India is the most impossible, frustrating, overwhelming, beautiful, awe-inspiring, welcoming, surprising, and loving places I’ve ever been. Rest assured that I have a million and one posts I can and will write about India, but this particular memory is one that I can’t think about without bringing tears to my eyes.
It had been a very long day. Imagine cramming fifteen people into a small van (it had been an ambulance in a past life), then add all their stuff, two spare tires, and a small tree. (I kid you not. Why the tree was necessary I never did learn, but it was carefully protected the whole trip.) Now, imagine the most pothole-filled road you’ve driven on and combine it with the curviest. To complete the mental picture choose the craziest, stereotypical, Indian driver you can think of. And for fun, we took the scenic route.
If you count carefully there are nine of us in the picture, there are still six more waiting to get in. You can clearly see our joy.
Once we arrived, we had a full day of a village tours, herb garden health lessons, camel’s milk chai (very very good, for the record), and food so spicy even our Indian friends were sweating. As we were all crawling into our sleeping bags, our village host came to us with one last option for our day. He told us the surrounding villages were gathering one village over for something called a Bhajan, it would begin around 10 o’clock pm and go all night long, and we were invited.
Regardless of my friends’ decisions I knew that, as tired as I was, there was no way I would miss this. So in just a few hours, we were off, with our local guides and three members of my travel group. Though I was even less impressed with the driver’s night driving skills, we made it there in one piece, and that is when the magic really began.
We parked and climbed out of the van, bleary eyed and wrapped up in our sleeping bags, and made our way towards the music. As we walked toward the house, I knew this was going to be a night to remember, but I had no idea how truly special it would be.
We stepped into the house, but it could have very easily been that we had stepped back 10, 50, or even 100 years into the past. The men sat in a circle surrounded by the women and children. Outside the circle of people were many mats, so that people could sing and sleep as they chose. There was an abundance of jaggery (a molasses-like hard candy), chai, and hospitality. And then, there was the music. I’ve tried to think of a way to describe it , but the hand-made lute-like gourd instrument, the cymbals, and the voices combined into something nearly indescribable. On some levels, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing to listen to, but it was captivating. I sat for hours, drinking chai, eating jaggery, and basking in what felt like the most authentic cultural experience I might ever have.
Before coming, they had warned us that our Hindi wouldn’t help us, because the villagers only spoke their local dialect; however, around 12:30 am a woman sat down next to me and asked me the first question I learned the answer to in Hindi. “Ap shadi-shuda hai?” Are you married? Between her broken Hindi and mine, we managed a simple conversation. It turns out she was the woman of the house. Though we couldn’t communicate very well, we became friends and she asked me to meet her family. She woke up her four year old son so I could take his picture with his paternal grandmother. I thought that was it, but she asked me to bring my friends, and took us into a back room of her house that was closed off from the general gathering.
It was there that I met her mother, and as we sat talking an even older woman walked over to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and told me that she was the mother’s mother. I was blown away. I felt so privileged to meet this family from the youngest to the oldest. We got our translator and sat talking with these women who held together their village through the loss of their sons, husbands and dear friends. They told us of their sorrows, joys, and then they called us their daughters. The strength of these women and the openness of their hearts stirred me to tears. So we sat, no words, just the comforting touch of holding hands.
Soon we began to hear the familiar sound of the banjo that our group leader carried around India with us. There really isn’t anything like music to draw drastically different cultures close to each other. I saw men swap instruments and in doing so, sharing a part of their culture so deep it could transcend words.
I can’t remember ever feeling so connected to a culture not my own. Love and hospitality can go a long way.
I really didn’t want to leave that night. I could have very happily given into the women’s soft pleas of “don’t go” and slept on the mats with the rest of the village, waking and sleeping through the night with the rise and fall of the music. Unfortunately our village hosts decided we needed to get back to our group. The thing is though, it doesn’t matter. What I experienced is something I’ll never forget. I found a family and a home in an Indian village whose name I don’t know. But the thing about the magic of love is that, when its real, it goes deeper than names or whether or not I’ll ever see those women again. In those early morning hours we connected, and I’ll never forget the magic of that.