(Yes, there is a lot of text, but you should see the physical postcards that I send.)
I have found the heart of India, and I found it in the roots of the growing nation.
We separated today for a bit for the first time on the trip and promised to meet back at the hostel by four. I took to the streets nervous but excited, tried not to look anyone too intently but looked at them when they didn’t see. For the first time in India, I was all alone and sought my way out of the touristy areas to see the parts where they say the friendliest people in the world live. Women sitting at shopfronts talked to me in Hindi. Children, with no word of English on their tongues but “hello” and “photo please”, scurried on towards me and smiled shyly when I pointed my camera at them. The shutter snapped and after I’d shown them the photo, they were off, faded onto the streets where I would never be able to tell one kid from another if it wasn’t for the precious photos.
As it was getting closer to four, I started seeking my way back on the streets dappled in blue. The henna that Amir had painted on my hand was drying, and I was absent-mindedly rubbing it off. She had been one in the group with the best English, so as the group of giggling, curious school girls had browsed through my photos (in wonder that such landscapes I had captured were a part of their own country) and braided my hair, she translated their shameless questions about my country and my boyfriend. As I was reluctantly shuffling towards the hostel, I wrapped myself into that warm blanket of their enthusiastic waves of good-byes and smiled. In my mind Amir’s little sister, with my camera in her hand and the screen zoomed in on my boyfriend’s face, was still looking at me with big, demanding eyes and asking what caste he was. She said she thought caste was important as surely as I could confirm that the sky was blue (or, as in most cases, unpleasantly and menacingly grey).
A beautiful blue gateway caught my eye but as I snapped the picture, two girls approached me and I smiled and asked if they wanted me to take their picture, too. They just shook their heads, grinned and told me to follow them. In a fraction of the second I made up my mind and decided that if I was being mugged and murdered, at least I’d die happy, and I followed them up a steep staircase to the first floor of a house just inside the gate that had first lured me to stop. We arrived in a tiny tailor’s shop, where a young-looking woman greeted me with a smile. With no English she simply asked me ‘Chai?’ and I accepted.
‘So, are you two sisters?’, I asked the girls, and they both shook their heads.
‘Friend’, one of them said. Her voice sounded vaguely impatient for excitement. ‘Can you dance?’
‘Me?’ I couldn’t help but chuckle. In my mind I was exchanging exasperated looks with a friend on a zumba class way far over, back home. ‘No. Not at all.’
‘Wait.’ The girl disappeared for a second, then return with a cassette in her hand. She put it in the small stereo that I only now noticed, and when she pushed play, Bollywood music filled the tiny shop. She held out her hands for me. ‘Come.’
When a little Indian girl asks you to dance, you have to dance, so we did. I was trying my best to keep at her pace and she was looking at me and laughing, but looking at me nevertheless, like does someone who wants to make sure you are still with them. I spun her around but she excelled and started spinning me instead, finally tipping her body backwards leaning onto me, and then we were tapping feet, hopping around like little bunnies. Her mum had re-entered and was laughing benevolently, and I was laughing, too. There is no shame in having a 13-year-old kick your ass in a Bollywood dance-off.
Breathless, I sat down for a while to enjoy chai and coconut chocolate. I was feeling mildly embarrassed to be sitting on the only chair in the room, but they had insisted. For every piece of chocolate I picked up from the bowl they offered, I broke half to offer to the girls. A third girl, my dance partner’s little sister, had emerged from somewhere, and then they performed a dance they had learnt in a movie as the rest of us cheered on.
It had started raining so they insisted I stay for a little while longer and we danced some more. When there was nothing left to dance, I sat down and asked the three girls about school. I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.
‘A scientist’, said the first one.
‘A doctor’, said the second.
‘A doctor, too’, said the third. ‘But for animals.’
I left when the rain eased up a little, or so it seemed, although they asked me to stay for a while longer. Water started rushing down the skies the moment I stepped through that gateway, and collecting my skirts (already soaked and heavy at the hem) I skipped onto the other side of the street onto a ledge off the ground. I’ve thought about these three girls a lot ever since. I hope they achieve what they want. I hope India can keep at pace with the ambition of the young people that will build its future.
Hope you’re doing well, too.