Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Welcome To Our Country

By Christopher Timm

It was at the peak of a sweltering-hot summer afternoon when our party of seven arrived at the New Delhi train station, headed north for cooler climates. The heat and humidity was so intense that we all sat down on the platform. Just standing is a work-out in that kind of heat. Added to the temperature was a hefty dose of culture shock for most of our party. I guess I forgot to mention things like stray cows walking down the train platform when I prepared them for the journey.

After a few minutes, our guide came over to me and spoke confidentially in my ear, "We weren't able to get tickets for this train," he said, "so I'm going to go see what I can do. If the train arrives before I return, just get on and get off at the Hardwar station." I looked at him blankly. Our flight had been delayed one day from the States—which is why he had no tickets—but if we missed another day it would upset our entire schedule. We had to catch this train.

He smiled and did the traditional Indian head wag. That's a thoroughly Indian gesture midway between yes and no that is as versatile as it looks: one can use it to mean yes, no, please, thank you, or I'm going out to play cricket now. Then he disappeared into the crowd. I looked at the students who had flown over with me for the excitement of visiting India, their foreheads sweaty and their eyes wide open, as they watched men with piles of luggage stacked on their heads, walking by with half-naked children tugging at their shirts. The adventure had begun.

Fortunately, our guide reappeared just as the train was pulling in. He corralled us into a car and had us stuff our bags into the little space between the train car and the bathroom. "No luck?" I asked, putting two and two together. "No problem," he replied, "I'll find us seats later on." Desperate not to delay our journey any longer, we squeezed tightly together as the other passengers pushed past us into their cars.

When the train departed, our anxiety broke and we began to laugh: At least we're going somewhere! After time, we discovered that our compartment's door could be swung open, giving us a nice breeze and a view of North India's lush landscape. Little by little and one by one, our guide found seats here and there throughout the train.

Still my mind kept churning about those tickets: What will happen when I run into the conductor? What if one of our party, separated from the rest, has a bad experience? I'm supposed to be a monk escorting students on a spiritual journey to India and now look what I've done! I stow away our whole party in a reckless moment for the sake of keeping a lousy schedule? Because a guide who I just met—and who was ready to abandon me a minute ago—says it's ok? They don't throw stowaways in jail, do they? After all, it is a third world country. The mind conjures up all kinds of scenarios when it wants to.

I tried to chill out a bit and just before we reached our destination I got my answer. The conductor came in and sat behind me in an empty seat. He made notations in a large book and conversed with the man next to him. Suddenly he turned to me and said something in Hindi. His manner was grave. Especially grave. Hindi can be a very grave language. "He wants your ticket" a man next to me explained. I thought for a moment and felt around my pockets for a slip of paper I knew I didn't have. "I'm with a group of others," I said, trying to find the American equivalent of that all-purpose Indian head wag. I was getting more concerned by the moment. Especially as I realized that saying "I'm with a group of others," was about to bring our whole party into the mix. I waited anxiously as it was translated back to the conductor.

The conductor blurted something out in a serious voice and then, suddenly, a smile filled his face. A few people around laughed and he turned back to his conversation. Just then the train pulled into our station and I gathered my things gratefully and went to make sure the rest of our little band had made it off the train as well.

When we got into the cab, one of our party, Arthur, shared his experience on the train. For me, his story has become an iconic description of the culture of India. A few minutes after our guide had brought Arthur to his seat, a gentlemanly-looking man came and squeezed in next to him. He spoke English, so they chatted. His new friend welcomed him to India and inquired about his origin. "Welcome to our country," the gentleman said, "You are our guest, If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know."

After fifteen minutes of talk about Arthur's travel plans, the conversation turned to the gentleman's business. Gradually, it was revealed to Arthur that he was sitting in this gentleman's seat! Horribly embarrassed at the mistake, Arthur got up to leave, but the man insisted, "No, I want you to sit there, please!" When Arthur protested, the man persisted, "You are our guest. Please, be comfortable!"

As the rest of our visit unfolded, we were forced to tolerate many of the disturbances all travelers from the West experience in India: Having to argue over the price of everything you buy; enduring the driving etiquette that, when someone goes to pass your car, they hold their horn down constantly from the time they decide to pass you until they are 100 yards ahead of you. I could go on but it would just convince you of how little I've been able to integrate the point I now wish to make.

At such times, I often remembered the incident on the train: The conductor cutting slack to a traveler who was obviously bewildered by the Indian Railway system; the passenger who took pleasure at giving up his seat for a guest. Again and again in India I saw this ethic of selflessness and tolerance manifest in moments where lower responses could easily be defended. I saw that in a land where there is so much potential for disturbance, this society has learned to accept such things graciously.

Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krsna movement, once said that a person's greatness is shown in their ability to tolerate provoking situations. What character it shows when even strangers sacrifice for one another happily! How your heart melts toward such people! And so far as I could see, the deeper the relationship was, the deeper the willingness to sacrifice. And as beautiful as this was to see, it also shed light on a much less palatable truth, as I saw my own short-tempered responses to the little struggles that country threw my way.

If my own trials weren't enough to see the contrast, fate handed me the perfect moment when I returned to the States. Landing in Newark with two overweight bags, I hadn't anticipated the $3 charge for a luggage cart. I had no American cash on me and as a monk I have no credit card. After a few minutes of struggling with my bags, I turned to an attendant who stood nearby, supervising the scene.

I explained to him my plight and with lightning speed he shot back the classic, rhetorical question in his New Jersey accent, "So what do you want me to do about it?" I waited for a moment to see if he followed it with a smile. It would have been so charming, wouldn't it have been? Of course, he didn't. As I tried to absorb the blast of Americana that just hit me, I thought: "Welcome to our country." What an irony. I just left a rich heart in a poor land and found a poor heart in a rich land.

Christopher Timm (Radha Vallabha Dasa) is a monk and filmmaker whose forthcoming documentary "Today We Have The Power" chronicles the spiritual aspects of contemporary activism.

No comments:

Post a Comment