Passage Through India
This article first appeared in The Bulletin on December 16, 2003
'You are very plain,' Miss Sheema Singh tells me. 'You have fair skin, which is good for the wearing of any colour, but are otherwise quite plain, with no lipstick or jewellery and no dress or nice shirt.' Sheema is 20, beautiful and her favourite colour is sky blue. She changes from a sky-blue sari to a sky-blue tracksuit pants and Friends t-shirt, a few hours into our 12 hour train trip to Delhi. I smile, not sure what else there is to say about my disappointing appearance. I think you are a writer, yes?' she gestures at my book. 'You are interested in Buddha?'I tell her I am and that I am here to research the life of a woman who became a Buddhist nun. I don't go onto say that before she was a nun she was - depending on which version you believe - a stripper in Paris, a belly dancer in Cairo or an owner of lesbian bars. 'Why is it,' she asks, 'that westerners are always interested in the Buddha and not the Shiva?' Sheema is a Punjabi and lives in Jammu where there is allot of military action. She has a bad ulcer. Possibly because her parents live in Dubai, where they run a hotel, and she is left alone with her grandmother. Possibly because of the war. Possibly from too many pickles. As if to prove her point she gets out some of her grandmother's green mango pickle and offers it to me. Mr Pal Singh (no relative), who is sharing our carriage, tells Sheema she should stop eating pickles if she is ill. They have an animated discussion, in Hindi, and I suspect Sheema is telling him to mind his own business. She has never met him before this train ride, but calls him Uncle, in deference to his age. Mr Singh, as it happens, was the 1968 National Indian Weightlifting Champion. He now trains young Indian women weightlifters and travels the world with them. They are a very successful team. He came to Sydney for the Olympic Games. Sheema wants to visit me and my husband in Melbourne, she tells me. And after hours of swapping the stories that are the stuff of travel, I find I must begin to tell stories that are a kind of lie. When she asks me if I am married, I say I am, which in my heart is true, but by law illegal because my partner is a woman. None the less, when encouraged, I describe my imaginary wedding to Sheema. My hair was longer then, I tell her, and she smiles approvingly. 'Less plain.' I tell her I wore flowers in my longer hair, that I married in a garden, not a church and that I didn't wear a veil. 'Did you wear trousers?' she wants to know. 'No,' I say. ' A long dress.' Then there is the inevitable question: 'do you have children?' Mr Pal Singh has children. In fact his first grandson has just been born and he gives us some food in celebration. Friends have warned me, and there have been numerous Indian newspaper articles on, people who come onto trains and ask people to share their wedding breakfast or some other special meal. The food is drugged and the so-called newly weds get off the train at the next stop with the belongings of their now sleeping victims. These stories flash through my mind as I cup my hand and lean towards Mr Singh so he can scoop a mixture of crushed brown sugar, nuts, cardamom and cloves into my hands. It is delicious.
I am travelling North India in pursuit of one woman's story, but I am filled with many others along the way. I am, in some ways, a child again - curious, impressionable, taking everything in - so perhaps that is why childhood looms large on this trip. I think of mine, I learn of other peoples. There are stories that are wild and fanciful (and true), of men in turbans and curly shoes, of deserts, of painted elephants, of mountains reaching up into and beyond the clouds. Then there are the other stories: government corruption; adolescent girls throwing themselves, or being thrown, onto their husband's funeral pyres; extreme poverty; dying children. A week or so later, I am about to catch another train from Gaya to Patna, in India's poorest state, Bihar. At the last moment I lose my nerve and get a jeep instead because the body of a murdered nine-year-old boy has been found in the train I am meant to catch later that day. I had read about this boy - when there was still hope for him - four days before. His father was a relatively wealthy pharmacist, which is why the boy had been kidnapped. Kidnapping and armed robbery are a way of life here, and I met several people, who had had guns pointed at them, or had been shot. Ironically, Bodghaya, where I am staying, is where which Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree more than 2000 years ago. It was a bright night, lit by a full moon, and by dawn he attained enlightenment. On my second night there I ate with, among others, Steve, a bloke originally from Adelaide, who has lived here off and on for 20 years. We sat talking in a dim flickering because the electricity went off and on and whenever that happened the waiter would light a single candle and stand in the middle of the restaurant. Steve and his partner have, in recent years, become close to an Indian girl, Sunman. Steve found her 3 years ago, yelling and screaming in the local bazaar. She was skin and bone, dangerously underweight, standing on a box, denouncing her parents for having kept her chained up. Steve took her to the doctor and it turned out she was extremely ill with diabetes and TB. Her illnesses had caused the strange behaviour that her parents only knew how to manage by tying her up like a dog. Now she's healthy and Steve is close to the whole family. Sunman goes to the school that I visited everyday I was there, a school run by the Maitreya Universal Education Project. In fact while I have come to Bodghaya in pursuit of my heroine, I have also come to visit this school, which is run by my friend, Dick Jeffrey. The Maitreya Project is, more famously, associated, with the attempt to build a 152-metre statue of the Buddha Maitreya but the project is also developing hospitals and schools. Government schools in Bodghaya are literally falling down and teachers often don't turn up because they don't get paid. Not only is the school I visited attended by 250 students each day, who attend for free (the result of constant fundraising by Dick, who hopes they will be able to provide funding for 500 within two years). Up to 150 children also turn up each evening to compensate for their inadequate daytime education. After silent meditation with the children in assembly, the first class I sat in on was a discursive and philosophical early morning class before the more conventional teaching began. The kids were all about twelve years old. The discussion topic of the day was daunting: 'How can we stop poverty in Bodghaya?' One girl said she would ask the beggars what was wrong and why it was they were begging. One boy said that while he might give to a beggar once, or twice, if he did it too much they would expect it and it would make them lazy. He went onto say that only education would break the cycle of poverty. They asked me what I thought and I said I thought better health care and medicine would help. Some of the kids disagreed. Many beggars are not sick, they told me, they are lazy. One boy said he would give clothes and food to beggars, but the class wanted to know where he would get the money. The teacher talked about the problems of corrupt government. The kids were intense and animated, though being asked to speak in English made them a bit formal. They went around the room and introduced themselves to me. Their desired occupations were: teachers, doctors, police and soldiers. One boy said, with great formality, that he couldn't reveal his preferred occupation to me. One girl, the one who said she wants to talk to beggars, wants to be a singer. It is the girls who often must leave school before they finish their education, because their marriages have been arranged. That afternoon one of the workers at the school, Jhunmun, showed me round his village, where many of the kids have come from. It was picturesque in a way, with colourful cloth hanging out to dry on mud brick walls. The huts were a series of rooms around a shared courtyard. Some had a pump for water in their courtyard and others used the village pump. Cows lived to the side of, or in, the houses. Most families were very poor, though Jhunmun's family was slightly better off. Even so, his first daughter had died when she was only a week old after being fed formula made up with local water. Jhunmun's eyes filled with tears as he told me this story, while cuddling his new baby daughter who is chubby and healthy, with large Khol-circled eyes.
Miss Singh asks me whether they prefer platinum gold or normal gold in Australia. I tentatively suggest that we prefer gold gold. She asks if I am sure - and of course I am not - as in American platinum gold is much preferred. She says she wants to go to America to live, though when I ask her, she does not know the name of one American city. Mr Singh's preferred countries, after India, are Canada and Australia so Mr Singh and I do our best to talk up these destinations. After a while Mr Singh says to her, 'you may travel to these other places. But when you do you will discover that India is your home.' His words came back to me two weeks later as I was walking through the town of Darjeeling. It's a mysterious place, superficially still colonial in style, with brass bands in the City Square and old Raj style hotels. A former English hill station it is set 2134 metres high and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Or perhaps I should say it is surrounded by the idea of peaks. Covered in clouds, I only saw them once, briefly, as they emerged from the clouds. It is said that the Himalayas, are the homes of the Gods - and it certainly feels like that - though in truth, Buddha was born on and wandered the great plains of India, enduring floods and temperatures that varied from freezing to 50 degrees. The first afternoon I was there I had a cup of tea, with Martin Pinnell. Martin's father had been Deputy Commissioner of the Darjeeling District in the mid-thirties and Martin had been born here. He had been invited back this time to watch a holy man open the L.G.Pinnell Board Room - named after his father - at the Windamere Hotel, the hotel we were both staying in. Martin lived in Bengal until he was six, when, according to the practice of the British in India in those days, he was 'sent home to school'. After the fall of France in 1940, some 200 English school children were sent back to India again, on ships sailing to Calcutta, a voyage of around 6 weeks. In Calcutta, their parents had set up a special school for this sudden influx of children, but at the end of 1941 the school was moved up to the cool of Darjeeling. Martin told me that after the Japanese occupation of Burma, he and some school friends agreed that if the Japanese invaded India, they would walk through the Himalayas into Nepal. But instead, his concerned parents sent him away again, to school in South Africa.Now in his seventies he returns to Darjeeling every few years, to walk the streets he walked as a child and young man. The afternoon we spoke Martin had found the house in which he once lived. It was still in good repair, with a beautiful garden. In a place where the monsoon erodes all efforts to keep anything pristine, this was an unexpected surprise. Was it the sounds of childhood that bought Martin back here so many times? I wondered this after I had been walking through this mountainous town only to be imaginatively pulled back to the flat of Melbourne's suburbs at the sound of a lawn mower. It was as if I had landed, thud, like Dorothy after the tornado, and like her was about to cry, 'There's no place like home.' This pang of homesickness despite the fact I don't like lawn mowers. But these things aren't about like, or dislike, they are about the places and smells and sights that form you, that become imbedded in your cells, your brain and your heart. That same evening I met the elegantly attired Captain Yopan Yogan-du, former monk and former royal guard and personal attendant of the King of Sikkim. He wore a traditional full-length wool coat, in maroons and browns. When he worked for the king, he told me, after India's invasion off Sikkim, he was in charge of the sand mandalas. For the last 25 years he has run an orphanage. The buildings have taken a while to be built, he told me, because he is paying for everything out of his own pocket. 'It's easier than fund raising,' he laughed, 'I don't go out and I don't eat much.'
'So,' Sheema asks me again. 'Do you have children?' It is a hard question for me to answer because I want children, but, like marriage, this is something the law makes hard for me. And while such matters are complicated, this trip to India has reinforced the sense I have always had: that children are precious. That the chance to love them and care for them should be seen, simply, as a blessing. All I say is, 'No. No children yet.'This, given my age, is a big admission. I am nervous that Sheema will take me to task for this failing, one so much greater than my wilful plainness or Westerner-come-lately Buddhism. But Sheema just shrugs then gets up to tap the passing Chai wallah on the shoulder. She buys me a cup of chai that is hot, milky, strong and sweet. All three of us sit and watch the golden green rice paddies race by. 'Soon,' Mr Singh says, 'It will be harvest time.'