past one in the morning when we finally arrived in Amritsar. It was pitch black and the town had a ghostly feel to it as we drove through.

We were absolutely exhausted, and because of the humidity felt like we had a sticky film covering our faces. We could really do with a shower. Turning to my aunt, I asked “Where’s the hotel then?”

She smiled, unconcerned and said, “I don’t know, we haven’t booked it yet.” I stared at her, unblinking, trying to decide if she was joking or not. As it turned out it was not. Well, we were definitely doing things the Indian way…

After twenty minutes of letting us stew in the car park our driver returned, only to tell us there was nowhere to stay, apart from the temple. By now it had dawned on me that this was the famous Golden Temple, and I was equally as aware that I was wearing a knee length skirt and a vest top that read, ‘I love my attitude problem’ (a leaving present from my mom.)

Do you ever get that feeling that life is mocking you?

But with no choice now but to walk in, I covered my head with my bandana, and took my brave, faltering steps into the outer part of the temple.

I swear I could hear the thoughts of the people I passed as we attempted to make our way to the washrooms unnoticed. What? I heard them gasp, an Indian girl dressed like that? At a temple, at THE TEMPLE?!

It was unthinkable, and just as astonishing to me. But my aunt carried on reassuring me; that it was okay, no one was noticing really, and that we weren’t even in the main temple that this was only the outer part so it didn’t really matter. I wished she’d argued that to the grantiis (the priests) who came straight over like a shot. And just as promptly began to give me an earful of what an evil, disrespectful sinner I so obviously was.

Maybe I’m being a little unfair here, I was definitely in the wrong, even though I had very little choice about it, and Sarah was also being shouted out. Only thing was she had no idea what was going on and just stood there bemused. I was too preoccupied to translate for her.

Things were getting worse by the minute, and more and more people were turning to look at me, as the grantiis voices got louder. I felt my face getting redder, and desperately tried to beg to be allowed to the washrooms so I could put on my salware kamise that I’d brought with me. They only relented once I agreed to cover myself up with a cloth they brought over for me. Fine, I thought, until I put it on. I stood there and forced a smile through gritted teeth. The cloth dripping as it clung to me; it was completely soaking wet! Then I bowed my head humbly and made my way towards the washrooms. What else was going to happen now, I wondered, smiling benevolently as I could manage as I made my way through the staring worshipers.

“You have to strip off and dive in that,” my aunt ordered. I stared at her for the millionth time it seemed during that long, and at times unbearable night. Sarah also stared at me as I translated.

“Are you sure you understood that right?” she demanded of me, not the first or last time during our trip. I looked around at the other Indian women, usually known for their conservatism, who had stripped off, totally, and were washing themselves in the dark water. “Yes,” I replied staring tiredly at the murky water my aunt had pointed at, “yes Sarah, I’m sure that’s what she said.”

And now my aunt looked at us expectantly. All I will say is I’ve never had such an embarrassing night, and this seemed almost the ‘perfect’ end to it. Why not, I thought finally, as I jumped in, after all I am Sikh, I consoled myself, and this opportunity is only available to the most fortunate…

It took I could to stop myself from screaming. It wasn’t the fact that a load of naked Indian women were laughing at my obviously fake bravado, or that Sarah was staring at me appalled, or even that the cold murky water was seemed to only be adding to sticky film that was already covering me. It was the fact that there were fish in the water.

You see the washrooms were simply four metal walls put up over one corner the artificial lake. This meant the water you bathed in was the water the Golden Temple itself rested in, and its huge, smiley, slimy and very holy fish.

This wasn’t turning out to be the religious experience I had expected.

At last we were allowed to go into the temple unhindered. It was three o’clock, and the morning prayers had started. Despite it being so early the temple was absolutely packed, and we were only able to stay in the actual Golden Temple for a few minutes before being forcibly ushered out.

As I walked around inside looking in wonder at the marble and gold work inside, I must confess I didn’t have the religious awakening that my parents so obviously hoped for when they sent me off to India. It was beautiful, stunning even, but other than that I felt nothing.

Then we; my ever optimistic aunt, despairing uncle, bratty cousins, Sarah and myself crept over into a quite corner and went to sleep on the marble floor in the outer temple. At least I slept. Everyone else shifted around restlessly and eventually woke me up a few hours later.

Groggily I got up to see the rising sun over the shining Golden Temple. In that moment all my tiredness left me. The sky was a cool soft pink and gentle blue, and the Sun, which seemed to peaking up over the domes of the temple, lit up the lake and the fish playing below.

I’ll never forget that perfect moment, because in that moment everything else seemed to melt away. I don’t think I had any kind of awakening, but for the rest of the day I could not shake off the feeling of complete contentment and peace.

Suddenly, I smiled; it was all worthwhile.

Home Truths
Three weeks passed by faster than I thought possible. Before I knew it, we’d travelled almost the whole length of India; Delhi to Chandigrah, Amritsar, down to Bangalore, Mysore, back up to Goa and finally Mumbai (better known as Bombay). Here was the final stop for Sarah and I, and then we were off home.

I can’t say I actually remember very much about Mumbai, except that I went into the city once, and went on a boat ride around the bay. I did get invited to the famous Taj Mahal Hotel, but then couldn’t make it because of a rikshaw strike. Most of our time was spent with another aunt on the outskirts of the city, in a little place called Mumbra.

I’ll be honest here, a lot of the time throughout our trip Sarah, and I, had complained. At some of the conditions we stayed in, and the ridiculously long treks across country, and most of all at the lack of our freedom. Members of my family were constantly close by, and by now we both felt its suffocating affects on us.

Before reaching Mumbra we spent most of our time with either my aunts or uncles, or my bratty cousins (better known as daemons from hell). Neither of us had spoken English, except to each other, as we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone who wasn’t in someway related to me. The strain was really starting to tell.

In Mumbra, however, we met the twins. They were my 19-year-old cousins, who could speak English! What can I say about them? They were absolutely wonderful, full of life, always having a laugh, and in many ways far more constricted than Sarah and I had been on this trip. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that they’d never been to the cinema in their lives, or that they’d never been out alone, except with their younger brother to accompany them.

It was a cold harsh slap of reality. Here Sarah and I had been complaining about our lack of freedom, but we’d been allowed to do pretty much as we pleased. I realized then that my family hadn’t been trying to suffocate us, only protect in the only way they knew how. My cousins were kept under lock and key. I was a year younger yet I’d done more things than they’d been allowed to dream of; wear what I like, drink, go clubbing, talk to who I wanted to when I wanted to, and visit some amazing places in Europe and India, when they’d not been allowed out of their neighbourhood.

We didn’t go anywhere in our last week in India. Instead we stayed at home, in Mumbra, and took our places completely a part of the culture; as really part of the family.