Christmas of 1987. I, a teen was aboard a Gujarat bound train with my parents & brother. Ours is a family that loves to gallivant & my parents never lost an opportunity to break the ice & break bread with co-travelers. Sometimes, these 2-day confabulations led to lifelong friendships too!
‘How did they manage to strike a rapport so soon’, I often wondered🙄 . Rather, ‘Why did they chat so much’, I pondered.
The blustering gale that flogged my face, trees that were left behind as we moved with the train, the aroma of guava & coffee, the odour of coal & cigarettes, the sight of a stray farmer ploughing his fields in a faraway land, the clanging of metal as the train sheared through a bridge, the formidable sight of rails high above a raging river, were far more fascinating than a coze with strangers.
But I never questioned them, for I believed it to be the norm & I had to be a ‘good girl’.😌
‘How would they relish Nature, if they socialized so much’, I wondered.
There’s so much to learn from people; about cultures, about beliefs’, they always insisted. So, the ramblings that revolved around the nation, often strayed to foreign lands & policies too.
They often found people as congenial as them but dad never forgot to pause & point out as the train changed tracks & left one pair of tracks. ‘That means the arrival of a station on the other side’, he’d say. ‘If we see many tracks, that means it’s a junction or a central station’, he’d chirp in.
I wondered how he could rattle the names of all stations en route ―by heart. Yes, he kept a pocket time-table but he still knew the train of stations that followed!
I’ve continued with the tradition. And, it is now that I’ve begun to appreciate my parent’s couthy ways! This post is not only about strange people who became friends & the valuable lessons they imparted, but also about strange lands & their customs.
Back to our train journey to Gujarat. Mr. Patel, a pot-bellied portly man, became my parent’s newfound friend. Our itinerary was before him for scrutiny now.
Those days, hotels were scouted for only upon arrival. However, the 12-hour train journey entailed many pleasantries, including the exchange of phone numbers & addresses. ‘You must stay at my house. I live with my Mrs. & sister & we’ve a large bungalow. So, why should you stay elsewhere?’, exclaimed Mr. Patel.
And when good hotels were hard to come by in Ahmedabad, given the holiday season, we contacted Mr. Patel, whose family threw open their home, hearth & heart for us. Thereafter began the exchange of lovely greeting cards every Diwali. Mr. Patel’s hospitality did leave an indelible mark.. How many would do that today? Rather, would I do that?
That was Gujarati hospitality at its best. Believe me, if you’re heading up north in India, via Gujarat in a train, you needn’t really worry about safety. The garrulous Gujjus will share their meals & their life stories too, sometimes without even bothering about some shut-eye! So, when I travelled to Delhi on Garib Rath, with my then 10 -year old son, I travelled without a care.
Marathi Manoos to the Rescue
(Photo courtesy―Wiki Commons)
Same trip a few days later. We were in Somnath Temple precincts. After worship & a stroll in the beach, we were heading homeward. The place was teeming with devotees. Suddenly, to my dismay, I was separated from my family. In that crowd, I heard a family of 3, dialogue in Marathi. 2 were women. Approaching them, I explained my predicament in chaste Marathi & in seconds, the trio became my guardian angels, till my parents found me. That was my lesson in ingratiation.
March 1998. My mom & I were journeying by train to Chidambaram for my oncoming master’s programme in Psychology. Chidambaram, unlike Madras (today Chennai) was still foreign to us.
Pointing out at a boy, who shared the coupe, my mom suggested, ‘Shall we ask that boy about the town?’.
’What’s there to know? We’d learn about it soon. Moreover, Tamil Nadu is our land’, I had opined. G, the ‘until then’ taciturn boy, suddenly turned articulate, explaining even the bend on the right we needed to take to reach the university or a temple!
That’s Tamil hospitality! Heard the phrase ‘going out of the way’? A Tamilian would do just that. Where a Delhiite would point out to the Thar if asked for the Bay of Bengal, in Tamil Nadu, they’d go out of their way to methodically explain every route, landmark & milestone. 14 March 1998 & our Tamilian Karadayan Nombu (a festival) was celebrated in G’s house, for he had invited us over to his place.
While rickshaw fares in Chennai can reach stratospheric proportions, the expeditious diligence of hoteliers & servicemen cannot be ignored. If you expect your breakfast at 5am, it is yours for the asking. Even elaborate elevenses would be on the table on the dot! The ‘Saar’ & ‘Medum’ that follows every sentence, would also have you willingly loosen your purse strings for a generous tip.
Helping Hands in Delhi
December 2019 & I had just landed in New Delhi Airport. I was to meet my friends at Golf Course Station, which I supposed to reach via Delhi Metro originating at the airport. The Metro seemed a bit confusing with some trains breaking journey midway. Not wanting to rely on my gut, I asked around. A lady had already misguided me by pointing towards the taxi stand. Another native tried breaking the queue at the Metro counter, till I firmly showed him his place. But, isn’t it said, ‘There’re still many good people in the world’? And it was nice knowing one of them.
I approached Yogi, a young man who too was on board my flight. Yogi, not only gave instructions, but also changed tracks, joined me in my train, till he knew I was on the right track. No, he wasn’t from Delhi. He was heading for Gwalior after a sojourn in Delhi. I was no stranger to Delhi but that was my solo visit. I was a bit apprehensive but thanks to Yogi, my worries were dispelled. 😌. He was surely a Godsend!
How can I ever forget the warmth & hospitality of friends? We had planned to join our friends in Mumbai, who were vacationing with their family in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. Don’t know why, but I was reluctant to upset their schedule. Yet, after holidaying in Kullu-Manali, it was the warmth of our own people that was most endearing. Our circle has widened to include their families &, to know that there is another family somewhere that wishes us well & holds us dear, is certainly priceless!
An Unforgettable Face
We were shopping in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. In the midst of Tibetans, were a few natives too. One lady attracted my attention.
She was a tad wheatish ―a rarity there. But her face was so radiant, that it had the power to launch a thousand ships! Helen of Troy couldn’t have held a candle to her. Simply put, she is unforgettable!
She smiled a beatific smile & looked so blissful that she was joy personified! 🤗. A bit of age & experience was writ large on her face to be called a newly-wed. Still she beamed with a rare joy. No, she was not effusive, yet there was a gleam. She was an embodiment of that elusive elan vital that we so hanker after! She was calm, yet mirthful; composed, yet pleasant. Sadly, those were days when digital photography was yet to reach the common man & after counting the number of films, I decided I couldn’t pose with her. I wish I had, for even today whenever I think of this stranger, I wish more to be like her. All I can hope for, is that her tribe increases!
Talking of friendliness towards absolute strangers, how can I forget Meena Mami from Koduvayur, Kerala? With 2 more days to go for a relative’s wedding, I wished to bide time by exploring the untouched hill-station of Neliampathy. Wanting to provide an escort, my relatives asked their neighbour, who more than willingly offered to take me around. And, that day spent in the lush tea-gardens, was one spent with a warm motherly figure, whose ever-smiling face & chirpiness opened my mind in more ways than one 🤗.
A low-grade fever turning up every few hours during my trip to Switzerland last year, played spoilsport. We were in train, heading for Interlaken from Mt. Titlis, when I felt feverish. Overcome by utter lassitude, I tried dozing off. This gorgeous land that had until then enamored me, suddenly seemed exasperating.
Seated next to us, was a Korean lady, maybe in her late 50s’. She could gather that I was sick. After a while, pulling out a Vitamin C pill, she shoved it into my palms & whispered, ‘Here thake this. You chew this, ith’s goodh for fever & coldh’.
While most tourists were loath to take their eyes off the breathtaking scenery, this lady paused to see someone’s plight. Although she saw my family with me, she was large-hearted to part with the medicines she had carried perhaps for herself!
Kuala Lumpur in June 2011 & I was traveling solo in pursuit of my studies in Chinese metaphysics. Sundown & I was returning from the famed Thean Hou Temple.
I had to walk a mile to hail a taxi & there was nary a soul in sight, save a group of unruly adolescent boys. Sadly, sensing my discomfort, they began to hoot & smile. I mentally implored the presiding deities for a a taxi to show up.
I hastened my pace & lo! A car carrying 2 women & a man, stopped by! The gentleman asked me where I was heading & said they’d drop me at Little India. Noticing my hesitation, he reminded me that there were 2 women aboard & I needn’t worry.
‘The boys can be very annoying madam & the taxi stand is far-off’, reminded the woman.
Perceiving that as a signal from the trinity, I hopped in & in 10 minutes, got safely dropped off at Little India. Ms. S & her troop could’ve passed by without a glance. Yes, I halted for a few seconds trying to figure out if it was a taxi I could hail & ‘that’ perhaps alerted them. However, they could’ve driven off without paying any heed to my plight but they didn’t. Perhaps they were truly Godsend.😊
It was my penultimate day in Kuala Lumpur & I spent the day with my relatives in Wangsa Maju. My relative —a senior, drove me to the supermarket —a good 6 km away. We were driving through a gated community, abounding in fruit trees.
A large pink dragon fruit had fallen outside the boundary wall. The sweepers went about their work that morning. We passed by the same place in an hour & the fruit lay at the same spot —untouched! Surprised, I questioned my relative.
‘Here, they will not touch it although it has fallen on the road that belongs to the laity. None would touch it, even if no one is watching. That’s Malaysia.’
Without qualms, uncle continued, ‘Sadly, can we say the same about our country? Is it your father’s?’, will be the brazen retort.’ I kept mum. Was there anything to contend about?
There’s so much to appreciate, cherish & learn from other humans. But, nations have so much to teach too. A nation that rests on the pillars of integrity, probity, ethics & discipline will seldom need another to marshal it. Why are some countries more prosperous, developed & disciplined than others?
‘You must take a train, because travel by taxi warrants a heavy toll’, advised our relative ―a resident of Singapore for 25 years.
‘That’s the country’s initiative to reduce pollution, ease gridlock & promote good health. And therefore, you’ll find even seniors in the pink of health’, he explained. Singapore, like many European nations has stringent traffic policies in place.
As we waited in train stations, we found seniors as old as 80, scurrying about to board their train. They strode as nimbly as any of us! The only people who waddled about, bobbing their head from side to side were Indians! I know, this note may not be taken kindly by many readers, but I cannot help commenting. This is a wake-up call. And each time I think of putting off yoga for a day, I’m reminded of this scene.
Honesty is a way of life in Singapore, as many of us know. However, I got to experience this very subtly. Singapore’s Chinatown is a vibrant place for all things oriental. At one end of Maariamman Temple is a shop selling women’s tops in floral prints.
I must’ve spent almost 40 minutes scouring for a suitable top. What caught my fancy did not fit me & what fitted me, I did not like. I was almost going to buy one, more out of courtesy for the sales lady’s patience. However, without much ado, she advised, ‘Mam, dhon’th go for ith if you dhonth like ith. If you alther the dhress to suith your frame, you will mar the beauthy. Insteadh you go thoo the supermarketh across. You may findth your size’.
She was so perceptive & her smile bespoke her understanding. I’m sure we’ve come across shopkeepers who’d vouch for the exclusivity of their wares & here was a lady, who didn’t mind losing a customer.
Bewitching Bali, one of those heavenly Hindu countries that willingly embraced Hinduism bequeathed from the fountainhead, today stands as an unflickering beacon for upholders of religious decree.
Draping a sarong is mandatory before entry into temples. The Balinese way of life would put any devout devotee to shame & they had a rule for every ritual, which they reverentially performed.
However, it was the plaque at Pura Taman Saraswati Temple & Batu Karu Temple that jolted us!
Bali’s beliefs steeped in antiquity, has no place for pretense. No wresting for equal rights, for, they’re indeed comfortable in their own skin!
For ours that has roused the rabble, moved the highest court only to gain entry into temples that have remained the domain of men thus far, isn’t humble Bali a beacon of sorts??
To all my ilk, I have one question. How many Indian women can urge their menfolk to don the apron & wield a ladle? Forget your men. How many of you women can put your tongue -wagging, blinkered & petty-minded women friends in their place, when they deride you if your husband or son wear the chef cap?? If you as a woman have failed to do that, why think about climbing mountains, when you haven’t managed to cross molehills?? And this is especially for the foolish women I often come across, who snigger when they find men donning the toque blanche. (Aah! another’s man donning the chef cap is to be upbraided & one’s own ―to be lauded!)😛
More Lessons in Bali
Bali was a bagful of surprises. We were awaiting our breakfast at Ubud’s Kailas Homestay, Bali. One table was occupied by 2 young ladies perhaps in their early 30s. They were perhaps Europeans.
(Breakfast table Photo courtesy —Kailas Homestay, Ubud, Bali)
They occupied adjoining seats. One lady, who was more expressive, articulated & gesticulated perhaps describing something vividly. She was in no hurry to finish either. She continued sotto voce for almost 15 minutes. All this time, the other, with eyes fixed on her friend, smiled, nodded in agreement & listened intently. It was only when the speaker stopped, did the listener comment. Clearly, there was no pecking order here; they were merely pals. Yet, the respect accorded by the listener, her rapt silence & the polite muted tone of the speaker, despite the animated content of the chat, bowled me over & drove home a point.
This kind of comity is rare in spirited Asia, (not that I’ve seen the whole of Asia). Usually, even a meeting between 2 friends turns cacophonous, with the listener interrupting to express affected awe, assent, dissent and shock, & the speaker forgetting their point midway, because now the conversation has digressed, or because the cellphone buzzed. ☹ Politesse is reserved only for formal chats. ☹
Why! Even I should be guilty for the many conversations I’ve interrupted.
By the way, Kailas Homestay, Ubud, bali Jl. Ir. Sutami, Kemenuh, Kec. Sukawati, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80582, Indonesia+62 818-568-715, has been by far one of our best stays. Do opt for this place when you visit Bali.
It’s not exactly an Asian attribute. Right there in Bali’s Ulluwatu Temple, I encountered another bevy of Southeast Asians girls humming a merry tune in perhaps Chinese or Mandarin that sounded Greek & Latin to us.😇
They were happy & what better way to express joy than hum a tune? Yet, they ensured that their joy did not mar the pervading peace. They went their way as discreetly as they showed up, without being exuberant or boisterous. No display of delirium here, & no doubt they were duly greeted with pleasant smiles.🙂
Bali’s Day of Silence
We retreat into a retreat to practise silence, abstinence & contemplation. But the Balinese observe Nyepi or Day of Silence, without leaving their home. Nyepi that falls in March every year, is when the whole of Bali comes to a grinding halt. Streets, airports, hotels, malls, schools, beach etc. wear a deserted look.
The Balinese remain indoors, fast, maintain silence, do not use electricity (although lights are used). No planes take off or land, no vehicles ply & hotels remain shut. Barring essential services like ambulance & hospitals, everything else remains shut. Imagine! Even if that’s followed for 24 hours, how much of a difference that would make to the environment, to humans & thus the planet!
Regaling us with stories of the land & kvelling with Scottish pride, was Ms. E, our tour guide, while we toured Scotland with Rabbie’s Tours.
Mrs. E, a genial woman in her 50s began by introducing herself. She, who had worked for a renowned airline, had quit the job after marriage & moved to Middle East with her husband, raised children, worked in the hotel industry, & then taken up a teaching job & something in between too. Now that her children have fledged, she became a tour guide —a job that she enjoyed.
Here is a woman who has donned different hats, is versatile & is still raring to go, when in oriental countries, people prefer to retire at her age. I mulled over the appreciable latitude some societies enjoyed. Elsewhere, her choices would have been probed. Of course, aptitudes matter, but I’m very sure Mrs. E had chosen all her vocations well; not those that came her way but those she enjoyed indulging in. In countries where nosy parkers meddle with every decision of yours, this came as a pleasant change.
We were aboard a bus in Amsterdam. There was a young Indian couple with an infant in the pram & a 7-year old in tow. With no vacant seat, they stood on the footboard. As the elder boy tried coddling his sibling, the parents, separated the duo. Even as he tried stealing a peek from the window, the dad yanked him back & held him closer to himself. The mother adjusted his collar, tucked his shirt & tweaked his cowlick. Finding his sibling gleeful, he made one last attempt at amusing the baby, but 2 firm hands again tugged him back.
My smirk might’ve been evident but it was more to do with my own parenting style some 10 years ago. Strangely, I usually see only children from some communities misbehaving & now I know why. Sometimes, it’s wise to let children be.
Happiness in Bhutan
Intrigued by Bhutan’s renowned GNH, my friends & I visited the place to experience it ourselves. There were insights for us at every step; every custom bespoke reason, every practice opened our eyes to realization.
The stark difference between India & Bhutan was noticeable right at the entrance. Jaigaon on the Indian side pulsated with life no doubt, but once we crossed the gates, Phuntsholing, Bhutan wore a Utopian look. The absence of traffic & traffic cops & the ban on honking made this side of the gate a veritable Shangri-La!
Ranking high was the reverence they accorded to the monastic order. While having my breakfast at Asian Hotel the first morning, my eyes fell upon a habit of monks approaching a chorten. What amazed me was the sight of a few women walking in the opposite lane pausing to bow at them! Did the monks even notice the women??
The deference accorded to the king is astounding. The king on his part, is not someone who lives in his ivory tower. Man of the people that he is, his weekly visits to various prefectures to familiarize with people’s concerns, has endeared him to one & all. In fact, he is deified!
Passing by his palace, we were in for another surprise! Barring a few extra embellishments, the palace would’ve passed off as any other domicile. Ornate embellishments are meant only for temples.
The queen mother & her 3 sisters don’t merely doll up & enjoy privileges. They go out of their way & address health concerns & also challenges encountered by the youth.
We timed our visit to coincide with the famed Black Necked Crane Festival that came into being in 1998, as a means to conserve the Black Necked Cranes, which are becoming endangered. Bhutan’s initiative to help spread awareness of the impact of cranes on ecology, is done by involving the youth as well as schoolchildren, who don costumes of cranes & put up performances like the Mask Dance & folk dances.
Venue-Gangtey Gompa. Scores of families had arrived. They brought their tiffin along, which they ate while they watched the events. And when they left, they carried back the left overs.
No baby bawled; no child yelped. School children as well as the youth comprising both men & women participated in the events. Yet, none from the crowd jeered, hooted, distracted or ogled. Such was the respect they had for their culture.
One event will particularly remain etched in my memory. A group of women danced to the tune that was belted out on the music system. Unfortunately, the music system got impaired. Even as the audience waited, the women smiled knowingly & without a dither, without a demur, chorused along & continued with their performance! I couldn’t help comparing notes & imagined the look of chagrin performers elsewhere would’ve displayed.
Plastic is banned in Bhutan. The following scene depicts a novel way in which bottles are recycled. Plastic bottles painted with the sacred words ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ are spiked at spots for all to see. Their respect for Mother Earth is not mere lip service.
Upon returning the canes that we bought while trekking to Tiger’s Hill, we received half the price. The idea behind this is recycling of the cane & also prevents littering of the place.
There was a lesson in tolerance too. A little after Doklam Pass, a traffic turmoil had confused 2 drivers ahead of us. Each signaled to the other politely & each seemed to have understood the other’s predicament & both waited patiently for one to take a reverse & resume the journey. No drama, no cuss words. Perhaps such civility may be a tall order in larger nations.
Despite their reference to Indians as ‘Big Brother’ as a mark of acknowledgement for our contribution towards their economy, I never saw anyone fawning over tourists. Their purposeful gait & dignity reflected their quiet poise.
90% of Bhutanese are seen clad in their traditional attire. Women’s attire is the Kira & men’s is the Gho. Although informal occasions allow citizens to choose their costume to include trousers, which have gained popularity, in professional & government spheres, the traditional wear is a must. Imagine! The traditional attire has been de rigueur for 400 years now!
This dress code, conceived by the Father of Bhutan —Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, was instrumental in fostering unity when the country faced internal clashes. A uniform dress code not only fosters unity, but also serves to goad aspirants to evolve & progress.
Polygyny & polyandry are both permitted. So, a woman can take more than 1 husband without being stigmatized. The matrilineal society accords many privileges including property rights to women.
Bhutan may not be among the developed nations of the world but who’s competing? The Bhutanese have created a cozy cocoon based on culture, values, empathy & happiness. They have much to give to the world & they’re happy doing that.
No doubt, Bhutan awed me, but something occurred to me. Wouldn’t it be monotonous to be attired only in one style? I thought of my own homeland & the smorgasbord of choices & styles that India offered. It is perhaps only in India, where one could celebrate diversity!
A woman could wear a saree in different styles. From a Tamilian 9 yards to a Bengali saree to the Gujarati Seedha Pallu, a woman could choose her style. She can be as comfortable in a pair of jeans as she could be in a flowing skirt. A plethora of patterns, a kaleidoscope of colors —are all hers for the asking. And accessories? Isn’t there a wealth of designs to choose from? Men & women have the freedom to dress as they please. Isn’t that huge??
There’s so much to be grateful for. Yes, we have lessons to learn from rest of the world but surely, we are befitting exemplars of tolerance, too. Who would want to trade off freedom for anything?
PS: This post is not intended to ridicule or condemn any nation or nationality. We as humans, have much to learn from others &, travel opens up a world of opportunities for us to imbibe & impart. Let’s keep our eyes & mind open.
I’m an Indian & I’ve tried tearing down notional walls that seemingly create a deep divide between my culture & others’. In my endeavor, I’ve in fact discovered mighty bridges that lead to the opening of floodgates. Most often, I’ve found common ground even in unfamiliar territories.