Monthly Archives: March 2019

My friend, I live in Mumbai, now step out of the way

IMG_7619He picks me up in Juhu in his yellow and black rickshaw, bringing me to Bandra, both suburbs of Mumbai. Turns out he lives not far away, in a one room hut in Juhu, he says. Also turns out I’m his first fare of the day and so he didn’t ask where I was going before I got into his rickshaw. The first fare, the first incoming cash is treated with a sort of sacred regard by several Indian business communities and by the working man – don’t block it or you’ll block the flow of wealth, or something like that. Raghuvendra Singh Thakur, from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, north India. I hope I bring him luck, and immense wealth after my rickshaw ride. He has a serious look that disappears when he smiles his shy smile.

I inquire about his life, his lifestyle. He’s forty-three years old and came to Mumbai in 1999, at the age of twenty-three. He brought with him a young son, a year old at the time, now grown, and there were two more later, a girl and a boy, both born in the village and still living there. The daughter is married, he says. And his wife? His wife was in the village when he first came to Mumbai, still is. I refrain from asking why his infant son was with him when his wife was in the village. Maybe there was more to it. Still…

It’s my second day back in Mumbai, my perspective on many things quite altered from a trip up north in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. A month in the hills has put me in touch with the energy of hard-working villagers who can, it seems, often appreciate more what cities have to offer than natives of cities themselves. Like Raghuvendra Singh. On this ride, Mumbai feels vital, buzzing with energy. As if on cue, he says,

“Sir, if someone is willing to work hard, if he is a mehanati aadmi, Mumbai is a good city for it. Mumbai shahar mehanati log ka shahar hai – this is the city for the hardworking, for the enterprising. Work hard and you’ll be rewarded.”

A street cat darts in front of the rickshaw. Raghuvendra Singh blasts his horn and swerves sideways. The cat is unharmed, continuing across the street without missing a beat. Like Raghuvendra Singh, who continues,

“I have a friend in Bangalore. He keeps telling me Come to Bangalore, come to Bangalore. You’ll save more money there.”

“I tell him, you come to Mumbai. You’ll understand why I’m here. Come and meet the people. See the life here, see the situation. Yes, Mumbai is expensive. If I make ten thousand rupees a month in Mumbai, you know this, sir, at least half of that will go in rent and expenses. But with what little I save I can have any experience in Mumbai, I can eat whatever type of food I feel like having. To be able to spend my meager savings in Mumbai, ten thousand rupees I make every month, that feels like I have fifty thousand rupees.”

We navigate a busy intersection, rickshaws on all sides and a truck, a “lorry” in British Indian English parlance, has blocked the middle of the road. Loud horns, numerous drivers coaching numerous other drivers into moving ahead. Just a little, just a little. Raghuvendra Singh keeps moving, a couple of feet at a time. Eyes on the road, the story has stopped.

A turn here, a turn there, past the lorry, then to the other side of the intersection.

“First class!” he exclaims self-congratulatingly with a smile. And as if navigating the intersection was part of his story, he resumes.

“And when someone from Bangalore or any other city feels bad for me and they tell me What you are doing in Mumbai? I feel sorry for you, I don’t feel bad, I don’t feel inferior. No, no, instead, I feel like their senior, I feel superior to them. Main Mumbai mein rehta hoon, yaar, chalo baju hut – I live in Mumbai, my friend, now step out of the way,” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve been to Delhi, I’ve been to Ludhiana, I found work there, but it didn’t feel right. The thing is, in Mumbai if you cannot find work driving a rickshaw, you can always do something else, you can work as a porter and push a handcart. And if you cannot find that work, there’s something to do, some work you can find one way or the other.”

What time does he start his day, I ask, what time does he finish?

“Depends on so many things, sir. Some days I can start at 7:30 am, like today, some days later. It depends. If there is no water, then you have to wait for it. If there is water and I decide to wash my clothes that day, I’ll start later. If I have guests visiting, then I’ll start even later in the day.”

He lives by himself in the one-room hut, but sometimes if he knows someone reliable, it’s possible to split the room and save some money. He must eat in a proper local restaurant at least once a day, and other meals maybe at a roadside stall.

We are now in Bandra, at the end of my ride. I tell Raghuvendra Singh I’ve enjoyed talking to him, and do I have his permission to print his picture and write about our interaction? Tentative at first, he says, “Yes, sir. I hope you won’t write anything bad about me. I’ve only spoken the truth.” I confirm to him that that’s exactly what I’m going to write, his perspective is honest and pure. “Yes, sir, yes, you can write about me. Only write the truth of what I said.” And he smiles at me and looks for his next fare.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

 

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A ride in the dark

There’s a night sky outside my window, in the bus from the village of Chougan, Bir, Himachal Pradesh to Chandigarh. From Chandigarh I travel onward, back to Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. In the cloudless, darkened sky, I notice stars, the same arrangement I used to see as a little boy from my bedroom window back when it was called Bombay, back when there was no light pollution and slight air pollution. Now it’s known as Mumbai, has been known as Mumbai for a long time now, and now it has heavy pollution of every kind.

The ride from Bir has been just a couple of hours but a lot of ground has been covered. Through the hill town and village of Baijnath, with fruit vendors, vegetable vendors, small roadside dhabas and men having a meal or a late evening chai.

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A shop selling copper pots and utensils, next to a general store, next to a shoe salesman, next to a store selling the most tender chicken in the world, now closed for the day.

 

Next to all, the ubiquitous roadside mountain dogs that keep humans company in the hills though mostly not – they are here for the scraps and the random donations but very rarely allowed inside. Maybe they wouldn’t want to be inside always. Free to roam outside when they want to and food from humans when it appears.

Inside the bus, the conductor is cross-checking seat numbers with a couple of passengers, it’s going to be a full bus, no standees, he doesn’t want to have to ask anyone to leave when it gets full. The bus stops to pick up a couple of pre-booked passengers along the way. A man here on the road between Baijnath and Palampur, the next big town, a newly married couple at the next stop, she, visibly pregnant. At Palampur, a small send-off party of woman and child, her husband, his father, waving to a relative boarding the bus. Himachal music alternates with Bollywood inside the bus. Inside me, the music of tiredness is playing. 

Sudden tiredness, sadness to be leaving friends I’ve made in the last month at the Deer Park Institute in Bir, the hospitable and friendly villagers in the hills surrounding Bir, who’ve stopped to talk and engage, the Tibetan people in the Tibetan colony over there, those two little street dogs who weren’t afraid to ask for love.

Someone’s phone call on loudspeaker mode pulls me back into the bus. The night sky and the winding road pull me out. Outside, darkness. Not enough to ease the sadness, but does it really have to go away? Can it stay for as long as it does? The winding, downward road induces distracting churn. Constant. A sign saying zigzag road ahead. More than this? A child inside the bus begins crying, consoled by her father. She has woken up from a bad dream. The bus driver turns on the lights to make sure everything is okay. The music is turned off. The man, now self-conscious, tells his child, Be quiet, don’t cry, why are you crying? Turns out the child’s ears were blocked and popping – we are rapidly losing altitude down this road and the bus’s churn doesn’t help either. Now I see why there are throw-up bags in the seat pocket in front of me. Everything sorted, the conductor turns off the interior lights. The driver turns the music system back on. Punjabi music this time. With a drum beat to match the sharp turns on the road. 

My mind goes back to Bir, wistful of the adventures there, mountain rides on scooters, traffic tickets from polite cops, hikes in the hills, friends from Bir, from India and from the world over. Wheat fields and mustard fields and sweet-smelling cherry blossoms. Himalayan rivers and herded mountain goats. And friends and warmth in cool weather. Outer journeys and inner journeys. Writing workshops and songs in languages from all over India. And the world. Listening circles. A celebration of the equinox in the haunting music of the forest. And a newly discovered desire to learn Marathi so I can practice with a new friend from Sawantwadi in southern Maharashtra.

The bus twists again. The music is loud again, another turn, another churn. There’s no straight road up a mountain, there’s no shortcut down. Down the mountains we are going. Rapidly losing altitude. Cars up ahead, tail lights, headlights. We are passing an ambulance, with an ill person inside being attended to carefully by family. An empty truck in front of us, a full one further ahead. Increasing traffic. Signs of a different kind of life. I am reminded of Mumbai, of city living. There’s a bit of dread, heaviness. What’s there for me there? As if on cue, the bus crosses a patch of rough road, unpaved. Rough road back to a city? Or in a city? I rest my head on the window to comfort myself. The relentlessly loud Punjabi music in the bus is giving me a headache. Mumbai and city living inside, loud Punjabi music outside. And bereft at leaving Bir behind. In this moment, there’s no escape. I chuckle inside and smile outside. This moment is perfect. No escape. I look out the windshield of the bus, headlights illuminating the dimly lit road, outlines of trees bordering. The headlights go only so far. The road further ahead is unlit. Another adventure awaits.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Letter to a sister

Happy birthday, my darling Cookie, my only sister, my friend. I am so grateful to know you, and for the love you have shared with me all your life – ever since you came into this world, you came out laughing, with smiles and with love for everyone. One could say that you were a camera hog, but I grew up with you and I know you and you are so loving, and always have been. And so kind, so kind that it hurts you to be unkind. I love that about you, even though I struggled to understand it in the past.

I’m even more grateful and inspired by the love you have given yourself, by going down your own path, never mind the doubters, never mind those that say be careful, be safe, don’t be too emotional, you have to be strong and all that bullshit. You have shown me with your courage to express your tears, that tears in a woman or a man are not a sign of weakness. You have shown me with your tentative openness to express your fears, you have shown me, my dear, dear, dear sister, you have shown me what loving oneself looks like.

When others have said, You have to be tough, just ignore the jerks and the meanness and the insanity, especially when it’s near at hand, you have let yourself be open and you have taught me openness and acceptance without judgement, and forgiveness, but how does forgiveness even come in when you accept people, and you accept yourself? I am just understanding this now and you have been showing this to me since you were a baby. Much younger than me in years you are, my sister, yet you have taught me with your wisdom and your kindness, and your madness, if madness is what it’s called when you indulge yourself in what makes you happy, whether it’s putting a tattoo, or five, on your skin, or loving who you love, freely, or having countless numbers of shoes.

Thank you, Cookie, my baby sister, my friend and guide, for allowing me to teach you how to be present for your dog, your fur-child, and for teaching me how to love my dog, my fur-child.

How could I ask for any other kind of sister when I have this beautiful, emotional, sensitive, matter-of-fact, contradictory woman that is you, you who are teaching me through your example and your being, when I’m awake to it, how to be loving to a woman, how to hear a woman, how to listen to a woman, how to see a woman. And, really, how to be there for someone you care deeply about, starting with oneself.

Happy birthday, Cookie, my darling sister. May your day and year and life be filled with love, with joy, with laughter and with acceptance.

I love you,

Marlon

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Where the light falls…

Choukling Monastery in Bir, Himachal Pradesh is serene and beautiful, with Buddhist prayer wheels, quiet prayer halls and colorful deities. What touched me most was a dewdrop nestled between the petals of this rose, outside in the garden.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Wild flower

You too, wild flower,
you who are resting on a fence in an unknown field
like a stray dog rests its head, tentatively at first,
on my leg,
then calmly,
knowing it will be loved
and not harmed –
you, too, are beautiful,
Even though I won’t know your name
or see you again,
it is enough that we have met today.
I have seen you, and you, me.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

A Dharamshala Odyssey – Cherry blossoms, orange trees and a blue garden shed

Cherry blossoms at Deer Park Institute, Bir, Himachal Pradesh
Orange trees and a blue garden shed at Deer Park Institute, Bir, HImachal Pradesh – The Dhauladhar Mountain range of the Himalayas is in the background

Marlon de Souza Ⓒ2019. All rights reserved.

It would be good if I had more than one cow, but one is all I can afford

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The women in the picture are neighbors. They are Gaddi, a tribal community native to the hills around Dharamshala. Naddi village is 7,000 feet above sea level, a short hike from McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala. I spoke briefly with the Gaddi woman on the left. She’s in her sixties.

Today, it took five hours to collect these leaves. If I find dry leaves and branches, my job is over quickly. Some days it is longer, some days shorter. It snowed here, no? So today it took longer. No, these are not to sell. They are for my cow. If I collect enough, I won’t have to return more than two or three times a week. Just one cow. I work like the bullock for my cow’s food. But it provides for me in return. It would be good if I had more than one cow, but one is all I can afford. 

Marlon de Souza Ⓒ2019. All rights reserved.

 

A Dharamshala Odyssey – On the road again

And so the journey resumes. From Mumbai on the west coast of India to Chandigarh, the shared capital of the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. And from Chandigarh on to Kangra in the adjoining state of Himachal Pradesh, and then on to Dharamshala, which is about 5,000 feet above sea level. Dharamshala is a little less than an hour after Kangra. My final destination is just after McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala and about 7,000 feet above sea level. McLeod Ganj is the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the official residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

I’d originally planned a four to five-day getaway from Mumbai, to go on a couple of hikes in the mountains. That morphed into a longer trip to let the road decide where I went.

It’s around 2:30 pm. I’m in a fairly beat up Himachal Pradesh State Transport bus that began at Chandigarh. The journey is estimated to take around 5-6 hours. The bus zigs and zags and honks and blasts its way ahead. And it’s not even a zig zag road. I need to adjust my balance in my seat frequently. Just like everything they teach you in driving school, the bus driver speeds up on gentle corners to make sure everyone enjoys the joy of sharp turns. Yay! On a couple of such turns, I half fall off my seat. Fortunately the aisle is very narrow so I have the seat across to hold on to. Legs and butt aren’t quite stabilized for this job, despite the very recent, deep commitment to a daily yoga practice. Still, I’m excited. On the road again. Out there in a traffic circle, a dog lazily licks itself, oblivious of the vehicles around. Up ahead on the left, an abundance of bright oranges on street carts. The air is cleaner than Mumbai which I left early this morning. Much cleaner.

I was booked on a 2 pm bus, a relatively luxurious Volvo that would take me from Chandigarh to Kangra without stopping to pick up additional passengers. The Advance Reservations counter at the Chandigarh bus station told me I’d find my bus at counter 22, bus 1511. Counter 22 said There’s no Volvo here. It’s at 3:40 pm. But my reservation is for 2 pm. Back to the Advance Reservations counter. We don’t store the buses here, he barked, Go to the man at counter 22. Back to counter 22. Oh yes, I see you have a reservation. What’s your seat number? Yes, it’s here, but we don’t know what happened to your bus. You can go in this local bus if you want. Sure, I decided, at least I’ll be on the road.

Earlier this morning, on the flight from Mumbai, I met a man from Kerala who works in the Middle East and was on his way to Chandigarh to spend a few days with his family – his wife who’s in medical school there, and his two kids. He had an Indian military-style handlebars mustache. And smiled politely and got up so I could get into my middle seat next to him. He must be an army guy, I thought, close-cropped hair, military mustache and good manners. After takeoff, over breakfast, we exchanged life stories. The flow was easy. The flow has always been easy on the road for me. Connection is effortless. I’ve made more friends on the road than I have in the lifetime I’ve spent between New York and Mumbai. Sham, my in-flight companion has been an engineer for the last 15 years, and now married, he expects to continue to have to be “responsible” for a while – his children are 1 1/2 years old and 5 years old. He was enthralled by and envious of the vagabondish nature of my apparently disparate life experiences. I never thought of it that way…I’ve always felt I’ve been a bit of a rolling stone. Maybe moss is not my natural friend…hmmm…

My reflection on Sham’s life and mine is suddenly shaken by the loud blaring of the bus horn. Oh yes, he loves that toy, this driver. Or maybe he has a schedule to keep. An elbow poke in the head from a standing room passenger, a bag whacks my right shoulder as another standing room passenger turns around. It’s a bus operated by the state government’s transport department, with plenty of standing room for whoever wants it. But I notice I’m not brittle like I am in Mumbai, or in New York. I look outside, cows in lush green fields on the side of the road. Open skies. Another elbow poke. Good thing the skull has bones. I can feel the clean air fill my lungs. The young man to my left, in the window seat, is fast asleep. He’s carrying a mid-size backpack. Is he going beyond Kangra to Dharamshala, or maybe to McLeod Ganj, a little further up? So many people in this bus. So many of them standing and balancing in the moving bus. Most are villagers and residents of the smaller towns along the way. Not like the luxurious Volvo that didn’t show up. Thankfully. I can feel the thrum of the wheels on the soles of my feet, through my insulated hiking boots. This bus doesn’t have great shock absorbers. More oranges by the side of the road. And the smell of a wood fire burning somewhere.

I fall asleep. When I wake up, we’ve gained altitude and my seat mate has manspread so that I now have one butt cheek on the seat and another in the air. Truth be told, the seats are really narrow and not really meant for two people. The bus is navigating very frequent sharp hairpin turns as it climbs up the hills. Surprisingly, the driver is proceeding more mindfully now. A bus approaching from the opposite direction is coming at us at great speed. Is this it? I wonder as the scene before me seems to unfold in slow motion. No, our driver lightly steps on the brakes for just the right amount of time and our bus slows down without a sudden jerk. The oppositional bus moves by without incident. The driver has my respect.

The sky is darker. The sun is a deep red as it starts to dip below the horizon. More nausea inducing turns. And then a straightish road. Small villages with narrow roads banked by houses on either side. I can see more firewood burning at the side of the road. Reminds me of the countryside in Morocco and in Bulgaria.

It’s around 7 pm now, time for me to take my altitude sickness tablet – the last time I tried hiking in the hills of north India, at the base of the Indian Himalayas, I turned back after three days – bewilderingly, I was completely fatigued, even though I was in good physical shape at the time. I didn’t realize until much later that I’d had altitude sickness. Not planning to let that happen this time.

The bus finally arrives at Kangra. At the bus depot, dogs are howling in the street, welcoming each new bus. One particular dog decides to shit in the middle of the road. Fortunately, there’s no bus approaching.

I need to catch the next bus to Dharamshala and then a bus or a cab to McLeod Ganj. The toll collector at the bus depot exit tells me I just missed a bus, but wait a few minutes, there’ll be another bus coming. Sure enough, in just a bit, a local bus to Dharamshala arrives. This next journey begins with a bit of late-evening drama. There’s a drunken sadhu (a Hindu ascetic) on the bus, in full saffron gear, matted hair and face paint. He tells the conductor he wants to go to Varanasi. Varanasi is the Hindu holy place on the banks of the Ganga River and it’s only, oh, just over 800 miles away (1,300 kilometers).

The conductor impatiently tells him, This bus is going to Dharamshala. You’re drunk. You should get off this bus and go to sleep.

The sadhu says I have drunk the nectar of the gods. I’m going to Varanasi.

The bus bursts out laughing. The sadhu smiles a wry smile. At the next stop, the conductor asks him to get off and waits until he does.

God of the bottle, the conductor says.

Taking our money to drink, a passenger mutters. I’ll never donate alms again to these people.

Soon we reach Dharamshala. I negotiate a rate with a local cabbie and I’m on my way to a backpackers hostel in Dharamkot, just beyond McLeod Ganj. The cabbie gets lost and we call the hostel for directions. We get there in a little bit. After I settle down into my comfortable bunk bed, the manager of the hostel comes by to welcome me and give me the lay of the land. He’s an earnest young man in his early 20s who’s also staying in the same dorm. There’s a heater next to my bed. I’m grateful – it’s going to be near freezing tonight. Hot water will flow about twenty minutes after turning on the water heater. But just for you, you can use the exclusive shower outside this dorm which has instant hot water. Lucky me, I think. A little while later, as I’m about to go to bed, the manager tells me a bit of his life, his aspirations, and some of the unreasonable complaints of guests around lack of hot water. I find it weird that he’s telling me this last bit, but I’m tired and soon I’ll be fast asleep. Fast asleep after a long day back on the road.

Marlon de Souza Ⓒ 2019. All rights reserved.