Everytime I return to India it is as if I have never left. A few moments after emerging from the airport, I am swept into the heat, dust and chaos that feels so familiar that I soon forget there is anything else but that.
The first hour in my home country was spent in the back of a taxi that darted, thrusted and parried through the noisy New Delhi traffic. Despite better roads and fancier cars the Indian driving continues to recall a sardine run. Familiar stuff again. So even as death constantly brushed up on all sides I sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the raucous Bollywood music playing on the taxi's radio until I got to my destination.
The next morning I again waded through rickshaws, scooters, cars and buses of Noida (a Delhi suburb) to catch breakfast with my cousin and bro-in-law. The former is from the Darjeeling hills, where limited job opportunities have caused locals to disperse far and wide. You will find a lot of Darjeeling youth now working in Dubai!
After a hearty breakfast of aloo parathas (flat bread stuffed with mashed and curried potatoes), veggies and sugary-milky tea (not chai, but more of the English kind) I headed back to the airport. I still had another 2 hour flight to take before getting home to Darjeeling.
On my way, I scanned the faces of the teeming masses walking, in cars and buses, and on motorbikes, bicycles and rickshaws. One face caught my attention. It was that of a "rickshaw-wallah" - the daring anti-heroes found all over the country. This one was waiting for fare.
Driving a manual rickshaw must be one of the toughest jobs out there. They pull loads of people, animals, goods, etc. through horrendous traffic and weather, which during summer can reach an asphalt-melting 105F-110F. (This was end of September and the temperature was 95F). They have no protective wear other than their worn out clothes and sandals. Making things tougher is the fact that most of these rickshaw-wallahs are well past middle-age.
The object of my attention must have been around 60 years old. He was gaunt and grey haired. As I looked at his weathered face, I noticed a calmness and a contentment in his visage. There was no bitterness, or gloom or anger. It was actually a beautiful face.
How could this man have such calm even in his apparent wretched situation, I struggled to understand. He appeared to have a peace that most of us can only dream of. His contentment lent his demeanour confidence and pride.
This rickshaw-wallah, I reckoned, was content with his lot. Obviously he has his share of struggles. But deep down he seems to be rock-solid. I guess no matter his struggles one thing seems to be clear - he is not struggling to be anything else than what he is. There is no existential crisis afflicting his mind. Neither does he blame or hold others responsible for his situation.
And then I notice a small vermilion spot on his forehead. It is the mark of the gods he prayed to before starting his day. That tiny mark or "tika" unravels the mystery for me. Our rickshaw-wallah may have not have much, but he has faith. He can see stuff beyond himself. He acknowledges the many forces at work in this universe which he needs to trust. His "dharma" is to show up everyday with his rickshaw, and post a good day's work.
In this "poor" man I see an enviable richness. In him also is reflected the reality of India: it may be a poor country materially but it does have much spiritual wealth and you feel it in the warmth of human affection here.
India is the land of a million gods - literally. This fact cannot be missed, especially at this time of year. I have come home during the biggest Hindu festival of Dusshera. Across the land, people are praying to Goddess Durga, Lord Rama and many other gods in many different ways. It is the celebration of Good triumphing over the Evil. The religious fervor is now at its apogee; the gods have descended and are dancing as it were with the people in the streets.
Behind the veil of heat, dust and chaos there is unparalleled magic, beauty and hope in India.
PS: The picture of the rickshaw wallah has been borrowed from oldworldwondering.com. Unfortunately, the picture I took of the person did not come out good. However, this face comes closest to what I saw.