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posted by alias aardvark. on Saturday 5th of November 2005 12:14:39 AM

Nawanshahr, Punjab, India * * * India Day One 2001 Descending into Delhi at 4AM was like entering a bizarre subterranean hell. It was dark and hazy, and out of the window of the aging Aeroflot aeroplane we took I could only make out scattered fires in the near-dawn. We exited the stark, fluorescent-lit airport and met with crowd of at least a hundred men, their eyes silently following us as we sought out a familiar face. They had long beards and shawls covering their noses and mouths, the air being smoky, cold and damp. At that point I realized that this was the most foreign country I had ever been to, which sounds strange in retrospect. My cousins and uncle called out to us, and although they had never met me before, they greeted me warmly, probably seeing my father’s face in me. My cousin Rajesh had asked me to come to India with him about three weeks earlier. He was going with his mother to visit with some prospective brides, and wanted me to come along, partially for moral support, but mostly because of Papaji. I had never met any of my grandparents – and my last living one had just developed cancer. I was looking forward to meeting Papaji, seeing where my father had been born, and teasing Rajesh about his “meetings”. We headed to the parking lot under the hazy orange glow of buzzing sodium lights. There, we encountered a sooty djiin, a boy who looked to be six years old in white kurta-pyjamas whose skin was black from sun and dirt. He saw us and began a monotone chant, a mumbled rote which part blessed us, part begged from us. He latched onto us and followed us to the van, all the while chanting his mantra, a beggar giving benediction seeking alms. My uncle finally gave him a rupee - the boy took the coin, gave my uncle a pained expression, and shuffled off into the night. Rajesh gave me a wry smile and quipped "Welcome to India." We proceeded to pack ourselves into my uncle’s Maruti van. This tiny glorified lawnmower seats four in semi-comfort. The seven of us packed in, and I wedged in the front, sardined next to my newfound cousin and uncle. Upon the car starting, a figurine of a Hindu god on the dashboard started twinkling with multicoloured lights. It was to be the first of many juxtapositions of ancient beautiful culture mated with new cheap plastic technology that I would witness. The music began and we were on the road. We sped into the darkness and haze, watching shadowy figures appear out of the smoke and recede into the distance back into it as we passed. We passed many solitary cloaked figures walking by the side of the road, ancient men on bicycles, horses and huge Tata trucks. My eyes took in everything, while I struggled to understand the familiar-sounding but incomprehensible Punjabi conversation that was happening around me. We came upon what at first looked like giant sacks of rice inching down the road, which were actually tractors piled a story high with grain, a giant ball taking up the whole road. As we left the city, the honking began as red lights and lanes ceased to have meaning. The traffic began to include rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cows, scooters and ambassador taxis. Honking is traditional, I was told, more a means of chatter than warning. I lost count of the many fields of homes that I saw that consisted solely of what looked like black tents made out of black rubbish bags. There were fires outside the tents, illuminating women cooking breakfast for their families. It was like looking at an idyllic dawn campfire scene, except there were thousands of campsites, and those makeshift tents were permanent homes. We finally turned off into what looked like the suburbs of Delhi, though they were suburbs unlike any I'd ever seen. The purely residential streets of houses where there, but these were fantastic houses, some magnificent, some squalid. The street was still being built, and many houses were still under construction. In empty lots there were huge piles of decomposing rubbish with pigs (!) nuzzling through, searching for food. "In India nothing goes to waste," Rajesh had told me. There were also packs of wild dogs running around on the streets, foraging for food, and feasting on dead pigs. We arrived at my uncle’s house in Sonipat. This house was a two-story house bought a couple of years ago by my uncle Suraj's father. Suraj's father is a highly educated man who used to work at the Russian consulate. All but one of his four sons became truck drivers and are hence poor. Suraj falls into this category, so he, my aunt and their three kids live in one small room. The house has four rooms. Twenty people live there. I sat on my aunt's bed and looked around at my unfamiliar family. Suraj's dad spoke a strange grandiose English, a vestige from his consulate days no doubt. "It has been my highest ambition that you would visit for many years," he'd say. I was exhausted - we'd been travelling for fifteen hours including the flight. But we had to continue to our final destination - Nawan Shar, six hours north in Punjab. Nevertheless, after we had some delicious food we went for a walk in the developing neighbourhood. At the edge of the housing complex were huge fields, and a dairy. I took a peek in the gate of the dairy, which consisted of three cows hanging out and three turbaned old men playing cards. I saw a few dogs, dead and alive, which Rajesh warned me not to touch. "They're not Canadian dogs, they'll bite you," he said. I attempted conversation with my cousins, none of whom could speak English. Since I couldn’t speak Hindi, our only point of reference became the names of Hindi films and the stars of Bollywood, which we debated about via Rajesh, who spoke both languages with ease. We went back to the house and another cousin, Matoo, grabbed me and took me off in the van without explaining where we were going. Without my translator, I tried to figure out where we were going, struggling horribly with a language that I could not speak, yet which was fundamentally familiar. We were going to the mechanic’s to get the van checked out. At his shop we noticed about seven kids hanging out, watching, and helping. I noticed beds at the back of the shop. These kids probably worked for next to nothing just to learn the trade. Behind the auto shop was a huge muddy field that had been turned into a dump. I could see buildings in the distance, and in the muck pigs, cows and dogs and kids roamed and poked around. We drove back home though streets that were less than a metre and a half wide. I frantically fumbled through my Hindi phrase book for morsels of conversation to share Matoo. Later that day, we set off for Nawan Shar. Eight of us packed into the van and set off. Crammed in once again next to Matoo, with Bhangra blasting into my ears, I observed India as it flew by the window. I consulted my guidebook as we passed towns. Everywhere seemed to have a rich history - a bloody religious war was fought here, a Hindu god was reincarnated for the sixth time there, and as we continued deeper into Punjab we began to see the ruins of Muslim temples everywhere. I began to experience visual overload. There is always something profoundly interesting to see wherever you look. We'd pass flat plains where people were gathering wood, and then we'd pass a dense, vibrant city. After a few hours we stopped for some food. Matoo decided that he should take a bus the rest of the way, to give us more room in the van. I convinced my aunt to let me go with him the rest of the way. I wanted to travel like a local! Matoo and I bought tickets and boarded. The buses in India are similar to school buses, with the same vinyl clad bench seats. I think they squeeze in about twice as many seats though - legroom is non-existent. The bus sped down the British-built highway that travels up North India. Eventually I got used to the intermittent loud blasts it emitted as it tried to pass wayward cows and scooters. We stopped off in Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana and Punjab. A post-partition British construction, it is one of India’s more ugly cities - modern enough, but totally utilitarian and drab. It was designed by a French architect, whose crowning innovation was the integration of rock gardens into the city. I mused over the ugliness of one from the bus station. Matoo bought me a bottle of Rosewater Milkshake while we changed buses. Although we couldn’t understand each other, I felt completely safe with him As dusk approached my eyes became tired of staring out of the window. I drifted in and out of sleep as the journeyed through villages and long stretches of farmland - we crossed over a few long bridges, built for great monsoon-fuelled rivers during the season, but which now had mere streams beneath them. Matoo put his arm around me and fell asleep. We finally arrived in Nawan Shar. I got off the bus and Matoo grabbed onto my hand. The streets of the village were dark - the only illumination coming from the shops and stalls lining the way to my grandfather’s house. As there were no sidewalks, I had to be careful to not be hit by cars, bicycles and rickshaws. We walked along for a bit and suddenly I saw my uncle Papu sitting in a shop. He's from San Francisco, and it was good to see a familiar face. I embraced him and another uncle who I hadn't yet met. Rajesh was there also, sitting and drinking with my uncles. They sat me down and gave me two extremely strong whisky-and-cokes, after which we shut down the store and headed off to my grandfathers house. I had to pee desperately, and figuring once I arrived at the house I’d be swamped with meeting people, I did my business on the side of the road, traffic whizzing behind me. I can assimilate with the best of them. Meeting relatives for the first time is often overwhelming. Especially when you have to meet ten of them at once. I met my cousins, my aunts, and finally my grandfather. Papaji - my only living grandparent, the oldest link to my past. A definitive moment - but to me right then, it didn't feel too monumental. I gave him a hug, and he invited me into his room to sit and talk. He asked me what my initial impression of India was, and I said that it was 'different.' He asked about my father - if I had spoken to him recently, and about my mother - how she was. I was succumbing to the alcohol so I mumbled a few incoherent sentences. Luckily Rajesh was there to fill in the blanks. My grandfather then told me to go and get some food. As I walked over to the dining table set up in the courtyard I saw the family dog chained up to a post. When he saw me, he started wagging his tail. I approached to pet him, and Rajesh warned me not to touch him - "he'll bite you!" "This sweet dog?" I said, kneeling down and stroking him, "he wouldn't bite me...would you?" At this point he decided that he would in fact bite me, and quickly twisted his head and started chewing on my hand, which I pulled away after I managed to get it out of his jaws. He then continued on to me knee, following up with nip at my ankle for good measure. Having never been attacked by a dog, I was in complete shock. I looked at my bloody hand incredulously in my drunken state and kept repeating, "I can't believe he just bit me" as my family fussed about me. After some discussion my uncle packed me into the van and rushed me off to get a tetanus shot. The 'doctor' was located in a medical supply shop down the street. He took me to the back of the shop, put a bandage on my hand and gave me a shot. He had done this before - both of my cousins from San Francisco, who arrived a week before me, had already been bitten by the dog. When I got back to the house Rajesh said, "now you've truly arrived. Welcome to India!" After dinner I stood with Rajesh on the flat roof and looked up at the wide expanse of stars. He had been drinking for the last four hours, while he was waiting for me in my uncle’s shop, and was a bit sentimental. He embraced me and said: "This is excellent that you're here...I feel like my life's mission has been accomplished. I've spent the last eight years trying to get you over here, to see Papaji. And now you're here...I feel like crying..." And then he did. A bit. Over-exhausted by the last eighteen hours, we went to bed.

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