Today is Saturday. There are LOTS of people here on the weekends. Like, a couple hundred thousand. Humans are everywhere. Streams, rivers, floods of people, pouring onto the streets, washing over the fields. They are seekers: they are looking for what lies beneath the surface of everyday life; for something more than the busy scramble of work and family, of survival and self. They come here to listen to what a teacher has to say about it all.
I see yogis dressed in orange, ash on their foreheads and long dirty grey hair. I see Rajastani ladies in bright turquoise, gold, fuschia, emerald. I see three men balanced on one bicycle, bell pinging – a pleasant warning to jump out of the way. Babies with khol smeared under pretty brown eyes. Sikh gentlemen with straight backs and waxed moustaches, riding ancient motorcycles. Tiny old women, shawls flapping, bowl-legged and bowed over walking canes, sharp elbows out for protection – I’ve had a fair few of those elbows prod my kidneys. Gaggles of young men hold hands – it is customary for men to hold hands here. It’s innocent and sweet and adorable. Groups of young ladies, headscarves forgotten and flipped over a shoulder, duck and giggle as I return their smiles. I want to hold their hands. A man with a HUGE turban (stop-sign-size, I kid you not), curled-toe shoes and a dagger on his hilt, chin up and shoulders back, standing to attention as the crowds flow around him. What is he waiting for? Why is he so still?
I see families with cracked bare feet. I see tired girls tending to younger siblings, mothers in-the-making. I see beautiful men with creamy-coffee complexion, black beards and flashing brown eyes. I see small bundles of belongings balanced on heads, thin sleeping mats tucked under arms. I see anklets and bracelets and earrings and nose rings. I see open and curious faces. Children shyly approach to shake my hand, to touch my pale skin. We point and laugh together at the parrots in the trees as they squawk and preen. I feel like I’m in a National Geographic article.
Over in the langar, the big free kitchen, food is served to all. It’s the great equalizer – a way to break the caste system by feeding people from all walks of life, regardless of class. Brahmins and Untouchables sit together on the floor, elbow-to-elbow and knee-to-knee. The air is thick with smoke from the kitchens, their fires making almost a million chapatis each meal, serving row upon row of people. Row upon row of tandoori ovens, enormous bubbling cauldrons of dal, and vats of chai. Fuel for the fires is piled high next to the ovens – dry reeds and rushes gathered from the sandy banks of the local river.
We foreigners are allowed to walk through the langar, to watch and marvel as food is prepared for the masses. The chapati ladies sing as they work, squatting next to blazing ovens as they make their million, call and response rounds of their song rolling and repeating between the kitchens. We are each given a chapati as we leave, warm from the fires and smelling of fresh ghee and coriander. I hold mine and feel the love with which it was made and given.
Could I eat this? I am so very undeserving of this chapati. What the hell have I done to help the human condition lately? A big fat self-indulgent nothing. I am so humbled, so overwhelmed, so unworthy, so lucky. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. I am suddenly happy to be here – somewhere peaceful and clean despite the numbers, to try and come to terms with what lies beneath MY life’s surface. As is everyone else. We’re all trying to find a clear line from Point A to Point B. Maybe this trying is a good start. Maybe this chapati can give me strength along the way! Things are beginning to feel rather mystical. I am in India, after all.
So I did eat it, grateful tears smearing my vision, as I walked my soft white butt back to my comfortable room with a bed and a heater and light and running water – as I walked past families rolling out their thin sleeping mats – past people who don’t even have a mat to call their own, lying on the ground under the trees and jeering parrots.
…the chapati was absolutely delicious.