I have been warned about peacocks going crazy during monsoon season, but on this early June morning, I could not have imagined a louder or stranger sound as the one that awakes me. Soon enough, the door opens, and my host, the beloved grandmother of a dear college friend, urges me to my feet with her usually energetic “Chalo! Chalo!”, which I have come to use all too often myself during my stay in India. I ask Dadi, as we call her, about the peacocks. “Yes, they’re walking on the rooftops, waiting for the first rain. We’ll have it any moment now.” Stumbling down the hallway towards my breakfast chapati, I wonder if I should welcome the rain – after all, wouldn’t it turn the dusty roads around the house in muddy traps? The clothes which stick to me with renewed stubbornness every day since I arrived beg to differ.
“Jaldi, baju sejao!” – I find myself screaming to the rickshaw driver as we make our way through Manek Chowk, the busiest market in Ahmedabad, where I spent an obscene amount of time during my first days in the city, hunting for antiques and delicious street food (I once entered an ad-hoc contest for eating pani puri, and became an honorary Indian after winning with my 15 swallowed puris). The India of overwhelming smells, colors and sounds, a kaleidoscope of beliefs and experiences, envelops me like a beautifully embroidered sari. I close my eyes, in an attempt to still, forever, the image and the feeling in the innermost corners of my being, where they would be safe for the ages. In the flight of the rickshaw, I pass Sidi Saiyed, where the sun splits its smile through the intricately carved stone windows, and see the steps leading to another mosque of great beauty, Jama Masjid, where the soft murmuring accompanies one’s echoing footsteps across the courtyard.
Finally arriving at the Sabarmati Ashram, the house of Mahatma Gandhi for about twelve years, I kick off my dusty sandals and stop to marvel at the tranquil Sabarmati River glimmering through the trees. I imagine the Mahatma bidding farewell to his beloved Ashram in 1930, to embark on the Salt Satyagraha. This place, as Ahmedabad itself, was a cradle of the non-violent movement for India’s independence, and I feel small and insignificant in the middle of all this history. As I ask for directions, I address men and women with “auntie” and “uncle”, as everyone does – it goes to show that in India, you become part of a family of many. Here, they take the “every stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet” to a whole new level. Here, every stranger is a relative. The Ashram is full of Mahatma’s spirit – a quiet, settled, controlled understanding of the world. I expect his statue to open its eyes at any moment and step off the pedestal to talk to me about patience, good and virtue. I bow to Gandhi’s marble representation, as if leaving an old, dear friend, and make my way back to my rickshaw.
My last stop before heading to my host’s house is the Charanagar slum, an example of the real India that tourists blinded by shiny temples and well-stocked hotels do not get to know. As usual, it is in the slums you will find reality pulsating with all its might – the oft-ignored, but no less genuine heart of the city. I stand barefoot under a ceiling of Mogra flowers in someone’s front courtyard, as a hidden speaker blasts traditional Indian music and prayers. It dawns on me that the music of India is the articulation of the rhythm of its life. In no other place do sounds amount to such faithful a description of destiny and hope. People congregate at the local bakery, kids pass on bikes, in their school uniforms and rickshaws wait, parked in all directions, while their drivers chat in the fading light. Women in saris stroll leisurely by, a cow or two make a lazy appearance, and dogs chase each other up and down the unpaved road. I note in my travel journal: “India is not at all reluctant to open itself to you, but it is overwhelming. And the more it gives, the more you realize how much more remains to be discovered.”
“Why do you want to put me into a box?” I reply to my host’s granddaughter’s question about my identity. “Let’s remain as we are, two strangers in a world of possibility.” And I instantly recognize that inability to be boxed, that power to shake all convention and description, as defining India itself. We suddenly extend our arms out of the balcony, under the first rain of the season. The refreshed air is full of wonderful fragrances, clarity and youth, and India reinvents itself once more. The world seems unapologetically beautiful for the first time in a long while.
About the Author: Adriana Popa graduated with High Honors from Swarthmore College in May 2012, and has lived, worked and studied on three continents. She is currently buying her time in the “real world” before returning to academia (Columbia University, for graduate school). She finds inspiration in the framed message hanging over her desk: “Live, write, travel”.
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